Plenty of positives as Hinchcliffe prepares for 2016


Toss 2015 out for James Hinchcliffe.

It was a year to be remembered more for the incredible life-saving heroics of the Holmatro Safety Team and the Trauma Pit Crew from Indiana University more than anything on track, save for a well judged strategy-driven win at NOLA Motorsports Park, his first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

As the Canadian looks ahead to 2016, improvements should be coming across the board. Even in the five Verizon IndyCar Series races he did do, one of the areas he struggled was in qualifying; he had only a 13.6 average starting position and only one top-10 start.

“We were missing as a group,” Hinchcliffe told MotorSportsTalk, in advance of his participation with the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Boston.

“We have to look at all the elements to try to improve it. We’ll get a handle on that. By the time of Boston late in the year, we’ll have had full testing and more street course events.”

Hinchcliffe likes how the new testing regulations for 2016 are spread out more over the course of the season, rather than stacked prior to the season opener. He’s already had several tests back in an IndyCar this fall, at Road America, Mid-Ohio and Phoenix.

“The new testing regs have been spread out more over the season. It makes it quieter in the preseason. But once we’re on the road, we can apply things we’re picking up to race weekends.”

He noted how INDYCAR’s decision to utilize Rule 9.3, to help Honda close a gap to Chevrolet in aerodynamic performance (in layman’s terms, the rule was enacted for any manufacturer that was deemed by INDYCAR to be too far behind) should help level the playing field, but was not done to promote one manufacturer over another. Hinchcliffe, like many in the IndyCar field, has driven for both at various stages in his career.

“I’m not mad about it!” he joked. “I obviously see both sides of the argument. But look at qualifying and the edge Chevy had. The series isn’t doing anything to give us an unfair advantage; it’s being done to make the competition better.

“When we get to St. Petersburg, we look for a better playing field, which is more fun for fans, and more fun for us. Even Will (Power) I think said when it was four Penskes in the (Firestone) Fast Six earlier in the year, he wanted more different guys up there. We’re on the right track to getting there.”

Hinchcliffe is also bullish about INDYCAR’s direction as an organization into 2016, following the recent appointments of Jay Frye as president of competition and operations and with TV numbers continuing their steady – if slow – growth.

“I’ve had a good working relationship with Jay since he came on board,” he said. “He has good experience and credentials. More things are coming to get people excited. We’re in a good period of growth as a series. I know I’ve said that for a few years; it’s slow but steady.

“What’s even more important is that other motorsports have seen declines in that five-year period (since Hinchcliffe was a rookie in 2011). The key is we’re growing.”

The Schmidt Peterson team should be in a better state, as well. Hinchcliffe will continue for a second season, first full season, with a similar crew on his No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda while Mikhail Aleshin returns to the team’s second seat. Hinchcliffe expressed major thanks for Arrow’s renewal of three more years, a rarity in modern-day IndyCar.

“It’s incredibly exciting, and not just in a selfish way, but really that company has so much reach and so many great ideas to make IndyCar better as a sport,” he explained. “It’s not just for the team, but also for the fan experience. They have some great ideas in terms of technology. We have three more years to kind of explore those opportunities.

“Mikhail, I thought he did a great job given the situation at Sonoma,” he added. “The last time he’d driven one it didn’t end awesome (bad accident at Auto Club Speedway in 2014). He got back in, no reservations, and did a good job.

“Hopefully he’s back up to speed before season starts, but the speed was always there. We’re learning the ’16 kit as well, and together we can get it sorted.”

Hinchcliffe, a regular in the Rolex 24 at Daytona having driven with the Mazda team the last three years, is unlikely to return to the race this year.

“We had a cool program lined up for 24, that due to factors beyond our control fell apart,” he said.

But he’s hopeful he can still assemble something last-minute, and also continues to plug away at a potential NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on at least one of the August 2016 road course races (Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road America).

IndyCar Power Rankings: Pato O’Ward moves to the top entering Texas Motor Speedway


The NBC Sports IndyCar power rankings naturally were as jumbled as the action on the streets of St. Petersburg after a chaotic opener to the 2023 season.

Pato O’Ward, who finished second because of an engine blip that cost him the lead with a few laps remaining, moves into the top spot ahead of St. Pete winner Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth in his Arrow McLaren debut. Scott Dixon and St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who led 31 laps) rounded out the top five.

St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who started first at St. Pete after capturing his second career pole position) Callum Ilott (a career-best fifth) and Graham Rahal entered the power rankings entering the season’s second race.

Three drivers fell out of the preseason top 10 after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – including previously top-ranked Josef Newgarden, who finished 17th after qualifying 14th.

Heading into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, here’s NBC Sports’ assessment of the current top 10 drivers through the first of 17 races this year (with previous preseason rankings in parenthesis):

NBC Sports’ IndyCar Power Rankings

1. Pato O’Ward (5) – If not for the dreaded “plenum event” in the No. 5 Chevrolet, the Arrow McLaren driver is opening the season with a victory capping a strong race weekend.

2. Marcus Ericsson (7) – He might be the most opportunistic driver in IndyCar, but that’s because the 2022 Indy 500 winner has become one of the series’ fastest and most consistent stars.

3. Alexander Rossi (10) – He overcame a frustrating Friday and mediocre qualifying to open his Arrow McLaren career with the sort of hard-earned top five missing in his last years at Andretti.

4. Scott Dixon (3) – Put aside his opening-lap skirmish with former teammate Felix Rosenqvist, and it was a typically stealthily good result for the six-time champion.

5. Romain Grosjean (NR) – The St. Petersburg pole-sitter consistently was fastest on the streets of St. Petersburg over the course of the race weekend, which he couldn’t say once last year.

6. Scott McLaughlin (6) – Easily the best of the Team Penske drivers before his crash with Grosjean, McLaughlin drove like a legitimate 2023 championship contender.

7. Callum Ilott (NR) – A quietly impressive top five for the confident Brit in Juncos Hollinger Racing’s first race as a two-car team. Texas will be a big oval litmus test.

8. Graham Rahal (NR) – Sixth at St. Pete, Rahal still has the goods on street courses, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan remains headed in the right direction.

9. Alex Palou (4) – He seemed a step behind Ericsson and Dixon in the race after just missing the Fast Six in qualifying, but this was a solid start for Palou.

10. Will Power (2) – An uncharacteristic mistake that crashed Colton Herta put a blemish on the type of steady weekend that helped him win the 2022 title.

Falling out (last week): Josef Newgarden (1), Colton Herta (8), Christian Lundgaard (9)