Can They Actually Pull It Off?

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There are some of my loyal readers who will stop reading this when they learn what it’s about. I will apologize in advance for this and any post I write on this topic for the next four months, but like it or not – it is going to be an ongoing storyline leading up to the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

After reading interviews with Fernando Alonso following his winning drive in the Rolex 24; he made it clear that from this point forward all of his efforts will be focused on winning the Indianapolis 500. He says that he wants to “…do something unprecedented in motorsports.”

Currently, Graham Hill is the only driver to win what Alonso refers to as the Triple Crown of Motorsports – Le Mans, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indianapolis 500. Alonso can become the second to do it this May. In some of the interviews I’ve read, Alonso is quoted as saying it is a bigger accomplishment in today’s racing environment than it was back when Hill did it. I can neither argue nor agree with that statement; but since Alonso is just a little more immersed into motor racing than I am, I’ll take him at his word.

My question is – does Alonso have a realistic shot of winning the Indianapolis 500 this year?

There is still much to be learned about how his McLaren team will be structured this May. In Alonso’s only other “500” appearance in 2017, he and McLaren were teamed up with Andretti Autosport – the defending winning team and the team that would go on to win the race that year too, with Takuma Sato. If you’ll recall, that was the year that Honda engines were blowing up at a regular pace. Alonso succumbed to that trend on Lap 179 after leading six times for a total of twenty-three laps. Had Alonso not suffered that engine failure, I think chances are good that he could have won the race that year in his first attempt.

Some disagree with that completely hypothetical statement, but if you look at the team he was associated with coupled with his enormous talent – I don’t think the statement is that far-fetched.

Fast-forward to 2019. As it stands right now, McLaren has not announced an association with any current IndyCar team. Racing politics dictated that McLaren would run a Chevy engine; so if they are to pair up with an existing team, they are limited to Team Penske, AJ Foyt Enterprises, Dreyer & Reinbold, Juncos, Carlin, DragonSpeed or Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR).

Some have speculated that it will eventually be announced that McLaren will partner with ECR, but I’m not so sure. While Ed Jones will be driving the No. 20 car for Ed Carpenter on the non-ovals; he will be driving a third entry in the Indianapolis 500 in a partnership between ECR and Scuderia Corsa in the No. 64 car. McLaren intends to run two cars in the Indianapolis 500, that would give ECR five cars and two separate associations for the Month of May. That’s a tall order for a smaller team.

But if not ECR, then who? As far as I know, Team Penske has no history of associations for Indianapolis 500 one-offs. The only association I can think of at all with Penske was the Hogan-Penske partnership for the 1996 CART season, when Emerson Fittipaldi was farmed out to a satellite team run alongside Marlboro Team Penske in partnership with Carl Hogan. AJ Foyt likes doing things his way and doesn’t really work in association with anyone, so I can’t see that pairing taking place. Dreyer & Reinbold are a one-off themselves and probably can’t or won’t bring on anyone else. The other Chevy teams are still trying to find their own way, without the burden of partnering up with someone.

From what we now know, I think that McLaren will be a stand-alone two car team for the Indianapolis 500. Did the McLaren staff learn enough about setting up a car for the Indianapolis 500 two years ago to be able to do it themselves? Remember, although the tub is the same – this is a different car than Alonso drove two years ago.

When we debate whether or not McLaren learned enough in their partnership with Andretti Autosport; we must also ask ourselves if Michael Andretti shared everything about how to manage the Month of May and every single nuance of preparing a car. Whenever you see one team working with another, you always wonder how much proprietary information is being held back.

The thing about the Indianapolis 500 is that there are two equal parts – man (or woman) and machine. You can have the world’s best driver in the cockpit, but if the car is a sled – the results will show that. Ryan Hunter-Reay at Vision Racing in 2009 comes to mind. Conversely, a team can have the fastest and best prepared car in the field. But if they have a chump in the cockpit, chances are good that the car probably won’t be around at the end – much less in Victory Lane. A few examples of that come to mind as well, but in the interest of discretion – I won’t name names.

