Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola earn solid results for mourning Petty team

Leave a comment

Shortly before the start of today’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway – the first race after the loss of Lynda Petty, wife of seven-time Sprint Cup champion Richard Petty – the Richard Petty Motorsports team tweeted a vow:

Ultimately, a win was not to be for either of RPM’s drivers, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. But the two still netted solid results today in Martinsville with Ambrose finishing fifth (his second Top-5 in the last three races) and Almirola finishing eighth (his second Top-10 in the last three races).

“We’ve had a really tough week,” Ambrose said after the race, which did not have Richard in attendance (USA Today and NBCSN contributor Nate Ryan reports he is expected to return next month at Richmond).

“We lost Miss Lynda. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Petty family right now. We really wanted to win for them bad out there, but we’ll take a Top-5. We’re really proud of our efforts.”

Ambrose was especially stout this afternoon. Starting 17th, Ambrose made his way into the Top 5 shortly after the Lap 100 mark, and then on pit stops under a yellow at Lap 170, his pit crew was able to help him win the race off pit road and claim the lead on Lap 173.

The Australian would hold the point for the next 22 laps before Matt Kenseth passed him at Lap 194. Ambrose would hover around the Top 10-15 in the middle stages before making a late charge back into the Top 5 on the strength of solid pit work and a good car on long stints.

“We had great pit stops all day,” Ambrose said. “Our guys probably had their best day on pit road in a long time and [crew chief] Drew Blickensderfer and [team engineer] Derek [Stamets] on the pit box made great calls late in the race and if we would have had another round of pit stops, we might have had something for them.”

Like Ambrose, Almirola was able to keep around the Top 10 for the majority of the race even though he admitted that his car could never quite find a sweet spot.

“Our car was very touchy to the clouds,” Almirola explained. “When it would cloud up, my car would get real loose and then when the sun would come out my car would get better and it would tighten out, but we bounced around on adjustments all day and couldn’t ever get the car balanced right.

“We would either be too tight or too loose and we really struggled for forward drive, which really hurt us on longer runs.”

Nonetheless, Almirola was buoyed by another solid performance all-around for RPM.

“Marcos had a really good run as well, so we’re doing things right,” he said. “If we keep running like this, we’ll get to Victory Lane.”

Now more than ever, that’s the goal for RPM: A #WinForMissLynda.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne