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Promoted: How Hampson takes Arrow McLaren SP to the next level

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Promoted: How Hampson takes Arrow McLaren SP to the next level
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The former Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team hasn’t just rebranded for 2020: the whole team has been revamped, and one of the key figures within the new structure is R&D engineer and race engineer, Craig Hampson. David Malsher explains why.

In motorsport’s silly season – that corroboree of rumor, gossip and seat-swapping that afflicts every series from mid-summer and can extend through to January or February the following year – generally the “big-name signings” are drivers. They’re the guys or girls who are most famous because they get 90 percent of the glory after a race win or championship.

Yet in IndyCar racing, there is an exclusive club of top-ranked engineers who have the history and track record that prove they too make a huge difference. Just as there are drivers who can find the three- or four-tenths of a second that turn a midfield team into a regular podium contender, or a podium-contending team into a regular winner, so too there are engineers who can provide a racing group with that crucial boost.

Within that elite, without question, is Craig Hampson – and Arrow McLaren SP has signed him for 2020. It’s important to appreciate what a huge deal this is.

Patricio O'ward, Arrow McLaren SP

Patricio O'ward, Arrow McLaren SP

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Hampson spent 19 years at one of the greatest U.S. open-wheel teams of all time – Newman/Haas Racing – and won four straight Champ Car World Series titles as race engineer for Sebastien Bourdais. Not only that, in 2008 when Champ Car and the Indy Racing League merged to form what we now know as the NTT IndyCar Series, the CC squads had to hastily adapt to the IRL cars, and with Hampson now serving as chief engineer, Newman/Haas made the best job of that hasty transition, scoring two wins. Even as the team’s money ran dry and the mighty NHR drew toward its natural conclusion, it was still a gang seen to be punching above its weight. Often forgotten is that in 2011, the team’s lead driver Oriol Servia finished fourth in the championship, while Hampson, in his other team role as race engineer, led Servia’s teammate James Hinchcliffe to the IndyCar Rookie of the Year title.

That pair was reunited in 2013 at Andretti Autosport, resulting in three wins for Hinchcliffe before Hampson switched almost exclusively to the team’s research and development role. One exception came in May 2014, when he guided NASCAR star Kurt Busch to Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors with a remarkable fifth-place finish on Memorial Day Weekend. In no small part to Hampson’s behind-the-scenes R&D, that same year the team won the 500 with Ryan Hunter-Reay and two years later repeated with Alexander Rossi.

The last three years saw Hampson at Dale Coyne Racing, reuniting with Bourdais, and the pair clinched two wins and a pole, as well as being the fastest of the Honda-powered entries in the Indy 500.

So it’s easy to see why Arrow McLaren SP felt the need to swoop in and sign the 49-year-old, brought up in Bridgewater, NJ: Hampson has proven he can excel as a race engineer, as a lead engineer, and as a R&D engineer. But what drew the man himself to his new role?

“The potential, the enthusiasm and the opportunity for growth,” he tells Motorsport.com without hesitation. “That’s what I saw within the team. From my perspective, it’s the chance to help Arrow McLaren SP grow into something great.

“There’s a young vigor to the team which I find very interesting, a lot of real positive attitude among the people here. And the opportunity to peer into the McLaren Formula 1 team’s toolkit of course is attractive, because I can learn what F1 state-of-the-art is, in terms of simulators and data analysis. That’s very exciting.

“I also must say there’s a real appeal to getting back with Chevrolet, having last been with them in 2013. Chevy won a lot of races last year and it’s been the engine to use at Indy the past two years. Obviously I’m hoping that will continue to be the case, because success there is a huge part of what we’re trying to do as a team. But I also feel individuals within a team are driven by that same desire for success at Indy, and I’m no different. The past three years I’ve run very quick cars there, but we just couldn’t get over the hump of reaching the finish – and if I’m honest, I got pretty tired of sticking a fast car in the fence!”

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Photo by: Arrow SPM

It’s easy for outsiders to sing Hampson’s praises in anticipation of the year ahead. We perhaps expect him to play a role similar to that of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown character in Back to the Future: Hampson is the brainiac whose theorizing is on another level to most folk, but who is also practical enough to figure out how to apply the theories. To take that analogy still further, Hampson could also, like Doc, make the vital connection that puts Arrow McLaren SP where it should be…

“Well, I am the old guy in the room!” he chuckles at the comparison. “I’ve been around a long time, seen a lot, experienced a lot, learned a lot – including what not to do! I think my role here is to be a sounding board of long-term experience, because fresh eyes – fresh in terms of arriving new to the team – can be very helpful. There’s nothing being done incorrectly here, and I don’t say that I did something better at a previous team, but there will be ideas that I have that perhaps have not been considered or have been considered from a different angle. Similarly – and I’ve already seen this in my first three days with Arrow McLaren SP – there will be ideas that the team has already employed that I had never thought of or was doing a different way, that I’m extremely impressed with.

“In the end, more brains are better than fewer brains, more experience is always better than less experience, so we’ve just added more ammunition to the clip. And having an extra person means the team can simply get more work done, whether it’s development of the gearbox, or thinking about aerodynamics or running an extra simulator session, and so on. You are always limited by manpower, so the more you have, the more work you can get done.

