Why Alonso’s potential IndyCar move has reached stalemate

Fernando Alonso’s desire to race in IndyCar full-time will be a moot point if the dilemmas over who could supply engines to a McLaren IndyCar team cannot be resolved. The ultimate solution may have wider implications within the series, as David Malsher explains.

Why Alonso’s potential IndyCar move has reached stalemate
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As everyone who cares surely knows, Alonso, arguably the greatest open-wheel racer of his generation, is on the cusp of making a decision regarding his short-term future.

His test last week in an Andretti Autosport IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park went well. The team was happy and impressed – no surprise – and these sentiments appeared to be reciprocated by the two-time Formula 1 World Champion.

But there’s a very good reason why Alonso’s first test of an IndyCar in road course specification saw him piloting a Honda-powered car with no Honda brand identity on the bodywork.

The background

Team owner Michael Andretti has been enamored with Alonso ever since partnering with McLaren to run the orange #29 car in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. As has been well documented, Fernando’s decision to forego the twists and turns of the glamorous Monaco Grand Prix for the flat-out exhilarating blast of the Brickyard paid off handsomely.

He was much appreciated by the fans, the feeling was mutual, and his countenance once more became that of a contented man. Four years on from his last victory in F1, he was again a prominent force in an open-wheel car, qualifying fifth, leading 27 laps and remaining in the lead fight until 21 laps from the end, when his Honda went pop.

Plus ça change…” murmured those who’d long been entertained by Alonso’s public denouncements of Honda’s F1 efforts since McLaren had reunited with the Japanese manufacturer in 2015.

This year, McLaren CEO Zak Brown and McLaren’s board of directors again found a way to bring their star driver some joy during an F1 season in which a new partnership with Renault hasn’t brought the team any nearer to glory. Alonso was allowed to race for Toyota’s LMP1 team in the World Endurance Championship.

Becoming the only driver other than the late Graham Hill to achieve motorsport’s unofficial triple crown of victory – Monaco GP, Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indianapolis 500 – has become one of Alonso’s stated aims, and the two-time Monaco winner’s second box was duly checked in June. He, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima led a crushing one-two for Toyota at Le Mans, albeit against weak opposition.

At around this time, however, the McLaren/Alonso-to-IndyCar rumors were starting to gather strength. In May, Fernando had told people in WEC and in F1 how much he missed participating in the Indy 500, and his comments were sincere, if not tactful. But such was his yearning for a competitive open-wheel car once more.

Then McLaren delegates were spied in America, most publicly at IndyCar’s Detroit rounds in early June. The following week, Michael Andretti skipped a day at IndyCar’s Texas event so he could fly to Montreal and meet with Brown and Alonso at F1’s Canadian Grand Prix. And by now McLaren principals were openly stating that opportunities to re-enter Indy car racing on a full-season basis for the first time since 1979, or to re-enter the Indy 500 as a one-off, were being evaluated for 2019 or ’20.

The smart money was on a fulltime entry, and for three reasons. The first is that Alonso needs something to do – and that is said without facetiousness. Earlier this summer, this writer asked a McLaren man ‘in the know’ whether the legendary marque and its legendary driver were in lock-step – that if Fernando came to IndyCar for 2019, it would be at the wheel of a McLaren entry. The reply was a firm ‘Yes’ – one of few absolute affirmatives at that stage.

The second reason for McLaren to join IndyCar in either ’19 or ’20 is the budget cap set to be introduced to Formula 1 for the ’21 season. In order to not exceed this limit yet also keep skilled personnel, McLaren needs to find a new outlet for their talents.

A third reason for Brown and Co. committing to a full-time IndyCar return would be because the USA is a strategically important market for the McLaren brand. Another one-off shot at the Indy 500 gives the team only a single chance of glory, albeit the one that will attract most plaudits – but only if all goes to plan and Alonso wins.

