The Gift That Keeps on Giving

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I have tried my best to write about other topics this offseason, but the gift that keeps on giving has given us more to talk about. Arrow McLaren SP cannot seem to get out of their own way when it comes to negative publicity. Every time we look up, it seems that the newly renamed team has stepped in it yet again.

On Monday night, Robin Miller reported in an article on Racer.com that Arrow McLaren SP was set to name Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew as their new drivers for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season. He also reported that James Hinchcliffe was out, having been informed of the decision on Sunday night.

Since we first learned of this “partnership” between Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and McLaren on August 9, I’ve been saying that James Hinchcliffe will never drive for this team in 2020. Many disagreed with me publicly and privately. It would be real easy for me to say “I told you so”, but I’m a much better person than that.

There are three innocent victims in all of this – Hinchclffe, O’Ward and Askew.

I’ll get into my thoughts on Hinchcliffe’s situation, but I want to make it clear – I applaud Arrow McLaren SP for taking a chance on hiring the last two Indy Lights champions. Two extremely talented young drivers getting a shot in a full-time ride is a great thing, and I am very happy for them.

This should be the greatest week in their professional lives to this point. However, their triumph is being completely overshadowed by Arrow McLaren SP kicking popular driver James Hinchcliffe to the curb.

The team made it official Wednesday morning. I sat in on a media conference call on Wednesday afternoon with O’ Ward and Askew, along with Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Gil de Ferran. Bruce Martin of NBCSports.com directed a question to Schmidt asking about the decision to go with two unproven drivers over the popular Hinchcliffe.

Schmidt replied with what sounded like a scripted answer, detailing all the wonderful things Hinch had done in the past five years with the team – including winning three races for them. He called it a “gut-wrenching decision” and the “toughest decision I have ever made” to let Hinchcliffe walk.

But they are very careful in their wording.

On Trackside this past Tuesday night, they reported that Hinchcliffe’s contract had been bought out. That gave the impression that even though it was late in the game, Arrow McLaren SP was going to do the right thing and pay off the remaining year of Hinch’s contract and allow him to go do whatever. But in a statement released Wednesday morning, the team stressed that Hinchcliffe was still under contract, but that they wouldn’t hesitate to release him from his obligations if he found another opportunity.

Jenna Fryer, of the Associated Press, asked a more pointed question. She asked Schmidt what would keep Hinchcliffe from just sitting out the 2020 season and collecting money for doing nothing. Schmidt said Hinch is a racer and “…as a driver, you want to prove, you want to win, you want to win the Indy 500, you still got boxes to check.”

In other words, Arrow McLaren SP is banking on Hinch’s competitive nature. They aren’t going to fire him and be liable for a full year’s salary, but if he quits to go drive elsewhere – they won’t stand in his way. Of course they won’t. To do so would cost them money. It likely won’t happen, but there is one side of me that would love to see him sit out the 2020 season and make them pay him. But they would probably find a loophole somewhere to avoid honoring their end of the bargain. Then he would be on the sidelines and not get paid.

There is a silent under-current throughout the IndyCar community that Sam Schmidt is not someone you want to go into business with. He is publicly lauded for how he has faced his disability after his January 2000 testing crash that left him a quadriplegic. But privately, several people I’ve talked to within the IndyCar community lower their voice when they speak their real opinion of Schmidt. He has a well-established reputation of mistreating his employees and engaging in shady business tactics.

I don’t know any specifics and I’m reporting that strictly from hearsay, but when enough people say it (or in this case, whisper it) you start to think it may be true.

But I do know that ever since we learned that McLaren was going into a partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – each and every step in this story has had a slimy feel to it. From Schmidt abandoning long-term partner Honda, to saying all the right things for a couple of months to give the impression that Hinch would be in their plans going forward and then casting Hinch aside after most of his potential opportunities are taken. Don’t forget, Zak Brown also strung Conor Daly along before letting him know they were “…going in a different direction.”

