NTT IndyCar Series history is replete with strategic alliances that proved successful, suggesting that McLaren Racing’s tie-up with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports could be destined for success, yet several factors point to the joint effort having an uphill battle upon its debut in March 2020.
Teams joining forces in a myriad of ways has become more common with examples including Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, Meyer Shank Racing’s partnership with Arrow SPM and any number of one-off efforts for the Indianapolis 500 that combine established entities with smaller ones.
Last year, Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s technical relationship with Andretti Technologies brought about near-immediate success with rookie phenom Colton Herta becoming the youngest winner in Indy car history with his triumph at Circuit of The Americas.
Having a partner team has become so apparently essential that Honda loyalist Michael Shank — whose previous alliance with Arrow SPM worked because both entities were powered by Honda — chose to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-season 2020 campaign rather than set up his team as an independent entity.
The number of successful examples, both past and present, indicate that having a quality partner is not only the easiest path to long-term viability, it may also be the most efficient and economical. A comparison of Carlin and Meyer Shank’s last two years competing in the series provides an instructive example.
As a team new to top-level North American open-wheel competition embracing a go-it-alone strategy since its 2018 debut, Carlin has amassed an average finishing position of 15.9 over 67 starts with six different drivers. Michael Shank and Jim Meyer’s eponymous team with driver Jack Harvey has an average finishing position of 15.4 over just 16 starts. That’s a marginally better average race result after exactly three fewer full seasons, illustrating the advantage of having a technical partner.
A more direct example is Harding Steinbrenner Racing. As Harding Racing in 2018, the team had an average finishing position of 16.6, helped by Patricio O’Ward’s ninth-place result at Sonoma Raceway — the season-best result for the team in a stunning one-off performance for the then-new Indy Lights champion. With Andretti assistance, the average finishing position rose to 13.2 in 2019, bolstered by eight top-10 results including two victories for Herta.
The benefits of forging a partnership seem irrefutable, yet McLaren’s entry into the series as Arrow McLaren Racing SP isn’t like the other highlighted examples. The team’s manufacturer change from Honda to Chevrolet, plus instances of prior performance deficits, point to a potentially rocky future for the new effort.
Switching to Chevrolet power won’t instantly grant the effort Team Penske-level success. The opposite is more likely, given recent history: Since the beginning of the 2018 season, cars backed by the bow tie brand visited victory lane 15 times. In the same period, Honda-powered cars won 19 races. Honda’s advantage at the surface level is clear, but the numbers become more skewed when the team fielding the car is considered.
Penske secured all 15 of Chevrolet’s victories, illuminating just how much the team itself is a driving force behind the brand’s success. Honda’s victories, while dominated by Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing, were contributed to by each of its client teams, including one for Arrow SPM.
On the Chevrolet side, Ed Carpenter Racing, AJ Foyt Racing and Carlin have all been unable to reach the top step of the podium, despite having the same power unit as Penske. With history as a guide, Arrow McLaren is more likely to fall in line with the Chevrolet teams that aren’t Penske than it is to add to the manufacturer’s win total.
Outright performance hasn’t been a strong suit for either of the entities combining to form Arrow McLaren, as evidenced by Arrow SPM’s single victory since 2018 and McLaren’s failure to qualify for last year’s Indy 500.
Despite fielding fan-favorite James Hinchcliffe and former Formula 1 pilot Marcus Ericsson in 2019, Arrow SPM finished outside the top 10 more times than it didn’t. In 33 starts for its two drivers and one for Conor Daly who substituted for Ericsson at Portland last year, the team had 11 finishes within the top 10 and 23 outside of it. The team’s average finishing position of 13.7 was almost as poor as the part-time team it offered technical assistance to.
Whether from mismanagement or another factor, the team’s 2018 momentum, exemplified by Hinchcliffe’s Iowa win and Robert Wickens’ rookie success, wasn’t maintained. Finding victory again has been elusive, with Ericsson’s second-place finish in Detroit representing the team’s best 2019 result.
McLaren’s IndyCar performance is even easier to track, given the much smaller sample size. Despite securing 2017 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors with driver Fernando Alonso in an Andretti-run one-off effort, McLaren’s independent approach to last year’s Indy 500 ended in disaster. Much of the failure was attributed to mismanagement both on and off the racetrack, leaving even a casual observer to surmise that the team had taken on too much while putting in too little.
With part of McLaren’s brain trust linking up with Arrow SPM to form the basis of their new joint endeavor, improving on the teams’ lackluster 2019 seems optimistic at best. Just as two wrongs don’t make a right, two ineffective teams don’t combine to create a winner.
All of the negatives — manufacturer change, poor performance and mismanagement — could lead to disaster if unaddressed, yet Arrow McLaren seems cognizant of the deficit and has hired a youthful driver lineup for 2020. Both O’Ward and Oliver Askew have proven themselves in IndyCar’s feeder series and enter their first full seasons as the two most recent Indy Lights champions. Both drivers found success on a variety of racetracks and both seem to possess the hunger and determination to bring the team Arrow McLaren is based on back into victory lane.
With limited IndyCar starts for O’Ward and none for Askew, top-level open-wheel experience isn’t on the team’s side. Rather than choosing what might be considered a conventional lineup of a grizzled veteran like Hinchcliffe or Sebastien Bourdais paired with an eager rookie, the team chose to put its season-long chips on IndyCar’s ever-advancing youth movement.
Mitigation of the lack of experience in the cockpit might come from a figure outside of it in what is arguably the team’s most impactful offseason hire: Craig Hampson. The engineering whiz is best known for finding great success with Bourdais in Champ Car, where the pair won four consecutive championships from 2004 to 2007, and later at Dale Coyne Racing.
While season-long success serves as the highlight of any engineer’s resume, it’s Hampson’s time at Coyne that may prove most illustrative when considering the impact he’s likely to have at Arrow McLaren.
Despite not being considered anything close to a high-budget team, Coyne with its Bourdais/Hampson pairing often punched above its weight, winning back-to-back season-opening races in 2017 and 2018. Bourdais reached seventh in the driver standings in 2018, his best result since returning to Indy car racing in 2011.
A challenging 2019 season coupled with Coyne’s decision to take his team in a new direction for 2020 led to the duo’s disbanding, making Bourdais available for a part-time drive with AJ Foyt Racing and giving Arrow McLaren the chance to snatch top-tier engineering talent.
Adding to the allure of technical advancement is the addition of Alonso to the Arrow McLaren driver roster for this year’s Indy 500, immediately giving a boost to the team’s average age and experience level for the month of May. Having lived through both the good and bad of IndyCar’s marque event, Alonso’s choice to return to the team — half of which failed him last year — is a potential indicator of how far it has come during the offseason.
It’s possible that Arrow McLaren will have a strong campaign in 2020, especially considering the investments the team has made to address its deficiencies and the addition of a world-class driver for one race. An equally probable scenario exists wherein the challenges faced by the its two constituent parts will continue to impact the union, bringing about a season of growing pains and missed opportunities that can’t be immediately fixed by changing manufacturers, fielding a revamped driver lineup or hiring a star engineer.
The complexity of the situation doesn’t bring about easy answers and complexity is what has brought both entities trouble in the past. Their joint future isn’t guaranteed to be any easier.