Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 21, 2019

Contrarian View: McLaren At The 2019 Indy 500

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 3.59.46 PM

Team McLaren’s ill-fated, unsuccessful Indy 500 run (IMS)

INDIANAPOLIS

Another gimmick has failed racing.

There are 33 starting positions available for would-be qualifiers for the Indianapolis 500. It used to be that the 33 fastest qualifiers would occupy those spots.

Not anymore.

Now, there’s a gimmick. One of those little twists that organizers have added, to theoretically jazz up the proceedings – which suggests the sport’s promoters think the traditional way of qualifying for the Indy 500 was too boring.

I disagree.

There were 36 drivers and cars vying a spot in the 2019 race. Three of them weren’t going to make the starting lineup. This math exercise was easy to understand. What was less clear was that it wasn’t necessarily going to be the cream of the crop – the “fastest 33 drivers in the world,” as they used to proclaim – that would make it into this year’s “Greatest Spectacle In Racing”.

Under recently promulgated Indy rules, the first 30 starting positions are in set in a single qualifying session. The final three spots are set in a separate “last chance” qualifying session.

This year, that left six drivers on the outside looking in. These included star attractions such as two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and former pole winner James Hinchcliffe.

Under this rule, before this last dance, these drivers are allowed to go fiddle with their cars, to try and find more speed. What can – and inevitably does – happen, as a result, is these final qualifiers end up going faster than some of those already in the field.

This also creates a ridiculous situation where faster drivers can end up starting behind slower ones. This gimmick is dangerous. Needlessly so.

In fact, this brings up another gimmick – along the same lines – that ended up back in 2011 at a Las Vegas race, leading to a 15-car crash that killed two-time Indy winner Dan Wheldon. He was starting at the back of the field, trying to earn a $1 million prize, if he could pass slower drivers in front of him and win the race.

Why does racing, especially IndyCar racing, where the cars and drivers are so evenly matched, and the racing so blood-curdlingly close anyway, need such gimmicks?

They tend to end badly.

This year, it ended badly for Alonso and Team McLaren, a new entrant that organizers were ecstatic to have. (As always, organizers are searching for ways to expand the sport’s appeal and attract new drivers, teams, sponsors and television advertisers.)

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 4.07.24 PM

Alonso bounced off two walls (BBC)

Earlier in practice, Alonso had an inexplicable crash that destroyed his front line car. So he was obliged to move to an unprepared backup car.

In a heroic fifth and final attempt at qualifying a car not well suited to the task, Alonso came up less than two-hundredths of a mile an hour short. Actually, he turned in the 31st fastest qualifying speed. But under the qualifying gimmick rule, the 31st qualifying position had already been locked in earlier by someone else. So, Alonso ended up being  excluded from the last row slots (Hinchcliffe was luckier), while two drivers with slower speeds were able to start instead.

How idiotic.

McLaren, the vaunted Formula 1 team with two previous Indy victories to its credit, was made to look incompetent and foolish. Alonso, who fancies himself one of the greatest drivers in racing history (and few would argue that), was mortified. The team principal apologized to its fans; its president was summarily fired. It would not commit to returning again in 2020, or anytime in the furniture.

Headlines made merciless fun of McLaren’s misfortune.

A lot of other potential Indy 500 aspirants must look at such scenarios with horror. Why would you come to Indy, as McLaren had done, as a one-shot deal (i.e., not planning on running any other IndyCar races during the rest of the season) and take a chance on missing the race? Not to mention taking a shot, like McLaren, did to its reputation and brand image. I mean, McLaren builds road cars and is hoping to sell them to the enthusiast public. What does a debacle like this do to those goals? It couldn’t have helped.

In the final analysis, McLaren had some bad luck, with its primary car being damaged in the practice crash. In the haste to make the poorly suited backup car equal to the task, a small detail was overlooked: The gearbox had the wrong ratio settings. The proper settings – a relatively easy fix – would have easily given Alonso a top speed capability of 229 mph, instead of the 227 he barely managed on his final qualifying attempt. A 229 average would have been enough to challenge for the pole position! In the race itself, 227 would have been more than competitive. Instead, he was sent packing.

And a final note: The 2019 field was the closest, in terms of speed from fastest qualifier to the slowest, in the race’s history dating back to 1911. The difference between best and worst was barely calculable: literally a matter of a few feet.

So, with a two-time World Champion and his team going home humiliated, perhaps never to return, Indy’s gimmick cost the sport, its backers and its fans dearly.

No more gimmicks, please.

Jerry Garrett

May 21, 2019

 

 

 

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