MILLER: Was this really a surprise?

It wasn’t a surprise that McLaren struggled this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most of us figured the proud Formula 1 team would find starting an IndyCar team from scratch to be a big challenge.

But nobody thought Fernando Alonso could miss the show. Well… that’s not entirely true. That thought began creeping into our minds late in the week as we watched this train wreck unfold.

From the Open Test when the car died and it took an hour to figure out why, to taking more than a day to prepare the backup car, to missing 10 minutes of valuable practice on Sunday morning to the sparkler show off the gearbox when they couldn’t dial in the ride height, McLaren looked as out of synch as it did out of place.

“I think they were kind of arrogant about what it takes to run here,” said a veteran mechanic. “But I don’t think they are anymore.”

It’s not that Zak Brown’s team lacked mechanical skills. Or technical experience, since they had former Indy-winning engineer Andy Brown. They built one car in England with their people and the other was assembled in Florida with some longtime Indy mechanics. But it appears they were woefully short of structure and direction.

The Dallara DW12 is a different animal to a  homemade F1 chassis, especially on an oval. There is a finite art to preparing a car to cut through the air at 230 mph with identical chassis.

“Spec racing is hard. It’s all about details, not design,” said veteran Sebastien Bourdais, who qualified seventh for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. “It’s all about the car and the people working on the car. They didn’t didn’t have current people, so I really wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t Fernando’s fault; he ran wide-open. That’s all you can ask here.”

Asked if he felt sorry for Alonso, the always-candid Bourdais replied: “No, I think he’s relieved. He didn’t want to start in the last row in a car that had no chance to win.”

In joining Team Penske (1995), Bobby Rahal (1993) and Rodger Ward (1965), Alonso’s name has been added to a list of stars who missed out in qualifying at Indianapolis after previous success.

And while it was the kind of drama that makes Indy qualifying so special – watching Kyle Kaiser and the little Juncos team KO Alonso and Mighty McLaren on the final run of the Last Row Shootout – not having the orange Go Smile machine in this year’s race isn’t good.

Brown, McLaren’s CEO, who obviously has an affection for Indy and certainly seems to be serious about trying to run IndyCar full-time, said that the team’s performance here this month could help determine if they pull the trigger. So you don’t know what this setback could mean for the future.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons here that will carry forward, and that possibility (full-time) is still in consideration,” said Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy winner who is McLaren’s sporting director. “But no decision has been made.”

Having McLaren join the lineup would be good for IndyCar, and having Alonso in the Indy 500 again would be good for television ratings and interest because he’s one of the few racers that can move the needle.

He said at the end of a long day that it was too early to make any decision about whether or not he’ll return in 2020, but you have to wonder if it would be with McLaren if he does. He no doubt had flashbacks to his futile final days with the team in F1, so it might behoove IndyCar to explore getting him in a competitive ride as an enticement.

Bourdais made a great point in that Alonso wasn’t destroyed by not qualifying because he had zero chance of being competitive, let alone winning. And after his dazzling debut in 2018 when he led laps and ran up front, he’s not interested in driving around and finishing 15th; he did that the last few years in F1.

The 37-year-old Spaniard isn’t just a credit to motorsports, he’s a rare breed of personality and professionalism who understands how to play the game. He came to the media center after qualifying was over Sunday and answered questions for 20 minutes. I imagine a root canal might have been the preferred option, but he was classy and forthright and gracious. No excuses, no whining, no pity -– just an honest post mortem.

He missed making the show by an eyelash, and those 10 minutes Sunday morning could have given him five more laps of focus on gearing and handling after getting new dampers from Andretti Autosport.

But, like everything else these past few days, McLaren missed the boat and it’s going to sail without them on May 26. I just hope Fred comes back with a fighting chance next May.

The Day At Indy, May 18, with Pigot, Clauson, Newgarden and Herta

It’s another packed episode of The Day At Indy podcast, as a wild day of qualifying for the Indy 500, led by our opening guest — Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot — saw McLaren Racing and Fernando Alonso miss out on securing a spot in the field, while Tim Clauson’s Clauson-Marshall Racing USAC dirt racing program earned the 30th and final position available on Saturday.

Clauson is joined by Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden who, like Pigot, earned the right to vie for pole position on Sunday after capturing a spot in the Fast 9.

We close with Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, who posted the fifth-fastest speed and will also take a shot at pole, and who shares several insights on his amazing performance today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

One for the little guys in Indy 500 qualifying

Elton Julian figures McLaren likely has more money invested in its hospitality tent than he’s got in his whole DragonSpeed IndyCar operation.

But, the full-time sports car team that took on Indianapolis with a savvy owner, rookie driver, veteran engineer and makeshift crew scored a major victory for the little guys on Saturday.

Ben Hanley, a 31-year-old sports car whiz who had never been on an oval until his rookie test a few days ago at IMS, did a superb job by qualifying at 227.482 mph in DragonSpeed’s unsponsored Dallara Chevy. That was good for 27th overall, but it felt like the pole position to Julian and his crew.

“It’s the biggest day I’ve ever had in racing,” exclaimed Julian, who was the youngest winner in British Formula 3 history (17) and on a fast track to F1 that never panned out during his driving days.

“Ben and I aren’t emotional guys, but he admitted that he had to hold it in on his cool-off lap.

“I am just so proud of this team and their effort,” the overjoyed owner went on. “This is why you go racing.”

27th fastest, but as good as pole position for the as-yet unsponsored team. Image by Levitt/LAT

Hanley is as even-keeled as his driving and it showed: “It’s been an amazing experience,” said the former Le Mans winner. “We know we are new and we don’t have the experience that probably any other team out there has, but we are a high-quality group.

“It was a pretty good run and the car was the best it’s been all week. Maybe I took a little risk on the last lap, but I needed to nail that last lap to put it together.”

For a team based in France that competes in both the FIA World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans Series, coming into the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indy 500 with zero experience and no budget to speak of was … optimistic.

“Indy is 100 times more daunting than you can imagine, and it drains you emotionally and every other way,” said Julian. “I always thought we were on the ropes, but we never dropped our guard.

“We made the right decision today and picked the right time to run, and Ben did a great job.”

If the fact his team has no sponsor or oval-track experience wasn’t a big enough hurdle, four of Julian’s top mechanics were denied entry into the USA because of visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Monza, Italy. So DragonSpeed had to hire several local mechanics at the start of last week, which is when he hooked up with veteran race engineer John Dick.

“John was recommended by people I respect, and I met with him last Monday,” Julian explained. “He’s meshed so well with my technical director, Paul Thomas, who has learned from JD, and I love his level of experience.”

Safely in the show, Julian was asked about the ongoing search for sponsorship. “There is space available,” he laughed.

It would likely be a good bargain for one of the best stories of the month.

The Day at Indy, May 17, with Ricardo Juncos and Anders Krohn

It’s a packed episode of The Day At Indy for Friday, May 17, as RACER’s F1 reporter Chris Medland and RACER’s Robin Miller review a strange day and preview who might make — and miss — the field of 33 this weekend at Indy. They’re followed by Ricardo Juncos, whose team is in a fight against time to prepare a backup car for Kyle Kaiser (who destroyed his primary chassis in a heavy crash on Friday); and we close with NBC Sport’s analyst Anders Krohn, who adds his insights on how the week has shaped up with qualifying on the horizon.