We wish a happy 27th birthday today to IndyCar’s lone full-time confirmed Canadian for 2014, James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport. As Hinchcliffe ticks another year off this year, we figure it would be a good time to look back and see how he’s grown in the series over the last three years.
As a rookie in 2011, Hinchcliffe entered with limited preseason testing and had to gather a budget to compete for Newman/Haas Racing. Despite missing the opening race of the season, Hinchcliffe entered into as good a situation as was possible: a team with a winning, championship pedigree for nearly 30 years, an excellent engineer in Craig Hampson and one of IndyCar’s most well-regarded drivers, who always seems to suffer the worst luck and timing with teams, in Oriol Servia as a teammate.
Hinchcliffe flourished, with the sixth-best qualifying average in the field behind only the three Team Penske and two Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers. Although he failed to secure a podium, he finished 12th in the standings, and won Rookie-of-the-Year honors in a stacked field that included JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Ana Beatriz, Sebastian Saavedra and James Jakes.
In 2012, if under less than ideal circumstances, Hinchcliffe was picked as Dan Wheldon’s replacement at Andretti Autosport. Wheldon had signed to drive the GoDaddy Chevrolet piloted by Danica Patrick before his fatal accident in the 2011 Las Vegas season finale. Still, again, Hinchcliffe improved with his first few podium finishes and ending eighth in the series standings.
This past year was a breakout year, with three wins scored either by a last stint pass (St. Petersburg), a last turn pass (Brazil) or a lasting dominant impact (crushing win in Iowa). Hinchcliffe, too, was reunited with Hampson as engineer after a year with Tino Belli in 2012. Still, as the season wore on, the Andretti advantage seemed to wear off in the second half, although Hinchcliffe’s consistency improved from a results standpoint following a roller coaster first half.
“It was a little bit of everything,” he explained in a phone interview a couple weeks ago when in Milwaukee at a David Hobbs Honda dealership event. “The second half had a couple things where sure, there was some luck involved, but the results were a moving target. Plus the three Ganassi cars got so much better so that moved them up from where they had been.”
Hinchcliffe also, for the first time, had the challenge of weighing his options as a free agent. He could either return to Andretti, but was also linked to switches to either Ganassi or KV Racing Technology.
“It was a unique position, being in that position for the first time,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to try and get done, and to be honest, the process wasn’t something I enjoyed. Rumors tend to distract you from going racing.
“But I’m glad to have made the decision I did to return. We did have other options. But it’s important to keep the group together for another year.”
It’s important to note that the contract Hinchcliffe signed for 2014 with Andretti is just for one year. If, for instance, Ganassi opts to go with a short-term solution to replace Dario Franchitti with a veteran who may or may not “move the needle” from an overarching marketing standpoint, Hinchcliffe’s name could pop up again for that seat come 2015.
But armed with another new engineer – Nathan O’Rourke, who moves over from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing – and a new engine for 2014, the goal is a sustained, season-long championship challenge. That will undoubtedly help to boost his stock even further, after three years in IndyCar and six in the open-wheel ladder system before that.