Photo: IndyCar

Andretti Autosport breaks long drought on road/street courses

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Andretti Autosport’s struggles on road and street circuits over the last two years have been well documented.

In fact, the last time the team won on a permanent road course was back in April of 2014, when Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Barber Motorsports Park, with Marco Andretti finishing second in what was a 1-2 for the team. Carlos Munoz then delivered the team’s most recent win on a street course a year later, in a rain-shortened Detroit race one, leading Andretti in a 1-2 finish there.

However, their only wins since then have come at the Indianapolis 500 (Alexander Rossi in 2016, and Takuma Sato in 2017), with road and street circuits being especially problematic for the Michael Andretti-led squad.

For instance, at last year’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen, all four cars qualified 15th or worse – Rossi was 15th, Munoz was 16th, Andretti 18th, and Hunter-Reay 19th – with Rossi the only one to finish inside the top ten in eight.

Owing to the offseason personnel adjustments that have seen the team make strides in their setups, plus a good test at Watkins Glen several weeks ago, this weekend was a far different story.

Rossi was fast all weekend, securing the pole on Saturday and overcoming a fuel issue to lead the most laps and win on Sunday, while Hunter-Reay ran solidly all race long to finish third.

Even though Marco Andretti (16th) and Takuma Sato (19th) languished at the bottom of the order, the results for Rossi and Hunter-Reay are the team’s best on a road course since Hunter-Reay’s aforementioned Barber triumph.

The turnaround is quite noteworthy, as Hunter-Reay discussed afterward.

Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third at Watkins Glen, leading four laps in the process. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s nice to see the turnaround the team has had. Last year as a team here, we all qualified (15th) or worse. We were the worst team in the paddock last year. Heck of a turnaround. Great job on that. Happy for the (No. 98) team. Alex did a great job,” Hunter-Reay said of the performance.

This also serves as a shot of momentum for the team ahead of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in two weeks, with Sonoma Raceway being one of the team’s better tracks, as Rossi described.

Alexander Rossi celebrates with his team in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. Photo: IndyCar

“We had a strong test there. We were very strong there last year. It’s probably one of our strongest tracks outside of Indianapolis,” Rossi asserted. “I have high expectations. We need to really make sure that, again, we tick all the boxes throughout the weekend. Hopefully we can climb a couple spots in the championship.”

However, for Hunter-Reay the victory does not relieve any pressure in any way, as he still does not have a road/street course win since that Barber victory, and has not won a race period since Pocono in 2015.

“(2014) since our last road course win, that’s too long. No pressure relief at all. Got to get on it,” Hunter-Reay finished.

With their results, Rossi moved up to sixth in the championship standings, with Hunter-Reay jumping up to ninth. Takuma Sato now sits ninth and Marco Andretti 13th respectively.

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Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.