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Ericsson’s first podium signals a turning point for Arrow SPM
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ 2019 IndyCar season had seen too many good runs ruined by fate and circumstances. The double-header at Detroit, with a runner-up finish from rookie Marcus Ericsson, saw the team’s potential start to be realized. David Malsher reports.
However hard a driver and team work for glory and to reduce the influence of outside factors, high achievement in auto racing depends on so many pieces falling into place – or rather, falling into the right place. On a good day, these pieces will form a larger picture of success; on a bad day, what you’re left with is a crazy mosaic of broken dreams.
The Arrow SPM team’s season after six rounds had featured unfortunately timed caution periods in both qualifying and races and a couple of small errors with big consequences – although, frankly, small errors almost always have big consequences at this level. All had combined to mask the #5 and #7 cars’ basic pace.
What has been heartening all along is the team’s ability to analyze the outcomes and sift through the what-might-have-been instances to decide which ones highlighted areas where improvements could be made, and which ones were simply down to fate working against them. In short, Arrow SPM has been improving race by race, even if the results haven’t shown it.
Marcus receives his runner-up trophy from Michael Montri, president of the Detroit Grand Prix.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images
But the team’s fortunes started changing at the 2.35-mile course around Belle Isle Park, which sits in the Detroit River and is attached to Motown by MacArthur Bridge. It is something of a beauty spot in the area, and contains a nature center, boat and yacht clubs, an aquarium, a museum and various monuments – and if you think that sounds a little twee in the context of the traditional image of Detroit, you’d be right.
But the actual track is very much what you’d expect from a street course – bumps and berms, scruffy pock-marked pavement, concrete barriers behind tire-walls – but with an average lap speed of just under 115mph. The fact that just a few days before heading here, the IndyCar drivers were lapping at twice that speed on the pool-table-smooth, left-turn-only, precision-is-all Indianapolis Motor Speedway just highlights the diversity of this series’ challenges. It’s like asking an Olympic figure skater to reinvent himself as an NFL quarterback in less than a week.
And twice over. The Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit is IndyCar’s only double-header event, with two practice sessions on Friday, a qualifying session and race on Saturday, and a qualifying session and race on Sunday. But when a storm postponed the Saturday race by a little over an hour, IndyCar officials decided to change the race’s format from 70 laps into a timed competition lasting 75 minutes. Unfortunately, that gave teams far less opportunity to get canny with raceday strategies.
Passing on-track was at a premium too, due to a very logical problem for which there was no real remedy. The race had started in the wet, and while by Lap 20 the racing line was dry enough for all drivers to have switched from the grooved rain tires to the slicks, there was little ambient heat to evaporate the puddles and dampness from off the racing line. Naturally, a driver with even a hint of self-preservation and respect for his car wasn’t going to risk sliding into concrete or tire walls by driving his four treadless tires, and so it became near-impossible to pull off overtaking maneuvers. Thus James Hinchcliffe improved only from 10th to ninth in the race, and Marcus Ericsson went from 15th to 13th.
The Sunday race started more promisingly for both Arrow SPM drivers, having qualified 12th (Marcus) and fifth (James). The latter’s pace and the team’s tactics – to run him long before the second round of pitstops – looked set to vault him into a podium position when a strong in-lap and a very slick pitstop saw him emerge j-u-s-t ahead of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. Hinch pulled smartly over to the left-handed Turn 2 apex to keep this pair behind and the trio hurtled down the circuit’s longest straight to right-handed Turn 3.
Hinchcliffe, having eased right to force Newgarden to try the long way around him, then moved to the middle of the track as they approached the braking zone, to try and ensure that even on cold tires he was taking a shallow enough angle to carry decent speed through the apex. Newgarden, his right mirror full of the nose of Rossi’s car, was lured into that dirtier, less grippy inside line to try and pass the Arrow SPM car, as it would also dissuade Rossi from trying to pass the pair of them.
However, under heavy braking, Newgarden lost the tail end of his car as he turned in to the apex, and slid into the tire wall on the corner exit. James appeared to have just enough room to slip back past the flailing Penske, but was instead thumped into the wreck by Rossi who had jammed on the brakes and spun 180 degrees in attempted avoidance. Suddenly Newgarden and Hinchcliffe were entangled and stalled, while Rossi was able to recover.
Hinchcliffe was on his way to a top-three finish when an overambitious move by Penske's Josef Newgarden saw him slide into the tire wall at Turn 3. James was on a trajectory to slip past unscathed until the spinning Rossi smacked him up the backside, breaking the Arrow SPM car's rear wing and sending the #5 into the wrecked Penske.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images
“Today we were legitimately running for the win,” said James despondently. “The Arrow car was solid. We passed two guys in the first round of stops, got into the lead on our strategy in the second round of stops, and ultimately was taken out by a guy with not enough patience.
“I feel gutted for the guys who were legitimate contenders for the race. The podium was on the cards, and we really needed that right now... We needed a good result to boost us.
“The pace is up. One of these days our luck is going to change, and we’ll find ourselves on the top step.”
IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team got James bumpstarted and he limped back to the pits, where the #5 crew carried out repairs – only for an electrical problem to cause his car grind to a halt 20 laps later.
The consolation for the Arrow SPM team was that one of the beneficiaries of this clash was Ericsson. Running behind Scott Dixon, he moved into second place from the halfway point of the race and stayed there, holding off first Takuma Sato and then Will Power in subsequent restarts. Belying his rookie status, he took the checkered flag in second, running in a top five otherwise comprised of IndyCar champions and/or Indy 500 winners – Dixon, Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rossi.
