It was reassuring, last August in Nashville, to hear Zak Brown confirm that Arrow McLaren SP would be retaining its drivers for 2022. We were certain that Pato O’Ward wasn’t going anywhere, especially while McLaren dangled the Formula 1 carrot in front of him, and we knew that Felix Rosenqvist’s deal, signed in late 2020, was multi-year.
But still, this is a tough and swift-moving business. In silly season, one has to consider such factors as get-out clauses, performance clauses, breaches of terms and conditions, and “so sue me” attitudes. After all, in September 2019, this writer was assured by Sam Schmidt that James Hinchcliffe was staying onboard the imminently renamed Arrow McLaren SP team for 2020. Yet, within eight weeks, the Canadian was gone.
By late summer of ’21, therefore, it was natural to worry over Rosenqvist’s future. He was two-thirds of the way through what he now describes as “the worst season of my career”, having struggled to adapt to the very front-downforce-heavy, pointy setup philosophy that Arrow McLaren SP had elected to follow.
His pace was sporadically good, but his results were awful, partly as a result of that hit-and-miss speed, partly due to rotten luck. The one time Rosenqvist appeared to be in a potentially winning position, the first race in Detroit, his throttle stuck open and he had a nasty-looking shunt that forced him to miss the second Motown race and also Road America.
Even taking into account those two non-scores, 21st on the points table looks disastrous, especially its stark contrast with O’Ward’s tally. Pato’s momentum from 2020, when he scored four podium finishes and took fourth in points, went unchecked last year, and he scored his first two wins on his way to third in the title race.
Yet in the final third of the season there was definite progress for Rosenqvist. Craig Hampson, the team’s director of trackside engineering, was given the task of helping Rosenqvist and his race engineer Blair Perschbacher counteract that twitchy, unstable rear-end setup to which O’Ward had melded well. As the #7 car’s handling settled, Felix grew more confident, outpacing O’Ward in Nashville and matching him in Portland and Long Beach. In other words, he started to once more look like that guy whose résumé shows he can leap into any type of car and contend for victories.
Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, Long Beach 2022.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
At Chip Ganassi Racing, those skills had landed him IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year title and fifth place in the championship in 2019, and in 2020 his first victory. But that triumph in Road America went against the general flow of the season as, like many of his peers, the Swede hit a performance plateau. The new aeroscreen’s effects on the handling and feel of the cars was profound, and with Covid regulations causing test days to dry up, there wasn’t much time to understand the revised nature and knock on effects of the device.
“My first season just got better and better, I felt I was a pretty consistent front runner by the end of 2019,” Rosenqvist tells Autosport. “Then at my first test run with the aeroscreen, I thought I did a good lap and I wasn’t even in the top half of the field! And I think that was a continuing problem for me: you’d do a lap that didn’t feel bad, but the time wasn’t good. Then we’d do a setup change, the lap would feel the same as the last one, but you’d be quick. It’s like that extra weight up high made the whole driving experience more numb.
“And you have to drive it more like a Prototype or GT car: you can’t just send it into the corner and immediately lean on the tyre. It favours a more smooth driving style, focused very much on corner exit. It’s like putting some of those big bottles of water right at the front of your shopping cart at the grocery store: if you try to turn too fast it just wants to push straight on!”
Combine that with the very particular driving technique required to squeeze the most from Arrow McLaren SP’s setup in 2021, and Rosenqvist had a lot to learn. Thankfully, team president Taylor Kiel is an understanding boss.
“We have gone away from the ‘pointy’ setup, for both cars, so there has been a lot better driveability this year. Qualifying [at Long Beach] was really good, but we just missed the balance a bit in the race…” Felix Rosenqvist
“We don’t have a ton of pre-season testing, so effectively Felix was learning in the first quarter of the season,” he observes. “Understanding the car, understanding the engine, figuring out how to communicate with his race engineer and the work processes involved. He was in discovery mode.
“Fast forward 12 months, and he’s familiar with the team, he knows everything we’ve done to improve the car in the off-season, he knows what to expect. So now Felix arrives at a circuit and just gets on with driving the car. His pace is elevated, his confidence is growing, and he just needs that breakthrough result.”
