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Ryan: How the unthinkable happened to Fernando Alonso and McLaren

INDIANAPOLIS – A month before his nightmare unfortunately came true Sunday, Zak Brown was asked about the seemingly unthinkable.

A month before an embarrassing week of mechanical problems, setup gaffes and fruitless scrambling at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the CEO of McLaren Racing, standing in the Long Beach Convention Center while readying for a sports car race, was asked about the worst-case scenario for his fledgling IndyCar team.

How devastating would it be to miss the Indianapolis 500 with Fernando Alonso?

“I don’t even want to think about it,” Brown said before pausing and laughing nervously.

“But I think about it.”

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

Brown will have too much time to think about it this week as preparations continue for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 without McLaren and Alonso, who dramatically was bumped from the field Sunday.

It prompted another question for Brown.

Did his team woefully underestimate the monumental challenge of taming one of the most difficult racetracks in the world?

Whether it’s Bobby Rahal in 1993, Team Penske’s cars in 1995 or James Hinchcliffe last year, Indy is notorious for humbling drivers and teams with impressive pedigrees like McLaren’s (20 constructor and driver championships and 182 victories in Formula One).

But Brown, an American with a wildly successful background in producing sponsorships across NASCAR, IndyCar and F1, knew that history, too.

“We’ve got a pretty good driver, but it’s going to be tough,” Brown said. “We’ve all seen Penske not qualify. We’ve seen Rahal not qualify. So I think to go there and underestimate it, which we’re not doing, that would be a mistake.”

So perhaps Brown and McLaren didn’t underestimate the Indy 500.

But they overestimated the equipment and personnel that they assembled to put Alonso in the field. The firing of Bob Fernley, who was chosen to lead McLaren’s Indy 500 team six months ago, was indicative of that, but there were other glaring red flags (many of which were documented in exhaustive detail Monday by the Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer).

Alonso made a successful Indy 500 debut in 2017 by leading 27 laps in a Honda for Andretti Autosport, which routinely is an Indy 500 powerhouse. But because its F1 relationship with Honda ended poorly, McLaren was forced to put Alonso in a Chevrolet this time.

That limited the team’s options for alliances because Penske, which fields the top Chevys, doesn’t partner with other IndyCar teams. The next-best option would have been Ed Carpenter Racing, but McLaren went with Carlin’s second-year IndyCar team in part because of the connections and history of working with Carlin (also founded in England) across myriad European series.

“It makes it very easy for us to work with them,” Fernley said while explaining the move in March. “Our systems are very similar in the way we operate. We can integrate the programs much easier. It was a good fit for us.”

Alonso and the Carlin cars of Pato O’Ward and Max Chilton were the three that failed to qualify Sunday.

But regardless of its alliances, or 11th-hour help for qualifying from powerhouses Andretti and Penske, the foundation for Indy success seemed largely absent for McLaren.

Behind the scenes, there were many whispers in Gasoline Alley about glaring signs that Alonso’s team lacked the necessary anticipation and experience to make the Indy 500.

The electrical problems that limited track time on the opening day of practice last week were only the beginning.

After Alonso crashed Wednesday, it took McLaren more than a day to have the backup car ready (compare that with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports putting James Hinchcliffe back on track less than three hours after his crash). When Sunday’s Last Row warmup began, McLaren inexplicably didn’t have Alonso’s car ready to take the green immediately, and there were major suspension problems when he eventually got on track a few minutes late.

Though Fernley had experience with working on Indy 500 cars in the 1980s, much has changed over the past three decades, and his vast background as an F1 executive clearly didn’t translate well to managing an NTT IndyCar team in the 21st century.

Winning the Indy 500 requires exhaustive preparation. The championship-caliber teams assign crew members to work solely on massaging their Indy 500 rides for optimum handling and speed.

The tricks of finding speed come in being so detail-oriented, which is the ultimate strength of Roger Penske and a major reason why his team has won 17 Indy 500s. It’s about having extra gearboxes ready for engine dyno testing and having your gearing sequenced well in advance.

It was evident McLaren (which made the curious move of building its two Indy 500 cars in two countries, one at its headquarters in England, the other at Carlin’s U.S.-based shop) didn’t have the details covered, and it was completely overmatched as a result.

When Alonso’s No. 66 was eliminated Sunday by unsponsored and underfunded Juncos Racing, which turned around a spartan backup car in less than a day after Kyle Kaiser crashed Friday, there were some who wanted to classify it as a massive upset on the scale of Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.

But it didn’t feel like much of a surprise in the context of how last week unfolded with McLaren looking far from being a heavyweight in shape for fight night.

With the possible exception of Fast Friday, there was never a day when it seemed Alonso was even on the cusp of being comfortable.

There was a stark contrast to 2017 when Alonso walked into a plug-and-play situation with Andretti, whose Dallara-Hondas were the class of the field. The only variable then was the oval inexperience of the two-time F1 champion, who naturally acquitted himself well.

This season, the variables were the car and team, which woefully underdelivered.

As evidenced by the massive hospitality complex at the Brickyard and the team’s long list of sponsors, Brown is an expert in motorsports marketing. But he admittedly isn’t a competition guy, and he didn’t have the right equipment or people in place this month.

As McLaren weighs a return to Indy next year -- or beyond that, perhaps an eventual full-time entry in IndyCar -- that’s what Brown will be thinking about now that the once-unthinkable has happened.