On April 12, 2017, I was scheduled to grab a coffee mid-day with a friend of mine who works at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I woke up to a dozen text messages from people, news alerts, and a Twitter that had exploded. Fernando Alonso had announced he was running in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 – and the internet broke. It broke a few weeks later when Alsonso’s Indy500 practice was live streamed. Per IndyCar.com the stream nabbed over two million views. The hashtag #AlonsoRunsIndy was trending in six countries outside of the United States. That papaya colored car, the McLaren entry, looked really good.
This was not the first time McLaren attempted the Indianapolis 500, and it is not going to be the last. If you’re not sure what McLaren is – that’s okay. They’re well known in the Formula 1 paddock. American Open-Wheel fans may not have a robust knowledge of the team. It goes back to Bruce McLaren, a New Zealand racecar driver who also happened to design and engineer race cars. Bruce had a fine career as a racer, but it’s his team McLaren that has the legacy. The team formed in 1963, making it the second oldest team in Formula 1 after Ferrari.
When it comes to the Indianapolis 500, McLaren first entered the race in 1970. At the time the tires for McLaren were provided by Goodyear, and there was a lingering fight between tire manufactures (you can read a small history on this issue HERE). The team entered three drivers: Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, and Dennis Hulme. An all-New Zealand team. Unfortunately, Hulme’s car caught fire during practice and Amon withdrew. They were replaced by Peter Revson and Carl Williams. McLaren failed to qualify. Revson finished twenty-second and Williams finished ninth.
After a somewhat stunted first year at Indy, the team had great success in 1971. Revson was the pole-sitter and came in second. The following year a McLaren technically won, the number 66 driven by Mark Donohue, though he was part of Team Penske. In 1973 Johnny Rutherford joined the team. Rutherford was the pole-sitter in the 1973 race and finished ninth. He won the race for McLaren in 1974 (his first of three Indianapolis 500 wins). In 1975 Rutherford came in second, but in 1976 he won the race from the pole (his second Indy win). Results slowed for McLaren and they weren’t able to keep their results through the end of the 1970s. The 1979 Indianapolis 500 race was their last 500 race for a while.
Then April of 2017 came. Alonso’s motives for racing in the Indianapolis 500 and missing the Monaco GP were clear: he wants to achieve the Triple Crown of Racing (you can read about that term HERE https://fastcarsfastgirls.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/tcms/). McLaren’s motives were pretty clear too. Alonso was their star F1 driver and they wanted to keep him happy. Alonso started the race in 5th position, the middle of the second row. The 2017 Indianapolis 500 wasn’t great to Honda engines (save race-winner Takuma Sato). On lap 179 Alonso’s engine failed and he retired from the race. The crowd loved him though. He had led laps, and upon his retirement, everyone was cheering.
In November of 2018 McLaren announced they would be racing in the Indianapolis 500 in 2019 with Fernando Alonso as their driver. McLaren is separating out it’s Indy 500 team from their F1 operation. The team will be using a Chevrolet engine this time. We’ll see what happens in 2019. If Alonso wins, he’ll be the second ever Triple Crown winner. We may see more Formula 1 drivers taking a chance at Indy, which I see as a good thing. Maybe Lewis Hamilton will change his opinion and realize that Indy is better than Daytona.