Matt Fraver, IndyCar

Schmidt Peterson earn Top-10 finishes with Hinchcliffe, Ericsson

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Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports placed both drivers in the top 10 during Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but while it was a confidence booster for one driver, it was a disappointment for the other.

If the box scores from practice were to be trusted, James Hinchcliffe should have charged to the lead in the opening laps at Barber Motorsports Park and stayed there to challenge for the win.

His best lap in Friday’s first practice was less than a tenth off leader Felix Rosenqvist’s pace. Then, Hinchcliffe got increasingly faster with chart-topping laps in Practice 2 and in Saturday’s Practice 3.

A small mistake cost Hinchcliffe a shot at the pole, allowing the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing duo of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal to leap frog him with Scott Dixon in tow. Hinchcliffe qualified fourth.

The first sign that he was losing some of his dominance came in Sunday morning warmup, when he posted the 14th-fastest lap.

Hinchliffe was able to take the lead a couple of times during pit stop sequences, but overall, the effort that landed him sixth at the finish was underwhelming in light of his practice speed.

“Obviously, with the pace we had all weekend, sixth is a bit of a disappointment, for sure,” he said after the race. “The Arrow car had a solid podium going there until that [Lap 58 caution] caught us off guard. We were all over (Scott) Dixon’s gearbox in that third stint. We were quite a bit quicker, just couldn’t get past. We were looking to make a move during that cycle, but that restart just threw us for a loop.

“We had a little bit too much understeer in the car in that last stint. We had a good long-run car, but we weren’t the quickest getting up to speed. I don’t think our out laps were great, and the first lap or so on the restart, we weren’t awesome. Certainly, a bit disappointed. I feel like we left a couple of positions out there today. It is what it is. The pace was good all weekend, and if we keep doing that, eventually our day will come.”

Hinchcliffe has started this season with two sixth-place finishes sandwiching a 16th-place result at Austin. Last season, he finished fourth (St. Petersburg), sixth (Phoenix) and ninth (Long Beach) in his first three races.

Finishing one position behind Hinchcliffe, teammate Marcus Ericsson could be much more pleased with his seventh-place result, however. Ericsson was the biggest gainer of the race, advancing 13 positions from his 20th-place spot on the grid.

Leaving Formula One at the end of last season after a 5-year run (best finish: eighth in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix), Ericsson expected to perform much better in IndyCar.

He ran well at St. Petersburg before a engine cooling issue forced him to retire a little past the halfway mark in 20th. The IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas did not go much better: He completed the race, but trouble in the pits relegated him to 15th at the end.

“I think, like St. Pete and COTA, we’ve shown how strong we are in the races,” Ericsson said Sunday. “Going from an obviously disappointing qualifying starting from P20 going all the way up to P7, I think that shows the potential we have and the whole package that we’ve got. So, I’m really, really happy with my race; we got the strategy perfect again like we have done the last couple of times, as well.

“It was really nice to finally get the result as well. We should’ve been in the top five at COTA without that penalty, and also in St. Pete, we were in for a top-eight finish. It’s so nice to finally bring it home and not get that bad luck to cause our problems like the last two rounds.”

But while Ericsson closed the deal, this also marked the first time in 2019 that the top-finishing rookie failed to crack the top five. Felix Rosenqvist was fourth at St Petersburg, with Colton Herta winning at COTA.

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Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

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“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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