Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Career Retrospective: James Hinchcliffe

This offseason I thought was the best time to look at a few of IndyCar's veterans as the series is going through a generational shift. A group of experienced drivers are approaching their final days in the series, and many are reaching that finish line at once. While IndyCar is going through a shake up the likes of which it has not been seen since the early 1990s, we need to take this time to appreciate these drivers but also look at how IndyCar has changed since these drivers started in the series.

We have reached the fourth and final part of this series, and it is different from the first three. Unlike the first three drivers, all in their 40s and reaching the natural end of a career, this driver is arguably still in the middle of his career. He might not have a championship like Sébastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and he might not have two Indianapolis 500 victories like Takuma Sato, but this driver has been one of the most charismatic drivers in recent memory. 

It is James Hinchcliffe. 

Where was Hinchcliffe coming from?
The Canadian spent most of his career in the North American development system. 

Hinchcliffe was runner-up in the 2004 Formula BMW USA season ahead of Jonathan Summerton, Billy Johnson, Brian Frisselle, Graham Rahal and Lawson Aschenbach, and Hinchcliffe won three races. In Star Mazda, he was third in the championship, again with three victories and still ahead of the Rahal and Marco Andretti. 

At 19 years old, he moved to the Atlantic Championship and won in his fourth start at Portland, but inconsistent results plagued his rookie season. Consistency improved in his second season, but race victories did not come his way. He was fourth in the championship behind Raphael Matos, Franck Perera and Robert Wickens. Hinchcliffe would win the following year at Laguna Seca, but was again fourth in the championship. 

Coinciding with his Atlantic years, Hinchcliffe ran A1GP for Canada. He did have one podium finish, but he only had six points finishes in 20 starts. 

In 2009, Hinchcliffe moved to Indy Lights. He had five podium finishes in 15 races, but did not win and was fifth in the championship. He won three races the following year and he had eight podium finishes on his way to being second in the championship, 23 points behind Jean-Karl Vernay. 

What did IndyCar look like when Hinchcliffe started in the series?
IndyCar was on the verge of change. The 2011 season was the final year of the Dallara IR05/07 chassis and the V8 Honda engine. The grid was healthy with 12 teams set for the full season and another five organizations running partial schedules. 

Seven drivers from three teams won the year before. Team Penske led the way with nine victories. Will Power was responsible for five of them while Hélio Castroneves won three times and Ryan Briscoe won once. Dario Franchitti picked up his third championship in four seasons and he won three times, including his second Indianapolis 500. Scott Dixon also won three times. Andretti Autosport won twice, Ryan Hunter-Reay at Long Beach and Tony Kanaan at Iowa.

Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport took nine of the top ten positions in the championship with the lone outlier being Panther Racing's Dan Wheldon in ninth. All three of the "Big Three" had all of their drivers finish in the top ten of the championship. Non-"Big Three" drivers combined for eight of a possible 51 podium finishes, or 15.686%. 

Three years into reunification, the schedule continued to become a little more twisty with ten road/street course races scheduled and eight ovals scheduled. One of those was Motegi, which switched to the road course after damage from the Tōhoku earthquake. There were a few new places. Barber was on the schedule for its second season, as was São Paulo. Baltimore hosted its debut race in 2011. 

Milwaukee was returning to the IndyCar schedule after a year off. Loudon was returning for the first time since 1998. Las Vegas was scheduled to be the season finale, its first appearance on the schedule since 2005. 

How does IndyCar look now?
In 2021, IndyCar has just completed its tenth season with the DW12 chassis and the V6 twin-turbo engine regulations with Honda and Chevrolet both competing. There were ten full-time teams, and four other teams competed during the season. 

Ganassi led the way with six victories while Team Penske and Andretti Autosport each won three times. Arrow McLaren SP won twice, Ed Carpenter Racing won once and Meyer Shank Racing scored its first IndyCar victory in the Indianapolis 500. 

There were four different teams represented in the top five of the championship and five teams represented in the top ten of the championship. One Penske driver was outside the top ten in the championship, but that was rookie Scott McLaughlin and McLaughlin became Team Penske's first IndyCar Rookie of the Year. Andretti Autosport had two of its drivers outside the top ten in the championship. Ganassi had all three of its full-time drivers in the top six of the championship and it ran a fourth car that was shared between seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan. 

Teams outside the "Big Three" combined for 12 out of a possible 48 podium finishes, or 25%. 

What did Hinchcliffe do in-between?
Hinchcliffe missed the opening race of the 2011 season at St. Petersburg due to funding not being secured in time, but he was on the grid for the second round at Barber with Newman-Haas Racing. In his second career start, he was fourth at Long Beach, a result he would match two other times that season, but on ovals, Loudon and Kentucky. With seven top ten finishes, he ended up 12th in the championship, winning IndyCar Rookie of the Year over J.R. Hildebrand by six points. 

Newman-Haas Racing shut its doors at the end of the 2011 season and Hinchcliffe moved to Andretti Autosport to take over the #27 Honda. He was fourth in his first start with the team and he was on the podium in the third race of the year at Long Beach. While opening the season with seven top ten finishes in the first eight races, he was outside the top ten in six of the final seven and dropped to eighth in the championship. 