Wednesday morning, Conor Daly tweeted out what I thought was a very telling comment, when he said “I feel dirty reading this @Hinchtown news…can’t do the man like that…I’m a big fan of young drivers getting a proper shot. Always will be. But there is something about the way this all went down that makes my stomach churn. #HinchWillRiseAgain”

I’m assuming this didn’t catch James Hinchcliffe completely off-guard. I’m sure he knew back in August that there was a strong possibility he may not drive for this team in 2020 and has probably been working diligently toward a Plan B. But with Schmidt continuing to remind everyone that Hinchcliffe was under contract, there was little he could do officially. Now that Schmidt has given his blessing for Hinch to pursue other opportunities – most Honda rides are gone. Real classy, Sam!

To his credit, James Hinchcliffe has stayed mostly quiet. That’s partly due to his classy nature and partly due to the legalities involved. He finally released a statement late this week thanking fans for their support.

Hinch-Statement

On Trackside the other night, Curt Cavin seemed to think that Hinchcliffe’s best bet was in a second car at Meyer Shank Racing, who will most likely be in a technical alliance with Andretti Autosport. I’m not sure I’m buying that. I don’t think that Jack Harvey, in the primary car, is planning on running every race next season. I don’t think a part-time ride is Hinch’s objective if he can help it.

Although I do still say that Hinchcliffe will be in a Honda-powered car, I’m not buying that Dale Coyne is a likely landing spot. They have just now reached a point where their second car is competitive after all these years. I just can’t see them expanding to a third car and I think Santino Ferrucci will return to the second car.

I would also be very surprised if Ganassi expanded to a fourth car, although I wouldn’t totally rule it out. But I don’t think Ganassi has any plans to run four cars next season, and their stable is full with three. Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson aren’t going anywhere.

Andretti Autosport is bulging at the seams after expanding to five in-house cars and a likely technical alliance with Meyer Shank Racing. I think it would be extremely unlikely if they expanded to six fulltime cars. That leaves Rahal Letterman Lanigan as the remaining Honda team. I still think this is the one that makes the most sense, if – and that’s a giant if – they can come up with the additional funding.

Honda ponied up money to help keep Alexander Rossi at Andretti Autosport. I’m not sure they have it remaining in their budget to make it work for a third car at Rahal. But this makes the most sense. The team won two races this past season, with Takuma Sato winning twice. Graham Rahal hasn’t won a race since he swept the double-header at Belle Isle in 2017. Having Hinch join the team could help give him a spark – and would give the team three race winning drivers.

Bobby Rahal’s team needs to think about the future, because Sato will be forty-three before the start of next season. I can’t imagine he’s going to be racing much longer, and he will leave a void when he retires. Hinchcliffe could combine with Graham Rahal to provide veteran leadership, if they bring on a young driver to replace Sato. It makes sense…if they can get the funding.

But getting back to my original point – Arrow McLaren SP is creating a case study in how not to break into a racing series. They have made one misstep after another, ever since May – when they failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. By jettisoning the driver that is arguably the most popular driver with fans, they have quickly become the team everyone hates.

There may also be another innocent victim in this. Hinchcliffe’s best friend, Robert Wickens, is still a member of the team – serving as a driving coach while undergoing rehab for his spinal cord injury. I am uncertain of this, but either Arrow or Schmidt may be paying for some or all of his therapy. I’m sure he is disgusted at the way his friend has been cast aside, but he can say nothing.

We’ve always said that IndyCar needs a villain, but I think most people meant drivers – not teams. The problem is Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew will catch the fallout from a lot of this, and they had nothing to do with it. You can’t fault them for signing with McLaren. Their ship just came in, but it’s a ship that many would now like to see sinking.

This is unfortunate for them. Not only are they exceptional drivers for their age, but they seem to be very good guys, by all account. However, some fans will find it tough to pull for them to succeed, while they want their team to fail.

Some of you don’t like it when I mention social media in my posts. I get very frustrated with social media at times, but I have to pay close attention to what IndyCar fans are saying to have a good gauge on what fans are thinking. Well, I can tell you that fans are overwhelmingly against the way Arrow McLaren SP has mistreated James Hinchcliffe – they are getting crushed!. Usually, social media is one giant debate, but this is one of the few times that most everyone seems unified except for the occasional troll just looking to argue about anything. That sentiment is not likely to go away, despite the fact that they have two really good guys that had nothing to do with the situation in their cars.

