EXCLUSIVE: Honda ‘The Power of Broken Dreams’
Despite Sato’s well-deserved and hard-fought victory, Honda broke the hearts and dreams of several Indy 500 contenders.
The 2017 Indy 500 is now in the books, and a Honda-powered race car will adorn the headlines, magazine covers, and social media feeds of publications and race fans around the world. By all means, a good thing for Honda. But, what about all the other Honda racers — the ones who were negated a taste of the milk?
It’s only fair we begin with the star of the show, and regardless of which “show” first comes to mind — Indycar or F1 — Alonso is such star. After enjoying great success with Renault early in his career, Alonso’s dreams of F1 supremacy were crushed by an underperforming Ferrari, which forced him to look elsewhere for the 2015 season. That “elsewhere” happened to be the McLaren-Honda F1 team, and since then things have gone from bad to worse for the Spaniard.
In the midst of his nightmare of a season, Alonso announced that he’d skip the Monaco Grand Prix and compete in the world-famous Indy 500. Even more shocking was the fact that he wouldn’t do it with another (more reliable) manufacturer, but with a Andretti Autosport and McLaren merger cleverly named: McLaren-Honda Andretti.
Welcome to the Brickyard
Andretti Autosport principal Michael Andretti entered a whopping six cars in the 2017 Indy 500. The drivers at the wheel of the sponsor-rich machines ranged from his own son Marco Andretti, 2014 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2016 winner Alexander Rossi, Jack Harvey, ex-F1 driver Takuma Sato, and Fernando Alonso.
Up until boarding his flight to Indianapolis, Alonso had only managed to finish two out of five F1 races, and both were non-points-paying positions. The brave matador needed something new to look forward to, and Zak Brown, Eric Boullier and Stefan Wilson (who gave up his seat) gave it to him. A sleek, McLaren-orange Indycar awaited him at Gasoline Alley. Before we knew it, Alonso was clocking 223-mph laps. More importantly, over two-million people tuned in online to watch him lose his oval virginity.
There’s Hope in the Air
When qualifying concluded the Sunday before the race, there were six Honda-powered race cars in the first three rows (nine cars) of the field. It’s also worth mentioning that Scott Dixon laid down a ridiculously fast 232.164 mph average speed, and therefore clinched the pole position with Honda power and in flamboyant fashion.
Things were looking up for most, if not all Honda runners, too. Honda engines had behaved consistently throughout the entire month of May (F1 enjoyed a two-week break between Spain and Monaco), and Alonso grew confident in his equipment — something he hadn’t been able to do with his other McLaren-Honda.
Headlines across the world amplified Alonso’s gratitude toward a reliable and fast Honda, often roasting the F1 team and praising the Indianapolis-based Andretti outfit. Truth be told, our minds were already thinking about race day, and whether Honda’s luck would flourish or extinguish.
The 101st Running of the Indy 500
Honda-Tech was present at the greatest spectacle in racing, and followed Alonso’s progress closely. Or as much as we could — given the six staff and 50 reporters who followed his every move. To say there was an influx of international media tasked with covering “Alo” would be an understatement. There were Spanish-speaking journalists everywhere.
As the pre-race celebrations got underway we trekked through grid, where every participating Indycar was lined up and plugged in to “life support.” While most of them were simply — there — the orange 29 of Alonso was made off-limits to everyone except team personnel. Justifiably so, as multitudes of people attempted to snap selfies with the speed machine, and touch the bodywork as if it were some sort of good luck charm.
Sooner rather than later the man himself showed up. No, not Alonso, but Michael Andretti. Then, Emerson Fittipaldi. Then, Zak Brown, and then Alonso and his tall and slender girlfriend. Immediately the team formed a sort of human barrier around their driver, allowing him to enjoy the singing of the national anthem, flyover and other pre-race rituals. One could see and feel that Alonso was soaking up the moment, and wouldn’t allow anyone or anything to ruin the magic. Not even the man who made his way through the ropes and human barrier, only to tap his idol’s shoulder and get a sharp “NO” to his selfie request.
Ten minutes later we were rushed off the grid, but not before we snapped several exclusive photos of Alonso getting ready for his first Indy 500.
The Highs and the Lows
“He must be shitting his pants” we thought, as Alonso lost several positions at the start, all while Dixon defended the lead and built a healthy gap to second place. As with practice and qualifying, Honda-powered race cars were setting the pace for the 101st running of the Indy 500, and things looked awfully positive.
The first 50 or so laps went quickly and without interruptions. Shortly thereafter, a red flag was immediately put into effect after a massive crash between Jay Howard and pole-sitter Scott Dixon. The Iceman’s Honda flew into the air in spectacular fashion, later landing sideways on the interior guard rail and causing a large explosion. Thankfully, he was unscathed.
Lap 136 marked the beginning of the end for Honda, as race contender Ryan Hunter-Reay retired from the lead with engine failure. His DHL-sponsored Andretti Autosport machine simply came to a halt, leaving the American heartbroken. Exactly 30 laps later, another front-runner — Charlie Kimball — retired due to engine failure.
It became clear that Honda had the power, but not the reliability.
Hondas were dropping like flies, and with only 40 laps left in the race there was nothing anyone could do to save them. Things went from bad to worse on lap 179 of 200, when the racing megastar, the Spanish Conquistador, the one-and-only Fernando Alonso lost engine power on the main straight, forcing him to abandon his machine trackside.
Everyone went silent. No one could believe it. The man running away from Honda F1 woes was now walking back to the pits with only 21 laps left — and due to engine malfunction! Everyone, including ourselves, turned to nearby spectators and shook our heads in disbelief. It was heartbreaking. Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Kimball, and now Alonso were out. All of them could’ve drank the milk, yet they had been let down by Honda. With the exception of Dixon, of course.
Sato went on to fight a fierce battle, and negate the ever-amazing Helio Castroneves his fourth Indy 500 victory. It couldn’t have been a more emotional ending to a story which began a few years back, when Sato crashed on the last lap of the Indy 500 as he attempted to pass for the lead.
It goes without saying that many heads will roll at Honda. For a company which prides itself in efficiency, and reliability, they’ve proven that they can’t successfully compete on the world stage. In many ways Alonso was their savior, albeit a frustrated one. They had the chance to turn many frowns upside down, but instead they committed technical and engineering suicide. Heck, even Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne scored a McLaren-Honda double DNF in Monaco.
What’s next? Only time will tell.
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Photos via: [DrivesWGirls]