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Can IndyCar’s dark horses really pull off title shock?

(via Motorsport.com) – It was easy to be dazzled by Wickens’ performance at the season-opening race in St. Petersburg: the only other Indy car drivers in recent memory to have grabbed pole position on their debuts were Nigel Mansell in 1993 and Sebastien Bourdais in 2003. But the fact that “Wicky Bobby” – as James Hinchcliffe christened him almost a dozen years ago – then retained his composure and led the majority of laps on his debut just confirmed his potential, irrespective of the collision with Alexander Rossi on the final restart.

Yet what followed next, at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway, a 1.022-mile oval, was even more impressive. Wickens qualified sixth alongside teammate James Hinchcliffe, and between them they led 64 laps and contended for victory again. This was the type of track where, despite a résumé that reveals him as a winner in every category of open-wheel racing he’s tackled, we might have expected the 29-year-old Wickens to stumble. After all, Mansell missed his first race at Phoenix having punched a hole in the wall and his own back during practice, and it took a couple of seasons on this side of the Atlantic before Bourdais was more than circumspect on short ovals.

Hinchcliffe and Wickens qualified in the Top 10 at Long Beach but the latter suffered a gearbox malady on raceday while Hinch came home ninth. Then at Barber, occasionally dealing with near-zero visibility, they finished third and fourth. If the rookie has been startling, it’s the fact that both drivers are regular frontrunners that confirms Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda’s potential. The team hasn’t looked this consistently good across a variety of track types since 2014, when Simon Pagenaud went to the final round of the season with a (very) outside shot at the drivers’ championship.

Leena Gade, former Audi Sport race engineer in the World Endurance Championship, was the most high-profile addition to SPM’s principal staff in the off-season as she is Hinchcliffe’s race engineer, while the acquirement of Wickens, after his six-year spell in DTM touring cars, was a hire that now seems shatteringly shrewd.

But don’t underestimate the effect of the team’s new technical director. When Chip Ganassi halved his IndyCar team at the end of last season, SPM co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson swooped for Todd Malloy. As long ago as 2003, Malloy was engineering Paul Tracy to the CART Indy car crown at Forsythe Championship Racing, and he was then a key component in the comet-like life of RuSPORT’s Champ Car squad, working successfully with the late and much missed Justin Wilson.

But Malloy can fight with a butter knife as well as a sword. Stints in the financially tough twilight years of Newman Haas Lanigan Racing ensured a couple more trips to victory lane for a once-great team, and he engineered Dan Wheldon to his 2011 Indy 500 glory, when Bryan Herta Autosport comprised fewer personnel than Team Penske’s PR department.

It’s a brain-power thing, and Ganassi’s loss is most certainly Schmidt Peterson’s gain. As technical director, Malloy can oversee the race engineering work of Gade and proven series veteran Blair Perschbacher (Wickens’ race engineer) while also leading SPM’s R&D efforts.

If SPM initially had an advantage this season by being Honda’s chosen team for testing the 2018 aerokit, that advantage was overplayed by some peeved rivals. The first four tests were about IndyCar signing off on the new kit at various types of track. The next round of testing – HPD with Schmidt and Ganassi, and Ilmor-Chevrolet with Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing – was focused on the engine builders adapting their installations to the new bodywork.

Intel from both rounds of testing was then passed down the line to the other teams, and Dallara’s aero figures were eventually proven to be dependable. In fact, one Andretti Autosport insider admitted to Motorsport.com that despite much preseason moaning over lack of test time, the only advantages that Penske, SPM, ECR and Ganassi had gained by being the manufacturers’ ‘chosen ones’ was having actual bodywork with which to work, at a time when Dallara’s parts supply chain was log-jammed. Certainly that whole preseason disgruntlement now appears to be a non-issue, judging by the performances of Dale Coyne Racing and Andretti Autosport…

So what is it that has boosted SPM back to the front of the field? Malloy inevitably won’t take credit – “it’s a group effort” – and points out we’re only four races into the season. But he does admit that trying to improve on alltypes of track, not merely remedy where the squad struggled in the past, is paying off.

