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.”
“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.”
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.