Q&A with new Newman/Haas driver James Hinchcliffe
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Thanks for having me on.
THE MODERATOR: James is the latest driver to graduate from the Mazda Road to Indy to the IZOD IndyCar Series after spending the last two years in Firestone Indy Lights where he won three times and finished second in the championship last year.
James was also very impressive in the IZOD IndyCar Series open test at Barber Motorsports Park, driving for Newman/Haas. This weekend he gets to make his IZOD IndyCar Series debut at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
Q. James, you have to be pretty excited to get behind the wheel of that No. 06 car.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: For sure. It's a great result, a great accomplishment from a lot of people that have been working really hard to make this deal come together. Incredibly thankful to Newman/Haas for the faith they've showed in me to bring me onboard this year. With Sprott, Inc., sponsoring the car, a Canadian company, it's extra special. Bringing a lot of cool elements together for my first race.
Q. Although you never know what everyone else is doing at an open test, you personally had a very good test with Newman/Haas Racing. Knowing you were quick with some of the front-running cars, you have to be confident entering what is your debut?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think if there is a silver lining missing the first race at St. Pete, I get a debut at one of the only two tracks I've actually driven the IndyCar at. The test certainly went very well.
It's tough. A test day you have five hours to lay down a single lap time, that's all people really see. Race weekend is very different. The practice sessions are only an hour long. That first segment of qualifying is only 15 minutes to go out there and get the job done.
It's definitely a more challenging task. But I think we can certainly be encouraged by the pace we showed at the test. The car was super competitive. Both Oriol and I were setting competitive times there by the end of the second day. I think we have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
At the end of the day, it's still going to be my first race. There's a ton for me to learn, a lot I'm going to be going through for the first time. I think we definitely have controlled expectations heading into the weekend.
Q. You are the latest in a line of drivers who have moved up through the Mazda Road to Indy and Firestone Indy Lights, joining drivers like JR Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and Sebastian Saavedra on the grid. Talk a little bit about the preparation that Firestone Indy Lights gave you to make this step up.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I'll tell you, I was so happy when I drove the IndyCar for the first time because it just really proved what the series and what Firestone Indy Lights has done with the Road to Indy because the car drove so similar that it was the first time I've ever really seen a development series be so relevant to the next step.
It had such a similar feel. I was instantly comfortable in the car. It was all because of the time I spent in the Lights car. I've been telling everybody there's a 20percent rule. In terms of the IndyCar, you have 20 percent more power, 20 percent more downforce, 20 percent better brakes, it does everything 20 percent better, but fundamentally it's a very similar feel.
I think that speaks volumes for the level of preparation you get competing in Firestone Indy Lights and I think why you'll see a lot of these drivers that have graduated be successful fairly early on.
Q. I wanted to ask you about landing your sponsorship with Mr. Sprott. How did that all come about? Also, why did it happen now instead of two weeks ago?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Good question.
Well, obviously for us, when we're out searching for partners for an IndyCar program, we looked at prominent Canadian companies. Certainly Sprott, Inc., is right up there, one of the most successful companies certainly in its industry. The financial industry is a very fast-paced performance-oriented industry. I think there's a lot of parallels there between that and motor racing.
So when we first approached the company, they seemed very open to the idea. Mr. Sprott took the idea quite early on. We talked back and forth and went over a bunch of different scenarios. I think ultimately they saw those parallels, that there were a lot of possibilities there for them.
For us it was a great combination. Add onto the fact it's a young Canadian driver, a prominent Canadian company, I think that was a very big factor for them and something that meant a lot to them, being able to support an up-and-coming Canadian athlete.
It took a little while to get it all together, but I think ultimately it was a bit of a no-brainer and a win-win situation for everybody.
In terms of why it could have happened a couple weeks earlier, when you're dealing with any company in any sort of potential sponsorship, certainly the magnitude of sponsorship required to go IndyCar racing, it's a lengthy process. It's not just somebody pulling out their wallet out of their left pocket, taking out a bit of cash. There's a lot of things to go through, a lot of due diligence to be done by all the parties involved.
Ultimately the big thing is you don't want to rush something and get it wrong or push someone into a certain time frame and ultimately scare them off.
So, you know, for us, what we're trying to do between Newman/Haas and myself and our partners is build a long-term program, hopefully something that can be successful for a few years. We wanted to make sure that all the groundwork was laid, all the pieces were in place to do that, not jumping out of the car every other weekend not knowing when we were going to be racing again. If that meant we had to sacrifice some time at the beginning of this year to make sure we had a long-term plan in place, that was a risk we were willing to take and a sacrifice we were willing to make.
