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IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, drives through the first turn on the final day of practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 25, 2012. The 96th running of the race is Sunday. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) (AJ Mast)
IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, drives through the first turn on the final day of practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 25, 2012. The 96th running of the race is Sunday. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) (AJ Mast)

Motorsports

Hinchcliffe: You have to treat the Indy 500 'like any other race' Add to ...

This weekend just might be a turning point for a few drivers, as a Canadian dreams of glory in Indianapolis, while a pair of Formula One drivers hope to get things back on track in Monaco.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe goes into Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500 as the only driver to have qualified and finished in the top six in each of the four stops so far going into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He continued his qualifying string in Indy by posting the second best time and will start in the middle of the front row.

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“It's great to be able to have a clear view into turn one,” said the Oakville, Ont. native.

“One of the big tricks of Indianapolis is you really have to try to treat it like any other race, because at the end of the day, this is not only the biggest race on our schedule, it's the biggest race in the world. As soon as you start thinking about that and appreciating that fact before you get in the race car, I think it really puts your head in a different place. That's not necessarily the place you want to be.”

Hinchcliffe's season-and-a-quarter in IndyCar has been nothing short of phenomenal. He won the rookie of the year crown in 2011, despite missing the first race due to a late sponsorship deal. Then he stepped into the vacant high heels of fan favourite Danica Patrick after she left for the greener pastures of NASCAR – and quickly made everyone forget about her.

While his easy-going attitude makes him popular with fans outside the car, he's also impressed with his all-business attitude in the cockpit and his ability to get results. Now, he's looking for his first career IndyCar win in the famed 500.

“It's a race of unknowns,” he said. “You're going to have to be flexible with your strategy; you're going to have to adjust the car at pit stops and inside the cockpit, and stay ahead of the changing conditions. That's sort of the nature of this race, just because of how long it is.”

“We're starting on the front row, starting in a good position with the Go Daddy car for the drop of the green, but there are 500 very long miles that we have to finish after that and hopefully we can be there at the end.”

It's a good bet, since Hinchcliffe has been in the thick of things since the first green flag flew this year. He lies third overall with 136 points. Will Power of Penske leads with 190, followed by his teammate Helio Castroneves with 144. Drivers get 50 points for a win.

The second spot on the grid came by the slimmest of margins; Hinchcliffe was 0.0023 seconds or 0.003 miles per hour slower than pole sitter Ryan Briscoe over four laps of the 2.5-mile Brickyard. That's a difference of about nine inches after 10 miles at speeds of more than 226 mph.

Hinchcliffe will be hoping to become only the second Canadian after Jacques Villeneuve to drink the traditional glass of milk in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway winner's circle. “There's nothing like race day,” he said. “You see these formerly grey barren grandstands seething with life, colour and movement. It's a very surreal experience. It gives this track a feeling that it's alive and you're right in the heart of it.”

Schumacher’s stumble

As Hinchcliffe continues to shine, things seem to be going the other way for seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who has had his worst start ever in F1.

With a quarter of the 2012 season done, rumours have already started to swirl about his future with the Mercedes team. This weekend's race on the tight street circuit in Monte Carlo may be the key to his next move.

The German has mustered just two points in his first five starts, and even worse, he has three DNFs and has completed only 147 of a possible 283 laps this year.

Schumacher arrives in Monaco desperately needing a good finish – but he is also facing a five-place grid penalty for causing an accident two weeks ago at the Spanish Grand Prix.

It's likely that the best he could hope for is starting somewhere in the low- to mid-teens on the grid, although that fact doesn't seem to have him worried.

“I think we’re going to be in a position to be competitive,” said the five-time Monaco winner.

“Let’s see from where I finally manage to qualify and start the race and what can be done. It is certainly not ideal, but it is what it is, and I look forward to it, and I’m going to have some excitement.”

The German always seems to find an extra gear in Monaco. Fans might recall that the only time he started outside the top 10 at the principality was also due to a penalty in 2006. That year, stewards ruled that he had deliberately blocked the track in the dying seconds of qualifying to prevent rival Fernando Alonso, then driving for Renault, from getting pole.

A Ferrari driver at the time, he started the race dead last, and then shocked everyone with a rise to fifth by the chequered flag.

Schumacher is not alone in hoping to turn his season around in Monaco.

Massa needs to find top gear in Monaco

Like the German, Ferrari's Felipe Massa only has two points after the first five races and, like Schumacher, has had a tough time finding good results.

“I hope this weekend goes better than the previous races,” said Massa, whose best result so far in 2012 is a ninth in Bahrain.

“I have had a few difficult times in my career and maybe the start to this season has been the most difficult so far.”

Unfortunately the driver, who missed winning the 2008 world championship by a single point, has struggled since returning to F1 in 2010 after a career-threatening injury.

Massa was almost killed by an errant spring that hit his helmet during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. He missed the rest of the season and returned full-time in 2010.

Many feel Massa must find something extra in Monaco or lose his seat at the Scuderia.

“We need to get out of this situation, to get back on a good direction and that is what I am concentrating on,” he said.

“I have had to deal with the technical side of the problem, but also it causes a mental [problem] as it is not easy to deal with this situation. But if you fix one, then it is easier to fix the other.”

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

Twitter: @jpappone

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