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Promoted: How Arrow SPM benefits from rookie development
The rapid evolution of a rookie can be critical to the forward progress of a team, and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ adaptation of Marcus Ericsson’s talent to IndyCar racing has proven mutually beneficial, as his race engineer explains to David Malsher.
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series’ 17-round race season, crammed between mid-March and mid-September, is physically and mentally fatiguing if you don’t dig endless travel, but it also demands plenty of brainpower from the boffins both at the racetrack and back at base. Endless analysis comes from limitless data, accumulated as each of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda entries completes an average of 9000 miles per year – yup, 18,000 miles for a two-car team.
Setting aside testing, 17 race weekends alone will see Arrow SPM gathering 170 gigabytes [GB] of data and 500GB of high-def video footage, but perhaps this is not so surprising, given that there are more than 50 sensors on each car, generating 200-plus math channels.
Brendon Cleave, Arrow SPM.
Of course, getting the best results in motorsport involves a lot more than number-crunching: the human factor is huge too, and so the race engineers will debrief with their drivers, the research and development engineer (in Arrow SPM’s case Nick Snyder) and the data acquisition engineers, because translating those figures into how the car feels on track is dependent on driver feedback. Snyder reckons there are 110-120 team debriefs per race season.
Extrapolating to reach accurate verdicts from this combination of data, video and driver feedback is vital to not only the team’s progress during the season but it’s development curve in the off-season. Yes, as James Hinchcliffe’s race engineer Will Anderson highlighted recently, the new-for-2020 aeroscreens will throw down another huge challenge for everyone involved due to the revised weight distribution of the IndyCars, but still there will be much insight gathered from the first two years of Dallara’s current universal aerokit era that will still be applicable to the end of this car’s era, in September 2021.
That being the case, it has been vital to the Arrow SPM team that rookie Marcus Ericsson has applied his intelligence and feedback in a manner that has made him increasingly helpful to the squad as a whole. Inevitably a newbie can find initial tests and early races to be a head-rush, as he has to rapidly absorb fresh concepts and ideas, adapt to the unfamiliar in terms of car and tracks, and also forge a bond of comprehension and compatibility with his race engineer and other team members. Thereafter, however, said novice needs to rapidly develop into a driver in whom his colleagues can place their trust in terms of on-track reporting and post-session debriefs.
That, says race engineer Blair Perschbacher, is a level Ericsson was able to reach just before midseason.
“I think it was around about Detroit time when he got that podium finish, that we realized that Marcus’ feedback was at a level where he was really helping guide us with setups. Since then, we’ve seen small setup differences between him and James, but they generally drive the same car, and if one of us finds something in practice that makes a positive difference, we can put it on the other car and it will work for that driver, too.
“That means in practice and testing, we can go in different directions, cover more ground and investigate more possibilities, and then pool the information to decide on which is the best way forward. And on the weekends like this one coming up, when we have Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow SPM there too, it’s useful to have that third stream of data and feedback from Jack [Harvey]. It’s especially useful when we’re coming to a track that we haven’t had much recent experience on.”
On that point, there have been considerable new challenges for IndyCar engineers this year in terms of tracks, but at least Circuit of The Americas in March was preceded by two days of Spring Training at the Texas venue in usefully similar weather conditions. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, reappearing on the top-rank U.S. open-wheel racing schedule for the first time since 2004, is going to be much more of an unknown. Yes, there was a test in February, but it was very cold compared to expected weather this weekend, and it lasted only half a day due to heavy rain.
Far more useful should be the day of open testing that IndyCar teams will enjoy on Thursday, leading directly into race weekend. That’s when all their calculations – based on what they learned on that frigid half-day in the offseason and at other road courses this season – can be assessed for accuracy. While Laguna Seca, complete with major undulations and varying grip levels due to sand getting blown onto the track, might appear to be a like-for-like replacement for Sonoma Raceway – venue of IndyCar’s finale for the previous four years – the Monterey Peninsula’s classic circuit shares characteristics with tracks visited far more recently.
