Jerry Bonkowski

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After a down season in 2016, Ryan Hunter-Reay is looking up in 2017

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The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was one Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely rather forget.

If you were an IndyCar driver, you’d want to forget it too, as Hunter-Reay endured his worst season in the last eight:

* He failed to win even one race since 2009, his last season outside Andretti Autosport.

* He managed just three podium finishes (same as 2015, but he also had two wins that season).

* After finishing seventh, sixth and sixth in the previous three seasons, Hunter-Reay finished 12th in the IndyCar standings in 2016, his worst showing since finishing 15th in 2009.

* He had an average starting position of 11.8 and an average finish of 10.9.

All in all, 2016 was very much a hit-and-miss season, with more emphasis on the miss rather than the hit.

“2016 I think was just a season of missed opportunities, especially when I look at the big one that got away, which was the Indy 500,” Hunter-Reay said during Wednesday’s annual IndyCar preseason Media Day. “I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end.”

Unfortunately, RHR finished 24th in that event, two laps behind winner Alexander Rossi, following contact in the pits.

“And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances,” Hunter-Reay said, although he finished third at Pocono as opposed to how he did at Indy. “Those were two wins I feel like got away.”

It’s something he can’t help but lament because had things turned out differently, Hunter-Reay likely would not have finished as low in the standings as he did.

“It being my first ever season not winning a race with a full-time program – those two hurt when I think about them,” he said.

Another thing that hurt and was a miss was his performance in street courses. While he started the season strong with a third-place finish at St. Petersburg, that was the lone street course highlight of 2016.

At Long Beach, he finished 18th. He bounced back with finishes of seventh and third in the two Belle Isle races, but wound up 12th at Toronto.

“It was a season of struggles on the street courses for Andretti Autosport as a whole,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “We have been going back to look at that and we’re going to bring some changes in this year.

“We’ve obviously had some personnel changes at Andretti Autosport, and we’ve also had a directional change on the way we’re going to approach street circuits.

“We had a couple good street course races. You know, we finished on the podium at two last year, but it’s not enough. That’s something that we need to get on top of.”

Like his fellow IndyCar peers, Hunter-Reay is over 2016 and it’s on to 2017, with a hunger that can only be fed with greater success.

“Absolutely,” said the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. “I’m always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car.

“That’s how I’ve always been my whole career, just because I’ve always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride. I have a lot of stability now with DHL (renewed at the end of last season). Obviously this is a great, great partner. It’s great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within IndyCar, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

While IndyCar will have a decidedly different race car in 2018, Hunter-Reay does not anticipate 2017 being similar to his 2016 campaign.

“I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a lame duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. I think we can improve there.

“There’s no reason why we can’t, and there’s no excuse not to, so that’s something that we’re very focused on, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more. But it’s something where we’re going to have to go out and prove it.”

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After winning Indy 500, Alexander Rossi has even greater goal for 2017

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Yesterday, the Indy 500. Tomorrow, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

That’s essentially Alexander Rossi’s mindset for 2017.

After being the surprise winner of the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, as well as earning both Indy 500 and IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, Rossi is ready to make the next step — a very big step indeed.

Sure, he’d love to repeat as 500 winner, but the series championship is his No. 1 priority – and he’s ready to go for the jugular right from the opening race of the 2017 season in March in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When asked during Wednesday’s IndyCar Media Day just how important a strong start will be this season, the Andretti Herta Autosport (with Curb-Agajanian) driver quickly replied, “Very important.”

“Racing is momentum and confidence, and all of the adjectives that relate to those things,” Rossi continued. “If you are on the back foot from day one, you’re always playing catch-up.”

Rossi quickly points to Will Power as a perfect example of why a strong start is important. Power missed the 2016 season-opening race in St. Pete due to reported lingering effects of an inner ear infection following a crash the day before in practice, which was inadvertently misdiagnosed as a concussion.

Power did not earn any points after missing the race, which he feared would keep him behind the eight-ball the remainder of the season. But Power went on a strong run and was able to finish second.

