Marcos Ambrose hopes for big rebound for himself, Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014

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Marcos Ambrose doesn’t mince words: Last year was the most trying season yet in NASCAR.

“Certainly, 2013 was the most difficult year of my racing career,” Ambrose said in an interview with MotorSportsTalk. “The fact that I’ve always been on an upward trend in NASCAR, 2013 was the first year that I flattened off and even dropped back down.”

And if things don’t markedly improve for the Australian native this season, it could potentially be Ambrose’s last season in NASCAR.

“If I have another year like (2013), I’m going to have to really start scratching my head and have a good hard think about what I’m doing because this year is certainly the year we need to break out and do something special,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose, 37, finished 22nd last season, the second-worst showing in his Sprint Cup career (finished 26th in 2010).

After winning one race each in both 2011 and 2012, as well as a combined eight top-five finishes those two seasons, Ambrose struggled miserably in 2013, with no wins or top-five finishes, and just six top-10s.

His average finish of 19.9 in last season’s 36 races was nothing short of embarrassing, Ambrose admitted.

“It just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “I think there was a combination of factors, the new rules package that came out, we got behind early on and I just really struggled to get a feel driving for the car. I felt like I just never had the feeling I needed.”

Yet Ambrose has good reason to feel much more optimistic heading into the 2014 season. Significant investments into improving the overall standing of Richard Petty Motorsports will hopefully pay off in big dividends.

“Our race team is really reinvigorated,” Ambrose said. “We’ve added a lot of human resources to our program in 2014 and have created a (research and development) program. That’s the first time that has happened since I’ve been at Richard Petty Motorsports.

“We’re really excited about the potential of unlocking some more brain power in our race program and we’re thrilled to not only keep what we have since I joined Richard Petty Motorsports. I joined it at a fairly tumultuous time, it was a difficult time for Richard and everybody to rebrand the company, to revive the company and take it from the crumbs.

“I’ve seen it at its darkest days and I’m really looking forward to 2014 because I think it’s the year that (RPM) can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it’s taken since I’ve been there, which is four years now. At the end of the day, we’re all racing to win and put Richard Petty back in victory lane. We’ve been able to do it occasionally over the last couple years, but we want to do it on a more frequent basis if we can.”

Petty concurs with Ambrose’s optimism, a trait that has contagiously swept throughout RPM during the offseason, bringing the company to a point it hasn’t been in a long time.

“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in the last three or four years,” Petty said. “Everybody knows we hit the bottom of the deal three years ago. … We just tried to get some foundation (since then). I don’t know if our year (2013) was that much better than the year before, but we were a lot more stable.”

But at the same time, Petty’s admittedly concerned about Ambrose’s future, as well as the future of the No. 9 Ford Fusion. Once the picture of optimism and excitement, last year’s struggles had a decidedly negative impact upon Ambrose.

“I don’t know how much longer he wants to stay in the U.S.,” Petty said candidly. “You know, (Ambrose has) come a long way. He’s sort of a hero in Australia just because he’s running Cup. His big deal is if he could win on a round and around racetrack, that would be the optimum for him. If he did do that, he’d probably just go home and say, ‘Thank you guys,’ but I don’t know.”

That may be the case, but Ambrose is determined to show last season was an aberration. If he can turn things around and bounce back this season as he hopes, Ambrose will likely continue his Cup career for a few more years.

“Where the rules are going this year, it’s going to give us a better chance to make the Chase and really do something special,” Ambrose said. “The gloves are off and we’re looking forward to turning a fresh page.”

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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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