At a fan Q&A session at the Canadian Motorsports Expo this past weekend, James Hinchcliffe discussed a number of points relating to the DW12 and the new engine formula, his new team and its plans for 2012, and many other topics, and he did so with his characteristic optimism and affability. Key discussion points and quotes are presented below, and full audio of the session can be accessed using the player at the bottom of this page.
- Hinchcliffe’s opinion is that the greatest difference in the new car is not the chassis or the engine but the switch to carbon brakes. “At Sebring, with slower engines and a balance that’s not quite there, we’re already a second faster. I guarantee you, eight-tenths of that is coming in brake zones.”
- The shift in where the new car gets its downforce is creating better-handling cars at faster tracks. “At places like Mid-Ohio and Sonoma I think you’re going to see significant improvements in lap time, and a lot of that’s all going to be done in the high-speed corners because of the downforce.”
- The design of the head rest in the DW12 is a major safety concern that must be addressed before it will be race-ready. “It’s a standard system in terms of getting the pins out to get the head rest off, but unfortunately the way they’ve designed it, the drivers can’t actually reach it. … There will be changes because I don’t think you can actually race the car in its current configuration safely.”
- Hinchcliffe’s engineer will be Tino Belli, and his chief mechanic will be Dave Sharpley. There have been some personnel changes, but the team is largely the same as that of Danica Patrick.
On how he landed with GoDaddy and Andretti Autosport: “Michael called me probably at the end of October, and that’s when things started moving. At that point, Newman/Haas was still around and I was still in a way signed with them, contractually tied to them, but you always take the call. It’s always worth having the conversation because as of December 1st things moved fairly quickly with Andretti and trying to get everything together. On a program like this, especially with a sponsor like GoDaddy and the way they do it, normally those deals are done months in advance. It’s not often it comes together so late, so it’s still a little bit rushed. But at the end of the day, for the first time in my career, I was able to go to sleep on Christmas Eve and know what I was going to be racing in 2012. It’s not a bad Christmas present at all.”
On how he can capitalize on Andretti success: “It’s very cool because Michael was still racing as recently as 2007 I think was his last Indy 500, so it’s still very relevant knowledge that he’s got. And Mario’s experience is a little more general, but with what he’s been through and what he knows, the guy’s forgotten more about racing than I’ll ever know. So, to have a resource like that is incredible, and when the team itself has been around in different iterations and it’s had different names over the years, but they’ve been very successful. They’ve won championships, they’ve won 500s, and I’ve got two teammates that are both race winners, and it’s a very strong organization right now. They’re very hungry to do even better than they did last year, and I think that all the ingredients are there for that to happen.”
On replacing Danica as INDYCAR’s GoDaddy representative: “Big heels to fill, right? I think I got an email from them the other day saying that I should start practicing shaving my legs for an upcoming commercial, so we’ll see how that all plays out. I apologize in advance.”
On his impressions of the DW12 and testing: “It’s a very different-looking car. I think it just took everybody a by little bit of surprise. We’ve had the same car for almost 10 years now. And I was the same way, but after spending five, six, seven days watching it on a racetrack, now it looks like an INDYCAR to me. So, I think once everybody sees them, especially with all the teams’ liveries and everything, you’ll get used to the look. It’ll be what you perceive an INDYCAR to be pretty soon. As far as driving it goes, it’s very different from the old car. Even right down to where you sit in the car, the seating position’s different. The car’s got more downforce on the road courses, so it corners a lot faster. The engines are pretty different with 2.2L V6 turbocharged engines this year, and there’s a lot of work being done now by manufacturers to try and improve that and maximize that package. And then probably the biggest difference is actually the carbon brakes. Moving from steel brakes to carbon brakes is an incredible change, and that’s something we’re all trying to wrap our heads around right now because it’s very different. The car stops on a dime and gives change. It’s unbelievable how quickly this thing’s stopping. At Sebring, with slower engines and a balance that’s not quite there, we’re already a second faster. I guarantee you, eight-tenths of that is coming in brake zones.”
On the difference in downforce between the IR03 and the DW12: “There certainly is more downforce in this car, and that was one of the design goals. What was important was to try and generate as much from the floor as possible so that when you’re running behind another car on the track you’re not quite as affected as if you’re relying solely on the wings for the downforce. At Sebring, when we were there it was hot and greasy and gross and dirty, and in some of those quicker corners you could really feel how much better this thing’s going to be on fast tracks. So, at places like Mid-Ohio and Sonoma I think you’re going to see significant improvements in lap time, and a lot of that’s all going to be done in the high-speed corners because of the downforce. I’m looking forward to getting in the car on a quick road track and giving it a whirl.”
