James Hinchcliffe’s Indy 500 history reads like a Boy’s-Own adventure story. In less than one year, he went from almost losing his life at the Brickyard to coming back to claim pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500. Hinchcliffe also moonlighted as one of the drivers who tested the Project CARS 2 IndyCars in-game, and was kind enough to take off from his arduous “100 days of May” schedule to give some insight into what makes the race at the Brickyard the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, and what drivers can look forward to as IndyCars come to Project CARS 2 with all the teams, all the drivers, and all the cars from the 2016 season …
James Hinchcliffe is about as big a star as you’ll find in motorsports, his TV debut on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ confirmation of the young Canadian’s A-list status. Amidst all that celebrity, and in-between being one of the favorites to clinch the Indy 500, Hinchcliffe also finds time to run his own podcast (if you haven’t yet, his pod is must-listen content for any motor-head), and is a partner in film production company FrostMarks Films. Known as the Mayor of Hinchtown, he even has an Indianapolis-produced beer named after him— Flat12 Bierwerks’ Hinchtown Hammerdown.
Hammer down is exactly what he’ll be doing for the 101st running of the Indy 500 this Sunday afternoon. It would be quite a story, going from an accident that almost took his life in 2015 to pole position in 2016 to a win in 2017, but no-one should bet against it; Hinchcliffe is one of those larger-than-life drivers whose urgency somehow transcends the cockpit and creates anticipation.
Q: James, how did you get involved with testing Project CARS 2?
James Hinchcliffe: It originally came about when I was asked to give some driver feedback on how the Indy car felt like in-game, and getting some of the vehicle dynamics right. The team [Schmidt Peterson Motorsports] asked me if I could jump in a sim and give it a roll, so it was fun for me to able to help out and try and work on making the car feel as realistic as possible.
Q: When you first tested it, what did you feel was wrong with the car, and what did you sense was right with it?
James Hinchcliffe: There was actually quite a bit right with it. I was pretty impressed, to be honest. Obviously the model is based off of real track data, which certainly helps. That technology is incredibly impressive now—what can be done with sims and with video games. There were some little balance discrepancies from the real thing, just sort of how it reacts on some of the high-speed stuff, how it reacts with some of the low-speed stuff, but like I said, I was pretty impressed right out of the box.
Q: Simulators are obviously a staple for drivers nowadays, useful for learning tracks and so on, but on an oval, what is the main reason for using the simulator?
James Hinchcliffe: To get a sense of setup changes. Currently on ovals, as a driver, one of the big challenges is actually heightening your sense, and learning how to pick up much smaller inputs from the car, so when you get into a simulator, obviously that becomes exponentially harder to accurately recreate. But there are still some big-hitting setup items that the simulator can give you a sense of, in terms of balance change from entry and exit to the corners, for instance. We’ve worked with tyre models to try and work on tyre degradation, and how to keep that under control, manage that better. So there are a lot of things that the driver and the engineers can benefit from in the simulator.
A large part of why we spend so much time in the sim is to help improve the model, correlate with our track data and try to get to a point where we can rely on it more and more. In the Verizon IndyCar Series, the testing is so limited by the rules that, if you can be more accurate with the sim-data, it sort of gets around the lack of actual testing. So we’ll do setup changes on the sim that seem to have a good benefit, and we’ll then try that on track and try to correlate feedback from one to the other and then use all the information to try and make all the models—whether it’s track model, car model, engine model, tyre model—make all those things better. That way we can essentially go test without actually leaving the office.
Q: Is there a link to the simulator in terms of why certain teams—Penske, for instance—seem to be quicker on, say, road courses?
James Hinchcliffe: That’s tough. I think their advantage comes from something probably not found necessarily in a sim, but it’s one of those tools that, if there was a particular track or a particular type of circuit that you were deficient at in one season, you would spend a lot of time working on solutions for that. St Pete’s is a great example—we don’t get to go test at that track because St Pete’s is built for exactly three days of the year, and then it’s torn down again. So if you’re not good at the track, you can jump into the sim and pound away as many laps as you want with as many different setup changes as you want, and try and get a handle on what you’re doing wrong, and what you could do better. I think a team like that that has that advantage, that’s something that they’ve found, and maybe the original idea came from the sim, who knows?
