Sam Schmidt confirmed that James Hinchcliffe remains under contract to Arrow McLaren Racing SP but will not be driving for the team in 2020. He also said the popular 31-year-old driver from Canada is free to negotiate a deal with another team in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Schmidt, who merged his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team with McLaren with the new operation beginning competition next season, also said Robert Wickens remains part of the team as a “driver coach and consultant.” Wickens continues to recover from spinal injuries that have left him with partial use of his legs but continues to make impressive progress in his recovery and rehabilitation.
Schmidt also said Arrow McLaren Racing SP plans to enter a third car in next year’s Indianapolis 500, but there is no agreement or plan in place at this time for two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso to be in that car.
“It certainly remains an option, but nothing’s been confirmed,” Schmidt said Wednesday. “We absolutely have had a history of 12 years of running a third car at Indy and still plan to do that and Fernando remains an option but nothing’s confirmed.”
Should Wickens ever fully recover to resume racing, Schmidt said the No. 6 Chevrolet will be available to him to race.
“I think Robert continues to inspire and motivate and just amaze everybody on a daily basis,” Schmidt said. “Because he’s continuing the program, he’s continuing to improve, he is a part of the team as a driver coaching consultant and will continue.
“And I think that’s one of the major assets we have that Oliver Askew was talking about in that he will be there at a majority of the races next year assisting these young guys to get acclimated as quick as they can.
“So he’s part of the team, but also he’s got a major focus on his rehabilitation and he’s hell bent on driving again and I wouldn’t bet against him.”
While that prospect remains a long way into the future, Hinchcliffe has lost his ride. It was officially announced on Wednesday Arrow McLaren Racing SP that 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Mexico and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida would be the team’s drivers in 2020.
“I think Ric (Peterson, one of the owners of the race team) and I would say that this is one of the toughest decisions we have had to make since we have been team owners, because I personally have known James, Jeremy, Arlene, his brother Chris for 11 years and love him,” Schmidt responded to a question posed to him by NBC Sports.com. “And I really appreciate what he’s done for the team, tremendous, tremendous investor in the sport and our brand and everything else.
“I’s a gut wrenching decision, but we were faced with an opportunity to pick up these two young guns coming out of Indy Lights that already have 13-, 14-, 15-years’ worth of experience and it was just an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
“Everything’s amicable, I have all the faith in the world that James is going to wind up in a full-time ride and Ric and I are fully supportive of that. It’s just a competitive environment and for our partners and everything else that we’re — everybody, it was a group decision, we got an opportunity in front of us, we got to take it, we want to go win races.”
In theory, Hinchcliffe could sit back for a year and collect his paycheck from the team, but Schmidt doesn’t believe that will happen.
“What’s to stop him is the race driver within him,” Schmidt said. “I think as Gil de Ferran (McLaren Sporting Director), myself, anybody else on the line that’s a driver, you want to drive, you want to prove, you want to win the Indy 500, you still got boxes to check.
“I have no doubt that he and his team are burning up the phone lines and talking with everybody out there, in any series but primarily Indy Car. He’s still young, he still wants to win races, so I think that’s what’s to stop him from doing it.
“Certainly, it’s his option, but I don’t think you’ll see him do that.”
NBC Sports.com reported on Tuesday that NTT IndyCar Series team owners Bobby Rahal and Dale Coyne are both interested in talking to Hinchcliffe about the possibility of expanding their current and respective teams. However, both team owners said at this late stage of the offseason, it will be very difficult to get everything in place with sponsorship, team personnel and equipment to expand from their current two-car teams.