Arrow McLaren SP needs to do a lot of damage control in the next few months leading up to the start of next season. They need to do it for the sake of their young drivers, who deserve better to start their careers. O’Ward and Askew don’t deserve the hate their team will feel from fans. A year from now, there will probably be more fireworks from this team, when they jettison Schmidt, Peterson and the SP from their name. You might as well just call them McLaren from here on out. Either that or by their nickname…the gift that keeps on giving.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “The Gift That Keeps on Giving”

  1. Sam & Zak are a classy combo. It says a lot that, once Zak merged with the team, everyone who ever worked with him quit and left, even without having another job lined up. Nothing against the new drivers, but here’s hoping for a lousy season for the team.

  2. I’ve heard the same about Sam being sleazy. Bizarre situation, big fan of Pato but I’m on the anti-McLaren bandwagon so it will be hard to cheer for the driver while booing the team. IndyCar has needed a villain for a long time, it seems like they got one. Hopefully Hinch lands at RLL, I think he will. Should be an interesting season.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Has the F1 modus operandi laundry finally been hung out for all to see……….. :o)

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    So where does Gil de Ferran fit into the equation?

    It would appear that his experience and training at Penske & particularly at Honda would have been a positive above board one being immersed in the Captain’s professional model.

    Or does Gil have little say over the current/future SPAM operation?

    From David Malsher’s McLaren article published yesterday:

    De Ferran: Team format still “developing.”

    Gil de Ferran, sporting director at McLaren, said the partnership with the former Arrow SPM is still in the development process,.

    The two-time Indy car champion and 2003 Indy 500 winner said: “We have been working together with Taylor [Kiel, team manager] and all the guys at SPM, including all the engineering and operational staff, to try to understand where the opportunities are and where I think we can be most impactful, most effective and really developing a plan and an organization.

    “And as you can imagine, I’m not ready to discuss details, operational details of how these things are developing, but at the end of the day that’s the whole idea – How do we bring value to the partnership from a technical and an operational basis? These guys already do a great job, they know a lot of stuff that we don’t know, they understand their operation really well.

    “We know where our knowledge gaps are and what we need to do. So we have been working together developing a structure together with SPM, getting aligned on the priorities and timeline. And what I’m able to report is actually this journey is also going extremely well.

    “A whole bunch of [Arrow SPM] guys went to Mexico, you know, we have had several visits where many of our guys went to Indianapolis, we had several long conversations and meetings and so on and so forth.

    “The opposite has also happened, where a lot of guys went to the MTC [McLaren Technology Center].

    So it’s a journey that takes a lot of conversation and a lot of integration and we walk on this journey together.”

    End of David Malsher’s article.

    ….. and we walk on this journey together.

    Gil – Where is James Hinchcliffe?

    “Together” ? ? ?

  5. James is being forced to toe the McLaren/GM company propaganda line or get fired. Nice guy Sam….

    https://www.thestar.com/sports/auto-racing/2019/10/31/how-james-hinchcliffes-indycar-career-veered-so-far-off-course.html

    So the next time you hear James talk about how wonderful McLaren are, you can just dream about being rich enough to buy a McLaren and BURN it at a racetrack because you know he’s speaking though a forked tongue.

    • Mirela Conway Says:

      I cannot image how James must feel that he has to tow the company line and schmooze when he was so f***ked over. Jesus. I was hoping for pato to be back in indycar but honestly cannot cheer this team on. Spot on…victims are James, Oliver and Pato.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    This may get me in trouble with many on this site and social media. Iam a Hinch fan myself, however I think looking at this thing his performance since his time with so has not been stellar! He has won but not consistently. By hiring two young and very promising drivers SP McClaren has made a wise business choice. I think Hinch should have got a third car, but the whole Honda thing was never going to let him in a chevy. I think McClaren will not make the same mistake at Indy as they did this past year.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I don’t think it is AMSP replacing Hinch that is so consternating as how they went about it, though I’m sure there would have been outcry regardless.

