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Arrow Schmidt Peterson race report, Round 3 – Birmingham, Alabama

(via Motorsport.com) – The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park saw Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports turn potential into points, and demonstrated the strengths of both drivers and the team. David Malsher reports.

It’s odd to think that the NTT IndyCar Series community was once wary of the 2.3-mile natural road course in Birmingham, AL.

Yet over its decade visiting the track, IndyCar has seen very solid crowd numbers – despite highly variable weather conditions – and the majority of the races have been highly entertaining.

Last weekend’s Honda Indy GP of Alabama was no exception, and at the heart of the action throughout the weekend were Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports drivers James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson, as the team coped well with some truly peculiar circumstances that arose for the IndyCar teams.

Firestone inadvertently threw everyone a curveball on Friday afternoon, in second practice. This is the session in which each driver is granted one set of alternate compound tires to try in preparation for the following day’s qualifying shootout when the softer rubber will become essential.

However, because last year’s HIGPA had seen such atrociously wet conditions (in which Arrow SPM’s Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens finished third and fourth, incidentally) that a whole batch of red-sidewalled alternate tires went unused, and it was this batch which Firestone had brought to the track for use in second practice. The problem was, something in the intervening year appeared to have changed the nature of the compound and it was no longer compatible with the ‘regular’ setup parameters established by the teams.

Further confusing the issue was that some tire compounds are not compatible with others, and the rubber on the track from the support race series at Barber last weekend was a blend of Pirelli, Yokohama, BF Goodrich and Hankook. How much of the chronic understeer that plagued so many drivers was down to aged tires, how much down to track rubber? No one was quite sure – but the Arrow SPM team appeared the least troubled. From third fastest in Friday morning practice, Hinchcliffe went fastest in second practice, and remained top in the Saturday morning session.

Ericsson was still learning the track – like all rookies, he really didn’t need the unique tire situation! – but was edging closer to Hinchcliffe’s pace. Unfortunately during third practice, dust and debris on the exit of Turn 1 caused Marcus to understeer into the barrier at Turn 2, and gave the team some work to do before qualifying. But it didn’t dent the Swede’s confidence, and he responded well. Come qualifying, with everyone having received Firestone’s 2019 ‘red’ tires, he was within 0.15sec of James’ best effort in Q1. However, he did not transfer and would start the race from 20thon the grid.

Firestone inadvertently threw everyone a curveball on Friday afternoon, in second practice. This is the session in which each driver is granted one set of alternate compound tires to try in preparation for the following day’s qualifying shootout when the softer rubber will become essential.

However, because last year’s HIGPA had seen such atrociously wet conditions (in which Arrow SPM’s Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens finished third and fourth, incidentally) that a whole batch of red-sidewalled alternate tires went unused, and it was this batch which Firestone had brought to the track for use in second practice. The problem was, something in the intervening year appeared to have changed the nature of the compound and it was no longer compatible with the ‘regular’ setup parameters established by the teams.

Further confusing the issue was that some tire compounds are not compatible with others, and the rubber on the track from the support race series at Barber last weekend was a blend of Pirelli, Yokohama, BF Goodrich and Hankook. How much of the chronic understeer that plagued so many drivers was down to aged tires, how much down to track rubber? No one was quite sure – but the Arrow SPM team appeared the least troubled. From third fastest in Friday morning practice, Hinchcliffe went fastest in second practice, and remained top in the Saturday morning session.

Ericsson was still learning the track – like all rookies, he really didn’t need the unique tire situation! – but was edging closer to Hinchcliffe’s pace. Unfortunately during third practice, dust and debris on the exit of Turn 1 caused Marcus to understeer into the barrier at Turn 2, and gave the team some work to do before qualifying. But it didn’t dent the Swede’s confidence, and he responded well. Come qualifying, with everyone having received Firestone’s 2019 ‘red’ tires, he was within 0.15sec of James’ best effort in Q1. However, he did not transfer and would start the race from 20thon the grid.

“We were looking to make a move during that cycle, but that restart just threw us for a loop. We had a little bit too much understeer in the car in that last stint. We had a good long-run car, but we weren’t the quickest getting up to speed. I don’t think our out-laps were great, and the first lap or so on the restart, we weren’t awesome.

“Certainly a bit disappointed; I feel like we left a couple of positions out there today. [But] the pace was good all weekend, and if we keep doing that, eventually our day will come.”

However, differing perspectives are always fascinating and Hinchcliffe’s teammate Ericsson, who finished seventh, was left thrilled by the race. He had made up 13 places on his grid position, pulled off 11 passes on track, and was exhilarated to once again prove his race pace.

He told Motorsport.com: “I just need to sort out qualifying because I’m still on a little bit of a learning curve with Firestone’s red [alternate compound] tires, and you only use them on race weekends, not testing. They make a significant difference, and I suppose I’m used to the Pirellis from Formula 1.

“Obviously the field is so tight in IndyCar, and you can’t afford to give anything away, but I’m getting closer – I was just one-and-a-half tenths of a second from transferring to Q2.

“But the race was fantastic! All three races have been good – I was top eight in St. Pete when I got the radiator damage, I was top five in COTA when we had the penalty for the pitlane problem, and today was great fun. People had said you can’t overtake here, but we went from 20th to seventh.

“We made some good passes on top guys – Will Power, [Ryan] Hunter-Reay, Newgarden – and had some excellent battles. It shows we can really mix it up with the best guys; we just need to qualify a bit higher.

“I’ve got to say, I think the team did a really good job with tire strategy to make the plan to run reds twice. We started on used blacks but they pitted me really early [Lap 7], got me out into clean air on a new set of reds, and we were just flying. By the time everyone had made their second stop, we were into the top 10, and even on used reds for the third stint, I was passing people, catching them by surprise.

“My in and out laps were also strong, so I think the Arrow SPM team came up with a good plan and executed it well, and I think I executed well on track. It was such a fun day because we turned the situation around – and, unlike at St. Pete and COTA, we actually got properly rewarded for it!”

This weekend, the NTT IndyCar Series races in the 45th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, an event that Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Arrow won together as recently as 2017…

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