LEEDS, Ala. – Apparently, Ryan Hunter-Reay has figured out what it takes to be fast at the 17-turn, 2.38-mile Barber Motorsports Park.
Hunter-Reay won last year’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama from the pole in an Andretti Autosport Dallara/Chevrolet. On Friday, Hunter-Reay returned to the top of the timing list when he turned the fastest lap of two practice sessions at 1:08.7836 (120.378 miles per hour) in an Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda.
“We made big gains when we came here last year and had a great weekend,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s still early in the weekend though. It’s going to get hotter and track conditions will change. But this is a good start. It’s extremely important to start up front. Qualifying here is difficult because hundredths of a second can mean a few spot. You do have some opportunities to pass but it’s few and far between.
“Last year we really worked on what we needed in the car and in year’s past it wasn’t doing what it needed to for me to get the most out of it. We’ve made strides at Andretti Autosport to how to get his car to perform.”
Friday’s action is the start to a very busy month for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Saturday’s qualifications include the Firestone Fast Six with the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama set for Sunday. But the focus soon shifts to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, beginning with Tuesday’s Rookie Orientation Program followed by an open test for all IndyCar participants around the newly designed IMS road course in preparation for the May 10 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Practice for the first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series race on the IMS Road Course is May 8 with Firestone Fast Six qualifications on May 9 and the race the next day.
May 11 marks the first day of practice for the Indianapolis 500 with two weeks of action leading into the “Greatest Race in the World” – the 98th Indianapolis 500 on May 25.
“I’ve been looking forward to that for a while,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “It’s a new track to play with that is inside the world’s greatest race track. Any day at Indy is a great day and I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to a great month.”
Tuesday’s rookie orientation events sees the return of 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch to the Andretti Autosport car, as the full-time NASCAR driver competes in his first Indianapolis 500.
“It will be cool to have Kurt as a teammate,” Hunter-Reay said. “He is down to earth. He knows what to do to win in a race car. This is a different discipline altogether for him. I really look up to him for taking this step. It takes somebody with serious guts to jump into the Indy 500 like that.”
While Hunter-Reay can’t wait to get the month of May, started Sebastien Bourdais hopes to end the month of April with a strong showing. He was the second-fastest driver in Friday’s practice session with a lap at 1:08.9311 (120.120 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for KVSH Racing.
“I think everybody is trying to guess what the race is going to be like,” said Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion. “We know actually from 2012 how slick this place can be when it gets hot, how much tire degradation can be here. We come here and test for two days and it was drizzling, British weather, in the 50s, no wind. The track is awesome and the car feels great, it’s super fast.
“Then, you come back, the track is 125 degrees, and it’s gusty. You’re like, ‘Is it the same car? You’re going two seconds slower and you’re P1. Okay, that’s interesting.’
“I think we could very well see actually a weekend where the times plateau maybe tomorrow morning. Track temp might be just about as hot as it was tomorrow afternoon as it was at 10 a.m. this morning.
“It’s very difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen, but I think the track might not pick up any speed at all. It’s getting very slick out there. During the session it felt like the track didn’t pick up very much. So we’ll see what happens. “
Josef Newgarden, who was challenging for the victory in the April 13 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach before he was involved in a crash with Hunter-Reay while the two were fighting for the lead, was third-quickest on Friday at 1:08.9336 (210.116 mph) in a Dallara/Honda. Two-time Honda Grand Prix of Alabama winner Will Power was fourth at 1:08.9746 (120.044 mph) in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Team Penske.
“The Verizon Chevy team didn’t do bad today,” Power said. “We went through and made a few changes today but we will definitely have to think about what we can do a little bit different tomorrow so we can qualify at the top.”
James Hinchcliffe rounded out the top five with a lap at 1:09.0036 (119.994 mph) in a Dallara/Honda.
“We were here for spring training and had a little bit of an idea of what to expect this weekend, but of course the conditions are a bit different now, which has a huge effect on the track,” Hinchcliffe said. “The team did a great job though, obviously Ryan (Hunter-Reay) was quickest both session. I’m happy with the United Fiber & Data Honda, but still a little bit of work to do for tomorrow.”
Graham Rahal and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan continued to struggle. Rahal was 19th fastest in a Dallara/Honda, and Kanaan was 21st in a Dallara/Chevrolet.
“We’re obviously still learning,” Rahal said. “There are still some things we have to figure out and some time to be found but at the end of the day, we aren’t that far off time-wise. You look at the time sheets and it looks like both of our cars are struggling but when you are only eight-tenths (of a second) off (fast time), yet you’re 19th, it’s a difficult thing. If you find less than one-tenth (of a second) a corner, you are right up there with those guys.
“That’s what we’ve got to do, just keep working and find more speed. I feel like there is potential here. We found some things that worked at the end of the session. I didn’t get the best out of my tire run. I don’t know what I did but the tires only lasted me a lap so I have to figure that out. Overall, I think we will be alright.”