Patricio O'Ward, the 2018 Indy Lights champion, turned his first laps in an Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet IndyCar this week. Circumstances weren't ideal but driver, race engineer and managing director are already excited about their collective prospects, reports David Malsher.
Hurry up and wait – by necessity, that’s the work methodology in a motorsport offseason. As every series seeks to contain costs for the teams – effectively to save them from themselves! – and also to prevent the financially blessed from stretching their advantage over the less handsomely endowed, the number of days permitted to go testing is severely limited.
Long gone is the era where engineers had the luxury of devising a major change and track-proving it almost immediately in order to discover if it produced the intended difference to the racecar. Instead, a team must stockpile ideas, and head off in development directions founded on their previous experience and led by their intuition. Having done the sums, come up with theories, gone to the simulator and returned with yet more theories and calculations, the engineers then endure an annoying lull before they can apply any of this in the real world, when trying out this torrent of ideas will be squeezed into a few precious test days.
Thus from the day after IndyCar’s 2019 finale at Laguna Seca on Sept. 22, there has been a flurry of head-down number-crunching analysis being processed by engineers throughout the series, as they try to calculate what difference the new Red Bull Advanced Technologies-developed aeroscreen will make to the handling of their cars in 2020. The screen raises the center of gravity [CoG] and moves it forward, so how will that affect handling? How will it affect tire wear? What are the new parameters for counteracting any undesirable effects? Will the car setups developed with this same universal Dallara aerokit over the 2018 and ’19 seasons be at all applicable in ’20? Or will the radical shift in weight distribution force everyone to start over?
Eye-catching livery featuring the Arrow McLaren SP logo is for testing only. Expect handsome replacement to be unveiled next February.
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP
The complication in this particular off-season has been one of scheduling. While there are only a few aeroscreens available – the plan is for every entry to have at least one by year’s end – testing has been pretty much limited to work for the series itself as it signs off on the aeroscreen design. Testing the device on a superspeedway, a road course and a short oval had already been completed, but last Tuesday, Arrow McLaren SP and Dale Coyne Racing were given the task of running the screen at Sebring Raceway – the best available simulation of a street course due to the track’s notorious bumps, pavement patch-ups and variety of curbing.
So while the engineers remain impatient to apply all their conjecture and hypothesizing where it matters most – on track – the focus of this test was work for the good of IndyCar as a whole. Still, no team would turn down the opportunity to get rolling once more.
For Arrow McLaren SP, it marked the start of a brand new era, not only because of its switch to Chevrolet engines but also because the team will run two new drivers in 2020 – Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew, the Indy Lights champions from 2018 and 2019 respectively. Askew will be an IndyCar race debutant at the season-opener in St. Petersburg next March, although he already tested impressively for Chip Ganassi Racing at Portland International Raceway last August.
O’Ward, meanwhile, has a little more experience: immediately after his highly successful Lights campaign in 2018, he made his IndyCar debut with Harding Steinbrenner Racing in that year’s finale and then ran seven races for Carlin this year, before embellishing his portfolio with races in Formula 2 in Europe and Super Formula in Japan. Now he’s back where many feel he belongs.
Given his previous experience at this level, Arrow McLaren SP chose O’Ward to pilot its car for this first test with the aeroscreen, while Askew stood on the pitbox with the team, closely observing and listening. Also present were the team’s managing director Taylor Kiel, and of course O’Ward’s race engineer Will Anderson. And while the work, as expected, was mainly on behalf of IndyCar’s aeroscreen endeavors and trying different configurations for cockpit cooling, Kiel, Anderson and O’Ward left the track with 100 laps completed and a slightly clearer picture regarding prospects for next season.
“From Day 1, Pato has integrated himself well,” Kiel told Motorsport.com. “He’s got such a likeable personality and he brings a level of enthusiasm that perks up everyone and gets them excited about the year ahead. And of course he’s fast…
“I was never worried about him integrating with the team; I just wanted him in the car as soon as possible so we could start working through a checklist. Obviously the test was primarily for IndyCar to check off the box of testing the aeroscreen on a simulated street course, and I think IndyCar was grateful for our input. But from our selfish point of view, we were very grateful to IndyCar for this opportunity to test before the new year. We got a chance to work with a driver we hadn’t worked with before, and that’s important because obviously he’s going to be playing a major role in guiding our development as we get to know this version of the car, where a lot has changed.
O’Ward turned five 20-lap stints of Sebring's short course in the Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet.
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP
“So that felt good because up to that point, the off-season for us had just been planning and meeting and discussing, visiting McLaren in the UK and attending a couple of F1 races with our new partners. This Sebring test was a chance to get out there and see if all the strategizing and work in the off-season so far had paid off. Simulators are great, but even now they can only tell you so much, so there’s no substitute for track time.
"Although we were working for IndyCar, at least we now have a feel for Pato’s driving style and feedback, and he got a feel for the car’s new handling balance. That helps as we carry on working through winter.”
Something else that will aid Arrow McLaren SP’s progress – and maintain team spirit within the ranks – is that while the name, the powerplant and the drivers have changed, the personnel line-up is remaining pretty much untouched.
“Yeah, and it’s important to have that continuity, especially at a time when other significant changes are happening within the team,” says Kiel. “But apart from anything else, we just have absolute faith in who we’ve got. Remember, we really shook the tree a couple of years ago in terms of team lineup, and since doing that, we believe we’ve assembled the right group – solid, high-performing, reliable racing people with good attitudes and strong work ethics. Keeping hold of them was vital for us.”
One of those high performers is of course Anderson, who has so far been delighted with his new driver.
