IndyCar’s resident court jester, Hinchcliffe rolls with more changes into 2014

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Change has been the constant for James Hinchcliffe throughout most of his open-wheel career.  Often times, he’s made the best of the newness he faces.

In the 2011 offseason into 2012, he switched teams (Newman/Haas to Andretti Autosport), and switched cars (as IndyCar switched from the previous Dallara IR 03 to the new Dallara DW12). A year ago, he got his old engineer from 2011 back in Craig Hampson, but now Hampson has moved into the team’s head of R&D role.

So it should come as no surprise that although he’s into year three with Andretti, there are yet more changes the 27-year-old Canadian will need to get used to.

After re-signing with Andretti at the 2013 season finale, he’s got his third different engineer in as many seasons, in Nathan O’Rourke, formerly of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He’s also got a new sponsor and seriously rocking new livery, in the form of the light blue-and-white colors of United Fiber & Data. And he, like the rest of the team, has a new engine partner in Honda.

But, in typical “Hinch” fashion, the story of how the changes took place took a comedic turn.

“I went to his (Josef’s) house where he normally keeps his engineer in a cage in the basement,” Hinchcliffe said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I broke in while he was sleeping. Nathan made a lot of noise, rattled the cage.

“It woke Josef, which made for an ugly altercation on the main floor.  I was able to use chloroform.  I said, ‘Josef, does this smell like chloroform?’  Then Nathan and I made it out the window.”

Any repercussions?

“No. We were just goofing around outside. The chloroform had a destructive effect on his memory and he thinks Nathan is still in the basement.  He hasn’t figured it out yet.”

Claaaassic Hinch.

The thing Hinchcliffe did figure out in 2013 was winning. After his promising first two seasons, Hinchcliffe took his first three wins in three dynamic, but different ways.

In St. Petersburg, he capitalized on a wide Turn 1 corner exit by Helio Castroneves to scythe through on the inside, then hold off the Brazilian to capture an emotional first victory in the then-green-and-black GoDaddy colors.

He added his two other ways in disparate fashions entirely. In Brazil, he passed Takuma Sato on the last corner of the last lap. In the corn fields of Iowa, Hinch delivered the season’s biggest colossal beatdown, leading 226 of 250 laps.

The St. Petersburg win, as it was Hinchcliffe’s first and came in the late Dan Wheldon’s adopted hometown, in what would have been his car, of course stands out.

“Obviously with what happened last year, it holds a special place in my heart,” he said. “It was a very emotional day last year on race day for all the right reasons. That’s nice ’cause I think in racing you normally have very emotional days for the wrong reasons more often than you do for all the right ones.”

Although Hinchcliffe will shift into a Honda-powered twin-turbo from a Chevrolet-powered one, he admitted the change thus far in testing is a bigger one than you’d think.

“It was a big change. It was kind of cool to see actually,” he said. “Jumping into the Honda for the first time, it was interesting to see how an engine built under the same rules could feel as different as this one did. It’s fast.”

The one thing Hinchcliffe might need to change on his own, without it happening as a team function as the others have this year, is improving his consistency all year.

He was surprisingly consistent in the second half, with nine top-10 results in the last 12 races. But you wouldn’t have guessed that given his roller-coaster first seven races that featured these results: 1, 26, 26, 1, 21, 15, 19.

“There’s only so many derivatives. Eventually I’m going to get it right,” he said. “Last year we had the pace early but not the consistency. If you look at the second half of the year, we were actually way more consistent than people realize. I think as a team we lost a little bit of pace.  We weren’t qualifying as well, Ryan wasn’t qualifying as well.”

As mentioned, the qualifying wasn’t great on the road and street courses in the second half. Andretti Autosport had eight combined Firestone Fast Six appearances in the first five road and street races, including two by Hinch, but only three in the final four, all by Hunter-Reay.

You know Hinch will stand out at various points in 2014, either because of his personality, his livery or his result.

But whether he can improve on his eighth place finish in points will come as a result of how well he handles the changes.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”