Alonso misses opportunity on first day of qualifying
INDIANAPOLIS — McLaren’s return to the Indianapolis 500 neared a total collapse after Fernando Alonso failed to lock himself into the field on the first day of qualifying.
The two-day qualifying process guaranteed a spot in the May 26 race for the fastest 30 cars in Saturday qualifying. It took Alonso four attempts just to crack the benchmark, but he was knocked out by Graham Rahal, the final driver to make his run as the pistol was fired to signal the end of the session.
The two-time Formula One world champion watched Rahal knock him into Sunday’s last-gasp group, hopped from his car and briskly walked down pit lane. He stopped briefly to sign a handful of autographs but seemed frustrated with McLaren’s weeklong struggle at Indy.
“We didn’t have the speed,” the Spaniard said. “If we don’t make it, it is because we don’t deserve it.”
McLaren returned to the Indy 500 this year for the first time since the 1970s as an expected rehearsal for a fulltime IndyCar entrant. Alonso needs only to win the Indy 500 to complete motorsports’ version of the Triple Crown, but no one expected the proud McLaren organization to struggle so much on each day the track has been open.
The car had an electrical problem during last month’s testing and was plagued with similar issues on opening day. The alternator and wiring loom needed to be replaced, then Alonso crashed and hit the wall three times Wednesday. McLaren missed nearly two days on track trying to ready a backup car, which finally got out Friday.
And it was slow.
And it was still slow when qualifying began Saturday.
“(It’s) kind of a frantic situation trying to get the car comfortable for him and he’s doing all he can do,” said driver coach Johnny Rutherford, a two-time Indy 500 winner for McLaren.
Alonso’s first run was spoiled by a cut tire, his next two just weren’t up to an acceptable speed. He finally cracked the top-30 on his fourth run but knew it might not hold, so he waited inside his car in case he got a final shot to avoid the “Last Row Shootout” on Sunday. Six drivers will get one qualifying attempt for the final three spots in the field.
“At the moment, all we can try to do is the four laps, clean, no mistakes, flat on the floor,” Alonso said. “Then, if it’s enough to be in the top three of six, we’ll take it and we’ll try to go race. If it is not enough, if we are the fourth, fifth or sixth, it is what we deserve. There were three cars quicker than us and there’s nothing we (will be able to) do more than that.”
If Alonso and McLaren don’t make the race, it would be one of the biggest failures in Indy 500 history. Roger Penske missed the show with Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1995, a year after dominating the race. Reigning CART champion Bobby Rahal missed it in 1993, and two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward never got up to speed 1965 to make the field.
Alonso will be racing against James Hinchcliffe, who last year was bumped out of the race when qualifying was just one day. Hinchcliffe crashed on his first qualifying attempt Saturday and couldn’t get his backup to the speed needed.