Hinchcliffe wins 1st career race in IndyCar opener
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — James Hinchcliffe watched the 2011 season-opening race at St. Petersburg from the sidelines because he didn’t have a deal yet to drive in the IndyCar Series. Out of work again at the end of the year when his race team closed its doors, the Canadian was pondering his future in the Indianapolis house he shared with a bunch of roommates when his big break finally came.
Michael Andretti was on the phone in need of a driver to fill Danica Patrick’s seat. The ride had gone to Dan Wheldon, who signed to drive the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport but was killed shortly after in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.
Hinchcliffe was both honored and humbled — feelings that came flooding back Sunday when it all came full circle for him as he picked up his first career victory on the street course in Wheldon’s adopted hometown of St. Pete.
“This is his hometown; this is his car,” said Hinchcliffe, who will be added now to the Wheldon monument unveiled Thursday at Turn 10 on the course. “Knowing my face will be on that memorial, that’s really special.”
He drove the bright green No. 27 to the win in front of Wheldon’s wife, two sons, and sister, who have become like family to him and gave him the blessing to accept the job when Andretti called.
“It was a tremendous amount of responsibility I felt to honor Dan and do a good enough job to honor what he would have done in this car,” Hinchcliffe said. “So to get the first win here in his hometown with his family here, who I’ve grown quite close to, it means so much more, to be honest. There’s nowhere that I would have rather had my first win I don’t think in this car than right here in St. Pete.”
Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves on the final restart to take the lead and held on to win by 1.09 seconds over the defending race winner. He became the first Canadian to win since Paul Tracy’s 2007 victory at Cleveland in the CART Series, and Hinchcliffe waved the Canadian flag as he climbed from his car.
The win showed Andretti didn’t lose a step over the offseason, when the organization turned it up a notch even after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s championship.
It paid off Sunday when Hinchcliffe got the first IndyCar win for sponsor GoDaddy, who was with Patrick in the series before her 2012 move to NASCAR, and it was the 44th win for the organization.
The team also celebrated Marco Andretti’s third-place finish, and was satisfied with new addition E.J. Viso’s seventh-place finish considering he came back from a hard crash in Saturday’s practice after his suspension failed. Hunter-Reay might have also been in the mix if not for a mechanical problem.
“We worked so hard over the winter because we knew it was going to be that much harder to be competitive this year,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “To come out the way we did, I think all weekend all of our cars were showing they had strength.
“For Hinch, especially, he just was on it from the first practice on. He did not put a wheel wrong all weekend. He drove his butt off.”
So did Andretti’s son, Marco, who picked up his career-best finish on the downtown street course after using the offseason to study what he’s been doing wrong in the race car and to rebuild his confidence. He used a late surge to pass Simona de Silvestro with two laps to go to get the podium finish.
“I’ve been working so hard in the offseason, not just physically, but on places where I’ve been lacking and these places have been a weak point for me,” said Andretti, who praised de Silvestro but said in the closing laps, “I had to muscle her a little bit. I needed a podium.”
De Silvestro lost two more spots — to Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon — before the checkered flag. She settled for sixth but was thrilled about her debut race for KV Racing Technology, which went fourth and sixth with Kanaan and de Silvestro.
Mario Andretti was among the many people who stopped after the race to congratulate the Swiss driver.
“We were running up front the whole day and it was really cool to be keeping up with them,” she said. “I think we can really learn from this and try to be better next week. We all know we can be fast and qualify fast and run up front. Now we just have to minimize mistakes so we can win races.”
It was a huge opening weekend for Chevrolet, which swept the top four spots in its first race since capturing the driver and manufacturer championship in last year’s return season to IndyCar.
Dixon was the highest-finishing Honda for team owner Chip Ganassi, who minced no words Saturday when he openly questioned Honda’s desire to win in IndyCar. The Honda teams had been slow all weekend, and Ganassi’s comments sent a clear message he’s not satisfied with engine performance.
Honda had only three drivers in the top 10.
“Obviously, it was a disappointing start to our IndyCar season,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development. “But we will learn from this and everyone ... will work, together with our teams, to get back to the top of the podium.”
The race was dominated early by Will Power, who led the first 26 laps but lost the lead to Penske Racing teammate Castroneves on a restart and then lost another position to Hinchcliffe on another restart. It put him back in third for a huge chunk of the race until a bizarre incident under caution with JR Hildebrand, who inexplicably drove on top of Power’s car.
The contact damaged Power’s side mirror and caused a flat tire, forcing him to pit road for repairs that dropped him to 16th, where he finished.
Hildebrand took the blame.
“We were getting ready for the restart, I was dialing my knobs back and talking to team about the start,” Hildebrand said. “Guys just slowed up, and I ran into the back of him. It was totally my fault. As soon as I hit him, I couldn’t help from going anywhere. It was totally my fault.
“I’m super sorry for Will. We were just trying to get back on lead lap. I was doing too much all at once when the field slowed up there.”
But Power was more bothered by the restarts, and said he’s spoken to race director Beaux Barfield about protocol in the past.
“What are we going to do about second-place taking off? He just keeps allowing people to do it,” Power said. “And then JR just ran over the back of me to ruin the day. He said he was just looking at the steering wheel. Just a mistake, man, it happens.”
Castroneves said he did nothing wrong on the restart that got him past Power on the restart on lap 27. Power never led again.
“I went between the cones where we talk about it; but I understand that he also has got to keep the pace,” said Castroneves, who led a race-high 42 laps.
“They said this is going to be the start of the race, you’ve got to be ready. I was ready. So in this situation, everybody wants to win and go for it. I think I was doing my job.”