Andretti Autosport owner and his newest IndyCar driver discuss the challenges ahead for the team and IndyCar in 2012.
Q: Michael, could you talk about what James Hinchcliffe brings to your team?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: We're really excited to have James join. We feel like he's going to fit right in. I think he's going to be good with the chemistry of Marco [Andretti] and Ryan [Hunter-Reay]. He did an awesome job last year. He proved that he can run up front. He's a great personality. I think he's going to be perfect for our team.
When you have a multi-driver team, it's very important that everybody gets along. We feel that the three of them are going to get along really well.
You can tell he's a team player. And the other guys, asking opinions of Marco and Ryan, they both had high marks for him. That made it a no-brainer.
Q: James, it has to be a bit of a relief to you to get things settled for 2012 after a great rookie season and a difficult end of 2011 for you?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a difficult end of 2011 for everybody. On top of that, with Newman/Haas closing their doors the end of December, a little bit of a curve ball.
For me, I guess when a door closes a window opens, and this incredible opportunity has come up with Andretti Autosport and Go Daddy. Everybody is looking forward to getting going.
Q: You have said that you have some big heels to fill. How much pressure do you feel taking that mantle from Danica Patrick?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: A lot of the people and headlines have said, “Hinchcliffe replacing Danica in the Go Daddy car.” I'm replacing her in the seat in driving it. I don't think in any way we're going to say that I'm trying to replace Danica. What she did and what Go Daddy did with her was so unique and special, they did a good job with it. I'm kind of lucky that I'm coming in a bit of a different position being a guy rather than a woman in a male-dominated sport. Now they have a whole other set of opportunities.
I think there's some cool possibilities for them to work with someone else other than Danica with them. She's obviously still part of their family with her stock car program.
Q: Could both of you could talk about how important it was to get somebody with a personality in the Go Daddy seat, because that is a sponsor that can potentially do a lot of good for both the driver, the team and the series.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: For sure. I mean, obviously Go Daddy had a lot of say, as well, in who they wanted to represent their product. They were very high on James right away when we brought up his name.
As you said, that personality is going to be important, as well, for that because they are a little edgy and fun. I think James can be that way.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think from my perspective, similar comments to Michael there, I'm excited to get a chance to work with a company that likes to be a little bit edgy, pushes the boundaries. I've never been an inside-the-box kind of guy. Anybody who goes to Hinchtown.com can see that. That's why we created that in the first place, to get my personality out there a little bit, to be a little different and stand out.
Ultimately, with Go Daddy it's a bit of a match made in heaven. I think we have a lot of the same principles and ideas on that, so it could be cool.
I think it's an endorsement for the Road to Indy, as well. I came through a bunch of categories there, through Indy Lights. I've made it to this opportunity here, [so] it proves the value in that ladder system. I think it shows that young drivers really need to get into that program as quickly as possible if IndyCar is their goal.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Agreed.
Q: James, you went through your rookie year last year in the old car, and did very well. Now you're going into a new team with a new car. Almost like you're in a rookie situation again. Are you going to be playing catch-up with your teammates who have a lot more experience?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It's almost like I get a second crack at being a rookie. I'm certainly grateful I had a year in the old car. The car was sorted. The team has a good handle on it. There was a little less guesswork. It was sort of a more comfortable environment for me to learn the series, the other drivers, the style of racing, the speed and all that. Now we go into a situation where all the engineers and mechanics and drivers are figuring out this new car for the first time. We don't have a decade's worth of data to fall back on.
For sure I think my experience last year just at this level of competition puts me, you know, a step ahead of where a rookie coming in this year would be. But, there's no doubt that guys with more experience are going to be a little bit ahead of me, and that's why I'm very happy to have two experienced teammates, because I'll be able to bounce a lot of things off them and we'll all be able to help each other and be able to advance this process.
I think with a new car that nobody has any information about, three guys working together pushing the development in one direction, I think we can get on top of this thing pretty quickly and that can be a big advantage for us.
Q: Michael, could you comment on what you saw in James last year, how you think he'll adapt to the new car and working with his new teammates?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think a racecar is a racecar. He'll adapt real fast. I'm not worried about that.
What caught my eye with him last year was his teammate. He had a very good teammate. Oriol [Servia] is a very good guy, very fast. Many times he outraced him and out-qualified him. That says something. That was a good benchmark for us to look at.
