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Schmidt: “I’ve never been so excited ahead of an IndyCar season”
The new branding of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports signifies a hefty investment by the SPM-Honda team’s principal sponsor, and team co-owner Sam Schmidt says it’s already having a positive effect throughout the team. He spoke to David Malsher.
The tale of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ 2018 season in IndyCar is one of triumph, adversity, and triumph in the face of adversity. Robert Wickens’ huge accident at Pocono Raceway was the absolute nadir, of course. Up to that point, the extreme disappointment of SPM’s season was James Hinchcliffe’s failure to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
But, astonishing as it may seem, positives have been drawn from both occasions. Witnessing via social media Wickens’ genuinely awe-inspiring desire to give 101 percent to his recovery has been a lesson to everyone about what determination truly means as well as how to tackle difficulties with dignity, how to face hardship with humor. As for Hinchcliffe and the team, that emotional day last May prompted deep examination, analysis and revision of the team’s functions and procedures both in the off-season and during the build up to the NTT IndyCar Series’ marquee event. Major lessons have been learned.
Photo by: Covy Moore
The result is that Sam Schmidt heads into the 2019 season more positive than ever, knowing that the final points standings in last year’s IndyCar drivers’ championship did not reflect the true picture of just how far the team had come. Hinchcliffe, by missing out on the double points on offer at Indy, was 10th in the title race; Wickens missed three races including the double points awarded at the season finale at Sonoma and was classified 11th. The reality? Last year, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was the most consistent thorn in the side of IndyCar’s so-called Big Three teams – Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Team Penske.
You only needed to look at the team’s high points to see that. Hinchcliffe won in Iowa, scored a podium at Barber Motorsports Park and had three other top-five finishes. Wickens took a pole position, four podium finishes and three other top-fives, as well as the Rookie of the Year title at both the Indy 500 and in the series overall. It was the season in which SPM truly came of age, which is why Arrow Electronics, about to enter its fifth year with the team, has upped its investment to back both SPM cars. It’s why former Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson made a beeline for SPM HQ on Coffman Road in Indianapolis when seeking an IndyCar ride. And all of this and more is why Schmidt tells Motorsport.com that he’s never headed into an IndyCar season so eager for the action to get underway.
“In seven years of full-time IndyCar team ownership, I can honestly say we’ve never been so prepared as a team,” he comments, “from the standpoints of equipment, personnel, pitstop drill, engineering, preseason testing analysis… In previous years it has felt like the offseason, however long it is in IndyCar, has never been quite long enough to get absolutely everything done that you want to get done. There’s always one area or maybe a couple of areas where you wish you had just a little more time.
“But we pulled the trigger on 2019 preparation very early last year and we’re feeling really good as a team.”
Since Schmidt is rarely a man for overstatement, for him to sound so bullish about his team’s prospects for 2019 he must feel extremely upbeat about Arrow SPM’s chances of competing on level terms with the three teams that have produced the last 16 IndyCar champions. One of their common traits, and one that characterizes the best outfits in any motorsport series, is the ability to acknowledge, analyze and address weaknesses. So for instance, over the past seven months Ganassi has altered its technical philosophy on road courses and Penske has addressed its deficit on street courses. For Schmidt, the target has been to improve on superspeedways.
“I think that was the only type of track where we felt we had a significant issue,” he comments, “and unfortunately that became very evident for James at Indy. We found out what we did wrong across all four of the cars we ran there last year and the problem was largely self-generated: given the fact that IndyCar had introduced a new aerokit, we should have spent more time in the windtunnel preparing for superspeedways. But I can confidently say that mistake won’t happen again.
Marcus Ericsson, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images
“To make progress, you have to be honest with yourself, and throughout this last winter and even beforehand, we have looked at every single race and seen where we could have improved. We could have found a better setup for looking after tires at this track, we could have called a better strategy in that race, and so on. There’s always something you could have done better.”
Schmidt expresses zero misgivings over his driver lineup for 2019, after uniting most fans’ favorite or second-favorite IndyCar driver, Hinchcliffe, with the quieter but similarly charming Swede, Ericsson. Hinch, about to enter his ninth season in IndyCar, has driven his #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda to victories at NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015, Long Beach in 2017 and Iowa Speedway last year and has a total of six victories to his name. Ericsson, a GP2 race winner, has competed in 97 Formula 1 races, scored several top-10 points finishes last year driving for Sauber, and has impressed the Arrow SPM team in testing. Schmidt believes each driver’s motivation for 2019 will come from interesting sources.
“From everything I’ve observed and heard, Marcus is showing good potential and has provided good feedback,” he says of his rookie, “and I think you’ll see a real determination to prove himself in IndyCar right from the start.
“Let’s face it, he’ll have a chip on his shoulder about losing his ride in Formula 1. So I’d say that it’s those five seasons in F1 and his technical understanding and analysis that are going to make Marcus very strong as an IndyCar driver, but I think on top of that he’ll also be really fired up to make a good impression pretty much immediately.