Q: You sat on pole for last year’s Indy 500—clocked at an average speed of 371kmh. Is the goal to reduce as much drag as you can, and still be able to take the whole lap flat?
James Hinchcliffe: Yes. That’s the main goal for qualifying.
Q: And going flat at speeds approaching 400kmh around four corners, how do you convince your right foot not to lift? Presumably when you get there with the stock setup, or the setup that you put into the car, you’re not going out first lap and going flat …
James Hinchcliffe: Not usually, no. It’s something you have to build up to. But we’re professionals, that’s where experience comes from. You can try and practice that in a simulator all you want, but at the end of the day, you to have to have the guts to go out there and hold it flat first lap out in qualifying, that takes some build-up over the course of the month, but luckily we have a week of practice to kind of get ourselves where we need to be.
Q: Is there a moment when you know you’re going to do the lap flat?
James Hinchcliffe: Yeah, it’s mental most of the time, as much as anything. If the car feels reasonably sorted in terms of balance, you kind of just tell yourself—you know that you have to be flat if you’re going to be competitive, and you go into the first lap in qualifying probably as trimmed-down as you’ve been all month. And, ultimately, this is the mental game. You stick the pedal to the floor and you either come out of the other side or you don’t
Q: What do you attribute that to? Being able to find the courage to just keep the throttle nailed flat all the way around?
James Hinchcliffe: I made the joke many times that I think racing drivers are wired differently, in the sense that we were born without that self-preservation that most human beings are born with. And I think you essentially have to have a little bit of a screw loose to be able to convince yourself to keep your right foot flat when you’re heading into a 90 degree corner at 230-plus mph. I don’t think it’s something you can teach. Confidence comes into it at some point, but you build that up over a career. If you’ve made it to the IndyCar level, you clearly have that by that point. But to be able to make it to that point, like I said, I think you’ve got to be wired a little bit differently.
Q: When you were karting, when you were younger and first starting out, did you notice certain drivers who had talent but who did not have this ability to keep the boot in?
James Hinchcliffe: For sure. I think every level of racing you graduate up into, the herd gets narrowed down. There are a lot of people that try go karting, and you can tell from an early age if someone has that or not. That next group then moves up to Formula 2000, and by that level you’ll be able to see who has it and who doesn’t. And then you move up to Lights, and same story. Every progression up the ladder trims the herd.
Q: What is the key ingredient to winning the Indy 500? Is it luck? Rhythm? Being able to set the car up during the race?
James Hinchcliffe: It’s all of those things. I don’t think you can win any race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, never mind the most difficult one of them all, without each and every one of those things. But what kind of sets Indy apart, and what any veteran will tell any rookie the first time they go there—while all those elements are very important and key to winning, the biggest thing that you can control and that has an effect on your outcome in a race like that is patience. It is such a long race, 500 miles, it takes a long time to get through. The car changes, the track changes, the dynamic and racecraft changes, and being patient, and in a sense almost letting the race come to you, can be a huge, huge benefit.Q: In terms of balance, the old days when you could clearly see oversteer, understeer, is that pretty much gone nowadays because of the downforce that these cars are generating?
James Hinchcliffe: No it’s still very much there. When you’re qualifying and you pull all the downforce off, the car slides around and moves around a lot more than you can see on television, and so you’re still fighting all the exact same things, it just looks a little less dramatic on TV. But I promise you, it’s every bit as dramatic from the cockpit.
Q: And the idea is not to counter-steer into a slide, right?
James Hinchcliffe: Exactly right. Essentially, if the tyre’s going sideways, it’s not going forward. So whether you’re pushing a front tyre or you’re sliding with the rear tyres, that slows the car down. So finding that perfect neutral balance is the ultimate goal. It’s just a very, very difficult one to achieve.
Q: And if you had a choice between understeer and oversteer, which would you choose?
James Hinchcliffe: Looser is usually faster!
James Hinchcliffe will be running his #5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda-Dallara at the Indy 500. Don’t be too surprised if he’s the driver drinking the cold milk come Sunday evening in Indiana. Some things are just written in the stars …