(via Motorsport.com) – Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe earned a hard-fought third-place finish on IndyCar’s highly demanding and shortest oval, Iowa Speedway, and proved that without bad luck, this team can get the results promised by its pace. David Malsher reports.
What makes this great little facility so demanding? Well, first of all Iowa’s 0.894-mile oval is banked at 10 degrees on its front straight (which isn’t straight at all, by the way), its back straight is a relatively flat four degrees and then its turns vary between 12 and 14 degrees of banking. Then, due to the harsh winters in the region followed by asphalt-warping heat, there are numerous bumps around the track, and across all lanes, so there’s no way of avoiding them all, so the Indy cars need their suspensions, shock absorbers and dampers to be made very compliant.
Hinchcliffe told Motorsport.com the next day: “There was one point in the race, about one-quarter or one-third of the way into a stint, the team radioed to ask me how the car was handling… and I honestly couldn’t tell them. The two cars ahead of me had been running side-by-side for lap after lap and at neither end of the race track could I find any clean air that whole time! I had to say, ‘Sorry, I have no idea what the car’s like.’”
Of course, however exacting Iowa Speedway is, this driver and this team can handle it. James won here back in 2013 driving for Andretti Autosport, and last year he and Arrow SPM won together. But that’s no guarantee of success or even speed: IndyCar teams, even with ‘spec’ chassis that have remained ostensibly the same from 2018 to 2019, do not stand still. As we’ve seen this season, setups that worked last year have not necessarily worked at the same track this time around.
Throw into the mix, too, the extra challenges of the 2019 edition of the Iowa 300. For this season IndyCar stipulated that its short ovals – Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway – would see engine suppliers Honda and Chevrolet run their BorgWarner twin turbos at 1.5-bar boost, the same as on road and street courses, rather than the previous 1.4-bar. That unleashed an extra 50hp approximately, which can cause a team to rethink its gear ratios, and a driver to review where he should get back to throttle on corner exits.
And then from the downforce and tire-grip point of view, race engineers had to consider that the Iowa race had been shifted from Sunday afternoon in 2018 to Saturday night in 2019. That means the cars should naturally have more downforce due to cooler ergo denser air which means the cars slide less and therefore use up their tires less, but it also exaggerates every aero change made to the car. Thus if a driver wants more front-end downforce, in the heat of the day he may ask for one or even two turns of front wing (raising the angle of the front wing using an adjuster on the car’s nose), but in the cooler evening conditions, the amount of extra downforce he wants may require only half a turn.
As if this headrush of variables wasn’t enough to consider, race engineers and drivers then had to have a major reset last Saturday evening when it became clear that due to lightning and rain storms in the area, the race was going to be delayed. And delayed. And delayed… By the time the teams were delivered the time-honored phrase, ‘Drivers, start your engines,’ it was 10.46pm – more than 4hr30min past the scheduled start time – so it was much cooler than originally anticipated. Oh, and the Firestone rubber that had been laid down over the course of Friday had largely been washed away by the downpour.
Hinchcliffe and rookie teammate Marcus Ericsson had performed well in qualifying, and would line up fifth and 10th – the latter a remarkable effort from an Iowa newbie, even taking into account his recent test day there – but that qualifying performance might also have been misleading regarding raceday form. Qualifying was held in 90deg heat and high humidity of early afternoon, so the teams were effectively having to come up with two very different setups for the weekend – one to set the fastest average speed over two laps under a scorching sun, and then one that would work across 300 laps in the cool of an evening.
So just how close was the Arrow SPM team’s starting setup to the one used to help Hinchcliffe to victory last year?
“I would say it was in a similar family,” he replied. “We weren’t sure initially how much the extra horsepower would have an effect, although across the field I think most drivers would agree it didn’t feel that different and didn’t alter the setups much. All that was different was the lap speeds.
“The much bigger difference was the track condition. Because this ‘night race’ was starting as early as 6.15pm we went into the weekend thinking in terms of cooler track temperatures and air temperatures than last year and then getting progressively cooler as the sun lowered as the race went on. But because of the nature of the weather in that region this year, the 6.15pm start time would have been considerably hotter than we saw mid-afternoon last year. Then of course it changed again because of when we actually started.
