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Wickens on O’Ward, Askew, Alonso and the rise of Arrow McLaren SP

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Wickens on O’Ward, Askew, Alonso and the rise of Arrow McLaren SP
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Robert Wickens, Arrow McLaren SP’s driver advisor, discusses the team’s huge leap forward in 2020, the stellar performances of Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, and the contribution made by Fernando Alonso to the squad’s Indianapolis 500 campaign. He spoke with David Malsher-Lopez.

It has escaped no IndyCar fan’s notice that in 2020 Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet has effectively leap-frogged Andretti Autosport-Honda into The Big Three to become a regular threat to Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. We’ve grown used to seeing Pato O’Ward and, almost as often, Oliver Askew running in the top five, and as Pato O’Ward remarked after his double-podium weekend at Gateway’s World Wide Technology Raceway, “Our win will come.” Providing state government approves IndyCar’s plan for Mid-Ohio’s double-header on Sept. 12-13, the team has actually reached the stage where it would be a shock to see the handsome orange and black cars qualify on, say, the seventh row rather than the first, second or third.

Closely observing the team’s progress has been Arrow McLaren SP’s driver advisor Robert Wickens, the shooting star from 2018 who had his career put on ice by that dreadful accident at Pocono. Just before this season was due to start in March, he spoke to Motorsport.com about his high hopes for O’Ward and Askew, despite the former having just eight IndyCar starts under his wheels, and the latter having eight fewer.

“We have two drivers who could not be more different from each other!" he commented. "Pato is a ‘fly by the seat of his pants’ kind of driver, very naturally talented, who can just wring a car’s neck for all it’s worth. Then we have Oliver who is also naturally gifted but who is a lot more analytical in his approach… But I think them being so severely opposite is going to be great for our team, because eventually we’re going to find that common ground between both of them… Then we’re going to be a real force to be reckoned with.”

At Indy earlier this month, Askew told Steve Wittich of Trackside Online what he saw as Wickens’ role within the team.

“Robert is the guy who you definitely know will get pissed off at you,” said the reigning Indy Lights champion, “which is fine. That's the role he plays and if I am not getting the most out of the car or the most out of myself, he's going to be the first guy to tell me.

“He's been on our #7 pitstand for pretty much every session this year, and he's able to bring out the best in me especially when it comes down to communicating with our engineers and Blair [Perschbacher, #7 car’s race engineer]. He asks the right questions for sure….”

After nine races of what we hope will be a 14-round season, O’Ward lies third in the championship with three podium finishes and a pole position to his name. Askew’s overall performance, as you’d expect of a driver with less experience – not only in IndyCar but auto racing in general – has been more up and down, and little errors with big consequences have left him languishing in 17th. That said, he’s still ahead of three Andretti cars in the points table, and he has a podium finish, the result of an excellent drive at Iowa.

It’s time to catch up with Wickens to find out what he’s observed of the two full-time drivers, Fernando Alonso’s one-off with the squad in the Indy 500, and the team’s progress in its first season of partnership with McLaren.

 

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

DML: Have O’Ward and Askew matched or even exceeded your preseason expectations?

RW: I think they’ve met my expectations in a lot of senses and, more importantly, surpassed my expectations even more. There hasn’t been anywhere where I expected them to do something and it was worse. They’re just two very professional up-and-coming drivers. Oliver’s qualifying performance at GP Indy [5th on the grid] was astonishing, Pato’s qualifying at Road America [pole] was phenomenal. For them, the red [softer-compound Firestone for road/street courses] is new, especially Oliver, and yet they’ve both been very strong in qualifying.

Then the next big challenge in this 2020 schedule is lack of track time on the short ovals, but then at Iowa both of them were fighting for the win in both races, and Pato was doing that again at Gateway. It goes to show that taking a risk with younger drivers is no longer a risk. The way that this motorsport era has gone with simulation, everyone’s learning in the same way now, and in some senses they aren’t at a huge disadvantage.

So I think they’re doing a phenomenal job through and through. Of course there will be teething issues now and then – we saw that at Indy when Oliver got on the brakes to avoid a crash in front of him. But that’s something that every veteran on the grid has done once or twice in their career. That’s part of the steep learning curve, and moments like that can take you back to reality and remind you that it is their first year in IndyCar. Those mistakes can happen.

The important thing is that the speed is there. Everything else you can iron out with time and experience.

DML: One of the things you often see from rookies is when for whatever reason, they can’t keep up with the car in front, they will overreach, try driving at 101 percent, and then have an incident or accident. But when Pato saw Dixon and Rossi edging away from him at Indy, he contained himself, and then at Gateway Race 1, he again consolidated what he had, once he realized he couldn’t catch Dixon or hold off Sato.

