James Hinchcliffe watched the 2011 season-opening race at St. Petersburg from the sidelines because he didn’t have a deal yet to drive in the IndyCar Series. Out of work again at the end of the year when his race team closed its doors, the Canadian was pondering his future in the Indianapolis house he shared with a bunch of roommates when his big break finally came.
Michael Andretti was on the phone in need of a driver to fill Danica Patrick’s seat. The ride had gone to Dan Wheldon, who signed to drive the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport but was killed shortly after in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.
Hinchcliffe was both honored and humbled — feelings that came flooding back Sunday when it all came full circle for him as he picked up his first career victory on the street course in Wheldon’s adopted hometown of St. Pete.
“This is his hometown; this is his car,” said Hinchcliffe, who will be added now to the Wheldon monument unveiled Thursday at Turn 10 on the course. “Knowing my face will be on that memorial, that’s really special.”
He drove the bright green No. 27 to the win in front of Wheldon’s wife, two sons, and sister, who have become like family to him and gave him the blessing to accept the job when Andretti called.
“It was a tremendous amount of responsibility I felt to honor Dan and do a good enough job to honor what he would have done in this car,” Hinchcliffe said. “So to get the first win here in his hometown with his family here, who I’ve grown quite close to, it means so much more, to be honest. There’s nowhere that I would have rather had my first win I don’t think in this car than right here in St. Pete.”
Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves on the final restart to take the lead and held on to win by 1.09 seconds over the defending race winner. He became the first Canadian to win since Paul Tracy’s 2007 victory at Cleveland in the CART Series, and Hinchcliffe waved the Canadian flag as he climbed from his car.
The win showed Andretti didn’t lose a step over the offseason, when the organization turned it up a notch even after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s championship.
It paid off Sunday when Hinchcliffe got the first IndyCar win for sponsor GoDaddy, who was with Patrick in the series before her 2012 move to NASCAR, and it was the 44th win for the organization.
Vettel holds on for victory
Three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel held off Red Bull teammate Mark Webber in a scintillating battle to win the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday in Sepang, Malaysia, with the German later apologizing for ignoring team instructions late in the race.
Vettel, who had earlier complained to the team about Webber’s slow pace, battled his teammate for much of the day, with the cars almost touching as the German grabbed the lead on the 46th lap for his 27th victory, which matches the total of three-time champion Jackie Stewart. He now leads Lotus driver Kimi Raiikonen by nine points in the championship.
The aggressive Vettel left Webber visibly upset, with the Australian driver refusing to acknowledge his teammate after the race.