Still, if Power had raced at St. Pete, he may have eventually overtaken teammate Simon Pagenaud for the championship.

“We saw it a little bit with Will last year,” Rossi said. “He obviously is more than capable of winning championships but was always playing catch-up from St. Pete.

“It’s very important to come out of the box strong. Do you have to win, no, but I mean, you need to be fighting for the win at least and show that you’re competitive.”

Now that he’s won the biggest race in the world, Rossi knows he can’t live on his laurels or what happened last year. While winning the 500 was life-changing, his performance in the other 15 races of the 2016 season was more mediocre than good.

He had just one other top-five finish (fifth in the season finale at Sonoma), a sixth-place finish at Iowa and a pair of 10th-place finishes (Indy Grand Prix, Belle Isle 1).

Then there was the bad part of the season: seven finishes of 14th or lower, one DNF (Pocono) and ended the season with an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finish of 11.8.

“So ’16 was a lot of things,” Rossi said. “Most of it was a learning experience, from not only learning a new team, new car, new tracks, but a completely new organization in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and it was a very positive experience for most of that.

“With that being said, the year aside from the month of May was pretty difficult, and we weren’t very happy with how it went in any way as a four-car effort.

“Going into 2017 we have a lot higher expectations, and we’ve made a big push this off-season to rectify a lot of the things that didn’t go well. Obviously I’m looking forward to going back to Indianapolis in May, but by the same token, I’m just as excited about all the other races because I feel like we have a pretty big point to prove, and road and street courses, which were supposed to be my strong suit coming into IndyCar, they were not, and ovals were.”

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Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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Will Power looking for first Indy 500 win and second IndyCar title in 2017

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To say 2016 was a challenging season for Will Power is an understatement.

He began by being forced to sit out the first race in St. Petersburg, Florida, when it was thought he had suffered a concussion in a practice crash. As it turned out, Power had what was termed the potential effect of a lingering inner ear infection.

By earning only one point for pole – he was scored 23rd in the standings after St. Petersburg – Power was worried that his season might be over before it had even begun. Being so far back in the points, he was worried that he’d never catch up.

But the Australian indeed rebounded for finishes of third (Phoenix), seventh (Long Beach) and fourth (Barber), bringing him from 23rd to seventh in the standings.

After finishing 19th in the Indianapolis Grand Prix and 10th in the Indianapolis 500, he had one heck of a catharsis at Belle Isle, finishing 20th in the first race but then bounced back to win the second race the following day.

That win would put Power on a path where he’d go on an incredible tear, winning four races and earning two runner-up finishes in a six-race race stretch, leaving him second in the standings with three races to go and just 20 points out of the lead.

The final three races did him in, though. He lost points at Texas with eighth place, and then back-to-back 20th place results at Watkins Glen and the Sonoma season finale knocked Power out of the title race, leaving teammate Simon Pagenaud to capture his first career IndyCar championship.

“It was definitely an interesting season for me,” Power said during Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Normally I turn up to the year very fit and ready to go. That was definitely not the case last year.

“I just kind of wasn’t on top of my game, just struggling with some physical stuff like fatigue, and then missing the first race. But I think going into Phoenix, which was really my first race, was more about am I physically fit enough to do this whole race because it’s a very physical track.

“(I) kind of took that approach on a few races starting from there, which was a very different approach for me, kind of puts you in a position to be a little bit more conservative, and gave me insight into that can be a good thing. You know, and things really started to flow for me after Detroit.”

In turn, Power’s confidence climbed exponentially with each succeeding race after the win at Belle Isle. To fight his teammate with everything he had, Power would have to emulate the kind of run Pagenaud had to start the season, with three wins (Long Beach, Barber and Indy Grand Prix) and two runner-ups (St. Petersburg and Phoenix) in the first five races.

“I kind of thought at that point if I want to have a chance of winning the championship, I really need to have a run like Pagenaud had, which was an unbelievable run,” Power said. “I didn’t think that was possible. It actually happened, though, started flying well.

