And with a single personnel move, the team formerly known as Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, Schmidt Hamilton Peterson Motorsports, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Arrow SPM, and now Arrow McLaren SP, is back in the game.
In very basic ways, the acquisition of Craig Hampson as AMSP’s new race and R&D engineer gives the team, its drivers Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew, and their existing race engineers a reason to believe its glory days aren’t relegated to the past.
The normal story sees a star driver join a midfield team and its fortunes improve overnight; the same story also happens in select cases with the acquisition of a star engineer. In this case, Hampson is indeed the piece AMSP was missing from its reconfigured effort.
Based on his body of work, the New Jersey native’s multiple championships and dozens of wins have made him among the most sought-after figures in the IndyCar paddock. With Hampson on your team, big or small, positive transformations take place.
Vast technical smarts and endless curiosity have kept Hampson at the forefront of his profession; three decades in, he’s yet to fall into the same patterns that tend to stifle a race engineer’s creativity. In an overarching role, there’s every reason to believe AMSP will find itself in an advantageous place once Hampson’s had time to make an impact.
Its last flirtation with greatness came with Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel, who led the once-little team to fifth in the championship on his full-time IndyCar debut in 2012. His sophomore season is where Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske came to fear the modestly-funded Honda program. Pagenaud and his ultra-talented race engineer Ben Bretzman captured the team’s first wins in 2013 on the way to displacing all but Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves in the standings. Among the greatest performances by any team in the Dallara DW12 era, finishing third overall remains a staggering achievement for SPHM.
They’d fall back to fifth in 2014 before Pagenaud and Bretzman signed on at Penske, but the message had been delivered. With the right combination of people in the car and on the timing stand, the team founded in 2001 by Sam Schmidt team was capable of joining IndyCar’s ‘Big 3.’
Beyond taking SPHM to Victory Circle on multiple occasions during the impressive three-year stint, Pagenaud and Bretzman made the team a front-running contender through consistency. High-caliber output by the driver, matched by Bretzman’s free-thinking approach on the technical side, turned one of IndyCar’s smallest teams into a powerhouse of efficiency.
Since their departure, SPM, in its various guises, has struggled to match its form shown from 2012-2014. Barring Robert Wickens’ hold on sixth in points prior to his life-altering crash at Pocono in 2018, the team has placed no higher than 10th in the standings since 2015.
And that’s where Hampson should serve the greatest value. AMSP has plenty of engineering talent with Will Anderson, Blair Perschbacher, and Nick Snyder in position. What it’s lacked is someone to shape its approach to engineering – a conductor, of sorts – to ensure everyone is playing together and hitting the right notes. Despite significant investments by sponsors coming into the most recent season, and considerable funding applied to R&D, it wasn’t represented in Arrow SPM’s on-track product.
Team veteran James Hinchcliffe, who won three of his six IndyCar races in a single season with Hampson as his race engineer at Andretti Autosport, was an infrequent visitor to the final rounds of qualifying. And on race day, the Canadian struggled to crack the top five at 16 of 17 rounds. Average starting positions of 10.9 for Hinchcliffe and 14.8 for his rookie teammate Marcus Ericsson spoke to the R&D gap Arrow SPM experienced, and with their respective average finishing positions of 12.3 and 14.8, the two made limited progress between green and checkered flags.
Take Hampson’s year with Sebastien Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing, where the duo had pennies by comparison to throw at R&D, and the Frenchman started with the same average as Hinchcliffe, 10.9, and finished slightly better at 11.4. Given Arrow SPM’s budget to play with, one can only imagine how high they’d have started and finished.
Prior to his Hampson’s signing, it wasn’t clear how AMSP would move forward in meaningful ways on the engineering side. On a slightly adjusted schedule, the answers are clear and promising.
With a start date of January 1, crucial months have gone by without Hampson’s hands in the mix at AMSP, and in kind, expectations for 2020 should be modified. A win and a few podiums should be possible, and anything more will be a gift.
Picture what 2021 will look like after Hampson, in concert with Anderson, Perschbacher, and Snyder, has a full year to influence the team’s approach to race engineering and R&D. Using history as a guide, it won’t be long before AMSP’s elevated engineering group have O’Ward and Askew conjuring memories of the Pagenaud and Bretzman days.