“So we went into the weekend with one mindset, had to change that mindset when we actually got there and saw what the weather was like – and then had to revert to the original mindset by the time we actually raced because suddenly the weather threw us yet another curveball with the storms! The Arrow SPM team really proved its class because there was a lot thinking on our feet, educated guesswork. And in answer to your question, what we circled back to was a setup that didn’t deviate too far from what we had in the final couple of stints last year that served us so well.
“The downside of the cooler track conditions was that the key to winning last year was tire longevity, and unfortunately we didn’t see the tires fall off anywhere near as bad this year, so I think one of our advantages was immediately negated. We couldn’t just work on the outright pace for shorter bursts; instead, the pitstop strategy was defined by fuel load, not tire life, so we were working on pace over a full stint.”
Such was the debate about tire life and track temperatures, it seemed that Iowa Speedway’s bumps that were once regarded as notorious ceased this year to be a hot topic.
Hinchcliffe agreed, commenting: “I think that’s a combination of us simply getting used to the fact that yeah, Iowa is bumpy, and also this aerokit is much more forgiving over those bumps than the manufacturer aerokits [as used between 2015 and ’17]. These days, if you do get a little bit loose when you hit a bump, these cars are much more catchable. As drivers we’re able to tolerate a lot more movement from the car than we used to when we had the ridiculous high downforce of the previous-gen aerokit, because now that we’re running less downforce overall, we lose less in a sudden moment of yaw like you get when you hit a bump and the rear skips sideways. The tail snaps are not quite as dramatic.
“I mean, trust me, any snap oversteer on an oval is dramatic! But at least now your percentage loss is reduced, so the moment is recoverable, whereas when you couldn’t feel the limit with the high-downforce kits, your first feeling of oversteer would have you backwards in the fence nine times out of ten. Setup-wise, you’d have to start out with understeer and gradually dial it out to where you thought but you couldn’t know you were just below the threshold of snap oversteer.”
Beyond providing the driver with better ‘feel’ – and the spectators with better car design aesthetics – another great aspect about the spec Dallara aerokits since 2018 has been its tendency to emphasize driver skills. Iowa Speedway used to be close to flat-throttle all the way around, especially on fresh tires, with maximum speed at 190mph and minimum speed through turns at 178mph. Now, especially with the boost cranked up a little this year, the terminal speed is still at 190mph but the reduced downforce means apex speed is down to 165mph. That gives drivers of superior judgment more leeway to separate themselves from their less talented rivals by backing off later on entry to the turns and applying the throttle sooner and with greater sensitivity on the exit.
James commented: “With the old kits, you were running around so close to flat that there was very little chance to be better than the guy you were chasing or who was chasing you. The downforce was taking care of the tires and the amount of time you were lifting the throttle was so much less. There was very little differentiation. Now, even in qualifying on brand new tires, you’re not flat on the throttle at either end of the track, and that opens up other lanes to get around someone if you and your car are better that day.”
Right from the start of this year’s race, it was clear that Hinch and the #5 Arrow SPM-Honda was among the elite, the sole HPD-powered car that could keep with the Penske-Chevys across a whole stint. Takuma Sato and Santino Ferrucci would fly on fresh tires but fade before their next pitstop, while Alexander Rossi would be consistent across a stint, but not able to keep pace with Hinch. As James mentioned earlier, the struggle to find a clear lap was such that he wasn’t able to give his race engineer Will Anderson a fully formed picture of the car’s handling traits, but he could feel the car kept improving.
“We genuinely made the car better with every stop throughout the race,” he said. “We didn’t start the stints quickest, and we lost a couple of spots in the first stint, partly because we just didn’t know what the track was going to do or how the car was going to perform. But we were better than most others at the end of a stint.
“Unfortunately as I said before, our advantage over the field was reduced a lot because the cool conditions were helping everyone look after their tires. So our improvements focused on making sure the car remained flexible in terms of me being able to work well in any lane. That’s what would help us make passes.”
