INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is an NTT IndyCar Series veteran now. He’s made over 100 starts in the series and has reached victory lane six times in the process. He’s earned that distinction. Included in his feats over the years is a win in the 2017 race at Long Beach as well as earning the pole for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
Hinchcliffe, 32, though has found a good home for himself at Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. See, he’s been with the big teams before – spending three years with Andretti Autosport from 2012 through 2014. Despite winning three times in a single season in 2013, his best overall years have come since he’s been with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
James Hinchcliffe leads Sebastien Bourdais in the 2018 Grand Prix of Long Beach – INDYCAR Media Site
The thing is, SPM isn’t part of the quote on quote “Big 3” teams. Andretti Autosport, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have combined to win the last 16 IndyCar Series championships and 12 of the last 14 Indianapolis 500’s as well. Since 2016, they’ve also combined to win 41 of the last 53 races.
So, in terms of winning a championship or even an Indy 500, your best shot to do so is with one of those top three teams.
“You’ve got to remember, Andretti’s (Autosport) been winning championships the last 15 years, Ganassi 30 and Penske 50,” said Hinchcliffe in an exclusive interview with us on Prime Sports IndyCar. “So, our team only started back in 2012. We’re still the new kids on the block in a lot of ways and so you look at how consistently we’re able to run up front at that stage, it speaks volumes.
But, Hinchcliffe has caught SPM at a good time. The organization is on the rise and on the brink of making it the “Big 4.” Really, if you thrive at a team like SPM, you use that as a stepping stone to land with Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. Simon Pagenaud did that with earned him a ride with Penske. He won a championship in his second year with their organization.
Hinchcliffe, is doing it backwards and so far, it’s looking like it’s paying off. That’s why he sees Arrow SPM as not a stepping stone anymore, but a place he’d like to finish his career off at.
“I think that’s definitely the direction that we’re headed,” Hinchcliffe continued. “That’s been the goal of the team the last few seasons. Really between ’17 and ’18 we sat down and laid out some goals for the team and how to achieve that.
“We’re really making moves to make it going from the Big 3 to the Big 4 and for me it’s been such a cool thing to be part of that transition and part of that growth. I would love nothing more to bring home a championship for Arrow SPM and see my career out here. I very much believe that this could be a destination type team.”
Where as Hinchcliffe said earlier that Penske, Ganassi and Andretti have been competing at Indy Car’s highest level for decades, SPM has only been at it full time since 2011. This is just their ninth season at competing for a championship.
So, forgive them if they don’t have the equipment, experience or the budgets to compare themselves to the “Big 3.” Despite that, Hinchcliffe has been among the best non “Big 3” drivers in the series over the last few years and so far out of the gates in 2019, he’s their top threat at this year’s championship.
5 Years With SPM, 4 Different Teammates In Team Car
What makes this even more remarkable is that Hinchcliffe is on his seventh different teammate in team car in the last five years.
With so much change, Hinchcliffe is well on his way to keeping Rosetta Stone in business.
In fact, among the seven different teammates he’s had since 2015, five of them hail from different countries.
In 2015, he had James Jakes (England) as a teammate. In 2016, he had Mikhail Aleshin (Russia). In 2017, it was Aleshin again but Jack Harvey (England) and Sebastian Saavedra (Colombia) replaced Aleshin in the final few races. Last year was his good friend Robert Wickens (Canada). Unfortunately, Wickens was seriously injured at Pocono and Carlos Munoz (Colombia) stepped in over the final two races as his replacement.
James Hinchcliffe chats with his rookie teammate with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Marcus Ericsson at COTA – INDYCAR Media Site
This year, he has rookie Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) in the second car.
That’s a lot of change and not a lot of time to gel with the second teammate. Plus, it’s not like his teammates have a big array of Indy Car experience to bring with them. That always brings challenge to overcome it. Ericsson, brings in no IndyCar experience. Yes, he’s talented, but he’s never seen any of these tracks before, let alone been in an Indy Car prior to January.
Wickens last year had no experience other than a practice day at Road America in 2017 either. Aleshin in 2015 and 2016 had the best help but he didn’t pan out.
Now it’s back to square one, again. With a new car in 2018, you need all the data you can. Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing said that they didn’t want to add a second car just to add one, as they didn’t want to take any resources away from Graham Rahal’s car. It worked in a sense that it brought them back to relevance again, but they hit the proverbial wall when Rahal had to do all the setups and data due to not having a team car at his disposal. He could only do as much as he could and they plateaued out as a top five or six car but couldn’t close the gap.
They needed a teammate. They brought back a second team and hired a veteran in Takuma Sato. SPM, has a second car, but rookie teammates each year.