So, if McLaren is going alone this May as I suspect they will; I think they will struggle – and mightily. This is a team with a rich history in Formula One linked with legendary names like Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton – who all won championships while driving for McLaren. Johnny Rutherford won two Indianapolis 500s driving a McLaren for McLaren, while Mark Donohue won the 1972 Indianapolis 500 in a McLaren for Roger Penske.

Fernando Alonso has two Formula One championships to his credit, but his time with McLaren has been forgettable. He drove one year for them in 2007 and finished third in the championship while winning four races. But when he returned in 2015 – it was not the same McLaren. His four years there since his return, Alonso has finished seventeenth, tenth, fifteenth and eleventh respectively. While McLaren blamed the Honda engine for their poor performances for three years, the Renault engine only got them to eleventh this past season.

While I’m glad to have another team on the grid, and potentially another fulltime team in the series at some point – I’m not real sure why McLaren is doing this. It seems to me that Team Principal Zak Brown could spend his time, money and energy more efficiently by focusing on improving their Formula One product before venturing off into IndyCar where they cannot build their own chassis…but that’s just me. I’m just an over aged blogger from Tennessee, so what do I know?

So it will be interesting to see if McLaren conjures up any type of partnership with another team, or if they strictly go it alone. If they can make both cars competitive, I’ll be impressed. If they can pull that off and Fernando Alonso places himself in Victory Lane with a start-up team, let’s just say they’ll be talking about it for a long time.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Can They Actually Pull It Off?”

  1. I’ve never understood the mystery here, as McLaren said when they announced this program they were going to be a stand alone team. The minute folks started asking who they were going to partner with I started saying, “Didn’t anyone read their press release?” It was all right there….

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Same here Phil, seemed clear to me they’re going it alone. Hopefully they can find some key personnel who are currently on the sidelines to help them get a solid footing and they will do well. I think it will be good for motorsports if they do well, and good for The 500. I think they have every chance of doing well too, Alonso has proven he can drive the wheels off anything in any conditions so as long as he has an adequate car under him (and the aero changes improve the race-ability of the car) he has every chance of being near the front.

    I used to really dislike Alonso, after that nonsense when he was Hamilton’s teammate, but it’s been fun watching his racing adventures the last couple years and I’m mostly onboard the Nando Hype Train now. He does seem like a decent dude, he signed my program when he was at Indy a couple years ago and I saw him taking lots of time to be with the fans, it impressed me.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I’ve heard you say before that you thought that Alonso could have won in 2017 if his engine hadn’t blown but I disagree with you. If you remember he was running even with his teammate Alexander Rossi all day and both took turns leading the race. Somewhere in the 155-175 lap both driver’s race got screwed up by an ill timed pit stop that moved them from the lead. The best Rossi could do from that point was finish 7th and I believe that Alonso would have been in the same situation. Up till that point of the bad pit stop either could easily have won the race.

  4. yes, I believe he could win.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    McLaren will likely hire competent people this May who should do a good job, but you never know. The margin for error is small in a competitive field such as Indycar’s. Even good personnel and good drivers can disappoint at the 500 (even Penske has had recent years where they weren’t quite on it at Indy).

  6. I suspect George’s analysis could be right on. Obviously, McLaren is persona non grata with Honda, and aside from Penske floating a 5th car which I think everyone considers highly unlikely, they’re going to have to be pretty much on their own. The other teams mentioned either don’t have the requisite equipment or personnel (or, in Foyt’s case attitude) to do a deal with McLaren.

    That said, looking back into the 70’s, they came here and were fast right out of the box, and in MANY respects, McLaren MADE the career of Johnny Rutherford. To hear Eddie Cheever tell it ‘Nando is the second coming anyway (in classic Cheever overstatement,) so I believe they think they can pull this off on their own.

    Indy today, however, is a whole lot different from the 70’s, and my suspicion is they may well struggle against the more established teams, driver notwithstanding.

  7. Mark J Wick Says:

    I don’t see Penske wanting to help someone as good as Alonso, unless Alonso is driving directly for Penske.
    Mclaren is saying they will have two cars. Pato O’ward is now available. That would be an interesting pairing.

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