Naturally, that’s led to questions about what impacts those modifications would have on NASCAR’s racing product, which in recent years has been superb in some places (road courses, short ovals) and sometimes suspect in others (intermediate-sized ovals).
Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes that such changes won’t make the racing less competitive as he feels that “the racing is competitive, any way you slice it.”
However, he’s hopeful that a particular path will be taken by the sanctioning body.
“When you can go to a smaller engine, you preserve some throttle response,” Earnhardt said today at Texas Motor Speedway. “You preserve some reaction in the gas pedal and give the driver a few more tools to be able to use out on the race track when he is driving his race car.
“When you take and put a [restrictor] plate on those cars, you take tons of throttle response out of the car and setting up a pass, particularly on a track that is worn out like this, is a little more challenging with a plate rather than an open engine that is smaller.”
As far as the possible HP drop goes, Earnhardt likened the situation to the recent Sprint Cup return of the No. 3, which his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove to six of his seven overall Sprint Cup titles.
Richard Childress’ revival of the famous number for rookie driver Austin Dillon was met with loud resistance in some quarters of the NASCAR fan base – but as the season has wore on, the controversy has ebbed for the most part.
Earnhardt believes such would be the case as well with the HP drop if it comes to pass.
“I think the reduction in power is coming whether you like it or not,” he said. “I chose as an individual to get on the side of being productive in that discussion instead of saying ‘We don’t need to do it’ and trying to fight it – let’s try to make sure when it does happen, we do it the right way and give ourselves something to grow into and something to engineers and something that is productive for many years to come.
“…You can have both sides arguing against and for, for however long you want, but it’s going to happen so we might as well start thinking about how we want it to happen and trying to have those discussions on making sure we make the best choice we can make for the sport.”
“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 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.”