James Hinchcliffe exhaled, as expected, about turning the page on last season.
“Thank God that year is over,” he said of 2018.
As if failing to qualify for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 wasn’t humbling enough, the affable driver had to finish the year without his buddy, fellow Canadian and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Robert Wickens, who was seriously injured in a Pocono crash and is still rehabilitating to regain use of his legs.
That Wickens is making progress is encouraging and inspiring.
“The time frame for me is irrelevant,” Hinchcliffe said of Wickens’ possible return to racing. “It doesn’t matter if it’s six months or 16 months, he’s young enough, he’s good enough, he’ll get back in a car and he’ll be successful again. Just heal properly and get yourself as well as you can.”
“Hinch” is back with a renewed vigor. He insists what happened to Wickens never made him question his position in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I’ve been saying it for a bunch of years now, we’re wired differently, we’re wired wrong,” Hinchcliffe said of the driver mentality. “It never once made me pause and consider my own career in any sense. Yeah, there were days when you sit there and you think, ‘Man, I wish I hadn’t convinced him to come to INDYCAR.’ But guess what? He was going to come whether I said anything or not. You get over that stuff quick. You give yourself the week to go through that kind of stuff. I’m doing what I want to do and I’m doing what Robbie wants me to do, so we’re on the right path.”
As the 2019 season looms in a week, Hinchcliffe has a new teammate in Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson. Longtime sponsor Arrow Electronics has increased its commitment by becoming the team’s title sponsor.
Despite missing the double-points Indy 500, the 32-year-old Hinchcliffe finished 10th in the 2018 standings, his best result since placing eighth in 2012 and 2013 while with Andretti Autosport. He bounced back in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda from the disappointment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a victory at Iowa, his sixth career win. He ended up with nine top-10 finishes, which also included a third and two fourths.
“I think the reality set in pretty hard about five days later, when everyone else was on track and we weren’t,” he said of missing the Indy 500. “Yeah, for sure, it was a tough pill to swallow.
“But the same comment about adversity applies directly to that situation. That group rallied so hard. We went through our best stretch of the season right after that – Texas, Road America, Iowa, we were on a really good roll. We knew it was circumstantial, it was a lot of things outside of our control, but definitely a lot of things we have to take blame for. But we know what we would and wouldn’t do differently going back and I’m not worried about going back. I know the pace is going to be there, we’re going to have fast cars, we’re going to have good cars and we’re going to go out there and try to win the 500.”
Hinchcliffe was enjoying a solid season until IMS, where he had sat on the pole for the 2016 Indy 500. Arrow was impressed by his resilience and the team’s improvement.
“What does that tell you about our team?” he said. “Obviously they believe a lot in us. We had our lowest day at Indy and not only did they continue to back us, they doubled down on us. We’re now Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports because it’s an incredible organization and they see the work that we do, day in and day out, to do them proud and to go out on track and compete for wins. What they’ve done now in stepping up to a title sponsor for the whole team has been incredible. It’s truly an honor to be associated with them.
“You’re never comfortable financially in a race team because you’ll always find a way to spend whatever dollars you have, but we just have a lot more dollars to spend now. So it’s definitely freed up some opportunities for us, on the development side, on the personnel side, and that can only be a good thing.”
He’s experienced so many highs and lows since entering the series in 2011 with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. The 2018 Iowa victory was his second in that race. Hinchcliffe has also battled back from his own serious crash due to a suspension failure during Indy 500 practice in 2015, when he had to take the rest of the season to recover.
He didn’t hesitate to respond when asked if the hope for 2019 is just a smooth and steady season, without so much drama.
“No, I just want to win,” he said of the Indy 500. “That’s the only thing that’s going to make me good. We’ve been through so much there. We’ve been through the best-ish at least on qualifying day, we’ve been through the worst every other way.
“There’s only one thing left to do at that track for me, and that’s to win the thing. I don’t care if it’s the most traumatic week of my life in practice and a terribly stressful qualifying weekend. If we come out on top on Sunday, that’s all that matters.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The race airs live on NBCSN (12:30 p.m. ET) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.