On a suggestion of doing car-escape safety drills on testing days: “For a long time, there was a five-second test and to get your licence you had to be able to undo your seatbelt, remove your steering wheel, and get yourself out of the car in under five seconds. Why that stopped, I don’t know. I’ve never had to do it in my career at any level of the sport and I haven’t had to do that test, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have to do it. One of the big differences in INDYCAR is when we were on the ovals the head pads we wore on the head rests really restricted our ability to get out of the car, so especially on oval tracks it’s certainly something that we should practice and have some sort of system in place with all of the connections we have. With the radio, the water tube, the black box to your ear pieces, there’s three different connections, and that’s once you’ve got the head rest out or if you just try to force yourself out of the head rest because sometimes you can’t do it on ovals with the head pads that are in there. So, they really need to look at the system with the new car. The drivers complained last year that everybody had a different way of connecting the head rest to the car, and so the marshals in an emergency situation didn’t necessarily know what kind of setup you had and maybe weren’t able to react as quickly. In the new car, it’s a standard system in terms of getting the pins out to get the head rest off, but unfortunately the way they’ve designed it, the drivers can’t actually reach it. It’s been brought to the attention of the Series. We have a nice, big meeting in Indianapolis tomorrow morning at 8:30 with all the drivers in our association, and this is one of the topics that’s come up. And there will be changes because I don’t think you can actually race the car in its current configuration safely.”
On closed cockpits: “After Las Vegas, that was a hot topic of conversation. The problem is that’s such a big, fundamental shift in the design of our cars. I’m not saying it’s not the way to go, but that’s not something you do overnight. And the guys that sit there saying it’s outrageous you don’t have those, they don’t get it. It’s a very ignorant thing to say. I know there are now people doing these investigations, doing these studies, but if — and it’s a big if because having a closed cockpit brings up a whole other list of challenges and safety concerns — but if that’s the way forward, it’s not going to be for five years. It’s staying on top of safety, never being complacent, investigating those new ideas and opportunities. Even if at the end of the day they end up not being the right way to go, you’ve got to put in the time to see if that might be the right avenue. It’s definitely come up a lot, and I think you’re going to hear a lot about it over the next couple of years until a decisive position can be taken.”
On the new engines and turbo lag: “It’s been a big change for us, for sure. If you go back as far as the last open-wheel car that had a turbocharger, it was the Champ Cars, and the big difference that we have right now is that Champ Car turbo engines were V8s and a V8 engine has a lot of torque on its own. You take a turbo off a V8, it’s still going to be a torque-y motor. We had our naturally aspirated V8 last year, so we’re used to a lot of torque. With the new engine, it’s a 2.2L six-cylinder engine, which doesn’t have a lot of torque. So, when it’s off the turbo, it’s quite slow. So, there is a little bit of turbo lag right now that we’re trying to play with. It’s different than in years past because in years past you could use the torque of the V8 to get you up to when the turbo kicks in and then the thing takes off. So, for right now, there’s a lot of playing around with the engine manufacturers. We’re working with different parameters in the engine to try and reduce the lag. There are all sorts of complicated systems and tricks to try and take care of it, and it’s all a natural progression right now with the new engine. We have big fish to fry, medium fish to fry, and then little things — turbo lag is somewhere in the little to medium range. We’ve got to make sure that things like pistons don’t go through the block. So, once we get some of the bigger issues sorted, then we’ll start chipping away at taking care of that. For sure, it changes the way you approach the exit of a corner, how you get to power, when you get to power, and you do some adjustment as to how the boost ramps up. If it’s too aggressive on a street circuit, for example, I can hit a button on the steering wheel and it’ll rev up more progressively. So, there are some really cool things with working with a turbo engine that we’re going to play with over the year.”
On who his team principals will be: “I’m going to be engineered by a gentlemen called Tino Belli, who’s been with Andretti for a long time. And my chief mechanic is a guy called Dave Sharpley — again, a guy that’s been around for a very long time. A lot of this crew was Danica’s crew last year. There’s been a few substitutions, but it’s a good group of guys. I don’t think it’s any secret that it wasn’t necessarily the happiest environment the last few races of last year, and they’re all very looking forward to a new season, new challenge, new car, new driver. It’s like a first date. Everyone’s really excited. It’s like puppy love right now.”
On different ways of doing things between Newman/Haas and Andretti: “I think every team is different from Newman/Haas. I think they operate in a very unique way. When I got there, it was my first experience in INDYCAR, so I thought this is how an INDYCAR team operates. That’s not necessarily true. They were so formulaic. They were so precise and scientific. They were a very well-structured, well-oiled machine. Not that Andretti isn’t, but Andretti operates more like race teams that I’ve worked at in the past. It’s been interesting because obviously Newman/Haas had a lot of success with that sort of structure, so there’s actually been a couple of elements of the Newman/Haas way of doing things that I’m trying to inject into the Andretti way of doing things, and there’s been a couple of Andretti ways of doing things that I’m trying to beat into myself and get rid of the Newman/Haas way of doing things. We’re trying to find the best of both worlds right now, and it’s good.”
On returning to the days of running 240 MPH at Fontana: “I’d like to return to the days when cars did 240 at the Speedway. Maybe not Fontana. I have nothing wrong with going 240 miles an hour, but I think you’ve got to be specific about which tracks you do it on.”
Hinchcliffe went into great detail on many other topics not listed above, including the level of fitness required to drive INDYCARs, what young drivers need to know to make it through the ranks, his experience at the Rolex 24 and other races that are on his career bucket list, who the rookie to beat will be this season, his thoughts heading into St. Petersburg with no experience at the track, and much more.
To listen to the Q&A session in its entirety, use the player below or search for More Front Wing on iTunes.
(Apologies for the conference hall audio quality. Many thanks to the Canadian Motorsports Expo for their permission to repost this audio.)
More Front Wing also recorded a one-on-one interview with Hinchcliffe at the CME in which he elaborated on many of these topics. Watch for it later this week here at MoreFrontWing.com.