DiZinno: Hinchcliffe, SPM, Honda strike gold in Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The gold rush that lives in California historical lore occurred up the coast in San Francisco, but it came a few hours south this weekend to Long Beach.

Because there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for James Hinchcliffe and his gold and black No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team, who won Sunday at Long Beach, to provide the second great story line to emerge to kick off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The team’s street course program has improved by leaps and bounds in Hinchcliffe’s three seasons with the team, and you only need to look at the qualifying improvements at St. Petersburg and Long Beach from 2015 to 2017 to note the tweaks.

At St. Pete, Hinchcliffe has improved from 16th in 2015 to eighth last year to third this year. Long Beach is similar; 13th in 2015 to seventh last year to now fourth this year.

The crew led by engineer Allen McDonald – a setup wizard whose nickname is “Squirrel” – and Hinchcliffe’s strategist Robert Gue have helped propel the No. 5 car forward, back to regularly threatening the leaders as they did when Simon Pagenaud was their lead driver from 2012 to 2014. McDonald even jumped in the water behind the pit lane after the race Sunday night to pay off a pre-race bet.

A two-stop strategy call was key to Hinchcliffe’s victory Sunday, but he still needed the pace over the stints while saving fuel to be able to pull it off.

“Yeah, it’s always a tough call here, you know, because one caution falling at the right time or the right length of laps can throw everything for a loop,” Hinchcliffe said post-race.

“You know, when (Scott) Dixon dove into the pits there, kind of predicting the yellow coming up for whoever was off in Turn 8, for Marco (Andretti), a smart move. It didn’t pay off, but especially after what we saw in St. Pete, they’re protecting against that. It was kind of a good idea.

“At that point now you’re second-guessing, maybe did we do the wrong thing. Luckily it played into our favor. When those cautions fell at the end, I thought a caution was going to ruin my day. Luckily we had the car to hold them off.”

Hinchcliffe was caught out on the wrong end of that in St. Petersburg, where he led 21 laps but was trapped when the yellow flew. He ultimately ended in ninth.

Today though was all about the comeback, and the story line of the guy who entered the national consciousness again via his fun and entertaining run on “Dancing with the Stars” going one spot better, and doing so in the Los Angeles market.

And that inevitably brings back the whole comeback story to the fore once again, from his accident in practice in 2015 before the Indianapolis 500 that then sidelined him for the rest of the year. It’s been told repeatedly in the now two years since, but this was still a case of “completing the comeback” as it was.

“I mean, last year the (Indianapolis 500) pole was a unique set of circumstances, return to the scene of the crime, so to speak. To do what we did there, what we accomplished as a team, all throughout the entire month, but especially on qualifying day, was huge.

“This does feel different. I feel like we’re back. I feel like we’ve been back for a while now. To finally do what was goal number one when we set out at the start of the season, to get back into winner’s circle, to do as as early in the season as we have, as convincingly as we did, it was a great race.”

The win is Hinchcliffe’s second for SPM, the first for both himself and the team since NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015, one of the goofiest races in recent memory. He pitted on Lap 13 in an ultimately rain-shortened, 47-lap, one-off race thanks to Gue’s strategic call, and while he appreciated that win, he explained why this one feels so much better.

“I mean, winning like this means so much more than wins like NOLA. At the same time you take wins like NOLA because I’ve lost way more races because of situations like that than I’ve won,” he said.

“When I watched the race in NOLA afterwards, I thought, Man, celebrating a little bit too much for a guy that pitted on lap 13 and won the race somehow, you know.

“But you got to take ’em. This series is so competitive. Like I said, we got a lot of wins ripped away from us for a lot less weird circumstances, you know, so…

“As much as winning is nice, everything it like this definitely feels a lot better.”

Putting aside his celebrity value, Hinchcliffe and Long Beach have had a torrid love affair from the track being so good to him in his career anyway.

He got his first ever Atlantics podium here in 2006. He won his first Indy Lights race here in 2010. He got his first IndyCar top-five with fourth in 2011, and his first IndyCar podium with third a year later in 2012.

In 2014 he was so close to a possible victory before getting taken out by Ryan Hunter-Reay at Turn 4, when the two were Andretti Autosport teammates.

He would have had to hold back Hunter-Reay Sunday, before Hunter-Reay’s car seized up with an electrical issue he determined was the same one that cost him a likely win at Pocono.

