Fernando Alonso

Alonso, McLaren stunned at failing to make Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – For two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren, “Judgment Day” had arrived with dark gray and rainy conditions, only adding to the grim mood that has been part of that team’s effort at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What started off as a poorly executed “Opening Day” of practice last Tuesday came to a final ending on Sunday when Alonso and McLaren were the last entry to be bumped out of the starting lineup for next Sunday’s 103rd Indianapolis 500.

What was supposed to be a European Walkover ended up a sobering and unexpected trip home, bounced out of the starting lineup by Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing. That was a team that had to work for over 48 hours straight to prepare a backup car after Kaiser crashed the primary car on Friday.

Juncos was the only team that did not turn a single lap of practice in the rain-shortened Sunday morning practice for the six entries still trying to make the starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500.

Rain delayed the “Last Row Shootout” from its scheduled 12:15 p.m. start until 4:30 p.m.

Bob Fernley, McLaren’s IndyCar President, somehow had a smile on his face as he walked out of Gasoline Alley and talked to NBC Sports.com.

“This is tremendous pressure that I haven’t experienced before in Formula One,” Fernley told NBC Sports.com. “But that is what makes this race so great.”

Fernley was confident that Alonso’s No. 66 Chevrolet was ready to finally qualify into the starting lineup for the Indy 500 in the final three positions.

Alonso was the third driver to make a qualification attempt after James Hinchcliffe and Max Chilton both went out. Alonso, a two-time Formula One World Champion, started his run at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time. He had a very consistent four-lap run and his average for 10 miles was 227.353 mph.

At the time, that placed him 32ndon the scoring pylon.

Then, came the unexpected.

Sage Karam, who had had issues with his car during Saturday’s qualifications,  ran the fastest time of the “Last Row Shootout” with a four-lap average of 227.740 mph to bump Max Chilton out of the field.

Mexican rookie Patricio O’Ward’s speed of 227.092 mph was not fast enough.

Alonso’s fate would be determined by the last driver to make an attempt in the shootout, a young driver from Santa Clara, California and a part-time driver in the series.

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With Alonso surrounded by security, McLaren team officials and photographers behind pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kaiser’s Chevrolet began its four-lap attempt and the first lap shook fear into the driver. It was 227.720 mph. By the time Kaiser completed his fourth lap, his average speed of 227.372 mph was enough to make the race, knocking Alonso out.

Bitterly disappointed, Alonso fled the scene, cut through the entrance to the Pagoda and headed to his motorhome in the driver/motorhome lot to collect his thoughts and deal with his disappointment privately.

Over one hour later, Alonso and McLaren Sporting Director Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner, spoke about the painful defeat.

“I didn’t spend much time with the team yet, I’ve been only in my motor home, talking with friends or family,” Alonso said. “It has been a very long qualifying, nearly 56 hours of qualifying from yesterday morning. We were just one place out of time. Yesterday, we were 31st instead of 30. Today, 34th instead of 33rdby a very small margin. Unfortunately, not fast enough in any or both days.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens“I’m disappointed now. It would be nice to be in the race next Sunday. We came here to race and to challenge ourselves, and we were not quick enough. I congratulate all the other guys that did a better job, and hopefully we’ll see a nice show next Sunday, everyone safe, and enjoying from the TV unfortunately.”

De Ferran seemed to take the disappointment far more seriously. Although McLaren Chief Executive Zak Brown was the driving force in McLaren returning to the Indy 500 for the first time since 2017, De Ferran was entrusted with the program to give the driver a chance to contend up front.

Instead, they were the ultimately backmarker that missed the cut for the biggest race in the world.

“This has been a very emotional and difficult experience, I think, not only for me but for the whole team,” De Ferran said. “I want to take this opportunity to apologize and thank the fans, not only here in the U.S. but globally who have been following our progress. I read a lot of nice things and some great messages all over the place. So, thank you, and I’m sorry we won’t be in the Indy 500.

“I want to also apologize and thank our team. The guys have been working for several months, and particularly this last month or so have been a tremendous effort, and to try to come here and do the best we can. They’ve worked all hours in the day, and I guess that was one of the main messages I had for the whole crew there. This is a very difficult sport. We certainly didn’t underestimate the challenge. We knew this was going to be a tremendously hard challenge. I’ve been here before. I’ve seen some incredible people not make the race. So, we were certainly very aware of how difficult this was going to be.

“I want to apologize and thank our partners who have been fantastic, and incredibly supportive through this journey. I also thank the whole IndyCar community, frankly, who welcomed us with open arms. All the way from the officials, safety people, all the other teams, everyone in and around IndyCar, it was nothing but a warm feeling and a lot of support.

“Last but not least, I want to thank this man here on my left (Alonso). We didn’t give you a car that was fast enough. You drove like the champion that we know you are. It’s been particularly these last three days, been incredibly tense and very difficult, and we couldn’t have asked anything more from you, Fernando. So, I’m sorry, man. You’re an amazing driver.

“In my 35 years of racing, actually a few more, this is the most painful experience I’ve ever had. We respect this place. This is one of the toughest challenges in racing. I want to come back tomorrow. I want to fight. I want to come back tomorrow and fight.

“This is incredibly painful.”

De Ferran was asked if McLaren might “buy its way” into the starting lineup by purchasing a car that was already qualified into the starting lineup. Indy 500 rules state it’s the car that qualifies for the race, and not the driver.

