Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway

Ed Carpenter Racing drivers face crucial 2017 season

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On paper, Ed Carpenter Racing could be in for a banner year in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The open test at Phoenix International Raceway served notice that their cars are quick, with JR Hildebrand turning the fastest lap across the two-day test. Throw in up-and-coming Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion who will again contest the road and street events in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and team owner Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and their driver lineup looks as stout as any among the 2017 entries.

However, it is also a year of vital importance, particularly for the aforementioned Hildebrand and Pigot.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet Dallara is seen on the track during practice for the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

To say that JR Hildebrand has something to prove might be an understatement. Once a promising up-and-comer who won the Indy Lights title in 2009, Hildebrand’s career has been in limbo since he and Panther Racing parted ways after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Though he showed promise and speed in his brief tenure with John Barnes’ old team, his time there was somewhat star-crossed.

He infamously crashed out of the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway before he brushed the wall and damaged the right-rear suspension. During a caution period at the 2013 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he ran up and over race leader Will Power after briefly looking down to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. And, in what proved to be his final outing as a full-time driver, he crashed on lap 4 of the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

Since then, Hildebrand has only been a part-time competitor, only running entries at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indy 500. In fact, as he explained at the Phoenix test, he didn’t even dip his feet into sports car racing, as many open wheel drivers do when they’re not driving IndyCars.

“No, I have not (pursued opportunities in sports cars). I’ve been hanging out with these guys (Ed Carpenter Racing) trying to get back to being full-time in IndyCar,” he explained during the Phoenix test.

He later explained that, while he was also busy promoting STEM and other education initiatives, limited opportunities in sports car racing made venturing into that discipline less than ideal. “Since GRAND-AM and IMSA have combined, there’s just kind of fewer of the prototype drives and the GTLM, which is an amazing category…there’s a lot of factory guys there. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to work your way into, particularly if it’s a part-time thing, I’ve found.”

Perhaps the most important piece of driving he has ever done, though, came in relief of Josef Newgarden after he broke his hand and collarbone at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at tests at Road America, Iowa Speedway, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he said helped keep the rust off and prove his value to the team.

“Those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said of time as a relief driver. “And so for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me.”

Expectations are high for Hildebrand on his return. It’s obvious that the 29-year-old still possesses all the talent he displayed in junior categories and in his brief time as an IndyCar driver. And Ed Carpenter Racing does not look like it’s missed a beat with Newgarden’s departure. Hildebrand echoed those expectations and firmly believes he should contend for victories.

“A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being,” he asserted after a recent test at Sonoma Raceway. “That is absolutely a goal of ours to be in the Winner’s Circle. For me there is no doubt that my goal is to come into this season with a number of road and street courses on the schedule and be consistently in contention at those places.”

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While Hildebrand has garnered much of the hype, teammate Spencer Pigot is not to be forgotten. While he stepped up at least part-time last year before it grew into the rest of the season, it was still a challenge. He began with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a three-race deal before joining Ed Carpenter Racing to run the road and street courses after the Indy 500.

Pigot’s results were unspectacular, but he did improve as the year continued. The 23-year-old scored a pair of top tens at Road America and Mid-Ohio and showed an increase in raw speed in the second half of the season.

However, Pigot’s second season will be pivotal for his IndyCar future. Evidence of this can be found in three other recent Indy Lights champions: Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves. Each was relegated to part-time drives following their rookie campaigns and only Karam is currently slated to run any IndyCar races this year (he announced an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing earlier in February).

In one way, Pigot already has an advantage over Vautier, Karam, and Chaves in that he will contest a second season, and for the same team as well. Consequently, his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series provides a chance to firmly establish himself as a top-level driver after spending his rookie year learning the cars and series. Perhaps the most important aspect of his driving he’ll need to improve on is his qualifying pace. Only four times did he qualify better than 20th and he often struggled to get the most out of the softer, red-walled Firestones.

While he didn’t reveal many details after the ECR test outing at Sonoma, Pigot did express confidence that he and the team are going in the right direction.

“It’s been a while since we were (at Sonoma Raceway) and it’s been since September since I drove the car, so I’m excited to be back in an IndyCar and so far so good. We had a really productive morning, and we’ve been sticking to our test plan, which we spent a lot of time going over before we got here in order to maximize our day,” Pigot said after the February 14 test.

The performance of Ed Carpenter Racing has been one of most positive stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series since the team debuted in 2012. And for Hildebrand and Pigot, the organization gives them a chance to cement their IndyCar careers.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“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 added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

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.”

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