Next Memorial Day Weekend, should the orange car be wiped out by an errant backmarker or overambitious front-runner before quarter-distance, there will have been a huge financial outlay for a miserable result. On the other hand, if Alonso clocks a couple of wins in his first IndyCar season, then regardless of the fact that they may have come on less hallowed ground such as Mid-Ohio or Laguna Seca, that’s still a dream for McLaren’s marketing department.

Two-car team, or “fifth Andretti car”?

The basic nature of a potential McLaren IndyCar team was still 'TBD' at the height of summer. A two-car line-up was considered, and approaches were made to a couple of IndyCar aces, Will Power and Scott Dixon, whose contracts with their respective teams were up at season’s end.

Either would have fit McLaren’s needs – each possesses the pace by which an IndyCar rookie such as Alonso can gauge his progress, and each is blessed with the work ethic and experience to rapidly mature a fledgling team.

However, according to the terms of his contract with Team Penske, Power couldn’t even commence negotiations with another squad until August, and by the end of June, Roger Penske and his latest Indy 500 winner had reached an agreement that pleased them both.

Dixon, like Power, was flattered by the interest but with McLaren’s plans remaining so fluid, he too elected to stay where he was, re-signing with Chip Ganassi Racing, the team that has helped make him a four-time (perhaps soon to be five-time) series champion and an Indy 500 winner.

This was the reality McLaren confronted while it still couldn’t confirm its IndyCar intentions. Dixon and Power weren’t about to jeopardize relations with their current, immensely successful and loyal employers for a half-chance with an as-yet-unformed team. Meanwhile, three of their best rivals – Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi – were simply unavailable due to existing contracts.

However, were McLaren to run one car but form a closer tie with Andretti Autosport, then two of those aces, Rossi and Hunter-Reay, would automatically become very helpful semi-teammates with Alonso. It seemed a simple solution that would ensure Brown and recently installed McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran – who served as advisor for Alonso at Indy in 2017 – could operate a McLaren team but with a strong ally alongside from the word go.

A very strong ally. Andretti’s squad has made immense progress since its 2016 lull. This is partly due to spec aerokits having replaced manufacturer aerokits – Honda’s was inferior at most tracks to Chevrolet’s. But much credit should also be given to the realignment and strengthening of AA’s engineering line-up, the results of which are plain to see.

Just two years after Carlos Munoz was Andretti’s top driver in IndyCar’s final point standings with a weak 10th place, Rossi will this weekend contend for the championship with Dixon.

Thus, with an Andretti affiliation and Alonso at the wheel, we can be certain a full-time McLaren IndyCar team would make an immediate impact.

The problem

Last month, IndyCar welcomed Alonso’s decision to quit F1 for 2019 and very publicly opened the door to McLaren and its superstar driver, which seemed a touch presumptive, not least because Alonso had not (and has not) declared his intended career path. But the enthusiasm for Alonso and McLaren becoming fulltime IndyCar entities is understandable.

However, the engine-supply issue is beyond thorny. Last month, Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita, CA, stated: “Having Alonso as a driver would be an obvious benefit for any team or manufacturer. Our engine lease agreements are made between HPD and specific teams. Several of our current IndyCar Series teams already have agreements in place with HPD for the 2019 season, and we have been operating near maximum capacity all year long to properly provide powerful, reliable engines for all of our teams. We have had discussions with several current and potential teams for 2019, and those discussions are ongoing.”

It seemed unthinkable that HPD can’t stretch its yearly production quota to provide engines for Alonso, so was St. Cyr sounding vague because he wished to respect the fact that neither McLaren nor Alonso had yet committed to the series? It appears not. Motorsport.com understands that back in Honda's heartland, the decision makers’ enthusiasm for Alonso remains very low.

Thus Michael Andretti’s observation to Motorsport.com just two weeks ago – “Honda has no problems with Alonso; no problem there” – was a tad optimistic, hence the absence of the iconic “H” on the car Fernando piloted last week.