I think that was the right choice. It's paid off now. I think the damage was limited. We only missed one event. Hopefully we can just build on this for years to come.
Q. Is there a term on this? Is it just for this year?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: The details obviously I can't go into too much. But certainly let's just say it's a partnership that we certainly hope is going to carry on into the future, yes.
Q. Obviously you started looking for sponsorship last year during the Indy Lights season. I took a long time for this to finally get done. Obviously you have reasons for that. Is this a positive that other young drivers should look at if they're looking for sponsorship or is a cautionary tale that this is not going to be easy, even if you are with a top team in IndyCar, things are not great if you're a young kid trying to come up through the ranks right now?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think it's both. I mean, I think it's a bit of a cautionary tale that it's not an easy business. Even Paul Tracy, he started looking for sponsors as soon as the Indy 500 was over last year, and even he only has a five-race deal that's not starting till Long Beach.
I certainly don't want to send the message that it's easy. I takes a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance to get it.
On the other hand, I think it is a promising tale because I'm a good example of someone who came up through the ranks, young driver with aspirations of making it to IndyCar. Through the hard work of a lot of people, I'm not going to for a second take any of the credit for us making this step, it was a lot of work by a lot of people over a lot of time. But it can be done if you really fight through it, approach it the right way, you have the right parties working with you and working for you, it ultimately can be done.
I think IndyCar is a series that's certainly moving in a very positive direction. You know, hopefully that chore might be a little bit easier as the years go on in the next few years. For sure, it's not an easy thing to do, but I think we proved that it is possible.
Q. The deal that you have is for the North American races only. There will be a couple you will miss even if you stay the whole year with Newman/Haas. Does this deal help you get more backing for those two races and maybe bring more people on? Is this something that can I don't want to say open the floodgates, but say, People are willing to get behind me now, maybe you want to get in line, too?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Certainly. We're looking at the current deal and the current program as a starting point. It's not a finishing point and we're not giving up. Yeah, we'd like to have that sort of domino effect come into play where once that first one hits, some others fall down with it. I think there's some potential for that.
There's certainly other companies that we're still talking to about, again, this year and beyond. Like you say, we're in it for the North American races. If there's a possibility to do some of the ones we're not scheduled to do at this time, absolutely, that's something we're currently working on.
Like I said, it's all about trying to secure the future. I don't want to be standing in the paddock after the checkered flag in Vegas holding my race suit in one hand and my helmet in the other thinking, What am I doing in 2012? It's very much a program we're trying to build for the future.
Q. You were pretty fast in Alabama. How do you feel about moving up into the more powerful racer?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I feel great about it. I'm super excited to finally get that first start out of the way. Newman/Haas gave me the opportunity to get that test in December. That was a dream in itself getting to drive an IndyCar. Now we're going to be teaming up for the first race.
It's a great car to drive. Newman/Haas always provides a super fast car. We were able to prove that at the Barber test.
The track there is a great one to drive. It's a super cool layout, very technical, very challenging for both the drivers and the engineers. For us to be able to show up there, certainly my first full series test, and run competitively was a big shot in the arm.
Hopefully some of that speed translates into the race weekend.
Like I said, testing is a completely different deal from a race weekend. We're just going to go there, put our heads down, do what we've been doing, and hopefully that translates into some good results.
Q. How much time have you had in an IndyCar seat?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I've done six days of testing so far. So I did two in December in Sebring, two in January in Sebring, and then the two in Barber in March before the start of the season.
Q. The Barber test, you finished the last one ahead of guys like Dario Franchitti. Is that something you would be looking at for your first race there? How realistic do you have to be about who you can beat and who you can be ahead of in this first IndyCar race? Are there things in the IndyCar that you're going to have to sort of not do that you do in the Indy Lights car? How differently are you going to approach a race from the two series?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Sure. I think first of all, we may have finished ahead of Dario in the test, but I know Dario had a pretty bad day. I think it would be a little bit cheeky of me going in to expect to finish ahead of a three-time champion and a two-time Indy 500 winner my first go.
We very much want to be as competitive as possible. I think for me, you know, the only real benchmark or goal that you can set is to be top rookie. I think that's a realistic thing to go for. All of the other rookies in the field right now have at least one start under their belt, so they've already got one leg up on me. I think I'm in a very competitive car with a great team and we've got a lot of potential to achieve that goal.
In terms of differences between approaching an IndyCar race to a Lights race, it's not so much what I won't do, what I'll do less of, it's what I have to do more of. There's so much more to take in when you look at obviously pit stops, strategy, fuel saving, 'push to pass'.
