Arrow McLaren SP
It’s not quite time to lay it all on the line, but last week’s IndyCar Spring Training session and rookie oval test for Oliver Askew were confidence-inspiring for Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet, as David Malsher-Lopez reports.
Twenty-seven drivers and 25 cars took to the Circuit of The Americas track last week as the first open test of the season sprung into life and gave early indications of which drivers in which teams could spring to prominence in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season.
The first day, Tuesday, was a near-washout due to regular rain and, more significantly, permanent cold. Ambient temperatures of 48 degrees and track temperatures of a similar nature tend to see the series’ exclusive tire supplier Firestone Racing call for a red flag to stop the session. For the Nashville, TN. company’s IndyCar compounds to operate properly, the combined ambient and track temps need to reach about 100, and Mother Nature was simply failing to cooperate on Day 1.
The next morning was little better but, just before noon, the sun came out and warmed the asphalt of the 3.426-mile, 20-turn track in Austin, TX, and over six hours of action commenced.
Pato O'Ward about to do battle with COTA's wet and treacherous track surface in his #5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
Both Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew displayed their car control and composure as the track dried patchily, leaving all drivers coping with a continually evolving surface. At first they were on the wet (treaded) tires, but still needed to run off line on some turns to avoid hydroplaning and seek grip by finding less used pavement. Then, as the puddles started to evaporate and they returned to the fastest but still damp racing line, they needed to rely on foresight, dexterous hands and fast feet to slither through the wet patches unscathed. Then finally, as a dry line emerged, they could change to the treadless slicks, but were now on a tightrope: any straying off line onto damp patches could cause enough lost adhesion to spin the car into the scenery.
Askew and O’Ward dealt with it all, turned 123 laps between them and finished the day seventh and 10th fastest respectively. O’Ward might have been quicker still, but had a spin in the closing stages of the test, and the series’ punishment for causing a red flag was five minutes sitting idle in pitlane.
Still, Arrow McLaren SP’s competition director Billy Vincent has been left quite content with the outcome of the test.
“We definitely made good progress since last year,” he tells Motorsport.com. “The story of our 2019 season was that at a lot of tracks we’d find a good setup by the time of the race, but at the start of the weekends, we weren’t rolling off the truck with our cars as quick as we wanted them. So this off-season we’ve spent a lot of effort in that area of pre-weekend prep.
“We have a really good group of people and the work they’ve done to accommodate the changes caused by the aeroscreen – the new weight distribution and how that affects the tires – has obviously been good. We haven’t really had any turnover in our staff lineup – we’ve just added to it. We’ve added more mechanics, more engineering staff including Craig Hampson, obviously and it feels like we’ve got the right people in the right places, and they’re all got the right attitudes and passions.
Rookie Oliver Askew listens to competition director Billy Vincent.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“That’s great because there aren’t distractions when we’re tackling things like the aeroscreen and all of its features. I think that’s why we’ve started off on the right foot – although obviously there’s a long way to go. You can sometimes have a lot of great minds but they don’t always gel together, but I think we’re different: I think all of us here have a really strong drive and a common purpose to shine and put Arrow McLaren SP up at the front.”
Vincent was left impressed by the team’s new drivers, too. Since he is strategist on the #7 car, he’s been able to closely observe rookie Oliver Askew while the 23-year-old from Melbourne, FL. adapts to his new mount.
“Oliver’s a very smart kid, methodical, and shows a lot of commonsense in how he builds up to things,” he says. “He’s pretty impressive at calculating when to take risks and keep something in reserve so he doesn’t make mistakes. He didn’t really put a wheel wrong in difficult track conditions. In fact, we were saying to him, ‘Don’t sell yourself short: go a little deeper on the brakes and use more of that margin.’
“He’s got this curiosity in him too. He wants to hear about the changes we’re making, and what they will do to the car. I think at one point I had to say, ‘Well get out there and find out for real what that change does; don’t second guess it before we’ve tried it.’ But I think that level of interest will serve him well as a rookie; he’ll be soaking up stuff like a sponge.
“Another interesting thing is that Pato and Oliver are two different personalities and have different driving styles, but in terms of car setup and what they want, they ended up much closer than I thought they would.”
That bodes well for Arrow McLaren SP as a whole, but also for the two drivers’ individual endeavors in 2020. By making eight IndyCar starts (one from 2018) O’Ward is ineligible for the series’ Rookie of the Year mantle, but Askew has the award in his sights, and is very much a strong contender, as explained here last December.
