Hinchcliffe stars for Arrow SPM at Gateway

(via – A rookie test for Marcus Ericsson at World Wide Technology Raceway proved crucial to Arrow SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe playing a starring role in the race. Hinch’s race engineer Will Anderson explains to David Malsher how this perfect example of teamwork paid off, even if misfortune again prevented a strong result.

James Hinchcliffe was a puzzled man after first practice for last Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at the 1.25-mile oval in Madison, IL. Come the end of the hour-long session, the #5 Arrow SPM-Honda was at the bottom of the time sheets, while rookie teammate Marcus Ericsson was second fastest.

True, Ericsson has proven that he is one of those European-trained drivers who has managed to adapt well to the unique demands of oval racing. True too was that, as a newbie, he had enjoyed a day’s test at WWTR. But still, this seemed an unusual state of affairs: Hinchcliffe, with so much experience on which to draw, has proven he can be fast everywhere.

And this is where Arrow SPM’s teamwork came into play. Will Anderson, Hinchcliffe’s race engineer, had attended Ericsson’s rookie day at WWTR with his engineer, Blair Perschbacher, and therefore intimately knew the setup that Ericsson was using and why it was working. It was time to use the #7 car’s setup on the #5.

“There were a couple of things outside our control that exaggerated the gap between them in that first session,” explains Anderson, “but Marcus has done a really good job this year on ovals. Everywhere else he has been the one adapting to James’ setups. This was the first time that Marcus led the setup and James adapted to it.”

For Hinchcliffe to then go and qualify seventh with a setup untried by him and on a track made treacherous by scattered sand to soak up oil dropped by vintage Indy cars in between sessions, was deeply impressive. Just a warm-up lap, then two laps on the ragged edge – IndyCar qualifying is not for the faint-hearted…

“Honestly, that was a pretty impressive qualifying effort from James,” says Anderson. “There was a 4mph improvement in qualifying speed compared with our practice speed, and with the track being far from perfect, that was a very strong effort considering all the question marks.”

Speaking of question marks, despite qualifying being followed by an evening practice on the Friday, by the time the teams lined up for race night, there were still unknowns regarding how the revised Firestones would behave with a full fuel load.

“We couldn’t quite get through a whole tank’s worth of fuel without getting a tire vibration during night practice,” admits Anderson. “Normally in the race it will be a little better because the race pace is a little slower, and there’s more rubber on the track that also eases tire life. But still we – along with every other team, I’m sure – were wondering just how far we might get before we got the tire vibrations.”

On any track, a car can get tire vibrations caused by pickup – that’s where a driver goes slightly off the racing line, perhaps to make a passing maneuver, and the hot tires run over the rubber marbles thrown out by degrading tires, and these marbles then stick to the tires. But that’s just a temporary phenomenon, and a driver can soon dispose of this detritus within a few corners.

Another kind of tire vibration can occur on road and street courses, where a driver locks a tire under heavy braking and ‘flat-spots’ the tire so it is no longer a perfect circle. There is no practical way to solve this other than pitting for a new set of Firestones.

But on ovals there is a third kind of vibration that can occur due to the left (inside) tires wearing at a different rate and in a different way to the right (outside) tires. And from car to car, there are varying setups so one car may encounter problems sooner or later than another.

Obviously Anderson won’t give away details on how the Arrow SPM squad ameliorated the issue for the race, but it certainly seemed to work. Not only was Hinchcliffe able to run fast all the way to his first pitstop cycle, he was also ahead of all the Andretti Autosport cars, and on the tail of the two Chip Ganassi Racing machines.

“Yeah, I think we made a good step from second practice to the race,” says Anderson. “We definitely had a setup that took care of the tires so we could run long, so on the first stint when I think a lot of drivers were pitting early because they were getting vibrations, we could run longer.

