INDIANAPOLIS — Fernando Alonso had 100-percent confidence that despite last year’s efforts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that he’d be back for another go of it in 2020. While no one would blame Alonso for walking away, ashamed with how everything went for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500, he wasn’t going to go out that way. Not now, not ever.
Alonso, was very ashamed with how McLaren handled the Month of May in 2019. He didn’t hide those feelings. They embarrassed him. That’s why he thought that when he did indeed come back for 2020, he’d be with a different team. He was ready to delete everything that happened last year and never bring it up again.
“Last year, yes, we failed,” said Alonso. “Last year we were not ready for the challenge. This year I want to go there even more compared to last year and try to delete that feeling and try to experience the event from the beginning to the end with nice momentum.”
On Tuesday, Alonso announced that he would come back to run the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500, but would do so with the same team. Why? Well, a sense of loyalty to McLaren and Honda is why.
It’s no secret, Alonso’s first choice was Andretti Autosport, the same team that he and McLaren partnered with in 2017 for which Alonso was quick all month and even qualified fifth for the race.
He led laps and was among the favorites in contention in the end to win before his Honda engine let loose. He, Honda and McLaren didn’t exactly see eye to eye then and to this day, still don’t. Later that season, Alonso and McLaren had a bad breakup with Honda. It was so toxic, when McLaren came back to Indy last year as a one-off and as a full season participant this year, they had to do so with Chevrolet power because Honda wanted nothing to do with them.
That in turn ruined plans of an alliance between McLaren and Andretti for last year’s ‘500 as well as this year’s season too.
In turn, McLaren was off on their own last year and got it all wrong. It was a complete embarrassment. A team of their magnitude with millions upon millions of dollars at their disposal was bumped out of the big race by a team on a shoestring budget and a backup car with wrecked pieces.
So, what in the last eight months have led Alonso back to McLaren?
“It’s true that I looked at other options,” said Alonso on Wednesday. “Racing for Andretti in 2017 was one of my preferred choices, as well, in terms of projects, and yes, more or less I think in November the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix, I said clear more or less that my options were the Indy 500 were, first off, to race, because I wanted to have another attempt, and maybe the choices between Andretti or McLaren with a new project that they were working with the Schmidt Peterson team. But those were the thoughts at that time at the end of last year.
“I think going through the process, probably it started in probably October last year when I started looking at some options. I knew that my McLaren ambassador contract expired at the end of 2019, so I didn’t have any obligations to race for McLaren in 2020. But obviously I will be always in contact with them for whatever future projects.”
The deal for Alonso to drive a seventh car for Andretti was close. The sponsor, Rouff, was done. The two sides wanted to partner again. Andretti and Alonso. A perfect match. Then, Honda got involved. Honda, supplies engines for Andretti Autosport. That bad breakup in 2017? Well, they were still furious with Alonso and want nothing to do with him either.
Despite that, Andretti and Alonso thought that they could make it work even without Honda’s blessing. Turned out, they were wrong.
“I was surprised, and I was talking with Michael (Andretti) sometime because we both were surprised,” Alonso said of the Honda deal. “When you talk with a team and negotiate with a team, you are negotiating with them, not with their partners or anything like that. They don’t have that power anyway to do this kind of things. I don’t have any issues at all with Honda.”
So, that left Alonso high and dry. He had no contract in place with McLaren anymore but he chose to reach out to see if there still was any interest. Obviously, they did, so in quick time, Alonso went from a near deal with Andretti to a deal with McLaren and using the sponsor still with them.
“I waited until the end of January to go deep on the conversations and finalizing what will be the Indy 500 deal, and from that moment, yeah, two weeks later, I arrived at an agreement with McLaren and with a new team now that for sure is going to be more prepared than last year.”
So, what about McLaren this time will be different than last? On Wednesday, Alonso said that they weren’t prepared. He said they failed and the entire process was a failure. It was so bad, he wanted to come back this year to delete those feelings of last year’s mess. So, why come back to that same team then?
The partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is the first thing that Alonso says is better as to why he came back. While the three drivers have a combined one start in the Indy 500 and two of the three drivers that failed to make the show last year are under one team now, Alonso still feels like the data between the three is better than one from last year.
“I think being a one-car team, it was a big penalty for us last year. We had a couple of issues. We had not the real ability that we wanted in the first couple of tests, and obviously we didn’t have much information.
“This year with three cars, even if you have a bad day, you’re still learning a lot of things from the other two cars. So I think that will be a good advantage, plus the team is not new, it’s been racing for many, many years in IndyCar, and the background and all the knowledge I think is going to be very beneficial with the things that McLaren can add to that project. It was a project that was already existing. So that’s the second thing.”
Another thing is the addition of Craig Hampson to the organization. That was a big selling point to sway Alonso back.
“Well, that was one of the biggest parts of the decision, as well,” said Alonso about the hiring that Arrow McLaren SP made of Hampson. “Everyone was telling me that Craig Hampson was the man to work with, with so much experience, and making the difference in many of the races and championships on the last couple of decades in IndyCar. Obviously that’s very attractive, to work with this kind of people that make a difference, and you can learn a lot from a driver point of view, as well, from the team and the engineers.”
An aligned team to work with, three drivers instead of one, a better engineering staff and a more prepared effort. All good reasons to return with them.