James Hinchcliffe has been released from the new Arrow McLaren SP Racing team, two people with direct knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press, despite repeated public assurances that the popular Canadian was not leaving the organization once McLaren came aboard.
Hinchcliffe learned Sunday he was being replaced by 2018 Indy Lights Champion Pato O’Ward and said his farewells at the team shop Monday, the two people said. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Tuesday because McLaren is not expected to formally announce its lineup of O’Ward and reigning Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew until Wednesday at the earliest.
McLaren had planned to run its own two-car IndyCar operation in 2020 until its failure to make the Indianapolis 500 with Fernando Alonso in May was too devastating a setback. The Formula One brand instead partnered with the existing team owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson and sponsored by Arrow.
That required the Schmidt group to move from Honda to Chevrolet, an immediate issue for Hinchcliffie because of his strong personal service agreements with Honda Canada. It led to constant speculation that Hinchcliffe would find an out in his contract and remain a Honda driver, but nearly all parties vehemently insisted he was going to driver under the McLaren banner. The only partner not to publicly back Hinchcliffe’s definite return was sponsor Arrow.
Hinchcliffe’s ouster to make room for O’Ward was first reported by Racer Magazine.
Hinchcliffe is one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers and has crossover appeal. He finished second on reality show “Dancing with the Stars” in 2016 and most recently was featured in “The Body Issue” for ESPN The Magazine. Arrow did not approve of the racy ESPN shoot in which Hinchcliffe was naked on The Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and posing in front of his race car, with tires or flags used as coverage.
Hinchcliffe has been with Schmidt since 2015, the year he was pierced by a broken part in a crash at Indy. Hinchcliffe nearly bled to death as he was rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery.
He returned to win the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 but failed to make the 33-car starting lineup in 2018.
The late timing of the McLaren decision puts Hinchcliffe in a difficult position for finding a consistently competitive ride. Marcus Ericsson knew he was out the moment McLaren bought in with Schmidt, and in turn he landed a new third seat with Chip Ganassi Racing. But there is not much available at the top of the market unless Hinchcliffe and Honda can work a financial deal that expands him into a third seat for Bobby Rahal.
An outside opportunity for Hinchcliffe is in NASCAR. He is represented by Spire Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the No. 77 Cup car, and team co-owner Jeff Dickerson tried to get Hinchcliffe in the seat for The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hinchcliffe had to pass because it fell on the same weekend as the wedding of close friend Robert Wickens.
Hinchcliffe has six wins in nine IndyCar seasons.
The McLaren lineup, meanwhile, will consist of the most recent two Indy Lights champions. The team had pursued 19-year-old Colton Herta, who chose to sign with Andretti Autosport after winning two races as a rookie for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. O’Ward had been scheduled to be teammates with Herta for Harding last season but funding was dubious and the 20-year-old Mexican walked right before the season began.
O’Ward instead struck a deal with Carlin for a few IndyCar races, but he failed to qualify for the Indy 500. He reached a deal with Red Bull that ended earlier this month and quickly turned to McLaren.
Askew, meanwhile, won seven of 18 Indy Lights races driving for Andretti Autosport. He turns 23 in December and had a test earlier this year with Ganassi and was under consideration for a seat there before Ganassi opted for Ericsson, who brings decent sponsorship money.