James Hinchcliffe capably stepped into Danica Patrick's race car on Sunday, starting and finishing fourth in the IZOD IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg.
Boosted by a two-stop pit strategy and a late-race tire call, the Oakville, Ont., driver kept the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet-powered Dallara in the top five throughout the 100-lap race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit.
Hinchcliffe credited the team strategist, George Klotz, and the Andretti crew, but the driver made the final pitstop call. The crew was prepared to mount red-sidewall alternate Firestone tires for the final race stint, but changed to the more stable black tire compound at Hinchcliffe's request.
“These guys have been working so hard all off-season with this new car and this new engine package,” Hinchcliffe said. “They made the right call on strategy to do the two stops. I was having to save some fuel at times, so we lost a couple of positions on some restarts, but the guys were great in the pits and the strategy was the right call. It's tough to save fuel with a bad-handling car, so that proves that we had a good car.
“We had a panic little conversation before the last stop about which tires to take, so huge credit to the guys for switching. They were set to put reds on and I wanted black to be on there. I think it was the right call; they stayed under us really well.”
Hinchcliffe was selected to drive the GoDaddy-sponsored car after Patrick moved to NASCAR for the 2012 season. The seat was initially assigned to Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who died in the final 2011 IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hinchcliffe noted, “There's a lot of pressure and also a lot of honour,” in driving the car.
Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., was frustrated with his 15th-place finish in St. Petersburg. His team, Bryan Herta Autosport, had little time to prepare the No. 98 Dallara for the first race, delayed by the late arrival of the car's Lotus engine. Tagliani said the team's effort was hurt by both the lack of off-season testing and pit-lane issues.
“We had a fair amount of problems during the race. I think we're not all in sync at the moment; there's a lot of things that need to be fixed,” he said. “But I'm very happy with the car. I think the car was very competitive. At some stages in the race, we were matching the leader's pace, but we were pretty much a sitting duck on the straightaway.
“I think we have a very strong team and with the group of guys we have and the engineer we have, we should be a top-five car. Our car shows a lot of strength, but we're handicapped at the moment with the engine.”