“The team has expanded its engineering staff pretty considerably between last year and this year. More engineers on the timing stands, I’ve come in, there’s a specific IT person now that we have a lot more computers and an expanded network infrastructure, so there’s more intel going back and forth. And then there’s the integration of the McLaren people as well. It is definitely an explosive growth period here right now.”

Oliver Askew, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Oliver Askew, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Hampson is a perfectionist. Over a decade ago, back when he and Bourdais were winning half the Champ Car races each season, he never reveled in their dominance but instead found ways to kick himself over some of the victories that got away. Some folks may roll their eyes at such a glass-half-empty viewpoint, but that is merely the flipside of the same personality trait that drives him – and by consequence, whichever team employs him – to new heights. These days, Hampson is a little more mellow, ready to critique himself using self-deprecating humor where once he was all about self-admonishment, but still, it’s enlightening to hear him sound so unambiguously positive. He sounds like someone who now has the resources to tap his own potential in order to help his colleagues exploit theirs.

“There will be some growing pains in terms of communication, managing all that information, all those people, all those ideas, but once we get all that worked out, I think it will be a pretty big sledgehammer to swing and I’m excited about what we can then deliver once we’ve got it all sorted.”

As a fan of all top-rank open-wheel racing, and someone who avidly read and absorbed the recent biographies of Formula 1 design and engineering geniuses Adrian Newey and John Barnard, Hampson is hugely excited by the aforementioned prospect of hooking up with a grand prix team. And while he cautions that the influence won’t be immediately apparent, he’s certain that it should eventually provide the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team with an edge.

“Short-term, on the technical side I think the benefits will be smaller,” he says, “because it will take time to get the correct people in place and for us to understand their way of working and for them to understand IndyCar. There is a lot of really oddball stuff that is necessary in IndyCar but is quite different from Formula 1. To some extent, F1 is about aerodynamics and making your car lighter and so maybe you don’t worry about the efficiency of your gearbox quite so much, because there are other things you can work on to give you better bang for the buck. Our series being a spec series and all the areas being more restricted, it’s just a completely different game.

“But that disparity is good. We’re going to learn a lot from them and the approaches they take, and in a smaller regard they will learn things from us, because while we’re doing distinctly different things, we’re good at what we do. So it will be a two-way street but with more coming our way than the opposite. I’m excited to learn what they know about tire behavior, virtual modeling of the car, what they do in the simulator, what they can do with CFD and so on.”

Patricio O'ward, Arrow McLaren SP

Patricio O'ward, Arrow McLaren SP

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Patricio O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet

Photo by: Arrow SPM

Something on which Hampson can already rely is the input and output of Arrow McLaren SP’s incumbent race engineers Will Anderson and Blair Perschbacher.

“Blair is going to run [reigning Indy Lights champion] Oliver Askew,” says Hampson, “which will mean it’s three years in a row for him running rookies – Robert Wickens, Marcus Ericsson and now Oliver. He’s earned a reputation of doing a really good job with newcomers, which is a special skill in itself. Blair and I have worked together at Andretti Autosport before, so I know him quite well already.

“And then Will is going to run [2018 Indy Lights champ] Pato O’Ward, which he’s very excited about. I haven’t worked with Will until now, but he was assistant engineer with Dale Coyne Racing immediately before I arrived there, when he moved to this team, so there’s a fair bit of commonality there.

“I only started this week but I’ve now gone to dinner with both Will and Blair to discuss the season ahead, to get to know them a little more and to pick their brains about what went well last year, what we need to do better.

“I’m excited to be part of it. There are a lot of very  smart people within the Arrow McLaren SP team. Nick Snyder and Robert Gue [R&D and design] are very, very bright. I was going around the raceshop with Robert looking at various parts and test-rigs and I’m quite impressed with the design work. It’s a great group of people, and even if it takes some time to get everyone working together as a team because of the quick expansion in personnel numbers, if we can properly harness everyone’s talents and not duplicate too much effort, good stuff will happen for sure.”

Hampson, despite being a strong advocate of experience, is not in the least intimidated by a Arrow McLaren SP driver line-up comprising a rookie [Askew, zero IndyCar starts] and a near-rookie [O’Ward, eight starts].

“The thing for us to remember – for everyone to remember! – is that in IndyCar, all the teams are really good and so the margins are extremely tight. As we’ve been saying for many, many years now, if you slip up by even the tiniest amount, you’re not even in the top 10 in qualifying. It takes a lot of work to be consistently good.

“Let’s be honest, with the experience level of our drivers, we will have the odd weekend where we’re off and we’re not quite sure what’s wrong because Pato and Oliver haven’t encountered that particular issue before so aren’t totally sure how to pinpoint it. But on the other hand, each of these guys won the Indy Lights title in impressive fashion, so we know they’re good and they’re quick

“Therefore if we can coach them in the right way while they are young and malleable and before they acquire preconceived notions of how an IndyCar should be, we can help them to help us. They will work in the way that we want them to work and drive this particular version of the car in the way we want them to drive it. If we do a good job of guiding and educating them, then they have the potential to shine at the top level.”

About Arrow Electronics

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Series IndyCar
Teams McLaren , Arrow SPM
Author David Malsher-Lopez