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Texas done, Arrow SPM sets targets for second half of season
With the Texas Motor Speedway race in the books and the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team having received another couple of adrenaline shots from its performance there, team technical director Todd Malloy assesses the race in the Lone Star state and the season so far, and sets near-term targets. By David Malsher.
There’s something magical about watching the NTT IndyCar Series in action at Texas Motor Speedway, even aside from the amphitheatrical setting.
In afternoon practice, as the sun reaches its zenith and the heat and light reflect off the pale pavement, the cars rush by as 220mph streaks of saturated Technicolor and then pitch into the transition of 20-degree banking through Turns 1 and 2 or 24 degrees through Turns 3 and 4. But the evening sessions – final practice and the race itself – appear even more dramatic, for while the hues are muted, the speeds appear enhanced by the cars fluttering and shimmering under the spotlights and through the interlaced shadows of debris fences, poles, grandstands and walls.
Because all the drivers are of a high standard, it can take a while to visually and audibly distinguish between the most talented veterans and the slightly more uncertain rookies, at least while the Firestone tires are fresh and everyone can hold the throttle down all the way around. As the rubber degrades over a long stint, you start to hear the slight feathering of the throttle on corner entry, and can see the drivers ascribing a shallower arc through the turn to not only reduce the tire scrub and therefore the rate of degradation but also carry the same level of speed onto the straights, now that the shortest line is not the fastest line.
Marcus Ericsson, who completed his first oval test here back in April before heading to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Rookie Orientation Practice, qualified his #7 Arrow SPM-Honda at 217.953mph (that’s an average over two flying laps) to place 14th on the grid, ahead of previous Texas Motor Speedway winners and polesitters Will Power and Tony Kanaan. In the race – remember, only his second ever oval event – he kept out of trouble and moved up to finish seventh, on the lead lap and ahead of oval veterans such as Sebastien Bourdais, Power and Marco Andretti.
“It was a pretty tough evening, for sure, but fun,” he told Motorsport.com. “It was my first race on high banking, and so of course it’s quite different from Indy.
"It was a great race and I didn’t do any mistakes. My first goal was to finish, my second was to be in the Top 10, and I accomplished both those goals, so I think this is a good result for my first encounter at Texas. The Arrow car was good on tire degradation – the car felt consistent, so that was good.”
Teammate James Hinchcliffe had greater ambitions after qualifying eighth, and he swiftly became a fixture in the top five. With 30 laps to go, he had almost completed a pass on eventual runner-up Alexander Rossi around the outside of Turns 1 and 2 when the #5 Arrow SPM car ran a little high, into the gray – the drivers’ term for the less-used parts of the track that tend to be covered in dust and other debris and therefore offer less grip. Having almost captured third place, he instead had to try and catch a vicious slide, snapped his steering-wheel to the right but caught the SAFER barrier and suffered damage to the right side of the car, ending his race.
Hinch, as ever, owned his error and was mad at himself that the team had lost what should have been a second consecutive podium finish, and maybe even a win.
“We were coming up on some lapped cars and I tried to use those lapped cars to get a pick on Rossi," he explained. "We got a good run on the outside, but I just got a little bit high and into the gray. The car pushed to the outside and then just snapped on me, tagged the right rear into the wall and just went around.
“My fault. I was trying to make moves at the end of the race and get a good result for the #5 Arrow guys – they really deserved it.
"We've had just garbage luck this year. The car was good, strategy was good, Arrow guys were good in the pits, just my mistake."
Arrow SPM’s technical director Todd Malloy could still, however, gain satisfaction from the team’s performance in the Lone Star state.
“Huge credit to the race engineers Will [Anderson on Hinchcliffe’s car] and Blair [Perschbacher on Ericsson’s car],” he told Motorsport.com. “Both cars improved throughout the weekend because they made some good changes, and we didn’t suffer the tire blistering that some were getting just at the end of stints.
