Triple Crown Crisis (Part 2)

© [Jamie Sheldrick/ Spacesuit Media]

© [Jamie Sheldrick/ Spacesuit Media]

By Allan Brewer

Part two of a three part series – read part one

A unique mixture of ambition and personality brought McLaren and its legendary driver Fernando Alonso to a seat on the couch next Sunday.

As anyone who has followed Fernando Alonso’s career is aware, he is incredibly upbeat, and confident. “I am happy to be back here because this place is great,” he said after a gremlin-filled early testing session at Indy, casting away his troubles as easily as tossing away pieces of candy. Moreover, in Alonso’s mind the “Triple Crown of Racing” (LeMans, Monaco and Indy) is no more than an act of will. It requires but a rote reset of driving style and mindset. A private test on the oval and a session or two on the simulator should be enough. As Alonso said, “Being ready to turn left for two weeks and to be brave on some occasions is what it’s all about.”

After a roundly applauded run in 2017 in partnership with Andretti Autosport, the McLaren team was confident in its ability to build and set up a competent, fast racecar for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. However, it became apparent as early as the team’s first test that things were not going as well as expected.

As his own seat time diminished due to logistical snafus and assignment confusion, Alonso took to being didactic to anyone who would listen. “It’s always important—the track time you have,” he said. “You may discover issues on the car, you may discover things you can improve as a driver,” he said. “It’s time lost from learning for us in a brand-new car. We need to check many things still.”

The days had to be particularly frustrating for Alonso as his first circuit of the oval during April 24th’s Open test came to a powerless end (speculated to be a failed battery). It took the team over an hour to figure that out. “It was frustrating for everyone,” he said. “We lost time at the beginning, which was not unexpected with a brand new chassis, brand new car. “

That small sampler of how deeply in over its head the team was mechanically and technically was illustrated with emphasis when McLaren’s team of IndyCar mechanics and engineers worked deep into the night on Wednesday and all day long on Thursday to turn Fernando Alonso’s back-up car into a qualifying contender after Fernando destroyed the primary car. By comparison, Kyle Kaiser’s crew (who ironically took Alonso’s last-place spot on the grid) repaired the 23-year old’s car after a heavy crash in a matter of hours and had the youngster back on-track by the next day.

On Tuesday there was the faulty alternator; on Wednesday the crash, Thursday completely lost to repair and rain. The signs were there, with de Ferran sheepishly admitting as the prep week disappeared, “You never want to plan for a crash, but in a way, you have to.”

The car built in England in McLaren’s shop was now for all intents destroyed—scavenged now as a spare-parts bin for the hastily drafted back-up car.

“Not running Thursday was a serious setback to our Indy 500 program,” lamented de Ferran, “but all is not lost. We should have a full day of practice and preparations on Friday.” Prior to attempting to assure a place in the 33-car field Alonso’s mood was sanguine: “If we make it, we make it,” he said. “If we don’t, we didn’t deserve it.”

The woes continued up to and through qualifying when Alonso’s first attempt was compromised by a puncture of the right rear tire that cost him time and speed. Through a total of five qualifications attempts on Saturday and a final shot on Sunday, McLaren could never find the speed to lock up a spot in the 2019 Indianapolis 500.

Kaiser eliminated Alonso on the basis of a four-lap qualifying speed of 227.372 mph over the 2.5 mile oval, besting the veteran driver by just 0.019 mph.

Fernando was characteristically frank in his post-qualifications assessment: “Yeah, I’m disappointed now. Obviously, 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 want to apologize and thank the fans,” said de Ferran, “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.”

Part 3 to follow tomorrow

Share Button