Blow it up and rebuild.
That was bold directive given to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports general manager Piers Phillips.
As the 2017 championship drew to a close, Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson grew tired of midfield finishes by their Verizon IndyCar team. Outside of the occasional win or pole position, SPM had settled into an uncomfortable place within the paddock.
Friendly, talented, and sometimes fast, SPM’s program for James Hinchcliffe and a rotating cast in its second car wasn’t progressing. Nor were they feared like the big teams. Even a smaller, single-car operation like Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was managing to run circles around SPM’s two-car effort.
With most of the field taking large steps forward and new teams preparing to enter the series in 2018, sitting idle wasn’t an acceptable answer to the problem. In came SPM’s new mantra: Blow it up and rebuild.
Veteran mechanics, a race engineer, technical director, crew chief, and more moved on to other teams as Phillips instituted a cultural change within the squad. If it sounds harsh, ask Roger Penske how long he would choose loyalty over winning. And change was also required at the top.
SPM’s ongoing practice of taking pay drivers for its second seat had brought money and character into the series, but it did little to improve the team as a competitive unit. Finding and hiring a proper teammate for Hinchcliffe was also a necessary step in the team’s offseason overhaul.
“Whereas Rick and Sam definitely gave Piers a green light to venture out in ways that he’s not really been able to in the past, it wasn’t just a re-staffing, it was a complete restructuring of how we do things,” said Hinchcliffe, who signed a multi-year extension as a result of the sweeping initiative.
“That’s in the engineering office, that’s on the shop floor. It’s really top to bottom; the whole team has got a very different look and feel. The caveat to it all is that change takes time.”
At first glance, Phillips looks like he traded tackling quarterbacks for a managerial role in motor racing.
Tall and burly, the man in charge of SPM relies on something other than his imposing frame to conduct business. The Englishman, a veteran of the European sports car wars at Le Mans and other famous venues, moved Stateside late in 2015 to bring a new approach to running the team.
“From the touring car and prototype racing I’d been in charge of, it’s a completely different mentality and mindset in terms of how an IndyCar team runs,” he said. “So the challenge to me was huge, and it was something that I really relished.
“Obviously coming in the first year, it was certainly an eye-opening situation. You had a team that had just come off the back of a fairly hectic year, with James’s injury and drivers in and out of the cars, and no stability, and it was a year, for me, in seeing where are the strengths, where are the areas where on the team that we needed to improve. And what we needed to do was find a direction.”
The embers of the ‘blow it up and rebuild’ project began to glow after the 2016 season.
“We sat down as a group at the end of ’16, and looked and talked and analyzed and talked about accountability and talked about leadership and drive, and just rising to the occasion,” Phillips continued. “I think there was a lot of guys on the team were… I don’t want to say surprised, but you certainly get that feel around the IndyCar paddock that the word ‘tradition’ comes up a lot, and that there’s a lot of guys here who’ve worked in the series for so long.
“They’re not used to change. They’re not used to looking at things from a different area, so we sat down and talked about that, and obviously, you’ve got to give the team its chance to show that it’s going to improve, if it’s going to step up the following season.”
More gains were made in 2017, but with Hinchcliffe coming off a 13th-place finish in the 2016 championship, it was hard to argue that genuine strides were afoot when the Canadian’s No. 5 Honda closed the 2017 season in… 13th place.
“Obviously, ’17, started off wonderfully, we had pace, James was driving really well, the results were coming,” Phillips said (below). “We should have won St. Pete, we won Long Beach, got sixth at Barber, and from then on, we had a difficult month of May, and it was difficult to recover. Of course, in my position, you then look at, well, how do we change this? How do we get out of this funk? How do we do things differently? It’s about the human element, isn’t it?
“It’s about getting people together. It’s about getting the culture and the team right. Something that I was really keen on was bringing staff in that could look outside the box, that could look at different ways of doing it.”
After two years of trying to massage the existing product into what Schmidt and Peterson sought, Phillips was finally handed the big eraser by his bosses.
Enter the respected Todd Malloy, formerly of Chip Ganassi Racing, as SPM’s new technical director. Billy Vincent, Simon Pagenaud’s championship-winning chief mechanic at Team Penske, would take over Hinchcliffe’s car. Leena Gade, a championship- and Le Mans-winning race engineer with the Audi Sport LMP1 team, would tackle a new challenge as the woman in charge of the No. 5’s performance.
Strength was added to SPM’s mechanical team, new staff within a heightened business infrastructure were hired, sponsors like Arrow Electronics and Lucas Oil stepped up to an even greater level and, in a first for the team since its inception in 2001, two paid professionals would represent SPM on the track.
Hinchcliffe’s countryman and close friend Robert Wickens, a rapid, polished choice, completed the transformation in the sister No. 7 Honda. With the help of team manager Taylor Kiel and the rest of SPM’s shop-based team leaders, Phillips and company pulled off one of the biggest year-to-year personnel changes seen within any of the established IndyCar programs.