“I don’t believe any of the cars got a full stint on the tires in practice… or not a full consecutive-lap stint, and that is different because by stopping mid-stint in practice, you’re interrupting the tires’ heat cycle, giving them a chance to cool off. So, we went in not really knowing how the tires would behave over a full stint, but we were reasonably confident because traditionally this year we’ve had good long-run cars; our setups have been pretty kind on tires.
“James did a really good job of making sure he was fast but well positioned to do a three-stop strategy, which is very difficult to do. He was staying in the draft and saving fuel while also not using up his tires, which degrade quicker when you’re running in dirty air because you’re sliding more. Not many drivers were able to legitimately do that three-stop strategy without the help from a couple of caution periods near the end, so that was impressive.
“I was on the #7 stand for Marcus, and it was all about staying on the lead lap, staying out of trouble and learning all night. His restarts were pretty solid: there was one where he would do something differently in hindsight, but actually on the next one he made up for everything he’d lost on the poor one. That was impressive for his first 1.5-mile oval.”
Given that Ericsson was in his ninth IndyCar race and Hinch was in his 131st, it’s not surprising that the cars were not set up exactly the same.
“Marcus’ car was a bit less edgy,” confirmed Malloy, “and that’s partly because he’s a rookie and partly because he was coming from midfield so he’d have more dirty air to deal with throughout the night. And that was ideal: Blair did a good job getting Marcus comfortable, and we didn’t change the car all race. The setup was already in the window enough to where Marcus was happy to drive and learn, so the last thing you should do is suddenly make a change that puts him into unfamiliar territory.
“Blair’s been great about that, both last year with Robbie [Wickens] and this year with Marcus. He’s really good at building a rookie’s confidence on ovals, which is very important when what they most need is miles and experience, and he goes through car changes in a very gradual progressive manner for them.”
Mid-term reflections and projections
The halfway point of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series 17-race season was midway through the Texas race, so the end of the event was a good chance to look back on the nine races so far – four on street courses (St. Petersburg, Long Beach and the Detroit double-header), three on road courses (Circuit of The Americas, Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis road course) and two on ovals (Indianapolis 500 and Texas Motor Speedway).
In the points race, Arrow SPM’s drivers currently lie 11th (Hinchcliffe) and 15th (Ericsson), with Marcus also third in the Rookie of the Year standings.
“I think it’s fair to repeat what James has been saying – that our results have not reflected our performance,” assesses Malloy. “The bottom line is that we don’t have enough points on the board, so we can’t be satisfied with the results.
“I think our target now has to be to step up our qualifying performance. As I said earlier, we’ve had good long-run cars and we’ve generally had good speed on race day, to the point where I’m sure if we’d started further forward we’d have had several more podium finishes.
“But there’s also encouragement in that because I can see where we’ve improved as a team, year on year. Long Beach and Detroit are two tracks where we’ve stepped up our race pace compared with last season, so I feel like overall our cars are better. Also, I think our pit stops have been pretty good all year as well, apart from that error at COTA. I think our crews have been doing a great job.
“Now we need to step up and fully execute as a team every weekend, and make sure we qualify where we should be.”
Malloy is also thrilled with how Ericsson has taken to IndyCar racing after five years in Formula 1.
“Marcus has really thrown himself into the learning process,” he comments. “There’s still a lot to learn including the majority of the tracks, but he’s also learning about the cars and the tires every single lap he’s out there.
“I think winning Rookie of the Year [as Arrow SPM did with Wickens in 2018] is very much a possibility. If you look at the rookies, they’re all fast guys and they all make mistakes, so it’s about how quickly they mature and iron out the mistakes and what cars they’re given and how quickly they learn the cars and learn what to ask for. It’s basically a race to see how quickly they can add race smarts to their natural speed.”
At Ericsson's current rate of progress, and with a solid veteran teammate who possesses an ace turn of speed, hopes are running high for the second half of the season at Arrow SPM.
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Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Hondas of James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens and Marcus Ericsson.
Photo by: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
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