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James Hinchcliffe.
James Hinchcliffe.

Motorsports

Car No. 27 is special for Hinchcliffe Add to ...

When Andretti Autosport decided to ditch the No. 7 car number for the 2012 season, it was simply a matter of convenience.

The team already had No. 26 and No. 28 on its other two cars, so it decided that adding the No. 27 on the third was the logical choice. Besides, that was the number Dario Franchitti had on his car when he won the team’s last IndyCar championship and Indianapolis 500 in 2007, so maybe it would bring some good fortune too.

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For the car’s new driver, Canadian James Hinchcliffe, the idea of racing under the number 27 instantly evoked a massive sense of pride.

“It's a bit funny because the extra relevance from the Canadian side was lost on them,” he said.

“Once I pointed out to them that one of my childhood racing heroes and Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve drove in the 27, they said: ‘Oh yeah, we didn’t realize that.’ So, it was a nice coincidence and it’s an honour to be able to drive with that number. It’s pretty meaningful and significant.”

Villeneuve amazed the racing world with his uncanny ability to drive on a knife’s edge from his debut in Formula One with McLaren at the 1977 British Grand Prix. He won six times and scored 13 podiums in 67 starts, having joined Ferrari in 1978. Villeneuve died in a crash in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

The deal to drive with Andretti announced earlier this week ended a bit of an off-season roller-coaster ride for Hinchcliffe, who learned early in December that his Newman/Haas team was pulling out of IndyCar. The young Canadian fills the seat vacated by Danica Patrick, who moves to NASCAR's Nationwide Series full-time this year.

The team originally planned to run two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, who signed with the team prior to the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas. Wheldon died in a fiery 15-car pile-up early in the Las Vegas event.

Hinchcliffe will be in Florida this weekend to watch Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay test the new Dallara-Chevrolet IndyCar for two days at West Palm Beach. With the team only having one of the newly developed IndyCars to use in testing, the Andretti outfit opted for three two-day sessions to start off each driver. Marco Andretti drives it next week, while the Canadian gets into his new car at the end of the month in a test at Sebring, Fla.

After using the previous Dallara chassis for the past decade, IndyCar commissioned a new design this year. Along with the new car, two new engine manufactures – Chevrolet and Lotus – join Honda, which was the series' sole supplier last season.

As the 25-year-old from Oakville, Ont., gets ready for his second IndyCar campaign with a new team and in a completely new car, Hinchcliffe has good reason to feel a bit of déjà vu.

“It's almost like I get a second crack at being a rookie,” he said.

“I'm certainly grateful I had a year in the old car. The car was sorted. The team has a good handle on it. There was a little less guesswork. It was sort of a more comfortable environment for me to learn the series, the other drivers, the style of racing, the speed, and all that.”

As he did in 2011, Hinchcliffe may lean on his more experienced teammates early as he tries to get accustomed to his new ride.

While Hinchcliffe feels his experience last year at a high level of competition puts him a step above a rookie coming in this year, he also knows that the veterans will likely jump a bit ahead of him on the learning curve.

“That’s why I’m very happy to have two experienced teammates, because I’ll be able to bounce a lot of things off them and we'll all be able to help each other and be able to advance this process,” he said.

“I think with a new car that nobody has any information about, three guys working together pushing the development in one direction, I think we can get on top of this thing pretty quickly and that can be a big advantage for us.”

Last year, veteran Oriol Servia played mentor to Hinchcliffe as he settled in to his new home at Newman/Haas. The rookie proved to be a fast study, adapting quickly to the IndyCar and soon challenging his more experienced teammate on track.

And that went a long way toward getting him noticed by his new team owner, 1991 IndyCar champion Michael Andretti, who won 42 races in 18 seasons.

“What caught my eye with him last year was his teammate – he had a very good teammate, Oriol is a very good guy, very fast – but many times [Hinchcliffe] out-raced him and out-qualified him. That says something. That was a good benchmark for us to look at,” Andretti said.

“I think him having some experience of what a car should feel like on an oval, in Indianapolis, places like that, I think is really great that he got that because it would have been a little more difficult to take a gamble on him this year had he not had that experience and showed up against his teammate. So, it was definitely very important that he had last year.”

Hinchcliffe impressed in 2011 with his speed and poise, after joining the Newman/Haas team at the season’s second race. His sponsorship deal with Sprott Securities happened a bit late and he missed the first race. Despite starting the season in a hole in the Rookie of the Year standings, Hinchcliffe roared back from behind to win the award by a slim six-point margin over J.R. Hildebrand.

While he gets a grip on his Dallara-Chevrolet, there's one other thing that new for Hinchcliffe: For the first time in his racing career, he'll have the luxury of a steady paycheque.

“It's a nice change,” he said.

“Being at the top level of a sport in one of the top three teams is what you always aim to be as a professional athlete. Earning a good living doing what you love doing is a tremendous feeling. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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