DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe moonlighted last fall with his podium finish on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and this past weekend, he was once again doing a little work on the side as one of the drivers for the No. 70 Mazda Prototype at the three-day Roar Before the 24 test at Daytona International Speedway.
Hinchcliffe will be making his fifth start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance sports car race Jan. 28, partnering with season-long drivers Tom Long and Joel Miller. It didn’t take Hinchcliffe long to get up to speed; he finished one of the seven test sessions as the fastest driver in the car.
This year, virtually the entire Prototype field is new. The Daytona Prototypes were phased out over the off-season, replaced by new DPi cars. Other teams are driving the Le Mans-like P2 cars.
As for Mazda, both cars – the No. 55 (with fellow Verizon IndyCar Series driver Spencer Pigot one of its drivers) and the No. 70 that Hinchcliffe will be driving – are new and were ready so late there has been minimal testing.
“Obviously, this is a brand new car for us and there’s a lot to learn about it,” Hinchcliffe said.
So do they have a chance for a first overall win for Mazda?
“Who knows? There’s so much new equipment in the paddock. It’s a 24-hour race and nobody knows what the reliability of these cars will be.”
Even so, it was a very successful test for Mazda. The team started out racing Prototypes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship three years ago. For the first two years, Mazda was saddled with an uncompetitive diesel engine that never came close to a win. Last year, the team swapped the diesel for a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that got the team much closer to the front, but could still never pull off the win.
This year, with a new Riley/Multimatic chassis replacing the dated Lola from last year, the team was right at the top of the timesheets during the three-day open test on the 3.56-mile road course. The No. 55, with Jonathan Bomarito at the wheel, was just 0.02 of a second off the top lap of the weekend. The Mazda was the fastest car overall in several portions of the track, with top speeds just under 200 mph.
Making the transition from his No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series is getting easier, Hinchcliffe said.
“Luckily, these cars are getting faster and faster, with more and more downforce, and they are getting closer to Indy car performance. The biggest difference is having a roof over your head.”
Certainly the SpeedSource team is glad to have Hinchcliffe in the fold for the biggest sports car race in America.
“What a great guy to work with and just be around,” said Long, one of the regular drivers of the No. 70. “And obviously, a major talent behind the wheel.”
Like the Indianapolis 500, the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of those events a driver wants to be part of.
“It’s such an iconic race, with such a rich history,” said Hinchcliffe. “So many drivers from so many disciplines, all in one spot. You have guys from INDYCAR, guys from NASCAR, guys from all different levels of racing, and some of them are your heroes. It’s a really cool event.”
Drivers with INDYCAR ties were near the top of the speed chart in other classes during the three-day test. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GTs swept the top three spots in GT Le Mans with Ryan Briscoe, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon. Pato O’Ward, who finished second in the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires, was second in Prototype Challenge testing to Performance Tech Motorsports teammate James French, who drove in a pair of 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires races.
The Verizon IndyCar Series season opens March 10-12 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, though there will be plenty of testing before then, including a series-wide open test at Phoenix International Raceway on Feb. 10-11. The 17-race season concludes with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway in California, Sept. 15-17.