LONG BEACH, California – McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown held court Saturday at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, and he had a confession: McLaren’s nervous.
On April 24, the No. 66 McLaren Chevrolet will participate in an open test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in advance of the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. That day looms large, as the team prepares to run Fernando Alonso without Andretti Autosport to do the heavy lifting.
“This year, it feels like a lot more work because we're going about it as McLaren Racing,” said Brown, shown at left in the photo above with three-time Indy 500 winner and McLaren Racing ambassador Johnny Rutherford. “So maybe the nerves are a little bit higher because you knew with Michael (Andretti’s team), you were going to have an outstanding, proven race car and racing team, and so I think that this effort comes with some higher risk, but then also potentially has higher reward.”
Two years ago, Alonso basically jumped into a turnkey situation in the collaboration between McLaren and Andretti. The car was prepared by Andretti crew and Alonso had Andretti engineering at his disposal. As an Indy 500 rookie, the two-time Formula One champion still impressed, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before a mechanical failure ended his race while running near the front.
For this year’s effort, McLaren entered into a technical alliance with Carlin, but the buck stops with McLaren, which is responsible for preparing Alonso’s cars, providing personnel and delivering the results.
“Going racing is all about risk-reward, and so we're excited,” Brown said, “but maybe the nerves are a little bit higher this time around.”
Brown said the 2017 experience was “easy” by comparison because McLaren leaned so much on Andretti, a proven frontrunner at Indy.
“This time is a totally different experience,” he said. “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,” Brown admitted. “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 24, and just going to try and kind of creep up on it.”
Carlin, in its second season as an NTT IndyCar Series team, is fielding three drivers at the Indianapolis 500: Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball and rookie Patricio O’Ward. Data will be shared among the four drivers in the effort to maximize performance for all.
Alonso drove an Indy car with the universal aero kit on an oval for the first time Tuesday at Texas Motor Speedway in a private test. He completed 105 laps as McLaren shook down the first of its two Chevrolet-powered Dallaras. The second car will be ready for the Indy test.
“We've got a very experienced team, (but) 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,” Brown said of the Texas test. “We got into some setup (development), 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.
“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.”
Brown confirmed again that McLaren’s long-term plan is to join the NTT IndyCar Series as a two-car, full-season entrant – as soon as next season.
“The racing is outstanding. Great teams, great drivers, great venues, so it's a place that McLaren would like to race,” Brown said. “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.’
“If we were to do it for 2020, I think you'd need to make that decision (this) 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.”
But for right now, McLaren Racing is solely focused on being ready for the month of May – and it has the sweaty palms to prove it.