    • Mirela Conway Says:

      I agree. It’s not that they fired him, it’s how they fired him. I do agree Hinches performance is questionable over last few years but god was he screwed on getting best opportunity for 2020

  7. billytheskink Says:

    This reminds me a bit of when financial issues pushed Graham Rahal (then considered a rising young star) out of Newman-Haas in 2010 for Hideki Mutoh. Rahal cobbled together a partial 2010 season in several teams’ cars (notably Sarah Fisher’s) and rebounded in 2011 with funding for a full season, but at the time it was announced that he was out of a ride it was not uncommon to read much lamenting that a popular driver with a famous last name could not attract sponsorship or even suggestion that Indycar should assist in placing Rahal in a car because he was “important” to the series. On top of that, though, removing Hinch when and how AMSP did so adds an additional layer of lament, beyond the fact that Hinch is a popular fan favorite.

    Replacing Hinch in search of more competitive drivers is not unjustified in concept, and may not be in practice if O’Ward and Askew live up to McLaren’s expectations. I don’t think holding that opinion will get you in much trouble. I am doubtful that the immediate results produced by Askew and O’Ward will match or top Hinch’s in the same equipment, mostly because both are rookies. Long term may be a different story, but I would not be surprised if neither achieved what Hinch did in AMSP equipment because winning races in today’s Indycar is not necessarily something even definitely talented racers can always achieve when given mid-pack equipment.

  8. Bruce Waine Says:

    Then there is Derek Daly’s perspective on a successful team having two drivers.

    Full article https://racer.com/2019/11/01/daly-arrow-mclaren-sps-missing-ingredient/

    “The newly-branded Arrow McLaren SP team’s aggressive young driver approach will be fascinating to watch. Based on years of study and real life experience, I’m not so sure that Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew can be successful for the same reason that Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist failed at AJ Foyt Racing. They are both super-talented drivers, but may struggle to support each other and carry the team to the heights of IndyCar’s big three teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.”

    ” … racing drivers, just like other athletes, are born with one of two types of talent: instant/reflex or feel sensitive talent.”

    “Instinct/reflex talent is flat-out all the time, getting maximum performance, with little time to think about what the car is doing (think Montoya or Kanaan). The feel sensitive driver is forever working to engineer maximum grip and performance from the car, and provides good feedback to the engineers (think Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti). One or the other is not right or wrong, but each type of talent needs a very different support system to extract its maximum potential. Twenty-three years later, I’m still amazed that so few team managers actually understand this, despite the fact that it makes such a huge difference to the structure of a team and its potential for success.”

    “So for O’Ward to flourish, he will need to be stepping into a well set-up car.

    How will he get that?

    There is no way that a rookie teammate can be expected to provide that type of support and team guidance.

    Colton Herta flourished as a rookie by plugging into the strength of Andretti’s deep and rich engineering notebook. Make no mistake about it, he looks like a superstar in the making, but he also had the vital set-up information and could compare notes with experienced drivers every day at every race.

    O’Ward won’t have that opportunity.

    This is exactly the situation that Kanaan found himself in at A.J. Foyt Racing. T.K. has always been an instinct/reflex driver who needs a good feel sensitive support driver for set up feedback. Leist was a fast rookie who was almost certainly another instinct/reflex driver, and therefore the downward spiral started as soon as the contracts were signed.”

    “Team Penske’s feel sensitive set-up driver is Simon Pagenaud. He’s known to be meticulous in his preparation and a deep thinker – all hallmarks of a feel sensitive, reliable feedback driver. Josef Newgarden is more than likely an instinct/reflex driver. I say this because his style is loose and on the limit, but when he’s armed with a good car (with help from Pagenaud) and in a good track position, he’s as good as anyone.”

    “Most young drivers today are instinct/reflex because becoming a good feedback driver is a learned trait. Young drivers have to become aware of the need to develop a feedback discipline, but with today’s access to data and sensors on every junior car across the world, drivers and teams have gravitated to lap tops and graphs to assist with set up decisions. This is a flawed way to develop sustained champions but it is what it is. One thing I’m sure of is that a strong feedback driver in an invaluable asset.”

    “The driver choice at Arrow McLaren SP was probably made by their sporting director, Gil De Ferran.

    Ironically, De Ferran was one of the best feel sensitive drivers in his day – yet he didn’t recognize that what Arrow McLaren SP needed in one of their seats was a clone of himself.”

