ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – When Gil de Ferran is asked if he’s ever seen a crossover from one form of professional racing to another that has garnered as much attention as Fernando Alonso’s foray into the Indianapolis 500, he stops to think.
“I’m searching my memory bank,” he says with a chuckle. “I suppose I have to go back in the ‘60s when I was either not born or very young to know exactly the impact of that in the media and the fanbase.”
McLaren’s sporting director has a point, especially when it comes to Formula One drivers crossing over to the Indianapolis 500 and winning while under intense media scrutiny. Alonso is just the 13th F1 champion to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Five of those 13 – Jim Clark in 1965, Graham Hill in 1966, Mario Andretti in 1969, Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 and 1993 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 – won the 500.
Alonso, the two-time F1 champion who qualified fifth and finished 24th in the 2017 Indy 500, will try again this year in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge as he pursues the final leg of the motorsports Triple Crown following wins in F1’s Monaco Grand Prix and the sports-car racing’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. McLaren is partnering with Trevor Carlin’s team on the Indy program, with the Carlin INDYCAR shop in Delray Beach, Florida.
“We're helping them as logistical and operational partner on this project,” Carlin said Saturday during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the NTT IndyCar Series season opener. “It's interesting. Our team is based very close to McLaren in the U.K. We have a good relationship already. They're good guys.
“They get into things at a very deep level. They have massive resource, a big company. Obviously, for them, this is a spec car, so a lot of the things they'd love to do they're not allowed to do. We're trying to help them understand what they can and can't do. I'm sure they'll be pushing the boundaries. Ultimately, we will benefit from what they learn with Fernando.
“It should be a win-win. We're giving them a baseline. Hopefully, they'll take it forward and we'll piggyback along that journey.”
Alonso’s 2017 effort at Indianapolis drew enormous attention, something McLaren hopes to replicate in May.
“For us, Indy is something that makes sense,” said de Ferran, who won the Indy 500 in 2003 and CART titles in 2000 and 2001. “The American market is an important market for us. INDYCAR is on a good path. It’s a good fit in terms of know-how for McLaren Racing. I’m glad people are enjoying watching what we’re trying to do.”
Carlin will produce one of McLaren’s No. 66 Dallara chassis for testing leading up to the 500, with the Chevrolet-powered car for the race being meticulously pieced together at McLaren’s technical center in Woking, England. Last week, Alonso practiced the Indianapolis Motor Speedway configuration in a Chevrolet simulator in Charlotte.
“We want to build a good base knowledge of what we're doing,” said Bob Fernley, president of McLaren’s Indy 500 program (at right in above photo with de Ferran). “We put one chassis over to McLaren, so we can bring that forward and understand what's going on. This car will be used for the main NTT IndyCar Series program. The test chassis that we would use at the two track tests that we do is being built by Carlin in Florida. We're looking at supervising both of them but fundamentally split the resources in order to make sure we can deliver by the end of March.”
De Ferran, who has four Indy 500s on his extensive resume, said he hopes his 2017 experience in the race will help Alonso and McLaren in May.
“I think we managed to put a good group of people together,” de Ferran said. “Trying to bring all the resources and the knowledge that we have to bear in a short period of time. As far as I'm concerned, I'm trying to help Bob as much as I can, not only because of my know-how about Indy car racing but also trying to coordinate the whole McLaren Racing effort to try to help us become as competitive as we can be in this year's Indy 500.”
Fernley called the partnership a “safety blanket,” adding he has known Trevor Carlin for years and respects the Carlin organization for its great success in open-wheel racing. Carlin entered the NTT IndyCar Series for the first time in 2018.
“When you come in as a new team, there's always bits and pieces you have forgotten, haven't got on top of, you need the guidance,” he said. “The good thing with Carlin is they've gone through it the year before. It gives us a good platform to work with.”
The Indy experiment isn’t the only thing on de Ferran’s plate. McLaren drivers Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris are preparing for this week’s Australian Grand Prix, F1’s season opener.
“I’ll tell you, it’s not easy,” de Ferran said. “It’s hard enough to run one operation well, but trying to structure everything and do it well in two series is not easy.”
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Sunday, May 26 and airs live on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (11 a.m. ET). Practice for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” starts Tuesday, May 15, with qualifying to determine the 33-car field on May 18 and 19. Tickets for all month of May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are available at IMS.com.
The next NTT IndyCar Series race is the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. The race airs live at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, March 24 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.