Hinchcliffe recaps season that had both highs, lows

James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe entered the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season expecting a rebuilding effort. Offseason changes in personnel usually lead to slow starts, but it didn’t play out that way.

Instead, Hinchcliffe’s season started fast, then drifted into a mix of positive and negative results.

“We had a lot of changes in staff as a team coming into the season,” Hinchcliffe explained as he began reviewing the ups and downs of 2018. “We were building for long-term success, and we knew that might come with some growing pains, but we really hit the ground running.”

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was in midseason form at the start. Hinchcliffe finished fourth in the season opener at St. Petersburg as new teammate Robert Wickens won the pole position and nearly won the race. Hinchcliffe kept the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda among the top-nine finishers in each of the first five races, including a podium effort at Barber Motorsports Park and a sixth-place finish at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

“We had a strong start, which surprised us a little bit,” Hinchcliffe said. “We had had so many changes, and we expected to struggle right off the bat. The team did a really great job on race weekends. If bad things happened, we never let it get the best of us. We kept our heads down and made small but steady improvements during race weekends.”

What fans will remember most about Hinchcliffe’s season, of course, is the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 102nd Indianapolis 500. What they’ll also remember is the response of Hinchcliffe, his crew and the team’s sponsors to the unexpected development. Instead of seeking other options to get into the race, Hinchcliffe accepted what happened and moved forward.

“It was certainly a character-building experience for not only myself but for the whole team,” he said. “It was humbling in a lot of ways and infuriating in a lot of ways. In situations like that, the only thing you can really control is how you handle it. As a team, we held our heads high and accepted blame for what we did and didn’t do. There was a lot of growth that came from that. It actually pulled the group together tighter.”

Indy has been a mystery for Hinchcliffe, who followed a devastating crash there in 2015 by winning the pole position the following year. He’s fast there, having started on the front row in three of his seven attempts, but results in the race haven’t been as successful.

“We’ve got this really unique sort of love-hate relationship with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it seems,” Hinchcliffe said. “I think that’s what makes us respect the race and respect the track even more. There’s no group that wants to show up there and do well as much as these guys do. We’re looking forward to getting back there and redeeming ourselves.”

Hinchcliffe entered preparations for the 500 from a good place. He was fifth in points at the time, and everything indicated he and the team could be in contention for a season championship. Failing to qualify was devastating, but the team’s response was uplifting.

“Having to face the reality of not being in the biggest race of our season, having to deal with sponsors and fans and everything else in that scenario wasn’t ideal,” he said. “But we’re incredibly lucky that we have such good partners at SPM. Everybody stood behind us. They understood the situation. Nobody panicked. Nobody jumped ship. Everybody had faith in us as a group.”

From there, things improved. Hinchcliffe finished fourth at Texas Motor Speedway, won at Iowa Speedway, then finished fourth in front of the home crowd at Toronto. The victory at Iowa was the high mark of the season, especially with a new aero kit introduced for the 2018 season.

“Iowa came at a point where we were kind of on a roll as a team,” Hinchcliffe said. “The team was really hitting on everything. We were performing at the best level. To go there with a new aero kit, we had to relearn a lot. We tested there before the race, and that helped. The new kit drove so differently at Iowa. We had to reinvent our setup a bit. The guys got it just right. We kept our calm on race day and took advantage of a good car. That was the highlight of the season for us.”

Six weeks later, Hinchcliffe was helping Wickens, his friend since childhood, recover from multiple injuries sustained in a crash at Pocono Raceway. Wickens’ positive attitude is key to positive results, Hinchcliffe said.

“Robbie sees progress every day,” he said. “His spirits are definitely good. He’s the same old Robbie. He’s just as competitive and just as driven as ever. He’s bringing the approach that makes him so successful behind the wheel of a race car and as a professional driver to his rehab. It’s serving him very well.”