Today, Fernando Alonso failed to qualify (for sure) at the Indianapolis 500. He finished in 31st place after trying no fewer than 4 times to post a 4-lap qualifying time fast enough to make him one of the top 30 qualifiers, which would have given him a grid place for the race. By finishing 31st, he has to come back tomorrow (Sunday) or Monday (depending on weather) to see if he can win one of the remaining 3 grid places. There are 6 drivers trying to win the 3 places, so on paper he has a 50% chance.
Unsurprisingly, Fernando was not exactly thrilled with his day at the office. In 2017, driving an additional car being run by Andretti Autosport, he qualified well, and even led the race before eventually retiring with engine failure (he was using a Honda engine, of which more later). This year, he is running with a brand new McLaren indycar team. The only running he and the team had done with the car was 1 test day at Texas Motor Speedway. McLaren has a technical alliance with Carlin Motorsport, which is fielding 3 cars at this year’s race. Coincidentally (but maybe not), two of Carlin’s drivers, Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward, are also in the 6 car shootout, having failed to qualify fast enough today.
Fernando Alonso is, by common consent, one of the great drivers of the modern era. He won two Formula One world championships, and could easily have won more…if he had made better decisions.
Which brings us to today. After the qualifying session had ended, the media wanted to know what Alonso thought of the day’s events.
Well, unsurprisingly, Fernando was not exactly thrilled. No top-flight race driver likes to be struggling to merely get his car into the Indianapolis 500. However, the way that he chose to express his thoughts provides several telling leadership lessons. Here is the quote from him:
“That didn’t help,” Alonso said of the puncture after his first qualifying run, “but, obviously, our performance has been quite bad all week. Quite poor.”
When asked how disappointing it has been to that points, Alonso said, “It is disappointing but I guess it’s more a question for McLaren.”
Alonso added that his team was “not ready for the challenge.”
“We’ve been slow,” he said. “You see (Juncos Racing) crashing yesterday and being ready at 6 (a.m.). That’s impressive. For us, we’ve been a little bit slow slow on everything.”
Firstly and most obviously; Fernando Alonso violated a fundamental rule of leadership: Never throw your team under the bus in a public forum.
The rule should be: praise in public, chastise in private.
Secondly, Fernando was speaking the truth. He crashed his primary car in practice early on Wednesday afternoon. The team had run few laps on Tuesday due to a recurrence of electrical issues that had cut a previous Rookie Orientation run short. The car was badly damaged, but the chassis was apparently re-usable. McLaren, a well-funded team, had a spare car, or more correctly, it said it had a spare car. However, it later emerged that the spare car was not built up and ready to roll. It was in fact a spare chassis with a pile of parts in the Carlin workshop. So Mclaren had to make a decision; either rebuild the primary car, or build up the spare chassis. They decided to build up the spare chassis.
However, there was no Mclaren car ready to run on Thursday morning, as might have been expected. In fact there was no car available for Fernando to drive all day Thursday When he should have been out on track accumulating laps, circuit and car set-up knowledge, he was sitting on the pit wall. As a result, Mclaren entered “Fast Friday” (where the turbo boost is turned up and lap speeds increase by 2 mph) with very little accumulated track time.
Fernando’s comment about Juncos Racing was on the money. Juncos is a team without a sponsor, running, money-wise, on fumes. They crashed their primary car on Friday, and many observers thought that was the end of their participation, especially since the chassis was damaged. However, Juncos pulled their road course car out of storage, and, with some help from other teams who loaned them spares, had the car ready to roll out of the garage, in superspeedway specification, by 06.00 on Saturday. When Fernando Alonso said his team was “not ready”, he was speaking a truth. Despite an alliance with Carlin Motorsports which was supposed to pool data on car set-up and engineering support, McLaren has not looked agile in track operations, nor has the car looked quick enough on track. The loss of track time on Tuesday and Wednesday was a major issue. When you are struggling to find speed on a high-speed oval, you need time to try different set-ups, and run lots of laps to determine what works. Changing weather conditions also make it essential to run all day to ensure that when qualifying and race day come along, you have a set-up for the car that works. Despite pooling data with Carlin, Mclaren and Carlin collectively are not able to make their cars fast enough.
Fernando Alonso was, in his wording, being upfront, blunt and candid. He was not engaging in euphemism or personal excoriations. He was pointing out organizational failures. This was actually good leadership – in what should have been a private forum.
Now this is not a new situation for a team at Indianapolis. In 1995, Team Penske failed to qualify any cars, despite winning the race the previous year. Their final hours of qualifying actually looked more desperate than Mclaren’s, as the team showed up with unpainted cars borrowed from other teams in a desperate attempt to qualify their drivers, then waved off one qualifying run that might have qualified one car, before finally running out of time. The team looked totally lost. Indianapolis can reduce teams of smart people to headbanging impotence in hours.
So, here we have a frustrated driver whose team is not in command of the situation, being forced to hang it out (as in, drive a poorly-sorted car that could leave the track at any moment) four times in order to sort-of (but not quite) qualify. So, yes, he was correct in his observations. But, he did a Fernando Alonso thing, something he has done in the past, by publicly slamming his team.
Thirdly, those of us who have followed Fernando Alonso nodded with that “deja vu” nod. Because, you see, has a habit of publicly chastising his employers and component suppliers. Alonso is using Chevrolet engines this year at Indianapolis. He used Honda engines in 2017, when his formula 1 team (McLaren) was using Honda engines. Alonso, in a race while driving for Mclaren in formula 1, once likened his Honda Formula1 engine to the engine in a GP2 car. This was said loudly and publicly over the radio to his team. Engine suppliers, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on supplying engines to a team, do have a valid expectation that their employees will not make such comments in public. Especially a Japanese corporation.
Had Fernando Alonso been more diplomatic in his comments about Honda, he might have been able to use Honda engines at this year’s race, and McLaren might have been partnering with Andretti Autosport again, who do know how to be quick around Indianapolis. There are two engine suppliers in IndyCar, but Alonso’s past public comments probably ensured he only had one choice.
Public excoriations like that just issued by Fernando Alonso are difficult for any organization to handle. While it is probable that Mclaren is already aware that their performance has been inadequate (if not, they have an even bigger issue called Denial), these sorts of outbursts are unlikely to positively motivate team members who are probably already working under a lot of pressure.
We wait to see if tomorrow allows Mclaren to find more speed in the car. If they can find 2 mph, then Alonso will probably qualify, and will be all smiles. However, behind the scenes, the issues will linger. Fernando Alonso had his original Mclaren-Mercedes contract terminated in 2007 after a dispute with team management, and left Ferrari in 2014 after another dispute over a contract extension. So we are seeing a recurrence of a pattern of behavior that helps to explain why such a talented and competitive driver only won two Formula 1 championships. The talent, drive and command are all there. The ability to consistently follow fundamental leadership principles is lacking.
UPDATE – Alonso did not qualify on Bump Day. He was, as he probably feared, bumped from the race by Juncos Racing, with the team failing to find any more speed in the car.
UPDATE 2 – McLaren apparently tried to explore buying their way back into the race by buying another team’s qualified entry (in the Indianapolis 500, it is the car that qualifies, not the driver). However, nothing came of it.
UPDATE3 – Bob Fearnley, the team manager for the McLaren effort, has left the team.