If James Hinchcliffe and the IndyCar Series were dating, it would be one of those highly-charged on-again, off-again relationships.
When they get along, magic happens; when they’re on the outs, something bad is bound to befall the Andretti Autosport driver.
And there’s little doubt he’s hoping he stays on his sweetheart’s good side when the flag drops on Sunday for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“Maybe I finally figured out what makes her tick and I can say on her good side,” Hinchcliffe chuckled.
“It’s obviously very difficult more than anything because when we are running, we are running well and you really end up thinking about the championship when you have those DNFs (did not finish). It’s the woulda, coulda, shoulda game.”
The 26-year-old from Oakville, Ont., and his race series mistress experienced a fairy tale weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., to open the 2013 season. Everything went his way in Florida where he pressured late race leader Helio Castroneves of Team Penske into a mistake and scored his first career IndyCar victory.
Two weeks later, he and IndyCar were on the outs. Hinchcliffe’s race at Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park ended almost before it started after his No. 27 Go Daddy-sponsored machine was hit by another driver in a first lap incident and suffered a wheel failure. To make matters worse, his paramour thoughtlessly left him stranded on the circuit for the entire race as he waited for the safety crew to restart his car during a caution that never came.
Things didn’t change much in the next stop on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., where Hinchcliffe looked to be on his way to challenging for a podium finish until contact with another driver on a restart put him into the wall and out of the action about halfway through the race.
He ended up dead last on the score sheet in Barber and second-to-last in Long Beach. Both results were classified as 26th places.
The guy who successfully wooed his dream girl into the Winner’s Circle a month earlier, now seemed firmly ensconced in the doghouse.
Then they took a trip out of the country to Brazil and patched things up on the streets of São Paulo.
Hinchcliffe couldn’t have kissed and made up in a more dramatic way, taking his second win of 2013 after a scintillating last corner pass on leader Takuma Sato, of the A. J. Foyt Enterprises team, and making it to the finish line just 0.3463 seconds ahead.
While being rejected hurts, the hit in the standings from his unrequited weekends really makes his heart ache.
“You look at those lost points and to be sitting fourth overall with two DNFs, you are obviously loving the strength of those wins, but you want to be higher,” he said. “Those are serious lost opportunities.”
Hinchcliffe will start ninth in Sunday’s 200-lap race at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway after posting an average speed of 227.070 miles per hour over his qualifying four-laps. Pole sitter Ed Carpenter’s average was 228.762 mph.
And getting a win this weekend at the famed Brickyard would not only go a long way to making up for the lost points, but it would also give the young driver a place in history.
“Essentially, we are racing for immortality because as soon as you win this race, you are forever known as ’former Indy 500 winner so-and-so’ and no matter what else you do or don’t accomplish in your career, that’s never taken away from you,” Hinchcliffe said.
“It’s one of those events that kind of transcends the rest of the sport – and not just our sport being IndyCar but racing in general. It is the most famous race in the world, it is the largest race in the world, and a lot of guys will tell you it’s the toughest.”
The top non-Chevy-powered car in qualifying was Alex Tagliani, of Lachenaie, Que., who put his No. 98 Barracuda Racing Honda 11th on the grid. While the Chevys were also quick in qualifying last year, the Honda proved to be the engine to beat in the 96th Indy 500. Last year, Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti drove his Honda-powered Dallara to his third career Indy 500 victory.
So, while the Chevys filled the first three rows, veteran Tagliani just might be the Canadian to watch as the race unfolds.
“I’m super confident with the car that we have for the race,” Tagliani said.
“I’m also very pleased with how Honda improved during the week of practice. Honda worked with us to make sure we had a fair chance to fight the competition, and I’m pleased with the way they responded.”
In the end, the Indianapolis 500 is usually about patience and sometimes about who doesn’t stay calm.
The first half of the race usually sees the drivers give each other lots of room so they can fine tune the feel of their cars. Essentially, they use the early action to figure out what they have to work with when the final laps play out. Others don’t keep their cool and end up in the wall, sometimes taking a few of their competitors with them.
“It could come down to weather, it could come down to yellows, it could come down to tires,” Hinchcliffe said.
“There are just so many things that need to go right, so one of the hardest jobs on race day is the strategist up on the pitbox knowing when to make those calls.”
And if he gets things right, Hinchcliffe hopes it will ensure his relationship with IndyCar stays on the positive side for a second consecutive race when the chequered flag flies on Sunday afternoon.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone
Correction: Takuma Sato drives for A. J. Foyt Enterprises, not Rahal Letterman as indicated in an earlier version of this story.