After frustrating 2013, don’t count out a Ryan Hunter-Reay 2014 comeback

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One was the loneliest number for Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 2013 IndyCar Series season.

The 2012 IndyCar champion opted to swap the No. 28 for the champion’s No. 1 on board his DHL Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport. Like the old number, the good luck that was a part of his title-winning success also went begging.

Some would – and have – argued “RHR” drove a better overall season in 2013 than he did the year he won the title. His qualifying was excellent, with six Firestone Fast Six appearances on road and street courses and additional strength on the ovals. His 5.3 season average was beat only by Will Power, at 4.3.

He still won twice, with great drives at both Barber, and also at Milwaukee for the second straight year.

But man, if it could go wrong, it did for Hunter-Reay last year. Various DNFs – either accident or mechanical-related – offset the good days and left him an unrepresentative seventh in the final points tally.

Entering 2014, the 28 is back, as is Honda for the Andretti brigade. The team achieved great heights with Honda as a factory-supported effort from 2003 through 2005, and additionally in sports cars with the Acura LMP2 program from 2007 to 2008.

“(If) the advantage is Honda at any point, we need to take full advantage of that,” Hunter-Reay said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I’m sure that was the idea behind the move.  Not only the relationship that Andretti Autosport has with Honda, how many championships they’ve won with them.  But, yeah, it puts us in a unique situation that if something does go our way, we can hopefully and potentially take advantage of that to get closer to another championship.”

Some good testing this offseason leaves the Florida native optimistic he can restart another title charge. Hunter-Reay explained the change between the Chevrolet twin-turbo and the Honda one, new for 2014, from his perspective.

“We’ve been balancing the two of them,” he said. “We’ve been working with Honda, it’s completely different than the single turbo, the drivability side of it.  Honda has a lot of work to do just to catch up to what Chevy has been used to.”

As has been the case each of the last two years, the Andretti team chemistry dynamic endures, with Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti all very good in exchanging information. Fourth driver Carlos Munoz should pick up the slack as well, having been with the team in Indy Lights the last two years and making two IndyCar cameos in 2013.

“Coming back, working with the same group of people, the communication is there,” he explained. “As I’ve always said, it’s an open book of communication between us. That’s how things work well.

“When James is finding something, it transfers to Marco and myself.  Marco and I have different driving styles, so it doesn’t always transfer.  James and I are a little bit more similar on the street circuits.”

Hunter-Reay has grown over the course of his IndyCar career to be accepted as one of the top two or three drivers in the series, and he’s one of only five drivers in the field with a past title (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais).

But Dixon, who emerged as 2013 champion with a torrid second half of the year, is someone “RHR” both respects and has an innate desire to want to beat.

“Scott is just relentless,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “He’s a guy that goes about his business quietly, professionally, always be there threatening for a race win. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he goes about his job. He’s a guy that you always know will make your Sunday hard.”

As Hunter-Reay heads to St. Petersburg, he’s yet to win there despite a series of good runs.

He was just 22 when he made his American open-wheel debut there in 2003, the lone Champ Car race held in St. Petersburg, driving as teammate to Jimmy Vasser with Stefan Johansson’s team. He had an accident and failed to finish.

In his other St. Pete appearances: 17th and out of fuel despite leading for Bobby Rahal’s team in 2008, second in an 11th hour deal with Tony George’s Vision Racing in 2009, 11th in 2010 in his first St. Pete start for Andretti, 21st in 2011 after being caught up in a first-lap accident, third in 2012 and 18th last year after an electrical issue.

“I love that it’s the kickoff to our season,” he said. “It feels like it’s been hot or cold there for me.  Either we DNF, have an issue, don’t finish, strategize our way out of it, or we finish on the podium. Hopefully it will be the latter this time around.”

Vettel leads Raikkonen home for Monaco GP win, ends Ferrari’s drought

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Sebastian Vettel extended his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by taking his third win of the 2017 season in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, heading up a one-two finish for Ferrari ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

After trailing Raikkonen throughout the first stint of the race, Vettel managed to extend his first stint out longer than his Finnish counterpart and produce a series of quick laps to get the jump through the pit stop cycle.

Vettel emerged from the pits in the lead and never looked back, storming clear to clinch his second Monaco Grand Prix victory and end Ferrari’s victory drought in the principality that dated back to 2001.

Raikkonen controlled the early part of the race for Ferrari, running two seconds clear of Vettel at one stage before the German was able to reel his teammate in ahead of the pit stop cycle.

Raikkonen pitted first, with Vettel opting to push on for another three laps, pumping in a series of quick times that ultimately decided the race.

After coming to switch to super-soft tires, Vettel emerged from the pits ahead of Raikkonen before quickly creating a gap that proved too great for the Finn to bridge, even with the assistance of a late safety car.

The race to complete the podium saw Red Bull and Mercedes enter a strategic battle, with Valtteri Bottas running P3 through the first stint. Red Bull pitted fourth-placed Max Verstappen early, forcing Mercedes to bring Bottas in one lap later to cover.

Bottas stayed ahead of Verstappen, but with the pair losing time behind Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniel Ricciardo was able to leapfrog both when, like Vettel, he pitted later, allowing him to vault ahead into third place.

With Vettel streaming clear at the front, Raikkonen soon found himself coming under pressure from Ricciardo for second, setting the stage for a tense battle through the closing stages.

Vettel’s lead was wiped away with 17 laps to go, though, when the safety car was deployed following a strange incident involving Pascal Wehrlein and Jenson Button at Portier.

