Wednesday, February 7, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

After taking a detour to look at two of the newer IndyCar teams, which will be participating on a limited basis in 2018, it is now time to get back to the full-time competitors and for the sixth team preview we will look at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The team is coming off another difficult season after it failed to have a driver crack the top ten in the championship for a third consecutive year. The team attempts to rebound with an all-Canadian line-up.

2017 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Review:
Wins: 1 (Long Beach)
Poles: 0
Best Starting Position: 3rd (St. Petersburg, James Hinchcliffe)
Final Championship Positions: 13th (James Hinchcliffe), 19th (Mikhail Aleshin), 26th (Sebastián Saavedra), 28th (Jack Harvey), 32nd (Jay Howard).

2018 Drivers:

James Hinchcliffe - #5 Arrow Electronics Honda
Hinchcliffe started 2017 with a promising race at St. Petersburg, starting third and leading by lap four. He appeared set for at least a podium finish if not a victory to start the season but a caution shuffled him back. He managed a ninth-place finish. In the second race of the season at Long Beach, Hinchcliffe ran at the front the entire day and shuffle into the lead. With the retirements of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, Hinchcliffe found himself taking on Sébastien Bourdais for the victory and he held off the Frenchman. He would make it three top ten finishes from the first three races with a sixth place finish at Barber.

Results were harder to come by after Barber. He would not finish in the top ten for the next three races but he got back on the podium in the first Belle Isle race despite a spin on the opening lap in turn two. After that podium finish, Hinchcliffe had another stretch of three consecutive races outside the top ten before he finished tenth at Iowa, a race he spent much of in the top five and he finished third for the second consecutive year in his hometown of Toronto. However, his only top ten finish in the final five races was an eighth at Gateway and he ended the season with consecutive dead-last finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
4: Consecutive seasons finishing outside the top ten in the championship.

4: Finishes outside the top twenty in six Indianapolis 500 starts.

12.1: Average finish in 20 A1GP starts.

James Hinchcliffe has to perform this season. He is Russell Westbrook. He got the teammate he wanted and now it is time to put results on the board. It says a lot that his best qualifying performance in 2017 was the season opener and his best finish was the second race of the season. Too often Hinchcliffe has had bipolar results and his personality has gotten him a pass from the fan base. For the fan fare he has received it can only hide the fact his best championship finish is eighth for so long. Take into considerations the only other full-time drivers not to finish in the top eight of the championship (excluding rookies) are Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves. Of those drivers, Jones was a rookie last year, Pigot has yet to run a full season, Chaves has had only one full season and Chilton is entering his third season.

Hinchcliffe has struggled to put up consistent results in his career. The most top five finishes he has had in a season is six. Excluding the 2015 season, where Hinchcliffe's season prematurely came to an end because of injuries suffered practicing for the Indianapolis 500, Hinchcliffe has had at least one finish outside the top twenty each season with the Canadian averaging three finishes outside the top twenty a season. For perspective, Simon Pagenaud has only had four finishes outside the top twenty in his entire career and the Frenchman has made 12 more starts than the Canadian. Scott Dixon has had 16 finishes outside the top twenty in a 17-year career.

The bar should be set high for Hinchcliffe. No worse than the top ten of the championship and at least ten top ten finishes with at least half of those being top five finishes not to mention fewer finishes outside the top twenty.

Robert Wickens - #6 Lucas Oil Honda
A familiar name returns to North America in 2018. Robert Wickens was a heralded driver in his youth driving in the Atlantic Championship and finished third in the championship in 2007, one position and 31 points ahead of Hinchcliffe. Wickens crossed the Atlantic and won races in the FIA Formula Two championship, the GP3 Series and Formula Renault 3.5 Series with championship finishes of second, second and first in those three series respectively.

Despite the success, the closest Wickens got to Formula One was a test driver role for Marussia Virgin Racing and he participated in first practice at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He did catch the eye of Mercedes-Benz and found himself in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters for the 2012 season. He picked up 14 points and finished 16th in his rookie season but his sophomore season featured three podium finishes, including his first career victory in a wet race at the Nürburgring on his way to finishing fifth in the championship. In the next four seasons Wickens would win two races at the Norisring, one at Zandvoort and Moscow Raceway and another at Nürburgring with his best championship finish being fourth in 2016

Numbers to Remember:
3: Wickens is one of three regular IndyCar drivers to have won at Portland (Sébastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe). Wickens won the 2007 Atlantic Championship race at Portland. It is his most recent victory in North America.

9.5: Average finish in 14 A1GP starts.

1,980: Days between Wickens' most recent single-seater start, the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 finale at Barcelona and the St. Petersburg season opener.

2,750: Days between Wickens' most recent single-seater start in North American (Atlantic Championship at Mosport in 2009) and the St. Petersburg season opener.

Part of me thinks this switch back to single-seaters is coming about four years too late for Wickens. He has been in a touring car, albeit one based on a single-seater chassis, for six years and last year's test with SPM and practice session at Road America was his first taste of a forgotten fruit. He did well but he was a significant way off the top of the field.

His goal should be to beat Matheus Leist in the championship and finish ahead of Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi, the two drivers splitting the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, on a regular basis. Wickens needs to prove SPM did the right thing by taking a Mercedes-Benz backed touring car driver over say Santiago Urrutia. If Wickens finishes behind Leist and is being beat on track by DeMelo it should make everyone wonder why he was selected over the driver who finished runner-up in both his Indy Lights seasons.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.