James Hinchcliffe has been knocking on the door the past two years and scored an excellent first win in Sunday’s IndyCar season opener in St Petersburg. The 26-year old Canadian was IndyCar’s rookie of the year with Newman/Haas in 2011, the team’s last season. Hinchcliffe joined Andretti Autosport last year and finished eighth in points with third places at Long Beach and Milwaukee his best results. But he showed his stuff last year by qualifying on the front row at Indianapolis and Barber Motorsports Park, and was in great form in St. Petersburg last weekend.
Hinchcliffe qualified fourth and ran second or third through the first two-thirds of the race, battling with Penske pair Will Power and Helio Castroneves. Pole winner Power ran away on his own through the race’s opening segment but was beaten away from the first restart by team-mate Castroneves. A little later Power was hit by JR Hildebrand while running under a full-course yellow, resulting in a punctured tyre and some bodywork damage. After a pitstop and some repairs Power rejoined at the back of the field and was making some ground through the field only to slide wide and clip a tyre barrier.
Meanwhile, Hinchcliffe dogged Castroneves’s tracks and on the race’s final restart with 27 laps to go he was able to seize the led when the Brazilian braked too late and ran wide into the first turn. Running on Firestone’s harder compound tyres Hinchcliffe held off Castroneves, who was on the softer ‘red’ tyres, and then drove away through the closing laps to win comfortably.
“After that restart everybody else was on reds and we knew it was going to be tough,” Hinchcliffe said. “Everybody was asking me what was it going to take to become a winner and I said it’s about minimising mistakes – no mistakes in the pits, no mistakes on the track. And we capitalised from Helio making a mistake and put our head down and did it. I can’t believe it. It feels so good.”
In her first start with KV Racing and Chevrolet engines Simona de Silvestro qualified third and drove a fine race. The Swiss lady ran third for a good deal of the race but struggled with a lack of grip at the end. She ran wide in the last turn on the second last lap allowing Marco Andretti to take third and her KV teammate Tony Kanaan into fourth. On the run to the chequered flag a lap later de Silvestro lost fifth by a nose to Scott Dixon. Still, a fine performance from de Silvestro.
Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified eighth and ran in the middle of the field before hitting trouble with a sticking throttle. Four-time champion Dario Franchitti had an even more difficult weekend, qualifying tenth, falling back in the race and then hitting the wall on his first lap out of the pits on cold tyres. Dario freely admitted he was trying too hard to make up for his car’s poor handling.
Frenchman Tristan Vautier made an impressive IndyCar debut in St. Petersburg. Vautier won the Star Mazda and Indy Lights championships on his way to Indycars and is paired this year with Simon Pagenaud in Sam Schmidt’s team. Vautier qualified sixth and ran as high as fourth in the race before dropping out because of a broken exhaust header.
A fine start to the season then for Hinchcliffe and Andretti Autosport. It will be a good thing for IndyCar if the outgoing, good-humoured Canadian can make himself a championship challenger.