IndyCar: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports 2018 season review

IndyCar
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Editor’s note: MotorSportsTalk continues to review how each organization in the IndyCar Series performed in 2018 and also takes a look ahead to 2019.

Thus far we have featured Juncos RacingMeyer Shank RacingCarlin Racing, Harding Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser SullivanDale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Today we feature Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (three more reviews remain after today: Team Penske on Saturday, Andretti Autosport on Sunday and Chip Ganassi Racing on Monday).

SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS 2018 season review:

What began as a season of promise ended as a season of disappointment and sadness for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. James Hinchcliffe finished 10th, earning the organization’s lone win of the season at Iowa. But the Canadian native also suffered the biggest disappointment of his racing career when he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Then,Hinchcliffe’s  longtime friend and IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens got off to a strong start, only to be seriously injured in a season-ending crash at Pocono Raceway on August 19. Still, it’s a testament to Wickens’ success in his first IndyCar season before the crash that he ended the 2018 campaign in 11th place in the final standings despite missing the last four races (including Pocono).

There also was conflict as the team parted ways with Le Mans-winning team engineer Leena Gade less than six months into her tenure with Hinchcliffe’s team.

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JAMES HINCHCLIFFE

Team name: No. 5 Arrow Electronics/Lucas Oil Honda

Years in IndyCar: 8

Career wins and podium finishes: 6 and 16

Best career season finish: 8th in both 2012 and 2013

2018 final standing: 10th

2018 final stats: 1 win, 2 podiums, 0 poles

2018 best race finish: 1st (Iowa)

SEASON WRAPUP: Hinchcliffe began 2018 strongly with two top-5s and three other top-10s. But after the debacle at Indy, and even with the Iowa win, just never seemed to build any sustaining momentum, particularly after Iowa, when he ended the season with five consecutive finishes outside the top-10. What should have been a better year ultimately wasn’t, but it’s still a testament to his team and the Mayor of Hinchtown’s talent that he still earned his best overall season finish since 2013.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Hinchcliffe is a much better driver than the majority of his season finishes have shown. More than anything, he needs a real breakout campaign. The potential, personnel and equipment is there for Hinch to do just that in 2019.

QUOTE (following the season finale at Sonoma): “At the end of the day, the 2019 season started the second the checkered flag fell and we’re already all eyes forward and focused on hitting the ground running in St. Petersburg. Thanks to the SPM team for all the hard work all year. Thanks to Arrow Electronics and all our partners. It’s been an up-and-down year, but we’ve won as a team, we’ve lost as a team, and we’ll come back stronger next year.”

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ROBERT WICKENS

Team name: No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda

Years in IndyCar: 1

Career wins and podium finishes: 0 and 4

Best career finish: 11th in 2018 season standings

2018 final standing: 11th

2018 final stats: 0 wins, 4 podiums, 1 pole

2018 best race finish: 2nd at both Phoenix and Mid-Ohio

SEASON WRAPUP: Wickens set the series on fire with his outstanding ability. He may have been an IndyCar rookie, but he certainly didn’t drive like one. He was on track to win the season-opening race at St. Petersburg (after starting from the pole), but late contact with Alexander Rossi relegated Wickens to a disappointing 18th place finish. He would go on to earn four overall podium finishes and it appeared it was just a matter of time before he’d break through with a win. But his horrible crash at Pocono ended any chance of that happening.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: It’s uncertain whether Wickens will be able to return for the start of the season, given he is still undergoing extensive rehabilitation and recovery from his injuries and the numerous resulting surgeries he’s undergone. No matter how long his recovery takes, one thing is very clear, though: the entire sport – from fellow drivers to opposing teams to media to fans – can’t wait to see Wickens back behind the wheel of the No. 6 SPM Honda.

QUOTE (from a tweet he posted prior to the start of the Sept. 16 season-ending race at Sonoma): “I just want to say that all your kind words and positivity have meant the world to me and my family. I’m in rehab now, trying to get back to 100 percent as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the future holds for me. It’s going to be a very long road to recovery. All I can say is I can promise you guys that I’m going to work as hard as possible, and train as hard as possible, to make sure I’m back in a race car as quickly as possible.”

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CARLOS MUNOZ

Team name: No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda for 2 races (Portland and Sonoma), also the No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda in Indianapolis 500

Years in IndyCar: 6 (4 full-time)

Career wins and podium finishes: 1 and 7

Best career season finish: 8th in 2014

2018 final standing: 25th (competed in just 3 races)

2018 final stats: 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 poles

2018 best race finish: 7th (Indianapolis 500)

SEASON WRAPUP: Munoz filled in the last two races of the season for the injured Robert Wickens. Given that the entire team was new to him, with new personnel and equipment, he performed as best as could be expected, finishing 12th at Portland and 16th at Sonoma.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: It remains to be seen whether Munoz will return to SPM. Much hinges on the recovery of Robert Wickens, as well as whether SPM decides to keep Munoz or goes with another driver. If Wickens is unable to return for the start of the season, Munoz is an option to once again fill-in for Wickens, essentially picking up where he left off after Sonoma. In a sense, the team has the luxury of at least four months to decide if it will need to have a replacement driver once again for Wickens. At the same time, those four months could go a long way toward determining Wickens’ ability to return to racing and when. While Munoz would continue to be a good fill-in for Wickens, if an opportunity arises with another team, especially if it’s a full-time ride, he’d likely have to take it.

QUOTE (following 2018 season finale at Sonoma): “Really thankful to everyone at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – the mechanics, the engineers, everyone on the team have been so great to me. Wishing a quick recovery to Robert (Wickens) and hopefully, he’ll be back at it in no time.”

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Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”