But I also think Hinch deserved it. He was really solid all weekend, put himself in the right position in the race, and when Helio slipped up just a bit, James was there to pounce and slip past. He did the same thing on Sato in more dramatic style at Sao Paulo at our previous race. He's been strong since his rookie year with Newman/Haas, but he's really impressed me since he joined this team last year. He's still pretty new to IndyCar and he's done a very good job in a very short amount of time.
This year, James is working with race engineer Craig Hampson, who won titles in Champ Car with Newman/Haas and who was James' engineer in his rookie season; they've got a lot of chemistry. Just as I appreciate working with James, so my engineer Ray appreciates having extra input from Craig, and I've got to say, the way the four race engineers interact is awesome and it's encouraging for myself, Hinch, Marco [Andretti] and EJ [Viso] to see that data exchange going on. Again, that's the kind of rapport that is nurtured and encouraged within Andretti Autosport.
The results in the first four races prove that our winning the championship in the first year of the Dallara DW12 and new turbo formula was not just a case of us getting our act together sooner than Ganassi and Penske and then dropping behind them over the winter. This team's engineering group did a great job in 2012 and, as drivers, we communicated well with each other and with our engineers, telling them what we needed to improve, then tailoring each car to our individual preferences. But I can tell you that this Andretti Autosport resurgence is here to stay! Don't get me wrong, making the most of the formula year on year when there is so little you can change on these cars is a huge challenge, but it's one we believe we're capable of answering, if we keep our heads down and learn something every day of every race weekend.
Ray and I have a really close and healthy relationship and it pays off. Just look at our Barber results: in 2012, we qualified 11th and finished 12th , whereas this year we took the pole and the win. I think you can call that progress! I said it many times in the offseason: we'd have to be better on permanent road courses like Barber, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, and better on the big ovals like Indy and Fontana, and we've got one of those boxes checked off already.
Long Beach we were quick enough to qualify on the front row, but we wanted to make some changes after warm-up, adjusting the downforce and making some mechanical alterations. Basically, we took a bit of a flyer, and unfortunately we missed the sweet spot entirely. I knew we'd gone wrong within the first three or four laps, and knew we'd be in for a long day. Then we had a pit stop that dropped us from fourth to 12th, and got caught up in a Hinch vs. Tony Kanaan argument which knocked off our nose. Then, as we were buried in the field unable to move forward, I grew desperate and ended our day prematurely with a big lunge under braking up the inside of someone into the notoriously slick Turn 8.
Sao Paulo was another matter where we simply got unlucky. It was great to get pole – we've qualified on the front row for three straight races, now – but it was real strong team effort on Saturday, with all four cars in the top 10. In the race, we had great pace, and I tucked in behind Kanaan and saved loads of fuel, which put us back out in the lead after the first stint. Then I was able to save fuel some more and go quick because the car was really hooked up, but after one of the restarts, we got a puncture in the left rear and it started slowly deflating. I held onto it as long as I could – I did one restart with the tire at less than 8lbs of pressure! – and by the time I pitted we only had three pounds in it!
Our fate was sealed as we had to pit so early and we didn't get enough help from full-course cautions, so for the rest of the race I was on major fuel conservation mode. The straights at Sao Paulo are so long, you just can't hold people up saving that much fuel; so when I was lifting from halfway along the straights, it was pretty obvious I was going to get shuffled back. Frustrating, to say the least. I wondered at the time if we could have done a splash-and-dash, but with the race staying green, there was no chance. If we could have been eighth and then got a yellow to allow us to go full rich mixture for the remainder, we would have had some real fun, but it never happened.
And now, the big one! Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a whole different ball game for us as drivers, for the teams and for the engine manufacturers. It's interesting having Indy as the first oval race of the year again, but as anyone will tell you, IMS stands apart from any ovals. In fact, it's not an oval. Indy is in its own category. There's nothing else like it.
I have so much respect for the Indianapolis 500 as an event because it's one that I gazed with wonder at when I was little kid. I also have an immense amount of respect for the Speedway as a track, because it's where heroes are made. But there's something about it that's even more personal for me: I have been through most of the highs and lows there. The Bump Day where I got in at the last moment, the Bump Day where I got bumped out at the last moment, the Rookie of The Year Award in 2008, the start from the front row last year, the mechanical failure, the moment where we got caught in a huge wreck in the closing laps… I mean, what else is there left to do there except win the race?!
And yet…it's important to remember that the Speedway owes nobody anything – and that's part of its mystique and attraction to all IndyCar drivers. My own bittersweet memories of the place don't alter the fact that I love every mile there. A driver should seize every opportunity to drive at Indy because lapping that track at 220-plus miles per hour is what being a racecar driver is all about. And doing it quicker than anyone else, 200 times over, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, is how to capture the biggest prize in racing.
Yup, this is it, right here, right now.
• On Twitter, you can follow Ryan Hunter-Reay at @RyanHunterReay, Andretti Autosport at @FollowAndretti, Racing for Cancer at @RacingForCancer and Live Strong at @LiveStrong.