Wednesday, October 12, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' 2016 Season

The fourth IndyCar Wrap-Up looks at a team that did win a race for the first time since the 2012 season. While Schmidt Peterson Motorsport did not end up in victory lane, the team had flashes and waved the Honda flag for a handful of races when the other teams appeared completely lost. Despite these flashes, the team's final positions in the championship left little to be desired.

James Hinchcliffe's return was good but should have been great
James Hinchcliffe
The Canadians' return to full-time IndyCar competition started well with an eighth-place run in qualifying at St. Petersburg but the race saw Hinchcliffe suffer two blows, the first coming in the form of a flat tires, which dropped him to the rear of the field and the second was in being caught in the tune three incident caused by Carlos Muñoz. Phoenix was not any kinder to Hinchcliffe as a practice accident put him behind the eight ball for the entire weekend and all he could settle for was an 18th-place finish. Long Beach was a big turnaround for Hinchcliffe where he started seventh, ran in the top ten all day and finished eighth. He kept up his Long Beach pace at Barber and finished sixth in a race where he was competitive against the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.

Hinchcliffe rode the late-April wave into May and started and finished third in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis where again he hung with Team Penske at the front. When the track switched over to the oval, Hinchcliffe continued to impress and ended up winning Indianapolis 500 pole position, the first pole position in his IndyCar career. He ran in the top three for most of the first half of the race but slid back a bit and ended up finishing seventh after leading 27 laps. After the month of May, Hinchcliffe was fifth in the championship. The wave crashed in Detroit where Hinchcliffe's chance of a top five finish in race one ended in the tire barriers and his race ended before turn two in race two.

He had to start at the back of grid at Road America after a spin and couldn't do any better than 14th in the race. He started 22nd for the second consecutive race at Iowa but was able to finish ninth.  Hinchcliffe returned home to Toronto, a place that has never been kind to the native son. He qualified sixth but wasn't a real factor. He went off strategy and thanks to cautions stretched his final stint over the final 39 laps and held on for a third-place finish. Mid-Ohio was another good race for Hinchcliffe where he finished fifth.

Hinchcliffe started well at Pocono and was in the top ten all day but faded to tenth after it appeared he was in contention for a top five. When the Texas race restarted, Hinchcliffe was leading and he continued to dominant the race. He held off Ed Carpenter and after Carpenter's accident, Hinchcliffe was faced with an onslaught of assaults by Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal. Just when it appeared Hinchcliffe would hold on, Rahal made one final lunged on the inside in turn three and Hinchcliffe tried to draft by him on the outside but finished 0.008 seconds behind Rahal. He was third at the start of the final lap at Watkins Glen and ran out of fuel with less than a half a lap to go and didn't make it back to the finish line. He started 20th at Sonoma and was never a factor, only mustering a 12th-place finish and dropped to 13th in the championship.

James Hinchcliffe's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 13th (416 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 217
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 11
Average Finish: 10.8126

Mikhail Aleshin's return was average
Mikhail Aleshin
Like his teammate, Mikhail Aleshin returned to full-time IndyCar competition and he picked up like a driver who never left the series. He went from 17th to fifth at St. Petersburg and could have finished as high as fourth had he not run into lapped traffic at the end. Despite the success in Florida, Aleshin would take a step back. He had a top ten run at Phoenix but spun entering the pit lane and finished 17th. He was lost at Long Beach and finished 16th. He was spun before the green flag at Barber and settled for 17th. 

He started ninth for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he faded as the race went on and ended up 13th. He was the darling of Indianapolis 500 qualifying after making an impressive save in turn one and running seventh-fastest on both qualifying days. In the race however, Aleshin's aggression got the better of him and a spin exiting turn one ended his day after 126 laps. He had a mediocre first race at Belle Isle and finished 15th and qualified fifth for race two but squandered it and finished 17th. 

Aleshin couldn't get out of the middle of the pack at Road America and finished 16th. He qualified ninth at Iowa, the top Honda, and finally put together a good race from start to finish as he charged up to fifth, the top Honda again. He qualified tenth at Toronto and slightly benefitted from cautions leading to his sixth-place finish. Aleshin's entire Mid-Ohio race was built around a caution that vaulted him from the bottom of the top ten to the race lead. He led 33 laps and when a caution with 29 laps to go forced everyone to the pit lane, Aleshin entered with a sizable gap to Will Power in second and he gagged as he exited his pit box straight into Josef Newgarden. The chance of victory was extinguished and again Aleshin finished 17th.

Despite the disaster at Mid-Ohio, Aleshin rebounded with a surprise pole position at Pocono and he raced at the front all day. He led 88 of 200 laps but could not match Will Power's speed at the end and he settled for second-place. He put himself to be a late challenger at Texas but he spun two laps after getting back on the lead lap and finished 16th. A flat tire ended a promising day at Watkins Glen after 14 laps. He started and finished 11th at Sonoma and never seemed able to take that final step forward.

Mikhail Aleshin's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 15th (347 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 4
Laps Led: 120
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 6
Average Start: 10.9375
Average Finish: 13.875

I can't help but think this season should have gone better for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Many think SPM had a better season than Andretti Autosport but Andretti Autosport's top three drivers in the championship finished ahead of SPM's top driver and Andretti Autosport finished 1-2 in the Indianapolis 500 and had the driver who led the most laps. Hinchcliffe was seventh in the championship after Mid-Ohio. He ended up 13th in the final championship standings, granted the 25-point deduction for having a car below the minimum ride height at Texas didn't help the Canadian's positioning. Had he not lost those points, Hinchcliffe would have finished eighth in the championship.

I look at this team and I think Hinchcliffe is a rock that could be built around and then I see Mikhail Aleshin and I scratch my head. People love him because he is exotic Russian driver who is fast on ovals and shows no fear but the problem is for every race he dazzles us he has four races where he either ends up in the barrier or is mired in the middle of the pack and plays no role in the outcome of a race. He didn't tear up as much equipment as he did in 2014 but he wasn't consistently a factor in races.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports reportedly has been interested in expanding to three cars. I don't think that is a bad thing for the team but it needs to be careful with its decisions. It needs a driver that can gel with Hinchcliffe and move the team forward. Oriol Servià did well with the team at Indianapolis after starting tenth and finishing 12th but any driver for the third car should be someone the team can plan on keeping for five years. Conor Daly is Hinchcliffe's roommate; he substituted for Hinchcliffe at SPM in 2015 and that seems like the obvious selection. Other than taking a chance on a young driver such as Jack Harvey or bringing another driver over from Europe, the best option on paper would be Daly. 

As for Aleshin, the bar has to be raised heading into 2017. Can SPM afford to have another year with a driver who only finishes in the top ten for a quarter of the races? Aleshin is a step or two above Takuma Sato. The only difference is we watched Sato for over a decade between Formula One and IndyCar have the yips and never harness in his speed. Aleshin has been on stage for a few years but if he doesn't become more consistent we will get tired of the act just like Sato. 

SPM had a good 2016 season but it ultimately showed its vulnerabilities. The team could be on the cusp of making that step forward but it is at a crucial decision-making phase and must choose wisely.