For Global Honda, realigning with Alonso has two obvious sticking points. One, of course, is Alonso’s stormy relationship with the marque in the recent past. The other is the fact that he’s currently enjoying glory in WEC with Honda’s arch-rival Toyota, a relationship that is guaranteed to continue until June next year, given the series’ unusual one-and-a-half year ‘superseason’.

If Honda’s issue is conflicting marque loyalty, that is understandable, but it can be resolved as soon as the 2019 Le Mans 24 Hours is over. If the problem is residual bitterness over Alonso’s criticism of the company’s F1 efforts while supplying him engines, that too is understandable – however much we may sympathize with Alonso’s sentiments.

He discerned no substantial progress from the first year of their partnership to the third and used the media as a tool by which to pressure a supplier into upping its game. It’s an oft-used tactic by drivers and team owners, but Honda is within its rights to resent that.

Earlier this week, the beleaguered Mr. St. Cyr was put on the spot again, in a media teleconference, and again he played it smart, not wishing to aggravate any of the parties involved.

“All of these things are a little bit case by case,” he said. “We're pretty much set with the lineup we have right now. With that being said, having Fernando Alonso come to the IndyCar Series, someone that's recognized as one of the best drivers in the world, that would bring a lot of media attention. I think having him join the most competitive race series around would be fantastic for the series.

“Now, I think it might be a little bit premature because personally I don't know what his plans are right now, whether it's a full season in IndyCar, Indy 500 only. I know there's already some conflicts with his running in the WEC. I think right now I'd just kind of leave it as, ‘We're waiting to see what their thoughts are at this point, and we'll act accordingly.’”

Pressed on the matter, St. Cyr added: “To say that we haven't had discussions would be a misnomer. Again, I really don't want to get into making news when there's nothing saying that Alonso is even going to come to IndyCar at this point…. I think once Alonso decides, we can decide from our side what we can do and what we can't do… I know it's a very evasive answer, but it's a hypothetical question that I don't want to get into right now.”

McLaren’s view

Brown was approached by Motorsport.com to confirm the impasse, but he was unwilling to confirm that Honda was refusing to power an Alonso-driven McLaren entry in IndyCar.

“As we’ve been saying for a couple of months now, the situation remains fluid regarding making this whole project happen,” replied Brown. “You don’t decide on this kind of venture lightly, especially not when we would plan it to be the start of a long-term commitment [to IndyCar]. We’ve been very flattered and moved by the enthusiasm we’ve seen and read about, from the IndyCar Series and its fans, to having McLaren back in the series, and maybe Fernando too.

“But there are a lot of moving parts that need to fall into place and we’re very methodically going through the processes, so we hit the ground running, if or when we commit to IndyCar. Getting everything finalized is what we’re working on now, and it’s not something that can be hurried.”

One possible (convoluted) solution

Should Honda remain unwilling to power an Alonso-driven McLaren entry in IndyCar, ‘Big Mac’ could still have an affiliation with Andretti Autosport but running the Ilmor-built Chevrolet units in 2019. This could be accomplished by McLaren working out of the same race shop as Chevy–powered Harding Racing, but using a combination of McLaren engineers and ‘loaned out’ Andretti Autosport engineers.

By operating from a separate site, the intention would be to form a metaphorical firewall and prevent the technicians or engineers from one team exchanging confidential engine information with the other.

The groundwork for such an arrangement appears to have been laid this weekend. Several Andretti Autosport members are helping run the two Harding-Chevrolet IndyCars at Sonoma, which has allowed AA’s Indy Lights aces Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta to make their race debuts in the ‘big cars’.

Steve Wittich from Trackside Online also confirmed that Harding is using Andretti Autosport dampers this weekend, having struggled manfully with old-tech devices for much of the season.

