INDIANAPOLIS – Back in early August, the newly formed McLaren and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team was met with high praise when they announced their new partnership for a two-car NTT IndyCar Series team. While the IndyCar fans were cheering McLaren’s return, many questions remained in place.
What would the team do with James Hinchcliffe?
We now know the answer. He’s gone. The team announced on Tuesday that they have signed Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew as the two drivers to race for the organization in 2020.
That’s big news for them and the Road to Indy Program. Both are the last two Indy Lights champions and it’s showing the ladder system is working to its finest. This is a very good opportunity for both young drivers as well.
But, that’s where the praise stops. See, IndyCar fans are irate with how the organization handled long time driver James Hinchcliffe. I mean, the way the Most Popular Driver in the sport was treated, the racing community is letting McLaren/SPM know it.
The whole situation was awkward from the get go. SPM had to get out of their contract with Honda in order to join forces with McLaren due to McLaren not allowed to race with Honda as their engine provider. SPM still had a year remaining on their contract with Honda and they had to break the deal.
That left Hinchcliffe in a lame duck status. He had one year left on his deal with the team but was also a Honda driver too. Hinchcliffe, was a national ambassador for Honda and appeared in many commercials for the car maker. Honda of Canada was also a big backer of Hinchcliffe’s career. So, in order for him to remain with SPM and partner with McLaren, he had to break ties with his funding from Honda.
The initial rumor was, why do that with a one year contract left? There wasn’t any guarantee that he’d remain with McLaren/SPM past next season anyways. Would you sever ties with someone paying you a lot of money and potentially need to go back to them in 2021? Wouldn’t that strain the relationship?
But, both Hinchcliffe and SPM/McLaren said the same thing that Hinchcliffe would be back in 2020 with them. Despite hearing the opposite from multiple sources, the top two people involved were saying differently.
“James (Hinchcliffe) has been a great asset to the team for the last five years. He’s a brilliant ambassador for all of our partners,” Sam Schimdt said in a conference call with members of the media in August. “It’s one of those unfortunate things, when you do what’s best for the team, but the relationship with Honda Canada and American Honda was direct between James and them, and so we don’t even know — we don’t even know what those details were, what those obligations were.
“We don’t anticipate it having an effect on the final year of his contract as far as we’re concerned, but yeah, we’re excited to have him on our team.”
Then, a few weeks later, Schmidt said this to Motorsport.com.
“We’re very pleased James is staying, absolutely. Although I’m not sure why there was all that speculation. I mean, yes, it was unfortunate that we had to change engine supplier – unfortunate for us, unfortunate for him – but we had to make a change in order to join forces with McLaren, and the pros far exceeded the cons there.
“James had a year left on his contract with us, and as I’ve told you before, I always wanted the continuity of going into next season with at least one established driver with measurable experience and talent and wins under his belt. So there was willingness on both sides to continue as per our contract.”
What did they expect fans to think? Was it Hinch not returning all along or was this decision just made?
According to Schmidt, Hinchcliffe was coming back and it was end of the story. That’s where the problem from the racing fans is. Were the lied to or was this decision just made recently?
If was the latter, then they did him dirty. It leaves Hinchcliffe high and dry now. The only spot left for him to race full time in 2020 would be with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing or Meyer Shank Racing.
Andretti Autosoprt brought Harding Steinbrenner Racing back over and has five cars. They’re not running six full time entries. Chip Ganassi Racing just brought over Hinchcliffe’s teammate this past season in Marcus Ericsson for a third seat. Hinchcliffe doesn’t have enough money for Ganassi to expand to a fourth car. Dale Coyne Racing has Sebastien Bourdais coming back and all signs point to Santino Ferrucci returning too. They don’t have the resources to expand to a third car team on a full season effort.
That’s all the Honda teams that there are unless Meyer Shank Racing kicks Jack Harvey to the curb and brings Hinchcliffe on. That’s why it’s either RLL or no full time seat for Hinchcliffe in 2020, which is why the fans are irate. They should have given him more time to find something. They should have said from the get go that he wouldn’t be their driver for 2020.
SPM has won seven times in their career, Hinchcliffe has taken them to victory lane in three of them. He also won the pole for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 one year after nearing being killed in a practice crash for the 2015 Indy 500. Now, they release him early from his contract without many places to land.