A Good Move For James Hinchcliffe
The dominos are continuing to fall in place for next year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Yesterday, James Hinchcliffe announced he will be driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, taking the seat occupied this last season by Simon Pagenaud.
Several questions remain unanswered as to why Hinchcliffe was not resigned by Andretti Autosport – his team for the past three seasons. If you’ll recall, Dan Wheldon was originally set to return to Andretti Autosport for 2012. Unfortunately, he was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale. Hinchcliffe was a rookie in 2011, driving for a Newman/Haas team that closed its doors after his rookie season.
It seemed like a natural fit between Hinch and Andretti. The young Canadian was considered an up and comer. His hip personality struck a chord with Go-Daddy, the car’s sponsor that had been sponsoring Danica Patrick before her move to NASCAR. There was no question that Hinchcliffe had the star-power off of the track. He is charismatic and does very well in front of the camera. Now was the time for him to shine on the track, as well.
Hinchcliffe had a solid start to his first season at Andretti. The first five races through the Indianapolis 500 saw Hinchcliffe place no worse than sixth. After Belle Isle, things got a little inconsistent. After finishing twenty-first at Detroit, Hinch finished third at Texas and fourth at Milwaukee. But the wheels came off, so to speak. Throughout the second half of the season, Hinchcliffe managed only one finish higher than thirteenth – a fifth-place finish at Mid-Ohio. Still, the first half of his season was strong enough to earn him an eighth-place finish in the points. That was considered decent enough for a second-year driver learning his way with a new team.
The 2013 season was Hinchcliffe’s breakout season. He opened the season with a win at St. Petersburg. He also had a win in the fourth race of the season at São Paulo. The trouble was, those two wins bookended two twenty-sixth place DNF’s at Barber and Long Beach. Three races after his second win saw no result higher than fifteenth, including a twenty-first place finish at Indianapolis. A third win came at Iowa and a podium finish in the second Houston race salvaged an up and down season that again saw Hinchcliffe finish eighth in the championship standings.
For 2014, Go-Daddy was gone and replaced by United Fiber & Data. It was a company that I had never heard of, but that means nothing since I’m not an IT guy. But the livery looked good and was somewhat reminiscent of Hinchcliffe’s countryman, Greg Moore. Not only did the car look good, but the UFD Girls had an unmistakable presence at every track. When we were at Barber this past spring, they made quite an impression; on me at least – Susan, not so much.
With a new sponsor that seemed to want to make a big splash and a three-win season under his belt, big things were expected for James Hinchcliffe in his third year at Andretti Autosport. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. A nineteenth place finish at St. Petersburg to start the season, was followed by a twenty-first place showing at Long Beach. Two races into the new season and Hinchcliffe was on the bottom. He managed a seventh place finish at Barber, but then was injured in a fluke accident at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished twentieth.
The Indianapolis 500 saw Hinch place a forgettable twenty-eighth while his teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay won the race and his other Andretti teammates finished third, fourth and sixth. Four of the five Andretti cars finished in the Top-Six, while Hinchcliffe finished near the bottom after starting on the front-row and leading fourteen laps before getting caught up in a melee that also took out pole-sitter Ed Carpenter. My own personal opinion of that crash was that Townsend Bell had more to do with that incident than anyone, yet he squeaked by unscathed. It was that kind of year for James Hinchcliffe.
Things turned around somewhat as Hinchcliffe scored top-six finishes in three of the next four races. But like the year before, the second half of his season was up and down. A podium finish at Mid-Ohio was followed by a nineteenth-place finish at Milwaukee. A twelfth place finish at Sonoma was answered by finishing fifth at the season finale at Fontana. All in all, it spelled a twelfth place finish in the championship.
So, I have a few questions. First, why was Hinchcliffe’s car so hit or miss in his three years at Andretti? Was he the problem? Was his team not getting much support at Andretti? Were there some underlying issues within the team that never surfaced publicly? The only consistent aspect of Hinchcliffe’s tenure at Andretti was his inconsistency. I’d like to know if that was his or the team’s fault.
I would also like to know why he went unsigned for so long. I’ve totally missed my guesses in this silly season. I was positive that Hinchcliffe was going to return to Andretti. I have heard that Michael Andretti wanted to sign him, but was unable to find funding for an entire season. Supposedly Michael was still searching for the sponsorship when Sam Schmidt came calling with a firm offer for a full season. Did Hinchcliffe act too quickly? Same say yes, but I’m not so sure.
First of all, I have no idea what was really going on in Michael Andretti’s head – or Hinchcliffe’s, for that matter. Michael may have had no interest in bringing Hinchcliffe back. His results this past season certainly could have given him reason for pause. Maybe Andretti was genuinely trying to nail down funding, but if I’m speculating – perhaps there were some inner-workings on the team that didn’t meet to Hinchcliffe’s liking.
Keep in mind, there is a chance that Hinch may have been the fourth priority on this particular four-car team. You know that this is Ryan Hunter-Reay’s team, and rightfully so. He has an IndyCar championship and an Indianapolis 500 win on his resume, and is in the prime of his career. Hunter-Reay was recently re-signed to a new three-year deal, so this will be his team for a while. Results not withstanding, Marco Andretti will always get high-priority on this team, because…well, his last name is Andretti.
Carlos Muñoz won Rookie of the Year this past season and finished eighth, well above Hinchcliffe in the standings. He also has finished second and fourth in his two Indianapolis 500 starts. At twenty-two, Muñoz is a star of the future. Hinchcliffe was slated to be a star by now. He certainly has the personality and the talent to be a star, but quite frankly – his tenure at Andretti has been a tad bit disappointing, overall. Maybe there’s a reason for that and Hinchcliffe decided to take his talent elsewhere.
By going to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, James Hinchcliffe is moving from a situation where he was medium priority at best, to a team where there is absolutely no doubt that he is the number-one driver. I’ve seen where some claim that Hinch panicked and took a guaranteed offer from a lesser team. I disagree.
Keep in mind that the No.77 car at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports outperformed every Andretti Autosport car, and all but one Ganassi car on the grid this past season. The only team that outpaced Sam Schmidt’s team in 2014, was the championship team of Roger Penske.
Although Sam Schmidt has been known for running a top Indy Lights program for many years, it has been only since 2011 that he has been involved in the Verizon IndyCar Series on a full-time basis. Since he took over Alex Tagliani’s FAZZT Race Team in 2011, he has made great strides to where his team was in contention for the championship heading into this year’s finale at Fontana.
That’s pretty impressive for a team that has a much smaller budget than the top-three teams of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. Some thought Simon Pagenaud’s departure for Team Penske would cause Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to take a step backwards next season. By signing the Mayor of Hinchtown, I don’t anticipate any drop-off whatsoever. There is also a rumor that his old sponsor at Andretti may be coming with him, but that remains to be seen
Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders for a drivers outlook. If Hinch felt buried under the weight of Hunter-Reay, Marco and even Muñoz at Andretti; it’s quite possible that going to a situation where he is a big fish in a smaller pond may be all it takes to get Hinchcliffe back to victory lane on a regular basis. The move that takes Simon Pagenaud to Team Penske and James Hinchcliffe from Andretti to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports could be a win-win for all involved. I’m already looking forward to the 2015 season getting started. After last season, I’m sure James Hinchcliffe is too.