RW: Yeah, I think at Indy, Pato drove such a disciplined race. The way that fell, with fuel mileage being such a priority at that middle-to-three-quarters stage of the race, everyone was saving fuel. Dixon and Rossi were mixing it up because neither of them wanted to lead and burn more fuel. We told Pato the fuel number he needed to hit and he got the reward of two cars passing and punching a big hole in the air for him: we were honestly looking really good at that stage of the race.

But as you say, the hunger to get out there and lead is strong, but we knew on the pitwall and he knew in his helmet that if he turned up the engine he would be fighting for the lead, and we just had him tuned back to give him the fuel mileage we needed so he could get to the end on just two more stops.

It goes to show how well-rounded these kids are. He’s 21, he’s slightly more experienced than Oliver because he had eight IndyCar starts prior to this, but I treat them both as rookies because this is Pato’s first complete year in IndyCar. Doing one-off races here and there, it’s hard to gain experience of what you do week in, week out, as part of a team and how you approach a race weekend. Sure, on a road course Pato has a couple more tries on red tires, but apart from that they’re on a level playing field, they’re both learning together, and they have developed an amazing environment for working together. They’re friends off the track and they work well together at the track.

In terms of approaching a practice session, both Oliver and Pato have very calm and cool heads to run a test plan and stick to that plan. When you have two drivers in their early 20s, they could get very frustrated looking at the timing screens and seeing they’re not near the top, but they both see the bigger picture. All through Indy 500 practice, we were running through the program and not focusing on getting the big tow-laps and we might end up with both of them – all three of them, including Fernando Alonso – outside of the Top 20. But it didn’t divert our plans and strategy, and we saw it pay off in the race. Pato challenged for the lead on one strategy, Oliver led while running the alternate strategy.

DML: Yes, Oliver confidently passed two Penske drivers who were on the same strategy as him…

RW: And that scared the crap out of me, I have to say! Going three-wide on the outside at Turn 1 – that was a bold move!

DML: To that point, I expected Oliver to be the slow-build-up kinda guy, even if his ultimate potential is the same as Pato's. Yet we saw at Iowa a driver who was prepared to go wheel-to-wheel on the inside or outside of anyone and everyone. It’s as if he’s been influenced by Pato’s aggression, and Oliver’s calmness has had an effect on Pato – which is what you were hoping would happen.

RW: Yeah, it’s very possible. They are polar opposites, and that’s what makes them a good pairing. Each has taken on a lot of the other one’s characteristics. They approach a problem differently but they’re now finding that middle ground that makes both of them better. When Oliver is confident with the car, his confidence goes through the roof, and we’ve seen that time and time again when we give him the car that he wants.

Now, as an inexperienced driver it’s often tricky to decide exactly what it is you need from the car on any given day to get the lap time from the car, but that’s one of the crucial things they’re still learning as they go. So I think if I were one of the Arrow McLaren SP team bosses, I’d be very happy with our line-up and encouraged for not only the remainder of the year but also as we move forward to the future.

Alonso didn't have much go his way at Indy this year but at least he finished.

Alonso didn't have much go his way at Indy this year but at least he finished.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

DML: How do you assess Alonso’s performance at Indy this year?

RW: I think that crash toward the end of Day 2 was tough. It not only loses you track time but also the car that you roll out at the start of practice is the best it’s going to be in terms of parts. So when you have an accident, yes, you can replace everything to return the car to what appears to be an equal level to what he had before, but the parts won’t have been polished and loved on for countless hours to make sure it’s absolute perfection and that the body fit is immaculate, like the original car will have been.

So you’ll have a little bit more drag, you’ll a little bit less underwing downforce so you have to run a little bit more topside downforce to compensate, so that further increases the drag. You’re talking tiny amounts but they all add up, and in a field so close, that hurts.

I think everyone including Fernando knew that after that crash, we’d be lucky to get him back to within 1mph of where he was before. And looking at the data, we could see his car was just a little more draggy than the other two cars. They did a good job in qualifying, did what they could, and then just focused on the race. But I think that day, as we saw, it was very hard to gain track position.

And then to add insult to injury, he had a clutch issue that prevented him from launching out of his pitbox so for the remainder of the race he’d have to get pushed and then select first gear, and so any plans to gain position in pitstops immediately went out the window.

