Esteban Gutierrez: Preparation for full time IndyCar drive is throwing up “big mental challenges”

Following Esteban Gutierrez's gradual preparation for a full time seat in IndyCar, Hayley Stanway looks at the former F1 driver's preparation so far - something that is proving to throw up "big mental challenges".

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Former Formula 1 driver Esteban Gutierrez starting his first Verizon IndyCar Series race at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race 1 on June 3, 2017, on the streets of Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan.

Former Formula 1 and Formula E driver, Esteban Gutierrez, was brought into IndyCar by Dale Coyne Racing to compete in the #18 car of Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais was involved in a massive accident in qualifying for the Indy 500, in which he suffered multiple pelvis fractures and fractures to his femur and ribs. This ruled him out for the remainder of the season.

Esteban Gutierrez: Preparation for full time IndyCar drive is throwing up “big mental challenges”

Having lost his seat at Haas F1 this year, Gutierrez secured a full-time drive at the Techeetah Formula E team. He brought home points for the team twice from his three appearances but, having competed in IndyCar at the Detroit double header and gained 18th and 14th place finishes, he gave up the Techeetah seat to make himself available to drive in the states full time. This was a surprise because, at least publicly, there was no confirmation from Dale Coyne Racing that he would be retained.

He was subsequently ruled out of the following race at the Texas Motor Speedway as he was unable to complete any practice laps on an oval beforehand, owing to the in season testing blackout that was active at the time. The more experienced Tristan Vautier took the seat for the race and secured 16th place, ahead of rookie teammate, Ed Jones.

Dale Coyne Racing confirmed Gutierrez as a full time member of the team, whilst Bourdais recovers, just prior to this weekend’s race at Road America in which he achieved a 17th place finish. This week, with the testing blackout lifted, he has taken part in his first oval test at the Iowa Speedway, ahead of the race there on July 9th.

As this was his first time on an oval, his running was limited as the team were keen to allow him time to get used to the track and the setup on his own first. Pleased with the progress he made, he did admit that it is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.

“It’s not so much physical but it’s demanding on the mind, at a short oval. All the time you’re cornering and all the time the Gs are on the left which is something I’m not used to.

“But one thing I really liked was that you could feel every single technical change and every single movement of the car. That really helps you to understand how everything is having an effect on the car. Actually, considering this, I would recommend any driver to experience this kind of thing in a test because it really does improve your knowledge of everything that is being changed in the car. It was pretty interesting, a good education.”

He followed an orientation program that saw him start with a normal downforce setting, before ‘trimming’ off the aero elements to reduce drag. This is an important process as with the decreased downforce, there is also decreased stability.

“Obviously, I went with pretty high downforce at first just to get comfortable with the track and to get flat on the throttle, and I did that, which was good news! But then as the downforce started coming off, I started experimenting with different lines, and learning that you have to hit the bumps square!

“I also tested how things change with tire degradation – I did a run of about 60 laps, or a bit more I think – so I could feel how the grip goes away.

“…I’d say I got halfway between a full downforce setup and a trimmed out level. And actually, I found the car a bit easier to understand, more predictable, as the downforce level got lower. Every time we trimmed, I felt more comfortable.”

He also experimented with different steering setups. Some drivers prefer to have the car setup to turn left with no steering input, so the wheel must be turned right on the straights, allowing them to relax more during the high G sections of the track. Others prefer a more conventional setup.

“I didn’t get to the point where I was straight for the corners. But I was doing some tests to see if that’s a direction I want to go with my setups. We will make more adjustments for next week.”

His limited running, whilst essential to gain experience going into what is undoubtedly a very different challenge, does mean that he hasn’t yet experienced running in traffic so his first practice session in Iowa will be another tentative learning experience.
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