INDIANAPOLIS — Fernando Alonso is back for another Indianapolis 500.
This time, however, he’s far better prepared than last year’s debacle when the two-time Formula One world champion failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Alonso led 27 laps before an engine failure knocked him out of the race in his only Indianapolis 500 start in 2017.
In 2019, McLaren tried to do a standalone Indy effort utilizing staff from its Formula One team. It failed miserably.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown and sporting director Gil de Ferran determined the team didn’t to align with an existing NTT IndyCar Series operation. Last August, it purchased an ownership stake in Sam Schmidt’s existing IndyCar team to create Arrow McLaren SP.
In 2020, that team has been impressive with 21-year-old driver Pato O’Ward fourth in NTT IndyCar points and 23-year-old Oliver Askew running up front this season.
With Alonso added to the lineup for the Indianapolis 500, all three of these drivers have the potential to do well in this year’s race.
“I think we do have three cars that should be capable of winning the race,” Brown said. “That being said, it’s so competitive I think you can broaden that to 15 cars, maybe even as much as half the field.
“That being said, we got bit pretty hard last year. Let’s make sure we have good practice, good qualifying. We do have two rookies in addition to a guy who hasn’t done it a lot, as great as he is. I think we do need to kind of keep our head down. I think if we do the right things and everyone executes, we can have three cars there at the end. For that basis, it’s super exciting.”
Practice for the 104th Indianapolis 500 begins Wednesday with Rookie Orientation followed by the veterans hitting the track.
For Alonso, however, what a difference 15 months makes. But he reserves judgement until he hits the 2.5-mile oval.
“Well, hopefully you’re right and we are fast enough that we can compete for the win,” Alonso said Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “At the moment one day before the practice, we had an optimistic feeling last year and we have an optimistic feeling this year as well.
“I think we need to wait and see where we are on the speed of the pace of the car. But, yeah, it makes a difference the team itself, how Arrow SP is well-prepared, the experience in the series. Is going to be a big difference compared to last year that we were not prepared enough for the challenge.
“I have reasonable confidence that this is going to be a good event for us.”
Famed engineer Craig Hampson will be working with Alonso at this year’s Indianapolis 500. He joined Arrow McLaren Racing SP during the offseason. Prior to that, Hampson worked magic with Sebastien Bourdais.
“Yeah, he’s the man,” Alonso said of Hampson.
De Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 as a driver for Team Penske and was a two-time CART champion, will be in charge of Alonso’s car in the Indy 500.
“To me it’s clear when we started talking even last year to the guys here in Indianapolis, the depth of the talent here and the experience was very apparent to me,” De Ferran said. “There’s no question that it’s been a positive thing for us to be in this partnership. It’s been all good.
“We have two rookies that are doing fairly well. We have a few podiums already this year. One of the guys is in fourth place. This is not about counting or chickens, it’s about the road that we’re on together. There’s still a long way to go here.”
Because 2020 is one of the most unusual years in recent history, Alonso has been unable to use the simulator to prepare for the Indianapolis 500. But he has been in contact with the team from Spain before arriving in the United States last week.
Alonso, who is 39, has been quite impressed with the team’s duo of young drivers and believes O’Ward and Askew can teach him a few things about the Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
“I’m very impressed definitely,” Alonso said. “I was watching all the races from TV with attention because I knew that the test day, we had in April was canceled. The simulator days that we had programmed were canceled. I knew it was very limited time for me on the car before the 500. I wanted to know how the team was performing every weekend.
“It was very impressive what both did. I remember the Indy GP, Oliver was super-fast, on pole. Then Pato with the points he achieves every race,” Alonso continued. “Probably even more that skip away in some unlucky moments. I know that they are very talented, very brave.
“It’s going to be a huge boost for the team to have these two young drivers, talented drivers, bringing fresh ideas, fresh in terms of car performance and I’m looking forward to work with everybody.”