Says Vincent: “The field’s really tight up and down, as we’ve said for several years now, and the rookie crop this year looks very strong. It’s awesome to see so much talent from around the world wanting to come and race here because it is so close and because the teams are all good. I know I’ve said it before but I truly believe that from a driver’s point of view, this is probably the most difficult series in the world.
“Having said that, I still think for Oliver winning Rookie of the Year is a realistic goal. Nothing’s a lock-in until the checker at Laguna Seca [series finale] but I think he has the ability and I think Arrow McLaren SP has the strength to make it happen.”
Two days after the COTA test, Askew was in action again, this time facing the utterly different challenge of running an IndyCar around the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway as part of his initial rookie oval test. Mission was accomplished without issue, much to the relief of Arrow McLaren SP’s managing director Taylor Kiel.
O'Ward ended Spring Training in the Top 10, like teammate Askew.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
He says to Motorsport.com: “You find out on the very first run if a driver is going to get himself comfortable on a fast oval or if it’s going to take a lot of work from the team to get him where he needs to be. In Oliver’s case, he seemed comfortable right away so that was good to see.”
It’s not a complete surprise, because clearly this man has his act together on left-turn-only tracks. One of Askew’s wins on his way to the 2017 USF2000 title came at the series’ solitary oval (Iowa Speedway), while two of his triumphs in his championship-winning Indy Lights season last year came in the prestigious Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at World Wide Technology Raceway in Gateway. But still, last Friday’s test was his first oval run in an IndyCar, and his first run at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I think it’s such a benefit that he came from the Road To Indy program where you get oval experience,” says Kiel. “Both Oliver and Rinus VeeKay [Ed Carpenter Racing’s rookie, who Askew beat to the 2019 Lights crown] were up to speed immediately in a way that you couldn’t expect from drivers who’ve just joined IndyCar from other series. Oliver knew what to expect and that it would just be happening faster than he’d experienced before.”
Despite the latent promise demonstrated by Askew and O’Ward last week, and by the team as a whole, Kiel is smart enough to manage his expectations for the year ahead.
“With someone like Oliver, a rookie, we know from his past record that he’ll be fast,” he says, “so the most significant area of growth will be feedback and the relationship between himself and Blair [Perschbacher, race engineer]. It’s about developing that relationship whereby Blair understands what Oliver is saying he needs, and Oliver understands what Blair is telling him. They already each know what they want from each other and from the car; it’s a matter of communication and translation between them, and it’s only a matter of time before that develops. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of testing time left, so it’s a case of them working together at the race shop so that they’re on the same page at the first round.
“The thing that I’m really positive about with Oliver is that he’ll do whatever it takes. He’s a relentless worker and anything he doesn’t already know he’ll work on it, he’ll figure it out.
“I’ve got an exceptional amount of respect for what Pato can do in a racecar, too. He was upset with himself after the test because he made a couple of mistakes that cost him time and meant he didn’t get to show what he and the team are capable of, but I walked away from that test knowing that he’s going to be a great driver once he gains experience of digging through data and finding the details. The sky’s the limit for Pato.”
Says team managing director Taylor Kiel: "The one thing we’ve always done very well is being agile to changes in regulations or tires or conditions… We adapt quickly."
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Kiel believes the depth in quality of the team itself was on display at COTA, and he’s hoping this will fill his drivers with self-belief and ambition.
“When the first day [of Spring Training] got rained out, there were certainly some reservations on my part as to how we would get all our tasks done in the time available, because you start to feel time slipping away before St. Pete [season-opener]. But the group was solid, the drivers were solid, and the work leading up to that test made sure that when we did finally hit the track, we got a lot of work done.
“I don’t mean it to sound cocky or confident but I’m not actually surprised that the team’s offseason work seemed to translate to performance on track because I think we’ve got the smartest people in the paddock. The one thing we’ve always done very well – perhaps because of our size – is being agile to changes in regulations or tires or conditions. Change does not scare us; we find opportunity in that, we adapt quickly…
“So I’ve said to both Oliver and Pato that they should have confidence and they shouldn’t be surprised to both be in the top 10 in the first full-field test of the season. And in a way, that’s why I’m excited – to see where they’re at already and at the same time knowing there’s still a lot more to come as they gain experience with the team and with IndyCars in general.”
