More details of Michael Andretti's successful Saturday at the Milwaukee Mile can be found here, but in a nutshell, the transformation of the event from 2011 to 2012 was very much evident,. Even if the crowd numbers still weren't stellar, they made for a major improvement year-on-year. Icing on the cake came with the success of Andretti Autosport's drivers in Saturday's race, as Ryan Hunter-Reay won and James Hinchcliffe finished third. More now on the eighth round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season:
RHR'S REDEMPTION – Hunter-Reay has won the series' last two races on a one-mile oval. There was some coincidence in that RHR was the victor at a race also rain-affected, last year at Loudon, when the call was made to go green on a wet track by previous IndyCar president of competition, Brian Barnhart.
From the Milwaukee and 2012 season standpoints, though, Hunter-Reay needed this result. A solid start to the season saw him 12th or better in the first four races, with two podiums and a third he would have had at Long Beach before being penalized for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato on the last lap. But in the prior three races, Hunter-Reay had two DNFs, and fell to seventh in the championship standings after coming out of Brazil fourth, only just behind teammate James Hinchcliffe.
And then there was the small matter that last year at Milwaukee, his race lasted as long as the first corner on the first lap…
“I know, right?” he sighed, relieved at the change year-to-year. “It's huge. We won at New Hampshire last year, too. Every driver that drives the Milwaukee Mile knows you can't do it without a good racecar.
“I enjoy short-track racing. Places like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, they're very challenging. The car changes so much through a stint, it's just a really challenging, different type of racing. I really enjoy it.
“But you're no better than the team you're with. They've certainly given me a great opportunity here and I have them to thank for it.”
Hunter-Reay's second half of the 2011 season was among the best results-wise in the series, and a similar run from Iowa onward can propel the American back into championship contention.
THE ABNORMAL TOP FIVE – From the obscure stats department, Milwaukee marks the second race in a row where Watkins Glen 2008 comes up as a comparative race after the final box score. Texas was the first race since the Glen that Dale Coyne placed two cars in the top 10, while Milwaukee marks the first race since the same race that no cars from Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing finished in the top five. Hunter-Reay won that race, as well!
It's weird to think of Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Hinchcliffe, Oriol Servia and E.J. Viso as “underdogs” – all are top-flight drivers – but it does show just how difficult it is to break through the barriers of the two top teams, and it's rare to see them all buried down the order.
Kanaan's always been great on the short ovals, having won at Milwaukee twice, but KV Racing Technology teammate Viso was particularly impressive to me this race. The Venezuelan was frustrated with only qualifying fifth, then emerged as the leader after the first round of pit stops on lap 72. In clean air, Viso led the next 27 laps before the next yellow flag period. Later in the race, he engaged in a dice with Hinchcliffe, and didn't find the Canadian's driving tactics all that impressive.
“I'm a bit upset at the race, actually, because we could have won or finished on the podium as a no-brainer,” Viso surmised. “Once again, I'm pretty confused with the rules in this category in the series. I don't understand why Hinchcliffe was not penalized for anything that happened to him. He was blocking me like an animal.”
Naturally, Hinchcliffe thought otherwise: “I guess the race director disagrees. In the last stint there, he had a couple runs coming off of Four. I saw him coming, so I moved to the middle of the racetrack, which I have the right to do. As long as I move before him, leave a lane if he chooses to go for it. I put it in the middle every time. One time he tried to go high, one time low, couldn't make it work.
“It certainly wasn't my intention, and I wasn't trying to block. I was trying to, as Tony said, drive to the rules. The race director thought it was OK. I guess I'm cool with it.”
Finally, yet again, Servia drove another race where he started poorly (20th in his Panther DRR Chevrolet), stealthily passed cars throughout the race, was missed by the TV cameras, and before we knew it he was in third. It was only when his tires fell off in the last stint that he dropped to his eventual fourth place. Ho hum.
“They didn't show it again? I'm the ghost driver! My new nickname is ‘the ghost driver!'” Servia said when he heard his run was, once again, largely overlooked by the ABC/ESPN cameras. “We didn't have a great car after qualifying, we had to change everything. I tried to defend the podium, but I couldn't do it. Moving high risked getting a penalty as I moved to the inside. He just had more pace. If I went low, he'd go high, if I went high, he'd go low.”
A shout-out also has to go to the third member of the KV triumvirate Rubens Barrichello, who ran in the top five most of the race before falling to tenth on the last run of the race. After two consecutive non-starts in Detroit and Texas, Barrichello clearly had his most competitive weekend in an IndyCar thus far.