With a pair of back-to-back DNFs, the past couple races haven’t gone as planned for James Hinchcliffe after starting the year with three straight top-10 finishes, including a victory on the streets of Long Beach, California.
Ahead of hoping to turn things around this weekend at Road America, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was in Ontario’s capital city to promote the upcoming Honda Indy Toronto in July. He took some time to speak with Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin about his thoughts on the year so far and his hometown race.
Popular Speed: How would you characterize your season so far?
James Hinchcliffe: Not the results we want, but I think the effort the team is putting in is tremendous. I think we’re jelling more, growing more. It’s my third year there so same engineer, same mechanics for the most part. So that continuity I think pays diligence in racing. I think once Piers (Phillips) came on as our team manager last year, he’s been able to keep us on a good path and fix some problem areas that we’ve had. You know, we’ve seen it. On the road and street tracks, we’re in the fast six every race but one, and had a good race at Indy till we got taken out; had a good race going at Texas till we got taken out.
I look at Phoenix and Indy GP as our two weak spots on the season, but other than that, we’ve put together a really good effort. It’s just some of the results out of our control.
PS: You’ve had two straight DNFS, as you mentioned. How do you put that behind you and look forward?
JH: The way you do it is I acknowledge it wasn’t anything that we did as a team. We had a mechanical failure in Detroit, and were a victim of circumstance at Texas. You could slice that pie a lot of ways if you want to, but I don’t think I should have or could have done anything differently. So I just got to keep doing the job that I’ve been doing. You know, the team has been great, the car has been great, so we just need to keep doing what we’re doing and not focus on the past and keep our eyes focus.
PS: With that said, what are your thoughts going into Road America?
JH: So Road America was one of our worst tracks last year – that’s the bad news. So looking for a good turnaround for our season, we’re headed to somewhere that we’re not awesome at – statistically. But we’ve only been once. We found some things later in the season at Watkins (Glen) that would apply very well to Road America, and so we’re cautiously optimistic about our chances. Other guys would’ve done the same thing, though. So we’ll see.
Road America is a big question mark for us. We didn’t get to test there last week when everybody else did because of an engine failure. So we are kind of flying blind a little bit, but fingers crossed we’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat.
PS: What’s the toughest part about Road America?
JH: It’s finding the aerodynamic balance because the long straightaways we want to trim out, but the corners you want to have the downforce, and finding that right compromise of drag and downforce is a constant battle there. You always looking at the timing and scoring to see who is quick on the straights but slow in the corners, and vice versa, and who’s quickest overall. That’s one of those ones that you’re always going to second guess yourself.
PS: Where do you feel you, and your team can get better?
JH: I think at the start of the year, we did a good job at rolling off the truck with a good car and not having to make a lot of changes, and that showed in pace with qualifying up front and running up front. As the season wore on, we got a little busier and I feel we’re not rolling off the truck quite as good, and we’re forced to make bigger decisions in-between sessions on a race weekend, which is never something you like doing. So I think we just need to take a breath – which we had this weekend off so that’s good, and really focus on making sure that we roll off with the best car that we can.
PS: Looking ahead to July, your thoughts on the Honda Indy Toronto?
JH: Just being here gets me all excited for the race again – like I’m not excited everyday for this race. So the street courses have been our strength this year. That doesn’t mean anything when you get to Toronto, but at least it’s not been our worst type of track this year. So this place is just so unique, so difficult to set-up for, and drive around, but we showed progress last year on our Toronto car and hopefully we can just kind of take that and build upon the last couple races on street courses this season, and get it stronger and stronger.
PS: It’s natural for drivers to feel more pressure in their hometown. Is that the case for you?
JH: I don’t feel extra pressure – no. As an athlete, you put so much extra pressure on yourself. There’s almost nobody that can put more pressure on you – not fans, not your boss. You are the motivating factor behind what you do.
But I feel extra responsibility. I feel responsible to make sure I’m spending time out front of the trailer signing autographs and making sure that I can give every interview that I have time to give. Ultimately, giving the best result for the fans because they’ve been so supportive of my whole career that I want to reward them with the results.
PS: What’s the most memorable moment that you had in Toronto coming down here as a kid?
JH: It’s got to be meeting Greg (Moore) when I had that opportunity. That was incredible. It wasn’t just being in a sea of people and he signed my hero card and moved on. There was nobody around. He came out, spent five-10 minutes talking with me and my sister. As a Canadian at this event, I know that you never have 10 minutes to just do something else. The fact that we were there at the right time and he had that gap to spend time to talk to me and my sister, it was just incredible.
PS: You finished on the podium last year in Toronto. What was that like for you?
JH: That was incredible. I’ve had really bad luck at this race. I’ll be the first to admit – I’ve never been particularly fast here anyway. We’ve always been a sixth to 10th-place car. I didn’t have a good reason for that. We’ve also had just terrible luck with accidents that we get caught up in, or mechanical failures. I had an engine fail, I had my throttle pedal fail; I’ve had all sorts of weird things here.
So last year we finally caught some luck. A, we made the car better. We qualified in the fast six, but we had a really lucky yellow in the race that put us in good track position to get the podium. We held on to it and did what we had to do, so we deserve some of the credit, but we had luck on our side. That was nice to have the change in luck, and the fact that it resulted in a podium made it that more special.
PS: What would it mean to you to win in Toronto?
JH: Short of the (Indianapolis) 500, this is it. This would be the place to win a race for me. It’s only been done by one Canadian before, as I’m very aware of, and getting that podium and seeing how the city reacted and all the rest of it with the fans at the track, it gives it that extra motivation. You can just imagine what it would be like if I got the win.
Hinchcliffe will hope to turn his season around this weekend in Road America, following a 14th-place finish there last year on the four-mile road course.
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