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Hinchcliffe could see Indy season derailed by engine issues

The Canadian Press

7/19/2012 2:35:14 PM

EDMONTON - For 10 races, James Hinchcliffe's engine drove his car. With five races to go, he is trying to avoid the engine driving him.

The 25-year-old from Oakville, Ont., is on his fifth and final Chevrolet engine heading into Sunday's Edmonton Indy.

If this one blows, he'll get a penalty, fall 10 places in the starting grid, and get a rebuilt engine as a replacement.

For each subsequent blown engine it's another 10-spot penalty.

If that happens, he can kiss goodbye any chance of leapfrogging four opponents, including series leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, to reach the top of the driver standings.

Hinchcliffe said for now the engine is not dictating race strategy because his crew is still trying to salvage another motor that went south two weeks ago at the Toronto Indy.

"When we establish whether or not this engine from Toronto is salvageable, then that might have an effect going forward for future races," Hinchcliffe said Thursday.

"But for right now, we're on full attack mode.

"If not, I can't do the entire rest of the season on one engine, so I would have to take a penalty at some point."

Hinchcliffe's problems with his 2.2-litre turbocharged V6 powerplant mirror his season — a fantastic start, but a season now starting to hit the ditch.

Replacing Danica Patrick in the neon lime-coloured GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport, Hinchcliffe had a storybook first three months.

He consistently finished in the top six except for a freak crash in Belle Isle, Mich., when a piece of the track dislodged into his undercarriage, sending his Dallara into the wall.

He was second overall in the standings after the Milwaukee race on June 16th, but since then has —literally and figuratively — hit the skids.

At the oval track at Iowa on June 23rd, he started fourth but spun into the wall late in the race and finished 17th.

Engine-wise he was still doing fine, with one in the car and two in reserve.

But that all came apart in Toronto.

The third engine had problems in practice, forcing his engineers to go to the fourth powerplant.

Under the rules, the engines can't be swapped out without penalty until after 1,850 miles. The engine had not reached that limit, so Hinchcliffe incurred the 10-spot grid penalty and started 19th.

The fourth engine was good for the first third of the Toronto race, then mysteriously began bleeding horsepower. He finished 22nd.

"It all deteriorated very quickly," Hinchcliffe said.

"There's no way we could have finished that race in Toronto. It was losing power. It was getting progressively worse."

He said because it was an in-race problem with the engine he won't be penalized 10 spots on the grid in Edmonton for swapping it out.

As for the ailing engine, he said he's got his fingers crossed it can be saved.

"It's a brand new motor. We only had 100 miles on it."

The engine strategy was introduced by IndyCar this year to help control costs, bring parity and introduce a new element of strategy.

Teams are using powerplants from Lotus, Chevrolet, and Honda.

Hinchcliffe is not alone. The engines are beginning to dictate the fortunes of other drivers, particularly Scott Dixon.

The 31-year old New Zealander with Target Chip Ganassi is having the kind of year that should translate into a championship. He sits fourth, 54 points behind Hunter-Reay with a car that is competitive week in and week out.

Dixon won at Belle Isle., has finished second three times, held the lead in seven out of 10 races and is No. 1 in IndyCar this year with a total of 405 laps out front.

He's done all this despite a blown instant replay call that penalized him on a restart and cost him a potential podium finish at Milwaukee.

Dixon, however, needs to make up points and will have to do so starting no better than 11th in the 25-car field at Edmonton.

He used up the last of his five Honda engines at Toronto and is now on his sixth, incurring the 10-spot penalty.

Will Power is second to Hunter-Reay and sits just 34 points back, with 50 points going to the driver who takes the checkered flag.

The Australian Team Penske driver said the engine factor will grow as the season winds down after Edmonton, with road courses at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore before a wide-open 500-mile race on the two-mile oval at Fontana, Calif., east of Los Angeles.

Power said a 10-spot grid penalty can be made up on wider courses like Edmonton — with its long straightaways and tight braking zones — and on the oval at Fontana, but not so easily on the tighter road courses.

"If you get engine penalties at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, or Baltimore, a 10-grid spot penalty there is way harsher," Power said.

"All those strategies will play in. You get a 10-spot grid penalty at the wrong track and you're in trouble."

Hunter-Reay is in good shape with one engine in the car and two spares.

Power and Helio Castroneves (sitting third at 46 points back) have some breathing room, with each having one engine in the car and one to spare.

Simona De Silvestro is on her sixth Lotus engine and will take a 10-spot grid penalty in Edmonton.

IndyCar brought in the three manufacturers this year, replacing the Honda 3.5-litre V8 that had been used exclusively from 2006-2011.

Chevy leads the manufacturer points competition 81 to 69 over Honda, with Lotus third at 40. Seven of the 10 race winners this season have used Chevy engines versus three for Honda.

It's been a tough year for Lotus. Four of five teams using its engines switched to a rival over performance issues.

De Silvestro says recent improvements have closed the 2.5 per cent horsepower gap between Lotus and the others, but said the engine is not there yet.

Hinchcliffe said while the engine problems can be frustrating, it's good for the sport.

"Everybody has had to serve a (grid) penalty at some point or another throughout the season, but the racing's been great and the competition between manufacturers is fantastic," he said.

"It's just an occupational hazard."