McLaren’s Hope-Inducing IndyCar Potential

Arrow McLaren Indy 500 car for Fernando Alonso

McLaren Racing’s trajectory to a full-time NTT IndyCar Series presence is as comparable to a roller coaster as the first road course at which Fernando Alonso piloted an Indy car: Barber Motorsports Park.

Seemingly inevitable at some points but totally off the table at others, the status of a foray into North America’s premier open-wheel championship and expansion beyond Formula One for McLaren went up and down almost too many times to count between its Indianapolis 500 attempt with Alonso and Andretti Autosport in 2017 and the introduction of Arrow McLaren Racing SP for 2020 and beyond.

McLaren members met with IndyCar teams and Chevrolet during the 2018 doubleheader weekend on Detroit’s Belle Isle, less than a month before Scott Dixon was reported to have been approached by the probing British team — and at which point Andretti and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing were leading the rumors as McLaren’s potential partner team, not Honda-powered Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

The odd possibility of four Andretti Hondas being run in conjunction with two McLaren Chevrolets was put to rest when McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown stated during F1’s October 2018 visit to Circuit of The Americas that his team wouldn’t be entering IndyCar full-time in 2019. He said the same about 2020 seven months later in the wake of McLaren’s failure to qualify for the Indy 500 but RACER’s coverage of the multiyear saga portrayed a changed tune once again when, 14 months later in July 2019, a full-time go was back on the table.

That headline, positioned above comments from Brown about the benefits of competing in IndyCar beyond a one-off Indianapolis attempt and doing it in tandem with an existing team, was followed exactly two weeks later by a confirmation that — at last — brought about the end of the long road: McLaren Racing will contest the full 2020 IndyCar season.

That word came a month ago. It brought with it a new beginning for both involved teams and a guaranteed impact on IndyCar. McLaren may have finally found its way into the series but the roller coaster has far from pulled back into the station. A 17-race season competing at uniquely diverse venues against highly capable teams in an ultra-competitive championship awaits the Gil de Ferran-led McLaren IndyCar team in 2020 and the presence of this new addition will be impossible to miss, even long after the novelty of the season opener at St. Petersburg has worn away.

Fernando Alonso climbs into McLaren Indy 500 car
Fernando Alonso had a rough month of May in 2019. He’ll be back. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

In truth, the novelty level is and will be high and similarly high expectations should be directed toward this new program, but “new addition” is a bit of a misnomer. McLaren Racing isn’t fielding its own cars with help from Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports like Meyer Shank Racing did, it’s donating its IndyCar equipment and lending its name to the stalwart team co-owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson.

It’s here that Arrow McLaren Racing SP’s first impact is made, or perhaps more accurately, missing. An all-new, two-car team fielding Alonso and one other extremely talented pilot at every round from the streets of St. Petersburg to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca — it was a figment of IndyCar fans’ imaginations during the various crests of McLaren’s ride to the series and will remain so.

Perhaps Alonso secretly despised his Barber outing in an Andretti-prepared Indy car and decided against committing to the series then, or maybe he really believes he can complete the unofficial triple crown of motor sports in one-off fashion and not bother learning the 15 other IndyCar racetracks beyond the 2.5-mile superspeedway at Indianapolis, which simply seems like a convenient excuse the two-time world champion has latched onto. Regardless, at this time, the globally famous Spaniard will race just once in IndyCar in 2020 while McLaren adds its name to a couple rows on the entry list that already existed this year.

McLaren is only being sensible. Two McLaren Racing entries competing against two unaffected Arrow SPM cars and the rest of the IndyCar field would be cool, but McLaren isn’t after cool. The goal is to sell more McLaren street cars to North American consumers. If entering IndyCar this way will accomplish that, then the project will be deemed a success. More cars on track may mean success for INDYCAR and be of interest to fans, but being a totally new addition to the paddock doesn’t necessarily align with what McLaren hopes to get out of its participation.

