By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, California – McLaren could be well on their way to a full-time entry sooner rather than later in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren, traded the milestone 1000th Formula One grand prix in Shanghai, China, for the always festive Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, the site of the fourth round of the 2019 IndyCar championship. It was there during a media availability he shared some of the vision of the organization’s plans, as well as his thoughts on the one-off entry with two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso in next month’s 103rd Indianapolis 500.
The entry is officially known as McLaren IndyCar and is being managed by Bob Fernley, former deputy team principal of Sahara Force India F1 Team (now known as SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team). Current IndyCar outfit Carlin is assisting the Woking, England-based squad with various resources such as data, pit equipment, a backup/test car and a place to work out of their shop in Florida.
It was Tuesday at Texas Motor Speedway when Alonso tested the universal kit for the first time, running 105 laps at the 1.5-mile superspeedway oval. Now, with a solid session on an oval with the current car compared to what he drove at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two years ago, the task now shifts to the April 24th open test at IMS, which will mark the first time an Indy car that was prepared in Europe hitting the 2.5-mile circuit.
Brown said they now have two cars prepared, with one built at the McLaren Technology Center and another in the United States. Also, key personnel movements have been made with Gil de Ferran, sporting director of McLaren, expected to focus on the 500 after coming back from this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix. Fernley will stay at Indianapolis, where the team will now be based heading into the month of May, and by having Alonso run laps at Texas, it fulfilled Brown’s goals he had for the entire McLaren team.
“Things are progressing well. We got 105 laps in, accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. Was a successful shakedown,” said Brown. “It was the first time the whole team had come together, so while we’ve got a very experienced team, it’s the first time they’ve been on the racetrack together, and so we wanted to make sure we got Fernando comfortable, that the car worked, which it did. We got into some setup, so it wasn’t just purely a shakedown but also some learning, and we walked away with a good list of follow-ups, which is what you would expect.
“Fernando is excited. We’re all excited. You know, it’s going to be a big task. It’s unbelievably competitive and going to be a big entry, and I think going there as a one-car new team is a challenge, but we’re up for that challenge.”
Unlike their 2017 efforts, when the team partnered with Andretti Autosport, Brown said it’s a contrasting experience now that it’s a program built out of their own neck of the woods. While that’s the case, by also having Carlin helping McLaren out, it gives Alonso more data and have teammates on the track, which will play a key role at Indianapolis.
“2017 was easy because Michael (Andretti, CEO of Andretti Autosport) did the majority of the work and has got a lot of experience, and we knew we’d be putting Fernando into a great race car. And it was in a short period of time,” Brown explained.
“So this time is a totally different experience. This is a full McLaren effort. We’re getting some assistance from Carlin, but that is more operational, giving Fernando some teammates, some data sharing, things of that nature, which is good, because being a one-car team, you can get lost around Indianapolis.
“We need some kind of support and some element of having some teammates come the month of May. So this is a big undertaking. We announced it in I think it was October, and it seems like time has flown, and we’ve needed every single one of those days because we’re still working very hard and just keeping our head down, getting ready for April 24th, and just going to try and kind of creep up on it.”
The amount of information Alonso likes and needs is another factor Brown felt it’s essential at Indianapolis, even down to the No. 66 Chevrolet powered papaya paint scheme, made famous at Indianapolis by Johnny Rutherford, who won in both 1974 and 1976 in that iconic color. Rutherford attended the Texas session and Brown said that he’ll be at Indy, hoping to give some tips on the two-time Formula One World Champion.
“Fernando is someone who loves information and recognizes when he lacks experience in a certain area,” Brown said.
“So I think he’s a lot more comfortable this time around, but Fernando will never leave anything on the table if he feels it will help him. Indianapolis is such a unique circuit when you get into wind direction and cloud cover and things of that nature and that type of experience Johnny has, so Johnny, outside of helping just represent the McLaren brand, technically I think he can convey his experiences to Fernando, which Fernando very much welcomes.”
After the Indy 500, the question remains if Brown will make the push of bringing McLaren to the NTT IndyCar Series on a full-time basis in 2020. While Brown didn’t ruled out the possibility, one thing is certain, it’ll be a two-car effort.
“We’re a big fan of the racing series,” Brown said. I think Mark Miles (CEO of Hulman & Company – the parent company of INDYCAR) and team have done an excellent job. The racing is outstanding. Great teams, great drivers, great venues. So it’s a place that McLaren would like to race.
“We’ve been very focused on Formula 1, and we remain very focused on Formula 1, but I’ve now completed the hiring of the balance of the leadership for the Formula 1 team now that James Key has started as technical director and Andreas Seidl is the managing director of the Formula 1 team. He’ll join next month, and so we really needed to get that completed. And so going ahead and getting the equipment, making the investment in doing Indianapolis this year in the way we are is another step in that direction.
“There is no doubt that the shareholders at McLaren would like to be in IndyCar. I think it’s more of a when than an if, and if we were to do it for 2020, I think you’d need to make that decision in the summer in order to be properly prepared. So it’s nothing that we’ve ruled out for 2020, and that decision will come sometime in the summer, and if not then, then we’ll look towards 2021.”