It is somewhat uncommon for a seven-year veteran of any sporting discipline to accept vast and immediate amounts of change as readily as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe has.
About to embark on his eighth full season of competition in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the 31-year-old Hinchcliffe has driven three generations of IndyCar’s IR-12 chassis, and spent the 2011 season piloting the car’s older sibling in the IR-05.
In some of the early testing stages for 2018’s sexy new universal aero kit, Hinchcliffe and his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew played a leading role in developing the kit over Honda competitor Andretti Autosport and even received more track time than Chip Ganassi Racing.
While the experienced Canadian driver tempered expectations when first putting the 2018 package through its paces, Hinchcliffe has quickly acclimated to his new surroundings and made the most of those fall test sessions.
“I was comfortable in the car right away,” the Canadian race-winner told Open-Wheels. “The group at IndyCar did a great job with making the new kit very drivable, very predictable and very comfortable from behind the wheel. All the objectives they set out to achieve, they did, so big credit to that team.”
Following praise for IndyCar, Hinchcliffe detailed what all fans what to know – how does this car drive and will it force his competitors to work harder? He makes mention of reduced downforce as well as weight distribution levels when describing new elements of challenge with this 2018 machine.
“Obviously this kit has a very different weight distribution than the last one,” explained Hinchcliffe. “That’s certainly been causing a loss of entry stability issues with most teams. The cornering speeds are well down from the reduced downforce, but that goes hand in hand with reduced drag, so our top speed are a good chunk higher as well.
“It’s a bit of a different feeling but at the end of the day it’s still an Indy car,” he adds exuberantly.
For 2018, Hinchcliffe has a new role as friend and mentor to his newest teammate, Robert Wickens. Nicknamed “Team Canada,” Sam Schmidt added Wickens to his IndyCar stable following Mikhail Aleshin’s departure in what has been a widely popular move.
With the 28-year-old leading a group of candidates for this year’s IndyCar rookie of the year award, Wickens is an uncommon freshman in the series as he brings a tremendous amount of experience and success from other forms of racing.
While Hinchcliffe can get excited about having a friend on the team, he knows that his role as a leader and mentor could be more fluid from track-to-track as Wickens works through some growing pains that are certain to come and go this year.
“Robert is a professional through and through,” said Hinchcliffe. “He’s brought some really good insight to the team already and we’ve only done one proper test together. For sure, there will be times during the year where I’ll play a bigger part in getting him up to speed – namely the ovals.
“I have a feeling he will take to (the ovals) fine. We have a very good relationship away from the track so I think that will give us a great dynamic working together.”
Continuing with the theme of change, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports made waves this offseason when they hired respected sportscar engineer, Leena Gade, to lead Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics entry in 2018.
Gade, who departs from the Audi LMP1 program and has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, becomes only the second known woman to lead an IndyCar program. Diane Holl broke the barrier for women positioned in leading roles in the 1990s, but Gade is the first female to follow in her steps after many years have passed.
Last week during testing at Sebring International Raceway, Hinchcliffe and his new engineer got their first crack at working together at the track – much to the driver’s delight. He learned some of Gade’s most essential – and important – qualities after just a few hours worth of track time.
“Leena is a very competitive, very detailed oriented person,” Hinchcliffe described. “Those are two great qualities in an engineer. In her career, she has a history of being thrown into ‘sink-or-swim’ situations and she always keeps her head above water.
Clearly there will be a transition period for Gade, who will do just as Hinchcliffe is describing as she jumps to the sharks in her first year leading an IndyCar program. Keen to recognize her comfort level right off the bat in Sebring, Hinchcliffe was pleased to see that Gade is already settling into her new role.
“With the new kits this year, there’s a lot more going on at the shop to get everything ready. All the mechanics and engineers are flat out, so there’s less time for them to spend getting Leena up to speed,” Hinchcliffe said.
“But when we got to Sebring, you’d think she had been in IndyCar for years. She fits in very well, has some great insight from her past experiences and no doubt is a huge asset to the team. She definitely doesn’t seem intimidated by the challenge at all, which is great.”
For Hinchcliffe and the entire Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization is going begin trending upwards (the No. 5 entry has finished 13th in points the last two seasons), it is imperative that Gade manages the team fearlessly and with her instincts.
Change will come in motorsport if one sticks around long enough. Either a driver is the one being swapped out, or they plant themselves deep enough into an organization that they eventually experience it happening all around them.
For James Hinchcliffe, change has been nothing but positive this offseason. While championships aren’t won in the winter months, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has made all the right moves to grade well during November, December and January.
Now the real evaluation period begins with the 2018 season opener in St. Petersburg just weeks away.
Images courtesy of Chris Owens and Joe Skibinski of IndyCar Media.