Offseason over, it’s back to work for Hinchcliffe, SPM this week

Getty Images

This week, normality will resume for James Hinchcliffe in his day job as driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Dancing with the Stars” is over, as is a Race of Champions appearance. His annual drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Mazda Motorsports provided a good refresher to a completely different kind of race car to kick off a new year.

It’ll be a busy few days, as Hinchcliffe and teammate Mikhail Aleshin will have their first test together of the new year starting tomorrow at Sonoma Raceway. That’s before IndyCar’s official preseason test – Prix View at Phoenix Raceway – takes place this Friday and Saturday at the 1-mile oval.

For Hinchcliffe, this will be the first time back in his IndyCar since a single-day test in October at Gateway Motorsports Park. Inevitably there’s less fanfare for the now-30-year-old Canadian’s return to the cockpit this year since it’s not coming on the heels of his injury recovery last year, but that’s not a bad thing.

“We did a day in October at Gateway but that was the last time I was in the car. We’re going to be out in Sonoma the second week of February, just before the Phoenix test,” Hinchcliffe said.

“Obviously, there’s a lot we can pull off of last year’s performances with the team and engine and rules staying static. There’s not a whole lot to learn, it’s just a polishing up areas we can do better and try to find that little bit extra on performance and consistency.”

Hinchcliffe admitted his end to the 2016 season was brutal and probably cost him the potential of roughly a top-five to certainly a top-seven finish in the championship, with lost points at Texas, Watkins Glen and Sonoma otherwise damning a very good season.

SPM will have the same two drivers in its lineup in consecutive years, for the first time since expanding to a two-car lineup, with Aleshin’s admittedly late deal now sealed up. Hinchcliffe is also bullish on the continuity within his crew this year, not expecting many changes.

“Continuity is something that always leads to success in motorsports. The 5 car is completely unchanged, last time I checked unless there’s been some mechanics left since last Tuesday. That’s a huge thing, being able to build that relationship and keep working together. Hopefully, that bodes well for us,” he said.

With the aero kits locked in this year, although there are still some parts opened up for development, Hinchcliffe and the No. 5 crew will look to build on their progress and consistency of last year for even better results and a return to victory lane.

“The outlook for us is quite positive. We didn’t end up points-wise where we wanted to be in the championship for a couple different reasons, but the pace was there,” he said. “We had some really good, consistent races where we didn’t have that good of a car and yet the team showed that we could bring home a good result on days where things were kind of working against us. That’s what you really need to put together a championship effort. So we’re going to work on those areas we need to work on, and hopefully the pace we had last year, we’ll have this year.

“(2015) was a big struggle, the aero kit was holding us back big-time and really Rahal was the only team that got a good handle on it in qualifying trim. Occasionally, Takuma (Sato) would throw in a good performance for Foyt and maybe (Ryan) Hunter-Reay got in there once kind of thing, but qualifying was a big struggle for all of us.

“Going into ’16, that was certainly the focus with the new kit. It really brought us back into the mix and into the fight, and on street courses, I think we had one of the best Honda qualifying averages and on superspeedways we were good. Now if we can just polish up some of the road course qualifying and set up our race cars quite good, we’ll pretty much have it covered.”

Hinchcliffe’s Rolex 24 drive was halted by gearbox issues overnight in the debut of the Mazda RT24-P, but he was happy to be back in a more relaxed racing environment. He’s also smart enough to understand how important the Rolex 24 is for sports car manufacturers.

“It’s funny, whether it’s IndyCar guys or guys from other series, we look at this as this fun, cool opportunity to come race, but we also have to be very understanding and respectful that this is their Indy 500. There are guys that are running this championship the full season,” he explained.

“You can’t be blasé about it. You have to take it just as seriously as one of your own races. It’s crazy how much effort goes into this. I really see that sort of month of May fever around all the IMSA teams when you pull up to Daytona for the month of January, so to speak, because you start at the Roar in the beginning, then thrash on the cars for two weeks and then you come back and do a 24-hour race. Keeping the focus and all that is actually quite easy once you get going.”

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

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

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.”