Indy 500: Hinchcliffe bounces back to front row
19 May 2014
When flying debris knocked James Hinchcliffe out during the inaugural road race at Indianapolis the weekend before qualifying for the Indy 500, it looked touch and go whether or not the popular Canadian would be able to return to the cockpit in time to get himself into the biggest race of the year.
Hinchcliffe was sat out for five days after being diagnosed with concussion, during which time the #27 Andretti Autosport car was worked on by stand-in driver EJ Viso. Hinchcliffe wasn't finally declared fit to return to duty until Thursday.
"Knowing I'm going to a dark room that is going to determine my fate, it wasn't the most comforting feeling certainly," he recalled of the crucial medical re-evaluation. "It was more nerves I think than any lasting effect from the accident ... When those results came in, it was a huge relief. They determined I'm just as brain-dead as I was before!"
Unfortunately the weather then conspired against him and he got only a few minutes of running on Fast Friday. He was going into qualifying sorely lacking in preparation - and yet he still went on to secure himself a place in the Fast 9 shootout on Saturday, and then a front row position on Pole Day.
"To think about the fact a week ago I wasn't allowed to operate a cell phone," said Hinchcliffe after securing second place on the grid. "I was lucky that I don't remember the accident so I didn't have any nerves to get over.
"[That] I'm whipping an IndyCar around IMS at 230-something miles an hour is pretty incredible," he marvelled. "It's only because of so many people, everything from the doctors, my family taking care of me at home, all my team mates who did such a good job getting these cars ready.
"I jumped in Friday, one run, look where we ended up. Big thanks to Kurt [Busch], Carlos [Munoz], Marco [Andretti], Ryan [Hunter-Reay] and EJ, everybody at Andretti Autosport," he added. "I had to kind of pretend I had been here all month and take the feedback my team mates were giving me at face value. I knew what to expect from the car, and that was a huge part of it.
Not that it had been an easy ride to success: "The thing was a handful. I was working pretty hard for it. Into turn three on the last lap, it stepped out on entry a little bit, I had to take some wheel out of it, made for some understeer on exit. You don't have time for correction. I knew I had to crack the throttle. I was screaming in my helmet down the front stretch.
"I was working on the tools like crazy," he continued. "I had to crack the throttle. I don't think anybody's ever been on pole at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cracking the throttle over four laps, so I kind of knew right then and there [that I wasn't going to get pole.]"
Asked what NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star Kurt Busch (who qualified in 12th position) had brought to the Andretti operation this year, Hinchcliffe quipped: "Normally throwing stuff and cussing a lot!
"No, no, no, that's clearly a Kurt of old," he added quickly. "The guy that we've had has just been awesome. It's been really cool seeing somebody with as much racing knowledge and experience as he has but still seeing it from an outsider's perspective.
"He actually brought a lot to the table in that respect," Hinchcliffe continued. "His car physics and aerodynamics is stellar. He's been receptive to what we've been saying, asking a lot of questions. He's done a phenomenal job, he really has. It's exciting, been fun working with him."
Hinchcliffe said that in the circumstances it was "tough to be upset" to be upset about not quite having enough to dethrone Ed Carpenter from pole position. Instead, Hinch will be starting from the middle of the front row, with current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Will Power on the inside.
"It's definitely a good place to start," said Power after the end of qualifying. "The further up you are, the better you are. The further inside you are, the better you are. Good starting place. Very long race. Very interesting style of racing, different to any other racing we have all year with the way the draft works. Just have to make sure we run well in traffic and put ourselves in a position at the end of Sunday to win that thing.
"The only thing that sucks about a front row start and not getting pole is that you have got to be here at 7am for a photo!" the Penske driver laughed. "I thought it was going to be the one day I'd get to sleep in."
After they're done with their traditional front row portraits, Hinchcliffe and Power along with Ed Carpenter will join the other 30 drivers in one final full day of practice on Monday focussing on race trim, a new innovation this year where normally there would be no further significant track time available until the drop of the green flag to start the Indy 500.
"There isn't a car out there that can't win it," Power said when asked who could win next week's race. "That's the big difference now. The whole field is going to start on the front stretch and the whole field is going to finish on the front stretch. On the last laps they're all going to be there because it doesn't matter, no one can get away.
"I just want to have a good finish here. A good finish is a win really. That's all that counts here. Fifth has been my best result - I just want to have a good day."