This week, normality will resume for James Hinchcliffe in his day job as driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“Dancing with the Stars” is over, as is a Race of Champions appearance. His annual drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Mazda Motorsports provided a good refresher to a completely different kind of race car to kick off a new year.
It’ll be a busy few days, as Hinchcliffe and teammate Mikhail Aleshin will have their first test together of the new year starting tomorrow at Sonoma Raceway. That’s before IndyCar’s official preseason test – Prix View at Phoenix Raceway – takes place this Friday and Saturday at the 1-mile oval.
For Hinchcliffe, this will be the first time back in his IndyCar since a single-day test in October at Gateway Motorsports Park. Inevitably there’s less fanfare for the now-30-year-old Canadian’s return to the cockpit this year since it’s not coming on the heels of his injury recovery last year, but that’s not a bad thing.
“We did a day in October at Gateway but that was the last time I was in the car. We’re going to be out in Sonoma the second week of February, just before the Phoenix test,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Obviously, there’s a lot we can pull off of last year’s performances with the team and engine and rules staying static. There’s not a whole lot to learn, it’s just a polishing up areas we can do better and try to find that little bit extra on performance and consistency.”
Hinchcliffe admitted his end to the 2016 season was brutal and probably cost him the potential of roughly a top-five to certainly a top-seven finish in the championship, with lost points at Texas, Watkins Glen and Sonoma otherwise damning a very good season.
SPM will have the same two drivers in its lineup in consecutive years, for the first time since expanding to a two-car lineup, with Aleshin’s admittedly late deal now sealed up. Hinchcliffe is also bullish on the continuity within his crew this year, not expecting many changes.
“Continuity is something that always leads to success in motorsports. The 5 car is completely unchanged, last time I checked unless there’s been some mechanics left since last Tuesday. That’s a huge thing, being able to build that relationship and keep working together. Hopefully, that bodes well for us,” he said.
With the aero kits locked in this year, although there are still some parts opened up for development, Hinchcliffe and the No. 5 crew will look to build on their progress and consistency of last year for even better results and a return to victory lane.
“The outlook for us is quite positive. We didn’t end up points-wise where we wanted to be in the championship for a couple different reasons, but the pace was there,” he said. “We had some really good, consistent races where we didn’t have that good of a car and yet the team showed that we could bring home a good result on days where things were kind of working against us. That’s what you really need to put together a championship effort. So we’re going to work on those areas we need to work on, and hopefully the pace we had last year, we’ll have this year.
“(2015) was a big struggle, the aero kit was holding us back big-time and really Rahal was the only team that got a good handle on it in qualifying trim. Occasionally, Takuma (Sato) would throw in a good performance for Foyt and maybe (Ryan) Hunter-Reay got in there once kind of thing, but qualifying was a big struggle for all of us.
“Going into ’16, that was certainly the focus with the new kit. It really brought us back into the mix and into the fight, and on street courses, I think we had one of the best Honda qualifying averages and on superspeedways we were good. Now if we can just polish up some of the road course qualifying and set up our race cars quite good, we’ll pretty much have it covered.”
Hinchcliffe’s Rolex 24 drive was halted by gearbox issues overnight in the debut of the Mazda RT24-P, but he was happy to be back in a more relaxed racing environment. He’s also smart enough to understand how important the Rolex 24 is for sports car manufacturers.
“It’s funny, whether it’s IndyCar guys or guys from other series, we look at this as this fun, cool opportunity to come race, but we also have to be very understanding and respectful that this is their Indy 500. There are guys that are running this championship the full season,” he explained.
“You can’t be blasé about it. You have to take it just as seriously as one of your own races. It’s crazy how much effort goes into this. I really see that sort of month of May fever around all the IMSA teams when you pull up to Daytona for the month of January, so to speak, because you start at the Roar in the beginning, then thrash on the cars for two weeks and then you come back and do a 24-hour race. Keeping the focus and all that is actually quite easy once you get going.”