Kiel’s aim to inject confidence in his drivers is probably pushing at an open door with O’Ward who already seems well aware of his own potential. He has, after all, had eight races to prove his fundamental quality both to himself and the IndyCar cognoscenti: for instance, last year he was able to drive one of Carlin’s IndyCars faster than it had ever gone before.
While Askew’s self belief is less overt, he too seems unfazed by his road course and oval experiences last week, and unsurprised by the positive outcomes.
“Texas [Motor Speedway] was pretty much everything I expected,” he tells Motorsport.com. “Well, maybe I felt comfortable quicker than I would have assumed, but with the cooler temperatures and the added downforce from the aeroscreen, the car was more stuck than it will be when we go back in June and it’s 50 degrees hotter!
“But it was still satisfying that we got up to speed quickly. I’ve described Texas Motor Speedway as being like Kentucky [the oval on which Askew tested an Indy Lights car], but with more banking. I felt it was just as smooth but you had to trust the banking in Turns 1 and 2. Because it was cold in the morning, we didn’t get as many laps done as we would have liked and because the conditions will be so different when we come back here, we didn’t work much on the balance of the car. It was all about turning laps and doing what IndyCar needed us to do to complete the test.
Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images
“We did still make changes that altered the behavior of the front and rear of the car, changes typical of what we’d need to do over the course of an oval race weekend, and I felt comfortable using the cockpit tools to adjust the balance across a stint. But we didn’t go too far down that path.”
Askew did get a wake-up call when it came to practicing pitstops, not something he had dealt with in junior formulas.
“They’re much more difficult on ovals, because you’ve got much less steering lock and you’ve got a spool differential,” he observed. “The car just doesn’t want to turn into the pit box! But… we did the best we could, and we’ll get more practice at it.”
Askew’s COTA performance suggested similarly swift adaptation to road courses in an IndyCar. If teammate O’Ward left COTA slightly annoyed that a spin prevented him from showing his true potential, Askew was closer to being satisfied.
“I think given the amount of time I’ve had in the car [a one-day test at Sebring mid-January] I could be happy with that lap time,” he says. “COTA is such a long track and very technical so it’s hard to put a lap together, and I feel like through the day our times weren’t showing the full pace of the car.
“Then at the end, I finally wrung it out and got a lap together. I was expecting to be in the top five, so maybe seventh wasn’t quite as good as I wanted, but I think it was promising considering that was the first proper road course I’d been on with the team [Sebring is a simulated street course]. It was also the first test I’d done with the full field of cars, so it’s a huge confidence boost for me and for the team to walk away with both cars in the top 10.”
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
The reigning Indy Lights champion, who turned 76 laps on Wednesday – more than all but one of the 27 drivers in action – now has enough experience with Firestone rubber and an analytical enough mind to make predictions about where he believes his strengths will lie in his rookie IndyCar season.
“I think my driving style will favor the race pace of the Firestone,” he comments. “I’ll have to work a little harder to manage the peak of the Firestone [soft-compound] ‘reds’ in qualifying, making sure my best lap coincides with the peak grip. That’s somewhat a reflection of Firestone compared with the Cooper Tires we ran in the Road To Indy program. The Coopers take forever to come in, whereas the Firestone is pretty much ready from Lap 2.
“It’s more in my nature to look after the tires for a race stint by driving smoothly, so I’m still strong at the end of a stint. I’m hoping that will be a good strength to have.”
Speaking of strength, the sheer physicality of an IndyCar can catch rookies off guard, and with ever-higher quality drivers throughout the field, the number of on-track errors has been reduced, and so there are far fewer full-course cautions in which the drivers can ‘take a break’ from the G-forces. Askew confesses he still has a little more work to reach peak fitness in time for St. Petersburg.
“After COTA, I have a better understanding of what I need to work on,” he says. “Obviously you’re not going to be race fit until you have a lot of time in the car, so I think what I learned there gives me a chance over the next few weeks to get done what I need.
“But there’s a positive to that, too: I feel I could have extracted another couple of tenths out of the car at COTA if I’d been more comfortable, more on top of the car, and that would have put us fifth. So I think that’s encouraging.”
Encouragement is the theme running through Arrow McLaren SP right now. Inevitably, the true state of play will only start to emerge in round 1 of the 2020 season - practice, qualifying and the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg itself, March 13-15. But this is probably the strongest the team has looked in the preseason since co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson came into IndyCar full-time together in 2011.
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