Hinchcliffe, having run top five almost throughout, passed the event’s polesitter, Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, following the final restart with 24 laps to go, but struggled to get around the lapped car of Sebastien Bourdais. That not only hurt his chances of gunning for the lead but also left him vulnerable to attack from the recovering Scott Dixon whose Chip Ganassi Racing team had put him on an alternate strategy, had recently pitted and whose tires were therefore far fresher than those around him.
“On that last restart, I really wish that Bourdais had gotten out of the way and let someone take a proper run at Josef [Newgarden, Penske’s race leader]. And if only Dixie hadn’t had that call to stay out when most of us pitted for the last time, and then switched to fresh tires when the race went under caution, we’d have been a step higher on the podium. But of course Ganassi had nothing to lose because they were way out of it before that, running outside the top dozen. It was worth them gambling, whereas there’s no way a frontrunner will take that kind of risk where you’re absolutely relying on there being another caution.
“If the race had been two laps longer I would have gotten second place because Scott’s tires were fading fast, but hey, that’s the way it goes.”
Hinchcliffe made sure, too, that he praised teammate Ericsson who continues to earn kudos from all observers for how he’s handling the first season of his career to include ovals. The Swede finished only 11th due to a stop-and-hold penalty from IndyCar for an improper pit entry, but his true pace should have seen him land sixth.
“Marcus did a great job, I thought,” said the Canadian veteran. “He really took to Iowa quite quickly, and although he did get to test there a couple of weeks earlier, that is very different to racing there in the dirty air of 21 other cars!
“Getting around that place in qualifying the way he did was very impressive, especially considering how early in line he had to go out for his quali run. Before Practice 2 [Friday evening] we went through a bunch of videos and talked about how to react to different situations, where to place the car, and so on. Then during that session Marcus came out of the pits right in front of me, we ‘raced’ for about two laps and then he just cleared off.
“I was watching him head into the distance and very handily devour anyone he came across, using the high line and also the low line. It left me thinking, ‘Damn, maybe I taught him too well!’ Sure enough, the first stint of the race, when the red flag comes out around lap 50 for the rain shower, we all slowly come down pitlane in order, and I look in my mirrors and it’s Marcus next in line.
“So he definitely picked up Iowa really fast, and it was unfortunate that he got a penalty. Hard lesson to learn. But he should be pleased with his short-oval debut in terms of performance. Massively impressive.”
Does race-to-race momentum truly exist?
Momentum is an eminently debatable topic in sport. Some believe it’s a valid phenomenon: others – within IndyCar particularly – are skeptical that one great result can lead to another when the series’ tracks are so diverse. Surely a sixth place on the streets of Toronto doesn’t help boost a team to third place on a short oval in Iowa? Will a podium on a short oval last weekend help the team to excel on the natural roadcourse in Lexington, Mid-Ohio this weekend? Hinchcliffe is sitting on the fence on this subject matter.
“It’s always nice having a run of strong races,” he says, “but I feel this is very much a ‘What have you done for me lately?’-kinda business. What happens at Iowa doesn’t have a direct bearing on Mid-Ohio. At the same time, it is still a good morale boost, and I think we’ve maintained our focus because we’ve actually executed really well in races this year, but just been struck by genuine bad luck. The team has been doing a great job and we just need the breaks to… not fall our way but at least stop falling against us!
“Happily that’s what has been happening the last few weeks so if we can just keep maintaining that focus and making the right decisions, hopefully the racing gods will allow us to continue to rack up good results that actually represent our speed.”
Far more encouraging than momentum is the team’s 2018 form at Mid-Ohio – provided the 2.258-mile facility is one of those tracks where evolution of the 2018 setup pays off. Right now, that’s not a certainty, but there are other pointers to Arrow SPM having a good weekend ahead.
Hinchcliffe observes: “Like you say, we had a good shot at the sharp end of the grid last year before my mistake in Q2, and then Robbie [Wickens] went on to finish second, which was great. Then you look at other road courses on the calendar: we had a rough result at the Indy Grand Prix but obviously another team car, Jack Harvey’s, [Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow SPM] was able to finish top three. We were quick at Barber Motorsports Park, too.
“So I think we should have some pace. Sure, everyone’s gotten better with this car now being in its second year, but I think we too have made improvements and evolved in the right direction. I think that should encourage everyone on the team.”
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