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.”

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”