Dean Stoneman on becoming an Indy Lights winner
Motorsport.com columnist is mounting a strong challenge for the Indy Lights championship after wins on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course and also the famous oval.
I ended my last column in early May saying that I hoped I’d be waving to you all from the top step of the podium at Indy.
Well, I did – twice! I know the Freedom 100 win, where I beat Ed Jones by 0.0024sec is going to be the one everyone remembers. But both the Andretti Autosport team and myself also took a lot of satisfaction from the Indy GP roadcourse results, where we got third place followed by a win.
It seemed we made all the right moves, and I’ve got to thank the team for giving me a good baseline setup for that track. Andretti Autosport only had one car last year, and that made it very difficult for them to investigate their options with what was then a new Lights car. This year we have three entries to try stuff – Shelby Blackstock, Dalton Kellett and myself – and I think as I’m learning more and more about the cars, my experience is becoming more useful to the team, despite being a rookie.
That’s not to say we’ve got it all figured out – every race is still a learning curve, we’re trying something new all the time. And with only two 45-minute practice sessions beforehand, we often head into qualifying still needing to try more developments. But at the same time, we are learning what does or doesn’t work.
From the driving point of view, I work hard to race smart, and try and be consistent. You’ve got to have the speed there too – being consistently sixth isn’t going to get the job done. But if I have to occasionally settle for third and not risk throwing it all away by making a 50/50 move to get second place, then that’s the best way to earn the Indy Lights championship.
So good racecraft and knowing what I need from the car across the whole race is important. Me and my engineer Joe D’Agostino always work very hard on race setups, so I can look after the tires throughout a whole race. The idea is to make sure your car is strong at the end, and not overuse the brakes and tires at the start of a race while the car’s at its heaviest.
But it’s a fine line: you also have to make the most of those opening laps on cold tires, because after that the front runners are all within a few tenths.
The downforce compromise
At GP Indy, you have this big dilemma about downforce. You can really trim out so you gain a lot of speed on that long, long straight, but then you’ll miss out on the downforce for the corners. Or you can run too much downforce where you’re lightning quick through the corners but then have too much drag on the straight so you’re just a sitting duck by Turn 1.
Everyone’s opinion is different regarding which way to go, but I think we got the right balance. In the first race, we climbed from sixth on the grid to third, which matched our previous best, so that was cool. The aggravating part was that the two guys ahead of me – Jones [Carlin Racing] and Santiago Urrutia [Schmidt Peterson Motorsports] are the guys I’m probably going to be fighting for the championship down to the wire.
The next day, we made a setup change which didn’t work in the cold temperatures; I had to change my driving style to make it work. That’s kind of ironic – that we won with a car that was not at its best. We came through from fifth on the grid into the lead and then I just concentrated on hitting all my apexes.
We kept Urrutia and the Carlin cars at bay, and held on for my first win in America. It felt good, as you’d imagine, and I’d say it was one of the best wins I’ve ever had. And even the setup issue is a lesson learned; we’ll know what to do and what not to do if we encounter those temperatures again on a road course.
Winning on the greatest oval
The Freedom 100 victory was a fantastic feeling. Even before I got into the cockpit, I felt like we had a car that could fight for the win, judging by what we’d learned on the test days using our race setup. Once I got through to the lead on lap 10, I felt in control. Despite how easy it is to draft up to someone around there, I led all but 10 laps. And even when Ed [Jones] was battling hard and got past me on the restart with just one lap to go before the checkered flag, I knew I had the car to beat him.
Coming down to Turn 3 in his slipstream, I didn’t have a specific plan but when Ed covered the inside line, I went to the outside, and with less steering input by taking the shallower line, you scrub off less speed. By the time we reached Turn 4 side by side, there was nothing either of us could do better, it was just a case of going for the line.
If he hadn’t covered the inside and had taken the traditional racing line, I wouldn’t have tried to pass there. I’d have stuck behind him until the front straight and then popped out and drafted past. Because honestly, my car was so good that I could place it anywhere, even in traffic, so I had alternatives.
Anyway, I know everyone had to check the timing monitors to see who’d won, but I knew I had him because I could see my front wheels were a couple of inches in front of his.
So all in all, a very satisfying Month of May. Thank you for all your kind wishes in the aftermath.
Obviously that wasn’t the Speedway’s main race that week and it was fun to be in the Andretti Autosport pit when Alex Rossi won the Indy 500. Life is strange sometimes; one year you’re in a hospital bed facing an uncertain future; five years later you’re winning the Freedom 100 and hanging out with Lady Gaga and Mario Andretti in front of 350,000 people.
That was almost a month ago now. Since then we’ve had a helpful test at Mid-Ohio and this weekend we head to Road America for two more races. It’s a fantastic track that feels like Spa or the Nurburgring, and we just need to make the right decisions on setup and I think we’ll have a strong weekend. That would make the championship interesting, as we currently lie 29 points from the lead, but now in second…
Hope to see you there. Thanks for reading.
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