There’s an old saying about timing being everything in racing, but for James Hinchcliffe it’s got a deeper and a bit quirkier meaning.
The Toronto racer and IndyCar rookie has three-time champion Dario Franchitti in his corner because of the watch he wears.
“I got to know James through the TW Steel connection because he is an ambassador, too, and the people there spoke very highly of him,” Franchitti said.
“I had watched a couple of his Indy Lights races but I think it was Indianapolis last year when I really started to pay attention. He had some good drives and we talked about his options for this year coming and it’s funny I said to him at the time that with the options available I would go with Newman/Haas because they have some of the best cars in the field on certain tracks.”
The expert counsel from the two-time Indy 500 winner didn’t fall on deaf ears and Hinchcliffe signed to drive for the Chicago-based team that won eight titles and more than 100 races in the old Champ Car/CART Series.
“When you get a tip from a guy who did it last year or did it last week and did it well – a guy like Dario – that is something that I take seriously,” Hinchcliffe said with a laugh.
“There’s no doubt getting advice from a three-time champion helps your confidence. I just want to earn the respect of the guys that I respect. We all know that Dario is not afraid to speak his mind and if he doesn’t think highly of someone he’ll usually let people know. So, when a guy you’ve respected as a racing driver for a long time says ‘Hey, as a rookie in IndyCar, I respect what you are doing,’ it definitely means a lot.”
While he missed the first race after his sponsorship deal with financial company Sprott Asset Management wasn’t finalized until the second stop of 2011, Hinchcliffe has made the most of his time in the number 6 Newman/Haas car. He’s got three top-10 finishes in his six starts this year, which puts him 17th overall in IndyCar points and second in the rookie of the year standings going into his home race at Toronto, which marks the halfway point of the season.
When Hinchcliffe signed, new teammate Oriol Servia readily admitted that he wasn’t keen on a rookie in the second Newman/Haas car, but that soon changed as the pair began working together.
“If you know James, he talks a lot,” Servia chuckled. “But that’s a good quality in this team because they always have an answer and the more questions you ask, the more you learn. It’s also a refresher for me because he makes you think about things you may not have without his questions.”
“Originally, if you asked me, I would have chosen a guy with more experience because I would have expected us to move forward faster, but it’s been working great so far and I would not change a thing with James.”
It helps that the pair has struck up a friendship and respect the other’s abilities, something that doesn’t always happen in teams. But it’s not just a matter of sharing data and getting along, the Newman/Haas team’s experience also helps both drivers take full advantage of the information that’s being collected.
“We have a great communication within the team and that’s what every team tries to do but sometimes it’s just not natural and it doesn’t happen that easy,” Servia said.
“With James and me, it’s been happening since Day 1 and I know it’s a big part of the reason why we are running stronger than people expected.”
Hinchcliffe hopes the good working relationship will help things go differently on the streets of Exhibition Place this weekend in the Honda Toronto Indy after his last trip home in Indy Lights didn’t end the way he would have liked.
“Oriol is a monster on the brakes and that’s something I have been able to learn from him a little bit and help push the limits and find out what this car is capable of. And there are some really big braking zones in Toronto, so I think that’s going to serve me well there,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Obviously, it’s different circumstances this year. Realistically, I don’t think we will be fighting for the win in Toronto but we will certainly want a top-10 and want to finish the race – that didn’t happen last year and I am hoping for a change in fortune.”
In 2010, Hinchcliffe was running a strong second in the Indy Lights race in Toronto before disaster struck on the last lap. He lost control under braking going into the 90-degree Turn 3 at the end of the long Lakeshore Blvd. straight and dropped to fourth. A couple of corners later, he ended up in the wall courtesy of Charlie Kimball.
But that’s all a distant memory, as Hinchcliffe prepares for his first IndyCar start at home.
“It’s pretty cool to think that I am finally going to race in this race in front of my home crowd and hometown. It’s all come full circle: I started as a fan in a stroller and now I am going to be a driver on the grid,” he said.
“My week is pretty flat out with on track and with off track appearances, but I understand that is part of it and it’s an important part because I am not Paul Tracy and I am still trying to grow my profile in Canada so it’s important for me to balance getting the most exposure I can while still having the time I need to do what I am here to do, which is drive the car.”