IndyCar’s resident court jester, Hinchcliffe rolls with more changes into 2014

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Change has been the constant for James Hinchcliffe throughout most of his open-wheel career.  Often times, he’s made the best of the newness he faces.

In the 2011 offseason into 2012, he switched teams (Newman/Haas to Andretti Autosport), and switched cars (as IndyCar switched from the previous Dallara IR 03 to the new Dallara DW12). A year ago, he got his old engineer from 2011 back in Craig Hampson, but now Hampson has moved into the team’s head of R&D role.

So it should come as no surprise that although he’s into year three with Andretti, there are yet more changes the 27-year-old Canadian will need to get used to.

After re-signing with Andretti at the 2013 season finale, he’s got his third different engineer in as many seasons, in Nathan O’Rourke, formerly of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He’s also got a new sponsor and seriously rocking new livery, in the form of the light blue-and-white colors of United Fiber & Data. And he, like the rest of the team, has a new engine partner in Honda.

But, in typical “Hinch” fashion, the story of how the changes took place took a comedic turn.

“I went to his (Josef’s) house where he normally keeps his engineer in a cage in the basement,” Hinchcliffe said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I broke in while he was sleeping. Nathan made a lot of noise, rattled the cage.

“It woke Josef, which made for an ugly altercation on the main floor.  I was able to use chloroform.  I said, ‘Josef, does this smell like chloroform?’  Then Nathan and I made it out the window.”

Any repercussions?

“No. We were just goofing around outside. The chloroform had a destructive effect on his memory and he thinks Nathan is still in the basement.  He hasn’t figured it out yet.”

Claaaassic Hinch.

The thing Hinchcliffe did figure out in 2013 was winning. After his promising first two seasons, Hinchcliffe took his first three wins in three dynamic, but different ways.

In St. Petersburg, he capitalized on a wide Turn 1 corner exit by Helio Castroneves to scythe through on the inside, then hold off the Brazilian to capture an emotional first victory in the then-green-and-black GoDaddy colors.

He added his two other ways in disparate fashions entirely. In Brazil, he passed Takuma Sato on the last corner of the last lap. In the corn fields of Iowa, Hinch delivered the season’s biggest colossal beatdown, leading 226 of 250 laps.

The St. Petersburg win, as it was Hinchcliffe’s first and came in the late Dan Wheldon’s adopted hometown, in what would have been his car, of course stands out.

“Obviously with what happened last year, it holds a special place in my heart,” he said. “It was a very emotional day last year on race day for all the right reasons. That’s nice ’cause I think in racing you normally have very emotional days for the wrong reasons more often than you do for all the right ones.”

Although Hinchcliffe will shift into a Honda-powered twin-turbo from a Chevrolet-powered one, he admitted the change thus far in testing is a bigger one than you’d think.

“It was a big change. It was kind of cool to see actually,” he said. “Jumping into the Honda for the first time, it was interesting to see how an engine built under the same rules could feel as different as this one did. It’s fast.”

The one thing Hinchcliffe might need to change on his own, without it happening as a team function as the others have this year, is improving his consistency all year.

He was surprisingly consistent in the second half, with nine top-10 results in the last 12 races. But you wouldn’t have guessed that given his roller-coaster first seven races that featured these results: 1, 26, 26, 1, 21, 15, 19.

“There’s only so many derivatives. Eventually I’m going to get it right,” he said. “Last year we had the pace early but not the consistency. If you look at the second half of the year, we were actually way more consistent than people realize. I think as a team we lost a little bit of pace.  We weren’t qualifying as well, Ryan wasn’t qualifying as well.”

As mentioned, the qualifying wasn’t great on the road and street courses in the second half. Andretti Autosport had eight combined Firestone Fast Six appearances in the first five road and street races, including two by Hinch, but only three in the final four, all by Hunter-Reay.

You know Hinch will stand out at various points in 2014, either because of his personality, his livery or his result.

But whether he can improve on his eighth place finish in points will come as a result of how well he handles the changes.

Mercedes takes up option on Ocon for 2016

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C7600
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Mercedes has taken up its option on GP3 driver Esteban Ocon ahead of the 2016 season to make him a full member of its junior programme.

Ocon, 19, won last year’s FIA F3 European Championship ahead of current Toro Rosso driver and Formula 1’s unofficial rookie of the year Max Verstappen.

Having previously been on Lotus’ junior programme, Ocon was expected to move into GP2 for 2015, but his deal with the team fell through and prompted him to race for ART Grand Prix in GP3.

Mercedes announced back in May that it would be supporting Ocon for this season, with an option to make him a fully-fledged member of its junior programme at the end of the year.

In Friday’s FIA press conference, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff confirmed that this option had been taken up, but that plans for Ocon and its other junior talent, Pascal Wehrlein, in 2016 are still to be finalized.

“We’ve taken up the option on him because he has been with us now, or has been following the DTM team for a while, has been the test driver in DTM and integrated well and he’s doing a very good job in GP3 as well and he’s somebody we’d very much like to have in the family,” Wolff said.

“This is why we’ve exercised the option. It doesn’t mean that we’ve found a solution for Pascal.

