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Canada's James Hinchcliffe puts on his helmet before a practice session for the Toronto Indy in Toronto on July 18, 2014.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

On tap this week:

  • Christmas comes early for Hinchcliffe.
  • Canadian karting gets a boost.
  • Soft tires get workout in 2014.
  • Heel and toe anyone?

Forget about Christmas presents this year, James Hinchcliffe will get the one thing he really wants, when he slips into the cockpit of his new car. Like a kid waiting for Santa's arrival, the newly signed Schmidt Peterson Motorsport (SPM) driver has been unsuccessfully trying to contain his excitement about turning his first laps with his new team in a test in Sebring, Fla., on Tuesday.

"I've been counting the sleeps, not to Christmas but to the 16th," said the native of Oakville, Ont., who turned 28 last week.

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"For me, that's really the day my SPM career starts – regardless of the fact we've got a lot of work to do on getting our program where we need to be for the start of the season, it is definitely exciting."

The sole Canadian in IndyCar, Hinchcliffe spent the past three seasons with Andretti Autosport after breaking into the series with the legendary Newman-Haas outfit in 2011. SPM also joined the IndyCar Series in 2011 with Canadian driver Alex Tagliani after a long and successful Indy Light program that brought several titles. Hinchcliffe also raced with the SPM junior team in 2009, but the switch to its big brother comes with more responsibility.

At Andretti, he was one of four drivers and had teammates who had won races, the series championship, and the Indianapolis 500. Now, he instantly becomes the veteran team leader to whom the outfit will look for results and leadership both on and off the track. That makes SPM even more exciting.

"Everybody strives to put themselves in that position and I am lucky to say that I now have that opportunity. It's exciting, it's terrifying, and it's a little bit of everything. I think they've got the group there and the support system that together we can really push forward."

Random thoughts

With a newly upgraded karting centre ready to open in 2015 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, and solid corporate support for entry level racing in Canada, things are looking up for this country's budding motorsport stars.

The new Kart Centre will be housed at the legendary 10-turn 3.96-kilometre Bowmanville, Ont., road course, with a new track and support buildings at the heart of the project. It also includes garages, meeting rooms and registration areas that will all help make competitors' lives easier.

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The centre continues track co-owner Ron Fellows' support of young drivers, which goes back more than a decade to his Sunoco Karting Championship, which gave many of today's stars a boost, including Hinchcliffe and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters star Robert Wickens.

But the new facility is only half the equation as Fellows has been working behind the scenes and using his relationship with Canadian Tire to help ensure kids have the backing they need to compete on the world stage. "I won't lie to you, it was Ron who brought karting to Canadian Tire," said Allan McDonald, chief operating officer of Canadian Tire Retail.

"He is a huge advocate of karting in Canada, almost to the point where he would say the future of racing in Canada, which Ron thinks is very much reliant on karting, is more important to him than the future of Ron Fellows racing in Canada."

For the past three years, Canadian Tire has also been the sponsor of the annual ASN Canada FIA Canadian Karting Championships and backed Team Canada's entry in the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals. While it benefits young drivers, karting is also a good fit for Canadian Tire, which can use the racetrack as a showroom for its brand.

"Automotive sport is important to us and being Canadian is important to us, so when you can have an opportunity to invest a little bit in helping develop the best racing athletes in Canada and give them an opportunity to compete on the world stage, that's very aligned to the values that Canadian Tire espouses as a company," MacDonald said.

By the numbers

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Pirelli released its final tire numbers for the 2014 Formula One season last week, which revealed a massive increase in the durability and use of the soft compound, but not too much difference in the supersoft, medium and hard.

After weathering heavy criticism for the quick degradation and wear of some of its compounds last season, Pirelli brought more consistent and predictable tires to the track in 2014, not only to get out of the firing line of complaining fans but also to help deal with the increased torque resulting from the series' return to turbocharged engines.

The much-maligned soft tire from last year saw its average stint almost double from 46.88 kilometres to 93.38 km, a change that also had it become the workhorse of 2014. The soft was the most used tire in 2014, with teams slapping it on 463 times for a total of 43,239 km raced, up massively from last season when 135 sets completed only 6,330 km.

