When the IndyCar Series takes to the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, James Hinchcliffe will look to back up last year’s win.
“St. Pete has been a special race for as long as I’ve been going there for me,” Hinchcliffe said on Media Day. “It’s such a cool event. Being out there on the water, it’s a cool atmosphere. It’s a cool backdrop for the race. I’m pretty sure Hunter-Reay parks his mega yacht out there for race week anyway.
“As far as the street circuit goes, the track is really cool because, you know, the biggest complaint on street circuits is you can’t pass. That’s not a problem at St. Pete. I think we’ve seen enough passes and attempted passes go terribly wrong. It’s always been a cool event.”
Last year, Hinchcliffe picked up his first career victory and that moment will always hold a special place in Hinchcliffe’s heart.
“It was a very emotional day last year on race day for all the right reasons,” he commented. “That’s nice ’cause I think in racing you normally have very emotional days for the wrong reasons more often than you do for all the right ones.”
Hinchcliffe added that the win also helped his confidence a lot and was “kind of proof that the class clown could still be serious when he needed to” as Hinchcliffe was known before then more so for his jokes off the track.
“For me personally on track it made a big difference because when I was then in situations later in the year where a win was on the line, I felt a lot less pressure because I think there was a big amount of pressure to get that first win and be part of that group, so to speak,” he added. “Not all of us can win six races a year like Will Power, we have to take what we can get.
I think it really does free your mind up a little bit when you’re in those circumstances, again knowing that, Hey, I’ve been here, I know I can do it, let’s focus and get the job done, rather than make yourself overanalyze and make a mistake.”
Teammate Marco Andretti echoed those sentiments, saying the win was huge for Hinchcliffe.
“It’s always great to come out of the gate like that for sure,” Andretti added. “I don’t think he was lacking confidence before that win. I’m sure it helps. Every driver who drives against him knows he’s all down to business by the time the visor shuts.”
While the win surprised some, it shouldn’t have marked a surprise as Hinchcliffe finished fourth at St. Petersburg in 2012, which Hinchcliffe attributes to having good equipment there both years.
“Andretti Autosports has always given me good cars there. We traditionally run well there and Long Beach,” he commented. “It’s a neat race because if you get behind the eight ball a little bit you can come back. Like I said, the ability to pass. You can get off strategy and have it work with the distance of the race.”
The Canadian will have to do it under slightly different circumstances in 2014 as Andretti Autosport swtiches from Chevrolet to Honda this season.
“Jumping into the Honda for the first time, it was interesting to see how an engine built under the same rules could feel as different as this one did. It’s fast,” he commented. “I enjoy the technical part of our sport. Getting to work with a new partner on that side of things is a fun challenge.”
The manufacture switch will also allow Hinchcliffe to promote Honda Canada, which sponsors the only Canadian date on the IndyCar tour – the Honda Indy Toronto at Exhibition Place in Ontario, Canada.
“It’s something I’m very excited about,” Hinchcliffe said. “They’ve been such huge supporters of IndyCar in Canada. They supported Paul for a number of years. It’s great to see that sort of a company take that initiative with IndyCar. Driving a Honda on the racetrack makes it easy. It’s just a great partnership. I’m excited for some of the things we have there. There’s promotional work we’re doing. Just another fun element to the year, I think.”
Hinchcliffe will also be working with a new engineer – Nathan O’Rourke, who worked with Josef Newgarden last season. Hinchcliffe’s engineer from last season – Craig Hampton – will be working in the Research and Development part of AA.
Hinchcliffe joked on Media Day about how he stole O’Rourke from Newgarden’s basement.
“I went to his house where he normally keeps his engineer in a cage in the basement,” Hinchcliffe joked. “I broke in while he was sleeping. Nathan made a lot of noise, rattled the cage. It woke Josef, which made for an ugly altercation on the main floor. I was able to use chloroform. I said, Josef, does this smell like chloroform? Then Nathan and I made it out the window.”
In working with O’Rourke so far, Hinchcliffe says he sees a lot of similarities between O’Rourke and Hampton, which will make the learning curve easier.
“He’s young, he’s hungry,” Hinchcliffe added. “He hasn’t won a billion races like Craig. He’s really keen to get some results. That’s good. I know he’s going to work hard. The testing we’ve done together, the relationship and chemistry is there. He’s very logical. He’s not super emotional, which is sometimes good in an engineer.”
Heading into his third year, there is pressure there for Hinchcliffe to be part of the championship conversation throughout the season. Last year, Hinchcliffe won three races – yet also suffered four DNFs over the course of the 19 races.
“Last year we had the pace early but not the consistency,” Hinchcliffe noted. If you look at the second half of the year, we were actually way more consistent than people realize. I think as a team we lost a little bit of pace. We weren’t qualifying as well.”
He added that he feels with his team understanding what they did wrong and the improvements made, they’re in a good position for 2014.