Hinchcliffe on 2018 progress, Indy DNQ, Iowa glory, Wickens disaster

James Hinchcliffe talks to David Malsher about a year in which Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda boosted itself forward yet also suffered its most turbulent season since becoming a fulltime IndyCar squad.

DM: What accounted for Schmidt Peterson’s strong start to the season, where you were podium contenders at almost every race? Was it due to the testing the team had done for Honda with the new aerokit?
There were a lot of factors. The testing, I think, was as much a distraction as it was a benefit, because it meant our guys didn’t really get a break for the whole of the off-season. Our engineers didn’t get a chance to look internally and do things that we knew we needed to do from 2017; they were so busy fulfilling external requirements and living up to Honda’s agenda that we didn’t have much time to better ourselves as a team.

So any advantage we might have had going into the season came from being well oiled at running the car, rather than having any particular performance advantage. We really didn’t develop as much as you’d think during that program – and anyway, all the information we gathered got shared with the other Honda teams! Having said that, it was an honor to be Honda’s development team and I think HPD were pleased with the job we did.

Nonetheless SPM showed improved consistency on road courses, a recent problem area for you guys.
Yeah, I think the introduction of new spec aerokits suited us because everyone was forced to revise their setups almost from scratch and we grabbed the opportunity to recover in any areas where we’d had a deficit beforehand. Having a teammate like Robbie who could push me and push the engineering side of things helped a lot too.

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Do you feel you needed a psychological push from a teammate, or was it more what [team manager] Piers Phillips has been saying – that you and Robert sought the same things from a racecar?
Hmm… a combination of both, I’d say. I think that Robbie helped me step up my game behind the wheel, but also it was the first time in three years that I had a teammate with a similar driving style, who wanted the same thing from the car and gave the same sort of feedback. So we could just develop so much more efficiently over a race weekend. There were a lot of times when our cars rolled off the trailer not awesome, but by Saturday afternoon we had it decently figured out and by Sunday we’d have a couple of good results. A lot of that was down to how Robbie works, the type of car that he likes and how we worked well together to maximize what is in fact a very short amount of track time.

It used to be that if we rolled off with a 15th-place car on Friday, we’d be plus or minus three places by the end of the weekend, but this year there was a big improvement in that area. We could have 15th-place cars in first practice on Friday but turn them into top-five runners by the time we got to the race. That was something we were very proud of – some of the turnarounds we pulled off this year.

Looking back on failing to qualify at Indy. Was there something you could have done better? Get back in the qualifying line quicker? Driven a faster opening lap despite the fact that you weren’t 100 percent sure of grip levels because we’d had that rain shower?
I’m experienced enough at Indy to know that every time you’re on track you’ve got to maximize what you’ve got. I think we did everything we could in that first run but it just wasn’t enough. But yes, you can look back at it and play Monday morning quarter-back and see a lot of different things that we could have executed slightly differently. But the whole practice week, we didn’t have a particularly fast car and despite a lot of analysis, we haven’t found any great reason for it.

The attitude was, ‘We’re probably not going to qualify great but we’re not worried about not being in the show.’ So maybe we didn’t react to the situation as we should have. Over in the Rahal [Letterman Lanigan Racing] camp, they were having similar problems finding speed and they were switching chassis, switching engines, all-hands-on-deck. We did none of that, because we simply didn’t think we were in that deep trouble – and we paid the price. It was a tough lesson, no doubt about it, but we have incredible partners on the team who didn’t rake us across the coals for it, so we were harder on ourselves internally than anyone was externally and I think we grew from it and became stronger as a team by going through that adversity.

You handled it with dignity at the time. Looking back, are you pleased Sam [Schmidt] couldn’t or didn’t find a way to buy you into the race?
Yeah, I think in a lot of ways that was the right call. From a championship position, I’d love to have been in it [Hinchcliffe finished the season with an identical points tally to Wickens, joint 10th in the standings]. But great teams and great drivers have missed out on that race before and they went home and came back the next year with an even greater fire to succeed, and that’s the path we decided to take.

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda shows dejection after not qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 race

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

Your Iowa win was fascinating, totally different from 2013 when you dominated [led 226 of 250 laps]. This time you came through from 11th and led the last 45 laps. How did you do it?
We went into that race knowing tire degradation would be the name of the game, and if you look back at other high tire-deg races on ovals, such as Texas in 2016 and ’17, those have been a strength of the team and I’ve always made a conscious effort to set up the car for the race. We might not be fastest over a lap, but we’re fast over a race stint. To be honest, how Josef [Newgarden] dominated Iowa with Ed Carpenter’s team back in 2016, and dominated two thirds of this year’s race with Penske, by the time I got through to second, I suspected we were only racing for second. Twice during pitstops in the middle of the race, we made changes that made our car worse, so we were just trying to hold onto a podium. But at the final stop, the team made a magic change and the car came alive.

Is the car a lot different to drive there now that you’re no longer glued to the track with absurd downforce from manufacturer aerokits?
Oh yeah, definitely. It increased the tire degradation and emphasized the bumps. I don’t know if the track did get that much bumpier since last year, or whether it was not having all this aero pushing us into the ground that made the bumps feel more dramatic. What I can say is that our 2018 aerokit is a lot more forgiving once this car goes into yaw. All year we’ve seen drivers have ‘moments’ on ovals that would not have been survivable in the manufacturer aerokit era. That’s great because it frees up the setup window, allows the driver to be more aggressive and not just park the car at the first sign of oversteer. At Iowa I had countless opposite-lock moments and we saw Alex [Rossi] have them at Texas and Gateway but the cars are simply more drivable.

