James Hinchcliffe is the first to admit that the next few years may be the ones that define his Verizon IndyCar Series career.
After signing a multiyear extension to keep driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, the soon-to-be 31-year-old (Dec. 5) knows it's his time to shine.
“I think it's been pretty documented over the last sort of decade in Indy car racing that your sort of 30-to-35 age range is pretty much a driver's peak,” Hinchcliffe said.
“We have a much younger than that champion at present (Josef Newgarden, 26), but he's certainly an outlier and not a rule.”
Hinchcliffe is coming off a season that offered mixed results, with bad luck and mechanical issues often preventing good results. Nevertheless, he posted his fifth career win in an impressive drive to the checkers on the streets of Long Beach as well as two more podiums, one in Detroit and the other at home in Toronto. His six top-10 finishes were negated by six results of 20th place or worse. He ended the year 13th in points.
Off the track, the likable and easygoing Canadian is one of the most popular drivers in the paddock, making him a sought-after commodity when his contract expired at the end of the 2017 season.
While other teams in the paddock expressed interest and talks ensued, Hinchcliffe decided that the benefits of staying in a familiar environment meant that the grass wasn't greener elsewhere.
Next season will mark the longest he has stayed at the same team since joining the Verizon IndyCar Series as a rookie with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011. The next season, Hinchcliffe moved to Andretti Autosport and stayed three years before jumping to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2015. He described the last three years as “phenomenal” and, with the Verizon IndyCar Series introducing a new universal aero kit for all competitors in 2018, Hinchcliffe saw huge value in familiar surroundings and capitalizing on existing momentum.
“We've talked a lot about how continuity in racing is very important, and there's a big part of me that wanted to keep building what we have been building,” said the 2011 Verizon IndyCar Series rookie of the year.
“The transition to a universal body kit (in 2018), I think, was an important part of that. I think that leveling the playing field a little bit gives us as a team better opportunities to close the gap (to bigger teams) and be competing at the front more regularly.”
Add the fact that his “best friend,” Robert Wickens, will now be occupying the second car in the Schmidt Peterson stable and Hinchcliffe's desire to stay put became even more firm.
Having a racer of Wickens' caliber in the No. 7 Honda will raise the team's overall performance because his experience in several top-flight series will add valuable technical expertise to bear on race weekends and help the team run consistently at the front, Hinchcliffe insisted.
“I know how fierce a competitor he is, I know how talented a driver he is, I know how well he's going to adapt to this world,” Hinchcliffe said.
“For me it's about pushing the team forward. I'm not going to perform at my best if I don't have somebody regularly pushing me and someone to help push the team forward from a technical point of view. He checks both those boxes. It's exciting on a lot of levels.”
Wickens arrives after racing six years for Mercedes in the highly competitive German touring car series called Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters Series, commonly known as DTM. In 84 starts, the 28-year-old from Guelph. Ontario, scored six wins and five poles along with 15 podiums in a series where the top-10 qualifiers are often separated by two-tenths of a second. He ended the 2017 season in ninth in points and was the second-best Mercedes driver.
Wickens feels that it's a good time to be coming into INDYCAR with the new car making its debut, which will remove some of the handicap he faces as a rookie. On the other hand, he knows that drivers with several years of Verizon IndyCar Series competition under their belts will still enjoy an early advantage.
“I think, ultimately, Indy car experience is Indy car experience,” said Wickens, who won open-wheel titles in the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Championship in Europe and the 2006 Formula BMW USA Series in North America before joining DTM.
“I'm definitely going to be a little bit on the back foot but, that being said, with the new aero kit coming in 2018 – from what I've been hearing from James – the car is very much different to drive than what it has been in the past. It will be an adjustment for all drivers, which will definitely help me.”
One wildcard still left to play is who will engineer Hinchcliffe's car after Allen McDonald the team departed for Ed Carpenter Racing.
“Ultimately, the driver-engineer relationship is an important one and learning someone new is always a bit of a challenge,” Hinchcliffe said. “We're excited to ingest some fresh blood into this team on the engineering side as well.
“I'm very excited about 2018 and the future.”