INDIANAPOLIS – Following Thursday’s announcement that Dale Coyne Racing has partnered with a new team, and that Alex Palou will drive that car, there’s a very real chance now that James Hinchcliffe won’t be a full time NTT IndyCar Series driver in 2020.
That’s a shame. For a series that’s showing a massive growth in terms of every metric, the loss of Hinchcliffe on the grid for each and every race will have an impact.
See, DCR was his last real opportunity of making this happen. There’s now just four seats left at the moment now – two at Carlin and two with Foyt. Both rides are with Chevrolet teams too. Hinchcliffe, is trying to be a Honda driver still and remain as a spokesperson for them.
Part of the awkward fall out with Arrow McLaren SP was that they were switching from Honda power to Chevrolet. Hinchcliffe, had a year left on his contract with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as well as an existing contract with Honda. Something had to give.
McLaren, wasn’t fond of keeping Hinchliffe and it appeared that his relationship with the sponsor (Arrow) was rocky at best. So, instead of announcing a departure in August, both sides said that they’d remain together, even with the manufacturer switch.
That’s where this whole problem began. It was awkward. Rumor was Hinchcliffe was in a lame duck status and likely not going to be brought back for 2021 anyways. The deeper thinking was, neither side wanted to be in breach of contract for saying the wrong thing, so the right thing was to say that they’ll stay together, at least on the surface, with behind the scenes, a buyout was supposed to be being discussed.
Unfortunately, Schmidt said Hinchcliffe had a seat and Hinchcliffe said he’d remain. That’s all that they’d say even though most heard otherwise without much action behind scenes.
Fast forward to the Fall, Arrow McLaren SP announced that they would part ways with Hinchcliffe and sign two rookie drivers (Pato O’Ward/Oliver Askew) to drive the two car outfit.
Shocker, I know. This could have been done much earlier to help Hinchcliffe out in terms of a new ride.
How bad was the situation?
Hinchcliffe, would remain on the payroll as the team is going to honor their end of the bargain for 2020, but he won’t drive. Yes, Arrow McLaren SP is paying Hinchcliffe to basically stay away from the track in one of their cars. Also, part of the deal is Hinchcliffe is supposed to take part in sponsorship obligations during race weekends, but can’t drive.
That doesn’t seem right to treat the series’ most popular driver from 2018 nor the guy that took the team to three of their seven trips to victory lane including the prestigious Long Beach Grand Prix.
Hinchcliffe, is arguably the most popular driver in the series. He was the face of the organization. He propelled them to the limelight and now that they find a partner and a new manufacturer, he’s paid to not race.
But, if Hinchcliffe could find another ride, they’d mutually part ways and the contract would be void. The problem was, by time the announcement was made, not much was left. That’s why this announcement could have been made in August or September. We all knew that they wouldn’t remain together in a racing role for 2020.
Hinchcliffe, now wanted to remain loyal to Honda even if he turned his back on them at the start of this process. Honda, would have loved to have Hinchliffe as an ambassador still but the rides on their end were drying up by time the official announcement came.
Andretti had already partnered with Harding and kept the entire team intact with Colon Herta as the driver. They’d just be a fifth Andretti car now. In turn, the wheels were in motion for a new alliance with Meyer Shank Racing and MSR had a driver already in Jack Harvey.
Chip Ganassi Racing had already expanded to third car and signed Hinchcliffe’s 2019 teammate with SPM in Marcus Ericsson as a result. Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing had both of their drivers signed up again for 2020 and needed big funding to expand to a third car themselves.
Dale Coyne Racing was going to try to sign Santino Ferrucci again for a second go around. That virtually left nothing. Then, he got a gift by Sebastien Bourdais being let go by DCR. Hinchcliffe, had a new ride to pursue and naturally he did. But, with Palou getting signed, it pretty much means any shot at Hinchcliffe being a full time driver is over.
Granted, he could maybe end up at Carlin or Foyt, but he would have to bring funding to do so. Hinchcliffe, doesn’t have a lot of funding and if he would need some for the two organizations left with rides, Honda can’t be part of the funding since those seats are Chevrolet opportunities, the same Chevy engine that is with Arrow McLaren SP.
It’s a sad state of the times in racing now. Hinchcliffe is popular. He’s a marketers dream. He’s a very good race car driver with a ton of talent. He won the pole for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He’s won the Long Beach Grand Prix. He’s won for Andretti and Schmidt but now due to finances, he has no ride.