The dark art of IndyCar strategy

(via – Any racecar driver will tell you there is an infinitesimally fine line between hero and zero, when the car is teetering on the edge of adhesion. For an IndyCar team’s raceday strategist, the margins can be even tighter than that, as Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ managing director Taylor Kiel explains to David Malsher.

DM: How much of your strategy is defined by pre-event information from Firestone?

TK: That is an influencer for sure because we look at their pre-event information to establish a baseline, but ultimately it comes down to what we see in terms of tire behavior as the weekend progresses. Having an idea how quickly the tires will go is the jump-off point in terms of formulating strategy, but there’s no substitute for experience that you’ve gathered through practice, rather than predictions.

At Mid-Ohio, James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson qualified the Arrow SPM-Hondas 11thand 12th, right in the middle of the pack, and for the start of the race you put James on alternate compound tires [red sidewalls] and Marcus on the primary compound [black]. Was that the team hedging its bets on two different strategies or was it because one driver suited one tire compound more than another?

There were two reasons. One was to cover the bases, like you first suggested, which we typically do as a team because our goal is for an Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car to win the race; we don’t care which one, so we try and give ourselves two chances to win. The second reason is that with Marcus in the #7 car, we went a little off-strategy in qualifying, using two sets of reds in Q1 to get him into Q2, and that paid off, but it did mean we were a bit handcuffed for the race. But still, it meant we had gained him track position even before the race started.

So what does it take for you to not go with a split strategy? What’s the deciding factor in convincing you there is only one way to go, so that you run James and Marcus on the same strategies?

Well, in Detroit Race Two this year, the track heavily favored Firestone’s primary tire, because the reds were degrading so quickly. So almost everyone started on the alternate compound and thanks to an early yellow we almost all took the opportunity to get off them and pit for primaries. That was a strategy we utilized for both drivers because it was so clear-cut.

However, what we then did was different for the two cars. Marcus hadn’t qualified towards the front, but that enabled us to then be very aggressive on his strategy – go flat-out, pit, go flat-out, pit – because we didn’t have a whole lot to lose. If we’re starting in the back third of the field, we’re not interested in gaining a couple of places. From 13thto 10th, or from 13thto 15th– those kinds of results aren’t of much interest to us. We want to be up in the top five and in contention for podiums, so with the #7 we could take risks with strategy.

So that Detroit race became a good example of having one strategy covered with one car, another strategy covered with the second car. James was running for the win until he was knocked out of contention by another couple of cars, and then another strategy was covered by Marcus who was just able to charge and he ended up finishing second.

Is it frustrating that within one lap of having a great strategic idea, everyone else can copy you as soon as they see it’s worked? Or do you just accept that’s what will happen and you just have to make sure your driver makes that one lap an absolute killer that vaults you ahead of the cars you’ve been battling?

I wouldn’t say it’s annoying per se – the real excitement in a situation like that is the chance that you can be the one who times it perfectly. There are situations where it’s like the strategists are lined up on the cliff edge and we’re all saying, ‘You jump!’ ‘No, you jump!’ ‘No youjump!’ and so on.

We saw a really aggressive version of that in Detroit’s first race where we had a wet track that was drying, and Andretti Autosport brought Marco Andretti in really early for the change to slicks. Had something happened that brought out a full-course caution, he was going to be sitting pretty because the field would have been bunched up, and when the pits opened, all the rest of the strategists would have called in their cars and he’d have cycled to the front. As it was, by them jumping early, the rest of us got a chance to watch Marco’s lap times carefully and see when his speed started to be better on slicks than it had been on wets, so we all knew when was the ideal time to make our jump from wets to slicks.

But it’s a lot of fun trying to be the first people to make the right call. If you wait because you’re waiting to check out another driver’s lap times, you’re effectively going to be making the decision to pit one lap later than would have been ideal.

With more and more IndyCar races going caution-free, or almost caution-free, do you like the fact that kind of race simplifies the strategic decisions, or do you curse the fact that it gives you less chance to exploit a variable?

Both! Like you said, it does make the strategy clearer, but… it can make our jobs up on pitwall feel like a bit more of a letdown. Yellows give us an opportunity to take chances, whereas a green-flag-to-checkered-flag race that’s caution-free is a bit more about tire degradation and fuel mileage, and then everyone is following a similar strategy. So purely from my point of view from the pitwall, I prefer the races where we get a chance to roll the dice and make some headway by being sharper than our rivals. On the other hand, if you have a super-fast car, you’re going to want to maximize that and not have anyone catching up to you with caution periods.

Does the fact that it’s easier for drivers to make passes with this current car offer something of a catch-net so that if there’s a miscue in the pits or a slightly out-of-kilter strategy, the driver can still make up the position on track?