And in an interesting twist, the team as a whole has swung toward the #7’s more moderate setup for 2022.
“It was less about dealing with what Felix didn’t like in Pato’s setup, and more a desire to make our cars easier to drive and increase their operating window,” Kiel explains. “If we made the cars easier to drive it would help both our drivers.
“So we looked at our deficiencies across all types of track compared to our competitors last year, and our major deficit was our ability to sustain tyre life on race day. We nailed it a few times but we need to do it 17 times. Our qualifying pace, our outright pace in the race, and our speed on starts and restarts have been very good. We needed to work out how to retain those strengths while improving our speed across a whole stint.”
Leading the field to the green flag at the start of the Texas race – something Rosenqvist hadn’t done since the GP of Indianapolis three years earlier
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
That said, the Arrow McLaren SP team as a whole looked out of sorts in the season-opener at St. Pete, but at Texas Motor Speedway, Rosenqvist bagged his first oval pole, and he and O’Ward should have finished at least third and fourth, but for pitlane errors by the drivers, which in Felix’s case, was followed by a mechanical DNF.
“At Texas [in the first stint while running second], we had a lot of degradation which was kind of weird, because we were really going slowly,” he says. “We have some theories that may have actually been the reason for the tyre deg! A bit confusing. Then we had a bad pitstop in the second stint because I slid long in the pitbox because we had a lot of pickup on the tyres. I take full responsibility for that. But even then, we were running right behind [Jimmie] Johnson and he finished sixth. Then we had a halfshaft failure.”
At Long Beach, Rosenqvist qualified fourth, but the #7 car cooked its alternate tyres too early in the first stint and he fell down the order, eventually coming home 11th. If that sounds like an echo of the AMSP cars’ main flaw from last year, Felix clarifies.
“We have gone away from the ‘pointy’ setup, for both cars, so there has been a lot better driveability this year,” he says. “Qualifying was really good, but we just missed the balance a bit in the race. We started wearing out the fronts. I tried to follow the lead group and then the grip just fell off a cliff, and we were almost down to the cords. I think it can be related a little bit to us solving the issues at the rear end but then the front end wasn’t strong enough so there was too much understeer, which accelerated the tyre deg on the reds.”
Rosenqvist lies only 16th in the points right now, but sounds as positive as when he clinched that Texas pole. He knows each session he’s getting in a car which he trusts, which he can lean on, and in which he can therefore produce his best.
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “We have made good steps in handling, and Chevrolet has made a good step too. We’ve had two street courses this year and both were won by Chevrolet cars. It’s definitely been a big improvement all around. There are still some things we need to understand. But yeah, the driving experience has been so much more smooth, less edge-of-a-knife this year.
“The road courses are going to be the biggest thing for us. If Barber and specifically the Indy road course are good, then I believe we have a strong weapon for the whole season. It’s nice to see hard work pay off, because we have been really working hard on driveability issues over the winter.”
Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
With the team’s collective move to more benign handling, Rosenqvist and O’Ward have still not converged in terms of personal preferences.
“We tend to start the weekend the same, then go off in different directions, and then historically, whoever is fastest in qualifying, we’ve gone towards his setup for the race,” he says. “But sometimes that doesn’t work either, so we’ve learned that Pato and I have some discrepancies in terms of springs and dampers, because we have very different driving styles. Sometimes that favours him, sometimes it favours me, but now we know about those differences already, we save time on race weekends, which is important.”
Especially so, since Arrow McLaren SP currently runs only two cars (a situation set to change in 2023) compared with three for Penske, four for Ganassi and effectively six for Andretti Autosport/Meyer Shank Racing.
“I think that I’ve proven capable of standout performances, so I don’t think anyone is really questioning the speed. It’s about consistency, being near the front every week, whatever the track” Felix Rosenqvist
“I think being two cars is a strong thing for us sometimes,” muses Rosenqvist, who had one teammate, Scott Dixon, in his rookie season, but then two in 2020 when Ganassi hired Felix’s compatriot Marcus Ericsson. “At Arrow McLaren SP, we have a lot of good people split only over two cars so it feels like a very focused program. But sometimes you definitely miss having another entry, so you can bounce your feedback off a third driver.”
