Finding a new full-time home next season in the NTT IndyCar Series will prove challenging for James Hinchcliffe.
The story might be different for the Canadian star, who was blindsided by Arrow McLaren SP’s change of employment plans Sunday night, if the team’s decision had been made at the start of IndyCar’s long off-season. Based on how the scenario unfolded, however, it wasn’t an anticipated part of AMSP’s most recent driver strategy.
With deep ties to Honda Canada and American Honda, whose engines have been replaced by AMSP in favor of Chevrolets, a few Honda-powered teams in the paddock held options for the 32-year-old to explore in the days following the September 22 championship finale in Monterey. More than a month later, almost every Honda door has been closed. Only money – large sums of it – will change that reality.
Honda’s Chip Ganassi Racing was in the final stages of negotiations for its third car over the Monterey weekend. It ultimately went to Hinchcliffe’s Arrow SPM teammate Marcus Ericsson in early October. The second seat at Dale Coyne Racing was also open as Santino Ferrucci, who starred for the outfit as a rookie in 2019, met with a number of DCR’s rivals while considering new pastures. Facing fresh competition for the Coyne ride, he’s expected to sign a new contract with haste.
Elsewhere in Honda’s camp, Andretti Autosport is full and Michael Shank Racing has no plans to expand beyond its one-car program for Jack Harvey, whose grip on the seat is watertight due to both his pace and his AutoNation backing. It leaves Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as the only team with a stated intent to create a new entry. Unfortunately, the need to deliver upwards of $6 million to fund the ride appears to be more than double the sum the Canadian’s loyal backers are able to provide.
Barring an infusion of cash from new sponsors, or one of the aforementioned Honda-powered teams taking it upon themselves to meet Hinchcliffe halfway on funding and put a new car in motion, the pathways to full-time seats are hard to find. In order for the wildly popular driver to embark upon his 10th season in IndyCar, extraordinary changes to his present situation will be necessary.
Sadly, this outcome for Hinchcliffe has also been subject to varying degrees of inevitability.
When the formation of AMSP and its move from Honda to Chevy was announced in early August, questions regarding the team’s intent to keep Hinchcliffe for the third and final year on his contract immediately surfaced when his name was oddly absent from the press release.
Despite his five-year tenure with the team, a new lead driver was sought in Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta, who opted to stay with HSR as part of a merger with Andretti Autosport.
Behind the scenes, Hinchcliffe quietly searched for ways to remain within Honda’s stable. In addition to efforts of his own, Honda Performance Development is said to have pursued Hinchcliffe’s release from AMSP in exchange for a reduced buyout figure from its engine supply contract that ran through 2020.
Obviously, those talks, which carried into Monterey, did not result in a positive outcome.
In the post-Monterey plans that were forged, Hinchcliffe would be the team’s veteran while new Indy Lights champion, 22-year-old Floridian Oliver Askew, played the role of rookie and understudy to the six-time race winner. Assured of his place, the stage for Hinchcliffe and Askew was set for 2020.
Sticking with AMSP appeared to be Hinchcliffe’s best short-term option, and with a few high-profile drivers reaching the end of their contracts entering 2021, Hinchcliffe and AMSP had what felt like a marriage of convenience with an amicable divorce penciled on the calendar after next year’s season finale.
And then Patricio O’Ward, the 2018 Indy Lights champion coveted by McLaren, became a free agent.
Having beaten Herta to the Lights title, the Mexican’s newfound freedom from his Red Bull Junior Driver contract gave AMSP exactly what it was looking for with Herta over the summer. In recent weeks, it wasn’t clear whether O’Ward, who completed seven IndyCar rounds with Carlin Racing, would slot into Askew’s seat, or whether he’d displace Hinchcliffe. From the outside, it was feared Askew would be sacrificed.
Despite O’Ward’s emergence, Hinchcliffe and AMSP continued working towards the future where, in a matter of days, he was meant to drive the No. 5 AMSP entry fitted with its new Chevy powerplant.
As we now know, the 20-year-old O’Ward has been chosen to complete the team’s driver rotation while its former driver has AMSP’s blessing to either step aside and receive a paycheck, or forfeit the income and leave.
There are, of course, some Chevy-powered teams that would welcome a driver of Hinchcliffe’s caliber, but their lack of competitiveness, lack of full-time opportunities, or need for money, which would no longer be available from Honda, is far from optimal.
Combined, it means the series, its Canadian fans, and the promoter of the Honda Indy Toronto event, in particular, are anxious to learn if and where he might appear next year.
Should Hinchcliffe have seen the writing on the wall? Possibly. But somewhere within the AMSP organization, the seeds of continuity, highlighted by next week’s test, were recently planted within its star driver who never expected Sunday night’s call to be received. In the end, the press release from August that omitted Hinchcliffe’s name was rather prophetic.
Always a class act, the crestfallen Mayor of Hinchtown has chosen to remain silent in the wake of this perplexing outcome. Whether it’s painted as a messy screw job among his loyal supporters, or a wise maneuver by AMSP from his detractors, the result is the same: James Hinchcliffe is out of a drive.
In whatever form it might be, IndyCar, its broadcast partners in Canada, and the Mayor have a few months to find solutions to the significant issue on their hands. Know this: the folks at 16th and Georgetown do not want to deal with the ramifications of his loss from the IndyCar grid.