IndyCar 2017 driver review: James Hinchcliffe

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. James Hinchcliffe was an unlucky 13th in 2017 despite a popular, storybook return to victory lane at Long Beach.

James Hinchcliffe, No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

  • 2016: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 217 Laps Led, 10.9 Avg. Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 13th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 3 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 50 Laps Led, 9.6 Avg. Start, 12.6 Avg. Finish

It was a frustrating season for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” with a popular win early at Long Beach and a second straight podium on home soil in Toronto often overshadowed by myriad mechanical issues. Perhaps fittingly, Hinchcliffe ended an unlucky 13th in points for a second straight season.

On the whole, the SPM team was mystified as to where much of its 2016 speed went, and the team appeared stretched thin with some of its personnel running the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit test program. It also didn’t help Hinchcliffe any he had a rotating driver in the second car; any of Mikhail Aleshin, Robert Wickens, Sebastian Saavedra or Jack Harvey was saddled up alongside from Road America onwards.

Hinchcliffe’s first half of the year, when the stability was there with both cars, was better than his second. In the first eight races he averaged a 7.6 starting spot and banked four of his seven top-10 finishes for the year. In the second half, the grid spot dropped to 11.2 and he only had one top-five finish, that third place at Toronto – aided by a well-timed caution. His double points score hurt him more than any other full-time driver, too. Scoring only 49 points from the two races in Indianapolis and Sonoma was just 23rd among all drivers, behind five part-time drivers, as mechanical issues took him out of both races. To put that in context, Hinchcliffe earned 42 points alone for his 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole position, thanks to the race’s enhanced focus on qualifying points.

Granted, Hinchcliffe was unlucky to lose a potential win in the St. Petersburg season opener owing to a caution he was on the wrong side of, and ninth was unrepresentative of his pace there. He delivered one of the year’s funniest one-liners in Texas, retorting to Chip Ganassi’s allegations he was the one to blame for triggering an eight-car pileup just past halfway with a simple, “that’s adorable.” And he somehow managed to pull off the save of the season at Pocono, crossed up at 200 mph in Turn 1 but keeping it out of the wall.

The Canadian tried to be the diplomatic good soldier at every opportunity and remained the consummate professional. But you could tell this was a driver frustrated with his situation – particularly as he entered the free agent market over the second half of the year and then watched a lot of open doors close in the process. His marketability remains second to none in this series but it’s a shame he hasn’t yet put together a proper title-contending year. Given his talent level, it’s surprising he’s never finished higher than eighth in points over seven total seasons and more than 100 starts. Paired together with longtime friend and countryman Wickens next year, hopes are high for a turnaround.