By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 12 drivers from the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list continues with the 10th-place finisher, James Hinchcliffe.
James Hinchcliffe, No. 5 ARROW/LUCAS OIL Honda
- 2018: 10th in the championship
- Wins: 1, Top 5: 5, Top 10: 9, Poles: 0, Laps Led: 65
- Best Finish: 1st (Iowa)
If it weren’t for that race, James Hinchcliffe’s 2018 campaign would be regarded as one of the Canadian’s best in his eight years of Verizon IndyCar Series competition.
But to disregard what happened to Hinchcliffe in May would be akin to praising the Titanic while ignoring the iceberg it struck.
The 31-year-old entered the season with quiet consistency, notching an average finish of 5.8 in the opening five events of the year to quietly position himself fifth in the standings. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and rookie phenom Robert Wickens stole the spotlight from Hinchcliffe early on as he contended for race wins and podiums, but Hinchcliffe’s quality runs allowed him to lurk just behind the leaders through the spring months.
Hinchcliffe started the Month of May with a seventh-place performance in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to enter the Indianapolis 500 with momentum. Given the veteran’s talent at Indianapolis — he’d qualified on the front row in three of his previous four starts, and had finished seventh in 2017 — the speed of the SPM cars and double points awarded at Indianapolis, Hinchcliffe went into Bump Day with an opportunity to make a statement and position himself to leave the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with the points lead in hand.
That’s when everything began to fall apart.
A poor first qualifying run after the rain-delayed session began left Hinchcliffe near the back of the field. Once everyone had made their initial qualifying runs and bumping began, the ever-increasing speeds left Hinchcliffe on the cusp of elimination.
Oriol Servia and Conor Daly overtook Hinchcliffe with a pair of late runs, and in the final hour the former Indy 500 polesitter found himself outside of the Field of 33. Hinchcliffe quickly abandoned his old time to jump to the front of the line and make a qualifying attempt, but a vibration in the car forced him back to the pit lane.
Hinchcliffe wouldn’t return to the racing surface in a race car for the rest of the month.
Runs from Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Pippa Mann used up the remaining time on the day. When the gun went off to signal the end of Bump Day, Hinchcliffe was one of two drivers eliminated from the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.
Tears flowed and the No. 5 team embraced one another as the realization of their failure to qualify set in. What had previously been a season of championship promise had been led to ruin in the span of a few hours in Speedway, Indiana.
Some believed SPM would buy Hinchcliffe a ride in the race, like Andretti Autosport had with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2011, but they never did. Hinchcliffe watched on from the pit lane as Wickens and Jay Howard contested the 500-mile event.
It wasn’t Hinchcliffe’s worst moment at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – few things could dare to top the harrowing, season-ending crash he suffered in 2015. But missing the biggest Indy car race in the world was still a tremendous collapse.
Hinchcliffe dropped to 11th in the standings and never again rose into championship contention. The promise of the year’s opening months were ultimately for naught. But to the No. 5 team’s credit, they did still make the second half of the season memorable.
The ensuing races at Belle Isle were a struggle for Hinchcliffe, but the Mayor of Hinchtown rebounded with a fourth-place run in the next oval race at Texas Motor Speedway. A month later he secured his second oval win, surging late to claim a victory at Iowa Speedway.
Things went downhill from there, as SPM’s up-and-down season ended in difficult fashion. Wickens suffered serious injuries in a crash at Pocono Raceway, providing an unfortunate ending to one of the best rookie campaigns in recent history. Hinchcliffe avoided injury, but finished no better than 14th in his final five races of the season.
Despite his struggles to close out the year, Hinchcliffe has a few promising notes to remember 2018 for. The veteran tallied his best points finish since joining SPM in 2014 even after missing out on a double-points race, managed a race win for the third time in the past four seasons and had his best average finish of any full-season campaign at 10.1.
Hinchcliffe also made a life-changing decision off-track, proposing to girlfriend Becky Dalton.
Given the mixed bag nature of the 2018 season, Hinchcliffe and SPM could move in either direction next year. If they can match the speed and success they showed in the spring and through the early summer, then Hinchcliffe could finally become the title contender his three-win 2013 campaign with Andretti Autosport made him out to be. On the opposite end, poor runs like those the team ended the season with could undermine any growth they’ve made.
The 2018 IndyCar season was a memorable one for Hinchcliffe and SPM, in both good and terrible ways. Hinchcliffe proved that he can run with the best in the paddock when things go to plan, though the No. 5 team still couldn’t salvage the bad days like contenders Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden managed in most races.
Everything will be there to play for in 2019. But until the field returns to Indianapolis and the Canadian is offered a chance at redemption, one poor qualifying performance in May is likely the thing that people will remember when Hinchcliffe comes to mind.