That is not an option, according to De Ferran.

“We will not do that,” De Ferran said defiantly. “We want to earn our place in the field.”

As De Ferran and Alonso spoke about the disappointment, the grimness of the occasion increased as an incredible storm swept across the track with rain blowing sideways.

It only added to the already somber mood.

De Ferran wants to return one day and fight again. For Alonso, it remains too early to decide if he will attempt another run at the Indianapolis 500.

“Right now, I think it’s difficult to make any promises,” Alonso said. “It’s just too soon to make decisions. I don’t know even what I will do after next month. I have Le Mans 24 hours, finish my program in the World Endurance championship, and I wanted to have the 2020 open because I don’t know exactly what opportunities may come for me for next year in terms of racing. I don’t know the program for next year, I cannot promise or have any idea in my mind.

“But as I always say, I would be more than happy to race here again in the future and to win the Triple Crown, which is still a target or different target. Maybe I race different series with different challenges. Maybe next year, as well, completely out of my comfort zone again, and maybe, this type of challenge, they can bring you a lot of success and you can be part of the history of the sport or can be really disappointed.

“Today is one of those.

“But I prefer to be here than to be like millions and millions of other people, at home watching TV.

“I prefer to try.”

Alonso and McLaren came, they saw, and they failed.

It was nearly 180 degrees opposite of his first Indianapolis 500 experience in 2017, when it was a joint effort between McLaren and Andretti Autosport in a Honda.

This year, however, McLaren tried to build an IndyCar program of its own. Honda would not allow Honda Performance Development (HPD) to align with McLaren because of the bitter split between the two after the 2017 Formula One season.

The aerodynamic package of the Indy cars had changed since 2017 to a car with far less downforce and less drag.

“We were not fast — not only today, I think the whole event, we were struggling a little bit,” Alonso admitted. “I think it’s difficult to compare because the cars are not exactly the same in terms of configuration and aero packages.

“But these four laps in qualifying especially is four laps you are flat. There is not really anything big that you need to drive. As long as you don’t lift, it’s more or less the speed on the car that put you in one position or another or the time of the day. But we have multiple attempts yesterday and different times. We should be okay if the car was quick enough, but we didn’t manage to achieve that.

“I tried. I tried my best.

“Every attempt. I drove with a loose car and didn’t lift off. I drove with an understeer car; I didn’t lift off. I drove with a rear puncture; I only lift off in the last lap because I could not make the corner. And today we went out with an experiment that we did overnight. We changed everything on the car because we thought that maybe we need something from the mental different to go into the race with some confidence.

“We tried.”

Alonso leaves Indianapolis having learned another lesson in life. For one of the greatest Formula One drivers of his generation, a two-time Formula One World Champion, he still has plenty to be proud of.

“McLaren is the only team in motorsport that won the Indy 500, won the Le Mans 24-hour, won the Formula 1 championship,” he said. “You can only do that if you try. If you stay only in one series and you concentrate there for all your history or your organization is only racing in one series, maybe you can succeed, you can have good seasons, bad seasons. But you are in that small world.

“But in terms of motorsport in general, to be here and at least try, it deserves some credit. Obviously, we are all disappointed, and we will try to do better next time. But it’s that kind of things that you learn. I said before, I prefer to be here, even 34th, then being at home like last year.”

Alonso actually liked the qualification format, with two rounds and multiple attempts. He called it fun.

But this trip to the Indianapolis 500 did not have a fun ending, and that leaves McLaren considering if it wants to move forward with a full-time NTT IndyCar Series effort in 2020.

“You try to do the best you can, drawing up plans and everything,” De Ferran explained. “I think from my perspective, we’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons here that will carry that forward, that possibility, still in consideration.

“But no decision has been made.

“I don’t really want to get into the detail of that. But we’re very humble about everything that went on over here, and I think at this time I just want to say that we did learn a lot of lessons. We have to really look inwards and look at everything that we learned, cement those lessons and move forward.

“I consider myself a racer, a fighter. I want to apply those lessons starting tomorrow.”

McLaren was hoping to come to the Indianapolis 500, easily make the starting lineup and contend for a victory.

The failure to make the field began when Honda refused to do business with a McLaren IndyCar entry, which kept it from aligning with Andretti Autosport.

To compete in the 500, it had to be as a Chevrolet entry, but that manufacturer’s top operation, Team Penske, could not partner with McLaren because everything would have to be branding as “Penske” and not “McLaren.”

Ed Carpenter Racing, another outstanding Chevrolet team at the Indianapolis 500, decided to concentrate on its own three-driver lineup including Carpenter, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones.

That left Carlin as the only full-time IndyCar Series Chevrolet team that was willing to have an engineering alliance with McLaren’s startup program.

McLaren could never get up to speed. It had electrical issues in the Open Test on April 24. It had an alternator issue on Opening Day that sent the car back to the garage for the remainder of the sessions.

Alonso crashed just one hour and 34 minutes into Wednesday’s practice session and never returned to the track as the team prepared a backup race car. It didn’t turn a single lap on Thursday and had a modestly successful day of practice on “Fast Friday.”

By the time qualifications started, McLaren’s IndyCar operation was in disarray. By not making the starting lineup for the 103rdIndianapolis 500, it will be one of the greatest disappointments in McLaren history and Alonso’s career.