I think him having some experience of what a car should feel like on an oval, in Indianapolis, places like that, I think it's really great that he got that, because it would have been a little more difficult to take a gamble on him this year had he not had that experience and showed up against his teammates. So it was definitely very important that he had last year.
Q: Michael, why the move away from the No. 7?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: It's because we have 26 and 28. We've had number 27 anyway. So we're just going to keep it in the family – 26, 27, 28. There's no other story other than that.
The 7 really didn't have any real significance to our team in any way. If you're going to be team cars, might as well go in succession. So that's why.
Q: What are the chances of the team running a fourth car this year?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: We're still working hard. It's nice to get the third car done so we can focus on the fourth, trying to get it done. We've got a lot of irons in the fire.
Chances are, I'd say, 60 percent to 70 percent at the moment. Definitely better than 50/50. Hopefully we'll have something done in two or three weeks.
Q: James, we can argue this ride you're going into is one of the flagship rides of the series, based on the team you're driving for, the sponsor's visibility and other factors. Do you sense a certain amount of pressure that goes along with this opportunity? If so, how do you plan to break down that pressure so you can focus on your job in the car?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think the job in the car comes naturally. No matter what team you're driving for, what sponsor is on the side of the car, you put a lot of pressure on yourself as a competitor to do your best job every time you strap in.
I used to get a question about pressure when I went to Toronto. The home races are extra pressure. When the visor is down it's just a racetrack. You put the same amount of pressure on yourself everywhere you go. I think it's similar whether you're in different team situations or sponsor situations. From that side of it, it's going to be the same job: I have to go out and drive the racecar as best I can.
Off track, Go Daddy has done some incredible things with their activation and commercially. I think there's definitely going to be a little more work on my side there. But that is the nature of our sport. I actually really enjoy that side of the sport. It's what makes it go 'round for us. Without it, we wouldn't get a chance to go racing.
I'm excited to work with the people at Go Daddy. A lot of cool minds in there and creative people. It's not a lot of pressure, it's just a really cool opportunity.
Q: Michael, considering the new cars and engines are at least expected to level the playing field early on, how confident are you that your team can be contenders out of the gate?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I feel very good about it. I think that's a start. You've got to have good drivers, ones capable of winning. I think we put together a really strong driver lineup. I'm really excited about that. Really excited about the way things have been going with Chevrolet. We have a lot of programs in place with the team that we're doing.
I can tell you the excitement on the floor in our shop, in the engineering room, is quite high. So we have high expectations for coming out strong right away.
Q: Michael, this is a little bit off topic, but can you talk about Marco, his expectations for the coming year? Also if you can intertwine how he handled the terrible tragedy with Dan Wheldon.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I have high expectations for him this year. I think he's going to do well. I think he really learned a lot last year just about his own driving and things. I was really happy with the way he came on in the end, especially in Japan, on the road course. I think he's going to be strong.
I know he's really excited about this year. I know he's excited about his teammates. Everything is just all very positive on that end.
He went through a tough time. I think it's a part of growing up. He lost somebody that was close to him. It's really the first time he has experienced that. So it was a tough, tough time for him, as it was for everybody else. Since it was sort of his first time in that way, it might have been a little tougher than some of the others.
But he's fine. He handled it fine. He'll go on and he'll learn that it is one of life's cruel things that you have to deal with sometimes. He'll be all right.
Q: James, looking at this year's calendar, which tracks do you feel to be your strongest and give you your best opportunity to challenge for your first win?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Wow, good question. I've always run well at Long Beach. I really enjoy that track. It seems to have treated me pretty well over the years. Certainly looking back at Andretti's performance there the last couple years, they've got a good knowledge of that place and they know how to win there as well. I'd say that's certainly one I'm looking to perform well at. Not that I'm not looking to perform well at all of them.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Better answer.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Sorry, boss (laughter).
On top of that, Mid-Ohio has been a good track for me. I like the track at Iowa. You saw Andretti perform well there last year as well. There's a couple that stand out.
At the end of the day, we're going to show up at every racetrack no matter what style it is or weekend it is and we're going to be going for the win.
Q: You visited the McLaren Formula 1 team in the off-season. Do you see that as a potential avenue in the future?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It's not really a goal at this point, no. I love IndyCar racing. I grew up with it. It really is where my heart is. It's where my life is now. I got the opportunity to go over there and see the McLaren factory. It was an incredibly impressive facility. At the end of the day, IndyCar is in my blood. I'm very happy. I don't see that happening any time in the future.
Q: Michael, with James' rise up through the IndyCar ladder system, what are your possible plans to utilize James to replicate with your existing drivers with the Road to Indy and have them move on up and have the same fast rise that James has had.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: That's a goal. I firmly believe in the Road to Indy, the platform. We have a team in every ladder of the system. I believe in it. I think we have a couple real stars in it right now. The ones who are standing out the most at the moment are Sage Karam and Zach Veach. I think those two are headed for IndyCar, the big cars, in two to four years I'd say, depending how they do in the rest of the steps.
So, yeah, I think it's great to have James in it from that standpoint, as well, that he is a graduate of [Star] Mazda and Indy Lights.
Q: You go back 20, 30 years over the history of IndyCar racing, Villeneuve, Paul Tracy, Alex Tagliani, there's been a popular driver from Canada. How important is it to not only have a driver that is popular in Canada but one that is very competitive for this series because those events up there seem to be popular?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think it's very important. Canada is such an important market for our series. We have such great fans up there, passionate fans. It's great to have a strong Canadian driver I think in our series. It's even better for us to have him on our race team because I think there's a potential for sponsorship growth, as well.
So, yeah, that's quite an important element and we're excited about that side of it with having James.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: As Michael touched on, the fans in Canada are phenomenal. They love open-wheel racing, IndyCar racing. I grew up going to the races in Toronto. I think I've been to all but two of them in my life. It's a great market for the series. For me, it's great to be here and be a part of that. Hopefully we can keep Canada interested and having the Canadian fan base to grow with some of the things we have planned. I really like it.
Q: Go Daddy seems to put most of its promotional efforts into Danica Patrick and Jillian Michaels. Are there possibilities for them to use some of that exposure on you?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think Go Daddy has some ideas and plans moving forward. It's been mentioned there might be some campaigning using myself and the Go Daddy brand.
What's so cool about working with this company is you've seen what they've done with Danica and Jillian. Those are two very visible public figures. If we have another driver in IndyCar who can sort of reach that level, that would be great for the sport as a whole.
Q: Michael, what can you tell us about your test program you've been able to do with the new car, how much you're planning to run before the start of the season? Will all three drivers get a crack at it?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: We have a pretty aggressive test program, for sure. We were in every one of the tests, involved with every one of the tests so far with Chevrolet. I think we've learned a lot through them. It's been good for us. It helps us going with our own cars.
We start actually on Saturday at West Palm Beach. We're on the track for the first time with our own car. The guys have been working extra hours to get the things prepared. We're ready. We have a lot of days booked before the start of the year. We're flat-out on it.
Q: Can you tell us roughly how many days you're hoping to get in?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I honestly don't have the number in front of me. I don't have the schedule. Quite a few. We're going to be out there every week, for sure.
Q: All three drivers will run a little bit, at least?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Yeah. I think this weekend we have two days scheduled for Ryan, then we have another two days for Marco, then I think the following week James gets in it for the first time. Yeah, we're going to have all three in it. Right now we only have one car. I think we get the next car next week. Then instead of doing one-car tests, we'll start doing two-car tests. Then we'll start using multiple drivers at the tests.
Q: With the schedule heavily weighted toward road and street courses, how do the two of you see this changing, if it's going to change at all, the nature and perception of the series?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I know Randy [Bernard, IndyCar CEO] is trying real hard to get other ovals involved and stuff. I think this year we'll probably end up with five ovals. I think the following year we'll probably have another one or two back on.
I don't think we want to get it too far out of whack. I know Randy doesn't want to. I don't think any of us do. We definitely do want ovals on the schedule. Unfortunately, things are tough out there. Times are tough for promoters. But we'll get through it. I just don't ever see us being a totally road course-oriented series. I think we'll always have ovals in it. I think it's important.
I think one of the things that we have that is unique to our series to any other in the world is the versatility that you need to have, not only in the drivers but in the teams and everything, to be able to go to every type of racetrack. I think it's important for us to keep that.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I echo those sentiments. It's part of what is so appealing about IndyCars. It's the mix they've had in the schedule. I think it's very important.
I think the fans like it. I can tell you that most of the drivers like it, as well. It's unfortunate that I think we're down to four right now. As Michael said, there's a chance for maybe five this year moving forward. At the end of the day, they've got to make sense for the series from a fan and driver point of view, an economic point of view. We're sort of exploring other options right now.
I think it's an important part of IndyCar's identity and we need to make sure we maintain that.