Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay would be hard-pressed to find a more challenging race weekend in his career than the one he faced at the Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
One of a number of drivers battling brake and handling issues all weekend, Hunter-Reay looked like he might salvage a solid starting position in Saturday qualifying after he advanced out of Round 1. However, a glance off a concrete wall did enough damage to end his day in Round 2 and he could do no better than 12th in qualifying.
Race day would prove even more difficult. Hunter-Reay had likely the scariest moment of the weekend when he suffered rear brake failure entering turn 11, one of the fastest spots on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit. The team confirmed it was a mechanical failure not temperature related.
Hunter-Reay speared off track, narrowly missing teammate Alexander Rossi, who was just ahead of him at the time, and into the tire barriers in the runoff area. Hunter-Reay was unhurt, but his No. 28 DHL Honda had severe damage to the front nose and right-front suspension assembly.
Still, the team completed quick repair work and the No. 28 machine was on the grid in plenty of time to start the 110-lap race. Alas, yet more issues befell them during the pace laps. Problems with the engine calibration meant Hunter-Reay could not get above pace car speed, forcing him to dive into the pits as the field was taking the green flag.
Shortly afterward, though, Hunter-Reay’s luck began to turn around. Contact involving Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball sent Rahal into a spin and put Kimball against the outside wall exiting turn 3, with Carlos Munoz also suffering damage in the melee and stopping on track. Their misfortune brought out a caution, which proved opportune for Hunter-Reay’s team. It allowed them to fix the engine calibration woes and Hunter-Reay rejoined the fight without losing a lap.
From there, the goal was to use strategy to get back to the front. The team was one of several to pit on the early end of the window (they pitted on lap 23) and they caught yet another break with a lap 26 caution for debris off the cars of Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin.
Seven cars were forced to pit under the yellow and Hunter-Reay cycled up into the top ten. From there, the former champion and Indianapolis 500 winner ran a smooth, calculated race and began slowly working his way forward, eventually climbing up to sixth as the final stint began.
He then capitalized on an ailing Will Power to crack the top five and made a last-lap pass on teammate Takuma Sato to eventually finish fourth.
On a normal weekend, a fourth-place finish is a strong result. On a weekend like the one Hunter-Reay had, it was as good as a win.
“It was a wild weekend,” Hunter-Reay detailed after the race. “From the ups and downs of braking issues in second practice and then warmup this morning, we definitely earned this one. We fixed engine calibration issues early on (in the race), got out in front of the pace car by about a second or two keeping us on the lead lap. To finish today fourth was just awesome.”
The 36-year-old described that he had to drive the No. 28 machine for all it was worth to make it back to the front, something he actually relished. “We had a lot of fun out there driving every last drop out of the car, and it’s great to be back in the role and into the swing of things. Hopefully we can get the DHL Honda team back on the podium where we belong, but a fourth-place finish is a good start.”
In all, Hunter-Reay leaves St. Petersburg enthusiastic about the team’s potential in 2017. “This whole team has done a great job; Andretti Autosport has been working hard. We had some great pace, showed good promise and I’m looking forward to the next race.”
That next race is one Hunter-Reay loves at Long Beach, which you can see April 9 on NBCSN.