The comedy of errors that doomed McLaren’s disastrous return to the Indianapolis 500 began months before Fernando Alonso failed to qualify for the race. How bad was it? A week before Alonso’s first test in the car, the team realized it didn’t even have a steering wheel.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown acknowledged Monday the team was woefully unprepared and small oversights snowballed into the final result. Bob Fernley, the head of the operation, was fired hours after Alonso missed the race and Brown returned to England to digest the embarrassment of his venture.
Brown on Monday provided The Associated Press a detailed timeline of the bloopers and blunders that led to Alonso missing the race, the last piece the two-time Formula 1 champion needs in his quest to win motorsports’ version of the Triple Crown.
“I don’t think we came into this arrogant, I think we were unprepared,” Brown said. “We didn’t deserve to be in the race and it’s our own fault. It’s not like we showed up and gave our best. We defeated ourselves.”
The path to missing the 33-driver field began when the car was not ready the moment Texas Motor Speedway opened for the April test. Brown had personally secured a steering wheel the previous week from Cosworth to use for the test, and the mistakes piled up from there.
“We didn’t get out until midday, our steering wheel was not done on time, that’s just lack of preparation and project management organizational skills,” Brown said. “That’s where this whole thing fell down, in the project management. Zak Brown should not be digging around for steering wheels.”
A cosmetic issue at the Texas test haunted McLaren deep into last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
McLaren purchased a car from technical partner Carlin, and though the car was orange when McLaren received it, it was not the proper McLaren “papaya orange.” It had to be repainted after the test, and that still had not been completed when Alonso crashed his McLaren-built car last Wednesday.
The Carlin spare was in a paint shop 30 minutes from the track, more than a month after McLaren complained about the color, and it ultimately cost McLaren almost two full days of track time. The team looked foolish as other teams were able to move into backup cars in mere hours; James Hinchcliffe crashed in Saturday qualifying and was back on track in his spare that afternoon.
Carlin was a two-car team when McLaren made its alliance but expanded to three for the Indy 500. Once Carlin took on the extra work, Brown said, the team had few resources to give McLaren.
“It was clear they weren’t capable of running three cars and serving us,” he said. Carlin entrants Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward were the two other drivers who failed to qualify.
McLaren’s poor showing is one of the biggest failures in Indy 500 history. Roger Penske missed the show with Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1995, a year after dominating the race. Reigning CART champion Bobby Rahal missed it in 1993, and two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward never got up to speed to make the 1965 field.
The McLaren budget for this Indy 500 was strong, every sponsorship opportunity had been sold and the venture was a guaranteed commercial success for McLaren. Brown was somewhat hands-off and focused on the critical rebuild of the Formula 1 part of the program. He now laments waiting too long to become heavily involved with the Indy 500 effort. He also believes he was too slow in assigning McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran, a former Indy 500 winner, oversight of the program.
“I should have been closer to Indy but I could never compromise Formula One,” Brown said. “At 9:01 in the morning when we weren’t on track at the first test, that’s when we failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. We didn’t ring the fire alarm quick enough because we could have recovered after the first test.
“I am angry at myself because I was uncomfortable all the way up to the first test and I should have followed my instinct to get more involved.”
Many of the issues were beyond Brown’s control.
The car had an electrical issue in last month’s test at Indy and an employee was taken off the team for the error. Alonso had another electrical issue on opening day for the 500 and the alternator and wiring loom had to be replaced. Alonso crashed on the second day, and McLaren missed all of Day 3 rebuilding the spare from Carlin that was finally the proper shade of orange.
Fast Friday showed the car still needed speed, and Alonso went into qualifying on shaky ground. His first qualifying run was sabotaged by a tire puncture — which wasn’t detected beforehand because Brown said the team had purchased incorrect tire sensors.
Alonso wound up one of six drivers in the “Last Row Shootout” on Sunday and the panicked McLaren team begged and borrowed across the paddock for any assistance available. Alonso went out to practice Sunday with an entirely new setup, but in the frantic changeover a mistake was made in converting inches to the metric system the English team uses and the car scraped and sparked on his first lap. It had to be fixed and Alonso got in just five more laps before rain ended the session.
When it came time for Alonso to make his final last-gasp qualifying attempt late Sunday afternoon, the Spaniard was given a car that Brown and de Ferran were concerned might not perform.
“Gil and I went to the motorhome and told Fernando: ‘We are going to try this, but this could go well or really wrong. Are you comfortable?’” Brown said. “And Fernando said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Alonso agreed that he never backed away from the challenge.
“We went out with an experiment that we did overnight. We changed everything on the car because we thought that maybe we need something from the mental side different to go into the race with some confidence,” Alonso said. “We went out not knowing what the car will do in Turn 1, but you’re still flat. So we tried.”
The new setup and assistance from other teams indeed got the car up to speed, but Alonso was knocked from the field by 23-year-old Kyle Kaiser of tiny Juncos Racing. McLaren discovered after the qualifying run that the car had the wrong gear ratio setup.
“We actually had a 229 (mph) car but we had 227.5 gearing, so we beat ourselves again while we almost made it,” Brown said. “We really did put it all on the line and you could feel the anxiety. There was some real heroism in that. I don’t want the world to think McLaren is a bunch of idiots because while we did have a few, we had some real stars.”
Alonso has rejected an offer from the team to purchase a seat in the Indy 500 field for him.
What’s next is a careful lookback as Brown figures out McLaren’s future at both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series. He still wants to field two full-time entries in the series but isn’t sure yet how much of a setback this has been. He believes McLaren will be back next year at Indy for a second chance.
“I feel an obligation to the fans and sponsors, we let them down. We didn’t fulfill our promise and I think they need more than just an apology,” Brown said. “There will be repercussions for those who don’t deserve to work for a great team like McLaren. We will look at what we learned here and the list is a mile long. I hope people appreciate that we go for it, we are racers, and Fernando is a star and we are not quitters. We want to come back.”
The green flag waves at the 2019 Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 26.
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