Hinchcliffe: SPM doing ‘incredible’ job of handling driver instability

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With his own future beyond the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series yet to be sorted, James Hinchcliffe has instead hailed current team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for handling turmoil in the team’s second car in an “incredible” manner.

SPM was meant to be a team featuring continuity this year. Without any driver, manufacturer or engineer changes going into the year, SPM was an anomaly following an offseason where nearly every team changed at least one if not more of those elements.

Alas, it hasn’t all gone to plan. Since the break after the Texas race in mid-June, Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, has had three different teammates in the sister No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda and has not had the same teammate for consecutive full race weekends since Detroit and Texas in June.

Robert Wickens filled in briefly for Mikhail Aleshin with the Russian being delayed to Road America owing to immigration issues. While Aleshin returned fully for Iowa, Sebastian Saavedra was then called up for Toronto, where he filled in well in an eleventh hour role. Aleshin returned for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last race while Saavedra has now got the call for the next two oval races at Pocono and Gateway following SPM and Aleshin’s mutual parting of ways.

The instability in the second car has left SPM having unofficially adopted the “TBA” moniker from Dale Coyne Racing – the two teams even poked fun at each other about it on social media earlier this week – but Hinchcliffe said the team has handled a difficult situation well.

“There’s no doubt it’s a bit of a distraction,” Hinchcliffe admitted to NBC Sports. “We say it time and time again. Continuity is one of the keys to success in this sport. A lack of that on the other side of the garage does hurt… but, everyone at SPM has done an incredible job of managing that.

“Luckily Blair (Perschbacher, engineer) and Sebastian worked together in Indy Lights; so they have a relationship there. I’ve worked with Sebastian before. This particular scenario is almost a best-case scenario for when you find yourselves in this position. So, credit to the team and Sebastian for making a less than ideal situation as painless as possible.”

Hinchcliffe and Saavedra have been linked for most of their careers, and now get the second opportunity to work together as teammates.

From both racing in Formula BMW and Indy Lights in their junior open-wheel careers, the two were teammates in 2012 when Hinchcliffe was in his first season at Andretti Autosport and Saavedra drove for Andretti’s Indy Lights team, plus three IndyCar races.

Saavedra’s impressive weekend at Toronto did not go unnoticed by SPM’s more senior driver.

“He ran with Andretti in Lights my first year there and he did a few IndyCar races there, I know Fontana and Sonoma, and a couple other races,” Hinchcliffe recalled.

“I’ve known Seb since he was 18. It’s great to have him part of the team. He did an exceptional job, I think, at Toronto. It was much different than the Toronto than he remembered. It’d been quite a while since he even turned right in IndyCar. He was quick and mistake-free all weekend. Really, it’s ovals he’s done more of the last few seasons. We have no reason to expect him to do anything less than that these next two.”

The 2018 season is a natural topic of conversation for both Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. SPM has worked extra hard in preparing the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, tested by Oriol Servia, which has featured rave reviews.

A free agent at year’s end, it remains to be seen whether Hinchcliffe will re-up with SPM or test the waters elsewhere, but he seems confident about both elements as it sits with four races left in 2017.

“June 1!” Hinchcliffe laughed when asked of a time frame for sorting out his next season plans. “Of course that’s not quite how it goes. There’s a lot of things can be distractions off-track on any given weekend. But at drivers we’re pretty well tuned to block it out and focus on job at hand. That’s what we’ve been doing.

“I think things are going well. There’s no time line necessarily, but I want to get it wrapped up sooner than later. It’s heading in the right direction. So hopefully there will be some news in the not too distant future.”

Heading into Pocono specifically for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Hinchcliffe sits 10th in points and hopeful the team’s pace from last year doesn’t, like at Indianapolis, go missing. Aleshin won the pole and finished second; Hinchcliffe started sixth and finished 10th.

“Indy was a big mystery to us; we’re not sure what caused it,” Hinchcliffe said. “But not unlike Indy, this race could turn into a handling race. (Last year) Hunter-Reay put on more downforce and drove around everybody, and he was still good out front.

“In the 500, we made moves. The outright pace for us might be similar to what we saw. Qualifying might not go as well, but I’m confident we’ll get the car mechanically in a good spot.”

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

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There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.