The reigning IndyCar Series champion cedes his throne this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. RACER editor David Malsher spoke to Ryan Hunter-Reay about his troubled reign as No. 1, despite some searing performances, and asked him to give his verdict on potential replacements at the top, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves.
There was a time when Ryan Hunter-Reay's career comprised mainly barren plains. Yet from midseason 2011 until midseason this year, he saw the IndyCar world from an elevated position, and in 2012, he got the view from the mountain top. And that sultry night in Fontana last September, many rejoiced with Ryan because 1) his route to the top had demanded talent, resilience and fortitude beyond the understanding of most of his peers, and 2) winning the IndyCar title was a long-held dream and he'd made it come true.
“I'm pleased for Ryan for three reasons,” one experienced IndyCar paddock member remarked last winter. “One, this is what he wanted to win since he was a kid, so it's cool to see him achieve it. Two, I think as an American, IndyCar can do a lot with him promotionally through the off-season and all next year, so the series will benefit from that. And three, I don't think Andretti [Autosport] are going to be so strong again so this may have been his only chance…”
Agreed on point one: there was spontaneous joy etched across Ryan's face that night and even the following day he (understandably) could hardly stop himself smiling. He was the picture of contentment. On the second point, sadly, the publicity-seizing opportunity has been squandered: even RHR himself admits to being shocked at how few demands the series has made during his time as champion.
As for the third point, regarding his team's prospects, many of us agreed…and were then made to feel pretty foolish for the first half of this season. Ten races in, Andretti Autosport had won precisely half. Remarkably though, now, with 18 races down and just one to go, those five victories – three for James Hinchcliffe, two for Hunter-Reay – are still AA's total victory tally in 2013. Although Hunter-Reay's season-long performance hasn't featured the wild oscillations race to race that Hinch has experienced, nor has it featured the kind of consistency that we'd seen from the No. 28 car the year before. And that's what has made the difference between nailing a second straight title and scrapping for fourth or fifth.
“We've had five mechanical or electrical problems,” observes Hunter-Reay, a week before he relinquishes his crown, “and you can't win the title that way. But I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about the chance I've been given at this team. I'm still really happy. It's just been unfortunate how things have gone and yeah, ultimately it's cost us.”
Indeed. Ask any racing champion and he'll admit to a little luck somewhere in his season, whether it's having a yellow flag fall at the right time to work with his pit stop strategy, or the out of control car that just missed him in a Turn 1 pile-up, or the mechanical problem that occurred in Sunday morning warm-up rather than the race itself. It's rare that the title actually hinges on such matters, but they're vagaries of fortune that can switch knife-edge moments from “If only…” into “Thank God!,” and turn rueful into grateful. And it's those sorts of issues that have gone against the triumvirate of Hunter-Reay, race engineer Ray Gosselin and team owner and strategist Michael Andretti.
What must be doubly annoying for them is that, looking at this truly peculiar 2013 IndyCar season, if any driver/car combo as fast as Hunter-Reay/Andretti had also been consistent, the title could have been sewn up two or three races ago. True, Chip Ganassi Racing turned their fortunes around midseason with that Sebring test, and Team Penske have also improved. But the very fact that Ganassi's Scott Dixon has been able to leap into a commanding lead of the championship despite a fairly forgettable first half of the season, and despite being classified 15th and 19th at Sonoma and Baltimore, respectively, suggests the 2013 title was there for the taking.
“Oh, I hear ya,” agrees Hunter-Reay. “I think everyone at some point has shot themselves in the foot this year – and more than a few times. Everyone except Helio, I guess. For us, I think of things like the flat tire in Brazil, where we looked like we could have won and instead I end up outside the top 10. “And then three times I got ran into, as well…”
What can scarcely be faulted is his driving. This writer predicted that Hunter-Reay would be an even better driver this year, with the title in his pocket, and there have been a few notable performances that surely matched that back-to-the-wall punch-up at Baltimore last year in which ultimately RHR prevailed. This year's comprehensive victories at Barber and Milwaukee are obvious candidates; in the latter event, on the final restart, his first couple of green-flag laps were 2mph quicker than those of the chasing Penske cars!
But then there was also a remarkable drive at Iowa. Admittedly, he made the minor misjudgment that damaged his front wing and necessitated a nosecone change at his next pit stop. But the way he then sliced through from the back of the field to finish second was quite brilliant, one of the outstanding drives of the year by anyone. Ryan isn't prepared to take anything away from the winner, his teammate Hinchcliffe, but does allow that, yes, he felt he could have won that day and describes it as “one of the most enjoyable races I've ever had.”
Interestingly, Hunter-Reay himself doesn't think his driving has improved this season – “I put myself out of two races this year, which I didn't do last year!” – but he's being far too hard on himself. Such has been the competition and the curve balls being thrown around the IndyCar arena in 2013, opportunities to win or even be on the podium have been at more of a premium than ever before. It's only natural that a few more mistakes in the heat of battle will occur, and there's not a front-line driver who hasn't made some gaffes this year. Hunter-Reay's Long Beach accident was merely the culmination of a poor race day that started with an overambitious swing at setup and, given where he was running, he didn't lose too many points there. Clipping the wall in Detroit's second race…yeah, OK, that was a fairly costly unforced error as he'd have likely finished third or fourth.