Once blown up, now rebuilt, the hardest task of all stands in front of SPM. It just took its biggest swing at reform, but can it move from a top 10 outsider to regular challenger for top fives and podiums in a single offseason? Hinchcliffe is the first to preach caution leading into the 2018 championship.
“It’s going to take some time to work out some bugs, and really get everybody gelling and on the same page,” he said. “Is our intention to go out and kick ass? Absolutely. Do we understand we’re also going up against eight other really established, very competitive IndyCar teams? Absolutely. I think we’re making the right moves and taking the right steps and hopefully it pays off sooner rather than later, but we’re definitely trying to build for the future of this team.”
Bringing in a group of successful people from other teams and disciplines will not instantly translate into success. That interpersonal learning process, seen in testing at Sebring and Phoenix, is an ongoing process, and big, impressive lap times have not, as yet, made themselves apparent.
The grand experiment called for by Schmidt and Peterson, in Hinchcliffe’s estimation, will pay off, but there’s no way to tell when all the ingredients – new and old – will strike the perfect balance.
“The good thing is that everybody on the team is so motivated to win,” he said. “Everybody’s hungry for that success, so I think if any member of the team comes to any other member of the team with some sort of constructive criticism, we all know not to take it personally and we all know that we’re all after the same thing. So if we can help somebody achieve their goals and do their job better, that’s going to help the team as a whole. I think everybody’s pretty open to that kind of conversation.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re not here to make friends because atmosphere on the team is obviously a huge part of it, and I’m not a believer in the school of thought that ‘beatings will continue until morale improves.’ It is a bit of a battle on that side, but we’ve got a great group and all the additions, I think, have fit in very seamlessly, and so just getting everyone used to their new positions, that’s just going to take time.”
Driven by all the expectations that weren’t met over the last two seasons, Phillips shares Hinchcliffe’s enthusiasm for the new-look SPM and its heightened capabilities.
“There’s an old adage in Europe that it’s not about having the best people, it’s about having the right people,” he said. “It’s about getting people that can work together and getting people into that brotherhood and getting people with that culture thing, again, that you’re a group, and that you’re going to drive forward and make it. We’re not going to let it fail.
“I just to go back to ’16, our first year, and where we finished in the championship was not acceptable. For a team of the supposed talent that we had and our budget, that was not something to ignore, so we sat people down, gave them the opportunity to raise their game, which some people wouldn’t do. Some teams maybe would have just swung the axe then and moved forward, but we gave everybody the opportunity, and lo and behold, we finished just as poorly last year.
“To me, that was the moment of realization that we needed to change, and I’m incredibly pleased with all the like-minded individual who’ve come to join us. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m not saying it’s going to not be stressful. It takes belief, and it takes that spirit that when we fall, we pick ourselves up and keep walking.
“When you look at the quality of staff, whether it’s the front office, the commercial guys, whether it’s the guys driving the truck, the people that we’ve brought into the workshop, from all the engineering team, how we’ve promoted in certain areas from within – which is a big thing as well, because that generates enthusiasm amongst the team and the belief that people are going to go somewhere – I don’t think we could’ve done any more, personally.”
And now it’s time to perform. The team has a grace period to use at the outset of the 2018 championship, but patience from above will be in limited supply.
“There’s always pressure, particularly from your sponsors and team owners because they’re passionate,” Phillips says. “Rick and Sam are incredibly passionate. I’ve worked for a lot of guys over the years, and they’re a different league, these two. You don’t always get what you deserve in life, but if anybody does deserve a championship, then it’s Sam and Rick, and we’re hell-bent on doing that.
“Everyone talks about winning the Indy 500, etc., which I get, but for me, in my position, I want us to be consistently competitive in all disciplines across the entire season because that’s what’s going to win championships for us.
“It’s about building that monster. It’s about building that momentum and that strength and depth that when we turn up at a race event, you walk in not thinking, ‘Well, are we going to be in the top six or the last six?’ It’s, ‘We are going to execute and we’re going to be inside the top eight in scoring points all weekend.’
“I think we should be winning races midseason, if I’m perfectly honest, and I know that’s a bold statement, but I think it’s going to take a bit of time. We’ve had good cars the past two years, but I think we need to be putting the cars in the top eight, getting some pole positions, and winning races by midseason.”
If the experiment is a success, Hinchcliffe believes SPM’s full potential as a two-car operation will be revealed and, most importantly, sustained for years to come.
“I think the mindset of the people in charge is very much that we’re building this team to be good for a long time,” he said. “While we’re all going to be pushing in 2018, it’s as good an opportunity as ever with all the changes across the board, so we’re also trying to plan for ’19 and plan for ’20.
“Michael Schumacher was at Ferrari for five years before they won a championship. It’s one of those situations where we want to make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for, not just a flash in the pan of success, but continued success for the future.”