Hinchcliffe Is The Right Fit With Andretti
What had been speculated for weeks finally became completely official on Wednesday, when Andretti Autosport announced that James Hinchcliffe would be the driver of the No.27 Go-Daddy car. This was the car originally slated for Dan Wheldon, who signed to drive the car on the morning of October 16 and then lost his life that afternoon.
When Newman/Haas announced on December 1 that they would not field entries in the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2012; speculation for the Go-Daddy ride immediately centered on Hinchcliffe. He drove the No.06 Newman/Hass car sponsored by Sprott to finish twelfth in the 2011 standings, which was good enough to win Rookie of the Year despite not competing in the first race of the season at St. Petersburg.
The funny and personable Canadian just turned twenty-five a month ago. For the most part, he fit the profile that Go-Daddy was seeking – except he may be a bit too respectful. By that, I mean that Hinchcliffe can show a keen sense of humor, but he also knows when to keep it under wraps. In other words – he isn’t snarky. But comedic talents are not what got Hinch hired at Andretti Autosport. Instead, it’s what he can do in the cockpit of a racecar.
The “Mayor of Hinchtown”, as he is called, came up through the ranks in an impressive style. He drove for Canada in A1GP for two years in 2006 and 2007, while also driving in the Atlantics series. In 2007 and 2008, Hinch came in fourth both years in the Atlantics standing. The next two seasons were spent in Firestone Indy Lights, where he finished fifth and second respectively before moving up to the IZOD IndyCar Series with Newman/Haas for 2011. Much was expected for Hinchcliffe at Newman/Haas for 2012 before they shut their doors. Now that he has a major sponsor with a team that won three races last season, even more is expected of him.
Not only is this a good move for Hinchcliffe, it’s an even better move for Andretti Autosport. When Michael Andretti bought Team Green and moved from CART to the Indy Racing League for the 2003 season, the drivers at the beginning of that season were himself (age 40), Tony Kanaan (age 28) and Dario Franchitti (age 29). As the season went on, Michael retired after the Indianapolis 500 (although he drove in two more 500’s in 2006 & 2007), Franchitti was injured and eventually replaced by Bryan Herta (age 33) and Dan Wheldon (age 24) joined the team. There was a healthy mixture of youth and experience.
As time moved forward at Michael Andretti’s team, three championships and two Indianapolis 500’s were won, but drivers left and the chemistry changed. The last holdover from the glory days was Tony Kanaan, who parted ways with the team following the 2010 season. In that time, they added drivers with varying degrees of success. Danica Patrick drove for five years and produced one win, Hideki Mutoh drove for two years with no wins and Mike Conway drove last year and won a race. Current drivers include Marco Andretti (age 24), who is entering his seventh season with his father’s team with two wins to his credit and Ryan Hunter-Reay (age 31) is about to begin his third year at AA and has also won two races.
After a few years of turmoil that just happened to coincide with the presence of Danica Patrick, Andretti Autosport seems positioned to reassume their status as one of the elite teams in the series. They have completely turned over the driver roster in the last few years. They are now back to a blend of experience and youth – similar to what they had at the end of the 2003 season.
I still believe that the Chevrolet engine will be the engine of choice in the early going, even though I’m personally a fan of Honda. I just think the recent experience of Ilmor as the engine builder will be the difference early on. There is a little bit of trivia that can’t go unnoticed – the last time that Michael Andretti had the Chevy bow-tie on his car, it produced his only championship season as a driver way back in 1991.
Reportedly, James Hinchcliffe worked very well with his veteran teammate, Oriol Servia, at Newman/Haas. In fact, he has a history of being a consummate professional despite his humorous persona. Michael Andretti says there is a 60-70% chance that his team would field a fourth car if funding can be available. Personally, I would like to think that Servia might be considered for that seat, but I’ve heard no reports that suggest that is even a possibility.
Hinchcliffe had seven top-ten finishes in sixteen races last season, three of those being fourth-place finishes. There were the usual rookie mistakes, but he finished the season strong. He still needs a little seasoning, but he will have experienced teammates that both won races last season that he can learn from.
Hinch displayed his humor on an introductory conference call on Wednesday when he said that going to a new team this season gives him a chance to be a rookie again. He may be a newcomer with his new team, but his rookie year is way behind him. I look for big things from Andretti Autosport in general this season and from James Hinchcliffe in particular. The pressure is on. I think he’ll deliver.