So it was a character-building 500 for Fernando, but like he said, he was very happy to complete the 500 for the first time. He learned that the last quarter of the race is a whole lot wilder and he was able to experience that, and he’ll remember that for if or when he plans to try and complete the Triple Crown.

DML: How was he to work with?

RW: It was a pleasure. He has a lot of useful experience in motorsports, even within the 500. I’ve only ever driven with this team, whereas he had driven an Andretti Autosport car in 2017 and a McLaren car with some Carlin support in 2019. Obviously the cars were quite different and he was able to bring to our attention things like ideas of how to give the driver more feel, so the driver can better tell the changing balance across a run. Well, what he suggested worked and we made setup changes accordingly on all three cars. That was very helpful and interesting.

DML: And how did the driver relationship work out – Fernando with vast experience of all sorts of racecars, and Oliver and Pato with less worldwide experience but far more time in this IndyCar, complete with aeroscreen?

I think it was very much a two-way exchange between our two full-timers and Fernando. Fernando gave a lot of great insight comparing this year’s car with previous experience, and our regular drivers able to give insight as to how this car behaves with an aeroscreen. They’d already driven this car around Texas, so although it’s different tires, different setups, and obviously the track characteristics are different, the underlying issue of the higher CoG, and more forward weight distribution does change how the car feels and behaves.

The rear feels more numb, for instance, and yet it’s moving around a little more, so it’s such a fine line to know when you’re having oversteer and when you’re right in the window. I think the three drivers really worked well together to try and find where that limit was.

Askew battles with Pagenaud and Power at Indy.

Askew battles with Pagenaud and Power at Indy.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

DML: Obviously Arrow McLaren SP is populated by excellent personnel – Nick Snyder [Performance Director], Craig Hampson [R&D head], Robert Gue [R&D], Will Anderson and Blair Perschbacher [race engineers]. Does it nonetheless surprise you at how much of a leap forward the squad has taken?

RW: Well, they’ve had great people in the team for a long time, and all those you mentioned other than Craig were there two years ago when I first joined. It’s always been a really strong core group because the owners have always done a great job of bringing on key people at the right time. To me, the most encouraging thing is that we’re not yet seeing the full potential of the technical relationship with McLaren UK and still we’ve moved forward, like you say. So it’s really exciting to think that we’ve made this progress already but that it will be 2021 when we really see everything that McLaren can do to help. So I think we’re just getting started.

But the fact is that we have two really talented drivers and we have good cars. We’ve made great progress in finding strong baseline setups for each track, and we’ve seen it time and time again, that what we roll off the truck with is very close to what we use in the race. That’s a big thing this year when we have such limited running; you can’t afford to go full circle in setup changes in a 90-minute practice session before qualifying on, say, a short oval. Given the limited experience of our drivers, it’s great to have basically good cars so they can just focus on their driving and how to get the most out of what they’re given.

Honestly, the team ‘behind the scenes’ has done an exceptional job to give the race team the best possible chance of success at a time when rolling off the truck with fast cars is so critical.

DML: Do you believe that Pato can stay in the top five to the end of the season, with what we hope are five more rounds to go, and can Oliver land Rookie of the Year title?

RW: I don’t see why not. This season is all about consistency. They’re both quick, and I believe our cars will be quick. We know we’re going to have strong cars at Mid-Ohio, and it’s a track where they’ve both raced before. On the IMS road course we know we have a strong car. And St. Pete we know we’ll have a strong car there, and both our drivers have raced there in lower categories. So there’s no reason why the results we’ve shown in the first part of the season can’t continue through to the end of the season.

They’re hungry for their first wins, but they’re doing what they need to do, week in, week out – they’re giving themselves a chance. I’ve found myself telling them what I used to tell myself, which is to give yourself a shot, and as soon as you start getting top-fives regularly, you’ll end up on the podium, and as soon as you start getting podiums regularly, that first win is right around the corner.

One of the goals for the team this year was to start challenging the Big Three, because we felt we’ve had that capability for a couple of years. I recall we felt on the cusp of achieving that in my season as a driver, and I think having these two young guys pushing each other has been great because they don’t know any better! One of the problems with very experienced drivers is that you’re constantly comparing what you’ve got with something that you think is better, whereas these guys don’t have much experience of an IndyCar without an aeroscreen. They don’t see it as a top-heavy car with added forward weight that forces them to change their driving style; they’re just getting on with the job, learning as they go.

We’re on the right track and they’re taking full advantage of that.

O'Ward, pole-winner at Road America, on his way to a runner-up finish.

O'Ward, pole-winner at Road America, on his way to a runner-up finish.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

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