“The goal is to be strong everywhere because to win the IndyCar championship, you have to be,” he tells Motorsport.com. “Last year, SPM was strong on street courses but quite bad on road courses for example, but with totally new aero and revised weight distribution, this is everyone’s chance to move the needle for all kinds of track.

“But it is so competitive. Just look at the number of teams that get into – or are fighting for – the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying. We had great pace at St. Petersburg but two races later, on another street course at Long Beach, we weren’t quite as strong. That shows us what we have to do every weekend otherwise we won’t be at the front.”

SPM’s switch from the chalk-’n’-cheese line up of Mikhail Aleshin and Hinchcliffe to the shaman-’n’-showman combo of Wickens and Hinchcliffe has also been vital to team progress. The media and fans love to talk about the Toronto-founded love-in between two drivers who have been genuine friends and rivals for more than half their lives, and fellow Canadian Malloy appreciates the driver chemistry too. But as an engineer, what pleases him most is that the pair pull in the same direction, setup-wise.

“James and Robbie are at the top of their game and they drive the same racecar, so we can function as a proper two-car team,” he says. “Each side is elevating the other constantly. I’d say that is the biggest positive change, honestly, having two hotshoes with very similar tastes in car handling and total transparency and openness.

“What’s good for one is good for the other, and you’d far rather have that than a four-car team where everyone drives something different because their driving styles are so different. James put it really well after the Barber race. He said, ‘The difference between Robbie being here and not being here is the difference between us finishing third and fourth today, and finishing sixth and 15th!’

“They look at each other’s data very carefully. Even after the race was halted on Sunday, James looked at the data from the [Wickens’] #6 car, and saw that while he was better in one part of the track, Robbie was better in the other. Robbie’s doing the same thing, looking at the #5 car’s data. So when we hit the track for ‘Part 2’ of the race on Monday, both their respective levels were that little bit higher.

“Don’t get me wrong, they’re very competitive and want to beat each other, and they’re super-close on pace. But again, that’s great for the team because we know exactly where we stand – they’re going to be running together at the front, in the mid-pack, or at the back! And if one session they are wildly different, we know it’s because of the car rather than the driver, so we can just switch the fast setup across to the slower car and know it will work. That is a hugely helpful dynamic to have.”

After his Sebring winter tests and even in the one-day test at Sonoma Raceway that preceded the Phoenix Open Test, Wickens confessed to Motorsport.com his annoyance at not yet being confident enough to exploit that last scintilla of grip offered by fresh tires. He expressed similar sentiments after qualifying at Long Beach and Barber, where he was 0.0390sec and 0.4658sec respectively behind Hinch in Q2. Malloy says this impatience is simply a by-product of Wickens’ perfectionist streak – the desire to be the complete IndyCar driver now!

“Robbie’s a pro who’s used to running at the front in every series he’s been in,” he says, “so he has very high expectations of himself. But some things require experience, and I think he’s actually made huge strides towards getting that ultimate pace out of fresh tires or red [alternate compound] tires.

“He puts a lot of thought into how to prepare the tires in terms of building up the heat on the warm-up lap and then nailing it on his flying lap. He’s still got to fully adapt to the characteristics of these Firestones, but you can’t argue with the results so far, right? The rest of the problem is the same one that confronts every racer – piecing your best sectors together into one lap, turning your best theoretical lap into a reality. Because one lap is all you’ve got before the tires are past their optimum.”

Gade has been largely protected from the media spotlight as she goes through the drinking-from-the-fire-hose scenario that confronts every newcomer to IndyCar racing, regardless of expertise elsewhere. But Malloy says he’s impressed with both her potential and the cohesion now felt throughout Schmidt Peterson.

“Leena is doing well and fits in great,” he says. “She’s on a very steep learning curve because IndyCar is very, very different from WEC, but I think she’s really taken to the challenge – working hard and actually enjoying it too!

