Meet Craig Hampson: Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 race engineer
HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – When Craig Hampson was hired at Arrow McLaren SP over the offseason, the team was focused on creating a third full-time entry in 2021.
But the operation that includes members of McLaren’s Formula One program and the former Arrow Schmidt Peterson NTT IndyCar Series team has another top project for the famed race engineer.
Hampson is in charge of Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 effort this May. He was Sebastien Bourdais’ secret weapon during the Frenchman’s four consecutive Champ Car Series championship seasons from 2004-2007 at Newman-Haas Racing. From 2017-19, he was reunited with Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing.
Hampson looks forward to working with one of the world’s most renowned drivers in Alonso as they prepare for the 104th Indianapolis 500.
“We had really planned on 2020 being a building year, an integration year, but clearly bringing somebody of the stature of Fernando Alonso into the mix changes the dynamic of that,” Hampson told NBCSports.com. “Now, the expectations will be higher. The attention will certainly be brighter. Clearly, Fernando is an outstanding driver, so it is up to us to deliver a car that is worthy of him.”
Hampson and Alonso never have worked together -- up until last week, they never had spoken -- but they both have impressive reputations.
“Well, that was one of the biggest parts of my decision,” Alonso told NBCSports.com, referring to Hampson. “Everyone was telling me that Craig Hampson was the man to work with, with so much experience, and making the difference in many of the races and championships the last couple of decades in IndyCar. Obviously, that’s very attractive, to work with this kind of person that make a difference. You can learn a lot from a driver point of view, as well, from the team and the engineers.
“To work with Sam Schmidt, with Craig, with Gil de Ferran, there are personalities there that they have all the experience in the car, and they have won many, many things there. I think all together and all pushing in the same direction, we should be quite a good team, a good effort. I’m confident that things will work.”
According to Hampson, the Arrow McLaren SP team is in a state of explosive growth. The team is already larger than Arrow Schmidt Peterson was last year at this time. There are more members of the McLaren Indy effort from the team’s home base in Woking, Surrey, England, being integrated into the full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in Indianapolis.
Hampson works in coordination with Nick Snyder, the team’s director of performance.
“He has been on this team a long, long time and is way brighter than I am,” Hampson quipped. “What I am actually is the oldest engineer on the staff. When there is a question about, ‘What did you do 18 years ago?’, I’m the guy to ask.
“I am here to race engineer the third car and to assist with R&D. They already do great with R&D, but I’m here to cast another eye on it and chime in with ideas if I have them.”
Hampson is the primary conduit between the team’s Indianapolis staff and McLaren’s operation in Woking (where he occasionally will be commuting and possibly making an appearance at an F1 race this summer).
Many on the McLaren IndyCar staff are coming directly from working on the Formula One team and are still wrapping up the development of a 2020 car that will make its debut in two weeks.
“They have a huge amount of resources over there and a huge amount of knowledge operating at a much higher level of racing than a typical United States IndyCar team would,” Hampson said. “But on the other hand, they really don’t know a whole lot about IndyCar racing.
“Right now, a lot of it has been answering questions and aiming the firehose at them with information explaining why we do things and how we do things.”
He also is playing a vital role in balancing his engineering expertise between Arrow McLaren SP’s youthful duo of full-time drivers. Pato O’Ward, 20, and Oliver Askew, 23, both are in their first full seasons with the team.
Hampson’s experience will come in handy helping guide O’Ward, who has only eight IndyCar starts, and Askew, who is making his debut after winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship.
“(Hampson is) playing the role of overseeing both sides of the team,” Askew said. “He is not on one side or the other. It’s a very open room between the two cars anyway. I think he’s going to definitely fill some of the gaps where we might have been weak in the past. He’s had very quick cars at the Speedway and on road courses as well.
“It’s just a great resource for the team in general to have Craig on board, so we’re really excited about that.”
Hampson established himself as one of the brighter minds in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock during Bourdais’ glory days of four titles Newman-Haas Racing. He then had a successful stint at Andretti Autosport, working on special projects and R&D that included Kurt Busch’s Indy 500 run in 2014.
