James Hinchcliffe

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

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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