Dean Stoneman on Indy Lights and "absorbing" ovals
Beating cancer to resume his racing career, the 2010 Formula 2 champion has proven capable of miracles. Now Dean Stoneman has set his sights on IndyCar. But… first things first, as he explains.
Welcome to my first column in what I reckon will be a really interesting season in Indy Lights with the Andretti Autosport team.
When people ask me why I came to race in the U.S., I have to say this move isn’t totally out of the blue. While I was recuperating from cancer back in 2012, Michael Andretti gave me a test in the previous generation Indy Lights car, out at the Firebird track in Phoenix. Then the past couple of years, me and my manager carried on looking at options here.
I’ve had some good opportunities in Europe to try and make it up the ladder to Formula 1, but it’s become so hard to raise a budget to go single-seater racing in Europe. Frankly, I’d rather have the Stellrecht Company [a California-based construction firm] backing me to run at the front in Indy Lights, than struggling to find a huge amount of money, year after year, to maybe eventually run at the back in F1. I've seen – we've all seen – the Mazda Road to Indy program rewards success, and really helps a driver move up to IndyCar. And that is now my goal.
The art of ovals and car setups
My first experience of an oval at Phoenix Raceway two weeks ago was nothing like I expected. It’s a lot more than just turning left. It’s also a lot more physical on your neck to drive an oval at racing speeds because the G-forces are constant. You never get a break. And when you slow down, it takes a moment to adjust to not doing those speeds. Fun, but strange at first.
Because we only had one day of testing after the rookie orientation program, we had to get a move on. After the first session we immediately started to change stuff, experimenting with the car, seeing where we could improve. And then when we walked away, we sat down to discuss it and figured out we could have changed more and made bigger steps in different areas to improve the car. That’s all part of the learning process.
Three minor changes in the pits can create one big setup change out on track, but you need to build up to it. Go too far, too soon in the wrong direction setup-wise, and at oval speeds it can all go wrong very quickly. I mean, I like a car that’s very free under me…on a road or street course. But you definitely don’t want oversteer on an oval.
Something that felt strange was the steering, which I had set up to be right-hand down on the straight, so you’re only applying a little left lock for the turn, because the car’s set up to turn in ‘by itself’. It took me a couple of sessions to get accustomed to that. There’s a lot to take in at first, because at the same time as I was getting used to the steering, and the constant G-forces and just ovals in general, I was also learning the car’s feel. The feedback you get from a car on an oval is very different to what I had been expecting.
Little things you take for granted become very different on your first day on an oval. For example, coming down off the banking and onto a flat pitlane, you suddenly realize how hard the car’s been setup to just turn left. Then as you come out of the pits and do the transition up onto the banking, it feels like it wants to swap ends on you.
But I’ve driven a lot of open-wheel cars and as a driver, it’s up to you to get used to new racecar and new experiences very quickly. That was my first day, so it was about me absorbing as much as I could, and then each time I went out, I'd feel more and more confident.
Some similarities but notable differences
For the road course testing at Barber Motorsports Park, again we were experimenting, but because I have a lot of experience on those kinds of tracks, I felt there would be less of a learning curve. We went down development avenues based on things I’ve learned in single-seaters in the past.
In terms of downforce, I’d say the Indy Lights car is somewhere between a GP3 car and World Series by Renault 3.5, but then you’re limited on tires. In FR3.5 there was a soft compound you could go to and suddenly go 2sec-per-lap quicker. With Indy Lights, Cooper Tire bring just one compound per race weekend (not including wets), and there are no pit stops in the races. So it has to be a long-lasting tire, which obviously means less grip.
Naturally you notice that most when the speed drops through medium- and low-speed corners, because the aerodynamics aren’t doing as much, so you’re relying more on mechanical grip. And because there's less grip, at those speeds Indy Lights cars are physically less demanding than FR3.5 cars; you just can’t generate the G-forces.
My feedback so far is that the car likes to understeer, but we have some plans and methods to alter that and improve it to get the car’s handling more on-the-nose for me. There seems to be enough leeway and tools in the regulations to make those adjustments, but I’m obviously slightly handicapped compared with anyone who knows the cars and has a year under their belt already. But we will work hard to catch up, I’m sure.
Bonding with the team
My engineer at Andretti is Joe D’Agostino and he used to be a racer [in the Atlantic Championship], so he’s good to relate to when we’re working on what I want from an open-wheel racecar. Tuning the car the way I want it will be the crucial thing for me in the learning process. I think I’m pretty quick at learning tracks, because back in GP3 we had just 45-minutes practice that was actually 35 minutes by the time you stopped to get fresh tires and then did in and out laps. So to have two 30-minute practice sessions in Indy Lights is a bit of a luxury to me.
But you know, I’m not going to be arrogant and say I’ve learned everything already! The fact is, it’s going to be tough running against drivers who know all the tracks and learned all the ins and outs of the new Dallara IL15 last year, and so on. But I don’t see any reason why I can’t go out there and hit the ground running and ultimately fight for the championship in my first year.
Going back to what I said at the start, I’m aiming to be at the front. That’s why we become racers.
Thanks for reading.
– Dean was talking to David Malsher
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