“I don’t think we had the outright pace on fresh rubber, so the number of caution periods in the race hurt us. That’s why we got shuffled back on some restarts – we weren’t generating peak grip as quickly as some of the cars around us. But I think that lack of heat generation is also partly why we had a good long-run car.

“Also, being a veteran of the sport, James is very mindful, very smart about how long he’s got to make the tires last so he drives accordingly. That helps manage the tire life.”

By chance, the team pitted at exactlythe right moment at the end of the first stint, committing to pitlane just as the caution flags flew for Will Power’s crash. Following the pitstop cycle, that left the #5 Arrow SPM-Honda out front, pursued by rookie Santino Ferrucci in the Dale Coyne Racing entry, who eventually got past.

“In terms of pace, Ferrucci was better than maybe anyone for a lot of that race,” remarks Anderson, “but we were able to stay in second ahead of [Sebastien] Bourdais [Ferrucci’s teammate] and we could maintain the same pace as him.”

Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden would pass Hinchcliffe on a restart but still he seemed destined for a top-five finish until three slower cars shuffled into the lead as a result of a well-timed (for them!) caution period. And, following a restart, Hinchcliffe clashed with the Andretti car of Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“Yeah, James and Ryan were disputing territory and James got driven down to the curb at Turn 1,” says Anderson. “Squeezing up over that curb at 175mph bent something and we were struggling with the handling thereafter. We were much better than the result [12th], but that’s the story of our season, isn’t it?”

With Gateway as the fifth and last oval of the 17-race IndyCar season, Anderson regards Arrow SPM’s progress on left-turn only tracks in 2019 as noteworthy, albeit not yet putting the team in the position it wishes to be.

“I think we made a good step on the ovals, pace-wise, this season. Obviously Indy was a lot better this year than last, and in Texas we were heading for a podium until our incident. Iowa we got a third place. Pocono would have been interesting but obviously we were taken out on Lap 1 so we don’t know. And I think we were more competitive at Gateway, and although we didn’t have an outright winning car, we should have finished near the front.”

Ericsson had an even more frustrating night than Hinchcliffe, recovering from an early spin so well that he even led two laps, but then later clipping the Turn 4 wall. Thankfully that didn’t cause permanent damage, but it left the Swede two laps down, and wondering what might have been.

“[At the start] I got chopped in Turn 3 and I sort of half-spun the car and managed to stay out of the way of other cars, so that wasn’t the best start to the race,” reflected Marcus afterward. “There was no damage, so we could come in to clean up the grass on the car and get after it again…

“The Arrow car was fast out there and we were moving up through the field. Unfortunately after one of the stops, on the out lap, I had a moment in Turn 3 and made contact with the wall, so that sort of put our day in a bad place and we lost two laps.

“The guys did a great job to repair the car very quickly. From then on it was a tough race, but again we showed a lot of pace, and I don’t think there were a lot of cars out there that were faster than us.

“It’s a bit like our season: a lot of potential, a lot of pace, but not the results to show for it. Today was disappointing, but we’ll take the positives and move forward.”

Redemption could come as soon as this weekend at Portland International Raceway, venue for the penultimate round of the 2019 IndyCar season. The Arrow SPM team was encouragingly fast at this 1.967-mile road course last year. Hinchcliffe started seventh but suffered a crash on the opening lap; Robert Wickens’ substitute, Carlos Munoz, took the race’s fastest lap; and Jack Harvey in the Michael Shank Racing with Arrow SPM machine advanced from 13thon the grid to run as high as fifth mid-race.

“Yeah, we’re really looking forward to this one,” says Anderson. “Last year James was fast, Carlos was fast on raceday even though he’d never run the car with the current aerokit before that weekend, and I think that was also the breakthrough race for Jack. I seem to recall he had second fastest race lap after Carlos! So yes, it seems like we had a handle on this car at Portland, and we hope we can turn up with a very similar baseline setup this weekend and fine-tune it from there.

“If that’s the case, then all fingers crossed that we can actually get the results that are worthy of that speed.”

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