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Indy 500 drama and dealing with it the Arrow SPM way

(via Motorsport.com) – How did Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ensure it overcame the setback of James Hinchcliffe’s accident in qualifying last Saturday? With slick organization and determination, as competition director Billy Vincent explains to David Malsher.

One of the Arrow SPM drivers, Marcus Ericsson, made it onto the grid without problem in 13th, and the rookie excelled again in the penultimate practice for the Indy 500, held on Monday, with the cars in race-level downforce and with race-level turbo boost. This time it wasn’t so much his speed that caught everyone’s eye but his avoidance of a major accident.

In effect, it looks like a race, with swarms of cars heading down the front straight at 225mph-plus, changing lines, ducking and diving, and with the pack expanding and contracting in a concertina of color and noise.

On one lap, as Ericsson was pitching his #7 Arrow SPM Honda into Turn 1, up ahead his compatriot and fellow rookie Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing was being passed on the inside by the Andretti Autosport car of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Off line, Rosenqvist suddenly felt his car pushing up the track toward the outside wall, and eased off the throttle. At those speeds, and with drag-inducing downforce on the cars, merely backing off the gas is enough to make an Indy car slow as if the driver has hit the brakes.

Spotting that the Ganassi car ahead was looming larger at an alarmingly rapid rate, Ericsson also lifted off the throttle, at which point his car twitched sideways. He got back on the throttle and steered into the slide, and kissed the wall’s outside SAFER barrier with his right-rear tire, leaving a dirty black rubber mark on the white paint, and drove straight back to the pits.

There the #7 Arrow SPM crew checked the car over, realized he hadn’t done any damage to the suspension, so light had been the contact, and sent him right back out in order to keep his confidence high. Marcus had come through another major oval challenge with flying colors, for had he overreacted to Rosenqvist’s slowing car, he could have spun in front of a large pack of his peers, with disastrous consequences.

Oriol Servia is another driver who had a drama-free run in qualifying, despite the Team Stange Racing’s partnership with Arrow SPM being a new one and despite not having raced an Indy car for a year. The veteran grabbed 19th spot on the 33-car grid, six places ahead of the Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow SPM entry piloted by INDYCAR Grand Prix star Jack Harvey.

James Hinchcliffe, as seems to be his destiny at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had a more torrid, heart-in-mouth time. He had enjoyed a steady rather than spectacular week of practice, but as he explained here on Motorsport.com, he had always been planning to focus on raceday setups. Yes, it’s great to set a banner lap speed, but with the Indy 500 comprising 200 laps of the famed 2.5-mile course, it’s more important to have good balance and confidence-inspiring handling over the long haul than to strive for pole position and then sink like a stone as soon as you’re battling through the dirty air caused by peers or backmarker traffic.

Nonetheless, Hinchcliffe expected to be comfortably able to qualify on the Saturday, but the weather had other plans for him. Direction and strength of wind has always been a factor at Indy. Drivers coming off Turn 4 will often look up at the windsock on the scoring pylon and the flags on the infield buildings to check which way the gusts are blowing, to know how their car might be affected heading into Turn 1, or down the back straight to Turn 3. Even back in the days when Indy cars were front-engined roadsters, the gusts encountered while making the transition from headwind through crosswind to tailwind – or vice versa – going into Turn 2 could have a bad effect on a car already at the limit of adhesion.

When it came time for Hinchcliffe to qualify the #5 Arrow SPM Honda, he had completed his warm-up lap and was into his first flying lap – Indy grid positions are decided by the average lap speed on a four-lap run – when he came into Turn 2, appeared to push a little wide, probably due to a wind gust. As he eased the throttle, suddenly the car spun, because at those speeds there is barely any time – and hardly any steering lock – to correct such a vicious lateral movement. In an instant the car had pounded the wall and the chassis was damaged beyond immediate repair. James was checked at Indy’s medical center, released and cleared to drive, but he would now need to use the team’s spare car.

Cue Billy Vincent and the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team readying its spare car, which a week earlier had been James’ road course car, the one in which he had competed in the INDYCAR Grand Prix.

“It’s a case of expecting the unexpected, especially on ovals when the accidents are generally at higher speed, so any incident is likely to involve more car damage,” Vincent tells Motorsport.com. “You’ve always got to have enough spares and enough crew available to recover from anything at least once.

“On the Monday of practice week, the goal is to get your cars through the Tech Inspection line before they close, so after the Grand Prix, we pull those engines and install them in the superspeedway cars. We did that with all four cars – the two Arrow cars, the Meyer Shank car and the Team Stange car. Then we also start to convert the road course cars into spare superspeedway cars, and we do a bit more each day: the crew have a calendar on the wall with a daily goal. By the end of Tuesday they should have the front suspension converted, on Wednesday the rear suspension should be converted, the fuel cell should be converted, and so on. The target is that by the end of Thursday, all Indy Grand Prix cars have been converted to Indy 500 backup cars.”