“I think it bodes very well,” said Hinchcliffe that despite another new teammate that they’ve been fast out of the gates. “It’s been an unfortunate game of musical chairs next to me at Arrow Schmidt Peterson the last few seasons. Marcus (Ericsson) comes to us with a lot of experience. He’s no rookie even though he’s new to IndyCar. His past experience is paying dividends. His race pace has been incredible. All three races so far, he hasn’t had the best of luck in qualifying but he’s probably passed more cars than anyone in the series. Having a good quick guy in the second car definitely brings the whole team forward.”
The other thing is, that it’s hard to find a teammate that could be as successful as Hinchcliffe. He’s raised the bar at SPM. Since he joined the organization in 2015, the Toronto native has won a race in three of his four years there. Prior to that, Pagenaud won for them in 2013 and again in 2014 but the organization had zero prior victories before Pagenaud.
Hinchcliffe owns three of teams’ seven career series win. He’s had eight top fives over the last two years alone. Wickens, elevated Hinchcliffe’s game last year to new levels. That’s what good teammates do to one another. They challenge each other as well as help find the right amount of speed in each other too.
With so much change, it’s hard to adapt each year when your teammate is new and inexperienced.
So far, it hasn’t hurt Hinchcliffe unless they can find continuity and he raise his game even further again.
I mean look at last year as a prime example. He had five top 10 finishes in the first five races of the season and nine in the first 12. If he doesn’t miss the Indy 500, he’s likely contending for the title as the calendar turned to August.
It’s looking that way again in 2019. Hinchcliffe, finished sixth in two of the three races this year and has had the speed to hang with the “Big 3.” Plus, we’re three races into the season and have had three different winners driving for three different teams. Parity is still high in this sport.
That’s good for a team like SPM too.
“It should have been three in-a-row (top six finishes),” said Hinchcliffe on his season thus far. “We got caught up with Felix (Rosenqvist) there in COTA after qualifying 15th and having a really good race going getting ourselves up to seventh before the accident. We would have three solid top 10’s this year and we’ve really had nothing going our way to be honest. If we just have a little bit of luck or at least not bad luck in races, I think we’re really putting ourselves in a good position. If the team keeps performing like this and we keep rolling off with good cars then our day is going to come.”
Hinchcliffe said that while winning the Indy 500 is the ultimate goal for any race car driver, he’d rather have a season championship if he had to choose between the two. He said winning at Indy is about skill and luck for one day, whereas winning a championship is about the skill, determination and luck for an entire year.
“Yeah no doubt,” said Hinchcliffe on if being in Year 9 that it’s all about a championship now. “That’s obviously the goal we head to St. Pete. We know we have 17 races ahead of us and we want to be the ones standing on top at the end.
“The NTT IndyCar Series is more competitive now than it’s ever been. It’s the hardest time in the history of our sport to win a championship. So yeah, obviously you’re going to be disappointed to wrap up your career without a championship, but at the same time you can be proud of the work that you’ve done as long as you feel the execution of the group is satisfied.
“There’s so many things outside of your control that can affect your outcome. From someone running into you on track, to a spec part breaking to an ill-timed caution, those things can affect a championship. It could have no reflection on how you performed as a group.
“I don’t think we’ve had a season yet where we’ve executed perfectly which means we haven’t deserved a championship yet. I do believe in the people that we have on the team and the direction that we’re going.”
There’s been rumors in the past that Hinchcliffe could end up in NASCAR. He’s made it perfectly clear that he’d love to race a stock car on one of their road courses. See, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. But, it’s not NASCAR’s highest level that has Hinchcliffe’s interest high, it’s where the XFINITY Series races.
The series has a four week stretch in August where they visit three road courses. Among them, are all tracks he’s raced at in IndyCar.
He has experience at Watkins Glen. He’s also raced at Mid-Ohio and Road America too. All would be great chances for him to get into a stock car and show what he can do.
He confirmed that on Monday afternoon to us.
“Yeah for sure. I’m a driver man. If it has four wheels and an engine lets go. Obviously, growing up in Toronto, and going to the IndyCar races as a kid, my dream and my goal was always IndyCar but I’ve done some sports car racing, some touring car racing and I would love an opportunity to do some stock car racing. We’ve tried a couple of times just to get a package together to do one of the XFINITY Series road course races or something like that and it’s something that still very much in the cards that I can see myself doing in the not so distant future. Any opportunity to be behind the wheel, I’d be all for it.
“I think it would be a part time thing for fun just to see what it feels like. I’m over here in open wheel and I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The IndyCar Seires just offers more to the drivers than any other place on earth. That was obviously the goal and I’m going to live out my days in one of these things. But, any off weekend, lets go and fire it up.”
The only conflict he’d have it at Road America as he’s also in Gateway that race weekend, but the other two races are off weekend’s in Indy Car.