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Alonso Zeroing In on Renewed Chance for Indy 500 Victory with Arrow McLaren SP

Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso will give this Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge his full attention, in part because that’s how he always approaches his driving career but also because it could be his last “500” for the foreseeable future.

Last month, Alonso was confirmed to return to Renault’s F1 program for the next two seasons, and the event schedules of F1 and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES currently don’t align for proper participation in the “500.” So, Alonso must focus on his day job.

“I think I’m approaching this race knowing that the next two years it’s going to be impossible to come,” he said Tuesday in a call with reporters. “I will have to miss qualifying weekend if I wanted to do so, and I won’t be with McLaren next year in F1, so (driving for the team in the “500”) won’t work.

“I know at least for two years I won’t be here. But look, that’s the way it is for the moment. I’m here, ready to enjoy the event. I’m planning to give my best, help the team as much as I can, and we’ll see in the future what are the possibilities.”

Alonso, from Spain, will make his third attempt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when practice begins Wednesday. Alonso led 24 laps in his “500” debut in 2017 and was poised to compete for the win with Andretti Autosport when mechanical failure ended his run on Lap 179 of 200.

Last year, Alonso returned to IMS with McLaren Racing, but the team incurred a host of what its management described as “rookie mistakes,” and Alonso got bumped in qualifying by Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser. It was one of the biggest surprises in Indy 500 history.

This year as a member of Arrow McLaren SP, Alonso is taking every precaution not to get too far ahead of the process. He and the team must use the next three days to prepare for this weekend’s qualifying sessions, then turn its attention to racing a three-car effort with Alonso and rookie drivers Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew on Sunday, Aug. 23.

Remember, Alonso’s goal is to become only the second driver in history to accomplish racing’s Triple Crown: winning the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix. Indy is his final piece. Graham Hill is the only driver to have won all three.

“We had an optimistic feeling last year, and we have optimistic feeling this year, as well,” Alonso said. “I think we need to wait and see where we are on the speed of the pace of the car. But, yeah, it makes a difference the team itself, how Arrow SP is well prepared, the experience in the series.

“It is going to be a big difference compared to last year that we were not prepared enough for the challenge. I'm reasonably confident that this is going to be a good event for us, but we take it step by step. We know there are a lot of things to do from our side. We will miss some experience. All three drivers, we're rookies for the ‘500.’ We need to rely (on each other), and we need to work very close to the team and learn every day, make it step by step, concentrate a little bit more on the race this year.”

Alonso’s optimism is buoyed by the progress the team has made since two organizations – McLaren Racing and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – joined for the 2020 season. O’Ward is fourth in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings after six races, and he nearly won the second Road America race from the pole. He has finished in the top 10 of four of the past five races. Askew has had similar success, finishing ninth, third and sixth in the three oval races. He ranks 12th in the standings.

“I saw a very well-prepared, organized team, very hungry of success, doing something good (this season),” Alonso said. “Looking forward to (being part of) it.”

McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran said he didn’t have high early expectations for the partnership, especially with two rookie drivers. But on three occasions during Tuesday’s call with the media, 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner de Ferran said he has been “pleasantly surprised” with the progress.

De Ferran will be on Alonso’s radio during this “500,” but he said he’d “be equally happy if any of our three drivers do well.”

O’Ward said the addition of Alonso to the team “just raises the game for everybody.”

Said Askew of Alonso: “We’ve both looked up to him for a long time. We look forward to experiencing how he works, his work ethic around the engineers and throughout these next couple weeks. It's going to be interesting for us. I'm sure we're going to learn a lot from him.”

Alonso, whose program will be led by veteran engineer Craig Hampson, said the strange part of this “500” will be the lack of people attending the race. He said while having a quieter garage area will make it easier for him to move around, he expects it to be strange.

“I think it was the magic part of the ‘500,’ the fans, around the garages, the interaction you have with them,” he said. “I will miss a lot that part. Especially the race is here in the U.S., they are all very special. Racing at Daytona, Sebring, there is always this close contact with the fans. That will be really missed.

“It's not releasing the pressure. Probably my life outside the car will be a little bit easier, so I don't need to run away. Sometimes I can go to the bathroom with no tight phone cameras pointed at me. Apart of that, I think when you close the visor and you are racing, it will be the same pressure. As I said, being in this huge place with these huge grandstands, not having a full, packed grandstand on Sunday is going to be a little bit difficult. But we will put a good show on television where we will make somehow big thanks to the fans and celebrate with them even (from) a distance.”

The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is Sunday, Aug. 23. The iconic race will air nationally on NBC, with WTHR-13 having the broadcast in Central Indiana. The pre-race show begins at 1 p.m., with the green flag at 2:30 p.m.

Practice starts Wednesday, Aug. 12 and runs through Friday, with Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying on Saturday, Aug. 15 and Sunday, Aug. 16.

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