Few Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are as intense as Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, which means a frustrating 2016 has him even more eager to bounce back this season.
The 2012 series champion looks at last year as “a season of missed opportunities” as his team struggled on street courses and he finished 12th in the points, his worst showing since 2009.
Team owner Michael Andretti made a series of offseason moves to bolster the program, including the hiring of Eric Bretzman as technical director. Bretzman won three series titles and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 as Scott Dixon’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Despite the street-course problems, Hunter-Reay and his teammates were strong contenders to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last May. Teammate Alexander Rossi won the race in his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda and teammate Carlos Munoz, who has since signed with AJ Foyt Racing and been replaced by Takuma Sato, finished second in the No. 26 Honda.
Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, led a race-high 52 laps but was collected in a pit-road incident involving another teammate, Townsend Bell, and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and finished 24th.
Hunter-Reay’s stability with the team was assured with the September announcement that primary sponsor DHL has signed on through 2020. Not that the 36-year-old Floridian needed extra incentive.
“I'm always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car,” said Hunter-Reay. “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. 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.”
He laments an Indy 500 that got away, which became the story of his “could have, should have” season.
“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,” Hunter-Reay said. “And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances. Those were two wins I feel like got away.
"If we'd have been there at the shootout at the end, I think we would have had a good shot at either of them.”
He finished third in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, despite dropping nearly a lap off the pace when an electronics malfunction forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop to recycle the control unit. That was his best race result of the season; he also finished third at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.
He’s won 16 races with 35 podiums and six poles in an Indy car career that began in 2003, but last year marked the first season he didn’t win a race since 2009 when he split driving duties with Vision Racing and AJ Foyt Racing.
Hunter-Reay is confident his team won’t be playing catch-up again in the Honda with aero kits frozen for 2017. INDYCAR will introduce a universal aero kit for all competitors in 2018.
“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 offseason. 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. Street courses are a big part of this series. I think our superspeedway package has shown it's been strong. One other area that really threw us for a loop last year is we've always been very, very strong at Iowa (Speedway), and it was just completely turned on its head for us last year. So that's a big head scratcher for us, and we have some ideas on where we need to improve there. We'll be testing there, so hopefully we'll have an opportunity to right that.”
His outlook for 2017 is quite simple: Hunter-Reay expects to be the consistent force he was before last season.
“My goal is to really make for stability on the 28 car because we do have four seasons ahead of us (with DHL). That's something that we had the stability side of it, something we had in our most successful years, 2012 through ’14,” he said. “We had the same guys working together.
“Hopefully we can accomplish that, but in this industry, people are always moving around, and you're just trying to keep them in the same spot for as long as possible.”
Hunter-Reay’2 No. 28 DHL Honda and the other 20 full-season entries gather Friday and Saturday for the open test at Phoenix Raceway. Practice sessions run from 3-6 and 8-11 p.m. ET both days, with Saturday’s sessions open free to the public. Video streaming for all sessions will be available at racecontrol.indycar.com.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 10-12. The race airs live March 12 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (noon ET).