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Ericsson shines in preparation for Indy 500 debut
In an edgy build-up to the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ rookie Marcus Ericsson sidestepped the drama and qualified 13th. His race engineer Blair Perschbacher spoke to David Malsher about the newbie’s progress.
This past week of practice for the NTT IndyCar Series’ crown jewel race has proven again how difficult it can be to master Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In four days of (theoretically) seven hours each, the world’s most storied track bit Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing, McLaren Racing’s Fernando Alonso, Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing and Patricio O’Ward of Carlin, all four shunts that started somewhere north of 220mph. On Saturday, it was Arrow SPM’s own James Hinchcliffe who spun and hit the wall.
IMS has always had the ability to drive grown men crazy, its fickle nature bipolarizing according to ambient conditions and track temperature. That has been exacerbated this year due to a penetrant (that’s Speedway officials’ word for a sealant that embeds deep into the track) to help preserve it; the surface has turned darker and therefore heats up quicker. The end result is the same as ever: drivers and engineers who think they have finally fettled their cars to cope with the unique demands of the 2.5-mile Speedway can, within 90 minutes, find their car handling with all the panache of a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel.
And then, of course, when they rediscover their panacea, rain or impending storms will halt on-track activity, and on resumption of practice, conditions have radically altered yet again…
Marcus Ericsson, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / LAT Images
Ex-Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson, not only new to the Speedway but also to oval racing as a whole, appeared to adapt well and roll with the punches. By the end of Fast Friday – when the BorgWarner turbos are cranked up from 1.3-bar boost to 1.4, in preparation for qualifying weekend – the #7 Arrow SPM-Honda had turned a total of 267 laps. Of the 36 cars gunning for 33 spots on the grid, he lay 20th with a top lap of 229.512mph.
More significant as an indicator of potential in the weekend’s qualifying sessions, when the cars run solo on the track, are the speeds set without the aid of a tow. This is a colloquial term for a car ahead ‘breaking the air’ for the car behind, allowing the second car to lap quicker; according to those who judge these things, around IMS a car’s wake can stretch up to 10sec behind. In these rankings, Ericsson was a highly impressive 13th fastest with a lap of 228.754mph.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Swedish rookie almost replicated that time in qualifying, nailing a four-lap average of 228.511mph, and landed 13th spot on the grid, which is the inside of Row 5 in Indy’s unique 3x3 grid formation.
Throughout the week, Ericsson did have one advantage over some of his rivals. He could pool data and information with – and gather advice from – regular Arrow SPM teammate and former Indy polesitter James Hinchcliffe, Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow SPM teammate Jack Harvey and Indy-only teammate, veteran Oriol Servia in the Team Stange Racing with Arrow SPM entry. But it was still Marcus who had to climb into the #7 car and get the job done. His race engineer Blair Perschbacher was impressed.
Race engineer Blair Perschbacher has been impressed with how swiftly Ericsson has learned how to adjust his oval car's handling.
Photo by: Brian Cleary
“Marcus has caught on quick,” he said. “It’s tough, because he had the rookie test day at Texas Motor Speedway and then he did the open test here in April but that’s still not a lot of practice for your first ever oval. The first test was at a totally different track, the open test was in totally different conditions, so there wasn’t a lot that was transferable.
“So this week he’s still had to learn a lot but his feedback is very similar to James’s and they were driving very similar cars. We were trying to build Marcus up slowly because there’s always a lot to take in for a rookie. First we gave him experience and confidence in a car with raceday-level downforce, and then we took more and more downforce away to trim the car out to be fast in qualifying, which obviously puts the car a lot more on edge.
“Then we did a couple of qualifying simulations on Thursday just to give him a feel for how the car was handling before the boost got cranked up for Fast Friday and qualifying weekend.”
One of the most important aspects of oval racing is getting the car handling like it wants to naturally turn into a corner, thereby ensuring that steering inputs are kept to a minimum. That will not only minimize the amount of front-tire ‘scrub’ that hurts speed and increases tire wear but it also minimizes the drag-inducing frontal area by ensuring the air is incised by two front wheels pointing almost straight rather than pushed aside by two wheels that are turned a little further and are therefore bluntly cleaving the air.
Ericsson was very quick to pick up on all the basics of oval driving, according to Perschbacher.
“We showed Marcus how to use his [in-cockpit] tools like the weightjacker and the anti-rollbars to alter the car’s handling,” he said. “He quickly understood the shift lights and when to drop a gear if he suddenly sees the revs dropping because he’s hitting a headwind. And the basics like keeping steering to a minimum over a stint or over the four-lap qualifying run. All that stuff he’s been great at learning. We’ve coached him on the radio as he’s going around and he’s been catching on really well.”
Ericsson sits in pitlane studying form. Indy is tough but at least there are plenty of practice time to learn the art of oval racing.
Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / LAT Images
Robert Wickens, Arrow SPM’s still-recuperating Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2018, commented that the first time he saw a car set up for an oval and noted how asymmetric it is in order to improve its cornering speed, he thought it looked like the car that had already been in an accident…
“Yes, and Marcus was thinking the same thing!” grinned Perschbacher. “Robbie has been on the timing stand a lot and that’s been a big help for Marcus, because when he comes into the pits and says, ‘Hey, I feel this,’ then Robbie’s able to say, ‘Yeah, it was the same for me too.’
“And Marcus’s own feedback got better and better as the week went on; he has a good feel for the car and he’s good at explaining it too. But ovals, the superspeedways especially, are all about the little nuances and so it’s sometimes not until James or Oriol make some observation that Marcus might say, ‘Yeah, that’s the feeling I’m getting.’”
One of the challenges at superspeedways is to know the difference between a fine-handling car that’s fast – say, 228mph around Indy – and a fine-handling car that’s ‘slow’ in relative terms, and is lapping at 224. Many an oval rookie driver has been left puzzled when the car feels fantastic but isn’t turning in the lap times, while there are also drivers who will complain about how nightmarish their car feels, only to look at the speed chart and realize they’re in the top five.
“I think Marcus is still learning that difference, to be honest,” says Perschbacher. “It’s exactly like you said – he might go out and say it’s good, but we’re only 28th on the speed charts, and he might not understand why. So I’ll point out that where he’s having understeer and breathing the throttle a little bit, another more experienced guy might be keeping his foot flat and driving through it and getting the big lap time.”
Oriol Servia has been a welcome and useful addition to the Arrow SPM camp for the Indy 500, as the veteran has been able to pass on his expertise and reassurance to rookie Ericsson.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images
One of those guys is likely to be Servia, who qualified the Team Stange Racing with Arrow SPM entry in 19th. About to start his 11th Indy 500, he’s a great guy to have as coach. So while there is often a debate about how well a team can function if it adds entries for the Indy 500 – some may regard it as an unnecessary complication, others such as Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson feel the extra data stream is invaluable – Ericsson would agree with the latter view, says Perschbacher.
“I think it’s great to have Oriol here, and it’s been great for Marcus,” he comments. “Oriol, James and Jack have been explaining things to him, and they’re able to answer some of his questions. Like if Marcus says, ‘I have this weird feeling exiting Turn 3,’ they’ll be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just X and every car does it.’ That’s reassuring for a rookie, and so he’s really good at listening to the experienced guys, because he knows it’s going to be super-helpful, not just in practice but right up to the race.”
It’s hardly ideal for a driver to start his oval racing career on the most daunting oval of all, despite Indy preparations allowing so much extra track time before the main event. But when the green flag waves to start the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Marcus Ericsson can at least be certain that the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team and his teammates have done everything possible to prepare him for what will be the most memorable day of his racing career so far.
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