  9. If this was truly a gut-wrenching decision for Sam…if he was truly grateful for James’ contribution to this team the past 5 years…if he truly feels bad about how this went down…..then he should put his money where his mouth is, cut Hinch a check for what he’s contractually owed this coming season, tell him thanks, and move on. I know it’s an apples to oranges comparison here, but we see (with regularity) teams in pro sports eat millions of $$$ and cut players who simply don’t fit into their plans anymore. I’m certainly not privy to what type of money Hinch was slated to make in 2020, but I can’t imagine it was more than a few 100k. Sure, that’s a lot of money to most of us, but it would seem like a relative drop in the bucket for big McLaren and their deep pockets. Instead, Sam’s encouraging Hinch to find work elsewhere so they won’t have to pay him a dime. Or as George points out, even if Hinch doesn’t find work, I too would imagine McLaren’s lawyers will figure out a way not to legally pay him.

    As for de Ferran, as impressed as I was by him as a driver, i was equally unimpressed with the way he hung TK out to dry with the ill-fated de Ferran Dragon fiasco, and perhaps he’s merely guilty by association here, but he’s not exactly off to a shiny start from a PR standpoint as part of this McLaren outfit either. Maybe a coincidence. Maybe not.

    Lastly, I appreciate the perspective George brought to this post regarding the two young drivers. As IndyCar fans we should absolutely want to see these two young guns succeed and help usher in the next generation of IndyCar greats, but it’s going to be damn hard rooting for that success considering the people they’re driving for.

  10. Bruce Waine Says:

    IN THE I’VE GOT A BRIDGE TO SELL YOU DEPARTMENT….

    from McLaren:

    “In business and racing things change. Business environments change, there are lots of stakeholders involved, and when Pato O’Ward came on the market — because we didn’t know what Red Bull were going to do with him and we tend to like drivers that Red Bull drops because we think they’re really good! — we decided in consultation with the stakeholders to take a long-range view on what we thought was best for the team.

    We understand how popular he (Hinch) is. We took the decision knowing that there were going to be some unhappy James fans and there certainly have been, but we also know that there’s a lot of people who are very excited to see the last two Indy Lights champions, the youngest driver lineup. I think a lot of people are going to be very excited to see how we perform in St. Pete and in the season.

    At the end of the day we’ve got to do what’s best for the team — and that isn’t necessarily always going to be what’s the most popular decision.

    For me what’s most important is I hope everyone embraces Oliver and Pato, and from what I’ve seen from fan reaction there are lots of disappointed fans but there is equally lots of excitement around that driver lineup.”

    Arrow McLaren SP is expected to field a third car at Indianapolis, and Brown confirmed to RACER that if Hinchcliffe does not secure a full-time ride elsewhere, he would “absolutely be under consideration” for the additional seat.”

    Mr Brown apparently is out of touch with fan base when he explains …..”some unhappy fans…”

    …and the ever present firm commitment yet again….he would “absolutely be under consideration” for the additional (2020 INDY 500 McLaren) seat.

    The spots do not appear to change “under consideration ” …. ? ?

    Know of anyone who is interested in buying a bridge ? ? ?

    Read the full justifications (aka excuses ? ?) at
    https://racer.com/2019/11/01/brown-explains-hinchcliffe-u-turn/

  11. I am just disgusted how this was handled. Enough said.

  12. Fernando Alonso wil be the most experienced driver at the Indianapolis 500 with his one previous start and some laps led when he is going to be with this team next year. Neither O’Ward nor Askew have started an Indianapolis 500 yet. If they really want to win the big race on the calendar, why have McLaren made such a driver decision? I can only guess this is more about looking for American talent for F1 than actually trying to be successful in IndyCar.
    If McLaren were interested in the latter, they could have run Hinch and Oriol Servia, which would have been a combination very beneficial for Fernando’s effort. McLaren seems to want to go the Red Bull driver development route, though. They are going to find out soon if Pato O’Ward or Oliver Askew are the next Carlos Sainz Junior.
    Here’s hoping that, in spite of the F1 style politics of McLaren, what’s left of the Schmidt organisation is going to be fast enough to make it into the field in time before Bump Day is in the books.

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