Sponsor partners on McLaren 2019 Indy 500 race car
Arrow McLaren Racing SP should have no problem acquiring partners galore. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

Still, while labeling the team little more than a branding exercise wouldn’t be inaccurate, the McLaren name is large enough for it to be an impactful branding exercise — and not just for McLaren.

Four decades after Johnny Rutherford last represented the English company in Indy car racing, the McLaren name will be back on North America’s grandest motor sports stage. This will be a serious selling point for INDYCAR, which is after a new engine manufacturer. What company might want to go toe to toe with not just Chevrolet and Honda but also McLaren for bragging rights and marketshare?

And INDYCAR won’t be the only group with reason to be excited about the new team. Since McLaren has that sort of commercial pull, it also has the capability to transform the current Arrow SPM team. Who’s to say the so-called “big three” of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske won’t become the “big four” when practice begins for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13, 2020?

It all flows together nicely, at least in theory: A boosted SPM team means a more competitive IndyCar, more tickets sold and more television viewers, which means more corporate sponsor and partner interest to be fielded by INDYCAR and its competitors. This one team likely won’t be the domino that falls and rockets IndyCar to never-before-seen success, but a high tide rises all boats. This is at least a strong wave.

SPM was already knocking on the door of the big three when Arrow deepened its partnership with the team ahead of the current season. A big spender in its own right, Arrow Electronics’ massive guest hospitality at each racetrack and primary sponsorship of James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson’s cars are external clues of technical efforts behind the scenes to elevate the team’s on-track performance.

The oft-discussed difference maker in IndyCar is a team’s damper program. The nearly two dozen Indy cars at a given event are essentially identical beyond the damper and spring assembly components that ease the ride over bumps and improve stability and, while hospitality structures and logos on cars are nice, in-the-know fans dreaming of success for SPM would’ve justifiably had their minds jump to dampers when Arrow signed on for increased support in January 2019.

Arrow plus McLaren plus the possibility of more commercial partners that will want to be on the Chevrolet-powered cars alongside McLaren’s logo — it’s a winning equation for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. And since time and money doesn’t need to be directed toward, say, constructing a chassis, the vast resources of its partners could help the team unlock damper information it might otherwise have never stumbled upon.

McLaren IndyCar aero kit bodywork at Indy 500
IndyCar may be an almost-entirely spec series, but McLaren’s vast resources are still bound to make a difference. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

Additionally, McLaren knows stuff. Perhaps there’s not total technical overlap between F1 and IndyCar, but McLaren has been taking to racetracks around the globe with hybrid-powered open-wheel cars in a championship that accepts not just custom dampers but custom just about anything for as long as any other F1 team. INDYCAR’s 2022 hybrid regulations include a single-source system — not one made by each team or each engine manufacturer — and maybe very little transfers over regarding dampers, but it’s probably not nothing.

Corners could be attacked harder, lap times could improve, strong qualifying results could be secured and races could be won. Two drivers from Penske and one each from Andretti and Ganassi entered the late stages of this season in championship contention and, even without any 2020 on-track activity to go off of, it’s not beyond reason to imagine two more drivers from a fourth team factoring into next year’s title hunt.

There are so many sides to the McLaren story that it’s difficult to know where to begin or end. Will it be a moderate performance upgrade for a mid-tier team, or something more? What does this say about INDYCAR’s five-year plan, which has attracted a new team — sort of — but not increased car count?

And what of the alignment with Chevrolet? Had McLaren’s relationship with Honda not met a bitter end, it could’ve continued in IndyCar as a no-brainer. Instead, the team was forced to partner with a Chevrolet team at the Indy 500 this past May and failed to qualify for the race, along with two other Carlin-prepared cars as just one made the race. The new alliance is exciting for SPM but if McLaren hadn’t blown this bridge to smithereens in F1 its IndyCar entrance could’ve been so much simpler.

It won’t be with its own cars, it won’t be with Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Stateside roller coaster probably isn’t over. But an advanced damper program might at least smooth out the ride.

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