Schmidt thrilled by drivers put in “tougher spot than expected”

Sam Schmidt says that Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew have performed better than expected for Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet considering their level of experience and the lack of in-season testing for IndyCar drivers.

Schmidt thrilled by drivers put in “tougher spot than expected”

Although Jimmie Johnson tested for Chip Ganassi Racing on Tuesday of this week, and in February Team Penske ran Scott McLaughlin in Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas and oval rookie orientation at Texas Motor Speedway, in both cases the drivers were being evaluated for potential future rides. For full-time drivers, testing – already at a premium in order to contain costs – has been eliminated during the pandemic.

This has inevitably been tough on drivers of minimal experience, such as Arrow McLaren SP’s O’Ward who had made just eight starts prior to the season’s start, and Askew who is in his rookie season. However, these Indy Lights champions have already played starring roles during the six-race-old 2020 NTT IndyCar Series.

Askew qualified fifth for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis although he would crash out in the race, and then finished third and sixth in the Iowa double-headers. Indeed, he was unlucky to go a lap down in the latter event (because of the caution flag timing) otherwise he might have scored another podium finish. O’Ward, meanwhile took pole and led most of the second race at Road America, finished fourth in the first Iowa race and, like Askew, should have been a podium contender in the second but suffered a bad pitstop.

Asked by Motorsport.com if he felt the decision for 2020 to replace James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson with far less experienced drivers had already been vindicated, Schmidt replied: “I don’t think vindicated is the word. We’re building for the future, and we made a ton of changes over the offseason – the association with McLaren, the hiring of [R&D engineer] Craig Hampson and a couple of extra guys, the deal with Fernando Alonso for Indy…

“And then, yeah, these two – Oliver and Pato. They, and we, both expected to get some test days to assist them and then all of a sudden that got stopped by the pandemic, and we thought, ‘Oh crap! This year could get very tough now, because we’ve put our new guys in a tougher spot than we originally expected.’

“But, man, they’ve been great, as we’ve all seen. They’re great teammates who work together well. And they’re polar opposites which I think strategically is what we wanted to bring so they can help each other in their own ways, and it’s frankly worked out far better than we could have hoped for given their lack of experience.

“If Oliver didn’t crash in the Grand Prix of Indy, then he’d be up there in the Top 10 in points – and Pato already is. He’s fourth in points. And, jeez, he’s had a chance to win three races already! It’s very exciting.”

Schmidt said he was particularly impressed with his drivers both fighting for podium at Iowa Speedway, for the 0.894-mile oval is one of IndyCar’s most daunting tracks given its narrowness and some extreme bumps.

“I admit I was nervous going there with relative rookies,” he said. “It’s typically a venue where we get a full day of testing – and even after that test, it can be scary heading into that event. But Pato and Oliver really rose to the occasion, and they were both unfortunate with yellow flags and also Pato’s pitstop.

“Newgarden is awfully good at Iowa, probably unstoppable, but I would have liked the opportunity to at least try and stop him. We were doing the undercut with our pitstop strategy, and it just didn’t work out. And the 30sec pitstop certainly didn’t help Pato. That mistake is definitely on us. But I think we gave the drivers confidence by giving them strong cars, and they further increased our faith in them by racing like veterans. Yeah, very impressed.”

Regarding the partnership with McLaren, Schmidt said he hadn’t yet noticed a ‘monumental difference’ but the lack of races in the first half of the year has proven a boon for the team’s revised setup.

He said: “With the season being delayed, we’ve had the chance to integrate the engineering departments between our Indianapolis facility and McLaren in the UK in a very planned and methodical manner, rather than having to wait until the next offseason. So I don’t know if it’s paying dividends yet, but I know that it will and there’s now a very good but simple system in place for how these departments work together.

“And now looking to the 500 with Alonso joining the team, a few more people are coming over from the UK to be integrated in the program at the Indy end, and I think that’s when we’ll see the partnership start to really work well.”

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