At various times over the past few months, people have asked for my take on James Hinchcliffe’s Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The answer I usually give goes something like this: Canada’s only full-time driver has been qualifying quite well (average start, 7.2) and has strong runs in many of the races, but so far has been unable to put it all together when it really matters: at the end. This is in stark contrast to his 2013 season, where things often seemed to go his way: three wins, three top fives and five top 10s.
When they ask why that hasn’t been the case in 2014 (no wins, no podiums and just two top fives in the first 14 races), I pause and usually say I don’t know.
And honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know how a driver who is among the leaders in average starting position doesn’t have the average finishing position (13.07) to match.
With that said, not everything has stayed the same since the end of 2013.
One change that may be having a big impact on results occurred on the engineering side. Hinchcliffe’s 2013 lead engineer, Craig Hampson was reassigned to an oversight role within Andretti Autosport and Nathan O’Rourke, late of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was hired to replace him. Landing O’Rourke, a young, well-regarded engineer was considered to be an impressive hire. Given how important the driver-engineer relationship is in racing, it could take some time for a new pairing to produce good results.
Switching engine suppliers might also be playing a role. After spending the past two seasons campaigning Chevrolets, Hinchcliffe’s Andretti Autosport team switched to Honda power for 2014.
One could point to that as being a significant differentiator, not only because of the manufacturer change, but also because Honda’s in-house engine builder Honda Performance Development is being mandated to use a twin-turbocharged V6 to comply with IndyCar rule changes, after running a single turbo motor for the previous two seasons.
Teething problems are often the norm with a new engine and they have already bitten Andretti Autosport. Blown engines have ended races for two of Hinchcliffe’s teammates since the end of May. Marco Andretti suffered failures at Texas and Iowa, while Ryan Hunter-Reay had engine-related problems in the first Detroit race and again at Texas. Heading into Mid-Ohio, Hinchcliffe had yet to experience any of these problems.
Despite avoided the engine issues to date, he’s been unlucky in other respects. Flying debris resulted in a concussion at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May, and two weeks later he was caught out in a late-race turn one incident in the Indianapolis 500. He finished 28th.
Is it as simple as having to weather a run of bad luck? Perhaps.
Since then, however, Hinchcliffe’s results have begun to match his strength in qualifying.
In the nine races since, he’s logged five top 10s and has finished each one. The first race at Houston in late June was particularly encouraging. Despite being a rain-soaked affair, Hinchcliffe qualified well (fifth), finished well and earned two bonus points for leading the most laps. Race two didn’t go as well (14th), and things weren’t much better at Pocono (12th) a week later, but he at least finished both.
When he last spoke to this writer in mid-July, he expressed frustration regarding his qualifying effort at Iowa (14th), but he seemed pleased with how things played out in the race, finishing sixth.
Next up were home races in Toronto. With the exception of the Indy 500, no other victory would mean as much to Hinchcliffe as one earned at Exhibition Place.
However, the combination of raised expectations, intense media scrutiny and the pressure, both from within and without, have produced mostly sub-par results. Hinchcliffe’s career best IndyCar finish in Toronto was eighth before this year’s doubleheader and it was afterwards as well.
Rain played havoc with the schedule, forcing both races to be run on Sunday, which is hardly an optimal situation for anyone concerned, drivers especially. Despite the unusual circumstances, Hinchcliffe ran a smart race in round one and equalled his career best finish (eighth), the same spot he started from.
Things didn’t go nearly as well in race two. Starting 13th, Hinchcliffe managed to get away clean from a standing start, and gained several positions before clipping Juan Montoya’s immobilized car in turn 3 on lap 12. The contact sent the no. 27 into the tire barrier and by the time he got going he was four laps down. He went on to finish 18th.
“I’m pleased with a top 10 in Race One, but we knew we had some room to improve the car, it was a bit of a handful. We took a swing at it and (the car) was so good at the start of Race Two. We were picking off guys and just got caught out on the wet concrete there when (Juan) Montoya crashed. It’s just one of those things,” he said afterwards.
And so it goes for Hinchcliffe in 2014. Another race weekend where the results bely the quality of both team and driver.
So, what now with four races left in a season gone awry?
Well, at 12th in the drivers’ standings, reasonable hopes he may have had for winning the championship are long gone, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have an impact on the outcome.
Ironically, his best opportunities for victory might come on the two remaining ovals, both of which he’s looked comfortable on in the past. He's logged top five finishes at both Milwaukee and Fontana and could be in the mix for the win at one or both this year.
While it hasn’t been the year he would have hoped for, Hinchcliffe can still change the narrative of his season with a few good results down the stretch. Doing so would go a long way to proving to everyone, himself especially, that the success he achieved in 2013 wasn’t simply the result of good fortune.