“Pato’s feedback was really good,” he says, “better than I had initially expected, given his limited experience. He could split up the corners into segments to diagnose and describe what the car was doing at each point, so I was impressed. That’s something you really look for in rookies – how much have they learned through previous years, working in different cars?
“And then looking at the data in terms of how he drives the car, that’s encouraging too. His driving style suits what this era of IndyCar wants.”
Anderson was also relieved to see the last six weeks of work on projected car setups has paid off.
“I think we arrived at the track pretty close to where we wanted to be,” he says. “We’d done a lot of homework on the simulation side and had a package that we felt would be pretty good balance-wise. I mean, it’s hard to judge definitively because Sebring is Sebring and the grip levels shift quite a bit, but I think we can still do better once we’re allowed to test for ourselves rather than IndyCar, and then we can change more.
Most objective observers would agree it's great to see 2018 Indy Lights champ O'Ward back in the IndyCar Series. He brings a lot of talent and a lot of candor.
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP
“For the same reason, it’s hard to compare the engines now that we’ve switched to Chevrolet: it was great to have their Pratt & Miller and Ilmor guys getting us up to speed quickly, but corner exit speeds are hard to compare because the conditions this week were quite different from when we last tested at Sebring with a Honda. I don’t think there’s a huge discrepancy, but without giving away too much, I think the Chevy is really strong and I think we’ll enjoy working with them.”
O’Ward, aware he needed to prioritize working with IndyCar on various ways of channeling fresh air into a cockpit now surrounded by the aeroscreen, was nonetheless pleased to refamiliarize himself with a Dallara-Chevy. He was pleased also to discover there wasn’t much rust to blow off.
“It was really good to be back,” he says, “and I think I adapted back pretty quick so I could start giving feedback to the Arrow McLaren SP team. The seating position compared with Super Formula is quite different so it took one or two laps to get acclimated. Braking-wise the IndyCar feels different, power-wise and downforce-wise they’re pretty similar, but the Super Formula car is quite a bit lighter. But I honestly didn’t struggle that much.
“I went through five sets of tires and put 20 laps on each, and me and Will have gotten along right off the bat. Everything I asked for from the car, he found a solution to, and everything I had to change technique-wise I could do very quickly. We progressed really well.”
Regarding the aeroscreen, he comments: “The halo structure and windscreen are fine – visibility-wise, we see everything we need to see. The biggest issue was getting air into the cockpit where we wanted it to be. We found a pretty good solution to channel air to the top of my legs, but sending air to the visor opening when the visor was up is something that needs to be fixed.
A combo of O'Ward and Oliver Askew - the last two Indy Lights champions – gives Arrow McLaren SP a very bold but dynamic line-up for 2020.
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP
“We tried a lot of different configurations, which consumed a lot of time, but that’s fine. That was the nature of the day. We’ve only really started working on car setups.”
And now, having hurried up for that one day, it’s time to wait again: no more tests this year. IndyCar’s window for testing re-opens on Jan. 7, and Arrow McLaren SP will resume on-track activity very soon after that, probably again at Sebring, but this time running both O’Ward and Askew.
The exciting blend of an absolute rookie and a near-rookie has triggered much speculation from objective observers. Just what can we expect from 20-year-old O’Ward and 22-year-old Askew both as individuals and as teammates working together to drive Arrow McLaren SP to the front of the field? As MD, Kiel isn’t setting specific targets for 2020 in terms of win tally, podium tally or year-end championship position. For him, it’s all about making measurable and sustainable progress.
“Maybe you can ask me about our aims for 2020 when we’re closer to the start of next season and we’ve had a chance to test together with the other teams and assess how everyone stacks up,” he says, “but honestly, I think my answer will probably still be that we never look at setting specific targets in terms of results. I mean, surely everyone’s target is the same – win as many races as you can and finish as high up in the championship as you can! We’re all racers, and racers try to win.
“We prefer to say, ‘What are our areas of focus? Has what we’ve done in this area made a positive difference?’ And if it has then that’s great, and we move on to the next area. We go over the cars point by point and take things day by day, because improvement day by day leads to gaining speed on track and over time that takes you to the front. If you keep getting to the front, eventually the results are going to come.
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP
“So the short answer is, I don’t want to put figures on it. To me, it’s not about getting to the end of next season and feeling happy if we’ve scored, say, three wins but we’ve underperformed in the other 14 races. IndyCar is about diversity and we want to be strong on all types of track and then be efficient and strong enough as a team to take advantage of every strong day we have.
“What I can say is that I do believe we have the drivers to do that, even though Pato has just a handful of starts under his belt and Oliver has none. We saw what Colton Herta and Felix Rosenqvist did last year as rookies, and I would classify our two guys as having the potential to do something similar. So it’s up to Arrow McLaren SP to make sure we give Pato and Oliver the opportunity to shine, and I have no doubts that we have the team to do that.”
Being a feisty 20-year-old, O’Ward is slightly less circumspect. The man who beat Herta to the 2018 Indy Lights title is aware that his former teammate’s success as an IndyCar rookie in 2019 will lead many to assume that he, Pato, can produce something similar in 2020.
“Yeah, maybe people expect that from me,” he says, “because I was racing with Colton in the same car and same team in 2018 and you saw the results. Next year if our car is doing well during a weekend, and it’s suited to me and I’m suited to it, I don’t see why Colton’s kind of performance can’t happen for me too.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable being any more specific about my expectations because I know that even if we work hard and do everything right, something totally outside of our control can still go wrong and ruin our day. It happens to every team and every driver at some point, right? But if we are fulfilling our potential and we’re regularly up at the front, then I do feel big results will come.
“I know I have great people behind me at Arrow McLaren SP so I’m confident we can get the job done. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
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