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.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.