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Schmidt Peterson confirms all-Canadian lineup of Hinchcliffe, Wickens

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The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team is going for a diet of denim, maple syrup, pace and politeness in its 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series lineup, with an all-Canadian pairing of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens confirmed for next season.

Hinchcliffe was known to want a driver of Wickens’ caliber alongside him in the second seat after three less-than-fruitful seasons with James Jakes (2015), Mikhail Aleshin (2016) and a combination of drivers (Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra, Jack Harvey) rotated through the second car the last three years.

Recent changes have brought them to this point and now leads them to becoming full-time teammates for the first time in a decade, since the defunct country-focused A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008.

Hinchcliffe has re-signed with Schmidt Peterson after three seasons with the team. His first was shortened due to his near life-threatening injuries sustained in an accident in practice for that year’s Indianapolis 500. A rapid and welcome recovery followed throughout the second half of 2015 before his comeback to action in 2016, with an Indianapolis 500 pole and a couple near-misses on wins that followed. In 2017, he won Round 2 at Long Beach but faltered in the second half of the year through a litany of mechanical woes and bad luck.

Wickens, meanwhile, faced an uncertain future when Mercedes-Benz announced earlier this year it would withdraw from DTM at the end of 2018. One of Hinchcliffe’s long-time friends, Wickens hasn’t raced full-time in North America in more than a decade since they were both in Formula Atlantic in 2007, at separate teams (Wickens at Red Bull Forsythe Racing and Hinchcliffe at Sierra Sierra Enterprises). As he pursued his Formula 1 dream and had a wealth of success in the junior series, he never got a proper shot, and has since gone onto several successful years with Mercedes in DTM.

A ride-swap between the two of them came together earlier this year where Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda at Sebring’s short course, while Hinchcliffe then flew to Italy to sample Wickens’ Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM after the St. Petersburg season opener. Hinchcliffe ended 13th in points in IndyCar, Wickens ninth in DTM this year, both with one win each during the year. Wickens also had a Friday to sample the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Road America this year, but had to relinquish the seat once Aleshin returned from a visa issue.

“Not only am I really excited to be able to say I’ll be back with SPM for next year and beyond, but I am also really looking forward to being teammates with one of my oldest friends,” said Hinchcliffe.

“Robbie and I grew up racing against one another, eventually took different paths, me staying in North America in open-wheel cars and him going off to Europe in sports cars, but it’s pretty neat that we both ended up here and we get to live our dream of being professional racing drivers, together on the same team.

“I think 2018 is going to be a great year for the SPM organization, from having Robbie here to the team’s new partnership with Honda and the 2018 aero kit; I just can’t wait to get back on track and bring some good results home for the Arrow Electronics crew.”

Wickens added: “This is an entirely new chapter to add to my racing career, and I am really excited for this opportunity that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has given me.

“I think everyone knows the story by now that James and I grew up racing against one another in go karts, and to make it to the largest open-wheel racing series in North America together as teammates, it’s crazy to think about.

“I am very thankful for the six years I had with everyone at Mercedes and DTM; those are memories I will cherish forever. I can’t wait to truly see what the Verizon IndyCar Series is all about!”

Chevrolet hoping it finally has edge on Honda in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chevrolet engines have powered some of IndyCar’s biggest wins over the last six years.

Their drivers have won three of the first five races this season, four straight series titles and claimed the top four starting spots in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

So why is there so much chatter about Chevy vs. Honda in Sunday’s race? It’s the one mountain Chevy continues to try and conquer.

“We have more horsepower at the top end but race running’s going to be different because you’re not going to be flat out,” 2016 series champ Simon Pagenaud said. “You’re going to have to manage your tires, you’re going to have to lift a lot and reaccelerate, and the Honda is really strong at that. So I think it’s going to equalize the race and I think there’s a good chance it will show, which is fantastic.”

Pagenaud knows both engines well.

He spent his first four seasons in the series working with Honda teams before switching to Roger Penske’s powerhouse Chevy team in 2015.

Yet as dominant as Chevy has been over the years outside Indy and as good as Penske’s team has been on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval, Honda continues to have the upper hand in the 500. Their cars have driven to victory lane 12 times over the past 14 years, including a run of nine straight (six coming when Honda was the series’ sole-engine manufacturer).

Chevy has two 500 wins since returning to the series in 2012. But the engine battle is becoming far more competitive even at Indy where the disparity from the top qualifier to the last qualifier was cut from 11.083 mph in 2017 to 5.198 mph this year.

Drivers have already noticed a difference on the track and casual fans who only watch the 500 might pick up on the changes, too.

“It’s certainly exciting for the fans, for us, for the teams,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, a Chevy-powered driver for Penske. “It’s all about the end. Right now, we happen to be competitive so let’s see what happens in the race.”

Last year, Honda grabbed four of the top five spots and powered two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso to the race’s rookie of the year award. The problem: Three Honda engines blew during the second half of the race and those still on the track worried they would face the same fate.

This year, some of those same questions could return after Marco Andretti blew an engine just hours before the start of the IndyCar Grand Prix. Still, Andretti has been fast and qualified 12th for the race.

The new aero kits have drivers complaining about handling and passing on Sunday. Practice and qualifying speeds haven’t provided many hints about what to expect, either.

The practice session Monday was the first time everybody worked heavily on race setups and attempted to run in traffic.

The result: Chevy and Honda each had five cars among the top 10, in practice led by 23-year-old Sage Karam at 226.461 mph in a Chevy. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ and 2014 Indy winner with Andretti Autosport, was third-fastest at 224.820 – and No. 1 among the Honda teams.

Chevy, however, posted the top three non-tow speeds with rookie Kyle Kaiser leading the way at 221.107. Marco Andretti wound up fourth at 220.407 and was the top Honda car the list.

Four-time series champion Scott Dixon has learned not to read too much into all these numbers. The Chip Ganassi Racing star qualified ninth and is one of only two Honda drivers starting in the first three rows Sunday.

Last year, Honda took six of the top nine starting spots and had four of the top five cars at the finish line.

“I think there’s a lot of good Honda cars. Hopefully this one is one of them,” the 2008 Indy 500 winner said. “It showed pretty good, I think, in practice. But again it doesn’t guarantee you anything. You’ve got to give it your best, put in the effort and work hard.”

And hope for the best.

“I believe, even last year, even though the Hondas were really strong, we were able to fight in the end,” Castroneves said. “It’s all about being a good, balanced car.”