5 IndyCar Questions: Can Hinchcliffe become a consistent podium threat?

James Hinchcliffe celebrates after winning an IndyCar Series auto race Sunday, July 8, 2018, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The 2019 NTT IndyCar series kicks off this weekend with what’s become its traditional season-opening race in the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

With the new season just about to get underway, here are five questions we’d like to have answered by the time the last checkered flag is being waved at Laguna Seca in September.

Can Hinchcliffe be an every-race podium threat?

It’s been eight years now since James Hinchcliffe burst onto the IndyCar scene and captured the rookie of the year honours as a charismatic 24-year-old who seemed destined for motorsports glory.

And while “the mayor of Hinchtown” has remained as popular a driver as ever, the result he earned during that memorable rookie year – a 12th-place finish in the drivers’ standings – hasn’t improved much.

Last year, Hinchcliffe managed a 10th-place finish, 287 points back of 2018 champion Scott Dixon.

As has been the case for almost his entire career, Hinchcliffe managed some big highs during the 2028 campaign, winning in Iowa, but had far too many low-points – such as failing to qualify for the all-important Indianapolis 500 – to be considered a real championship threat.

Due to his infectious personality and easy-going demeanour, Hinchcliffe will always be among the most beloved drivers for as long as he keeps doing it, but that hasn’t translated to on-track success thus far, so will this year be any different?

It just might. Hinchcliffe should figure to have extra motivation this season to show out well for his recovering best buddy Robert Wickens. When the moment calls for it, Hinchcliffe has proven he can rise to the occasion, as evidence by his strong performances in Toronto over the past three years.

With all that driving him this year, Hinchcliffe could be locked in to be a podium threat, and championship contender, all season long.

Sportsnet World and SNNow+ are the new home of IndyCar
All 17 IndyCar races will be available for live streaming on SN NOW+. Qualifying races and bonus IndyCar content will also be available exclusively on SN NOW+. On television, all races except for the season opener (due to a scheduling conflict) will air on Sportsnet World.

How will Wickens’ replacement fair?

The Wickens accident and his recovery has been a story that’s been tracked all throughout the off-season and will continue to be something to watch this season.

Among the elements to this developing story will be the performance of Marcus Ericsson this season, the man Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports signed to, essentially, be Wickens’ replacement until the Canadian is possibly able to make a return.

Ericsson is a 28-year-old Swedish driver who is entering as an IndyCar rookie, but comes with plenty of open-wheel experience as a Formula One driver for the past five years.

He never had outstanding results in F1, but that might be because he drove for some of the lesser lights in that series: Caterham and Sauber.

Schmidt Peterson would also fall outside of the top-tier teams in IndyCar, but as some of Hinchcliffe’s results have proven, they have a car that’s good enough to compete, meaning Ericsson will have a greater opportunity to showcase his own special driving skill.

Of course, the better Ericsson performs, the worse it might actually be for Wickens, but he shouldn’t be worrying about that right now, and neither should Ericsson. Both men need only take care of their own business.

Can Penske’s all-stars be stopped?

A recurring storyline every year, and 2019 is no different, as once again the powerful Team Penske have a loaded lineup who, if they’re actually racing full-time, all have good cases for why they can win it all this year – because they’ve all been champions in the past.

Between Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, Penske has three champions on its roster from the past five years. Additionally, Penske also has three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in its stable, who will only be participating in the two races in Indianapolis this season.

That’s a lot of championship experience on one roster, and while it’s true they all have the potential to cannibalize each other as they try to figure out the pecking order of things – an issue a team like Chip Ganassi need not worry about with Dixon being the clear top dog there – the talent each of these gentlemen possesses is undeniable.

As such, like the New York Yankees, Penske will once again be a fun team for fans to root against.

Is it Rossi’s time?

Alexander Rossi became a household name among motorsport enthusiasts in 2016 when, as a rookie competing in his first-ever Indy 500, he ended up getting his name and face etched onto the Borg-Warner Trophy in what just happened to be the 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

After that big win, Rossi had his typical rookie growing pains, but followed that first year with a relatively strong sophomore campaign where he finished seventh and then had a breakout 2018, that saw him come as the runner-up to Dixon.

So then, can he finish the job this year?

After his standout 2018, there’s little doubt that he’s the No. 1 for the historically-strong Andretti Autosport so he has good and stable support behind him. As a driver, he has proven ability both ovals and road courses, an absolutely vital skill for success within IndyCar.

All the ingredients are there for Rossi to take the crown and become the sport’s next big star.

Can Alonso complete the triple crown of motorsport?

Two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso took a brief reprieve from his 2017 season to race in the Indianapolis 500 so he may try to accomplish a career goal: The Triple Crown of Motorsport.

In order to accomplish this goal, a driver must win the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indy 500.

Having already captured Monaco twice beforehand (in 2006 and 2007) Alonso wasn’t quite as successful at IMS, finishing 24th.

This year, he’ll make another go at it and perhaps be emboldened by the fact he’s two-thirds of the way there after he, along with Swiss and Japanese drivers Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima managed to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans last June.

Alonso will race for McLaren, a historic racing team that should provide him the necessary tool to accomplish his ambition. One of the all-time greats of motorsport, Alonso certainly has the ability, courage and endurance to make it happen.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.