"OK, he’s a rookie and it’s easy for a rookie to lose his way as he’s searching for his ideal setup at a track he’s never seen before in a car he’s not yet 100 percent familiar with. That can happen to any driver, and it’s the veterans of the series who rebound quickest over the course of a weekend, but I think Marcus’ experience in other series, our own strength in depth as a team and the data sharing with James, Robbie and Jack Harvey [driving the Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry] will help smooth out some of those bumps.
James Hinchcliffe, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images
“As for James, I think he’s going to feel challenged. As well as his own inbuilt desire, something that every good racecar driver has, I think he will be motivated by the fact that he doesn’t want his success last year to be attributed only to the fact that he and Robbie were such great teammates, where one setup generally worked for both of them and their long friendship really provided a lot of the chemistry that drove us all forward. James knows he’s got to step up and lead everything this year, and he’s got the experience to do that.
“It will also be good whenever possible to have Robbie in engineering debriefs, because I think that will help both drivers, especially as he’s driven all these circuits and used this current aero package. That will be a huge boost for us.”
Speaking of Wickens, his presence at St. Petersburg this year will bring an extra element of pressure to the Arrow SPM squad and debutant Ericsson in particular. At the same course last season, Wickens belied his rookie status and on a very tricky wet-turning-dry track surface managed to edge traditional St. Pete polesitter Will Power to snatch P1 on the grid. The Canadian then led most of the race, before being knocked out at the final restart by a collision with Alexander Rossi.
“Yes, it’s obvious what our performance reference will be!” Schmidt agrees. “And unfortunately things like that accident will occasionally happen. All we can do is go full force ahead, try and emulate or even improve upon that performance, and be as fast and operationally strong as we can be. It’s the nature of racing that there are some things that will always be outside your control.”
If Schmidt accepts that this weekend at St. Petersburg his team’s potential will be directly measured against the promise it showed at the same event 12 months earlier, so too he openly acknowledges an increased weight of expectation throughout the 17-race 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. To put it bluntly, Arrow’s financial impetus, which has provided extra resource and more effective preseason preparation, will need to be demonstrably justified by the time the checkered flag falls on the Sept. 22 finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, CA. Being fourth best team is no longer enough; it’s time for the squad to make the next step, turn IndyCar’s Big Three into a Big Four.
“It’s very clear that with the support and the team that we have, there can be no excuses this year,” states Schmidt. “We’re in our dream scenario thanks to Arrow but that puts us under even more serious pressure, and everyone has to perform 100 percent in each role, or we’ll find someone who will.
Marcus Ericsson, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Photo by: IndyCar Series
“We previously had a multi-year deal with Arrow but it was only on one car and we didn’t have huge primary sponsorship on the second car, so we were kind of muscling through it and showing potential on a fairly regular basis. Now we are a team that has to have at least one car if not both cars qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six at every street and road course.
“We don’t want to be considered the way you described it – as best of the rest or the number four team in the series. We should be in the top group, running for the championship – and in a sustainable way, too. When the next-gen IndyCar [for 2022] is unveiled, we want the strength in depth and the capacity whereby we can have a whole department not on the road for the races but back at base, working on the information and aero figures that Dallara supply us in advance, so we hit the ground running in the next era, too.”
Such expansion has been seen already, not only in the team’s engineering departments but also on the commercial side – another sign that Sam Schmidt and co-owner Ric Peterson have taken their team into the big leagues.
“In terms of number of fulltime staff working with Arrow and our other partners, there’s been quite an upgrade,” Schmidt comments. “It’s interesting: you never quite realize how many logos and decals you have spread around the team’s trucks, race shop, hospitality units, clothing, signage, firesuits, fan gear and so on until you make a change such as rebranding the team. It’s amazing – there are hundreds and hundreds of logos everywhere that needed replacing.
“So yes, our commercial people have had to be very much on the case from that point of view. That’s even aside from their work at the race tracks with guests and so on, which we’ve seen expand year by year. In every way, we are taking steps forward, and this partnership with Arrow is a huge one.”
The openness with which Schmidt acknowledges his long- and medium-term aspirations is impressive, exceptionally so in light of that aforementioned pragmatism. That said, in the short-term – the very short-term, namely, this weekend’s season-opener – he and any team owner has to acknowledge the girdle-tight competition within the NTT IndyCar Series before making predictions or setting targets. In contrast with his big-picture optimism, the aim for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is more modest, once he dispenses with the obvious caveat.
“The objective should always be to win,” says Schmidt, “but I think we will leave St. Pete reasonably satisfied if we’ve achieved a top three with James and a top 10 for Marcus. Hinch has got the speed at that track, which he’s proven by winning there before. Marcus has got to learn racecraft with the tires, he’s got to learn rolling starts and he’s got to learn how to fight whoever he’s racing against – like who he can give space to and who he can’t. A rookie on his debut always has several unknown factors to contend with.
“Those are very solid achievable targets. We’re aiming to be in the top-three/top-four mix for the championship all year, and that will take consistency, which means we have to get through events relatively unscathed as often as possible. That’s the way you fulfill your potential.”
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