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 2020.
Teams joining forces in a myriad of ways has become more common with examples such as 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. This 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.
The number of successful examples 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 new team to top-level North American open-wheel competition embracing a go-it-alone strategy since its 2018 debut, Carlin has an average finishing position of 16.5 over 59 starts which include six different drivers. Michael Shank and Jim Meyer’s eponymous team with driver Jack Harvey has an average finishing position of 14.9 over just 14 starts, illustrating the advantage of having a technical partner.
A more direct example is Harding Steinbrenner Racing. In 2018 as Harding Racing, 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. With Andretti assistance, the average finishing position rose to 15.0 in 2019 bolstered by five top-10 results including one victory.
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 and instances of a performance deficit point to a potentially rocky future for the new effort.
Switching to Chevrolet power won’t instantly grant the effort Team Penske-level success. Conversely, the opposite is more likely the case given recent history. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, cars backed by the bow tie brand have gone to victory lane 13 times. In the same period, Honda-powered cars have won 17 races. Honda’s advantage is clear, but the numbers become more skewed when the team fielding the car is considered.
Penske secured all 13 of Chevrolet’s victories illuminating just how much the team is a driving force behind the brand’s success. Honda’s victories, while dominated by Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing, include at least one victory 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 this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Despite fielding fan-favorite James Hinchcliffe and former Formula One pilot Marcus Ericsson this year, Arrow SPM has finished outside the top 10 more times than it hasn’t. In 13 starts for its two drivers, the team has 10 finishes within the top 10 and 16 outside of it. The team’s average finishing position of 13.3 is even slightly worse than the team it offers technical assistance to. Whether from mismanagement or another factor, the momemtum of last season exemplified by Hinchcliffe’s Iowa win and Robert Wickens’ rookie success hasn’t been maintained. Finding victory again has been elusive with the Ericsson’s second-place finish in Detroit representing the team’s best result this year.
McLaren’s IndyCar performance is even easier to track given a 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 this year’s Indy 500 ended in disaster. Much of the failure was attributed to mismanagement both on and off the racetrack, leaving 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 set to link up with Arrow SPM to form the basis of the new joint endeavor, improving on the team’s 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.
It’s possible that Arrow McLaren will have a strong campaign in 2020. A stronger possibility exists that 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 or fielding a revamped driver lineup.
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 won’t be any easier.