The stunning announcement that McLaren-Honda will be running in the Indy 500 with its two-time Formula One Champion, Fernando Alonso, is a remarkable story but it has a precedent 25 years ago when another frustrated McLaren driver, Ayrton Senna, toyed with the idea of running in the Indy 500.
We are just coming up on the 23rd anniversary of that dark day on May 1, 1994, when Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian three-time Formula One Champion, was tragically killed while leading the 1994 Grand Prix of San Marino. If you saw the SENNA movie, you saw how sullen Senna looked that day as he sat on the grid pre-race in his Williams, it was a look of disenchantment that went back to his last year at McLaren which had been a bust.
Ayrton Senna never did race in an Indy 500, but in his last visit to the United States there is good evidence that he was certainly thinking about running the 1993 Indy 500 because he somehow sensed that the 1993 F1 Season at McLaren was not going to be satisfactory from his standpoint. As it turned out, his archrival Alain Prost in the Williams-Renault FW 15C 3.5 litre V10 took the 1993 Drivers' Championship ahead of Senna's McLaren-Ford 3.5 litre V8.
Ironically, given what has now transpired with Alonso, Senna was teamed with Michael Andretti at McLaren for 1993. Now, Alonso and McLaren are teaming with Michael Andretti to win at Indy!
As evidence of Senna's uneasiness at the prospect of the 1993 F1 Season, in late December 1992, just before he returned home to Brazil for Christmas, Senna, at the urging of his friend, Countryman and fellow F1 Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, who had already switched to Indycars, Senna came to the twisty Firebird track in Phoenix, Arizona to test Emmo's No. 4 full-race Penske Ilmor Chevy turbo CART-era Indycar, which made about 720 bhp, comparable to the F1 cars of that period.
It was the 1992 Penske PC-21 that Senna drove that day; a car still on display in the Roger Penske Museum where the placard reads: "This was the first and only time that [Senna] drove an Indycar. Senna was quoted after driving the Indycar as saying 'For the first time in some time, racing was fun again.'"
Roger Penske was obviously fully involved in approving this test ride for Senna, which sponsor-wise worked out fine as Marlboro Team Penske and McLaren shared the same sponsors - Marlboro and Mobil 1.
Penske's cream of the crop came to tend the car Senna was to try out at Firebird. Along with Emmo, Penske's senior driver Rick Mears was present as was Penske's most junior driver, a young and presumably impressionable Paul Tracy, then just 24 years old. Mears was about to retire from racing for Penske and Tracy was just starting. Senna would have been the third Penske driver in the 1993 Indycar season.
Looking back, it seems as if the Winter of 1992 was a time of transition for everyone, with much more cross-pollination between F1 and Indycars than is customary today, though a few F1 refugees have ended up in Indycars.
For Senna, the handwriting was on the wall that the glory days of the Brazilian and McLaren-Honda and three Championships were behind them as Honda - more irony - had announced its withdrawal from F1. McLaren's car for 1993 would be powered by Ford and Senna's teammate would be Michael Andretti. Senna suspected that a few bad years were ahead for McLaren - and he turned out to be correct - so the mercurial Brazilian was seriously weighing his options. Ironically, Michael Andretti was leaving Indycars just as Senna was thinking of heading there.
Nigel Mansell, another refugee from F1, had already abandoned the Williams team and joined the Newman-Haas Indycar team. During their banter at the Firebird test, Senna and Emmo joked about being on the front row with Nigel Mansell at the 1993 Indy 500, which would indeed have been quite a remarkable sight.
When Kimi Raikkonen, at a time when he too was exploring his options made his first appearance at a NASCAR Truck Racing event in May 2011 the fans and media interest was wide and deep with hundreds of journalists flocking to Charlotte to see Kimi finish 15th in his first NASCAR race.
Imagine what it would have been like if Senna had decided to come and race the 1993 Indy 500 with Team Penske! We need no longer imagine as Alonso's appearance will have a similar effect.
How did Senna's test at Firebird go? There is Brazilian-based footage (below) showing the two F1 Champions speaking in Portuguese with a Brazilian reporter but it is clear from Senna's inspection of the car and the body language that both Penske and the Brazilian thought the test went very well.
One of the most technically knowledgeable Indycar observers who was at the Firebird session was Rick Rinaman, Emmo's crew chief at Penske, and he was impressed with Senna's almost immediate grasp of the car, both driving it and understanding it, As quoted in "Aryton Senna - The Legend Grows" by Christopher Hilton, here is what Rinaman saw that day:
"So out he went, warmed the car up for a couple of laps, came back in and said everything was all right. Out he went again and stood on it for two laps - a track he's never been on, a car he's never been in - and in about three laps he was quicker than Emerson (chuckle).
I mean, everybody was just in awe. Back he came and of course, everybody, the engineers, myself, and Rick Mears gathered around the car to hear his comments on it.
Listening to this guy explain what the car was doing was unbelievable. The guy was able to tell you things about what the car was doing that I had never heard our drivers explain before. He was telling us when the ground effects would give up, when the suspension was working and when the downforce was working. It was an amazing amount of information he gave to us in about five minutes. He left an impression on everybody there which was like when are you coming over here? (chuckle)"
And Senna himself clearly enjoyed his experience at Firebird in the lusty Penske-Ilmor-Chevy turbo, appreciating the car all the more because it was less "sophisticated" than the F1 cars of the time, which meant the driver counted for more than the car. As Senna told Road and Track magazine at the time (March 1993):
"Everything was very new to me. I had to get used to driving with a gear lever again, to a clutch pedal, to the turbo engine, and to the brakes, which are completely different from those in F1, not being carbon brakes.
The Penske reminded me of the old days in Formula 1 where the human side was the most important thing. Today Formula 1 is so sophisticated that the computers do most of the driving for you. If you have a clever computer, you are in good shape; if you have a monkey one, your in trouble, you know? What I experienced with the Indy car was the human input has a tremendous value - and I really got excited about it."
Was Senna seriously exploring coming over to the Indianapolis cars to run in the Indy 500, or was he just trying to negotiate his contract long-distance and torture Ron Dennis, his team boss at McLaren, in the run-up to the 1993 F1 Season?
We will never know. But we do know that Emerson Fittipaldi actually did win the 1993 Indy 500 for Penske so Emmo was steering his friend in the right direction and it is a shame Senna did not listen to him.
Turning to Fernando Alonso's bid to do what Senna was never able to do - run the Indy 500 - it obviously means a lot to the Spaniard to undertake the Indy 500 as he is giving up running the Monaco Grand Prix, the crown jewel of F1. There is also an interesting precedent there: Jim Clark and Lotus in 1965 made the same choice in a year like this one where the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500 fell on the same day, and Clark won his one and only Indy 500 that day, so worth the risk. Alonso is sufficiently canny to do the same thing.
Tom O'Keefe, a long-time contributor to Autosport.com, appeared as a historian on the re-mastered 2-disc DVD of "Grand Prix" and is writing a sequel to the film to be called "Team Orders."
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