Who Are the Real Choices?

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If you’ve spent much time listening to Trackside, you’ve heard Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee marvel at how the NFL is strategic in dropping news at all times during the offseason to make themselves relevant twelve months a year. The same can be said for Fernando Alonso.

As most of us are focusing on Christmas shopping, the NFL Playoffs and college bowl games – Fernando Alonso somehow got the attention of Racer.com and they published a story last Friday that really told us nothing that we didn’t already know. Since I’ve already destroyed any motivation you may have had to click on the article, I’ll tell you the gist of it.

Basically, it says that Alonso definitely wants to run next May’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500. I don’t think that was breaking news to anyone. If you know anything about the ego and competitive nature of Fernando Alonso, you already knew that he would want to remove the stigma that came with him failing to qualify for last year’s race. All this did was confirm what we already strongly suspected.

When it came down to naming the possibilities for which team he will be racing for, there were no surprises there either. It will come down to Andretti Autosport or Arrow McLaren SP. He did vaguely say that there are some other options out there, but most believe those are the only two viable choices.

It must have been a slow news day at Racer.com headquarters on Friday, because this story told us nothing. It’s a slow news day here as well, in case you couldn’t tell. You try coming up with three relevant IndyCar topics per week in December. It’s not as easy as you think.

But I’m here to discuss what Alonso didn’t say.

If the two-time World Champion wants a prayer to win next year’s Indianapolis 500, it’ll be with Michael Andretti’s team. Alonso and McLaren partnered with Andretti Autosport two years ago and were the talk of May. He was one of the front-runners all month as a rookie in 2017. Some say only a blown engine on Lap 179 is all that prevented him from drinking the milk that day. They forget that he had become a victim of an ill-timed yellow-flag twelve laps earlier and that he had been relegated to mid-pack in the pit-stop shuffle. He was running seventh at the time and I don’t think he was going to make up much ground on those in front of him.

Still, he had an impressive showing and he had a car capable of winning (without a blown engine, of course). It made him hungry for more.

McLaren and Alonso sat out the race in 2018, and set their sites on a return in 2019. But a series of critical comments made by McLaren’s Zak Brown and Alonso regarding Honda’s Formula One engine prevented McLaren partnering with any Honda teams. Honda wouldn’t forgive and forget, and they forbade any of their teams from partnering with McLaren.

I don’t know this for a fact but I’m pretty sure Team Penske, being the top Chevy team, was approached by McLaren. I’m also pretty sure they were summarily told “No”. Rumors swirled that they would partner with Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), but it never materialized. Consequently, they ended up teaming up with second-year team Carlin, who were having their own struggles both on and off the track.

The week of practice before qualifying featured one McLaren setback after another that included keeping the car off the track one complete day, because they wanted to make sure the car was painted the correct shade of papaya orange.

Indulge me while I name-drop and throw myself into the story. I’ll never forget standing in the garage area talking with Jim Ayello with The Indianapolis Star, when Bob Fernley with McLaren walked up and began talking with Ayello. Being the eavesdropper that I am, I stuck around while Ayello immediately shifted into reporter mode. It was getting late in the week and Ayello asked Fernley if he was concerned yet. Fernley’s answer still stands out in my memory seven months later. He said “It’s four identical corners. How difficult can it be?”

The following week, Fernley was fired from McLaren after Alonso was bounced from the field at the last minute by Kyle Kaiser and tiny Juncos Racing.

I won’t rehash all of the drama that happened late in the season and early offseason, when McLaren bought into (took over) Sam Schmidt’s team and took their time to dump popular driver James Hinchcliffe. But suffice it to say that a team that failed to qualify in 2019, merging with a team that failed to qualify in 2018 with two Indianapolis 500 rookies to get feedback from, is the place Alonso needs to go if he wants to contend for the Borg-Warner Trophy. I think they are being mentioned as a strong possibility only to keep the door open if nothing else pans out.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Andretti is an option for Alonso. I originally thought that the remarks against Honda were from McLaren and not Alonso. But lately we’ve been hearing that Alonso was guilty of trashing Honda as well. If that’s true, I don’t see Honda allowing Alonso to ever run a Honda-powered car in any series – ever.

But I wonder about a third car for Ed Carpenter. Rinus VeeKay has already been named to the fulltime No. 21 ride at ECR. We know Ed will be running the ovals, including Indianapolis, next season in the No. 20 car. But Conor Daly has been liked to that car for the non-ovals. Do you think Daly will be content to be a spectator in May, if Fernando Alonso is driving the third car at ECR for the Indianapolis 500? I wouldn’t think so.

