It’s never easy being a rookie. It can be even harder when you come into a team that just endured one of its worst seasons ever. It gets even more complicated when you’re race deal was so “last minute” that you actually missed the first race of the season.
This is the situation James Hinchcliffe faced heading into 2011. After testing with Newman/Haas, which suffered through a tough 2010 season, over the winter, a race deal was not finalized until after the curtain raiser in St. Pete.
No matter, though. Hinchcliffe and teammate Oriol Servia have produced one of best stories of the year in helping to resurrect Newman/Haas Racing, at one time a dominant force in the sport.
Last Sunday’s Movethatblock.com Indy 225 evidenced how far they have come. Servia and Hinchcliffe were fast all weekend and brought both cars home in the top five, finishing second (Servia) and fourth (Hinchcliffe). “It was a lot of fun to be a part of,” said Hinchcliffe. “It was probably the smoothest weekend that we’ve had all year. Mid-Ohio was a pretty much a similar story right up until that last restart there that caught us off guard. We’ve had two pretty strong weekends in a row, one on a road course, one on an oval. It’s good to see that we’ve found our rhythm and hopefully we can keep that momentum going.”
“Hinch” ran as high as second in the opening stint and enjoyed a nice battle with Servia and Ryan Hunter-Reay as they worked through traffic. But, in the conditions they faced Sunday, he remained focused on himself and remembered to “race the track” as they say. ”For sure, when you’re short-track racing especially it’s all about staying ahead of the car and staying ahead of the track,” he explained. “We’re lucky that we have so many tools inside the car that we can adjust if the conditions change and as your situation changes. If you’re running by yourself for a decent number of laps you adjust the car one way, if you’re running in traffic you’ll adjust it another, and it’s really important to stay on top of those things because it’s so easy to get behind just a little bit. And you only need one little loss of momentum and you’ve got guys going by you. I think (adjustments in the cockpit) is where we were really strong.”
Had the race been run to its full distance, there was even a small chance that they could have had even better results. “(Ryan Hunter-Reay) had a terrible restart and I was poised to take him into turn one had it stayed green. So, I think maybe we could have got ourselves into a podium position. In terms of getting any higher than that, the thing is it was tough for us to get by guys of a similar speed. The key for us was the lap traffic. Only because Ryan got a lot of wheelspin on the restart, I had an opportunity to get by him. After that, I don’t think I would have anything for Scott (Dixon) or Oriol (Servia).”
And, even a few days after the controversial ending, Hinchcliffe remains upset with the manner in which the finish was handled. “I was shocked, to be honest. The call to go green was probably the most ridiculous call I’ve ever seen a governing body make during a motor race at any point in history,” he said of the ordeal. “For the race director (Brian Barnhart) to then say after the fact that he had no information saying the track was not suitable to go racing is a straight-faced lie, because every single driver that everybody had spoken to (said it wasn’t ready). I was on the radio all the way through turns three and four coming up to the green saying ‘We cannot do this, this is dangerous, this wrong, we cannot go racing.’ And every other driver was in the exact same boat. Every single team manager was talking to the pit techs and every single spotter was talking to the representative on the roof. So, with all of the avenues, somehow not one bit of information made it back to the Race Director? I just don’t believe it, it’s just not true. So, I was shocked, very angry, and frankly still am. I think somebody needs to held accountable for what happened.”
A protest from Newman/Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing will be heard on August 22, and Hinchcliffe firmly believes that Servia should be the victor. “As unbiased as possible, I’ve got nothing against Ryan (Hunter-Reay), he drove a good race and under normal conditions he should have won that race, and it could have been anybody in that second position, or in that third position,” he said. “But, there’s no doubt that the green flag flew, there’s photographic evidence, there’s videographic evidence, and there are numerous people who heard it on the race director’s channel over the radio. For them to just go back on something that happened, it was a mistake.”
