Welcome to my first column of the 2013 season. I meant to write it sooner but as defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion, there's an increase in commitments.… Not that I'd change a thing!
The IndyCar scene is tougher than ever this year, so although the No. 1 DHL Andretti Autosport car has been very strong performance-wise, and two poles and a victory are relished by everyone on this team, there's definitely a feeling that we've had the potential to do even better.
Barber Motorsports Park was a dream weekend for the team. Although our DHL Dallara-Chevrolet was very strong, it was a tough fight to the end and I think IndyCar fans enjoyed a great day of hard racing. We tested well there pre-season and our pole lap was spot on, but with Will Power on the outside of the front row, Scott Dixon right behind him, and Helio Castroneves always quick there, we didn't take anything for granted.
Any IndyCar race is extremely tough, but as a team we had struggled at Barber in the past, not only with our outright pace but also with our consistency over a full stint; we've tended to use up our tires quicker than others. So going into the event, a big objective was to sort out those two factors. At that pre-season test we'd made progress, but the ambient temperatures were hugely different between test and race so being quick in the cold wasn't going to guarantee our pace there a full month later; plus of course, in testing you don't get to test the softer, quicker, red side-walled Firestone tires.
There truly is no substitute for hard work. So, working with my race engineer Ray Gosselin, along with my teammates and their engineers, we did a lot of analyzing and theorizing and it paid off; thereafter, it was a case of making sure we took full advantage of our advantage – a four-car team!
I think it was fairly obvious that I wasn't driving for points, but for a win. I knew from our pole position lap and from the lead we built up from the start, we had a car capable of going to Victory Lane that day. And as a driver as soon as you're aware of that, you have no excuse to not bring it home in first place. That's where the most pressure comes from, executing to our full potential. Let's face it, even in a great team like Andretti Autosport, there may only be three or four days in the whole season that you've got a car that you know is capable of winning on race day. This was one of those rare days, so as far as I was concerned, we had to be full-on 110 percent.
The strategy regarding tires was also a huge question mark. At a lot of races in the past, including ones at Barber, you didn't want to be on reds for the last 10 laps because their performance could dramatically fall off, so we were still considering our options even once the race started. Sometimes the difference in pace between the primary and alternate compounds isn't very big but the fall-off on alternates is severe, so on those weekends you want to keep your stints on reds shorter, even if they're marginally quicker.
But at Barber, that first half of a stint, the Firestone reds were pretty impressive on our car, and so we ran almost the opposite strategy to Helio. On another day, Helio's choice of strategy could have been the right way to go, but we reacted to how the tires were performing for us and we were able to catch and pass him. Then holding off a very determined Scott Dixon to the checkered flag was more like qualifying on the ragged edge. Job done: we had fulfilled the promise we'd shown all weekend. This was a big win for many reasons for our group.
St. Petersburg was a different matter. I was talking to Ray about this just a couple of days ago, and we actually averaged P3.8 in terms of lap times over all the sessions in St. Pete, other than the race where we were sidelined by a mechanical failure. So it was actually a pretty competitive weekend for us, even if it didn't quite look that way. We were at the sharp end. But for qualifying we made a change that upset the balance a lot, which held us back to seventh. Then in the race, the throttle sensor failed and that capped an unfortunate weekend.
What helped was seeing my teammate James Hinchcliffe win. I know a lot of people say that your teammates are your principal rivals, but that's not how I operate and it's not how Andretti Autosport operates. I was genuinely happy to see Hinch get his first victory, not just because he's a good guy, but because he's a team player, something we all try to be. If I find something works for me, I'll run back and tell my teammates. Let's be honest, we don't do that just because it's the right thing to do as a member of a team. It's because it's a two-way street (or in our case, a four-way street), and there'll be plenty of times when the DHL team needs help from our teammates. That's how we operate at Andretti, and so I'm pleased to see any of my teammates win.
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.