By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Nearly 15 months removed from one of the lowest points of McLaren CEO Zak Brown’s motorsports career, he and the entire Arrow McLaren SP operation are making excellent strides for not just their NTT IndyCar Series program, but assuring last year’s Indianapolis 500 is just a blip on the radar.
It’s no secret that McLaren’s independent effort in 2019 was an absolute disaster the moment they began testing with Fernando Alonso, something Brown admitted during Tuesday morning’s video conference.
“You’ve got to get it pretty wrong for a team like McLaren and a driver like Fernando to not make the show,” said Brown. “Really it was a lot of little mistakes, predictable. Saw a lot of them, unfortunately didn’t kind of react fast enough, that ultimately compound.
“If I look at the end result, it really started with our first test, which we have a variety of issues at that we should have had enough time to be well-prepared for. Then when we had these issues, we didn’t respond to them quickly enough, urgently enough.”
It further culminated with an even more disappointing “Month of May” where everything that could’ve gone wrong did. Most notably, the infamous papaya orange color coding fiasco that took more time than necessary as the blunder was a direct result of Alonso crashing in Turn 3 during practice and had to repair the wounded No. 66 machine.
The incident took place four days prior to Bump Day where Alonso ultimately ended up being bumped by Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, a team that hasn’t made an INDYCAR start since and won’t be competing in this year’s 500.
As a result, the DNQ halted the two-time Formula One World Champion’s bid of pursuing the Motorsports Triple Crown.
“When you don’t solve those issues, you continue to have them, a car gets crashed, you don’t have your spare ready for a variety of reasons, all of which has been documented in some silly headlines, unfortunately,” Brown commented. “They’re not quite as silly. There’s an explanation behind each one went wrong, but we got it wrong.”
Since that putrid month, Brown teamed up with experienced INDYCAR owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson during the off-season. Among the changes they’ve made was switching from Honda to Chevrolet and going with two highly touted young drivers — Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward.
The direct result has been positive and the mistakes from a year ago is a thing from the past, making the entire Arrow McLaren SP camp stronger than ever before.
“I think teaming up with Sam and Ric and the team, a lot of these rookie mistakes we made, they’re as well-prepared, as you said, especially oval experience, INDYCAR team,” said Brown.
“I think that’s the biggest mistakes we made, is we came collectively almost as a bunch of rookies, and that didn’t work well. I think we’ve come in in a much better way, long-term view to the sport. That’s what we’re doing differently, without getting into the finer details of each item.”
McLaren Racing Sporting Director and 2003 Indy 500 champion Gil de Ferran said that nothing is guaranteed in life, regardless if the outcomes are either successful or failure, but the biggest takeaway he took from a year ago was staying strong during painful adversity.
“I always go through this review process in my own head with everything that I do, frankly. Something I’ve been doing for many years, is to analyze everything we do on a daily basis,” said de Ferran. “In my mind, that’s the only way you can move forward, even within the operations and engineering, whatever task is at hand. I think you always have to review very carefully.
“Ultimately that was a very painful one that we had to review. But we grouped everyone together, we talked about it, dissected in every single way that you can possibly imagine. I think we became stronger because of it. We learned our lessons.”
Once key changes were made, Arrow McLaren SP have since shifted their focus on assuring they won’t go through that hell again as they’ve quickly become one of the top INDYCAR teams with Askew and O’Ward having superb performances that’s resulted in top-fives, even podiums during the first six rounds.
de Ferran has been pleasantly surprised with the duo’s performance as he personally had lower expectations before the season began, but after two months of grueling competition, his confidence level bloomed.
“When this whole thing started, I was very aware of the fact that we’re on a long journey here,” said de Ferran. “We signed two rookie drivers with very little experience in INDYCAR, but they’ve clearly shown a lot of potential and a lot of talent.”
Team managing director Taylor Kiel has been thrilled with the progress, especially during the difficult time period the world has endured with the COVID-19 pandemic that’s led the 200-lap event being held behind closed doors.
“We’ve obviously been working very hard under the ever-changing conditions. It seems like things change day-to-day,” said Kiel. “Kudos to the team. They’ve been very flexible throughout the entire process. We’ve had to adapt our ways of working down to the bare basics.
“We’re certainly putting the time in, are prepared and ready to go. Indy 500 in August is certainly unique, but what isn’t here in 2020? We’re just excited to be here. We feel good. We feel ready to go. We’re ready to race.”
Brown attested Kiel’s comments about the team effort during the pandemic as he’s been more than pleased with the INDYCAR program under those circumstances.
“It’s ultimately producing results on the track. As the guys were just speaking about, COVID, when we started integrating our know-how and technologies to Taylor and the team, we were also finishing a season getting ready to test and trying to do that on the fly. It’s not that easy,” said Brown.
“I think when COVID put the brakes on things, one of the things that it did benefit us is I think it gave an opportunity for our two teams to get to know each other and collaborate in a slower environment, if I want to I guess call it that. I’m very pleased with that.
“The relationship that I have with Sam and Ric, the owners of Arrow McLaren SP, is great. Ashlee (Huffman), who runs the commercial side, working alongside Phil (Zielinski), our partners are happy. We’ve brought quite a few partners to the table. It’s quite a nice effort that’s come together really well at the start of the year which is not an easy thing to do.
“To have almost won a race, podiums with both drivers, more good weekends than bad weekends, here we are at Indy, couldn’t be more pleased with where we are from when we got started.”
The last two Indy Lights champions won’t be alone as Alonso is back for some Indy redemption, maybe for the last time. That’s because Alonso singed a two-year deal with Renault’s F1 team last month. Thus, this year’s 500 is likely to be the Spaniard’s last chance of joining Graham Hill as the only man to win the Indy 500, Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Brown said Alonso is as determined to win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing as it’ll be his first non-sim racing event since the Dakar Rally in January and with de Ferran calling the shots, sky’s the limit how Alonso will fare.
“I think Fernando is as dedicated as ever in his desire to win the Indy 500,” Brown on Alonso. “He’s never wavered during this time of COVID, is the race on, off, what date. He cleared his calendar post Paris-Dakar to come compete and hopefully win the Indy 500. He’s been very focused on that. He’s excited to get back in the car this week.”
Brown added that Alonso will also be a tremendous asset for the young full-time drivers as the anticipation of having a banner August 23rd (1:00 p.m. EST on NBC) is at an absolute high. No doubt about it, their end goal after 200 intense laps is to capture the Borg-Warner Trophy, but even more sweeter if his cars sweep the podium.
“I think what Oliver and Pato will learn from Fernando is how he approaches a race,” said Brown. “I’m sure they’ll learn something about Indianapolis itself, but it will be more of his experience of what a two-time world champion and all the things he’s accomplished, how he approaches a race weekend.
“Our rookies are rookies. The more experience they can get, the better. So I think the combination of the driver lineup, plus their speed and competitiveness, should make it exciting.”