“The current driver market is a bit difficult because most of the teams have already announced their drivers and it need to be the right deal – but having taken up Esteban we are conscious that we need to find a suitable programme for both of them.

“It could well mean that it could eventually end up for both of them in a testing role, in a reserve driver role and in a DTM role – so it’s not done yet.”

Ocon enters the final race of the GP3 season on Sunday with a six-point advantage over Luca Ghiotto.

Rosberg closes out Abu Dhabi practice on top

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg closed out practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the top of the timesheets after edging out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton on Saturday afternoon at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Rosberg arrived in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the 2015 Formula 1 season chasing a third successive victory, and appears to be in the box seat ahead of qualifying later today after setting the pace in both FP2 and FP3.

A fastest lap time of 1:41.856 was enough to give Rosberg P1 by almost three-tenths of a second in FP3 as Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton struggled to put together a clean flying lap, suffering two minor offs at the hairpin in the first sector.

Ferrari showed signs of an increased threat to Mercedes in FP3 as Sebastian Vettel finished just 0.040 seconds behind Hamilton in third place, bouncing back from a quiet Friday for the Italian marque.

Sergio Perez produced a fine flying lap to finish the session fourth for Force India, and his pace was underpinned by that of teammate Nico Hulkenberg in seventh as they were split by Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas had another routine session en route to eighth and ninth for Williams, while Carlos Sainz Jr. made up for his stoppage on Friday by rounding out the top ten for Toro Rosso.

McLaren’s hopes of some points to finish the season were boosted once again in FP3 as Jenson Button finished 11th. Teammate Fernando Alonso was less fortunate, though, complaining of traffic on his way to 16th overall.

Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Nasr followed Button in P12 and P13, with Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean finishing just behind. Marcus Ericsson had another difficult session, finishing 17th ahead only of the Manor drivers and Daniil Kvyat, who failed to post a lap time due to an electrical issue on his car.

Qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Rosberg wary of engine power deficit in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is anticipating a tough weekend in Abu Dhabi due to a deficit in engine power caused by the high mileage on his current unit.

Rosberg and the Mercedes team have managed to avoid any engine-related grid penalties in 2015 by keeping within the limit of four power units per season.

By doing so, Mercedes has been forced into extending the milage of its engines, with a failure for Rosberg at the Italian Grand Prix in September having a knock-on effect at the end of the season.

Rosberg therefore arrives in Abu Dhabi with an engine down on power that makes him wary of his chances despite leading practice on Friday.

“It’s been a good start here in Abu Dhabi, but it will be a tough weekend for me as I have quite a high mileage engine in my car,” Rosberg said.

“After the Monza problem, we have had to stretch the engine life more than we had planned over the 19 races, so I definitely have a small lack of power on the straights and therefore need to make up extra time in the corners.

“It will be a big battle with Lewis here. He didn’t really bring together his quick laps, so it will be even closer tomorrow I’m sure. I’m looking forward to it and I definitely want to win this race and give the boys in the garage a reason to celebrate at the end of the season.”

On the other side of the Mercedes garage, world champion Lewis Hamilton was left unhappy with Mercedes’ long-run pace in practice, believing that there is ground to be made up.

“The long run pace doesn’t feel quite as strong so that’s something I need to work on,” Hamilton said. “I’ll probably make some more tweaks tonight and hopefully tomorrow it will be better.

“It’s very hard to overtake here, so of course it’s better to be up on pole. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to win from further back.”

Renault: Lotus announcement “very likely” next week

xxxx during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
© Getty Images
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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has said that the French manufacturer expects to make an announcement regarding its pending takeover of Lotus next week.

Renault has been engaged in negotiations with Lotus over a takeover of the team for many months, and signed a letter of intent back in September confirming its plans to revive a works F1 operation at Enstone.

Although a deal is still yet to be formally agreed and announced, Renault employees have already started working at Lotus to lay the foundations for 2016.

It was speculated that Renault may announce its takeover of Lotus during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend, but Abiteboul confirmed on Friday that nothing would be made official at Yas Marina.

The Frenchman remained coy when asked what exactly Renault’s involvement in F1 would entail in 2016, saying: “I’m afraid I can’t answer to that question. I would like to be in a position to be able to answer to that questions, but I am not today.”

Despite there being no announcement in Abu Dhabi, Abiteboul said that he envisages one being made next week following the conclusion of the 2015 season.

“What I can say is that there will be no announcement regarding Renault’s future – short-term or middle-term future – over the weekend, but there will be an announcement, very likely, in the course of next week,” he said.

“We have always said that we would like to do that after the season. The season is ending on Sunday, around the start of December and that is what we will do stick to that plan, which is to make an announcement then.”

Abiteboul said that every effort was being made to finalize the deal with Lotus, but he is excited about the prospect of Renault returning to F1 with a works team for the first time since 2010.

“It’s fair to say that there is a process going on since the signing of the letter of interest on the 28th of September, there is a process involving a lot of people,” Abiteboul said.

“I think 50 people have been working night and day on the realisation of a possible acquisition of a majority stake in Lotus. It’s just a project, It’s been a proper rollercoaster, very exciting.”