2017 Team Report Card: Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports
After Sebastien Bourdais surprised the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock with a season-opening victory at St. Petersburg, Florida, James Hinchcliffe followed up the Coyne triumph with a win of his own for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports at Long Beach, California.
Unfortunately, the success at IndyCar’s most significant street circuit event would not be repeated, as the team’s fortunes went in reverse through the final 15 races. The Canadian veteran stumbled to a 13th-place showing on the points table, and the sister No. 7 Honda entry tried out multiple suitors following the inability of Mikhail Aleshin to provide the necessary funding after the checkered flag fell at Mid-Ohio.
The off-season has seen a semi-makeover for SPM. While Hinchcliffe looked at other teams, the Mayor stayed put, seeking to return momentum to its 2016 surge, when the Canadian took the pole position at the Indianapolis 500. Alongside Hinch for 2018, is German DTM touring car veteran Robert Wickens, who returns to open-wheel action for the first time since 2011. The 28-year old performed well in practice for this year’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America in Wisconsin, and has been rewarded with a full season deal.
So how have things morphed into its current state? Let’s spin back the clock and dissect SPM’s 2017 run.
James Hinchcliffe (13th in points): If only the positive vibes generated from the opening three races of 2017 were spread through the remainder of the calendar. Instead, a dry spell developed at a majority of the other 14 stops on the IndyCar circuit, forcing the Canadian to settle for 13th on the table for a second-straight season. After enjoying a solid month of May in 2016, the Indianapolis 500 was the beginning of the downward slide for Hinch.
Despite witnessing other Honda-powered squads running up front in qualifying and on race day, SPM was noticeably absent from the onslaught. After managing only 17th on the starting grid, Hinchcliffe never challenged for the top-ten before getting caught up in the Lap 184 melee that knocked out four other drivers. The 22nd-place finish was the first of six retirements suffered in 2017, the most endured by the Canadian since his rookie year in 2011. Unfortunately, the bad outputs drowned out the good ones. The popular pilot placed in the first ten eight times this past year, down only one from 2016.
It will be curious to see how Hinchcliffe handles the new year with his good friend Robert Wickens as a teammate. According to reports, the Canadian had indicated a desire to have a veteran co-driver, yet may face some growing pains as the ex-touring car star gets used to open-wheel action following an extended break.
Mikhail Aleshin (19th in points): After opening the 2017 slate with a 14th-place effort at St. Petersburg, nine notches worse than his 2016 showing, it was clear that year three in IndyCar would be a tough one for the Russian. Although only reaching 15th in 2016 points placement, Aleshin earned top-six finishes in four events, including a near-victory at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. The aggressive wheelman also managed to play a solid second fiddle to Hinchcliffe at Indy, giving SPM two cars in the Pole Day shootout.
While Aleshin best 2017 effort was sixth in the first leg of the Dual in Detroit, he would enjoy top-ten placements only two other times, before ultimately losing his seat following the series’ stop in Ohio. With the team going in another direction and with financial backing insufficient to secure a ride with another IndyCar outfit, it appears the Russian is headed to an SMP Racing-backed sports car venture in the FIA World Endurance Championship for 2018.
Team Outlook: It is not like 2017 was a throw-away year for SPM. The victory at the Grand Prix of Long Beach by Hinchtown was a big score; it is just that the hoped-for run of success did not follow. In addition to the parting of ways with Aleshin, the team has changed other personnel; most notably the removal of Allen McDonald as race engineer (he has joined Ed Carpenter Racing for 2018). While Hinchcliffe should be primed for a boost in both of luck and results, the questions will mainly focus on Wickens’ outputs.
Ed Carpenter Racing gambled on limited information when unsuccessfully moving J.R. Hildebrand to full-time action this past year, and it will be interesting to see if a similar hunch, backfires likewise for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports about the former Midland F1 test runner. However, after the team’s headaches during 2017, there appears to be nowhere but movement upward for SPM as the new year approaches.
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