For the first time in nearly nine months – can you believe that? – IndyCar will finally race competitively in real life again at Texas on June 7. Barring any last-minute coronavirus interruptions, anyway.
The teams have months of rustiness to shake off and adjusted procedures to get used to, plus a truncated timetable – last year’s three-day Texas schedule is swapped for a single race day where practice, qualifying and the race take place on the same day, transitioning from day to night.
That’s an entirely new challenge for the drivers and teams of IndyCar, and the ones who adapt best to the unusual situation will almost certainly be the frontrunners.
One of the biggest stories entering this season’s IndyCar Series was the merger of organisations that has created Arrow McLaren SP – with the Formula 1 team expanding its interests Stateside on a full-time basis and partnering with what was Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
To talk through the challenges the teams will face on 2020’s opening single-day ‘weekend’, The Race enlisted Taylor Kiel – Arrow McLaren SP’s managing director.
Q. Before we talk Texas, you were managing director at Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and have kept that role with McLaren coming on board. How has your role changed through this period without racing?
Taylor Kiel: It’s been been very similar to before. I look after the team in its entirety. It’s actually been good. You’re able to step back and reassess how you’re doing your job and how everybody else is doing their jobs, and to have that time to just look at ways of working and how we’re operating.
It’s been really good. Surprisingly good. I was a bit sceptical at first as to how we would all communicate but obviously, it’s 2020, the web-based tools are there. It’s really easy to integrate into a stay-at-home role. That’s been pleasantly surprising and that’s been handled really well by our group. By and large everything has remained as is, which is good.
Q. The lockdown period meant cars were just sitting in the shop. Among the many jobs, switching them from circuit configuration to an oval set-up is just one thing on a long list. Do you have enough time in the shop before Texas to prepare effectively?
TK: Obviously we had two cars ready to race in St Pete, both of their back-ups are ready to go. So we’ve got four cars that are built and ready to race at a moment’s notice.
So that’s been helpful, obviously, with all the teams and businesses being shut down here was a struggle, but we were able to gain permissions [to get into] our buildings as were all the other teams [on May 11].
So we’re able to get guys in on rotating shifts and start working towards Texas and the rest of the season with a very close eye on how we’re doing that safely for our team members.
IndyCar did a great job of bringing all the teams together to share our plans and identify best practices. So generally speaking, all the teams are kind of doing the same thing at this point, but communicating well with each other and identifying the best ways to get back to work and get back to work safely.
So we’ve got plenty of time to prepare for Texas obviously. The cars are built, there is some changing over [to do] but it’s not massive. It’s more about just getting people reintegrated into the workshop and making sure the handover between shifts is smooth and efficient and that nothing is falling through the cracks. That’s the biggest priority right now.
Q. As if there wasn’t enough change and uncertainty going on for this season already, you’re switching to the Chevrolet engine! Are you confident that is all in hand and is it going to hurt that you haven’t done extensive oval testing with the new engine?
TK: I’m confident with the engine. Chevy, Ilmor, Pratt & Miller all together have been just excellent to work with. The information sharing has been top-notch. Our engineering group and our mechanics both feel very comfortable with the package.
We were lucky enough, I suppose, to have front-loaded our testing schedule given that we have, essentially, two rookies. So our thought process going into the season was [to] get as much track time as possible. We were able to get two test days in before the season started, which is more than most, so that was good.
But generally speaking, the fact that we will not be able to test hurts us in a big way because we have two rookies. It’s all about seat time. We’re going to show up at Texas with a limited number of laps, against guys like Scott Dixon and Will Power and others who have turned thousands of laps there so it’s a clear advantage for those guys and a clear disadvantage for us.
But our two drivers are here for a reason and we’ve got a really strong team so we’re looking forward to a great challenge.
Q. The race day format means you won’t get a lot of time between sessions to analyse data, and practice is in the day and the race at night. Is that going to affect you more as those rookie drivers you mentioned could have benefited from extra analysis time with the engineers and so on?
TK: We spent a couple of minutes lamenting the schedule when it first came out, but at the end of the day, you have to move forward. So we’ve kind of approached it in a way that everybody’s on the same boat, but now, this is a race won in itself; how can we be more efficient? How can we extract the most between sessions?
Obviously, everybody’s doing that, but everybody, ourselves included, have likely fallen into a trap of ‘well, this is how we do it, and we’ve got our processes and our procedures’.
So that in itself has been a great challenge for our engineering group and our operational management to identify how we’re gonna get through this weekend without leaving anything on the table.
So we put a lot of time looking at that, anything from data analysis to strategy to just being able to have some quality time with our drivers in what’s going to be a massively hectic schedule.
Q. In most of the races we go to the conditions are usually similar from practice to qualifying to race. How do you approach that as a team, as the transition from day to night is going to have a big impact on how the car handles on track?
TK: We’ve got a lot of data from Texas, everybody else does as well. So, depending on what the weather does, and temperatures and all of those sorts of things, we can project track progression fairly easily.
But so can everyone else – a lot of these teams are very well established and have a tonne of information to look at. We’re concerned but we’re not totally concerned.
The biggest thing for us is just making sure that you make it through the entire day without any issue, that’s more important to us than the track progression. We can map that because we have the data, what we can’t map is any unforeseen issues.
What we are really focusing on is making sure that we control everything that we can to ensure that we show up and make sure we don’t waste any time. Track time is going to be critical, so a huge amount of focus is on on making sure that everything is ready to rock when we show up.
Q. You have McLaren on board now and obviously they have people transitioning over to your team to help with all aspects of how you operate moving forwards. Have those personnel made a big difference in helping you prepare for what is an unprecedented situation to start the season?
TK: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely a lot of change. Something about me and something about our team is that we don’t mind change, I think it’s refreshing.
We’ve got a lot of new faces here, a lot of really smart people that we brought in. The McLaren relationship has really yielded benefits. It’s been excellent, obviously some growing pains along the way, but there always is.
Something I like about it most is, there’s fresh perspectives and there’s new ideas. There’s people challenging each other. As a team, we’re working really well together.
So Texas will be benefited because it will have been thought out from every angle and prepared for in every facet. But at the same time, specifically with the McLaren folks, this will be a totally fresh scenario. It’s a one-day show, on an oval, in Texas, all of these things that are just like totally against the norm of an F1 race weekend. So it will be a learning experience for all of us for sure.
Q. There still seemed to be some personnel movement going on before what was supposed to be the season opener in St Petersburg. Are all the staff you wanted to bed-in all in place now, or is it a longer-term plan than just grabbing a few people from McLaren and that’s it?
TK: I’d say that we’re pretty well there. We’ve got the key members in the places that we need them to be in and working towards our goal, which is good, there’s a couple of additive positions that we’re still working on, but we’re in no rush.
It’s about getting the right person in those places. So I would say where we’re at right now, I’m very confident with, very happy with.
And we’re already seeing a lot of throughout and a lot of results from those individuals. The really good thing that’s come of this is that these guys and girls have had a very focused time to get themselves up and running and get their processes sorted out, so really good.
Q. And coming back to the Chevrolet switch, obviously the IndyCar chassis are the same and theoretically the engine should be plug-in-and-play. Has worked out that way for you?
TK: It has actually been fairly straightforward. The onboarding process that Chevy has in place helped us tremendously.
They went out of their way to make sure that we have the people and the support and the information right away, to get up and running. So in terms of the installation and those types of things, we work those bugs out fairly quickly.
I know that we will have the full support of the Chevy arsenal if we find ourselves at a deficit, so that’s comforting.