Button tried overtaking at one of the tightest points of the circuit, resulting in contact that sent Wehrlein’s car into the air. The Sauber C36 came to rest on its side up against the wall, sparking concern for Wehrlein’s condition. The German quickly reported he was OK, just unable to get out of the car due to where his car came to rest. He was quickly taken away to the medical centre for further checks.

The safety car period was extended when Wehrlein’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, crashed his car after being given the wave-by to unlap himself.

The race returned to green with 12 laps to go with Vettel still leading, but it was Max Verstappen who was the man to watch. Having taken a free pit stop under the safety car and switched to ultra-soft tires, the Dutchman began to pile pressure on Ricciardo and Bottas ahead, keen to complete the podium.

Ricciardo gave his teammate a look-in when he ran wide at Turn 1 on the restart, clipping the wall in the process, but the Australian soon recovered and kept calm to clinch third place. Bottas did well to keep Verstappen at bay for fourth, with the flying Dutchman taking P5 for his first points and, indeed, finish in Monaco.

Carlos Sainz Jr. made good on a strong weekend for Toro Rosso by crossing the line sixth ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could not rise any higher than seventh after his qualifying disaster. A long first stint allowed the Briton to jump from 13th on the grid to inside the top 10, but he was powerless to stop Vettel extending his title lead to 25 points.

Haas enjoyed its best weekend in F1 to date as it notched its first double-points finish. Romain Grosjean finished eighth, while Kevin Magnussen recovered from an extra pit stop to finish 10th. The pair were split by Williams’ Felipe Massa, who was ninth at the line.

Jolyon Palmer was the sole finisher for Renault in P11 after seeing teammate Nico Hulkenberg retire early on due to a gearbox failure.

Force India had a weekend to forget as Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez both hit trouble during the race, leaving them 12th and 13th respectively. The result marked an end to Perez’s 15-race streak of points, which had been the longest active run on the grid, with a late tangle with Daniil Kvyat forcing the Russian to retire.

Jenson Button’s comeback weekend ended just as his original goodbye race in Abu Dhabi did last November as he was forced to retire following the clash with Wehrlein. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had been on for points, only to crash at Turn 1 after a mistake on the restart after the safety car.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with its first visit of the year to North America, venturing to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Button gets pre-race radio message from Alonso in Indianapolis (VIDEO)

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Jenson Button was given a special message by Fernando Alonso live from Indianapolis ahead of his one-off Formula 1 return in Monaco on Sunday just seconds before lights out.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, but was drafted in by McLaren to race in Monaco when Alonso secured a deal to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button qualified ninth in Monaco despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car until Thursday, only to be sent to the back of the grid due to a power unit penalty.

McLaren decided to start Button from the pit lane instead, with the Briton getting a special radio message from Alonso – who is up and watching the race in Indianapolis – as he left the garage.

Alonso wished Button the best of luck before telling him: “Look after my car!” Button responded by saying: “OK, I’ll pee in the seat!”

Button to start Monaco GP from pit lane after floor change

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Jenson Button will start his one-off comeback Formula 1 race in Monaco from the pit lane after McLaren opted to change the floor on his car after qualifying.

Button was drafted in by McLaren for the Monaco Grand Prix weekend following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the 101st Indianapolis 500, with the Briton previously stepping away from F1 at the end of last year.

Despite having no prior testing heading into the weekend, Button was quick to tame the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car, taking it to ninth place in qualifying.

A 15-place grid penalty for changes to his power unit resigned Button to the back of the grid for the race, prompting McLaren to make setup alterations overnight and favor a pit lane start for Button.

“As the floor is different from the one originally used in qualifying the competitor is required to start from the pit lane,” the FIA race stewards said in a bulletin ahead of the race.

Marcus Ericsson has also been handed a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. The Sauber driver’s qualifying position remains unchanged, though, by virtue of finishing 19th.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Romain Grosjean Haas
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
11. Kevin Magnussen Haas
12. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
13. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
14. Felipe Massa Williams
15. Esteban Ocon Force India
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Lance Stroll Williams
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
PL. Jenson Button McLaren

Wolff can see Hamilton finishing F1 career with Mercedes

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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can see three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton completing the rest of his career with the team, something he did not think would happen one year ago.

Hamilton has raced with Mercedes since 2013, claiming two F1 drivers’ titles in that time and the majority of his grand prix victories.

Hamilton is currently in the second of his three-year contract with Mercedes, and will be 33 upon its expiration at the end of next season.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Wolff said he could see Hamilton remaining at the team “forever”, believing their relationship to be stronger than ever.

“If you would have asked me the same question one year ago, I would not have been very optimistic, but now it is different,” Wolff said.

“I have the feeling that it can’t be much better in a different place, for him and for us.

“This is very strong now, and I am not speaking only about on-track performance because there are going to be difficult moments, but I am speaking about the relationship.

“After five years, this relationship has become so strong in a way that it wasn’t last season. For Lewis it will be important to see whether we are competitive or not.

“But at the moment there is such a solid basis that I can imagine it going on forever.”

Wolff believes there has been a shift for Hamilton in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s departure from the team at the end of 2016 following the German’s world title win.

Hamilton and Rosberg enjoyed a frosty rivalry that saw them clash a number of times on-track, with the latter’s exit helping to ease some of the tension within the team.

“Definitely the biggest positive development I have seen between 2013 and now happened over the winter and after Nico left the team,” Wolff said.

“Drivers are sometimes viewed within teams as contractors and they will always look after their own agenda rather than the team’s interest.

“But Lewis is now in his fifth year with us and that has changed. He has become a part of the team.

“I would not use the world team player because that goes against the DNA of a racing driver, but I think he has realized, acknowledged and respects the whole effort that is happening in the team.

“Somehow it has become natural, he towards the team, and the team towards him. We have built a trustful relationship.”