By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
MONTEREY, California – For the second straight year, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay could play a major role on the NTT IndyCar Series championship despite being seventh in points.
That’s because his teammate Alexander Rossi is one of four drivers competing for the championship in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Last year at Sonoma Raceway, Rossi lost the title battle while Hunter-Reay finally captured that elusive victory. It proved to be a huge deal for Hunter-Reay coming out of “Wine Country” on top as the circuit was dropped from the calendar in favor of Laguna Seca.
“Going from pole to winning was a big deal for us and a great way to end the season,” Hunter-Reay said. “Obviously, I would love to do it again at Laguna. I have a lot of great memories here at this track but it’s been awhile.
“On one hand we’ve worked all those years getting the car dialed in at Sonoma to where we had podiums there and finally winning. The addition of Laguna Seca is a big deal for us because we’ve wanted this track back on the schedule for a long time. Just like we have been for Road America, I think Laguna and the NTT IndyCar Series go hand-in-hand, so it’s good to be back.”
Much like a year ago, Hunter-Reay is focused on winning the finale once again and prevent Rossi’s championship rivals Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon from scoring max points. Especially Newgarden, who comes into the 17th and final round with a 41-point lead.
“I think the best thing we can do to help Alex and the No. 27 team is focus on winning,” Hunter-Reay on Sunday’s game plan. “Put ourselves in that position like we were last year where we took points away from the Penske cars and Scott (Dixon). Really just put ourselves in that mix and if there’s an opportunity that presents itself where we can take points away from those guys when Alex is in front of us, that’s great.
“We have to focus on winning and that’s really what it boils down to. Obviously, team orders are not allowed so it’s not like it’s going to be, ‘Hey, block this guy and move over for them.’ It’s not like that. It’s more just we need to put ourselves into position to be good teammates and be up front taking away points from the guys he’s fighting against.”
Out of the 24-car grid, Hunter-Reay is one of four drivers (Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan) that’s previously driven at the 2.238-mile circuit when CART/Champ Car ran from 1983-2004.
In two starts, the Floridian finished 12th in 2003 and fifth the following year. He also has an Atlantic victory to his name back in 2002.
However, a lot has changed since the final Indy car race 15 years ago. Notably, the track surface being much older and again like Sonoma, tire degradation will be a major factor during race weekend.
“You’re gonna have to have kind of a qualifying setup that’s going to be drastically different from a race setup just because of how much the tires are going degrade on this surface,” Hunter-Reay said. “This place has seen many years and it’s definitely weathered compared to the last time I’ve been here. Meaning it eats the tires quicker.”
“Qualifying is going to be important, just so you can stay up there. I think we’ll see some guys are going either forward or backward based on that tire degradation compared to others.”
With weather conditions expecting to be clear all weekend, a far cry from mixed weather such as rain back in February, Hunter-Reay feels Thursday’s morning and afternoon test sessions will be a better indicative of how drivers will fare at Laguna Seca.
“It was kind of a messy test, so we don’t really know. Everybody is starting with a clean sheet of paper here and we really don’t know what to expect.”
“It’s going to come down to when the rear tires start to fall off and who’s using it more,” Hunter-Reay said. “I think the drivers are going to have to save their rears with their right foot as well and who has the more conservative setup and potentially saving those rears with a car that’s not ultimately the fastest.
“I’ve only been out there one session so far and tire deg will definitely be an issue, but will create more racing.”
In the morning session, Hunter-Reay ended up 17th fastest in practice which was led by Scott Dixon, who was 0.9379 seconds faster.
When looking at the session results, there were 26 entries timed instead of 24. This was because Hunter-Reay and Rossi swapped rides in the session with Hunter-Reay running seven laps in Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda.
However, this swap between the duo is far from new as they both came into the test with different setups and due to their similarities, it’s helped both along the way.
“With the open test, it gave us the opportunity to come here with drastically different setups. What would take you maybe 2.5 hours to change setups, so we had an opportunity where Alex and I like similar things in the car, similar setups, similar driving styles.
“We’re both the same height kind of build, so we can jump into each other’s cars with little modifications. We did it at the same time of day, so it gives a clear read in the two setups and what we can then do forward with the rest of the weekend.
“Maybe some things for one car apply to qualifying and others to the race. It was a definitely a beneficial exercise for us.”