“Laguna Seca is actually like Mid-Ohio in terms of setup demands,” explains Perschbacher, “and that’s because of the blend of high-, mid- and low-speed corners, and a lot of them are momentum turns, where if you gain time through one it will pay off through the next two or three.
“Like Mid-Ohio, it also has off-camber turns, as well as turns where the camber helps you. But then of course you’ve got the Corkscrew which is kind of its own animal.”
Indeed it is. It’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s calling card. The track drops 59 feet within 450ft of track length, and a driver in a low-slung machine such as an IndyCar can’t see precisely where he’s going out front: one moment, under braking for Turn 8, he feels like he’s going to launch into the distant fields and trees of beautiful Salinas County. Then, as his front left wheel tries to lock under braking, he’s pitching down and left, then right, through Turn 8A – at which point the helter-skelter speeds up through left-handed Turn 9, and then it’s time to choose a line for right-handed Turn 10. How much of the inside dropaway curb should one take at the apex in order to be both fast and inch perfect on the outside curb at corner exit?
Yup, Turns 8 through 10 at Laguna Seca provide one of the most exhilarating sections of any track on the IndyCar schedule, and it’s just wide enough whereby there are a variety of lines for the drivers to investigate which best suits themselves or their cars. How far they reached in collating that mental data back in February is open to question.
“Yeah, temperature-wise it was in the 50s, and then it rained,” says Perschbacher, “so it wasn’t as helpful as we’d hoped. We learned a little bit about corner speeds through Indy Lights, actually, because they ran there in 2016 and so we could look at how Lights compare with us at Mid-Ohio and other tracks where we’re on during the same weekend, and apply that. We reckon in that test we were 2-3sec off where we’ll be this weekend, so it was a long way from perfect preparation, but we learned about the gearing, and got a general feel for what the setup will be.
“Having said that, just us as a team have learned a lot about road courses in general – as has Marcus – over the last six months, and so we’re not going back with the same setup we ran there in February.”
That shouldn’t be a hurdle for Ericsson who has, understandably, shown improved confidence at venues where he has gotten a chance to test beforehand. Today’s test at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca should therefore prove a huge boon.
“Yeah, I think that puts us on a more level playing field,” Perschbacher agrees, “but Marcus hasn’t really had problems learning new tracks anyway. We’ve had some really bad luck this year, and that’s masked the progress he’s made.
“As I’ve learned him and he’s learned me, and he’s learned how to get the best from the car, we’ve been making the car fast and leaving it up to him to get comfortable with the fastest setup possible. On the ovals, maybe it’s a bit different at first – you make the car comfortable for him as a rookie to help build his confidence. Then as the season went on and he got more comfortable with ovals of all types, we were able to get more aggressive with those setups, too.”
With Laguna Seca being one of those tracks where it is difficult to make a pass, the Thursday test will be a major benefit for all teams wishing to cover off all eventualities for the weekend ahead. Six hours of track time, added to Friday’s two 45-minute practice sessions plus a 30-minute warm-up/pitstop practice and Saturday’s 45-minute practice, should provide ample time for teams to try out simulated race-stint running, qualifying setups and fuel-saving practice.
“Once we figure out the pace and therefore our fuel-mileage, if we think it’s a two-stop fuel-saving race, then we may think in terms of testing that maybe later on the Thursday,” muses Perschbacher, “but right now, I suspect we’ll leave that for the Friday afternoon ‘warm-up’. Before that, I think we’ll be mainly focused on qualifying pace because history has shown that a lot of time where you start is roughly where you finish, so starting as high up as possible is going to be very important.”
Certainly the drivers and engineers at Arrow SPM have the brain-power, human resources, computing power and equipment to make this a strong weekend in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Given how often the team’s pace has not been reflected by its results, only the most stony-hearted of observers would wish the #5 and #7 Arrow cars anything but the best of luck.
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