Fernando Alonso’s only wise choice for Indy 500 leads back to McLaren

Mark Thompson, Getty Images

If and when two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso finally announces he has a ride for the 104th Indianapolis 500, it likely will be on the same team where his search began.

The wisest choice for Alonso would be at Arrow McLaren Racing SP, where he would be reunited with McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Sporting Director Gil de Ferran.

It’s not only the wisest choice, it’s likely Alonso’s only choice.

First, a little background.

Alonso was a fan favorite after his fairly successful run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017. That was with McLaren Honda Andretti, a team that combined McLaren’s backing with team owner Michael Andretti’s crew and engineering support. Most of Alonso’s crew members and engineers were from Andretti Autosport and the driver from Spain got up to speed fast and stayed there.

It all worked because McLaren then was a Honda team in Formula One, and Andretti Autosport was one of Honda’s top teams in IndyCar. Because both teams shared the same engine supplier, it was easy to put together the relationship and allow Alonso to skip the Grand Prix of Monaco – the premier event on the Formula One World Championship schedule.

As an Indy 500 rookie, Alonso won over the fans and was in contention to win the race, leading 27 laps and running seventh before his engine conked out with 21 laps left in the race. Alonso vowed he would return to Indy because he had some “unfinished business” and went back to Formula One.

By the end of 2017, however, the relationship between McLaren and Honda had deteriorated to the point where the driver was highly critical of his underpowered engine in F1. He radioed to his crew that it was “a GP2” engine during one infamous transmission. McLaren also publicly ridiculed the Honda engine and at the end of the year, McLaren and Honda split.

Honda officials in Japan believed McLaren breached its loyalty with the manufacturer and prohibited its companies from ever doing business again with McLaren. When McLaren attempted to form a team with Andretti Autosport late in 2018, it was blocked by Honda Japan, leading team owner Michael Andretti to consider a jump to Chevrolet when the Honda contract expired in 2019.

HPD and American Honda officials were able to convince Andretti to stay, and a new deal was announced at Mid-Ohio last July.

McLaren wanted back into IndyCar but would have to be a Chevrolet team to do that. The top Chevy team in IndyCar, Team Penske, said no to a combined effort with McLaren because the team’s business model is to promote its brand of sponsors, not McLaren’s.

McLaren thought it could do an Indy 500 effort on its own, so in 2019, it ordered an Indy car from Dallara that was built and prepared at McLaren’s base in Woking, England. It created an engineering alliance with Carlin Racing, one of the smallest Chevrolet operations in IndyCar, but the two sides were familiar because of Trevor Carlin’s success in European junior formula racing.

The combination was like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It wasn’t long before the McLaren/Carlin/Alonso combination hit the iceberg, and it sank in spectacular fashion when Alonso was the last driver bumped from the field during last year’s “Last Row Shootout” on Bump Day by Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing.

Alonso was in his final season as “McLaren Ambassador” in 2019 and had a deal in WEC racing with Toyota. When Alonso’s McLaren contract expired on Dec. 31, 2019, he was free to negotiate with any team of his choosing.

Prior to that, however, McLaren purchased an ownership stake in Arrow Schmidt Peterson to become Arrow McLaren SP. That team was already a long-time Honda operation, and in order to make that deal work, it broke its Honda contract with one year remaining to become a Chevrolet operation.

Alonso was not interested in a full-time IndyCar deal, and Arrow McLaren SP parked popular veteran James Hinchcliffe of Canada for two young drivers and the past two Indy Lights champions, Pato O’Ward of Mexico and Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida.

Brown and de Ferran both said they would consider a third driver for the Indy 500.

Alonso had put together a deal to drive a sixth Andretti Autosport Honda for the 2020 Indy 500, but that deal fell apart and was never announced. It was presumed by many that Honda Japan said no. Andretti, perhaps showing loyalty to his manufacturing partner, said Wednesday in Indianapolis that was not the case. He said Alonso and Andretti Autosport “could not come to terms” without explaining what those terms were.

Hinchcliffe, who was parked by Arrow McLaren SP, will compete in the ride that was put together for Alonso at Indy by Andretti. He will run three races, including the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 104th Indianapolis 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway in June.

Alonso revealed on his Instagram that he had a deal for the Indy 500 but did not reveal the team.

It’s not hard to figure out through process of elimination.

The top two Chevrolet teams at Indy are Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing. Team Penske president Tim Cindric said the team will not expand to five cars for the Indy 500, and Carpenter told NBC Sports.com last week in Austin, Texas, that he is not adding a fourth car for Alonso.

Of the other Chevrolet teams including A.J. Foyt Racing, Carlin and Juncos, they do not appear to be in a position to give Alonso the kind of ride he desires. Dreyer & Reinbold is an Indy 500 one-off program that has been competitive in the past, but another part-time effort probably doesn’t fit Alonso’s profile as an Indy 500-only driver.

So, the obvious and only choice is for Alonso to be reunited with Brown and de Ferran on the latest version of McLaren’s IndyCar effort at Arrow McLaren SP. He will have a much better chance at making the starting lineup and contending in the race because the operation co-owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson is a full-time entrant in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Though it’s the same team that failed to get Hinchcliffe into the 2018 Indy 500, INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske announced changes to Bump Day last week. The “Last Row Shootout” increases from 60 to 75 minutes with cars that are bumped out allowed more than one attempt. That will change the dynamic from Alonso having just one attempt in the Last Row Shootout last year.

Putting together a third car for Alonso would be easy for Arrow McLaren SP. Zak Brown has said he is interested in talking about it. Schmidt said he hasn’t discussed it but believes Alonso needs to be in the Indy 500.

If that happens, Alonso’s lengthy, circuitous route to his Indy 500 ride will end up right where it started.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500