That’s precisely what Rosenqvist will have at Indy next month for the Grand Prix of Indy and, more importantly, for the Indianapolis 500. Two-time Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya will rejoin the squad bringing his vast bank of knowledge and his still-impressive skillset, although for Rosenqvist it was a different aspect of JPM that left the deepest impression last year.
“Juan’s feedback is great, but the thing that impressed me was his outspokenness about the car,” he says. “I’m more a driver who if I have an issue with the car, I’d rather drive one more lap to see if I can fix it with my driving or something. But Juan is more aggressive in attacking the issues with the car. It’s helpful to have a third car, obviously, but it’s also a very competitive car with Juan in it, and he’s really ruthless in trying to find performance.
“In terms of driving style on the Speedway, Pato is the one who likes the car most free, then there’s me, and then there’s Juan who goes for the most ‘secure’ handling. The extra practice days you get at Indy, working with two strong teammates who have slightly different driving styles, is very helpful. By the end of the ‘Month of May’ last year, if Pato said something, I’d know how to translate that in engineering terms and apply it to how my car was, and the same with what Juan said. It was really good – and fun, too.”
Race engineer Craig Hampson congratulates Rosenqvist on his Texas pole
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Rosenqvist feels the same about the AMSP team. After spending two seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, he was used to the highest of high standards, yet he feels his current home lacks nothing.
“When I came to the team I was seriously impressed with everything,” he says. “I feel there’s nothing being left on the table; every stone you can turn, we’re turning it. The amount of work we’re doing and the level of attention to detail, I feel like we deserve good results right now. The guys working on the cars definitely deserve it. Obviously I can’t give any details about the differences between Ganassi and Arrow McLaren SP, but I can say that I’m very impressed.”
Naturally, AMSP’s progress toward the top rank of IndyCar makes it a highly desirable target for current IndyCar drivers, and F3/F2/F1 drivers frustrated by the paucity of opportunities and the expense of the few that do exist. Rosenqvist denies the vision of drivers lining up to grab his ride adds pressure, simply because he’s always felt it.
“Even in my best seasons, there was nothing I could take for granted,” he says. “Every race, every lap almost, I was fighting to prove yourself. So I’m aware that a season with results like I had last year just isn’t going to cut it: these guys’ support during a difficult time makes me even more determined and committed to get good results for them. And yeah, I know there are drivers who would like to be where I am right now. But there’s always that pressure, and I think it can be good if you use it in the right way.”
The weight that came off Rosenqvist’s shoulders at Texas where he earned pole was quite palpable, and his convincing pace in qualifying at Long Beach has further boosted his confidence. Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, where last year he suffered a dreadful first event for AMSP – including a minor shunt in pitlane during practice and a spin in qualifying – while O’Ward took pole and finished fourth. This year, Felix heads to Birmingham, AL with the sense that he is on par with his teammate. Well, almost…
“I honestly reckon that’s Pato’s best track – he’s really impressive at Barber,” admits Rosenqvist. “But I think we have a really good car and I should be able to be up there. Now I feel like I can just jump in and deliver.”
So that revival that started to show in Nashville nine months ago looks set to continue. But after such a fraught 2021 – “horrific” is the word he chooses – is he seeking to consistently contend for podiums, or would he prefer a more undulating performance curve that includes bagging a win or two?
“Hmmm… Well I think that I’ve proven capable of standout performances, so I don’t think anyone is really questioning the speed. It’s about consistency, being near the front every week, whatever the track. You want to be one of those guys who’s always expected to be there, in the top six or top seven. That’s what we need for our championship. Of course winning a race would mean the world, it would be great, but it doesn’t really help the points if the next weekend you’re P15!
“So consistent finishes near the front, top threes, are what we should aim for. And if you’re up there regularly, wins can also come.”
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images