How IndyCar’s Arrow McLaren SP Is Dealing with the Coronavirus Shutdown
The 2020 season for the NTT IndyCar Series has been, to this point at least, postponed until May.
The impact of COVID-19 has effectively pushed back or canceled four races—St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach and Circuit of the Americas—that were originally scheduled for March and April.
While drivers within the racing community have taken their talents to iRacing or filled their time by working out to keep fit, the teams have been behind the scenes trying to make the best of an increasingly difficult situation.
Taylor Kiel, managing director at Arrow McLaren SP, has been in the midst of calling audibles for an organization that features drivers Patricio “Pato” O’Ward and rookie Oliver Askew, as well as two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso for the 104th Indianapolis 500, still scheduled for May 24.
At the moment, the focus is finding the best solutions to help keep the team moving forward, even while everyone is in self-quarantine mode.
“It’s been a challenge, that’s for sure,” Kiel told Autoweek. “We all kind of wish that we were back in the shop right now trying to figure out how to go and win the next race. Ultimately, where we’re at is in a state of unknown. We don’t know what our next race is going to be or when we’re going to be able to safely and responsibly regroup as a team. The challenge in front of us now is how do we make the most of this time.”
Teleconferences and video calls have helped keep the dialogue open in an effort to stay the course as much as possible. A leadership group meets regularly to discuss their agendas and obstacles, which then gets networked out to the rest of the team.
“We’ll have that high-level meeting on say, Monday and Friday, and they’ll go out and communicate the message and work towards the common goal with their groups,” Kiel said.
“The communication’s there, but more in a detailed sense what we’re expecting from the mechanics, the pit-stop guys, our travel team is to stay healthy and to really take this thing seriously. Their health is really important, it determines their attendance, which determines their productivity, which determines any number of things—and that is a huge core piece of our team.
“What I know that they’re doing now is following the quarantine, trying to stay active. We’ve worked really closely with our partners at St. Vincent Sports Performance. They handle all of our strength and mental training for our over-the-wall crews. They put together an at-home package for these guys that they can do workouts, very creative types of workouts given that not everybody has a home gym. So they’re staying active, they’re staying healthy, they’re staying engaged with their respective leaders, their crew chiefs or department heads, whatever it may be.”
Additionally, Kiel had the crews take a couple of days off for themselves following the fallout of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, as they were dealing with the stress of a schedule that “changed by the minute.”
Depending on how long the waiting period will be until cars get on-track again, the biggest enemy is complacency. In turn, keeping things fresh is paramount.
“At this stage in the game, testing is all but gone,” Kiel said. “Racing is off in the distance, and we’re hoping that May comes quickly and this all blows over and that we’re racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s the goal. That’s the biggest challenge that faces us now: ‘How do we stay engaged? How do we maintain the focus? How do we continue to push forward with unique objectives?’ And that’s yet to be determined.
“I know that our leadership group is working really hard to identify those stones that we need to turn over that we haven’t yet. … There’s a lot that goes into the top rating as a race team, and it’s not just building a car and then racing it. It’s organization, it’s procedure, it’s making the workplace better, it’s increasing efficiency. It’s all of those intangible things that a guy in my position thinks about all day long, but now I’ve got a group of people that can think about it most of the day, as well. Allowing everybody to work together to try to make our race team stronger from the inside out is kind of where my mind is shifting as we go forward with this. But certainly, maintaining the eye on the prize and that is making sure that we have the best team and the best race cars prepared and ready to rock when we do go racing.”
While iRacing has certainly done its part to keep everyone entertained and drivers sharp, it isn’t something he sees as a key component to help in terms of the engineers practicing and targeting setups.
“The big thing that I would worry about in a situation like that is, while those games are excellent for the amateur gamer, the ride models and the track profiles and those types of things are not at the level that we need them to be,” said Kiel. “I would fear that our group starts to work on those habits over time. It’s important for us to continue to do what we do.
“Our simulator work in Charlotte with Chevrolet is just on a much higher level than sitting down on a home system with an engineer. Our group does a really good job there. Luckily for us, with two rookies, we’d front-loaded the same driver on the loop schedule anyway, so our guys (Askew, O’Ward) have just had a massive amount of time in the simulator leading up to the first race of the season. One thing we’ve also done is we’ve done more track testing than anybody leading up to the season because we’ve been really aggressive with our schedule. All of that because we’ve got two young guys, I wanted to get them as much seat time as possible before the first race.
“As we sit now, it goes back to where our car preparation, where our team was at, I think both of our drivers are as prepared as they can be for the start of the season. Now, you know, that said, Oliver has since the break just been pounding laps in a shifter kart. Pato’s back home in Texas with his family, and he’s working out and doing the things that he needs to do, as well. Both of those guys are certainly staying engaged, they’re focused, they’re locked in, they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
The biggest thing to help with their education from afar has been connecting with the engineering group by breaking down onboard footage and walking through all of the data analysis, among other things.
“It goes back to what we talked about in terms of making our race team stronger and our business stronger,” Kiel added. “From that perspective, we can help the drivers become stronger in their intangible work, too. Being able to sit down and scour through data with the engineers more efficiently and do the unsexy things out of the race car, so to speak, teach them how to be better in those aspects. It’s not all about just sitting in the cockpit and driving, there’s a lot that goes into it to make a very complete championship-level racing driver.
“That’s what … we’ll spend the majority of our time here during this break, and even as we go on through the season, is it’s more about giving them a crash course and then a full dive into what we expect from them as drivers and then how they can be the best version of themselves.
“We’ve got the tools to make that happen. We’ve got the people to make it happen. Now, we have the time to make it happen. There’s always a silver lining, for sure.”
Now, to address the elephant in the room: Alonso.
The process has been as seamless as it can possibly be, all things considered. Although the team has been evolving with the unknowns, Kiel has leaned heavily on Zak Brown, McLaren CEO, and Gil de Ferran, sporting director at McLaren, in keeping Alonso updated.
“They’ve looped him in on what we’ve got going on and what our situation is, and he’s fully understanding that this is a day-by-day thing,” Kiel said. “This is a very unique thing and something that we’ve never experienced. We’re all on this journey together. I think at this point, there’s just a human element of understanding right now that’s actually quite refreshing to see, not just in the racing community but in the world. That’s been fine. You know, it is what it is.
“There’s not a whole lot that we can do about it. But we’ve certainly kept him in the loop and he’s kept us in the loop on where he’s at, what he’s doing and what his plans are. So all is good on that front. Obviously, we’re very hopeful that we can run that race because with Fernando and our team, we’ve certainly got a lot to prove. I’m very confident in what we can do there, so very hopeful that it goes off without a hitch.”
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