Dean Stoneman on gaining momentum and loving racing in America
The Andretti Autosport ace has his first street, road and oval Indy Lights races under his belt, and has scored his first podium.
Since my first column here on Motorsport.com we’ve had five races at three different (very different) tracks, and although we’ve shown plenty of potential, it was only at the most recent race that we were able to turn that into a fairly satisfying result. Obviously racers are competitive animals, so only wins will truly satisfy myself and the Andretti Autosport team, but I’m confident it’s only a matter of time. What I’d say is that third place at Barber Motorsports Park at least ended our run of missed opportunities.
At St. Petersburg we were top four throughout practice, but during qualifying we hit traffic on our hot laps, which was frustrating. We knew that without a big incident happening up front, our chances of a podium finish had to be pretty much written off.
But from 13th on the grid, we came through to finish eighth in the first race and sixth in the second. So we made lots of passes, showed our speed, and showed our aggression. Although starting back there makes it harder, it also makes it more exciting. You still think about what might have been if we’d started where we should have, but then you have to move on.
The oval challenge
Our race on the Phoenix one-mile oval was obviously a steeper learning curve for me and also my engineer. At the moment, I can give him better technical feedback on a road or street course than on an oval, because oval racing’s not something I’d done before I came to America.
But what I’ve done is try to make sure my feedback, in terms of how I relay it to the team, is pretty similar across all types of track, because I think that consistency helps the team understand what I’m describing. But still, in terms of knowing what the car needs to do or how it needs to feel to be quick on an oval, I’m still finding my way.
In Phoenix practice we ran out of time to really experiment with what suited the car best. Our preseason test there had been more about helping me to understand ovals. So for qualifying, we had to come back from a setup path we had been following and go for something that we just knew was OK and safe. Unfortunately, it was a bit too safe – not enough speed – so we started lower than we would have liked, in ninth.
But again I think we showed solid progress, and I was pretty proud we came through to finish fifth there. The race turned into a practice session for me, because I’d never done a race distance on an oval. So every time I caught someone, I was checking out what I could and couldn’t do with the car, what lines worked in dirty air, what lines worked in clean air, that kind of thing. And I think that was really helpful for our other oval races; I definitely found little techniques that helped me gain speed.
One of the things I noticed during that race is how much respect the drivers have for each other at oval speeds. I think in Europe, you’d give someone a little squeeze on corner entry or deliberately run them wide on the exits, just to try and intimidate them into backing off.
On an oval, you don’t do that; you’re more focused on your own race instead of trying to mess up someone else’s!
Pain, then pleasure, at Barber
We’ve improved the car and got it nearer to my preferred handling characteristics, although it’s taken time. But Barber Motorsports Park was proof that we’re making more and more progress as a team. I qualified third for the first race, less than a hundredth off sticking it on the front row. Unfortunately, a faulty lambda sensor and wiring loomeffectively ended our race before it started.
But the next day I was starting from the front row. The grid for the second race is set by your second-fastest lap in qualifying, or your fastest lap from the first race – whichever is quicker. Well obviously, my wiring issue guaranteed I was relying on my second quickest lap in quali, and that was enough to put me on the outside of the front row.
I was kicking myself for allowing Santiago Urrutia past me on the second lap after I understeered widebut I kept my head, didn’t take any crazy risks to try and pass Ed Jones, and just focused on staying clear of the pack behind. Given our start to the season, it was important to get a significant result in the bag and do a full race distance; I think finishing on the podium justified that approach.
So I feel like that’s the true start to our season, with me learning the tracks and the car, Andretti Autosport learning about me, and everything just gelling together. I’m eighth in points which isn’t bad considering the bad luck we’ve had, and no one’s made a break in the championship: the first five Indy Lights races have been won by five different drivers.
Now I’m ready to be one of them, hopefully starting with this weekend’s two races on the Indianapolis road course.
So what have I learned so far? Well, obviously there’s been a lot of talk about how much I can speed up my learning on ovals by talking with my engineers, my Lights teammates Shelby Blackstock and Dalton Kellett, my teammates in the IndyCar team and also my team owner, Michael Andretti. And they’re right to say that; it’s a great resource for me to have.
But honestly, you have to learn these things yourself. When I speak to Michael for advice, it’s for big stuff like the best way to approach rolling starts and restarts, and so on. But at the end of the day, it’s only you in the car making the ultimate decisions. It comes down to learning through experience, and then immediately applying what you’ve learned. Then the more you do it, the more you do it on instinct: you automatically know how to deal with a situation, sometimes even before it happens.
Apart from just understanding the car and tracks better with every session, I’d say qualifying has been interesting in that our Cooper tires are more durable than the Pirellis that I was used to in GP3. There, you had one fast lap and that was it; they’d fall off by almost two seconds. In Indy Lights, the Coopers are hard enough that you get two, maybe three laps before they slip from their peak grip and lose four or five tenths. That’s important to think about when the second grid on our double-header weekends can be set by your second quickest qualifying lap. It means you have to nail two perfect laps in qualifying.
The right atmosphere
The other things I’ve noticed that are different here compared with Europe are to do with the atmosphere outside the cockpit. Pre-race driver briefings are pretty much the same everywhere you race, except here we say a prayer as part of the briefing. And also everyone’s friendlier, happier and more relaxed between sessions. Being able to sit and have breakfast with Mario [Andretti] – that kind of thing is a pretty cool way to start your day at the track.
Also, being able to meet the fans in the autograph sessions or even around the open paddock is another good thing. It’s taken a bit of getting used to, I must admit, having come from the European scene, but I think it’s very important for helping to build our fanbase.
So you’d be right in thinking I’m very content with my decision to pursue a career in America. I love it here.
Now it’s time to start winning, and I’ve got three opportunities in the next two weekends. This week, we’ve got two races – Friday and Saturday – around the Indy road course. Then next week is our most prestigious event, the Freedom 100 held on the most famous oval of them all, which is run on Carb Day, the Friday before the Indy 500. I hope to see you there… and I hope I’m looking out at you from the center step of the podium.
Thanks for reading.
– Dean was talking to David Malsher
Urrutia scores first Indy Lights win in brilliant fashion
Jones wins after stirring late-race battle