More Questions Than Answers With Alonso

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Although it never really went away, Alonso-mania is back. Over this past weekend, Fernando Alonso confirmed what many of us had strongly suspected – that he will return to run in the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 next May. While some had speculated that Alonso would run the entire IndyCar season, I never thought that would be the case. Once Alonso squashed those dreams by some, the experts said that he would not run the “500” next May. Given the fact that I’m not an expert – I predicted that we would see Alonso in a car next May. I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but…OK, yeah…I really do.

But here’s where my gut feelings stop. How he will do it, I have no idea.

When I wake up each morning, the first thing I do is go to Twitter to see if something happened overnight that I should know about. One morning of early April in 2017 – I saw a tweet saying that two-time former world champion Fernando Alonso would be running the Indianapolis 500 the next month, in a partnership between McLaren and Andretti Autosport. To be honest, I thought it was a rehash of an April Fools joke that was showing up a few days late for whatever reason. But a quick check of my usual racing sites assured me that it was no joke.

As we all now know, the joke was almost on the rest of the field. Based on what I witnessed in the stands that day, I am convinced that Fernando Alonso was going to win the 2017 Indianapolis 500 had it not been for a blown engine twenty-one laps from the finish. The only caveat to that is that Helio Castroneves could have used his experience to hold him off. But why would I think that if the three-time winner couldn’t even hold off Takuma Sato at the end?

Although Alonso finished a disappointing twenty-fourth, Honda had the field covered that day. Helio was the only Chevy driver in the Top-Five. Alonso had led twenty-seven laps and was leading when his Honda engine let go in spectacular fashion on the main straightaway. If you’ll recall, that was the year that Honda experienced a rash of engine failures throughout the Month of May. James Hinchcliffe suffered a blown engine on his brand-new engine on Carb Day, and there were three more Honda engine failures in the race – including Alonso’s.

Alonso received a standing ovation as he climbed from the cockpit of his smoldering car in Turn One. Although he spoke glowingly of his Indianapolis experience, you could hear the overwhelming disappointment in his voice after the race. I thought at the time that we had not seen the last of Fernando Alonso at Indianapolis.

Just a year and a half after that strong showing, we already have confirmation that Alonso will be back next May to have another try at motor racing’s Triple Crown – Monaco, Le Mans and Indianapolis. He won Monaco twice in 2006 and 2007. He won Le Mans this past June. All he needs to become only the second person behind Graham Hill to win that Triple Crown is an Indianapolis 500 victory. Not that it’s an easy feat, no matter how good a driver you are and how strong a car you have – just ask Michael Andretti. But that is the last major goal left on his already impressive resume.

Earlier I mentioned I have no idea how he is going to do it. What we do know is that Alonso will again be aligned with McLaren, which had been one of the questions. We also know of the well-documented squabbles between McLaren and Honda for the Japanese engine manufacturer’s poor performance while powering their Formula One cars from 2015 through 2017. McLaren went public in blaming Honda for their troubles. It is worth noting that McLaren’s performance has improved significantly in 2018 after switching to Renault.

Regardless, Honda took offense for being called out publicly by McLaren. Honda Performance Development (HPD) of Santa Clarita, California designs and builds Honda engines for IndyCar; but the Honda Formula One engine comes from the main parent company in Japan. But Honda owns HPD and they apparently have a huge problem supplying engines through HPD for McLaren’s IndyCar efforts. Had Alonso come to run Indianapolis on his own, running a Honda engine would have been no problem. But coming associated with McLaren throws a wrench into the deal. I could be wrong, but I think there is way too much bad blood between Honda and McLaren to think that they will be running a Honda engine next May.

That leaves two possibilities for Alonso and McLaren – they will either pair up with a Chevy team, or they feel like they learned enough in their association with Andretti two years ago that they feel confident as going alone as their own team.

The existing Chevy teams that we know of are Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), Foyt, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Carlin, Juncos and Dreyer and Reinbold. In my opinion, the only two teams that even have a shot at winning the Indianapolis 500 are Penske and ECR. Alonso isn’t coming here to pair with an also-ran – he’s coming to win.

Ed Carpenter usually runs three cars at Indianapolis – one for Ed, his other full-time driver (Spencer Pigot) and one for either his non-oval specialist (who next year will be Ed Jones) or another driver like Danica Patrick this past year. A logical assumption is that Ed Jones would run the “500” next year in a third car. Could Ed Carpenter handle a fourth car, even with financial help from McLaren?

Team Penske will have four entries in next year’s race – Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. I just can’t see Penske adding a fifth car, no matter who it is. If I’m Roger Penske and Tim Cindric, I look at a possible Alonso entry as a distraction that takes away from what I’m trying to do with the four drivers I already have. I think that if approached by Alonso and McLaren, that Team Penske passes.

