When Ed Carpenter Racing confirmed that Spencer Pigot would assume full-time driving duties in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, thoughts subsequently jumped to the future of that entry’s current driver, JR Hildebrand.
Hildebrand, who previously raced with ECR in part-time efforts for the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 from 2014 to 2016, signed with the team as a full-time driver of the No. 21 car last year, and expectations were high that they could achieve results similar to his predecessor, Josef Newgarden.
In looking at the results on paper, it’s clear that things did not materialize as they hoped. Though the team’s short oval program remained stout, with Hildebrand finishing third at Phoenix and second at Iowa, ECR’s lone podium finishes of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hildebrand’s finishes on road and street circuits suffered. He never finished higher than 11th (Long Beach, where he coincidentally suffered a broken hand after last-lap contact with Mikhail Aleshin that forced him to rest the next race at Barber Motorsports Park), and was often outpaced by Pigot, especially on race days.
In a blog entry posted earlier today, Hildebrand discussed what has been a troublesome season, and acknowledged the lofty expectations he and the team had when he signed.
“The chance to race in the Series full-time again was one that I was proud to earn and optimistic about taking advantage of,” Hildebrand wrote. “There were clear and reasonable expectations: we’d capitalize on our existing strengths at places like Indy and Iowa where we knew we could be highly competitive, while we’d work to develop and show progress elsewhere — we would need to learn and grow through the year.”
Still, with new personnel on board – lead engineer Justin Taylor, for example, came over from Audi Sport’s LMP1 program in the World Endurance Championship – Hildebrand acknowledged that there was always going to be a learning curve.
“As a team we entered the season with a bit of general uncertainty as the primary roles on the No. 21’s engineering staff were new faces and many of us would be working together in full-time capacity for the first time,” he continued. “Though I expected these differences to create for a revised learning curve, I looked at that less as a concern and more as a chance for us all to develop together — new perspectives and abilities are often behind movement forward, after all.”
The new personnel and the diversity of their backgrounds ultimately resulted in new experiments regarding car setups, an approach that ultimately one that proved problematic.
“While the No. 20 car often stayed close to the team’s traditional direction of setup, particularly on road and street circuits, we often diverged to seek new answers in the hopes of finding something that would give both of us a better chance to compete for 5th instead of 15th. Unfortunately neither approach was able to give us an entirely clear direction to build on as a group weekend to weekend,” he detailed.
Further, trying to do so with limited testing and practice time hampered their efforts.
“Learning quickly enough to translate those processes into high-level execution during race weekends, with few tests days or breaks to supplement our effort, proved to be a tall order that would simply require more time and specialized focus in my estimation,” Hildebrand asserted. “Getting the most out of a known setup with a known driving approach is a task that requires substantial effort; the necessary bandwidth to implement and break down new strategies in either driving or engineering on top of that became a difficult thing to find within the season’s compact schedule, despite the clear value doing so might have.”
Though frustrated that things did not go according to plan, Hildebrand is no less proud of the effort he and the No. 21 group put forward and believes there are plenty of positives to take away from the year, even if the results don’t show it.
“I’m not happy with the overall results we produced this season, but for my part, I do not regret approaching the year like I did,” he held. “While testing my own methods was trying, there are now things that I will forever do differently and better with greater awareness going forward for how to take those gains further. While we did not always arrive at critical insights quickly enough to turn our weekends around, I’m not disappointed that we experimented with new ideas as much as we did on the 21.”
The 29-year-old Hildebrand now enters the off-season without a contracted ride for 2018 and faces an uncertain racing future. But, for the time being, he isn’t concerned and is putting all his energy into ending the year on a high note.
“I’m ready to get on track this weekend and finish this thing strong, so how about this for now — if you don’t stress about it, I won’t either,” he finished.
Hildebrand enters Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) 15th in the championship standings.