Fernando Alonso knew he would be back for the 104th Indianapolis 500 in 2020. In a sense, he also realized it would always be with McLaren.
The two-time Formula One champion admitted on Wednesday that loyalty and potential of the Arrow McLaren SP team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were the primary factors on his return.
In Alonso’s mind, it was the right thing to do.
“My only events at Indy were in a McLaren car, even if it was partnership with Andretti (2017) and then with Carlin (2019),” Alonso said. “It would be strange for me to race there and to have McLaren in the garage alongside and knowing that they have more potential than they had last year.
“I think we’ve been together through good things, bad things, and we need to discover this new opportunity together. That’s what I felt was the right thing to do.”
To get to that point, however, was a bit complicated.
Alonso was negotiating with both Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP throughout the offseason since last October. His McLaren contract as team ambassador expired on Dec. 31, 2019.
“It’s true that I looked at other options,” Alonso confirmed. “Racing for Andretti was one of my preferred choices. In November at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix, I said my options were the Indy 500 because I wanted to have another attempt. The choices were between Andretti or McLaren with a new project that they were working with the Schmidt Peterson team.
“But those were the thoughts at that time at the end of last year.”
Alonso shifted his focus to the Paris Dakar Rally and put his Indy 500 plans aside in the meantime. Once that event concluded, he shifted his attention to the Indy 500 at the end of January.
“Two weeks later, I arrived at an agreement with McLaren and with a new team now that for sure is going to be more prepared than last year,” Alonso said. “The final decision was not easy between Andretti and McLaren.
“People think that Andretti can be more competitive. Other people will think that it could be McLaren, and that’s something that is difficult to know in advance before the race happens. I trust this project a little bit more, and I have this sense of loyalty, as well, to McLaren and to our fans that last year they had high hopes and didn’t show up for the race on the big weekend.
“We have this feeling that we need to give something back, and this year we will go for it.”
Alonso disputed the fact that Honda Japan shot down the Andretti Autosport deal. Other sources indicated there are hard feelings from corporate headquarters over comments made after Alonso and McLaren left Honda in Formula One in 2017.
“I have read that, as well, in the news and in the papers, and I was surprised, and I was talking with Michael sometime because we both were surprised,” Alonso said. “When you talk with a team and negotiate with a team, you are negotiating with them, not with their partners or anything like that. They don’t have that power anyway to do this kind of thing. I don’t have any issues at all with Honda, and as far as I know, they don’t have any issues with myself.
“That’s more a question for them, but I’m sure that they don’t have any.”
Alonso confirmed there was a point several weeks ago where he was leaning toward Andretti’s deal. That was before McLaren was able to convince him of the potential of their Arrow McLaren SP team in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“They were having other new people come into the team,” Alonso said. “I turned a little bit more toward the McLaren offer. I raced with Chevy last year there, and I know that for the top end they have maybe a slight advantage, so that was also something to take into account.”
If Alonso had been able to overcome the potential obstacles to compete for Andretti Autosport, he would have been the sixth entry for the team at the Indy 500. That team also provides engineering expertise to an additional entry at Meyer Shank Racing.
Alonso didn’t want to get lost in the numbers and believes it was better to be part of a three-car effort than a six- or seven-car program.
“I think with the three-car team, we can be protective in terms of data, in terms of information, but not too chaotic in terms of too many cars or anything like that,” he said. “I felt like this was the natural place for me to land and to race, especially after what happened last year (when he failed to make the field as a one-car McLaren effort).
“Being a one-car team, it was a big penalty for us last year. We had a couple of issues. We had not the real ability that we wanted in the first couple of tests, and obviously we didn’t have much information.
“This year with three cars, even if you have a bad day, you’re still learning a lot of things from the other two cars. I think that will be a good advantage. Plus, the team is not new, it’s been racing for many, many years in IndyCar, and the background and all the knowledge I think is going to be very beneficial with the things that McLaren can add to that project. It was a project that was already existing.
“That is more or less how things unfolded.”
When Alonso came to the Indianapolis 500 in 2017 with a combined McLaren Honda Andretti effort, he quickly got up to speed and stole the spotlight. He qualified fifth on the grid, led 27 laps in the race and was in contention for the victory before his engine quit with 21 laps remaining.
He skipped the Indy 500 in 2018 during his final full season with McLaren F1 (competing in the Grand Prix of Monaco that day).
Alonso returned to Indy in 2019 as McLaren relied on engineering help from Carlin Racing. Instead of a Honda, the team was a Chevrolet-backed operation, again over Honda Japan’s objection to doing any more business with McLaren after the F1 fallout.
From execution errors, to a crash in practice to general lack of preparation or expertise, McLaren and Alonso failed to make the field of 33 for the 103rdIndianapolis 500.
It was a learning experience for both the driver and team. McLaren made the effort to integrate into a full-season NTT IndyCar Series team by purchasing an ownership stake in Arrow McLaren SP. During the offseason, the team hired famed engineer Craig Hampson as its technical director.
Alonso is more confident this year, but he remains cautious.
“Look, there are no guarantees,” he said. “In this sport, you never know what can happen. But there are other factors. I think this year, as I said before, I think the three cars in the team, that will help to share information. Maybe if you have a bad day or someone on the team has a bad day, there is not the cost that there was last year.
“I remember the open test, we did 19 laps and we got barely any information, and that was already a bad start. We came from (a test at) Texas, and it was even worse. There were things that happened from which we could not recover at any point in the event.
“Even last year with more data available or with one of those little things that happened, we may have different luck, I think maybe it was enough. We were only short of time but not running short of desire and potential in the team.
“I think this year having the full championship on the shoulders, not being a new team, a team that was running for many years in IndyCar. It now has the plus of McLaren helping them on the most important areas of the performance.
“In a competitive way, things will be very different than last year.”
Between now and the Indianapolis 500, there remains lots of work for Alonso and Arrow McLaren SP. He plans on extensive use of the GM Motorsports simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina. He is also open to the possibility of competing in the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a shakedown of his team and crew at the Indy 500.
When he left Indianapolis Motor Speedway after missing the race in 2019, there was never any doubt in his mind that he would return.
“I was 100 percent sure that I would come back,” Alonso said. “That race is just magic. I love everything that is happening there.
“Last year it was a hard one for everyone, but maybe it was a necessity to become better and to be stronger this year and to have a shot. All the things happen for a reason, and I’m sure last year was a good learning.”
He returns to Indy focused on one goal and one goal only.
“It’s to win,” Alonso said. “I think there are no other goals at this point of my career. I don’t need really to do this kind of challenges. I’ve been in Formula One 18 years. I have achieved more things than I ever imagined, than I ever dreamed in my career, and if I am doing now this big, big races, the 24-Hour Le Mans, Daytona, Dakar, the Indy 500, it’s only with the aim of winning.
“Winning is the main aim. That’s the only aim.”