This workload is all in addition to running up to seven hours of track time each day with the primary superspeedway cars, and making changes to them as required…

“Yeah, and sometimes luck is against you,” says Vincent. “You’ll have a crash in practice and suddenly that becomes the priority. But luckily for us, we had a clean week and so we were able to reach our target.”

There is not, however, a limitless supply of engines, so until a spare car is called upon, it sits without power unit. It is therefore quite amazing that following Hinchcliffe’s shunt, the spare was fitted with an engine, went through tech inspection and rolled back out to pitlane in little more than two hours. That gave the team enough time to get the car back in line for James to make three more qualifying attempts that day. The best of these was a 226.956mph four-lap-average – less than 0.3mph shy of making the Top 30 locked in for the Saturday session.

It meant a nervous night for the entire Arrow SPM crew who were faced with a Sunday spent battling five other cars for the last three remaining slots on the grid. They checked and rechecked the body-fit of the #5T – T is the designation given to spare cars – since aerodynamics and handling are the crucial factor at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Just a tad more drag could be the difference between making the show and not making the show, and the margins were finer this year than ever before. This is the closest-packed field in 103 years: the difference between pole-winner Simon Pagenaud and slowest qualifier Pippa Mann was just 2.748mph.

Given Hinchcliffe’s storied relationship with IMS, he had ample reason to sleep badly that Saturday night. Could he really be staring down the barrel of another failed attempt to qualify for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing? Well yes he was – but this is when team effort and a gutsy attitude from the driver will pay off. Come Sunday in the Last Row qualifying shootout he produced an average of 227.543mph and he was onto the grid.

“The Indy 500 is a big deal, right?” says Vincent with charming understatement. “We’ve been preparing cars for this race since last October. Each car, although it’s a spec chassis with spec bodywork, has its little differences, little things that are unique. So in the off-season, there’s a group within the crew who will volunteer to do bodywork fitment for a particular chassis. So the front and rear mechanics become bodywork specialists to make sure every part of the body is as streamlined as possible, no joins that can cause drag. At every seam, the panels have to be completely flush with each other. These guys are covered in dust all winter but they take extra-special pride in what they do and it pays off.”

Indeed it did last Sunday. The team breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“It was quite calm,” said Vincent, “because we felt prepared. There was an incident and, boom, we knew what to do, how to do it, and we executed. I mean, I know we get three days of regular practice and then one day [Fast Friday] of qualifying practice, but if the team is in a good place, if it’s functioning as it should, you really shouldn’t be using those days for testing. That’s all been done in the winter with your windtunnel testing, your testing on the seven-post shaker rig, and the organization of the big parts like assigning gearboxes, shocks and dampers, and so on, for each car. So when something occurs like what happened to James, there shouldn’t be a reason to panic. Like I said, you should be prepared to deal with anything at least once.”

So all that extra practice time for the Indy 500 is unnecessary?

“Well, no,” replies Vincent, “but the fundamentals of the car should be in place, so you’re not really testing big-ticket items. That track time you get should be all about fine-tuning, and obviously with how close the field is now, that’s a big deal. You’ll be keeping an eye on your competitors, seeing what they’re doing, and if you see something that seems to work for them, you may want to try it. Maybe you haven’t tried it before or maybe you tried it and it didn’t work for you in theory, but it may now be working in reality for someone else, so perhaps you want to re-evaluate it.

“But it’s also really easy to get caught out doing that, chasing something that someone else had instead of following your own program. It’s easier with a talented rookie like Marcus to just follow a really rigid plan to get him up to speed, and not go chasing off in different directions: the priority is to get the new guy comfortable with ovals, and that’s worth far more than any tiny little gain on the speed charts.

“But with a veteran like James, the temptation is to think, ‘Well, he already knows what he’s doing, so let’s start experimenting with his car.’ We might try something quite radically different and it may pay off, but if it doesn’t, you can waste too much time back in the garage changing everything back to how it was. Throw in changes in wind direction or strength, changes in track temps and downtime for rain, and suddenly you can find all those extra practice hours are drifting away without really making progress.”

Vincent, ex-Team Penske, ex-Andretti Autosport, is a major asset to Arrow SPM because he rolls with the punches and accepts whatever circumstances are hurled the team’s way by Fate throughout the NTT IndyCar Series’ 2.5-week spell at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May. He’s not old, but he is a veteran.

Like everyone in Gasoline Alley, though, he will now start to feel that knot of tension ahead of Memorial Day Weekend and the world’s biggest race held in front of the biggest one-day crowd in sports. There are just 90 more minutes of track time, on Friday – Carb Day – to hone the car to perfection. Then the anticipation will ramp up a little more and a little more until on Sunday it explodes into an addictive blend of cannon blast, drums, bagpipes, last post trumpet calls, Back home again in Indiana, balloons, the national anthem, flyovers, and ‘Drivers, start your engines.’

Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the final Sunday in May. There’s truly nothing like it.

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