But could such an arrangement remain in place for a whole season, while Alonso pilots a semi-Andretti entry? As one rival team owner told Motorsport.com, “It’s hard to believe either manufacturer would approve,” and that truly is the most astonishing part of all. If you were one of the suits at the top of HPD or Chevrolet, would you be 100 percent confident that zero engine intel could pass between Andretti engineers and McLaren engineers over the course of a season?

How about if you were a rival team owner who runs Chevrolet units – could you shrug off the risk that, even unintentionally, Honda-powered Andretti folk may gain extra insights into ‘your’ engine? Or, if you run a Honda team, wouldn’t you worry that Andretti Autosport and McLaren could gain a vital edge in acquiring Chevrolet intellectual property, thereby boosting a five-strong team?

With 2019 being the eighth and penultimate year of IndyCar’s 2.2-liter V6 turbo era, you could argue that the current engine formula is pretty much squeezed dry and there’s not much for one manufacturer to learn from the other. But that same truth is also a counter-argument: at this stage of development, and with spec Dallara kits having (theoretically) equalized teams in their aero departments, there is added significance to every last fractional gain from the engine.

Purely objective IndyCar fans may feel that all involved should suck it up and tolerate this odd circumstance for the good of the series – and having McLaren and Alonso involved is most definitely good for the series. But that’s an easy position to take when you don’t have skin in the game.

Other possible solutions

This tortuous arrangement that involves Harding’s race shop and an attendant undercurrent of suspicion among IndyCar’s established teams could still be untangled. One method could be that McLaren and Alonso again enter the Indy 500 together, but this time in partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing – a team that has proven able to excel at the Brickyard – or another Chevrolet team.

Then, should Honda hold out an olive branch to Alonso once his Toyota WEC commitments are over next June, McLaren and Alonso could commit fulltime for 2020 but maybe have some toe-in-the-water experiences at other tracks in the latter half of 2019.

However, should McLaren commit to starting fulltime in 2019 and Honda’s stance compels the squad to turn to Chevy, then the Detroit manufacturer will surely only be interested in a longterm agreement with McLaren, rather than being merely a one-year ‘fill-in’ supplier before McLaren joins the HPD ranks. Therefore, assuming Andretti wishes to remain partners with McLaren, it’s not inconceivable that Michael will switch his own four-car armada to Chevrolet at the end of next season.

A couple of years ago, few would have cared because Andretti Autosport was struggling. Now it has reestablished itself as one of IndyCar’s ‘Big Three’ and has played a vital role in Honda defeating Chevy for the Manufacturers’ title this year, the idea that Michael’s team might switch allegiance to the other side should be a source of worry for Honda.

Remember, it would not just be a case of HPD losing a great team and great drivers; Honda would suddenly have those combined talents working against the brand – and in a vital market, and just ahead of the 2021 engine-reg change to 2.4-liter units.

Motorsport.com approached Chevrolet’s (and GM’s) director of motorsports competition Mark Kent about the idea of Alonso, McLaren and Andretti Autosport wearing Bowties in the near future.

“The IndyCar Series continues to deliver some of the best on-track competition in motorsports today,” Kent responded. “The depth of driver talent continues to increase every season. The addition of Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso to the IndyCar driver roster is an exciting possibility for the Series.

“Chevrolet currently has a tremendous line-up of race and championship-winning teams and drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series. We previously enjoyed success with Andretti Autosport, including winning the driver’s championship with them [and Hunter-Reay] in 2012. Therefore, if the opportunity presented itself, we would certainly be open to discussions with Andretti Autosport regarding them again partnering with Chevrolet.”

Thus IndyCar, Global Honda, HPD, McLaren, Alonso, Chevrolet and Andretti find themselves not in a Gordian knot, but it will take at least two parties to untie it. However it unravels, let’s just hope we see Alonso and McLaren on the IndyCar grid in the near future. It would be a woeful waste of an opportunity, as well as a woeful waste of Fernando's talent, should politics prevent it.

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