Hinchcliffe, Aleshin upbeat following Phoenix test

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The individual session time sheets of the Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View from Phoenix International Raceway did not appear kind to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin. In each session, they ranked 19th (Aleshin) and 20th (Hinchcliffe), 18th (Hinchcliffe) and 23rd (Aleshin), sixth (Aleshin) and tenth (Hinchcliffe), and 13th (Hinchcliffe) and 19th (Aleshin).

However, a look beyond the laps times shows that the team demonstrated progress throughout the weekend. In the opening session, neither driver averaged more than 180 mph on his fastest lap. But, their speeds gradually increased, with both drivers turning individual laps above 190 mph in the third session. Aleshin was quicker, doing a lap at 19.25 seconds at an average of 191.079 mph, while Hinchcliffe clocked in at 19.35 seconds at an average of 190.184 mph. Those speeds were their quickest of the weekend and placed them sixth (Aleshin) and tenth (Hinchcliffe) overall for the two-day test.

All told, it seemed to be a productive outing, though the lack of outright speed, especially in the early sessions, might been a red flag to some viewing from afar. But, as Hinchcliffe, indicated, there was not need to hit the panic button.

“We, like everybody, have a test plan, and we’re trying very hard to stick to that. It’s easy to get lost in the timesheets and try and tune at 4:00 in the afternoon on February 10th, which isn’t when we go racing,” he said following the opening session. He added, “We’re getting through some basic stuff now. We’re trying to stay focused on our program.”

Aleshin echoed his teammate’s sentiments and emphasized that the test would be secondary in importance to the race weekend. Both drivers struggled at Phoenix in 2016, finishing 17th (Aleshin) and 18th (Hinchcliffe) during the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. “(What’s) really important will be when we’re going to come back here for the racing. That’s when we need to be at the top,” said Aleshin.

For the 29-year-old native of Russia, perhaps the most important aspect of the test was simply returning to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team. Long assumed to be in the team’s 2017 lineup, Aleshin was not officially confirmed until February 1, just over a week before the Phoenix test. “It’s very nice to be back in the series,” he detailed. “Very nice to be back in my home team of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Obviously very nice to be back in the car, you know.”

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 01: Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Getty Images)

Crucially, Aleshin’s return allows him to build on his success from 2016. While inconsistent, he demonstrated tremendous speed, qualifying seventh for the Indianapolis 500 and contending for the win at both the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

“Obviously it is very important,” he said of his return, the first time he’ll compete full-time in the same series, let alone the same team, in consecutive years since his days in the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship with Carlin. “And I hope it’s going to be good for results, because last year was good progress, I think, from my side and from the team’s side during all the season. The start of the season was difficult, but then the progress was very good.”

The duo ended the 2016 season in 13th (Hinchcliffe) and 15th (Aleshin) in the overall championship and will look to improve their standing in 2017.