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IndyCar: Ryan Hunter-Reay eager to start 2018 with new car, high hopes

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Ryan Hunter-Reay finished ninth last season in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, but some might argue there should be an asterisk next to his season finish.

Hunter-Reay could potentially have finished higher, maybe even in the top-five – and likely might have earned more than the three podium finishes he had (Indianapolis Grand Prix, Iowa and Watkins Glen) – if he didn’t suffer, as he put it, several “missed opportunities.”

“We started the first race in St. Pete with some electrical issues in pit lane and ended up finishing the race in fourth, so a huge comeback there,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.

“And then at Long Beach, challenging for the race win with just a few laps to go, and right on the gearbox of James Hinchcliffe, and the car shut off – same exact electrical issue that shut the car off while leading the year before at Pocono.

“And then at Indianapolis (500), we were challenging for the lead when unfortunately the engine expired.”

While there’s no rhyme or reason for the mishaps, there was somewhat of a common thread at least on the surface.

“These things tend to happen when we’re running upfront,” Hunter-Reay said. “If you put all those missed opportunities together, there’s a pretty good season in there.”

An even better “pretty good season” is in Hunter-Reay’s sites for 2018. Entering his 15th season in Indy car racing, including his 12th in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the 37-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident has high expectations for the 2018 season, which begins March 11 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

But he also knows what the record book says:

* Since winning the IndyCar championship in 2012, he finished seventh in 2013, sixth in both 2014 and 2015, fell to 12th in 2016 and rebounded to ninth last season.

* He’s had three podium finishes in each of the last two seasons, but also has not won a race since 2015, when he triumphed at both Iowa and Pocono, following the biggest win of his career in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

But Hunter-Reay and the rest of the No. 28 DHL-sponsored Andretti Autosport team are “definitely optimistic about this season,” Hunter-Reay said.

Some of that optimism comes from the three-day preseason test at Phoenix earlier this month with a brand new race car that is significantly more aerodynamic than last year’s model.

“The Phoenix test went well,” he said. “It was much different than we had been used to, a lot less downforce than we’ve had in the past. There was some getting used to that driving style-wise and what you can get away with, getting into the corner and how to put the power down, but I think all-in-all, it was a pretty good test.

“We still have a some work to do. It’ll be interesting to see how it races. I think there’ll be a lot more passing than last year. We’re definitely sliding around a lot more and it’s very difficult in traffic, but my guess is it’ll race better than last year.”

And let’s not forget the sleek, sexy and bold look of the new car, likely to become a big favorite once more IndyCar fans see it both in-person at racetracks as well as on TV broadcasts as the season progresses

“Absolutely (it’s sexy and bold),” Hunter-Reay said. “The look of the car is 100 percent (improved from last year), they knocked it out of the park.

“I’m very, very happy with the good job they did on the design side of it. It’s been great and you can really see the reaction from social media, like the fans that came out for the test (in Phoenix), it’s definitely hit that note it was looking for.”

But the new look also comes with new challenges that must be overcome in the first part of the season.

“It’s all about getting the setup right,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is a completely different aero kit and aero package and a different center of gravity. Yes, there’s less downforce and you’re driving the car more, you’re busier behind the wheel of the car.

“But you have to make it work for your driving style. If you’re a guy that really wants the rear end locked down, you can do that with the setup, but you have to work to get there.

“And vice-versa. If you’re a guy that likes to have a really sharp entry and the car is kind of free and loose, you have to work to get there but have that balance that will allow you to get through a tire run and through a tank of fuel. So, there’s a lot of challenges on making that right for each different driver.”

The long off-season wait for St. Petersburg is nearly over, but it’s a race that has added meaning for Hunter-Reay.

“I’ve been on the podium at St. Pete three times, second- and third-place finishes,” he said. “But I really want to win that race. It’s my home race and I would really love to win that race.

“We made some pretty good progress at Sebring (in testing), but we know there’s probably going to be some curve balls when we come to St. Pete. I can’t really say what to expect yet. It’s going to be kind of wait-and-see because we have no idea what we’re going to get that first session. We could be right in the window, or we could be quite a ways off and we’ll have to dig ourselves out of that hole over the weekend and try to make it up for qualifying.”

And as for the overall 2018 season, Hunter-Reay adds, “it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out with the new aero kit and how it races different at each and every track we go to, and who comes to grips with this universal aero kit first.

“Who knows, maybe somebody will make an early run, and that’s where the championship is won, on the front end of the season. If that happens, hopefully, we’re that team.”

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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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