Piers Phillips, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ general manager, says the team needs to do substantial work on James Hinchcliffe’s car for ovals, after handling problems in the Phoenix open test left him near the bottom of the speed charts.
Hinchcliffe ended the first session in the two-day open test in 15th but by the fourth and final session he was 21st out of 22 cars, and his best time across the four sessions left him 22nd overall.
Phillips told Motorsport.com: “It’s fairly obvious now that we had an aero-load imbalance with the #5 car. James spent the whole test struggling with this instability, so as a team we have work to do there.
“The thing is, the car Robert [Wickens, teammate] is driving is a full production car, whereas James’ car is a combination of the prototype car that Oriol Servia and us ran for Honda during initial testing of the aerokit last year, and then new production parts. The new parts have been slow to come through, so we haven’t been able to build up a complete new car for James yet.
“On the second day [at Phoenix], we took a big swing at Hinch’s setup – a huge swing – and it made no difference, so that’s usually an indicator that something funky is going on.”
Hinchcliffe has endured a difficult relationship with Phoenix’s ISM Raceway since Indy car racing returned to the 1.022-mile oval in 2016. He suffering a shunt in preseason testing in 2016, and then another one last December, in his first short-oval test with the new aerokit-equipped car.
Wickens “going to be an absolute gem”
Phillips, who along with his general manager role will also call strategy for Wickens this year, said he had been encouraged by the progress made by the team’s rookie driver.
“I’d say Robert had a phenomenal three days at Phoenix, bearing in mind he’d never seen an oval before, and that track is seriously difficult, almost the worst place to do your oval rookie orientation. We went through the rookie program on the Thursday with him using a very safe set-up, as you’d imagine, to give him confidence, give him laps, give him an idea what ovals are all about.”
On the Friday, the first day of the open test, Wickens completed the first session in 13th, 4.9mph off the top time and although he dropped to 14th in the afternoon, he improved on his best lap by 3.4mph, broadly in line with the pace improvement from the front runners. In the third session on Saturday afternoon, Wickens cut his deficit to the leaders from 4.5mph to 3.4mph (0.36sec), while in the Saturday evening session he focused on gaining experience in traffic.
“We left the test Friday night thoroughly excited about Robert’s potential,” said Phillips. “He got cut tires three times that day, and on his first full day on an oval we weren’t going to trim him out and make him go for a quali time. So we never put a real quali simulation time on the board.
“But on Saturday morning we lightly trimmed the car each time he went out on a new set of tires, and gave him the feel for a lower-downforce car, and he ended up 13th. He wasn’t comfortable in the car, so we were really pleased with what he could do on fresh rubber.
“The final evening session was all about putting Robert out on used rubber in traffic, so we tried to send him out in groups. I think he learned a few lessons from the pros who hung him out and worked him over a few times. But in terms of his speed, that session probably told the least of the story. Giving him 100 laps in dirty air was the main idea.
“So overall, we’re really pleased with Robert. I think he’s going to be an absolute gem.”