Hunter-Reay focused on a stronger 2016 IndyCar campaign

Associated Press
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Although he ended with a flourish and leapt from 14th to sixth in the final 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Ryan Hunter-Reay didn’t have the easiest season last year in his No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport.

The 35-year-old Floridian is usually a championship contender, and as one of only four drivers with both a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 win (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya), it was weird to see him fail to contend for the majority of 2015.

Hoping that’s an anomaly, Hunter-Reay is determined to be better in 2016, and he’s optimistic the Honda aero upgrades for next year will be enough to see him and Andretti Autosport back in contention on a more regular basis.

He’s already had several tests this offseason at Road America and Mid-Ohio.

“I think it’s good for the sport, and the racing, to see the upgrades,” Hunter-Reay told MotorSportsTalk, in advance of his pacing the field during the Rose Bowl parade later this week in an Acura NSX. “On roads, streets and short ovals, we’ll be stronger for sure.”

Part of the optimism has come from the aero updates permitted by INDYCAR’s allowing of Rule 9.3, which allows a manufacturer to close a gap to its competitors.

Honda was outclassed by Chevrolet at the Indianapolis 500 race – Hunter-Reay was a non-factor this year after his incredible win and late-race pass of Helio Castroneves in 2014 – and really wants to improve there.

“We’re working on for a similar package, including the Indy 500. We’re focused on that. Rule 9.3 didn’t apply there. There were a lot of Chevys up front at end of the Indy 500. Hondas done a great job of progressing on roads, streets and short ovals, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Hunter-Reay learned of the decision for the Indianapolis 500 and Sonoma to continue to pay double points – as both did in 2015 – and is fine with it at Indianapolis at least.

“I’m a fan of the Indy 500 being double points, but I don’t think any other should be,” he said.

Meanwhile he also has a confirmed partial season sports car season with Visit Florida Racing, which he’s been able to do in recent years but not as much in 2015.

He’d raced with the SRT Viper program in 2014 and Wayne Taylor Racing and Level 5 Motorsports in 2013 for his sports car cameos. Last year, he only made a single start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Starworks Motorsport.

But the Visit Florida program reunites Hunter-Reay with past SRT teammates, and fellow Florida residents, Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens in a move that makes sense for all parties. Hunter-Reay will run at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta as third driver, and will sub for Dalziel at Long Beach, where he will pull a unique double duty role.

“That’s a huge opportunity to work with the VisitFlorida.com team,” he said. “The Daytona 24 and Sebring 12 are extremely important. I have been second twice; once overall, and once in class.

“It’s one that I think it s avery important part of career. We have such a strong driver lineup, with Marc, Ryan and myself. Both of those guys are close friends. To team with them is a huge opportunity.

“Long Beach will be interesting. I’m going to do limited practice and then starting the car. My focus will be on IndyCar. But I’m tasked with doing the best job possible to fill in for Ryan Dalziel.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds