Few drivers have had careers as scrutinized by fans as James Hinchcliffe. From the moment he stepped into Andretti Autosport’s GoDaddy car for the 2012 season as the replacement for Dan Wheldon — who himself had been set to replace Danica Patrick in the machine but whose untimely death made a triumphant return to Michael Andretti’s team a thing of legend rather than reality — Hinchcliffe has been near the center of attention for many NTT IndyCar Series fans.
Entering the 2020 season having been unceremoniously replaced in Arrow McLaren SP’s No. 5 Honda by up-and-comer Patricio O’Ward, Hinchcliffe finds himself in a position similar to Wheldon’s: anticipating a return to the team that provided much of the foundation of his racing career, including his first three IndyCar victories.
Remaining with Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson’s reformulated team might not have been the worst option for Hinchcliffe. Despite a switch from Honda to Chevrolet power, which likely served as the biggest obstacle for the Canadian driver to overcome, it’s apparent that McLaren’s financial prowess and ability to bring on more sponsors to augment Arrow has given the entity additional resources. The recent addition of Fernando Alonso to the team’s roster for the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 further solidifies its status as a destination, perhaps even granting it the same up-and-comer status among IndyCar teams that hotshot O’Ward maintains among drivers.
Yet, a future with Arrow McLaren SP wasn’t meant to be for Hinchcliffe and, given the available options, a return to Andretti’s massive team — already fielding five full-time entries — proved the most viable option for 2020 and potentially comes with the best opportunity to secure a long-term future.
With new sponsor Genesys in tow, the “Dancing With the Stars” runner-up will contest three races behind the wheel of the No. 29 Honda alongside teammates Zach Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta and Marco Andretti. He’ll make his first appearance at the GMR Grand Prix held on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course then contest the Indianapolis 500 itself, where his Andretti-prepared car should help him avoid the drama of being bumped from the race, as happened in 2018 when both Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann failed to make the field of 33.
Hinchcliffe will then move on to the 600-kilometer race at Texas Motor Speedway, seemingly a curious choice when it was originally revealed given Hinchcliffe’s Canadian heritage and the Honda Indy Toronto’s position as a perennial favorite of north-of-the-border fans. The subsequent revelation that Genesys will replace DXC Technology as title sponsor of the Texas race put the pieces together and also demonstrated the customer service technology company’s dedication to its newest endeavor, backing both a driver and the sport at large with a race entitlement.
Beyond the three races on his 2020 calendar, Hinchcliffe will keep busy with NBC Sports, lending his knowledge to IndyCar, IMSA and NASCAR broadcasts. While he’s proven to be a capable broadcaster in the past and will no doubt be a welcome addition while reporting from the pits, the appointment could very well be a temporary one as a return to full-time racing seems more possible than ever before with Hinchcliffe’s move to a team that’s had plenty of recent success at Indianapolis and beyond.
What may initially be seen as a negative in his potential path back to a full season is the sheer size of Andretti’s driver lineup, plus its relative consistency. Original team leader Hunter-Reay and current top performer Rossi seem like locks for a long future with the team, yet Rossi’s unwavering allegiance to Honda could prove his undoing should the team be wooed by Chevrolet or, if Jay Frye and INDYCAR management are successful, a third manufacturer committed to making a splash in North American open-wheel racing by signing one of the “big three” teams.
Marco Andretti will likely be in place for as long as he wants to continue racing, though this upcoming season is a major test after a frustrating 2019 campaign that ended with a slight bit of positivity following an in-season engineering change for the No. 98 Honda.
With three of the four drivers more probable to return in 2021 than not, the question mark falls to Zach Veach and his Gainbridge-backed No. 26 machine. This year will mark his third in the series and could be a make-it-or-break-it season for the Ohio native. A strong performance may compel his insurance company sponsor to extend its arrangement for an additional year or more but an alternative scenario might see the company choose to spend its marketing dollars elsewhere, leaving Veach to search for new money and making his future with a top-tier team a longshot rather than a sure thing.
Whatever happens to Andretti’s full-time lineup, any movement will open a space that needs filling. Hinchcliffe will be in prime position to make a case for a permanent role with the team, especially if Genesys is interested in extending its presence to more than three instances of primary car sponsorship and its Texas title rights. As with most scenarios in the top echelon of motor sports, what will happen in the future is largely dependent on what happens now both in terms of on-track performance and business goals.
Genesys hasn’t involved itself in Indy car racing for fun; rather, like most sponsors, the company views driver and race sponsorship as a unique opportunity to market its brand, entertain its clients and generate excitement among its employees. If the company sees these benefits come to fruition, deepening its IndyCar involvement could be a boon for Hinchcliffe and help his full-time return amount to more than just hope.
Luckily for Hinchcliffe, being with a top-tier team gives him the best chance to perform in years, if Andretti’s recent history is an accurate predictor of future success. The team has shown an ability to be competitive on all types of circuits, only missing a superspeedway victory in 2019 across four wins for its main team and satellite outfit Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Contrasted with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ 2019 results, this record clearly tips the scale toward the Andretti behemoth, providing Hinchcliffe ample reason to believe that success in 2020, even if only over the course of three races, is a distinct possibility.
Adding to the mystique of 2020’s reconstituted driver lineups, Hinchcliffe isn’t the only former Arrow SPM pilot to find potentially greener pastures after being released from the former Honda stalwart. Both Marcus Ericsson and Jack Harvey find themselves similarly attached to Honda teams: Ericsson with Chip Ganassi Racing and Harvey with Meyer Shank Racing, now in a technical partnership with Andretti instead of Arrow SPM.
For the Swedish driver who found limited success in his first IndyCar season behind the wheel of the No. 7 Arrow SPM machine, 2020 marks an opportunity to compete in top-flight hardware with top-notch teammates in five-time series champion Scott Dixon and 2019 Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist. Like Hinchcliffe, it’s on Ericsson to prove he belongs not only with one of the series’ best teams but in the series at all.
Driving for a team that’s shown it can win each season with Dixon will provide a morale boost for Ericsson, but perhaps more relevant is the team’s work with Rosenqvist. Both of the drivers hailing from Sweden isn’t the extent of their similarity. They also entered the series with massive experience outside of IndyCar, yet Ganassi proved the team better able to extract performance from a rookie in name only, given Rosenqvist’s six top-five finishes en route to sixth place in the final championship standings. Conversely, Ericsson managed a single top-five finish and ended the season 135 points in arrears of Rosenqvist in 17th.
Harvey’s situation also parallels Hinchcliffe’s as the fourth-year IndyCar driver returns to the same technical partner that supported his debut at the 2017 Indy 500. He finished a disappointing 31st in that race but he and his team steadily expanded their race count in the years since, moving up to full-time status this year after three races in 2017, six in 2018 and 10 in 2019.
Consternation might arise on Harvey’s part being the pilot of what amounts to the sixth full-time car associated with the Andretti stable and the astounding seventh at Indianapolis and Texas but, if anything, the team has shown it has the capability to adequately support all of the cars it runs. One only needs to consider recent drivers who’ve had success in Andretti one-offs — Townsend Bell in 2016, Alonso in 2017, Carlos Munoz in 2018 and Conor Daly last year — to get a sense of what it means to have the team’s backing over 500 miles in Speedway, Indiana.
In different ways, Hinchcliffe, Ericsson and Harvey, all cast off from what is now Arrow McLaren, have the enviable opportunity to hit the reset button on their careers.
For Hinchcliffe, it’s a three-race chance to show that he’s got more than just a great personality, quick feet and a tenacious ability to overcome defeat. For Ericsson, it’s a total redo, a second go at a full season to demonstrate without any doubt that he’s the right driver to align with Ganassi’s 2019 duo. And for Harvey, whose first full season will bring about challenges he’s not yet encountered, it’s the chance to take everything given to him by Michael Shank, Jim Meyer and now Andretti’s technical prowess and put it together on track over 17 races.
The pressure is undoubtably high for all three drivers, not unlike the situation Wheldon found himself in 2011 after 199 laps at Indianapolis, watching in amazement as the race leader smacked the Turn 4 wall and gifted him a challenge-free sprint to the finish line and his second “500” victory. He started two more races that year and, on the strength of his victory, would have been a full-time driver again.
Wheldon’s legacy lives on in today’s Indy car with its myriad safety improvements, now including the titanium framework that underlies the Aeroscreen, a device that might have given him a fighting chance to come back in 2012.
Hinchcliffe and his compatriots will race in 2020 benefiting from Wheldon’s on-track testing of the chassis they’ll be driving and, like him, they might find success employing a never-give-up attitude. They’ll certainly be near the center of attention as part of just three of the many changes coming to the series when it roars back into action March 13–15 on the streets of St. Petersburg.
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