James Hinchcliffe finally had a reason to smile at the Honda Indy Toronto.
The 26-year-old from Oakville, Ont., survived contact on the second-last restart to finish a career-best eighth in his hometown race Saturday at Exhibition Place.
“I think we get honourable mention today,” Hinchcliffe said. “Maybe it’s a moral podium because it was hard fighting out there.
“This place is so tough, this series so competitive and everybody out there, it’s cutthroat, man.”
Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., finished 17th in the first of two 85-lap races over the 11-turn, 1.75-mile street course. The veteran driver had a promising top-10 run going before contacting ninth-place finisher Simon Pagenaud with three laps remaining.
With two races this weekend, the expectation was drivers would be cautious on the track. But predictably, Hinchcliffe said when he and his brethren get behind the wheel, they have one mindset — to win.
“When you’re out there racing, whether you’ve got one race or two, you never make a move assuming it’s going to end in disaster,” he said. “You’re going to drive just as hard as you would if this was Sunday and I think we saw that.
“It’s more fun for us and I think it’s a better show for the fans.”
And during the pre-race driver’s parade, it was clear many in attendance had come to see Hinchcliffe, who received the loudest ovation from fans.
“The parade lap was pretty special, for sure,” he said. “Every single grandstand was chanting and cheering.
“The biggest thing is you want to put on a good show for them. Everyone was still waving and clapping at the end so I guess they weren’t too disappointed with a top-10.”
Scott Dixon won Saturday’s race to claim his second straight victory.
It’s been a roller-coaster season for Hinchcliffe, who has a series-leading three wins but is sixth in the driver’s standings, 88 points behind leader Helio Castroneves, who has won once. Hinchcliffe has also had his problems here, finishing 14th in 2011 before being forced out of last year’s event with engine problems.
But after starting 13th on Saturday, Hinchcliffe stood seventh when the race restarted on the 69th lap. With a glut of cars heading into the first turn, though, Hinchcliffe’s vehicle was clipped, causing a cloud of blue smoke.
“At first the team was calling me in,” Hinchcliffe said. “But I said, ‘Until that tire blows up I’m not coming in, I’m sorry. Tell me that it’s going flat and I’ll come in but until then, I can deal with it smoking a bit.’
“Luckily we stayed out. It made the car pretty loose ... but we were lucky to hold on to a top-10 so I’m proud of the boys and we’ll take what we learned (Saturday) and apply it (Sunday).”
Two-time champion Paul Tracy remains the last Canadian to capture this event, winning in 2003. On Sunday, Tagliani will start from the No. 9 spot, three ahead of Hinchcliffe. But Hinchcliffe said he and his teams learned some valuable lessons Saturday.
“We know a lot more about the tires now,” he said. “When you only have one practice and go straight into qualifying you never really run a set of tires past 20 laps and we’re doing 30-something lap stints here.
“So it’s a lot of knowledge, a lot of learning done this race and you apply that to. That’s what these guys get paid for. We’ll go look over everything and be here late (Saturday) trying to sort it out and come back even stronger.”
Tagliani, 39, felt he was capable of a top-10 finish before the incident with Pagenaud in the first turn.
“I didn’t want to go on the outside but he turned and brought me all the way to the inside wall,” Tagliani said. “I didn’t want to tap the wall, but he just hit my front tire and got me into a spin.
“I’m kind of disappointed by a pretty aggressive move but it’s a race incident and we’ve got to turn the page and move on and go to race two. We had a pace to be in the top-10 ... it was just a question of finishing the race and trying to maintain the position we had. Unfortunately, this race is renowned for creating altercations on the track and we were a victim in one of them.”
Tagliani was second here to American Michael Andretti in 2001 and third in 2005. But his best effort this year was 10th at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, another street circuit.
Tagliani is hopeful he and his team will benefit from the lessons learned Saturday.
“Hopefully with our (No. 9) starting spot we’ll be working a lot less to try and make position and get there,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get there and if we can stay there all race long and try to stay out of those situations and make some tweaks to the car ... if we can find four tenths it will be a lot easier to stay there.”