A decade ago, while earning rookie of the year honors competing in Formula BMW USA, all James Hinchcliffe sought was the next opportunity to display his skills on the racetrack. His fun-loving personality and quick wit complemented talent and drew interest, and the Toronto native steadily rose through the Indy car ranks.
First it was Star Mazda, then the Atlantic Series and Indy Lights, and finally the pinnacle of open-wheel racing in North America in 2011 in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
On Oct. 7, Hinchcliffe, who drove for Andretti Autosport the past three seasons, announced with gusto at Flat 12 Bierworks (which produces a beer that’s named after him – the Hinchtown Hammer Down Golden Ale) in Indianapolis that his next opportunity had arrived. He has signed a multi-year contract with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to drive the No. 77 entry.
The vacancy occurred when Simon Pagenaud, who had contended for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship the past three seasons, announced last month that he would drive a fourth Team Penske car for the 2015 season. Hinchcliffe, who was courted by the Indianapolis-based team following his 2011 rookie season with Newman/Haas Racing, was an obvious choice to be the face of the program.
“To enter this environment with a lot of different responsibilities is exciting. One of the most attractive things about this thing is what they have accomplished in the last few seasons has been incredible. Winning races, being competitive at all tracks and finishing in the top five in the championship against more experienced teams at this level is impressive,” Hinchcliffe said. “Because they are young, there is still room for them to grow and improve, and that’s an exciting thought for me. I think we can only get better, and hopefully I can add to that program.
“Everyone wants to know if they can perform and I’m putting myself on trial a little bit."
Hinchcliffe, who turns 28 on Dec. 5, reunites with team co-owner Sam Schmidt and has a fellow Canadian, co-owner Ric Peterson, in his corner. In 2009, Hinchcliffe placed fifth for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in his first season of Indy Lights competition. Team general manager Rob Edwards said that Pagenaud's longtime race engineer, Ben Bretzman, has moved on and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is "looking internally and externally" for a lead engineer.
This past season, Hinchcliffe finished 12th in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings (five points out of 11th place) in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data car, with four top-five finishes (best of third at Mid-Ohio, advancing 14 positions relative to his starting spot) in the 18 races. He led five races for a total of 75 laps.
“James had great success in Indy Lights and other series on his way to IndyCar,” Schmidt said. “In fact, he would already be with us driving the No. 77 if he would have been available three years ago. We went after him in 2011, but it didn’t work out then.
“We know that his success in the Verizon IndyCar Series is no fluke. We’ve now won races and contended for championships, and we believe he’s going to be the person we need to keep moving forward as a team. It’s a very big compliment to the team that James wants to come drive for us and that he thinks that he can win and contend for championships with us.”
In 52 starts for Andretti Autosport, Hinchcliffe scored three victories (all in 2013) and 15 top-five finishes. He was eighth in the championship standings both in 2012 and ’13. Hinchcliffe broke into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011 with Newman/Haas Racing, garnering three top-five finishes (best of fourth at Long Beach and Kentucky) in 16 races. He earned the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award and was the Tony Renna Rising Star Award recipient.
Hinchcliffe, who is expected to get some offseason on-track testing in the Honda-powered car, will be at the center of the team’s development in the first season with the Honda aerodynamic bodywork. Mikhail Aleshin, who competed in the companion No. 7 SMP Racing car, said he hopes to be back for a second season. Aleshin returned Sept. 28 to Russia to continue rehabilitation of injuries suffered in an Aug. 29 practice crash at Auto Club Speedway.
“When Sam, Rob Edwards and I discussed who was going to drive our No. 77 car, it was always focused on who could help us achieve our two main goals over the next three years – winning the championship and the Indianapolis 500,” Peterson said. “James’ three victories in 2013 and his two career front-row starts at the Indy 500 were evidence that he had the potential to help us realize those goals. I am also very proud to welcome a fellow Canadian to our team.”
Andretti Autosport has confirmed that Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 series champion, will join Marco Andretti and 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Carlos Munoz on the grid for 2015. Team owner Michael Andretti has said his intent is to run four full-season cars, and the team is scheduled to test GP2 racer Daniel Abt on Oct. 27 at Barber Motorsports Park.
“We are happy to have had Hinch as part of the team over the past three years and have enjoyed our successes together," Andretti said. "As a former driver, I understand him having to make the decision he did, he needed to cover himself. I wish that we could have resolved a deal to secure him for 2015, but we are not in that position yet. We’re sorry to see him go, but wish him the best.”
Hinchcliffe placed second in the 2010 Indy Lights championship with Team Moore Racing with three victories and 10 top-five finishes in 13 races. He competed for three seasons in the Champ Car Atlantic Series, and made his U.S. open-wheel racing debut in Star Mazda in 2005.
Schmidt, an Indy car racer who was paralyzed in 2000 from a practice crash, formed the IndyCar team in 2001. As Sam Schmidt Motorsports, it entered Verizon IndyCar Series competition full time in 2011 with driver Alex Tagliani. Former driver Davey Hamilton came on board as co-owner of the No. 77 entry in 2012, and Peterson joined the effort in 2013.
Tuesday, October 7th - Hinchcliffe Joins Schmidt Peterson Motorsports