Fernando Alonso has commented on how “disappointed” he is after he was one of three drivers that failed to qualify for this weekend’s Indianapolis 500. The Spaniard struggled to find speed in his #66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet throughout practice and ultimately missed out on a spot in the field by just a fraction of a second.
Alonso’s struggles in the week of practice leading up to qualifying have been well-documented. Heading into their second Indy 500 attempt, the first coming after a partnership with Andretti Autosport in 2017, Alonso and McLaren found the challenge much harder this time around as a more independent entry.
Electrical issues plagued the #66 Chevrolet early in the week, but Alonso and McLaren’s problems were compounded on Tuesday when Fernando crashed heavily after understeering into the wall on the exit of turn three. The car would hit the wall three times during the accident, forcing the team to switch to their back-up car for the remainder of the event.
Whilst the team’s primary car that wrecked on Tuesday was prepared by McLaren themselves, the back-up car was prepared by Carlin, who were lending McLaren a hand through a technical partnership. After missing out on the entire third practice day whilst preparing the #66 car, Alonso would take to the track on Friday for the first time since his accident and it immediately became apparent that the new #66 car was struggling for pace.
With limited practice compared to their rivals, Alonso entered the first day of qualifying simply hoping to make it into the top thirty that would be assured of a spot in the race. However, by the end of the day, Alonso was just outside of the top thirty in thirty-first place, meaning that he would have to compete in the Last-Row shootout on Sunday to earn himself a spot on the thirty-three car grid; with the slowest three drivers of the session being eliminated from the field.
After missing out on a spot in the top thirty by just one-hundredth of a second, Alonso commented on Saturday that he and the team needed to “remain calm and focused” heading into a critical session on Sunday:
“It has been a difficult day, and it follows a difficult week,” Fernando said after the first day of qualifying, “We were running quite well this morning when the conditions were not too bad, but unfortunately, we picked up a rear puncture and then we decided to wait until this afternoon to get back out on track when track conditions were slightly better.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t have the pace and the final time we posted wasn’t enough to be in the top 30, so we must try again tomorrow and we’ll need to execute the four laps as well as possible, clean and with no mistakes. It’s a difficult moment for the team, but we must remain calm and focused and I hope we can find enough to make the top three positions of the six tomorrow.”
On Sunday, Alonso took to the track early in practice for the Last-Row shootout, but the changes that McLaren had made to the #66 car looked alarming, as the car sparked its way around the Speedway with an unusually low ride height; indicating that the setup changes were not going well. Alonso would end the practice session well off of the pace that he would need to qualify.
In a last-ditch attempt to find some speed, McLaren made a deal with Andretti Autosport that would see Alonso’s car fitted with the superior Andretti dampers. When Alonso went out for his do-or-die final qualifying run, the setup changes appeared to make the #66 car much more stable through the corners, but he would soon find himself right on the bubble of qualifying for the race after his average speed of 227.353-mph put him in thirty-third place with one driver remaining.
The final driver to hit the track was Juncos Racing‘s, Kyle Kaiser. Despite Juncos being one of the smallest teams on the grid with no sponsors and barely enough money to field a back-up car after a crash on Friday, Kaiser’s four-lap qualifying run would see him outqualify Alonso and McLaren by just 0.008-mph. With Alonso now pushed down into thirty-fourth place, he had been eliminated from the Indianapolis 500 grid.
“It has been a very long qualifying, nearly 56 hours of qualifying from yesterday morning,” a thoroughly disappointed Alonso said after qualifying on Sunday, “Yesterday, we were 31st instead of 30th. Today, 34th instead of 33rd by a very small margin, and unfortunately, not fast enough in any or both days.
“I’m disappointed now. Obviously, it would be nice to be in the race next Sunday. We came here to race and to challenge ourselves and we were not quick enough. I congratulate all the other guys that did a better job, and hopefully, we’ll see a nice show next Sunday, with everyone safe. I will be enjoying from the TV, unfortunately.”
Throughout McLaren and Alonso’s struggles in the build-up to and during qualifying, rumours have circulated about the possibility of McLaren buying a way into the field by having Alonso replace one of the drivers who made it onto the grid. This scenario has been seen before, most recently when Ryan Hunter-Reay replaced Bruno Junqueira for the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
However, after qualifying, McLaren’s sporting director and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner, Gil de Ferran, stated that McLaren would not be seeking to buy Alonso into the race, stating in a press conference: “We will not do that. We want to earn our place in the field.”
With Alonso and McLaren failing to qualify for the race, Fernando will have to wait another year to have another shot at completing the triple crown of motorsports. The Indy 500 is the final race on Alonso’s checklist, as the win would make him only the second driver in history to have won the Indy 500 as well as the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 hours of Le Mans; with only Graham Hill having accomplished this feat so far.
After McLaren’s lack of speed throughout practice, questions will now inevitably be asked as to whether Fernando will remain with the team, especially after his dire final few seasons in Formula 1 with the team. With Fernando so laser-focused on the Indy 500 win, his best chance now must be to join a more experienced team such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti.
Two final practice sessions await the thirty-three drivers that qualified for the Indianapolis 500. The race itself, the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, will take place this Sunday, May 26.
Alonso’s next planned race will be the season finale of the 2018-19 FIA World Endurance Championship, the 2019 24 hours of Le Mans. Alonso will enter the race as the defending Le Mans winner alongside Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mates, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima. The race will also be his last in the WEC full-time, with Fernando already announcing that he will not continue in the championship next season. The race will take place from Saturday, June 15 to Sunday, June 16.