On the other hand, the supersoft, medium and hard compound use remained relatively static with the average distance increasing by 13.16 km for the hard and 1.04 km for the medium, while the supersoft's average decreased by a negligible 430 metres.

The end result of the soft tire's new-found durability was a drop in the average number of pit-stops per race, from 51 in 2013 to 44 this year, a reduction of about 14 per cent.

The winner of the longest distance for a tire in 2014 went to Nico Rosberg, who was forced into an unscheduled pit stop after making a mistake and flat-spotting his softs in the first corner of the Russian Grand Prix. The Mercedes driver switched to the medium compound and raced 52 laps on the second set of tires, completing a distance of 304 km.

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Technically speaking

There's no doubt that the proliferation of driver aids is one of the hottest debates in modern auto racing. Drivers today have so many technologies helping them get the car around the track that many purists feel the sport has lost much of its challenge.

A Formula One steering wheel has so many buttons and settings that former F1 and Championship Auto Racing Teams racer Alex Zanardi once joked that the driver can send e-mails using it.

Many other series have followed the lead of F1 and added driver aids to make things easier on drivers. As it stands, NASCAR is pretty much the only top series left on the planet where the drivers use a clutch and shift lever to change gears, and because of it, that skill is becoming a lost art on race tracks around the planet.

A case in point is Mercedes rising star Pascal Wehrlein, who got to the final of the Race of Champions in Barbados but faltered in the less technologically advanced cars used in the round robin-style competition.

The young German was beaten by former F1 driver David Coulthard in two straight races in the best of three final after running into some issues with changing gears.

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"For me, it's a bit tough to drive a manual shift car and brake with the right foot, the clutch and everything," Wehrlein said. "I was struggling a bit with that."

Quote of the week

"All of a sudden you have this car with a weight which is exaggerated by the massive battery in the back, which is sitting there and desperately trying to overtake the front of the car when you brake, but you can turn this into a massive positive. You have a constant weight in the back of the car instead of a fuel tank, which is getting lighter and causing a variation in the weight distribution as the race goes on.

It's the same with tire wear – it's relatively consistent as a result throughout the course of the race."

Mahindra Racing technical director David Brown on meeting the challenges of the all-electric FIA Formula E Championship car.

The last word

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With former Diageo chief executive officer Paul Walsh tipped to be the new boss at Delta Topco, the company that owns Formula One Management (FOM), Bernie Ecclestone's influence as Formula One ringmaster may be about to take a huge hit.

It is thought that the sport's majority owner, CVC Capital, wants to get a succession plan in place sooner than later and Walsh is the first step in pushing the diminutive F1 boss to the sidelines.

While not in the chair yet, Walsh's apparent desire to have a more hands-on approach than his predecessor would quickly put a fly in Ecclestone's ointment as his time running the sport nears an end. Now 83, Ecclestone continues to proclaim that he'll be around until he's put in a box, but realistically it's doubtful he'll be heading the sport for much longer.

When he does go, CVC and Delta Topco would be well-advised to find someone far removed from FOM who can bring new thinking and make sweeping changes to its head office both in personnel and attitude toward the sport's fans.

While he would likely never get the job, one of the best candidates out there would be former Williams chairman Adam Parr, who butted heads with Ecclestone on almost every issue before suddenly leaving the sport in 2012.

It was a surprise to many to see Parr depart suddenly since he was seen as a rising star in the paddock who had many practical and modern ideas on how to move the sport forward. He also showed that he understood the people in the stands with his clear and thoughtful responses about the state of the sport during fan forums in Montreal a few years ago run by the now-defunct Formula One Teams Association.

In his book, The Art of War: Five Years in Formula One, Parr said he believed that Ecclestone forced him out by informing the Williams board that it would not get a Concorde Agreement offer while he was still employed by the team. The Concorde Agreement is essentially the contract that governs the team's participation in F1.

"Under the circumstances, I chose to stand down so that the team could make the best deal possible with him," Parr wrote. "The [Concorde] offer arrived the day after my resignation had been announced."

Parr should be offered the F1 ringmaster job simply because he got under Ecclestone's skin with his innovative ideas about the sport. That alone should convince F1's bosses, but the fact that he did the right thing for the team even though it took a immense personal toll shows he's exactly the kind of person the sport needs to lead it.

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