Things started on a high in 2013, winning the St. Petersburg season opener, but it was the start of a teeter-totter season. He was 26th in the next two races and then won a phenomenal race in São Paulo. With two victories in the first four races, Hinchcliffe was fourth in the championship but those were his only top ten finishes in the first seven races of the season. He dominated Iowa in June and he finished the season with nine top ten results in the final 12 races, but he was eighth in the championship for a second consecutive season. 

With new sponsorship, 2014 was a step back in results, back to 12th in the championships specifically and when the sponsor stopped paying, Hinchcliffe was out of a ride with Andretti Autosport. He moved to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for 2015 and took a surprise victory in a dismal race at NOLA Motorsports Park. His 2015 season was cut short after a practice accident ahead of the Indianapolis 500 caused suspension to breakthrough the monocoque and pierced his body. Hinchcliffe was rushed to hospital and doctors saved his life after significant blood loss. 

Hinchcliffe returned in 2016 and was third in his fifth race back on the IMS road course. He took a famous pole position for the 100th Indianapolis 500 the following week and finished seventh in the race. The results were good and he was second at Texas, but lost 25 points for his car violating skid wear rules. Combined with running out of fuel on the final lap at Watkins Glen and Hinchcliffe went from a possible career-best championship finish to 13th, his worst for a full season. 

He would win at Long Beach, the second race of 2017, but the results were sporadic and wound up 13th again in the championship. For 2018, SPM drafted in Hinchcliffe's longtime friend Robert Wickens to be his teammate. Hinchcliffe was in the top ten of the first five races and fifth in the championship entering the Indianapolis 500, where he failed to qualify. He would have another stretch of four consecutive top ten finishes, which included a victory at Iowa, but five consecutive finishes outside the top ten to close the season left Hinchcliffe tenth in the championship, tied with Wickens who missed the final three race due to a spinal fracture suffered at Pocono. 

Hinchcliffe had eight top ten finishes in 2019, but only one top five result, a third at Iowa, and that left him 12th in the championship for a third time in nine seasons. Unexpectedly, Hinchcliffe was removed from the team despite having another year on his contract for a combination of reasons. One being results and the other being team sponsor Arrow being upset with Hinchcliffe's appearance in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue. 

With his removal late in the offseason, Hinchcliffe was unable to secure a full-time ride of 2020, but made six starts in an extra Andretti Autosport car and he was seventh in the Indianapolis 500. This led to a full-time seat in 2021, but IndyCar had one top ten finish, a third at Nashville and he was 20th in the championship.

What impression did Hinchcliffe leave on IndyCar?
It is complicated. 

Unlike the other drivers in this four-part series, Hinchcliffe isn't really at the end of his career. He just turned 35 years old. He should have another five to ten years left in his IndyCar career, and instead we are considering the possibility he could be done. I don't think anyone imagined this as a possibility when he started ten years ago.

Hinchcliffe has always been a fan favorite and a personable driver. He has been willing to promote himself more than any other driver and his personality led him to a runner-up finish on Dancing with the Stars. However, the on-track results never really matched his off-track exploits. There were moments where he looked to be one of the best in IndyCar, but those were more infrequent than one would have hoped over the last ten years. He was constantly good, but not great. There was only one season where he had multiple race victories, and that was his third season. 

Believed to be one of the future faces of IndyCar, Hinchcliffe hung around, but he never really became the face of IndyCar. He was definitely popular, but his best championship finish was eighth. He never really became the poster boy for the series because he lacked the key race victories and championships to justify any additional attention. 

Hinchcliffe has been positive for IndyCar, and he was somebody people could easily get behind. During his part-time season in 2020, he spent time on the NBC Sports television broadcast and did a fantastic job. If he wants it, Hinchcliffe could be on the grid long beyond his driving career. He is a knowledgable and articulate gentleman who could continue expanding IndyCar's profile even if he wasn't a driver. 

However, he could get one more shot at IndyCar. That might not be in 2022, but he is young enough where he could have another five-year run and maybe continue to be a mid-pack driver who occasionally wins races or maybe he could breakout at an older age and be a regular race winner and possibly contend for a championship one year. 

It is interesting looking at the careers of Hinchcliffe and Takuma Sato, the first driver from this series. Hinchcliffe came in with fanfare, had good results early, but his last few years were unremarkable. Sato came in with doubters, had many accidents and was ridiculed, but ended up winning two Indianapolis 500s and at least one race in four consecutive seasons. 

Sato's best championship finish is only seventh and in 12 IndyCar seasons he only had three top ten championship finishes. Hinchcliffe's best championship finish is eighth and he has only three top ten championship finishes in 11 seasons, one of which was cut short due to injury and another he was part-time due to lack of sponsorship, so really nine full seasons. 

Both Hinchcliffe and Sato have six career victories. If Hinchcliffe had won the Indianapolis 500 twice instead of having victories at NOLA Motorsports Park and Iowa, he would definitely still be IndyCar and not only be in IndyCar but be at paying seats. 

The sequence and circumstances of events really shape how a driver is perceived. I think we have seen the best out of Hinchcliffe, but if there anything we can take from Sato's career it is there is still time for Hinchcliffe to raise his profile, and Hinchcliffe still has time and the ability to change his legacy.