Maybe that’s the holdup on the non-oval driver being named to the No. 20. Would Ed allow Conor Daly to go to Andretti for May and compete against his team, then come back to ECR the next week at Belle Isle? Would Chevy allow their driver to run a Honda in May? I think the answer to both questions is “Not likely”. There are exceptions to every rule, but those are both sticky situations.

UPDATE:  Monday morning, Conor Daly was confirmed for ECR’s No. 20 car for the non-ovals, and for a third car in the Indianapolis 500.

I think the best for scenario for everyone, fans included, is for Honda to allow Alonso to go to Andretti Autosport for May – but I doubt it will happen.

Why do I include the fans in that statement? Because, as a fan, I’d like to see Alonso win the Indianapolis 500. I think it would be good for our sport to bring even more worldwide attention to the Indianapolis 500. I also like the thought of witnessing history, and that would be historic.

Aside from winning two Formula One titles, Fernando Alonso has won the biggest races in the world; including the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 hours at Le Mans and the Rolex24 at Daytona. He is attempting his first Dakar Rally in January, but there is one obvious omission on his resume – the Indianapolis 500. Alonso understands the importance of the Indianapolis 500 and after last year, I think he appreciates it more. The sting of not qualifying can do that to you.

Not only would it be historic to see him win the biggest races in several different forms of races – I think the storyline of missing the race last year, then coming back to win it the next year is a script right out of Hollywood. I’m pulling for him to do it, so long as he’s driving for Andretti or ECR. If he’s driving for McLaren next May, I won’t be pulling for him. But it won’t matter. If he’s driving for McLaren, Alonso won’t even be a factor.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Who Are the Real Choices?”

  1. It was Alonso who called the Honda unit a “GP2 engine!” over the radio on the worldwide broadcast…..at Honda’s home track Suzuka. I’m not sure they’ll ever forgive him for that.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…good article. It will be interesting to see where he ends up.

    On another front…congrats to your Titans! I actually am now pulling for them to overhaul Houston and win the division. Good luck.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    I would think that Hamilton would outdraw “Fred.”

    How about Hamilton and “Fred” running the INDY 500 the same year?

    • ElMondoHummus Says:

      I don’t see Hamilton ever driving the Indianapolis 500. He looks down at Indycar too much.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        Jealous that it garners more attendance than a F1 race?

        • ElMondoHummus Says:

          Maybe he is. I don’t know. I just don’t see him ever looking at the Indianapolis 500 with any genuine enthusiasm. And that bothers me, because find an F1 driver who’d look down on Le Mans, for example.

          There’s too much negative perception internationally built around both oval racing and US open wheel. I’m not saying that Indycar deserves worship, but I wish internationally it’d be treated with just a bit of respect. There’s a subtlety to oval racing that’s not much appreciated outside the US, and that bothers me. It’s genuinely enjoyable, and I say this as both an Indycar and F1 fan who can watch both road/street and oval courses with pleasure.

  4. Honda’s F1 engine at the had underperformed for several years and criticism was justified. Honda is in racing for amongst many things for publicity. How much free world wide advertising would be generated with Fred running a Honda in an Andretti car at the Indianapolis 500? Lots of free ad dollars. Honda already made its point with Team McLaren . This is show business after all ,and I am sure the new owners wouldn’t mind at all.

  5. In 2008 Nelson Piquet Jr. deliberately crashed his F1 car so Alonso could win a race (Spanish GP?). In the ensuing fallout NPJ threw everybody under the bus. his team, his sponsor, his car, his crew, everybody ………… and he eventually reappeared years later racing electric lawnmowers. Talk about a career ender.

    In the wonderful world of racing, you NEVER, EVER trash the people paying the bills ……… or suffer the consequences.

    Fred, I’m one of your best fans but you stuck your foot in it and have to pay the price. If it was me making the Honda decisions Alonso would be gone forever and Andretti had better not stick their noses in it, or else.

  6. Does Kyle Kaiser have enough of a budget to vacate the open ride at Coyne? He would be my choice on talent.

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    We now know that “Fred” is out at ECR with the announcement from Marshall Pruett this afternoon that Connor will drive the road & street venues for Ed.

  8. Ho Ho Ho. It is that time of the year for the video that I always look forward to: Robin Miller’s suggestions for good books about racing. You can find the video at Racer.com. Enough already about Alonso.

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