McLaren Racing won’t have a full-time entry in the 2019 IndyCar Series season, but like driver Fernando Alonso, the team is leaving the door open for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in May.
Zak Brown, McLaren Racing CEO, confirmed a week ago during the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas, that the team is “simply not ready” to put forth a full-season entry into IndyCar Series competition.
“As far as the Indy 500 is concerned,” Brown added, “it’s something that remains of interest to us.”
Alonso, the two-time F1 champion who drives for McLaren in that series, also announced during the USGP weekend that he will not move full-time to INDYCAR next season. The Spaniard, who captured worldwide attention when he earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, though he, too, didn’t rule out a return to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2019.
“That will be a decision that, ultimately, we take in the offseason,” Brown said. “I think it’s something that Fernando would like to do as well, but right now we’re still focused on Formula One, and until we get a little bit of fresh air we’ll remain focused on that.”
McLaren returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017 for the first time in 38 years in a partnership with Andretti Autosport to form McLaren-Honda-Andretti. Alonso qualified fifth and led 27 laps before suffering a mechanical failure while running in the top 10 with 21 laps remaining.
The remarkable effort left fans of Indy car racing salivating for more. Brown said the feeling is mutual.
"Our desire to do the IndyCar Series remains high,” Brown said. “With all that's going on in Formula One right now, that's our No. 1 priority. Always has been, always will be. And so we would only do INDYCAR if we can do it in a way that we thought could be meaningful and competitive and not be a distraction.
“Ultimately, here we are in October and not all the stars aligned for us to tick all those boxes.”
While McLaren’s previous Indy 500 endeavor came in a partnership with Andretti Autosport, Brown said it’s not a foregone conclusion that future entries will be the same.
"I would anticipate if we enter INDYCAR, which I hope is more of a 'when' than an 'if,' it would be as McLaren Racing,” Brown said. "We want to come in as our own entity when that day comes, but I think you always have to keep an open mind about how you go motor racing.
“I think we'd have to evaluate exactly when that moment comes, what's the best way to be as competitive as quickly as possible."
McLaren has a storied past in Indy car racing, having collected two Indy 500 victories as a team with legendary driver Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and ’76. Mark Donohue also drove a McLaren to victory at Indy in 1972, the first of what are now a record 17 Indianapolis 500 triumphs for team owner Roger Penske.
It’s more than just racing history that is a lure for the brand to return, however.
“North America is a very important market for McLaren Racing partners,” Brown said. “For our automotive business, for our applied technologies business and Formula One, while growing in North America, has a long way to go.
“If you look at the commercial pie on how you want to truly have a global platform, INDYCAR turbocharges the North American market, while Formula One is still trying to build here. While (INDYCAR) is a spec series, it's about engineering and innovation and that's something that we pride ourselves on at McLaren. For all those reasons, we think it's an attractive racing series."
Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, attended the U.S. Grand Prix weekend and said the series would welcome McLaren to the fold to join other recent new teams including Carlin, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Juncos Racing and Meyer Shank Racing. It’s all part of INDYCAR’s five-year growth plan Frye put in place.
Frye remains optimistic that McLaren can be a part of INDYCAR’s future again.
“They've already done it once a couple years ago when they did the Indy 500, so they have a taste for it,” Frye said. “Sometimes things take longer than you want, especially when you're doing other things, too. We just appreciate being part of the conversation.
“Obviously, we would love to have them,” Frye continued. “I think from what was said by Brown at the USGP), it's more of a pause. It's not that it's not happening, it's just not happening (full-time) for '19."