“I'm super happy,” said the understandably elated 28-year-old. “It's been one of those years where we've had pretty much every weekend good pace, but for some reason there's always been something that's happened that’s made it not come together result-wise. I think our results have not been representative of the pace we've got.
“That's why it was such a nice feeling finally to get it together for a whole race today. Even in qualifying we had a great car. I didn't get the perfect lap together, but in the race we executed very well. The team did great strategy calls, pit stops. I have to thank the crew because they did an amazing job.”
Marcus, who started 97 Formula 1 Grands Prix and who had 10 of his former Alfa Romeo Sauber team members as guests in Detroit, was in reflective mood as he looked back on his first eight NTT IndyCar Series races.
Rookie Ericsson leads three IndyCar champions and/or Indy 500 winners – Will Power (barely in frame), Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rossi – in the closing stages of the second Detroit race.
Photo by: Jake Galstad / LAT Images
“I think I came into this year with a lot of experience,” he said, “and my goal and expectation was to run up front from the start. I think we had the pace to do it, but it's been a bit of a deeper learning process than I maybe expected.
“I didn't underestimate the series, but… it is very tough: it's a lot of experienced guys that are incredible drivers and also teams. It’s been a sort of process for me to get used to all that, get used to the tires, the cars. Everything is quite different [from F1].
“I think the pace we've shown all the way through, the results were going to come. I'm just really happy it did today because I think we deserve that. The team did deserve that because they've done an amazing job all year. The thing with IndyCar that I've learned, even if you're fast, that doesn't mean you will get a good result. In many other series, if you have the pace, you always sort of tend to get to the front for different reasons. Here in IndyCar, it's so close, the competition between P1 and P22 or P24 is one second! That means you have so many moments in a race where you need to execute well. You need to make the pitstops, strategy calls right; the pit crew needs to do their job right; out-laps on cold tires; restarts… It's such a complex and difficult series.
“That’s why it makes me even more happy that we actually executed the way we did [in Detroit]. I think we did everything right… The guys did an amazing job.”
Asked if three races in eight days made it his most grueling week as a driver, Marcus replied: “Yeah, probably. Probably month, I would say!” referring to the IndyCar Grand Prix, Indy 500 practice and qualifying, Indy 500 race, and two races in Detroit. “But that's what we do it for. We love to race. All of us out there today; that's what we live for.
“I've had such a good experience this whole year. But this month especially. It's something I've never experienced before. I've had such a good time, enjoyed it so much. It was hard last time out in Indy because we wanted such a good result, and I had my spin in the pits, which was a little hard to accept. But it made me even more hungry to sort of keep pushing, working hard.
“[In Detroit] we got that sort of success that I feel was coming for us. It's been a tough month but it's been one of the best months probably in my life, as well.”
His crew chief Bob Jansen, who led the #7 half of the Arrow SPM team to victory in the Indy 500 Pitstop Competition, was similarly buoyed that his boy had come through so strongly to finish second.
Bob Jansen, crew chief on Ericsson's #7 Arrow SPM-Honda, says the result was a momentum-builder and boost for the whole team.
Photo by: Veronica Knowlton, Arrow SPM
“I hope it’s a turning point,” he told Motorsport.com. “Results-wise it hadn’t been a stellar year, so going forward I think this result is one Marcus needs and we need as a group to build confidence and momentum for the rest of the year.
“We were running really strongly in the Indy 500 and it was just one of those little rookie moments coming into pitlane that one time that knocked him back. But we fixed the car and got him back out there and he kept getting after it and laying down good lap times. So to me, that proves he can do it, and winning the pitstop competition proved the crew can do it.
“Marcus rolled in here on Thursday in a great mood, positive outlook, definitely wanting to come back swinging, and he did that. Obviously the Saturday race was a cluster because of the rain, and a shortened race with so many caution periods: it was only 43 laps, and you can’t do much with that, strategy-wise.
“But on Sunday, two races after the Indy disappointment, we all get it right and we end up with a podium and Marcus finishes ahead of some great experienced drivers. That proves we have what it takes to put it all together. It wasn’t his first street course with us – we did St. Pete, we did Long Beach – although he probably wasn’t expecting it to be quite so bumpy as it actually is. And although he did some sim work, until he got on the track, he wouldn’t know exactly how it would be.
“But apart from brushing walls a couple of times, I think he coped fine with it. The car has some bumps and bruises – typical Detroit, typical IndyCar street course, right? But if at the end of one of these weekends, you look inside the truck and see a complete set of spare nose-wings, and fairly undamaged cars, I figure we fared OK.
“James was having a really good run, too, until his incident with another couple of cars, and we’re usually pretty strong on street courses. So we’re looking forward to Toronto – obviously that’s a huge deal for us with James coming from there – because I think we’ve gained some real encouragement with this latest street race.”
Hinchcliffe himself concurred.
“Last Sunday was a really well-sorted effort,” he told Motorsport.com. “We had been bouncing between two quite fundamentally different street course setup philosophies and we think we’ve now honed in on one that we can now start really refining.”
Before that trip north of the border, however, the Arrow SPM team faces two more very different challenges: a 1.5-mile oval, Texas Motor Speedway, this Saturday night, and then arguably the nation’s greatest roadcourse, Road America, two weeks later. Let’s see where the squad’s momentum can take it.
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Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Hondas of James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, Marcus Ericsson.
Photo by: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
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