But despite the disappointments, what we have emphatically not seen is desperation or uncontrolled aggression from the champion. For example, when he was left out on the track at Sonoma under yellow as others dived into the pits, he knew that he'd need to wring his car dry in order to salvage something worthwhile from the race once everyone's strategy played out. He played the cards dealt him to perfection and sixth seemed poor reward for an excellent drive. Equally, he was vocal with his unhappiness at the aero package forced upon the teams at Texas this year, but when it came time to put pedal to the metal, there was no pouting. OK, so Castroneves was in a different zip code that night, but Ryan was best of the rest.
“I've got to say the improvements we've seen in the team this year are exactly what we were targeting over the winter,” he reflects, “and that's really pleasing. Last year we were good on street courses, and there are a lot of them, so that's good, that was the smart way to go. But definitely this year we wanted to improve on the tracks where we'd struggled in the past. That's what made me really happy about the pole and win at Barber and the Mid-Ohio pole. And the other tracks we felt we needed to make big strides were the speedways, and we did that, too. We had a chance to win Indy [he took third but was in the lead mix all the way to the finish under yellow], Texas was a good result and at Pocono we were strong….”
Had Takuma Sato not cannoned into him in the pit lane at the tri-oval, that woulda/coulda/shoulda been at least a top three, maybe a win, even allowing for Honda's fuel consumption rate which was at that stage superior and proved the cornerstone to a Ganassi 1-2-3 that day. Fast forward to Houston last weekend, and again, Hunter-Reay impressed until electrical maladies robbed him of a huge wedge of points. It may have looked like Dixon and Will Power were in a clear class of their own all weekend, but there was one car that could get within a tenth of their lap times once it was in clear air during the second race, and that was the yellow one driven by the champ. And that's despite the fact that on street courses, as any of the Andretti Autosport drivers will tell you, the team has struggled a little more this year. It only became obvious once Ganassi and Penske hit their stride.
Put simply then, Hunter-Reay has worn his crown well and absolutely driven with the speed and verve of a reigning champion; there's been no easing off the gas. It's simply that, like Dario Franchitti over the past couple of seasons (or like Dixon or Power before that), the stars haven't aligned enough times to do justice to the driver's performances. That's very glib and easy in written form; in actuality, there have been times for Ryan when it's been quite heartbreaking.
However, having accepted that he'll be passing on his crown, Ryan can be persuaded, grudgingly, to give his verdict on Castroneves and Dixon in 2013. It's not something he's comfortable with though, so imagine a long pause before he gets going and a delivery where he's picking his words very carefully.
“Well, Helio and Penske have played it very smart this year,” he says, finally. “I definitely think that quite early in the season, they thought that if they just kept on scoring top-10 finishes, that would go a long way to winning the title. Everyone else around them was so up-and-down – accidents, or off-the-pace days or bad strategy, or unreliability – that tactic has very nearly worked out for them. And it might still do; anything can happen at Fontana. I truly believe that.
“And if he won it, that's fine because Helio is a great driver. He's a friend, too, and he and his team have gone about winning the championship in a very mature and methodical way that shows the great depth of their experience working together. I respect Helio and Penske, obviously, and like I say, it could still go their way.”
And what of Dixon, who struggled manfully through Ganassi's troubled first half of the season with a single podium finish, and then ripped off three straight wins to lay the foundation of his title quest?
“He's just a great driver, and I've always had a huge amount of respect for him,” says Ryan. “When you look at how long Scott's been doing this [13 years in Indy cars], and you see that he's a championship contender almost every year, you have to be impressed with that!
“It's his versatility that makes Dixon a top IndyCar driver, in my opinion. He can win on the greatest superspeedway of all, Indianapolis, and he can win on a course that's been laid out in a bumpy parking lot! Wherever you're racing, if you're going to fight for victory, he's one of the guys you know you're going to have to beat. But the cool thing is, you know he'll fight you clean. Scott won't give you an inch more than you need, he's a tough fighter, but he's not going to run into you or squeeze you into the wall.”
Hunter-Reay, as things stand, finds himself fighting for fourth in the championship with teammate Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson – “first class driver, always respected him, always gives ten-tenths” – and Power. That fourth is an attainable goal, Ryan believes, despite being 14 points behind Wilson as they head to the finale at Auto Club Speedway.
“As I say, we've made good progress on the superspeedways, and by the end of last month's test there, the car felt good and we were quick. I mean, compared to last year when we went into that race with a setup that had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it, we're a lot more confident. We didn't really know what racecar we had until the green flag dropped, and then it was a case of hanging on and trying to improve it through the race. This year, we have a better baseline anyway, and I think it's then a case of making the right choices to adapt to conditions.
“So yeah, I'm optimistic, but there'll be new challenges,” says Hunter-Reay, “there always is. It's then up to us to stay on top of them and deal with them better than the rest. If we can, I think we'll be fighting for the win. Whatever's happened in the championship, it would be good to close out the year with a third victory.”
It would be no less than he and his team deserved.