Garrett Mothersead, race engineer for Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato last year, says his new driver Zach Veach is a quick learner but that current IndyCar testing rules will always favor “middle-aged” drivers.
Veach scored scored six wins and five poles across his three seasons in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport and Belardi Auto Racing, but his junior open-wheel career was disrupted by a dormant season in 2015. Last year he made his IndyCar Series debut as a last-minute sub for the injured JR Hildebrand with Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber Motorsports Park, and then made his Indy 500 debut in a third AJ Foyt Racing entry.
However, sponsorship from an insurance holding company, Group One Thousand One, has enabled Veach to sign a three-year deal with Andretti Autosport, replacing Sato. But race engineer Mothersead, who joined the team in the fall of 2012, says the 23-year-old from Stockdale, OH., has had to temper his talent with patience.
“I keep reminding Zach that this series is set up around middle-aged drivers,” Mothersead told Motorsport.com, “because it’s all about experience. We just don’t get a lot of track time or tire sets, so rookies are immediately on the back foot and trying to play catch-up.
“You know, in one weekend of testing on a short oval, you’re not going to completely close up the gap on someone with talent and 15 years of experience like Ryan, so don’t try. Understanding what you’re doing and taking small steps towards the limit is better than over-extending yourself and damaging the car. When we go back to Phoenix to race, that’s the time to go for it.”
Once getting through his rookie oval test at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Veach’s top lap in Session 1 of IndyCar’s two-day/four-session open test was 0.3446sec/3.159mph behind his quickest Andretti Autosport teammate, Marco Andretti. After an anomalously large gap to top AA time (set by Ryan Hunter-Reay) in session 2, Veach whittled down his deficit to his teammates over the two Saturday sessions. By the time the test ended, Andretti again led his father Michael’s quartet of entries with a 19.4658/189.008mph lap of the 1.022-mile track – but Veach was only 0.2902sec/2.776mph in arrears.
“I think we’re making great progress,” said Mothersead, “There’s nothing like throwing a rookie out in an IndyCar on a short, slick oval to slide around at 180mph!
“But seriously, Zach’s soaking up a lot – and he had to because Phoenix is one of the hardest places to learn. We were being very, very careful, just trying to nip off a tenth at a time, not do too much at once.
“I’m really happy with how much he’s taking on board from us, the engineers, and from his teammates. He’s listening and then it’s all about him putting it into practice. That’s all you can ask of a rookie. He’s going through a period of learning about the car and the tires, he and I are also going through a period of learning about each other, and so on.”
Up to speed for season-opener
Mothersead said that the speed at which Veach is learning should see him on the pace for Round 1 on the streets and runway at St. Petersburg, but again warned of expecting too much too soon elsewhere.
“He’s progressing really quickly, so I think by St. Pete he’ll be right with everybody,” he commented. “Long Beach is a tough one for rookies and he hasn’t raced there for four years. Again, like on ovals, it’s about remembering there’s a lot he doesn’t know and hasn’t experienced yet.
“In terms of getting up to speed and learning all you can is as short time as possible, I don’t think rookies have had it tougher than they do in this era,” he continued. “I remember at PPI Motorsports with Cristiano da Matta in 2000 [for the future champion’s sophomore CART Indy car season], by the time we got to the first race we’d done 3000 miles of testing together! By the time we get to St. Pete, Zach’s gonna have maybe 400 miles under his belt with us.
“But he’s clever; now he’s got to deal with the mental and emotional part of things like preserving his tires to give their best consistently across a whole stint, not burning them off while the car’s full of fuel. There’s an art to that, and you only learn it with experience.”
Size not an issue
Once there might have been an advantage for drivers of Veach’s petite dimensions, in terms of his team being able to use a the large amount of ballast to help balance the car to his tastes without interfering with the aerodynamics. Mothersead said this is no longer the case.
“Unfortunately IndyCar forces us to stuff all the ballast behind the seat,” he explained. “When Marco shook down Zach’s car before the rookie test, we couldn’t get Marco’s seat into the #26 because there was so much ballast crammed in back there!
“There are other issues with being Zach’s size. We’re getting to learn what we need to do in terms of steering-castor, and steering-wheel size but fortunately these cars have plenty of cockpit room to have a bigger wheel. So those are the typical ergonomic things you do to tailor a car for a new driver.
“So overall, it’s tough for a rookie, but I definitely Zach’s got the talent – and I tell ya, that kid has great car control – and also the brain to make the most of the opportunity he’s got here. So far, it’s all heading in the right direction.”