By: Tanner Watkins
March 11, 2019 | 4:30 PM
The 2019 season will mean something different for each NTT IndyCar Series team. For Chip Ganassi Racing, it is all about defending another championship. The same goes for Team Penske, looking to extend that record of Indianapolis 500 wins (and they want the title too). A team like Carlin or Harding Steinbrenner Racing is looking to shake their freshman season in hopes of more in 2019.
For Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the word for this season is opportunity.
When it was announced in the offseason that Arrow Electronics would become the title sponsor of the team – moving from solely sponsoring James Hinchcliffe’s ride to also the No. 7 for Marcus Ericsson – the focus for SPM shifted somewhat. The team proclaimed they had the resources now to fight punch-for-punch with the Penske’s, the Ganassi’s and the Andretti’s on track.
Adding the Arrow resources wasn’t the only shot in the arm for Schmidt-Peterson, either. After suffering through a 2018 season that saw Hinchcliffe miss the Indianapolis 500 and star rookie Robert Wickens seriously injured, simply turning the page on January 1 was reason enough for optimism in 2019.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, it is encouraging to see the attitude shared by Hinchcliffe and Ericsson following Sunday’s IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg.
For Hinchcliffe, the weekend featured more bumps in the road than smooth patches.
The Canadian driver enjoyed having his longtime friend Wickens back at the track for the first time since August, but carried lukewarm pace on the timesheets through the three full-length practices. By Saturday afternoon, Hinch’s No. 5 team had worked their way into the second round of qualifications and slotted in ninth on the grid.
In the race, Hinchcliffe dropped as low as 15th at one point though consistently fought his way around drivers like Graham Rahal and Max Chilton to be a top-ten competitor all day. When the 110-lap battle had ended, the 32-year-old had registered a sixth-place finish – certainly a step in the right direction to start a championship campaign.
And yet, the veteran Honda driver was frustrated.
“It’s not the finish we wanted,” added Hinchcliffe post-race. “The Arrow car, honestly, had more pace than that. The first stint we were stuck behind Graham (Rahal), and we weren’t able to make up spots in that. About two-thirds of the way into the race, a banner started to come off in Turn 3, and unfortunately, a part of it wrapped around our front wing.
“These cars are so aero-sensitive that we lost a ton of downforce. Unfortunately, we got behind (Max) Chilton and he had no respect for lead lap cars. With the banner on the wing, I don’t know if we would’ve made many more positions than that so we will take it.”
Digest those comments for a second – read it a second time if you need to. This is the kind of outlook that will signal a change for Schmidt Peterson this season. Sunday was a race for Hinchcliffe where, despite what the lap chart says, the No. 5 car didn’t get to show its full potential.
Along the way, the team faced obstacles, overcame them, and still wanted more. This is the kind of growth that fans have expected over the past couple of years from SPM, and we may just have it in 2019.
As for the rookie Ericsson? Well, it is safe to say that Felix Rosenqvist wasn’t the only Swedish driver who made a mark this weekend in Florida.
On the combined practice leaderboard, Ericsson was actually deeper into the field than Hinchcliffe – 18th in the final speed classifications following morning warm-up on Sunday. In the same breath, Ericsson qualified an identical 18th on Saturday afternoon and had a lot on his plate for Sunday’s main course.
In the race, though, the challenges seemed to melt away for the former Formula One driver. Ericsson methodically carved his way through the field, moving from 21st after the first lap to ninth on Lap 43. The 28-year-old was settling in nicely during the race’s mid stages when the No. 7 endured a mechanical failure, ending the rookie’s promising day.
“It was a great race up until the end,” added Ericsson. “We started quite far back, farther back than what we think we should’ve started. It was going well and we were well inside the top 10 when we had the problem (mechanical issue).
“Looking at what’s happening now (during the race), we were definitely going for a top eight in the Arrow car. It was just a shame because it was a really great race up until then.”
In the end, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ended up with sixth and twentieth place finishes. The direction they are headed, though, means much more than that. Through the first weekend, it seems as if there is a new sense of urgency in the SPM camp, and in a good way.
This is a new set of challenges for a team that has faced their fair share of adversity since 2015, and after overcoming those obstacles, this group is tough enough to take the next step in 2019. It will all come down to execution.
“I think we’ve shown our competitiveness,” Hinchcliffe remarked on Sunday. “We obviously didn’t get where we needed in qualifying because of an issue we found after the fact. Our race pace was stronger than the end results, so we just have to go to Austin and execute every single day and every single lap of every session, and hopefully, we will be at the front.”
Header image by Chris Jones/INDYCAR.