Alonso: We are in good hands with The Man

It was May 19, 2019, and Lorena Alonso had just watched her brother, Fernando, suffer a crushing blow at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Alonso had just been bumped out of the 33-driver starting lineup by Kyle Kaiser, the last driver to make an attempt in the “Last Row Shootout” for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Lorena, who is from Fernando’s hometown of Oviedo, Spain, had come to the United States to see the Indy 500 for the first time. After her brother had been bumped from the field, Lorena was prepared to join him on a flight back to Spain.

“I told her, ‘Definitely, you must stay,’” Alonso said in an exclusive interview with INDYCAR Wednesday. “’These opportunities, you experience once in life to see this kind of event. Even if I’m not in the race. This is magic on Sunday Race Day.’

“She was on holiday, and when I got bumped out, she said, ‘I will come back home with you.’ I said: ‘No, no, no. You need to experience the Indianapolis 500. You need to live the Indy 500.’”

Fernando returned to Europe, and Lorena stayed and attended the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in her life.

“She was impressed with the number of people and the fans around the grandstands,” Alonso said. “The size of the event is something we don’t have in Europe. She was very impressed.”

This year, Fernando Alonso is back for another attempt at the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, the fans won’t be filling the grandstands, including his sister, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Fernando, who was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2017, is back at the Indy for the third time. Although he missed last year’s starting field when McLaren fielded his car, this year the two-time Formula 1 World Champion is with a team capable of running upfront.

It’s Arrow McLaren SP, a team that includes McLaren personnel, along with the successful Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team of the past.

The Spaniard joins the team’s full-time contingent of young drivers, 21-year-old Pato O’Ward of Mexico and 23-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida.

When Alonso came to Indy for the first time in 2017, he was driving for a combined effort with McLaren and Andretti Autosport. He was fast throughout the month, leading 27 laps and was running seventh before his engine quit on Lap 179. He finished 24th.

In the first two days of practise for this year’s Indy 500, Alonso has once again been up near the start of the timing sheets. He was fifth fastest during Wednesday’s “Opening Day” of practice at 223.238 mph in the No. 66 Ruoff Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet and was eighth Thursday at 224.363 mph.

But he suffered a setback late in practice Thursday by hitting the Barrier in Turn 4 and sliding down the pit lane, with moderate damage to his car.

As normally happens during the week of practice leading into Indy 500 qualifications, teams work on Race Day setups first before doing qualifying simulation runs when additional boost is added for “Fast Friday.”

“This year with the boost change for the qualifying, there is no really big point doing anything for qualifying before Friday because it’s going to be a big change of power,” Alonso said. “At the moment, we are ticking off the boxes.”

A key player in Alonso’s effort is engineer Craig Hampson. He was Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer when that driver won four-straight Champ Car World Series championships from 2004-07. He also experienced success with Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing in recent years.

Both Bourdais and Hampson left that team during the offseason, with Hampson joining Arrow McLaren SP where he is working with Alonso.

Alonso refers to Hampson as, “The Man.”

“We’ve had only one day working together on track, but we have worked a little bit the last couple of months,” Alonso said.

“I’ve seen already that he has great talent and a different way of working. I love so far what I see from him and what I saw the last couple of months.

“We may be lacking individual experience here as drivers with basically three rookies here. We need to put our faith in these types of guys that have all the experience and knowledge of this car and this championship. We are in good hands, and I’m happy working with him.”

Hampson has high praise for his driver, even though Thursday was only the second day the two have been together at a racetrack. Hampson said Alonso remembers everything, from his experience with previous teams to the nuances of the current Indy car.

“He is very calm, actually,” Hampson said. “He’s a good test driver. He is very willing to put up with us trying different things and go out and pound around with laps.

“It’s been a pleasant experience. I have to keep reminding myself he’s really only done one Indycar race and attempted to do two. He’s a pro. He has a huge amount of experience and a lot of test-driving experience.

“We certainly feel if we give him a good car, he can definitely go out and win this race.”

Alonso is back at the Indy 500 in a competitive race car. He has a chance to run up front in the Indianapolis 500 depending on where he qualifies this weekend. The addition of McLaren to an already strong team that was previously Arrow Schmidt Peterson has elevated the operation.

But the best is yet to come, according to Alonso,“I think it is going to take a little bit longer than just the first few months.

“I think McLaren is going to add some value to the team and some expertise. At the moment, the experience and knowledge of the Arrow guys is phenomenal, the team decisions and things we are doing now on track.

“Yes, it’s going to be a good team, the combination of the two, but we will need time to see this combination succeed over the next few years.”