Hinchcliffe on Mazda’s year-on-year growth: “It’s night and day”

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When last we spoke to new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ recruit James Hinchcliffe, he was fresh off his first test in the team’s No. 77 Dallara DW12-Honda and was still sorting out his Rolex 24 at Daytona plans.

The Canadian reunited with Sylvain Tremblay’s SpeedSource organization, and was back in the team’s No. 70 Mazda SKYACTIV-D LMP2 prototype for the race despite not initially being in the plans.

It was a welcome reunion for the driver whose history with SpeedSource dates back a decade.

“Honestly it was a quick call between John (Doonan, Director, Mazda Motorsports) and I,” Hinchcliffe told MotorSportsTalk at the Rolex 24. “We’ve had a relationship for a bunch of years. It goes back to 2005 with SpeedSource. It is a second family.

“Getting to come back is great. Getting to continue is great. This new project is great. This development has been incredible. Having not been in (this car) since this race last year, it was pretty overwhelming.”

Hinchcliffe’s race, where he co-drove with Tremblay and full-season drivers Jonathan Bomarito and Tristan Nunez, ended due to a terminal oil pump failure.

But in his week of driving it, Hinchcliffe raved about the year-on-year improvements since his last drive in the car at the 2014 Rolex 24.

“It’s 100% different,” he said. “I hit the brakes, and it isn’t even fair. It’s not even a comparison. Never mind the engine how much that’s improved. These guys deserve so much credit. With the gains made, in a year, they should be running right up there.

“The situation was atypical last year,” he added. “Now we’re in an environment where we are more familiar. We’re not having to drive to the rear view mirror. Last year we were watching the fight. Now we are in it.”

It was a breakthrough drive for Mazda with the sister No. 07 car, driven by Tom Long, Joel Miller, Ben Devlin and Tremblay, breaking through to lead the car’s first laps in TUDOR United SportsCar Championship competition, and also becoming the first diesel to lead overall at Daytona. Long had the honors.

“It is so meaningful for our Mazda team to lead the race today,” Doonan said. “It is the result of tireless work from this team over the past 12 months. Mazda has 23 class wins at Daytona, but the first time to lead the race overall, so it’s a big day for the brand.”

As for Hinchcliffe, with no further sports car races on the horizon, he has two IndyCar tests upcoming. He and Conor Daly will test at Sebring on Feb. 3, with Hinchcliffe then set for two days at NOLA Motorsports Park the following week.

Hinchcliffe’s personal sponsor Spyder active wear released this video after the first Sebring test in December.

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”