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Andretti snaps up Indy 500 pole engineer

7 June 2011

Andretti Autosport has announced that it has signed up Allen McDonald, the British engineer who led the technical effort to put Alex Tagliani on pole position for the Indianapolis 500 last month and who was also heavily involved in Dan Wheldon's race-winning campaign.

McDonald has previously worked for Andretti and engineered Dario Franchitti's car in 2007 when the Scot won both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar championship.

McDonald's hiring follows Andretti's own deeply disappointing performance during the Indy 500 qualifying weekend, which saw them fail to qualify half their regular drivers for the 33-car field and end up being forced to buy out Bruno Junquiera's grid spot from AJ Foyt Racing for Ryan Hunter-Reay. They also narrowly avoided the nightmare scenario of Danica Patrick failing to qualify on Bump Day because of rain.

Team owner Michael Andretti said it had been "Probably my worst day as an owner," and that "I'm not very happy." Sure enough, on the next day the team subsequently fired their team competition director Tom Anderson as a result of the flop.

Anderson had been heading up Mike Conway's unsuccessful efforts to qualify, and it's believed that Allen McDonald has been hired to pick up this responsibility. As both teams are based at Indianapolis, the move hardly results in too much upheaval for McDonald.

"It's a setback obviously because Allen was a big part of our little group's success and we'll miss him a lot," said Rob Edwards, the general manager for Sam Schmidt Motorsport, which is appearing in its first full IndyCar season after success in IndyLights led them to buy out Tagliani's FAZZT IndyCar series team over the winter. "We'll regroup and try to build a better mousetrap and we'll likely have to go outside and get somebody."

Sam Schmidt was less sanguine about losing McDonald, and said that it was a demonstration of how a team with heavy funding simply robs key talent from a less well-funded smaller team.

Michael Andretti denied that he had set out to poach McDonald by throwing money in his direction, and that McDonald had simply wanted to return to his old team.

McDonald's main role for Sam Schmidt Motorsport was as Alex Tagliani's permanent race engineer, and the news sparked off rumours that Tagliani's #77 car might be running out of funding and would not be appearing in many more races in 2011.

Schmidt himself denied this and said of Tagliani's projected season-long program, "It's stable."

Schmidt added that the team was even planning on running the #99 (driven by Townsend Bell at Indy) as a second car after the next group of three oval races. Schmidt confirmed that he had talked to former Champ Car driver Katherine Legge about taking the seat, but that no deal had yet been done. Longer term the idea is to develop an "experimental" team to try out new pit crews and drivers to help grow the team in 2012.

The headline of Indy 500 qualifying weekend had been Alex Tagliani taking pole position for Sam Schmidt Motorsport, and then how the following week Dan Wheldon went on to pull off a shock win in the centennial Indy 500 itself. That had been in a car run by Bryan Herta Autosport in association with the Sam Schmidt operation, meaning that Allen Macdonald was heavily involved in helping to engineer that car, too.

"I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the technical partnership we had with Sam Schmidt Motorsports," Bryan Herta had said at the post-race winner's press conference. "All their guys: Sam [Schmidt], Allen McDonald, Rob Edwards, Don Oldenburg, all the crew."

Dan Wheldon had echoed the remarks: "Like I said, Sam has a fantastic organisation, we work very well together," he said. "The leadership of [team owners Bryan Herta and Steve Newey], and Allen McDonald, Rob Edwards and Sam Schmidt has been a great relationship."

Michael Andretti will be hoping that come May 2012, even more public praise is being heaped on McDonald - this time for turning around Andretti Autosport's performance.


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