IndyCar season review: James Hinchcliffe

IndyCar season review: James Hinchcliffe

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: James Hinchcliffe

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A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and?yes, some troubling incidents, too ” mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.

The fact that the ?500? winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number?so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett are counting down the dirty dozen. Today, it’s?


8th ” JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
Andretti Autosport Dallara-Chevrolet
Best finish ” 1st, St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo, Iowa
Best qualifying ” 2nd, Milwaukee

Marshall Pruett writes?


One of IndyCar’s best storylines of the 2013 season went to Canada’s James Hinchcliffe who, after showing incredible promise as a rookie with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011, and again as a sophomore with Andretti Autosport in 2012, fulfilled that potential this year. He pulled off the pass-for-the-win of the year at Brazil, beat the 0.875-mile Iowa like it owed him money and pounced on a mistake by Helio Castroneves to claim the season opener at St. Petersburg.

But two weeks after that St. Pete win, he was the first car out at Barber when the cartoon anvil fell and struck his car’s electrical system. Another early exit ” P26 again ” at Long Beach buried Hinch in the standings, but a win at Round 4 in Brazil served as a well-timed rebound. And so, after four races, he’d won twice and finished last twice. A bad Indy 500 (21st) and two bad rounds in Detroit (15th/19th) followed from Round 5 to Round 7, and then, with the Andretti team’s early season damping and setup superiority on full display, finishes of ninth, fifth and first came on the ovals before the first-lap crash at Pocono.

Hinch was more consistent for the remainder of the year, which helped him claim eighth in the standings ” exactly where he finished in 2012. Beyond the feel-good nature of his breakout season, the boom-or-bust dynamic is what stands out. So is Hinch’s inconsistency an indicator that he’s behind the curve after three years in the series, or is he being held to a higher standard than other drivers with a similar level of experience? Is he still learning on the job, in his third year?

In comparison to another third-termer, Charlie Kimball, you might say Hinch is right on schedule. The spoiler to that theory, however, is Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman also just completed his third full season of Indy car racing (2007 Champ Car, 2012-13 IndyCar Series), scored two wins and took third in the championship with the less-heralded Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team. To be fair, Pagenaud, 29, is a few years older and also spent his time between Champ Car and IndyCar honing his craft in sports car racing so he had/has less to learn than Hinch, yet had nothing like the technical resources or budget Andretti brought to the No. 27 car. So while you’d expect Pagenaud to be more consistent than Hinch, you wouldn’t think a small team like Schmidt Hamilton would regularly out-pace the driver in the GoDaddy car.

If he wasn’t winning, you weren’t always aware that Hinch was in the race, and as he readies for his fourth season of IndyCar racing, his biggest area of growth will be found on the stopwatch. Hinch’s teammates claimed five poles in 2013; he had zero. It’s unfair to expect James to be a match for his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay at this stage, but it is fair to say he should be closer to the American when they are running trouble free. Hinch can, on occasion, blitz the field, but he’s yet to figure out how to tap into that ability on a regular basis. Once he does, he’ll become a championship contender because he’s given a few tantalizing glimpses of his outright potential. With a fresh contract extension in hand, he has the time and security to spend his off-season looking for ways to raise his game, and of course he has a phenomenal engineer in Craig Hampson and a supportive team behind him. Where he places in the 2014 standings will come down to how far he pushes himself over the next few months.

Robin Miller writes?

Considering his formidable start, 2013 could have wound up a whole lot better than eighth in the final point standings for James Hinchcliffe. But, when you look at where he came from, this past season turned out to be a breakthrough in his career and confirmation that the Mayor of Hinchtown deserved to be in one of the best seats in IndyCar.

Three victories in the first 10 races showed Michael Andretti he’d made the right hire for the GoDaddy ride and it also made a self-believer out of the 27-year-old Canadian. Not that he didn’t have confidence after a splendid rookie run with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011, but being competitive and winning at this level are two distinctly different skills. And Hinch showed he had the chops to stand on the top step of the podium.

Getting around Helio Castroneves for his initial win at St. Pete was sweet because of the circumstances (beating a veteran like HCN) and a few weeks later in Brazil he used a nifty, last-corner pass of Takuma Sato on the last lap to earn win No. 2.

Still, his most impressive drive came at Iowa where he started second, led 226 of the 250 laps and moved to the high groove to fend off his challengers. Wisely paired with engineer Craig Hampson, Hinch continued to expand on the chemistry they developed at Newman/Haas and it showed as he qualified in the top 10 on 11 occasions ” equally stout on streets or ovals.

That’s why it could have been so much better, but a handful of mechanical gremlins and a couple crashes combined for four DNFs and some lengthy pit stops ” and that’s no way to challenge for a championship.

Of course if you consider Hinch had nothing but hope going into 2011 and then scored a sponsor and last-second seat at Newman/Haas, he’s come a long way in a short time.

Yes, he’s a great kid with a splendid personality and a natural in front of the camera who the fans adore. But he’s also a damn good little racer. Andretti didn’t scramble to replace GoDaddy with a new sponsor to keep Hinch on the payroll because of his winning smile. It’s because he’s a winner.

David Malsher writes?

He may have only finished eighth in the 2013 championship ” same as last year ” but James Hinchcliffe certainly surfed the Andretti Autosport wave that crashed over everyone in the first half of the season, scoring three truly excellent wins. He pressured Helio into a mistake in St. Petersburg and held him off to the end, while in Brazil, James provided a masterclass in tenacity, not allowing himself to be unnerved by Takuma Sato’s intimidatory blocking tactics. Instead, he just remorselessly applied pressure and, as in St. Pete, the leader cracked just a little, opened the door just a little, and that was enough for Hinch to grab win number two. And Iowa showed all Hinch’s qualities ” consistent pace, determination, bravery, incisiveness in traffic, patience, and flawlessness in pit lane too.

But what on earth happened between these trips to Victory Lane? At Barber and Long Beach he was eliminated on lap 1, at Indy he brushed the wall which seemed to sap his confidence, Detroit’s double-header yielded only 15th and 19th (although one of those was the result of being an innocent victim in a pile-up.) And even at Texas and Milwaukee, where he finished ninth and fifth, respectively, there was teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay putting him into context, taking second and first. Crashing out on the opening lap at Pocono, just two weeks after dominating Iowa, pretty much summed up Hinch’s season.

Thereafter, Ganassi’s mid-season turnaround and Penske’s gradual catch-up dampened the fireworks from Andretti Autosport. It’s reasonable to wonder, too, how much the debate regarding his future might have also been a distraction to James despite the fact that, as ever, he did a great job of appearing to take everything in his stride. The only time he looked truly agitated was at Houston, when his car died on the startline for the first race, and it was great that he was able to right a wrong the next day with a defiant drive to third.

No one would blame Hinchcliffe for all his incidents this year, but he needs to improve in qualifying on road and street courses in order not to be in potential trouble zones in the early laps of a race. He was regularly three-tenths of a second slower than Hunter-Reay on flying laps for the majority of this year, and that made a huge difference in grid position, especially once AA had slipped from its position of prominence. However, Hinch already possesses the other talents necessary to be a regular winner on all types of circuit so appears to have a bright future ahead of him.

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