Coors Side Seats: James Hinchcliffe
Not even two months into a long off-season, Canadian IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe can’t help but look forward to a promising 2018.
The 2017 season wasn’t one to remember for the Oakville, Ont., native. He scored one win and three podiums in 17 starts. He also had six DNFs, an average finish of 12.6 and finished 13th in the championship standings.
Despite the lacklustre results, there were two memorable races for the “Mayor of Hinchtown”: a win at Long Beach, a street circuit in California, and a third-place finish at the Indy Toronto, a street circuit on the grounds of the city’s Exhibition Place.
“Long Beach has been the site of a lot of firsts for me in my career,” said Hinchcliffe, “through the Atlantic [Championship] Series, Indy Lights series and IndyCar itself.”
The driver scored his first IndyCar podium and first IndyCar top-5 at the track. That’s also where he recorded his first win in the second-tier Indy Lights.
“To get a win there, it’s one of the hallmark events on our calendar…that one’s very special.”
The Long Beach victory was also Hinchcliffe’s first since his near-fatal accident during Indianapolis 500 practice in 2015.
“Proving to myself and the team and everybody that we can be back there meant a lot,” he said. “To get it done in the second race of the season was awesome because we went through 2016 winless. …That sat with us all winter. ...To go to Long Beach and seal the deal was huge.”
Hinchcliffe’s third-place finish in this year’s Indy Toronto was his second straight podium at his hometown track.
“[In 2016] I remember coming around the last corner on the last lap, going to be up on the podium, and I saw the whole grandstand in turn 11 stand up and start cheering,” he said. “Normally as a driver you don’t let yourself get distracted by anything…but, I let myself take a glance.
“It was just incredible. This city’s been behind me my entire career and I’ve always felt the love and support through the good years and the bad ones. To give them something to cheer for, especially at the race here in Toronto, was very, very special.”
Earlier this year, Hinchcliffe did a ride swap with fellow Canadian and longtime friend Robert Wickens. Hinchcliffe tried Wickens’ German Touring Car, while Wickens tried Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar.
Hinchcliffe said the swap started a domino effect towards the announcement in October from his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team that Wickens will drive the organization’s second IndyCar ride full-time in 2018.
“It wasn’t about me getting my buddy a ride,” said Hinchcliffe. “It was really about what driver is going to push me from a competitive point of view; which driver can push the engineers from a technical point of view. When we looked at all the guys available, Robby checked the most boxes.
“The fact that on top of that he’s one of my best friends for the last 15 years is beyond words. …We always kind of hoped that one day we’d race together, but we never thought same team.”
Wickens’ addition adds to the Canadian content already on the team. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is co-owned by Canadian Ric Peterson. There are also a couple of Canadian crew members on the team.
Hinchcliffe said he’s excited to get started with his new teammate.
“I’ll have some things to tell him but he’s a remarkable talent,” Hinchcliffe said. “He’s a very experienced guy. There’s only so much I can teach him and it’s only going to be in the first couple of hours.
“The big difference is going to be the ovals – it’s a new kind of discipline for him. Once we get to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for May, I’ll have a little bit more to share with him. But we have a lot of practice there…and I have no doubt that he’ll be right up to speed.”
Even though it’s the off-season, there’s still a lot to do. As one of Honda’s test teams, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is in the midst of testing the new body work for the 2018 cars.
As for the start of the 2018 season, it begins on March 11 in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Hinchcliffe back behind the wheel of the #5 Honda.
Hinchcliffe was at TSN in Toronto this week to promote the release of video game Forza Motorsport 7 and the Xbox One X console.
“The graphics in it, they look better than real life,” said Hinchcliffe. “I’ve been to a lot of these race tracks, I’ve driven some of these cars, and not only is the driving simulation incredible but the new level of graphics with the 4K – absolutely out of this world.”
To prepare for the race while away from the track, teams use driving simulators. Hinchcliffe says Forza Motorsport 7 is “almost as good, if not better, than some of the professional multi-million-dollar driver simulators.”
As for his best result in the game?
“C’mon, I’m a professional,” he said with a laugh. “Of course my best finish is first.”