Ray Gosselin, Ryan Hunter-Reay's race engineer, explains to David Malsher why Andretti Autosport and RHR can't afford another technical misstep.
“Last year we were pretty critical of the handling imbalances we got from the aero kit although we tried to be guarded in our criticism through the media. The handling didn’t suit us at all, but we needed to adapt because by the time we realized what we had, there was nothing we could do about it.”
That’s how Ray Gosselin, race engineer for Ryan Hunter-Reay at Andretti Autosport, remembers pre-season testing one year ago when the team was trying out the homologated Honda aero kit. His misgivings were well-founded.
So what do you do when you’re working for one of the most talented drivers in the series – a champion and an Indy 500 winner – and one of the top three teams in the series – multiple champion-makers and Indy 500 winners… And you just don’t have the tools to provide the car that the driver and team deserve? How do you deal with the frustration of knowing that the fundamental issues with the equipment are out of your control?
You do what Gosselin did – work your ass off, dig deep, think and rethink every conceivable angle, maximize what you’ve got and help Hunter-Reay score two wins and a second place in the last four races of the season.
It’s no secret that Andretti Autosport’s 2015 season had that clichéd “game of two halves” feel to it, the solitary bright spot in the first half being a 1-2 in Detroit, when Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti prevailed on a wild day of foul weather, ever-changing track conditions and bold tactics. At that point, Hunter-Reay’s best result had been fifth place and fastest lap at Barber Motorsports Park. Yes, he had qualified fourth at Long Beach, but you could give RHR a Honda Civic and he'd put in the first two rows at that track.
For an ex-champion (2012) and Indy 500 winner (2014), it was a dire situation. If, like this writer, you believe Hunter-Reay is one of the best in the Verizon IndyCar Series, it was puzzling. Yes, the Honda aero kit was no match for Chevrolet’s, but RHR wasn’t even prime candidate of the HPD crop. In fact, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with just one car for Graham Rahal, was regularly kicking Andretti Autosport in the backside, despite the latter squad being able to process data from three and sometimes four cars.
The RHR revival
But eventually the more typical Hunter-Reay/Gosselin/Andretti quality emerged, and with wins at Iowa and Pocono and a second at Sonoma, RHR’s No. 28 claimed sixth in the points standings. Not a ‘Whoopee!-How-about-that?!’ outcome, but one that regained some dignity for a proud combo that has together accomplished so much.
Last week, Andretti Autosport’s Rob Edwards explained to Motorsport.com why he believes Honda’s 2016 aero kit is significantly improved… as indeed it should be. Thanks to IndyCar’s Rule 9.3, HPD was allowed to work in more tech areas in order to catch up with Chevrolet. Gosselin, meanwhile, is less effusive in his praise. “I'm not a glass half-empty guy, but maybe more moderate.”
Nonetheless, he’s hopeful of drawing some parallels between now and the winter of 2011/’12. In the second half of the ’11 season, Hunter-Reay scored more points even than title rivals Will Power and Dario Franchitti, and he went on to grab the 2012 championship from Power. History never repeats exactly, but Gosselin is hoping a strong end to 2015 leads to a true title campaign in ’16 for Hunter-Reay.
“We’ve certainly talked about how we led into 2012, yeah,” he says, “and there are similarities there. Certainly I think it’s best to end the season on a high heading into the off-season, because it means we are energized by it and carry momentum.
The whole idea is to concentrate on ensuring we don’t start 2016 like we started 2015
“During 2015 we were taking a good hard look at what we were doing, what we were lacking, so by the time we got to August, we were trying to address some of our shortcomings. And then we made some pretty serious gains as soon as the season ended as we recapped what we’d done over the preceding six weeks and learned from it. The whole idea is to concentrate on ensuring we don’t start 2016 like we started 2015.
“But for now there are still unknowns. In my opinion, it’s probably a bit early to start throwing out praise.
“If you look at last year, Honda certainly seemed strong at times and won four of the final six races – and that makes for a good story… but we weren’t always particularly fast. I think the reality that we experienced is that there were places where maybe we could be more competitive and places where we were completely hopeless.
We’ve hardly even started exploring what we’ll use for the diverse tracks we’ll be experiencing
“Well, until you have a chance to return to all the different types of tracks again, and gauge the year on year progress, it’s too early to judge where we are for this season. In terms of prototype things and production things we’ve run to date, we’ve hardly even started exploring what we’ll use for the diverse tracks we’ll be experiencing.
“So the jury’s still deliberating, in my opinion, and we need to keep our heads down and keep working, and Honda need to keep developing and working and doing a good job to maximize our chances at the various tracks we go to.”
Speaking of maximizing chances, one of Andretti Autosport’s strengths over the years has been its pitstand people’s ability to think on their feet. Yes, there have been times when the team has slipped a little in the winter development race, and races when car setups haven’t suited their drivers. Such will always be the case, and for all teams. But the heads at AA have proven capable of compensating for a technical deficit by outside-the-box tactics that snatch victory from the jaws of mediocrity.
What Gosselin doesn’t want to do is rely on that opportunism to mount a championship campaign. Instead, he’s eager for proof that HPD’s sums have added up to something that equals Chevrolet's.
“From the limited amount of running we’ve done so far, I think the 2016 kit suits us OK, but the thing we haven’t done is measure ourselves head-to-head against Chevy. We don’t know what they gained compared with us or even what type of tracks they focused on. So that’s why I’m bit more reserved.”
Old school more cool?
Gosselin is an old-school racing enthusiast and admits he’s frustrated by a lack of opportunity for real ingenuity within the IndyCar teams’ engineering department. Once an aero kit is homologated, the amount of variations a team can apply is strictly limited to the bits the manufacturer supplied.
“I think everyone would like that chance to do more to suit individual needs,” sighs Gosselin. “That would be a huge step back to say 2001 or ’02 to do that, but it would be great. In this era, through no fault of an individual team, you’re stuck with something once you’ve got it.
"But you’d need to know a year in advance of a rule change like that, where you're able to develop your own aero bits to your own liking. Everyone would need to ramp up their tech department accordingly and it would be costly.”
No money worries
On the subject of finance, Gosselin is keen to dismiss the notion that Andretti Autosport is hurting. With Michael running only three full-time cars in 2016 and auctioning the team’s most hallowed DW12 chassis, and strong rumors of a former sponsor welshing on an eight-figure sum, there has inevitably been speculation on the team’s state of health ’n’ wealth.
“I see that perception is out there,” says Gosselin, “but I can tell you that internally, I haven’t seen signs of that at all. Michael is as fully committed as ever. We’ve actually hired more engineers, and every permanent facility we can test at, we’re going there. There’s no pulling back from our drive to be competitive.
“The biggest thing about Michael is that he wants to be competitive. He was not happy for a lot of last year, because he’s a winner – that’s what he demands and it’s not an unfair demand. Well, we all feel like that; none of us are in this just to show up. So last year we stayed determined, we never stopped working to turn our season around. And that’s what we did.”
For Gosselin, Hunter-Reay and the whole Andretti Autosport team, however, it’s vital to their championship chances that they don’t have to go through that again. Testing over the next six weeks will provide clues as to which manufacturer has the edge, but like Gosselin said, it won’t be until everyone’s tried every type of track on the IndyCar schedule – road, street, short oval and speedway – that a clear picture will emerge that divides favorites from underdogs.