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.

JR Hildebrand shines at Phoenix after return from injury

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JR Hildebrand had one of the best weekends of his Verizon IndyCar Series career at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. After returning from a broken hand suffered at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Californian qualified a career-best third and went on to finish third. The result is his first top five since Long Beach in 2013 and his first podium since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Hildebrand explained in the post-race press conference that he knew Ed Carpenter Racing would be strong on short ovals, and he felt pressure to make good on their potential. “I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed. The team has a great short oval package,” he revealed. “I’m excited to get the result. The car was bitchin. I think at the end of the race, we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to have that in it. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

And if not for traffic at the end, Hildebrand might have been able to pass Will Power for second. But, as he described, battling traffic was a main theme the entire night, especially with lapped cars battling each other for significant positions. “For me the race ended up coming down to how you managed traffic. Guys are a lap down but racing for top-10 spots. Usually when you’re lapping guys on a road course there’s no stress. Here they were racing even harder than we were. It is a difficult thing to manage. It became about picking opportunities to pass guys,” Hildebrand explained.

In regards to his hand injury, Hildebrand described it as a non-factor and does not see it being an issue going forward. “In my hand, there was no stress. (It’s) good for (Gateway International Raceway) on Tuesday and then the whole month of May.”

Hildebrand now sits 13th in the championship standings, ten back of tenth place Ed Jones.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Pagenaud breaks through for first oval win in Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Simon Pagenaud parlayed a combination of pace and longer fuel stints to win his first career Verizon IndyCar Series race on an oval, in the next logical career step for the 2016 series champion.

After starting fifth, Pagenaud advanced to the lead and led 116 of 250 laps in Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the fourth race of the 2017 season in his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

He’s the fourth winner in as many races, has four top-five finishes to kick off the year, and has now moved into the points lead. It’s his 10th career win.

In a Chevrolet-dominated affair, Pagenaud led teammate Will Power, who finally broke his duck of five straight races outside the top 10, JR Hildebrand, who finished on the podium in his return to action, and Helio Castroneves, who again lost the win from pole position but banked his fourth top-10 straight.

Team Penske dominated, leading all 250 laps themselves – the first time a team has done so since Penske did in Detroit last year.

Scott Dixon completed the top five finishers, the top Honda.

In an attrition-filled race, only 13 of 21 starters finished, with five cars going out in a first-lap accident.

More to follow…

RESULTS

Bourdais among five cars caught up in Turn 1 pileup at Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – A massive five-car pileup has dwindled the 21-car Verizon IndyCar Series field in tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix down after a first turn accident.

Points leader Sebastien Bourdais, rival Mikhail Aleshin (the two have collided several times before), Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Max Chilton were all involved in the accident.

Aleshin, who started seventh in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, lost control coming through Turn 2 and collected the others. Bourdais, in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, tried to avoid to Aleshin to the outside but crashed into him. Andretti, in the No. 27 Oberto Honda for Andretti Autosport, spun behind him after contact with Bourdais. Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, tried to split the gap but got caught up. Chilton’s No. 8 Gallagher Honda has also sustained enough damage to be sidelined.

All drivers were out of their cars after the accident, and have been checked, cleared and released from the infield medical center.

Quick quotes are below, Aleshin, Rahal and Chilton talking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Andretti to Marty Snider and Bourdais to Kevin Lee.

“Unfortunately when I started to turn into Turn 1, the rear went and I couldn’t do anything. With full lock, I understood that was it. Snap oversteer. Couldn’t do anything about it. It was obviously my mistake. I am sorry for the guys who hit me as well. That’s racing,” Aleshin said.

Andretti said, “I want to be able to just finish a race. Everyone was trying to miss Mikhail. It looked like he had more downforce. Ryan just missed it. I tried to spin to miss him, then my smoke is why Graham couldn’t see. He hit me. It’s not ideal seeing blue smoke with most of the field coming at you. Glad everyone is OK. It was a product of Mikhail losing it and us trying to avoid it.”

Rahal added, “I didn’t have a perspective. I don’t know what happened. The spotter yells go low, Chilton’s spinning in front of me, I tried to go above him, and his car came up the banking. Legitimately I don’t know what happened. Our luck right now. Need to go to New Orleans for a voodoo doll. Spotter yells one thing. Where else do you go? This is what happens when you qualify at the back. Our sponsors, mechanics don’t deserve this. A lot of work to be done ahead. You’ve been around this long enough – you, PT – you’re just doomed. I was wrong place, wrong time.”

Bourdais said, “You’re just along for the ride. I was too close to brake. Marco was already in there anyway. Ryan cleared it barely. Not much you can do. It was a pretty big slap. It was a shame. You have to have wiser moves on the start like that. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and we were collateral damage. Our Sonny’s BBQ car is busted on the left and right side.”

Chilton concluded, “We had a pretty decent start. I was sort of tensing because four-wide is never good on a short oval. Mikhail lost his car. You only need one car to make a mistake and it’s a disaster. I did the normal human reaction. I spun, as I came back, I got collected by Rahal. Frustrating way to end the day. But so much downforce and these races are so boring, everyone tries to overtake on Lap 1.”

A quick video of the accident via the inside of Turn 1 is below along with the main video above.

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below: