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Top Moments of 2019 - #3: Alonso Misses the Show at Indy

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth of a series of 10 vignettes in which IMS Senior Communications Manager Paul Kelly picks his top 10 moments of 2019 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The rumblings started early in the week of practice for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and they didn’t stop until qualifying ended with one of the most shocking stories of the year in global motorsports.

Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, who qualified fifth and led 27 laps in his Indy 500 debut in 2017 with Andretti Autosport, didn’t qualify for the “500” last May. Read the previous sentence again: It still is almost beyond belief, seven months later.

Alonso missing the show was arguably the most stunning and surreal story surrounding “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since powerful Penske Racing’s three cars failed to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

Storm clouds started to form over Alonso’s bid to become the second winner of auto racing’s unofficial “Triple Crown” – victories in the Indy 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Monaco Grand Prix – almost right from the start of practice.

Alonso never put a wheel wrong during his Indy 500 debut in 2017, sidelined only by mechanical failure with 20 laps to go while running in the lead pack of the race. But trouble struck early this year. 

He hit the SAFER Barrier three times in a crash Wednesday, May 15, the second day the track was open to veterans. Alonso was unhurt, but his No. 66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet was heavily damaged.

Alonso didn’t turn any laps during the rain-shortened practice Thursday, May 16 due to continued repairs to his car, so the pressure was on for Fast Friday, May 17, the last full day of practice before qualifying weekend.

The Spaniard returned to the track Friday, but concern continued to grow in the McLaren garage after he managed to be 24th fastest overall but more notably 30th on the no-tow list – simulating solo qualifying runs.

“I am, yes,” Alonso said when asked if he was worried about qualifying.

That concern was magnified when his backup car was drawn 24th and primary car 39th in the qualifying draw, forcing him to make his first attempt in the afternoon heat of Saturday.

Alonso failed to lock in a spot in the top 30 on the first day of Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying on Saturday, thrusting him into a six-driver scramble Sunday for the final three spots in the field in the Last Row Shootout. Still, there was widespread belief among fans and many media members that McLaren and Alonso would find a way to squeak in the show.

Morning rain forced the delay of the start of the Last Row Shootout by four hours, 15 minutes, ratcheting the pressure even more for Alonso and McLaren. Each driver had just one attempt to make the starting field of 33 drivers.

Alonso posted a four-lap average 227.353 mph in the No. 66 McLaren Racing Chevrolet as the third driver in line for the Shootout. But Kyle Kaiser from the low-budget Juncos Racing team bumped Alonso from the field on the last run of the Shootout, posting a dramatic average speed of 227.372 to earn the 33rd and final spot.

Missing the show was a crushing disappointment for Alonso and the powerful McLaren team, which made six total qualifying attempts between Saturday and Sunday. But Alonso handled the disappointment with the same elegance and class he showed after his car slowed to a halt late during the race as a rookie in 2017.

“I drove with a loose car and didn't lift off,” Alonso said. “I drove with an understeer car; I didn't lift off. I drove with a rear puncture; I only lift off in the last lap because I could not make the corner.

“And today we went out with an experiment that we did overnight. We changed everything on the car because we thought that maybe we need something from the mental different to go into the race with some confidence because yesterday the car even if we were qualifying today, we were not maybe in the right philosophy to race next Sunday, and we went out not knowing what the car will do in Turn 1, but you're still flat. So we tried.”

Alonso already has said he will return to Indy to try again in May 2020. After two disappointments of various circumstances, the sun may finally and deservedly shine at Indy on one of the greatest drivers of this generation.

 
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