“But unfortunately the last two races were DNF’s. Literally three races’ worth of DNF’s there in the last three races, so that kind of ruined any chance.”

But that’s all in Power’s rearview mirror now. He’s looking ahead for 2017 with a number of goals in mind: a strong season start, to win the Indianapolis 500 for the first time (his best finish to date was second in 2015) and to win his second IndyCar championship.

In other words, to accomplish everything he didn’t or couldn’t in 2016 – particularly the 500.

“You’ve got to do all the homework and the hard work to be competitive and then put yourself in that position,” Power said. “I’ve won two 500-mile races in the last couple years, and I’ve just got to get this one. That’ll do it. Yeah, just one more.”

But at the same time, patience and attention to detail will be key not just at Indianapolis, but through all 17 races of the 2017 season. And not every one of his competitors is prone to having that patience or that attention to details, Power said.

“Everyone is antsy at the first race to just go out and charge,” Power said. “But I think you’ve still just got to know that it’s a 17-race series and every race counts the same amount of points apart from Indy and Sonoma.

“You’re turning up with very similar packages for everywhere this season. So I think it’s going to be about fine-tuning. That’s what happens in the situation where everyone has the same formula for a few years, for a couple years.

“It becomes more competitive because everyone has their good baseline setups. It becomes more about getting the little details right, and I think that’s the type of season that it will be.”

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‘Next year’ is now a quest for Pagenaud to defend IndyCar title

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Throughout his IndyCar career, Simon Pagenaud was the quintessential example of a driver who would give it all, but at season’s end would invariably fall short, likely saying to himself, “Wait until next year, we’ll get ‘em then.”

Well, Pagenaud can’t say that anymore. As the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, the French native is now in an all-new position in the open-wheel series: that of the hunted rather than the hunter.

But that’s fine with Pagenaud. He firmly believes there’s still a lot more to draw upon after last season’s career year.

“There’s still a lot to iron,” he said at Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s only our second year together (with Team Penske), so we still have a lot to improve, so that’s what’s exciting for 2017.

“I think it’s about being disciplined. It’s easy to relax after you’ve won one time, but it’s about being disciplined. Myself, it’s to reflect on ’16 and see how I can improve myself physically, mentally, all the aspects of driving, the craft basically. I can definitely improve on a lot of those things.”

Which is not good news for his opponents.

Pagenaud roared through last season, capturing single-season career-highs in wins (five), podiums (eight) and poles (eight) in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

By comparison, coming into 2016, Pagenaud had earned just four total wins, 12 podiums and two poles in his 85 combined Champ Car and IndyCar starts.

Now, after nearly doubling most of those totals in just one 16-race season, Pagenaud can’t wait to get started on this season’s 17-race campaign – and potentially a second consecutive championship.

One of the biggest keys will be not to become complacent.

“One of the big things for us having won is not to rest on our laurels and keep going, keep pushing to get more,” Pagenaud said. “So being hungry is going to be very important for everybody, not just me but the whole team. … But we can do better.”

While it’s hard to say Pagenaud had any marked weaknesses after the season he just had, he admits he needs personal improvement on ovals.

“I think it’s mostly focusing on the oval for 2017 and trying to raise the level there,” Pagenaud said.

Now that he’s won his first IndyCar championship, the next big goal on Pagenaud’s agenda is to win the Indianapolis 500.

In five starts to date in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, success has been mixed for Pagenaud. His best finish was eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. His second-best finish – 10th — came in 2015, his first season for Team Penske, and that was one where he had a car to contend.

Ironically, even with the overall stellar season he had in 2016, his finish at Indianapolis left Pagenaud with a bad taste in his mouth. A mechanical issue relegated him to a 19th place finish, his worst finish ever at the legendary 2.5-mile Brickyard.

Pagenaud knows that as good as his season was in 2016, he could just as easily have a bad campaign this coming season. But he’s ready for it all and however it turns out.

“It’s a job — it’s endless, this job,” he said. “There’s no limit to improving. … You can always improve. It’s just you being curious about it and trying to find more ways.”

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