Hinchcliffe with the SPM crew. Photo: IndyCar

So winning at IndyCar’s second “major” – the most prestigious event on the calendar other than the Indianapolis 500 and the biggest road or street race on the calendar – was always going to mean a lot to him. The fifth win also sees him tie his countryman and hero, the late Greg Moore, with career wins.

“If someone told me after NOLA last year that five wins was the number Greg had, the number Jacques Villeneuve had, and I believe the number Patrick Carpentier had. Only PT is higher than that in the list of Canadians in in Indy car racing. To drive at a level with those guys, I mean, it’s tough to put into words,” he said.

“Greg was a huge motivation and a huge inspiration to me as a child. I followed Jacques’ career religiously. When Pat and Greg were teammates, followed Pat as well, to now be level with those guys is incredible.

“You know what, when I came into this sport, I felt a huge responsibility, to be honest, to keep up the good name that Canadian drivers had in Indy car. There haven’t been a ton of us. The ones that have been here have been race winners, they’ve been contenders week in and week out. I wanted to maintain that, you know, record for Canada, not be the guy that let us down.”

And about the Long Beach prestige?

“To do it here and finally at this place, a track that I love so much, a track that’s been very good to me in my career, one that I think is the Indy 500 of street tracks, it’s the second longest running race after the 500.

“I think because of that history, it makes it a very special event, one that every driver wants to win. The greats have all raced here, the greats have all won here. To get in the winner’s circle was huge.”

A classic Hinchcliffe deadpan summed it all up:

“Well, you put your face in the ground when you win, which is amazing. Who wouldn’t want that?”

Recap: Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley takes in Kohler Grand Prix

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When professional athletes decide to experience sports outside of the one where they make their living, it never ceases to entertain. Case and point: Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley.

The 24-year-old Hundley spent the weekend at Road America, taking in the Kohler Grand Prix. His time at the facility began on Thursday, where he first paid a visit to Team Penske driver Will Power, who gave him a quick tutorial.

Will Power shows Brett Hundley a steering for a Verizon IndyCar Series machine. Photo: IndyCar

The next part of Hundley’s day saw him take a two-seater ride with none other than Mario Andretti. And, unsurprisingly, it left a big impression.

Mari Andretti takes Brett Hundley around Road America in the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater. Photo: IndyCar

“The first lap, I’m screaming, and it’s the warm-up lap! And then the second lap: I’m just bright-eyed, going through corners. I give so much respect, that’s an awesome sport, man!” Hundley said in a media debrief afterward.

However, the day was not finished. Later on, Hundley showed off his arm strength and throwing accuracy by attempting to throw a football through the passenger side window of a moving Chevrolet Corvette. And while it took a few attempts, he eventually hit his mark.

Hundley stayed through Sunday and dawned a photographer’s bib in order to take in more of the action.

In fact, he even inadvertently photobombed second-place finisher Josef Newgarden during his post-race interview.

A video chronicling Hundley’s visit can be viewed here and additional photos from his weekend can be found on his Instagram page.

 

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Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.

FIA to re-examine Vettel/Hamilton Baku F1 clash

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The FIA has confirmed that it will re-examine the clash between Formula 1 title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix to see if further action is warranted.

Vettel and Hamilton made contact twice behind the safety car in Baku, with the second incident deemed to be an act of dangerous driving on Vettel’s part.

The FIA stewards in Baku handed Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty for the clash – the harshest available penalty besides disqualification – but faced calls to issue a stricter punishment post race.

Hamilton said that the incident set a dangerous precedent for F1 and wider motorsport, but Vettel believed his rival deserved a penalty for allegedly brake testing him.

On Wednesday, the FIA confirmed that it would be re-examining the incident in a meeting on July 3, with a verdict set to be delivered ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

“Following the recent incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in which Car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) was involved in a collision with Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), on Monday 3rd July, the FIA will further examine the causes on the incident in order to evaluate whether further action is necessary,” a short statement from the FIA read.

“A statement regarding the outcome of this process will be made available before the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix (7-9 July).”

Wickens not interested in full-time IndyCar switch despite practice run

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Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Mercedes DTM driver Wickens was called up for Friday practice at the KOHLER Grand Prix in the No. 7 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after Mikhail Aleshin was unable to make it in time due to immigration issues.

Aleshin was able to return to the United States in time for Saturday’s final practice and qualifying at Road America, with Wickens stepping back down.

The Canadian got his first taste of an Indy car in a car swap with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe in March, paving the way for his practice appearance at Road America.

However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.

“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.

“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.

“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”

Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.

“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.

“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.

“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.

“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.

“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”