It does; you can hand it off to the driver and say, ‘Hey, we messed up a bit there. Can you get us back in front of that guy?’ But obviously we try and do everything we can to stay out of that situation. You don’t want your driver to go off line and risk picking up marbles or whatever on his tires, or have to use more fuel by hitting his push-to-pass, just to pass a car which had been running behind you up until that last stop. You want him to save tires and push-to-pass for taking on the nextcar up the road. The ideal scenario is to be able to say, ‘Hey, we just gained you a couple of spots on the pitstop sequence; now go get us a couple more on track.’

Given that there’s only one tire compound to use in an oval race, some might think it’s simpler to figure out strategy but, honestly, they can be more difficult to comprehend…

Oh yeah, they’re a totally different challenge! You’re constantly looking at the speed deltas between cars on old tires and cars on new tires, the pit windows are typically so big that you can have 20-30 laps difference between pitstops for cars that are still essentially on the same strategy. And then there’s the psychological aspect for your driver – quite often he’ll need reassurance from the pitwall to explain why someone who made an earlier stop has just blown his doors off! There can be a 10mph difference between cars on new tires and cars on old tires so your driver will need to be told, ‘That guy has stopped early but he’s off-sequence and you’re going to be fine once everyone’s cycled through the pits, because that guy’s tires are going to go off way sooner than yours.’

So strategizing on ovals is more fun because there’s more freedom. At the same time, you do have to look at where your guy is going to be coming out of the pits, because it’s one thing to have a pace advantage, but another one to actually be able to use it. You don’t want to send him out into a pack of slower cars, so that instead of using his new tires for speed, he’s taking the life out of them by putting him in dirty air. Having said that, at Iowa or Texas, the cars can get strung out so quickly that all you’ve got is dirty air!

So if your cars are running say, sixth and seventh, and a yellow comes out one or two laps before your pre-planned pit window, do you stop one car and leave the other one out or do you pull them both in and pray there’ll be another yellow and you can make up the shortfall so you won’t have to do a splash-n-dash later on?

Well, you can’t rely on yellows any more, the way the series is trending; there’s a lot fewer laps under caution than there used to be. And anyway we try never to rely on any variable outside our control to make our strategy work. We come up with a plan and sit down pre-race with our group of decision makers and discuss all the potential options.

We try to be prepared for any scenario, but there’s a quote from Mike Tyson that we try and live by in the strategy world – “Everybody’s got a strategy plan until they get punched in the mouth.” For us that means, we can put it on paper and talk about it all day long but it really comes down to all the variables that we spoke of plus plenty more, plus circumstance, plus this, plus that, and so on… There’s no way I can tell you, ‘Here’s the three things we look at to decide our strategy,’ because there’s so many other things in play.

How much do you guys argue on the pitwall, between the race engineer, data acquisition engineer, and yourself?

We have a series of checks and balances, that’s the way we operate, and I won’t get into the exact structure of how we communicate here at Arrow SPM, but we have a very open dialogue. I typically try to play devil’s advocate, so if one person suggests one thing, I’ll say ‘But what about X, Y, or Z?’ But actually, so do the other guys, and I encourage that openness because I don’t think we should be limited to just one brain thinking about strategic plays.

Ultimately, when we make a decision we’ll stick to it, and we’ll all raise our hands if it goes wrong – and we’ll all take credit if it goes right! And so conflict is not really a part of what we do. By the time of the race, we’ve worked together as a team devising the plan so we all have to suck it up and accept the consequences if it doesn’t play out the way we intended. There’s no point in wasting time or energy getting upset about the woulda/coulda situations. You just learn from them and bear them in mind for next time.

Finally, the driver can’t see the big picture like you folks on the pitwall can. On the other hand, he can give you the most accurate read on how the car is handling, how much grip he’s got, and he’ll likely recall how that fitted in with the pre-race strategic plan. I assume, therefore, that James and Marcus remain part of their half of the team’s strategy-making team once the green flag drops, right?

Definitely. The clearest example of that was when we won at Iowa last year: the person I asked about the tire situation was James himself. When the race went under caution very late in the final stint, some drivers pitted for fresh tires, and I needed to know from James how well he thought the tires would last, if the race restarted. He was in front but could he stay out on older tires and hold off another frontrunner on new tires? We didn’t want a similar situation to the one that cost us the win in Phoenix a couple months earlier. So at Iowa I got James’ feedback and we put that into the blender and decided the right thing to do would be to stay out. And as it turned out, we didn’t need to worry because in fact the race finished under that yellow.

So to answer your question, the driver’s feedback is critical to us being able to make the most informed decision we possibly can. We’re lucky to have two very smart drivers who think about these things while they’re also racing, so we know their knowledge can be trusted and so it becomes a crucial component to our strategy, both pre-race and mid-race.

About Arrow Electronics

Arrow Electronics guides innovation forward for over 200,000 leading technology manufacturers and service providers. With 2018 sales of $30 billion, Arrow develops technology solutions that improve business and daily life. Learn more at

Share the news!