Regardless of exactly how their protest comes out, their strong day should not be overshadowed. Coupled with Hinchcliffe leading at Mid-Ohio, these last two weeks have been the best of the year for the organization. “I think they have (been our best). Mid-Ohio had been our smoothest up to that point, with the exception of the race result, so Loudon probably takes its place now as one of our smoothest weekends,” Hinchcliffe said. For his part, he believes he is gelling with the team more and more as the year goes by. “We just unrolled with really good cars and I’m into the rhythm a bit more now, I understand better what the car needs and how the weekend flows, and that relationship with the team is a building thing. Even though we hit it off real well right from my first test (with Newman/Haas) back in December, you’re always growing, especially someone in my position as a rookie. It’s been good, but it’s still an incredibly big challenge to try to compete up front with the depth and talent that’s in the field right now. So, we just got to keep our heads down, keep doing what we’re doing and hopefully we can bring home a few more good results.”
He also indicates that stability with their two-car effort is also a big reason for the upswing in 2011. ““I think the biggest thing is having a two-car team, having continuity in the team. With last year, Hideki (Mutoh) was in for the season, and Graham (Rahal) was in and out. Running a one-car effort is very difficult, and running a part-time second car is also very difficult. It drains resources, both human and financial, and without that continuity it’s difficult to build and progress. Look where Oriol (Servia) and I were in the first couple of races, we were not as consistent. We had some good runs and some where we were sort of mid-pack. Now, later in the year, as we’ve had the chance to work together and build together, the whole program improved. So, I think that’s a large part of it, having a consistent two-car effort, I’d like to think two capable guys behind the wheel, maybe there’s room for debate there! But, it’s a just been a really good combination of drivers, engineers, mechanics, and everybody in the team just working together, slowly building this thing up, and making it better every weekend.”
Certainly, though he playfully jabbed at himself in his analysis, he and Servia have impressed behind the wheel. “I hope (Servia and I have impressed). That’s obviously the goal,” he quipped. “I think we still view ourselves as a little bit of an underdog. But, we’re a team that knows how to win and that was very used to winning for a real long time and is very hungry to get back to that. We don’t like accepting fifth place. We know that we’re up against it a little bit because we don’t have the resources, whether they’re financial or the decades worth of data that some teams have on cars for certain tracks. But, it’s alright. I don’t mind sort of being looked at as the underdog a little bit because I still think we’re capable of putting in some decent performances.”
Despite the obvious obstacles, they are challenging the big boys of the paddock again. Now, they just need consistency. “Well, I think that if you look at the season as a whole there’s still a bit of a gap there, but in certain race events we’ve been very strong. I mean, I outqualified Helio Castroneves at the Indy 500! That shouldn’t have a happened for a lot of reasons!” he laughed. “And, when you look at last weekend, Oriol was on the front row and we beat a couple of Penske cars and a couple of Ganassi cars in qualifying and the race. It’s a week-in, week-out (situation). There’s no doubt, track to track, those guys are going to be more consistent and more consistently up front. But, certainly we feel that we’re in that next step. We’re with KV Racing Technology right now, battling with them and Andretti Autosport as the next best guys behind Ganassi and Penske.”
In the case of Hinchcliffe, whose schedule did not initially conclude races in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Motegi, Japan, the outlook for the remainder of the seasons looks promising. He did race in Sao Paulo back in May (finishing ninth) and is confident that Motegi will be added as well. “There’s certainly that possibility (of missing Motegi), but the goal is to run all of the remaining rounds. We certainly did ourselves a big help the last couple of races running well and at least being in the hunt at one point or another of the race. And for us, even though Motegi wasn’t originally in the plan, from day one we’ve been working trying to make it a reality. So, I will say that, although nothing is confirmed yet, for sure 100% we’re trying to be there. We’ve not accepted that we will not be racing in Motegi.”
He finished, “I’m reasonably confident, I think it’s certainly something we can put together. Like I said, it’s something we’ve been working on for a while, so I think we’re close to having all the ducks in a row to make that happen.“
Currently, Hinchcliffe sits 16 in the standings and trails J.R. Hildebrand by 17 points in the Rookie of the Year battle.