ANDRETTI BLACK MAGIC
There were those who thought Andretti Autosport's championship with Ryan Hunter-Reay last year was based on opportunism with a new spec chassis, a very fast driver who has absolute trust in his race engineer Ray Gosselin, a Chevrolet engine that had the edge over Honda at the majority of the circuits, and a team owner who finally had the people he wanted filling the key positions within his squad.
Well, they're all eating crow now (and I confess, you may spot a couple of black feathers around my mouth) for there can be no doubts over the sheer damn quality of Michael Andretti's team. Craig Hampson's arrival as race engineer for James Hinchcliffe has created another championship contender at AA, and Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Hinch now lie 2-3-4 in the championship. Helio Castroneves's Team Penske entry heads the points table, but the momentum is in Indianapolis, not Charlotte, after the Andretti team's fifth and most comprehensive win of the year.
“I've won in every way,” remarked an almost bemused-looking Hinchcliffe after scoring his first oval win. “I led the last 20 laps at St. Petersburg, the last 100 feet at Brazil, and then we kind of dominated today.”
No “kind of” about it; he led 226 of Iowa's 250 laps and was only briefly troubled on restarts by Will Power, Ed Carpenter and then Graham Rahal. But Hinchcliffe was right to also sing the praises of his teammate, Hunter-Reay. The reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion started off 12th but with the handling troubles of Saturday clearly gone, he rose gradually in the first stint, making firm but not overly aggressive passes to keep championship rival Castroneves within range – sometimes just ahead, sometimes just behind, according to the fluctuations of momentum and traffic.
What really lit a fire under RHR was when he clipped the back of Rahal's car and broke a front wing, bringing out the first of three full-course cautions, having scattered debris on the front stretch. After rejoining the pack in 21st place, Hunter-Reay drove like he did in that final stint in Milwaukee last week – flat-out and decisively – and carved through to second place. He looked exhausted at the end, but it was totally worthwhile. Something tells me that may have been the title-winning performance of 2013…
RAHAL ON THE RISE
While Hinchcliffe was the dominant driver of the day, it was Graham Rahal who provided much of the entertainment, proving that his win in Heat 2 last night was no fluke. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver started sixth and seemed on a permanent charge, battling his way past a multitude of cars who had to give best to his high route on the exit of Turn 2 and Turn 4.
The bad news was that he was held up by Simona De Silvestro's struggling KV Racing entry and wrong-footed by a slowing Will Power; then he succumbed to Tony Kanaan and – on the last lap – Ed Carpenter. But there was far more to his race than “started sixth, finished fifth.” He was very fast, very aggressive and wasn't intimidated by anyone. It bodes well for the future.
Team boss and father Bobby Rahal commented afterward: “Well, the No. 15 team needed it, Graham needed it, and he showed everyone he can drive a damn racecar. The car was really strong over a long run because he made that high line work and that helped look after his tires because it doesn't scrub as much life out of them. Taking that line also frees the car up sooner on the exit. Did you see how many times he'd go into Turn 1 with someone right on him, and by the exit of Turn 2, he was pulling away from them?”
Rahal Sr. was angry with Race Control, however, in particular with what he perceived as its failure to ask De Silvestro to move aside for the leaders, which aided Kanaan's ultimately successful pursuit of the No. 15 car.
“Of course, before the race they tell us, ‘We'll be asking backmarkers to move aside for the fast runners, we'll be strict about it.' And then when we come to lap Simona for the sixth time, they don't say a word. I'm pissed about that, to say the least.
“But in terms of our performance, overall I'd say it was a good weekend and we go to Pocono with some very positive momentum.”
CARPENTER A WOULD-BE WINNER?
It was a tale of what might-have-been for Ed Carpenter, who appeared to have the only car consistently able to match the speed of Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay. Unfortunately, circumstances worked against him, but he was upbeat after some thrilling battles with Marco Andretti, Kanaan and Rahal.
“We got the balance exactly right in the end,” said IndyCar's only owner-driver, “but we just ran out of laps. I'd say we weren't aggressive enough in making changes at the first pit stop, so we dropped back in the second stint. And being the wrong end of pit lane meant a couple of times we had to wait to be released as Ana [Beatriz] came in to her pit box, so we lost time there.
“On the final stop, they dropped me before the guy on the right-rear was certain that he'd tightened the nut, so they had to lift the car again, but hey, better safe than sorry!”
The sheer pace of the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing entry in the closing stages was stunning, for as he hunted down the well-driven Panther Racing entry of Oriol Servia, Ed cut the fastest lap of the race with a remarkable 179mph average. Although he then lost some time battling Servia, once past, Ed swiftly put daylight between them and with a car that could now run anywhere on the race track, he ducked down low to pass Rahal on the final lap.
“Yeah, I think ultimately we had the pace to fight Ryan and Hinch, but I've got no complaints,” said the Indy 500 polesitter. “This team has always had my back when I've made mistakes and looking ahead, I think we should be fast at Pocono, too. I'm really pleased with our pace today.”
Another giant-killing performance from ECR, yes. But let's not underplay the role of the guy in the cockpit: Carpenter is bold and daring and on any other day, this might have been a victory.