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.

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Friday notebook

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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INDIANAPOLIS – Teams have loaded in for this weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with testing set all day on Saturday and Sunday for all three rungs of the series: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Some notes from the day are below.

  • Pabst Racing has been busy with testing its new Tatuus PM-18 in recent weeks, to add to its trio of USF-17s. The team has two PM-18 chassis with one completed and built up, and which Calvin Ming will test this weekend. Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team won the team championship in USF2000 this season.
  • Look for Ayla Agren to test Pabst’s PM-18 next week for several days. The talented Indianapolis-based Norwegian/Swede is a past F1600 champion and has raced in parts of the last three USF2000 seasons with Team Pelfrey and John Cummiskey Racing; Agren is working on stepping up into Pro Mazda next season.
  • Another intriguing Pabst USF2000 product this weekend is New Zealander Hunter McElrea, a 17-year-old go-kart veteran who completed his first season of car racing this year in Australian Formula Ford. He was unlucky to only end fourth in the year’s championship, with several poles and wins but a bit of inconsistency that cost him the title. His father, Andy McElrea, has been in the U.S. before moving back home, where he’s enjoyed success as a driver, engineer and team director. The younger McElrea said he “learned heaps” this year and is optimistic of building a budget to come Stateside in 2018, and said it was a bit surreal to have his first real run at IMS. Born in the U.S., McElrea holds both U.S. and New Zealand dual citizenship.
  • Arguably the busiest driver in the month or so since the Watkins Glen season finale has been Dutchman Rinus VeeKay, who’s had several Pro Mazda tests with three different teams (Pabst, Juncos Racing and Exclusive Autosport) and will run this weekend with Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights, and will work with engineer Kent Boyer. VeeKay would succeed in North America for a second year, as he contemplates whether to move up from USF2000 into Pro Mazda or emulate RC Enerson in going from USF2000 straight to Indy Lights. VeeKay’s No. 4 car was Shelby Blackstock’s chassis from the 2017 season.
  • Teammate Nico Jamin, who was busy with several different types of cars this year besides his primary role in Indy Lights, will test Belardi’s No. 5 car, which was Santiago Urrutia’s chassis, and work with engineer Tim Neff. Jamin got the call a couple weeks ago and has come back from his home country of France, where he’s been since shortly after the season ended.
  • The third Belardi car, the No. 9 car still in the Mazda “soul red” livery for 2016 Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz, is on site this weekend. Telitz will test with RJB Motorsports’ USF2000 team – the car having been returned from ArmsUp Motorsports for this test – and the Birchwood, Wis. native will have the chance to work with open-wheel veterans Alex Barron and Mirl Swan as part of RJB’s crew. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Telitz also running in other cars and series this weekend.
  • At least for this test, Cape Motorsports’ Pro Mazda car has a cool “magic 8 ball” livery for Oliver Askew. The primarily black with some white paint scheme probably wouldn’t stay that way provided Mazda’s scholarship comes with the switch to a “soul red” livery once the season properly commences.
  • Jake Craig, who will test with Newman Wachs Racing this test, has been awarded the eKartingNews.com Karting Entry Ticket for this year’s Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout. The 19-year-old native of Mission Viejo, Calif. is the 12th driver who has a confirmed ticket so far for the shootout, which takes place in December in Arizona.
  • Colton Herta is in a funny spot with regards to World Series preference depending on whether the New York Yankees or Houston Astros wins tonight’s Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, as the Yankees lead the series 3-2 heading into tonight’s game and look to advance to the World Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers. Herta grew up a Dodgers fan but his Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing team features team principal George Michael Steinbrenner IV, son of Hank Steinbrenner, and the Steinbrenners of course are the Yankees’ principal owners. Perhaps it’s a good problem to have?
  • Myles Rowe, who’s won three races in six starts in the Lucas Oil School of Racing, will be in one of John Cummiskey Racing’s Tatuus USF-17 chassis this weekend. The Smyrna, Ga. native has a good head on his shoulders and could well impress.