Hampson was reunited with Bourdais when the two joined Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan in 2017. They opened the season by winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Bourdais and Hampson led the points through March and April in 2017 and had a rocket ship for the Indy 500. But on the second lap of Bourdais’ initial run on the first day of qualifications, his Honda hit the Turn 2 wall of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 227 mph.
The massive crash left Bourdais with multiple fractures of the pelvis and other injuries.
Three months later, Bourdais was back in the race car.
In 2018, Bourdais and Hampson won the St. Pete race for the second year in a row. Hopes were high they could take the small DCR operation to great places in IndyCar.
That changed on Nov. 5, 2019.
It was after a day of testing IndyCar’s aeroscreen at Sebring Raceway that Bourdais was told he wouldn’t be part of the team in 2020.
“I wasn’t planning on leaving Coyne,” Hampson said. “Circumstances changed, and I’m thankful Zak Brown and Sam Schmidt wanted me to be part of their organization. It was fortunate that at that late stage of the game I could land in such a good spot.
“Ultimately, Dale decided to go a different direction. He went in a different direction because Honda chose to focus its financial efforts elsewhere and both of them have the prerogative to do that. If you were to ask me if it was fair, the car that I engineered last year did not put up enough results to earn continued funding.”
Bourdais finished 11th in the 2019 points standings with only one podium in 17 races. In a result typical of his season, he qualified an impressive seventh for the Indy 500 but crashed and finished 30th.
“I think we had performance and I think a lot of unfortunate things happened or transpired to show a lack of results,” Hampson said. “Racing is not a game where you can hide. You either win, or you don’t win. You finish on the podium, or you don’t. In the eyes of some people, we did not have good enough results, so changes were made, and I totally understand that.”
Now the work turns to earning results at Arrow McLaren SP with Alonso, who soon will be in the shop for seat and pedal fittings. A car will be readied in time for him to participate in the Indy 500 Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 30 -- a critical test because it’ll be Alonso’s first time driving with an aeroscreen.
In many ways, Alonso’s reputation precedes him. The two-time Formula One champion from Spain is considered one of the world’s most talented race drivers.
This will be his third attempt at the Indianapolis 500. His first came in 2017 with a combined McLaren/Andretti Autosport team that was known as McLaren Honda Andretti. He qualified fifth for the race, led 27 laps and was in contention for victory before engine failure with 21 laps remaining put him out of the race.
Last year, McLaren tried to do the Indy 500 on its own, with technical help from Carlin Racing. It was a competitive disaster from the start, and McLaren was knocked out of the race by Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing in the “Last Row Shootout.”
Despite the major disappointment, both McLaren and Alonso vowed they would be back for a third attempt at an Indianapolis 500 victory.
“The McLaren guys in particular are super excited,” Hampson said. “Having worked with him, they feel he is one of those supreme, once-in-a-generation talents. I’ve never had a conversation with Fernando in my life, so I can’t give you any impressions of my own. I know the Andretti guys said he was very professional, very talented and a pleasure to work with and be around so all of that bodes well.
“Now that we know he is going to be driving the car for us, we have to map out a program to integrate him into the team and start creating an Indy 500 setup he would like to drive. At the same time, we have to focus an effort on supporting our two full-time drivers. They are 1-A and also 1-A. They are the two guys we are trying to do well with in the championship. We are trying to get them both into their first Indy 500 race.”
Besides the talent of Alonso, Hampson also was attracted to working with a Chevrolet, which “has been the better engine at the Indianapolis 500 for the past two years. It is not an accident I have gone to a team that has a Chevrolet because past performance is a good indicator of future performance. I’m very hopeful it will continue to be the better engine for the Indy 500 because, darn it, I want to win the thing.”
But getting a chance to work with Fernando Alonso a bit of a career achievement
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity because I hear he is a pretty special guy because of his driving talent, feedback and level of professionalism,” Hampson said. “All of those things are very attractive to work with. But ultimately, we have something he wants, which is a very fast, well-prepared car for the Indy 500 that can hopefully deliver him a victory. And he has something we want, which is hopefully a fast, well-prepared, capable, professional driver who will take our fast car to victory.
“We are in this together.”