A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and…yes, some troubling incidents, too – mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.
The fact that the “500” winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number…so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett are counting down the dirty dozen. Today, it's…
8th – JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
Andretti Autosport Dallara-Chevrolet
Best finish – 1st, St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo, Iowa
Best qualifying – 2nd, Milwaukee
Marshall Pruett writes…
One of IndyCar's best storylines of the 2013 season went to Canada's James Hinchcliffe who, after showing incredible promise as a rookie with Newman/Haas Racing in 2011, and again as a sophomore with Andretti Autosport in 2012, fulfilled that potential this year. He pulled off the pass-for-the-win of the year at Brazil, beat the 0.875-mile Iowa like it owed him money and pounced on a mistake by Helio Castroneves to claim the season opener at St. Petersburg.
But two weeks after that St. Pete win, he was the first car out at Barber when the cartoon anvil fell and struck his car's electrical system. Another early exit – P26 again – at Long Beach buried Hinch in the standings, but a win at Round 4 in Brazil served as a well-timed rebound. And so, after four races, he'd won twice and finished last twice. A bad Indy 500 (21st) and two bad rounds in Detroit (15th/19th) followed from Round 5 to Round 7, and then, with the Andretti team's early season damping and setup superiority on full display, finishes of ninth, fifth and first came on the ovals before the first-lap crash at Pocono.
Hinch was more consistent for the remainder of the year, which helped him claim eighth in the standings – exactly where he finished in 2012. Beyond the feel-good nature of his breakout season, the boom-or-bust dynamic is what stands out. So is Hinch's inconsistency an indicator that he's behind the curve after three years in the series, or is he being held to a higher standard than other drivers with a similar level of experience? Is he still learning on the job, in his third year?
In comparison to another third-termer, Charlie Kimball, you might say Hinch is right on schedule. The spoiler to that theory, however, is Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman also just completed his third full season of Indy car racing (2007 Champ Car, 2012-13 IndyCar Series), scored two wins and took third in the championship with the less-heralded Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team. To be fair, Pagenaud, 29, is a few years older and also spent his time between Champ Car and IndyCar honing his craft in sports car racing so he had/has less to learn than Hinch, yet had nothing like the technical resources or budget Andretti brought to the No. 27 car. So while you'd expect Pagenaud to be more consistent than Hinch, you wouldn't think a small team like Schmidt Hamilton would regularly out-pace the driver in the GoDaddy car.
If he wasn't winning, you weren't always aware that Hinch was in the race, and as he readies for his fourth season of IndyCar racing, his biggest area of growth will be found on the stopwatch. Hinch's teammates claimed five poles in 2013; he had zero. It's unfair to expect James to be a match for his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay at this stage, but it is fair to say he should be closer to the American when they are running trouble free. Hinch can, on occasion, blitz the field, but he's yet to figure out how to tap into that ability on a regular basis. Once he does, he'll become a championship contender because he's given a few tantalizing glimpses of his outright potential. With a fresh contract extension in hand, he has the time and security to spend his off-season looking for ways to raise his game, and of course he has a phenomenal engineer in Craig Hampson and a supportive team behind him. Where he places in the 2014 standings will come down to how far he pushes himself over the next few months.