That leaves the elephant in the room – Harding Steinbrenner Racing (HSR). As it stands right now, HSR is a Chevy team – at least they were this past season. They have already announced they are expanding to a two-car team for 2019. Based on fulltime teams last year and counting ten races for Meyer Shank Racing in 2019, Honda already powers thirteen cars; while Chevy only powered ten fulltime cars – eleven if you count Juncos. If HSR switches to Honda next season, that would be fifteen fulltime entries and only eight for Chevy. I don’t think anyone wants that big of a difference between the two suppliers.

Why would HSR switch to Honda? That’s the kicker. It’s because of their known relationship with Andretti Autosport, which is a Honda team.

On the surface, Andretti Autosport provides technical assistance with shocks, dampers and overall setup. When they did that at Sonoma a couple of months ago, they had absolutely no access to the Chevy engine data. That was an acceptable solution for the final race of the season, but is that really feasible for an entire season going forward? I’m no engineer, but I would think that would be necessary in setting up a car. To not have that kind of information would put your team at a huge disadvantage throughout the season.

Chevy and Honda teams alike are up in arms over this potential arrangement. Most feel like the only fair solution is for HSR to switch to Honda or for Andretti Autosport to switch to Chevy. But if the two teams stay with their respective engine partners from this past season, it could create a scenario for Alonso and McLaren to still partner with Andretti (to some extent) and not drive a Honda.

Then there is the final scenario I mentioned – McLaren going alone as a stand-alone team. If McLaren goes ahead and buys their own equipment, that could help pave the way for them to join the series fulltime as early as 2020. They could get the infrastructure in place now with an Indy-only effort in 2019 and then expand with or without Alonso in 2020.

But how keen would Alonso be to squander a chance at winning the Indianapolis 500 with a brand new team trying to sort things out? Alonso wants to win now. He is thirty-seven and does not want to keep chasing this thing year after year. I think if Alonso were to win next year’s race, we’d never see or hear from him again.

So, as you can see – even though we have confirmation from Fernando Alonso that he will run the 2019 Indianapolis 500, there are more questions than answers. Although I was right in my gut feeling on Alonso’s plans for 2019, I have no idea which way things will go now that we know his plans for May. Stay tuned, and let the speculation begin!

George Phillips

8 Responses to “More Questions Than Answers With Alonso”

  1. George, according to a story in RACER.com by Chris Medland the McLaren venture will be a stand alone operation. Zak Brown is extensively quoted in it, to wit:

    “This will be done by McLaren Racing,” Brown said. “It’s a whole separate racing team that will be created and we are a large racing team with a lot of resources and I am extremely confident or we would not have entered, that we can give maximum effort in our F1 effort as well as Indy without one compromising the other.

    “It is going to be people that are not currently on our Formula 1 team. It will be built up from relationships that we have. It’ll be a new McLaren entry.

    “I don’t think we had an original plan. We’ve always had a desire to go as McLaren Racing. Last time we did it on such short notice I think it would have been impossible, it was six weeks between announcing and racing, and you can’t build up a race team that quickly.

    “So that was one of things the shareholders and ourselves wanted to do, to go as McLaren Racing. That is why we have made the announcement today to make time to bring those resources and the people in to have our own team.”

    With all of the new teams cropping up I honestly don’t think it will be a problem for McLaren to operate as a stand alone team with their resources.

    May is gonna be fun!!!!

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I disagree with you thinking that Alonso would have won the 17 500. He was back with Rossi, who finished 7th, when his engine blew. They had been two of the quicker cars all day but got messed up on a yellow light and pit stop which caused them to be some distance behind the leaders.

  3. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Let’s hope Alonso can win another LeMans because the one from this year will always have a giant asterisk on it since it was blatantly rigged in Toyota’s favor.

    Also, McLaren F1 has not been significantly better this year after ditching Honda. The first couple races were an improvement but it’s been downhill since then and the last half of the season they’ve been fighting for last place. In my mind that proves Honda was not the sole weak link in that chain.

    That said, I’m happy Alonso is coming back to Indy and I hope he scores his win at some point. That would bring a lot of international attention to the race and the series.

  4. With the amount of publicity Fred’s return to Indy will generate Honda would be short sighted to carry a grudge. Nothing personal just business.

  5. I voted “other” George because, with no disrespect intended, I am weary, very weary, of reading about what Alonso may of may not do and what McLaren may or may not do and with what engine they may or may not use.

    • M.Lawrenson Says:

      True, Ron. I say get Aaron Telitz into an 2019 Indy 500 car. And I say that as a God Dam European.

      • I agree with you 150% and I say that as a GD Wisconsinite. (Aaron is from a small town up nort der (Rice Lake) as we like to say Thank you for supporting Aaron from across the pond.

  6. Matthew Lawrenson Says:

    I donated $50 (or £35.33 in British money) to Aaron’s car fund after he wrote off his Lights car at St. Pete. Probably only enough to buy a spark plug nowadays, but when he makes the Indy 500 I can point at the TV screen at Wings & Beer Co. and say “That’s Aaron Telitz! I helped support him on the way up!”

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