10.15.13 (via RACER.com
) – There was a time when Ryan Hunter-Reay's career comprised mainly barren plains. Yet from midseason 2011 until midseason this year, he saw the IndyCar world from an elevated position, and in 2012, he got the view from the mountain top. And that sultry night in Fontana last September, many rejoiced with Ryan because 1) his route to the top had demanded talent, resilience and fortitude beyond the understanding of most of his peers, and 2) winning the IndyCar title was a long-held dream and he'd made it come true.
“I'm pleased for Ryan for three reasons,” one experienced IndyCar paddock member remarked last winter. “One, this is what he wanted to win since he was a kid, so it's cool to see him achieve it. Two, I think as an American, IndyCar can do a lot with him promotionally through the off-season and all next year, so the series will benefit from that. And three, I don't think Andretti [Autosport] are going to be so strong again so this may have been his only chance…”
Agreed on point one: there was spontaneous joy etched across Ryan's face that night and even the following day he (understandably) could hardly stop himself smiling. He was the picture of contentment. On the second point, sadly, the publicity-seizing opportunity has been squandered: even RHR himself admits to being shocked at how few demands the series has made during his time as champion.
As for the third point, regarding his team's prospects, many of us agreed…and were then made to feel pretty foolish for the first half of this season. Ten races in, Andretti Autosport had won precisely half. Remarkably though, now, with 18 races down and just one to go, those five victories – three for James Hinchcliffe, two for Hunter-Reay – are still AA's total victory tally in 2013. Although Hunter-Reay's season-long performance hasn't featured the wild oscillations race to race that Hinch has experienced, nor has it featured the kind of consistency that we'd seen from the No. 28 car the year before. And that's what has made the difference between nailing a second straight title and scrapping for fourth or fifth.
“We've had five mechanical or electrical problems,” observes Hunter-Reay, a week before he relinquishes his crown, “and you can't win the title that way. But I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about the chance I've been given at this team. I'm still really happy. It's just been unfortunate how things have gone and yeah, ultimately it's cost us.”
Indeed. Ask any racing champion and he'll admit to a little luck somewhere in his season, whether it's having a yellow flag fall at the right time to work with his pit stop strategy, or the out of control car that just missed him in a Turn 1 pile-up, or the mechanical problem that occurred in Sunday morning warm-up rather than the race itself. It's rare that the title actually hinges on such matters, but they're vagaries of fortune that can switch knife-edge moments from “If only…” into “Thank God!,” and turn rueful into grateful. And it's those sorts of issues that have gone against the triumvirate of Hunter-Reay, race engineer Ray Gosselin and team owner and strategist Michael Andretti.
What must be doubly annoying for them is that, looking at this truly peculiar 2013 IndyCar season, if any driver/car combo as fast as Hunter-Reay/Andretti had also been consistent, the title could have been sewn up two or three races ago. True, Chip Ganassi Racing turned their fortunes around midseason with that Sebring test, and Team Penske have also improved. But the very fact that Ganassi's Scott Dixon has been able to leap into a commanding lead of the championship despite a fairly forgettable first half of the season, and despite being classified 15th and 19th at Sonoma and Baltimore, respectively, suggests the 2013 title was there for the taking.
“Oh, I hear ya,” agrees Hunter-Reay. “I think everyone at some point has shot themselves in the foot this year – and more than a few times. Everyone except Helio, I guess. For us, I think of things like the flat tire in Brazil, where we looked like we could have won and instead I end up outside the top 10. “And then three times I got ran into, as well…”