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, podium, champagne

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

Robert Wickens – he’d been an ace in several open-wheel cars, but I was amazed at how quickly he blew off the rust after racing touring cars for six years. Were you surprised that he could be that strong in an IndyCar so quickly?

I definitely expected Robbie to be strong out of the box on road and street courses. I was probably the least surprised of anyone that he took pole on his debut at St. Pete, and he drove like an absolute veteran in the race. So while I was hugely impressed, I wasn’t amazed; I’ve always known what he can do in a racecar.

But he amazed me at [the second round] Phoenix. His first oval race, he qualified very well, raced well at what is a very tricky little track and never got caught up in anything, never let the situation get the better of him, and bar a late restart and a gamble on tire strategy, he was going to win his very first oval race. I knew he’d get the hang of oval racing eventually but didn’t realize how quick he’d pick it up. Robbie had no oval racing in his background whatsoever, so it was awesome to sit back and watch.

You also had a grandstand seat for Robert’s shunt at Pocono, although I realize you were busy winding on opposite lock to try and avoid the wreck. Were you shocked at the extent of his injuries, considering we’ve seen similar scary and fast fence-crawling incidents in recent times, such as Charlie Kimball at Pocono in 2015, , Mikhail Aleshin at Fontana in 2014, and Mike Conway at Indy in 2010.
Hmm, yeah, but if you watched the ferocity of Robbie’s accident, it’s more comparable to Kenny Brack’s at Texas in ’03 or Ryan Briscoe’s at Chicagoland in ’05. In both those cases, the drivers ended up with a lot of broken stuff. Robbie had a longer list of injuries than we’re used to seeing these days so it was a bit shocking. But at least we knew pretty early that his head was OK, which was obviously the big concern in the immediate aftermath.

Teammate Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda hugs a sad James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, after being bumped and a disappointing attempt at another qualifying run which was denied when time ran out

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

How do you, who has been through a life-threatening injury on a superspeedway and now seen your longtime friend suffer a similarly horrific shunt, find the inner strength to carry on – especially on ovals where tiny mistakes can have disproportionately disastrous consequences?
It is tough, no doubt about it, but the reality is that we’ve been in similar situations before. We had to go race at Sonoma just a week after Justin [Wilson] died, and that was a difficult weekend for everybody. But as you rise through the junior formulas and the more time you spend at this level of the sport, you learn how to compartmentalize those feelings. After Robbie’s accident, I heard what the drivers were discussing while the race was in a red-flag situation and they were talking with the series or processing what had just happened and complaining about certain circumstances at the restart of the race. But eventually they had to throw their helmets back on and get going and do their jobs. It’s what Robbie would have done and would have wanted us all to do.

Notwithstanding the fact that you bounced back from your accident at Indy to score pole there in 2016, you had a shunt in early spec aerokit testing at Phoenix last December and then a looked slow in Spring Training at Phoenix in February. It led some of us to wonder if you’d lost your mojo on ovals, become a little more timid. Did you ever feel that way and even if you didn’t, were you aware that theory was out there?
You pick up on people’s energy for sure, but the benefit I had was that both the Indy shunt and the Phoenix shunt were largely things out of my control. I don’t want to be a driver who says, “It wasn’t my fault”, but at Indy the suspension failed so there wasn’t much I could do about that, and we identified an anomaly that was a significant contributing factor to the Phoenix accident. So in my case, it was never a big issue to race again on ovals: I had faith in myself and my abilities, and experience has taught me you can have a bad day on an oval – that happens. If you have two it’s a coincidence, three and it’s a trend… but in motorsport apparently, you can be perceived as having a major issue even if you have just one bad day!

Anyway, you saw how we bounced back at the Phoenix race: we qualified fifth and sixth and were running 1-2 with 10 laps to go.

Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

Looking at the last three races of the season, nothing against Carlos Munoz [who subbed for Wickens in the final two rounds] but it seemed obvious the team was missing that Wickens-Hinch partnership.
Robbie’s presence was sorely missed in several ways within the team and throughout the whole paddock. But part of our problem at Gateway was that we were a one-car team and hadn’t tested there. At Portland we didn’t have a stellar weekend until qualifying but we put it all together, and unfortunately another car dropped a load of dust on the track and we gave up a couple of tenths and missed the Firestone Fast Six. But we were having a dig-ourselves-out-of-the-ditch weekend, then got caught up in the first-lap mêlée. At Sonoma we really missed Robbie because he was due to do the Thursday test and IndyCar wouldn’t allow us to use that day in his absence.
So the results weren’t 100 percent representative of where we were at, but at the same time, it definitely hurt us not having Robbie; every weekend he was such a major contributor.

Indeed; senior team members told me Robert pushes the engineers very hard, that he’s more assertive than you. Is that fair?
Yes – and it was great! With him there, I didn’t have to be that way so we could play good cop/bad cop! In his absence I guess I’ll have to be both.

It’s obvious Robert will be out for some time. When it comes to deciding on your teammate for 2019, do you think Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson have seen the merits of running drivers with very similar tastes in racecar?
No doubt. The way we were able to improve so quickly reveals a lot about the value of who’s in that second car. They’ve signed Robbie longterm and the goal is to get him back, but in the interim… I think yes, management will look for a situation where there’s a lot of overlap between what their two drivers want.

So after a season of drama and trauma, can you still take some satisfaction from you and the team being more prominent more often?
Definitely. It would be really easy to get downhearted considering some of the things that happened, but there was a significant move forward from last year. I think the fact that despite not having engineering continuity [Hinchcliffe’s new-for-2018 race engineer Leena Gade split from the team in May] we were still able to accomplish quite a lot can leave us very hopeful for next year.

Race winner James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images

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