“That’s what’s exciting about this: we’re not far into the process of having this team jelling together, so to have the performances we’ve had so far is promising. Leena’s relationship with James, and Blair’s relationship with Robbie are both still growing, and the Leena and Blair relationship is just as new. So again, I’m thankful that at least James and Robbie have a longstanding friendship.”

A true testament to any team’s strength is its capacity for swiftly remedial work, and Schmidt Peterson has already checked that box. Although Wickens made progress in February’s Phoenix oval-rookie test and open test, Hinchcliffe had a horrible time with a car that was not au point. Coming just a couple of months after the five-time race-winner had wiped off one side of his car against the ISM Raceway wall during a Honda test, there were doubts over the team’s setup and Hinchcliffe’s confidence. Yet two months later, he and Wickens monopolized the third row in qualifying there, and either could have won the race.

“Yeah, you’re right, we didn’t have a good test at Phoenix preseason – nor at Barber in March, actually,” says Malloy, “but we put our heads down and just kept working, and we were strong at both races.

“Again, I should emphasize there’s a long way to go and a lot for us to prove. For example, we still haven’t been to the fast ovals, so we’re under no illusions it could be a very different story at Indy or Texas or Pocono. This new car is so different from the old one. We don’t underestimate the size of that challenge which is why everyone here is busting their asses to shine on all tracks.”

The other question that will only be answered over the next couple of months is how much progress SPM can make during the headrush of races through to the end of July, with 10 races (including Indy 500 Pole Day) in 13 weeks. The biggest teams have personnel in their raceshops working on setups for one, two or three races in advance while their colleagues are out on the road. SPM, despite good principal sponsorship from Arrow Electronics and Lucas Oil, are not (yet) in that happy state.

“We’re all spread pretty thin, honestly,” says Malloy, “all pulling double-duty. And as well as Michael Shank Racing running a third SPM car for Jack Harvey at several races, we’re adding our own extra program at Indy [for Jay Howard]. So yeah, we are all really working as hard as we can. Sam is building the commercial side which feeds the operational side, and in return, good results will help the commercial side. It’s a virtuous circle. But as that begins to pay off, I hope we’ll be able to expand the operational side to have more shop-based resource.

“So like you said, there are teams with more resource who have people back at base, working towards a race that’s another month away, whereas we’re traveling every engineer that we have, including our R&D and design engineers. Ultimately, if we want to run with Penske week in, week out, we’ll need to eventually do the same.”

Last November, when Motorsport.com spoke to Malloy about joining Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and switching up from race engineer to technical director, he said his ambitions were to be mixing it with Penske and Ganassi at the front of the field. That’s obviously the aim of every team that isn’t Penske and Ganassi. But he added the caveat, “Obviously we’re coming from further back, based on where we’ve been the past couple of years, so we have a bigger hill to climb.”

In retrospect, he may have been unduly cautious. Scott Dixon’s blinding raceday speed at Barber notwithstanding, SPM’s duo has been every bit as convincing as Ganassi thus far in 2018, and occasionally a match for the faster Penske drivers on any given weekend. This observation initially triggers a familiar refrain from Malloy – “we’re only four races into the season,” etc. – but he admits that the #5 and #6 cars have been faster than he expected.

“When I first signed for the team, I wanted to see an upward trajectory throughout the year,” he says, “and maybe my ambitions for the start of the year were low because of the newness of the relationships and the processes we were trying to implement.

“But yeah, we’ve been pretty strong and the aim is to maintain that strength and capitalize on it with some wins along the way. It is particularly frustrating to miss out on our chances at St. Pete and Phoenix, but I think there will be more opportunities if we stay this strong relative to the rest of the field. And if we do that, then I think one or both our drivers will be in the championship hunt.

“I don’t see anyone running away with this championship. It’s going to be very competitive race in, race out, and you never know who out of 10 or 12 is going to be at the top, right? So if we execute on racedays without mistakes and without DNFs, and we’re at the front every week, we will be at or near the top at the end of the season.”

So could Indy car racing have its first non-Penske/Ganassi/Andretti champion in more than a decade? If so, certainly the team most likely to shake up the establishment is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The first four races of the season proved that.

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