There's all these new elements coming into play. The qualifying format is obviously very different from anything I've ever done with the knock-out system. That's going to be a big a challenge. It puts a lot of pressure on the engineers to get that car right in one run and a lot of pressure on that driver to get that lap time in there when everybody is on the track trying to do the same thing.
There's an awful lot to take in and an awful lot that's different. I think that's why we need to be a little bit cautious for expectations for the weekend. I'm sure there will be rookie mistakes that will be made. My big goal is to finish the race. We obviously want to be top rookie. We want to focus on having good, clean pit stops. Maybe if they're not the fastest ones in my first event, that's probably nothing to be too ashamed of, that's something we want to work toward. Just have a good event that I can learn a lot from and work on for the next couple races.
Q. Double-file restarts, I think a lot of drivers were worried about it after St. Pete. How are you going to approach those if they happen in the race after a yellow?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think I'll approach them by trying not to run into the guys in front of me and around me, which didn't seem to be the case in a couple of those restarts.
No, I think St. Pete was very much a unique situation in that it was the first race of the season. Everybody is getting back up to speed in terms of restarts anyway. The new procedure for the double-file restarts is very different with the slower starts and everything like that. Everybody had to get used to that system. Then on top of that, being an airport circuit, the front straightaway is so wide, it's so inviting, the inside of the racetrack is dirty, bumpy, almost impossible to slow the car down.
I think we had a lot of very unique elements that made that more dramatic and look worse than it really will be.
In general, I think the double-file restarts are a great idea. They look great on TV, it's great for the fans. If you look at the layout at Barber, the guys have the inside line for turn one are going to be on the outside for turn two, and turn two leads into the best braking zone down into turn five. I think the double-file restarts are going to provide a lot of really, really good action.
Q. Your teammate for the season will be Oriol Servia. What is your relationship with him like and how do you think you'll work as teammates this year?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I'm actually more worried about us getting any work done because we have so much fun together. He's such a great guy. But on top of that, he's a phenomenal racing driver.
I knew I was very, very lucky right away when the first time I went to the shop, this is Newman/Haas, what we've been telling everybody, this is one of the best teams in the business, you talk to every one of the mechanics, every one of the engineers, everybody there holding Oriol in such a high regard. This is a team that's worked with the best of the best. So I really knew that I was getting a very special opportunity to work with such a great driver.
His technical feedback is incredible. He's a very, very intelligent guy. It's been great sitting on debriefs with him throughout testing, being able to watch the St. Pete weekend from the outside.
Like I said, right off the bat, he's such a good guy. We get along really, really well. I think we both understand the benefits in working well together, trying to improve the car and improve the team overall.
I don't predict any issues in that respect. My biggest thing is I'm just going to try to keep up with him.
Q. In a previous question you mentioned strategy, how it's different from Indy Lights. Barber is a track that offers up a lot of different strategies. I think Helio won the race last year saving fuel. Some guys go all out trying to get track position. Is that something that you learned in the test, that maybe you keep in the back of your head, This could be a race where fuel strategy could come into play?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Yes, certainly. Whenever you head into an event, the first thing you do is you look at how the guy won it the year before. I think everybody is going to go into the race this year with a fuel-strategy plan on their mind because last year was the first event there. No one really knew what to expect. Like you say, there were those different strategies. Ultimately, it was Helio who came out on top.
The biggest thing that I realize, especially being able to sit on the inside during the St. Pete weekend, was how flexible you have to be with strategy. You can sit there before the race starts and throw out the best possible plan that's going to win you the race guaranteed. All you need is one guy to pass you at the start, one yellow flag to come out at the wrong time, that plan's completely out the window.
It's about having multiple strategies prepared, thinking on the fly, the driver giving the right information back to the team while he's out there, the team taking all the information they're getting from the timing stand, everybody being flexible and trying to communicate well.
When we were down at the test, obviously going fast was one of the main objectives, but also trying things like fuel saving, trying things like running in traffic, seeing sort of what the car would do, how everybody behaved in that respect. The test was definitely good preparation for that.
I think we have some of the best engineers and strategists on the team at Newman/Haas. We'll be prepared for whatever the race throws at us.
Q. The last time Newman/Haas had a rookie driver miss the first race, he went out and won the next race. You're not feeling any pressure from what Graham did at St. Pete, are you?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Thanks a lot for driving that one home (laughter).
No, it's quite a statistic. It would be very, very tremendous if we were able to repeat that. But I'm certainly not going in there thinking that's something we have to do, no.
THE MODERATOR: With that we will thank James Hinchcliffe for his time today and wrap-up today's IZOD IndyCar Series conference call. Thank you, everybody, for joining us today.
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