Last weekend at the Canadian Motorsports Expo, James Hinchcliffe sat down with More Front Wing to discuss the rapid ascension of his INDYCAR career, his former and present teams, the development of the DW12, and his thoughts on filling the seat originally to be held by Dan Wheldon.
A transcript of his responses appears below. To hear the interview in its entirety, use this player or search for More Front Wing on iTunes.
On the ascension of his career over the past several seasons: “It’s crazy to think how far the last 24 months has gone. A lot’s happened, and it’s been the most positive period of my career ever. I couldn’t be happier with how things have been going. And, obviously, last year was a huge year for us. Just to make it onto the grid in INDYCAR was such a struggle for so many years and the biggest goal that we had, and we got there. I can’t put enough credit on Newman/Haas and the job they did last year with me to prepare me for what I had to do and for helping me out. To have that year and have Rookie of the Year and then dovetail that into now driving with Andretti and GoDaddy, it’s all a bit surreal. I’m looking forward to just getting to St. Pete and having the green flag drop and getting back to normal life, which for me is driving the race car.”
Elaboration on his discussion of the formulaic nature of Newman/Haas from the fan Q&A session earlier that day: “They would do before any event — test, race, whatever — something along the lines of a 30-page report for the drivers and the engineers to go over every possible detail of what’s going to be happening. After a race, it would be a 60-page report detailing everything that did happen. It was so thorough, and it gave me such an understanding of what happens during weekends. Obviously, a lot happens that it’s easy to forget because as a driver you’re downloading so much information. When you’re out on track, each run, each setup change, some of those can get lost in the midst, and these were just such a great way of keeping everything structured and I could look back on them. I’ve never seen another team that took that level of detail in their preparations and also in their post-event reports, and I think that was a big factor in our success last year because I just felt so prepared when I showed up to the racetrack and I took as much away from the race as possible because I had all this information to go back on. So, things like that, I think there are good opportunities to inject some of that philosophy into the new environment at Andretti.”
On his new teammates in comparison to last year’s teammate, Oriol Servia: “I’m actually very impressed with those two guys — again, coming off Oriol, who’s the highest benchmark you can have for a teammate. Both these guys are race winners. And through the testing process — because we’ve all been sharing a car up to this point — it’s been cool to see how open they were. Right off the bat, the first test I went to, Marco was driving but Ryan and I were there watching. Ryan had done a lot of the manufacturer testing for Chevy, and he pulled me aside and just went through everything on the car, everything I needed to know, what to expect, what he learned, the mistakes he made. It was incredible, my first day at the track with these guys, just how open and welcoming they were. It really set a good tone for everything. Ryan and Marco have a very good relationship already, so I’ve just tried to sneak my way in there. We call ourselves the Three Musketeers. The team calls us the Three Stooges. I guess it depends what day. It’s definitely a little bit different. We’re closer in generation, if you will. But I’ve known Marco for years — we grew up karting together and Star Mazda together and stuff — so some old relationships are just rekindling there, and then obviously getting to know Ryan a bit better. It’s been really good.”
On whether only one year in the IR03 might turn out to be an advantage when getting used to the DW12: “Coming up through the junior formulas, you get a new car every year or two years as you move up to different series, so for me it’s sort of a normal thing to in March be driving a brand new car again. But there’s no doubt that the guys that have experience from back in the day when new cars were being pumped out every single year — it’s the development side of things. When you come up through the ranks as a driver you adapt to a car, but the car is usually already pretty well sorted because other people have driven it for years, whereas in this case it’s a new car for me to drive but it’s also a new car for me to develop and there’s a lot of work to do with the team on that side of things. So, that’s where the older guys have a little bit more of an edge. But it certainly does level the playing field a little bit because maybe one guy’s style really suited the old car and it’s not going to suit the new car, so it’s about being very flexible, being able to adapt your driving style, and some people are better at that than others.”
On how he’s felt about the new car through testing: “I’ve really enjoyed it. It is very different, and there’s certainly still a lot of work to do on it. But that’s to be expected, and the development side of racing is something I always really looked forward to coming up. I always wanted to get to the point where my feedback had influence over the direction of a car. So, it’s a very exciting time. And it’s fun driving with a turbo, it’s fun having carbon brakes, so there’s a lot of cool things that we’re getting to work with.”
