Hunter-Reay: 2018 IndyCar will produce better racing at Phoenix

Reduced downforce and tires that degrade more swiftly will result in a better IndyCar race at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway than in the last two years, according to Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay: 2018 IndyCar will produce better racing at Phoenix
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda Cosworth steering wheel
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Michael Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda, Marco Andretti, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda, crew
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda marbles on tire in parc ferme
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda

ISM Raceway, previously called Phoenix International Raceway, was welcomed back to the IndyCar schedule in 2016 after an 11-year hiatus, but the cars’ manufacturer aerokits provided so much downforce that drivers could go wide-open throttle into the turns.

The cars’ subsequent lack of yaw also kept the tires intact throughout a stint, and the result was that the racing at the 1.022-mile oval has been poor the past two years.

In addition, the course layout also heavily favored the Chevrolet-engined cars, since the Pratt & Miller-designed aerokit created less drag for the same amount of downforce as the HPD/Wirth-penned rival aero package.

However, following IndyCar’s two-day Open Test in Phoenix, 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Hunter-Reay says the Phoenix GP should be a lot more interesting this season than in its previous two editions.

“There will be more passing than last year,” he told Motorsport.com. “The second half of the tire life in each stint is when all the action is going to occur, because the tires don’t last as long as the fuel load. That’s no fault of Firestone, by the way; that’s the path we chose to take as a series.

“Once we catch slower traffic, the group will stack up and then if you can’t complete the pass [on the backmarker] first time, the guy behind you will gain momentum, and try and take advantage. And with everyone on lower downforce, lower grip, there are going to be mistakes.”

However, Hunter-Reay added that a second lane will open up “only if the drivers come together and agree to try and run that second lane, and then continue to use it – clean it, get it rubbered up.”

Asked the likelihood of such consensus between drivers, Hunter-Reay laughed and said, “Exactly. No way; absolutely not!

“The quickest way around the track is the bottom lane but when you hit heavy traffic, having that second lane would be great. But no, I don’t see how realistically we can get that done. We’ll just have to take our chances.”

He admitted that now that the ‘ideal’ line around ISM Raceway had been altered slightly by the cars’ lower downforce and a driver’s need to shallow the arc to protect his tires, that could offer a few more opportunities for passes – but only at great risk.

He said: “With the reduced downforce, the entry to Turn 1 is quite a bit different because you can’t just barrel in there and expect it to stick. You lift off the throttle, and you have to be careful about how you place the car on entry and where that puts you at the apex.

“Anyone trying to throw it up the inside at the last minute to make a pass… he’ll need to have the grip and tire life otherwise it’s going to be a nasty ending for both of you.”

Andretti Autosport progress still conjecture

Hunter-Reay, who has gone winless the last two years, largely due to mechanical/electrical misfortunes while running in prominent positions, said that it was still to early to say how he expects Andretti Autosport-Honda to stack up compared with rivals, especially on street and road courses.

“We didn’t start testing the new car until January,” he said, “and all we’ve done are two days at Sebring, two days at Phoenix, and we’ll have one more test at Sebring.

"Without doubt that’s the least amount of testing I’ve ever done before a season. And it also means we haven’t had a chance to directly compare ourselves to all of our rivals except at Phoenix. We were quick there, and that’s a step, but it is just a first step.

“As far as road and street courses go, what we know so far is that Andretti Autosport has done a good job and we’re concentrating on the right areas of the car, but it’s too early to say how much progress we’ve made relative to the others. When we tested at Sebring the conditions were perfect – 65 degF, track rubbered up. We’ve yet to try it in nasty conditions, hot summer-type temperatures.”

A looser car that requires a lot of reining in under hard braking should suit the Hunter-Reay driving style, but the former champion is cautious commenting on that, too.

“Yeah, it seems to suit my style,” he agreed, “but we’re expecting the car to be very susceptible to track temperature changes and it’s then a matter of getting the car to where I need it to be, to find that box I work best within, and keep it there.

"Without much track time so far, we’re left with a lot of work to do. So we’ll constantly be on our toes trying to keep up with that.”

Honda vs. Chevy battle “very close”

Some of the technical interest in IndyCar in 2018 – besides the fascination surrounding a universal aerokit that bestows very different handling characteristics on the cars – is how Chevrolet and Honda will match up now that the aero drag/downforce coefficient is even across all cars.

While Chevrolet’s new IndyCar program manager Rob Buckner appeared to admit to Motorsport.com that the Bowtie’s Ilmor engine was at a slight deficit to Honda’s unit last year, Hunter-Reay says the difference is not clear cut.

“I would say prior to Pocono last year, Honda had an engine advantage, yeah,” he said, “but I’d say the competition is very close on power right now. They made some gains on us over the final few races of last season.”

He added that Round 1’s St. Petersburg course, with a very slow hairpin prior to the main straight, may give some clues regarding relative power outputs, but he suspects we’ll have to wait until May to get a better read on the comparison.

“St Pete’s track looks like it should give us a clue on how the engines stack up relative to each other,” he observed, “but power-down out of the hairpin onto the straight can come down to driveability settings, bottom-end torque. Maybe we’ll get some read there, but Indianapolis will be the better gauge.”

“It’s good that we’re all going faster though. This car is a lot of fun, and you can see it on the traces that there’s just less drag to tow around now.”

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