Next Sunday (Aug. 23) might be the last time Fernando Alonso can take a shot at the Indy 500. Thankfully, things have also lined up in such a way that, with the successful Arrow McLaren SP team, 2020 will be his best chance to win the race yet.
Alonso made headlines in 2017 when, still a full-time F1 driver, he opted to skip the Monaco Grand Prix in order to pursue the motorsport Triple Crown: wins at the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco GP, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. F1 doesn’t like its drivers going off to race in other series, especially not when those other series have a race scheduled on the same day as an F1 event.
But that’s about the apex of Fernando Alonso’s achievements at the Brickyard. Competing in a technical partnership between McLaren and Andretti, Alonso finished 24th in 2017 after retiring due to engine failure that took him out of a top-10 position.
And when he tried his hand at the Indy 500 again in 2019, all hell broke loose.
2019 was well and truly embarrassing. McLaren showed up to contest the Indy 500 all on its own, and the team wasn’t ready. Little mistakes snowballed into absolute disaster: an unfinished steering wheel, a paint job that was just a shade wrong, and a crashed car that resulted in two days of lost track time. They eventually saw Alonso fail to qualify for the race.
Fernando Alonso being bumped out of the field was the biggest headline before the 2019 Indy 500, so it’s no surprise that both driver and team don’t want that to be their final note.
— Fernando Alonso (@alo_oficial) August 7, 2020
In 2020, McLaren is in a much different spot after having absorbed the former Schmidt Peterson Motorsport team. Arrow McLaren SP has been impressive on ovals so far this season. Oliver Askew secured a ninth place at Texas Motor Speedway, a third at Iowa’s first race, and a sixth in its second. Patricio O’Ward has finished 12th, fourth, and 12th at those same events.
Even when the final finishing position hasn’t been the greatest, the Nos. 5 and 7 have still been very competitive. Indy 500 expectations are high for both drivers.
About his two new teammates, Alonso said at a press conference this week, “[It] was very impressive what both did. I remember the Indy GP [where] Oliver was super fast, on pole. Then Pato with the points he achieved every Sunday… I knew that they are very talented, very brave. [It’s] going to be a huge boost for the team to have these two young drivers, talented drivers, bringing fresh ideas, fresh in terms of car performance, and I’m looking forward to work with everybody.”
That’s a good thing for Fernando Alonso. He needs a solid performance in 2020 to mend the wounds of last year’s disaster. He’s also in something of a precarious position career-wise.
By heading back to F1 in 2021, he may be forfeiting his chances at contesting future Indy 500s. He’ll be racing for Renault instead of McLaren, which will make it more difficult to run the 500 with a “rival” team. Renault might not want their star driver to miss the pinnacle of F1’s season to race the pinnacle of IndyCar’s. Everything is up in the air.
It’s easy to imagine Fernando Alonso will have plenty of motivation to make 2020 his best year yet, and he might have an advantage. Even the most experienced drivers on the grid have never raced an Indy 500 in August before. The playing field, while still not equal, has been significantly leveled.
If any year is going to be Fernando Alonso’s year at the Indy 500, it’s going to be 2020.
The 2020 IndyCar season continues Aug. 23 with the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will air at 1:00 p.m. ET on NBC.