On the difference in driving with carbon brakes: “The difference in the braking is incredible. We can brake so much later now. But there are also a lot of tricks with carbon brakes to get the same sort of feel and ability to modulate as you do with steel brakes, and because everything’s new with stock parts we don’t have all that sorted yet. So, every single driver is locking wheels left, right, and centre. We’ve spent more time in runoffs than you ever have in your career ever at a preseason test, and it’s just really trying to wrap our heads around it. And part of the issue is also that a lot of the other series that run carbon brakes don’t run on the kind of bumpy street circuits that we do, and they don’t love that kind of environment. But everybody’s in the same boat, so it’s really learning to manage it in a little bit more of a different environment on a street circuit.”
On whether 2012 will see more passing: “There are two main differences that are going to, I think, assist overtaking this year. One is the engines, and the second one is that the design of the car was such that they wanted more of the downforce to be generated through the floor, which makes it easier to follow guys. The old car was an oval car that we bolted big wings on to get enough downforce to drive on a road course, so they were very aero-sensitive on the road and street circuits. This car is designed with an intention of being a little bit easier to drive behind guys. So, I think we’re going to see a difference there, for sure. The carbon brakes are then the opposite effect because they shorten the brake zones, and whenever you shorten the brake zones it makes it a little bit more difficult. But that’s two to one for more passing, so hopefully we’re going to see a little bit more.”
On the new engine formula: “The blueprint of the engine in general — having a 2.2L V6 turbocharged engine — is very cool. It’s much lighter than the old one. It’s got just as much power when the turbo is on, not quite as much when the turbo is off, so you’re working with that and how to maximize being in the right rev range and everything. But I think it sounds pretty cool. I think having 33 of them at Indy is going to sound pretty cool and different engine notes between the Lotus and the Honda. And now you get to work with the manufacturer. It’s one more part on the car you can tune, and even driver to driver you can adjust things. So, that’s another tool you have to maximize your package for you on any given weekend, and I’m enjoying that extra relationship and that extra dynamic.”
On whether a twisty-heavy season still works to his advantage: “I think if you look at last year, I probably scored more points on ovals than I did on road courses, so this might be bad for me! In 2010, my last year in Lights, and then 2011, I developed such a love for oval racing. I’ll be honest — my first year in ’09, I was still a little hesitant, didn’t really understand it as well, and didn’t enjoy it as much. But that last year in Lights just completely changed my view on everything. I enjoyed it so much, I did a lot better at it, I had much better results on the ovals in 2010. And then to be able to adapt that in the INDYCARs and have some really strong runs on ovals was awesome for me personally because it wasn’t my forte, it wasn’t where I came from. So, it was really rewarding to put in the work and get the results on them. So, I’m happy either way. I like oval tracks as much as road courses and vice versa, so whatever track I’m driving into on Thursday is my favorite kind of track. That’s just sort of how it works.”
On feeling additional pressure after being Rookie of the Year: “I feel a lot of pressure from the fact that there’s this bizarre urban legend in racing about the sophomore slump, and that’s more what I’m worried about than anything else. Again, certainly eyes are going to be on you this year when you come off a good year and winning Rookie of the Year and now with another good team, a very high-profile sponsor, a high-profile seat. So, yeah, there’s going to be a lot more attention, I think, on our program. But as a driver, you put so much pressure on yourself no matter what the scenario, whether it’s driving four-cycle go-karts up at Goodwood Kartways or driving a Dallara Chevy for Andretti Autosport in the Indy 500. So, I think it’s more a function of there will be more attention paid and so more praise when you do well and more criticism when you make a mistake. But that’s just all part of racing at this level.”
On what it means to earn the GoDaddy seat after Dan Wheldon: “I think that the big thing for me is that I really understand and appreciate that this was Dan’s car, and for me the biggest thing is just to make sure that that’s respected. I don’t want to dwell on it, and I don’t think we need to make a point of it every weekend. But deep down I’m always going to know that, and I’ve already said that this year in a little way I’m going to drive for Dan every time I get in the car. I’ve been in contact with his sister and with Susie and everybody, and the support from them has been incredible. And it makes a big difference to someone stepping into this position because it’s not the position anybody wants to be in because you never want to lose anybody to then have to fill a seat. So, having their support meant an awful lot to me when this all happened. And I’ll always drive in Dan’s honor and his memory. He’s on my helmet now, and he will be for the rest of my career. It’s important to remember but then also just to go out and do a good job for him.”