Making Ryan Hunter-Reay a winner again

If you believe Ryan Hunter-Reay should be regularly battling Dixon, Power and Pagenaud, you’ll have felt deeply frustrated last year. RHR’s race engineer Ray Gosselin tells David Malsher there are reasons to be optimistic – and realistic – for 2017.

Life teaches us – correction, should teach us – not to generalize about people according to their race, nationality, political views, wealth, background… or occupation. But no matter how different their personalities away from the track, I’ve found that the best racecar engineers share certain character traits.

1) Each is loyal to his driver, to the extent he will automatically say “we screwed up” even when it’s very clearly the driver who dropped it.
2) Each is blessed with healthy realism, which means they’re aware of the quality of the opposition and won’t make wildly optimistic pre-race predictions.
3) Each is humble in victory and will acknowledge whenever there was a certain amount of luck involved, and/or will come up with areas where the team could have done better.
4) (A purely selfish one here…) Each one possesses information that’s highly useful to reporters. Post-race, the engineer has a broader perspective than his driver of how his car fit into the context of the race.
5) They are all grounded, constant reminders that this is a team sport, and that it took more than just a driver’s natural talent to get his racecar to Victory Lane.

That latter point is vital for me, since my enthusiasm for motorsport is founded on heroic racecar drivers racing amazing cars, rather than amazing cars carrying some faceless and interchangeable plug-in drivers to the checkered flag. However, should I revel in the brilliance of the guy in the cockpit, the race engineer will caution me from becoming too whimsical; every triumph has a foundation of research and development, nuts ’n’ bolts, strategy and slick execution.

One such down-to-earth character is Ray Gosselin who is about to embark on his eighth straight year as Ryan Hunter-Reay’s race engineer. He’s been with the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner since he joined Andretti Autosport in 2010, but unlike the last two seasons when he’s also been trying to steer the whole team’s development process, Gosselin now reverts to being purely a race engineer for the #28. For 2017 he was given the choice of doing one role or the other, and when he chose to focus on the frontline, team owner Michael Andretti hired as his R&D man Eric Bretzman, who had been working on Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR team, following his long service as Scott Dixon’s race engineer.

Gosselin doesn’t try to hide his enthusiasm for removing the extra burden.

“I just really like being on the car, I like competing,” he says. “If I had gone the other way, worrying about everything… Well, there’s fun in that too, but when the race started, I suspect I’d have been thinking, ‘OK, now what?’ Racing is why I think all of us do this.

“It means I’ll be as heartbroken as ever when things don’t go our way, but when they do, I’ll be excited again. And focusing on the #28 car and working on how we can get more out of that is deeply satisfying and truly engrossing.”  

Sober reflection

No one, least of all Gosselin or Hunter-Reay, needs reminding that life since the manufacturer aerokits were introduced has been difficult for Andretti Autosport as a whole and particularly frustrating for a former championship-winning lineup. For the first time since he joined the team, RHR endured a winless season in 2016. Honda’s aerokit, as acknowledged by almost all, is not the equal of Chevrolet’s on roadcourses, streetcourses or short ovals, but at superspeedways it has been arguably superior. Unfortunately, the #28 team tripped and fell at both Indianapolis and Pocono, both while looking favorites for victory. At the 100th 500, there was a pitlane collision with teammate Townsend Bell; at the ‘Tricky Triangle’ it was a temporary electrical glitch that caused Ryan to drive down pitlane rebooting the system before rocketing back through the field to finish third.

Elsewhere the team’s form was perplexing. Off-the-record, folks at Andretti will acknowledge that it was their streetcourse shock/damper package that was largely (but not exclusively) to blame for rendering them also-rans at Long Beach and Toronto – so why were they so much better at the similarly bumpy courses of St. Petersburg and Detroit, allowing Hunter-Reay to reach the podium? Gosselin doubtless knows, although he’s not going to reveal.

What he will admit is that the team can’t lay all the blame for its underperformance at the door of Honda until Andretti Autosport becomes the best Honda-powered team. Should it do so, his driver has high hopes.

“I don’t want to make it seem like [2017] is a lame-duck year for us,” Hunter-Reay said back in January. “We know the areas we need to improve, and we’ve been focusing on them this off-season. I think we can improve: there’s no reason why we can’t, and there’s no excuse not to.

“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.”  

Building a title-winning season

Interestingly, Gosselin – a realist, remember – is not ruling out a shot at the 2017 title, despite aerokit development being frozen in the final season before IndyCar reverts to a spec kit.

“You’ve got to do the best with what you have,” he says, “and that’s what we have to work on as a team. We should have had a decent result in Phoenix a year ago, then unfortunately-timed yellows turned it into a dud. But if you accept that kind of bad luck will happen occasionally, you look at where else you can improve.

“Well, you can’t be leading a race and have your engine shut off, or if you’re at a double points race, you can’t be taken out in pitlane. It’s pretty clear where a Honda can be truly competitive – Indy and Pocono – and there are other tracks where there’s no clear advantage for either manufacturer, so those are all places where you really have to take advantage and come away with a lot of points – hopefully, wins.

“Then you look at tracks where you did really badly last year – like for us, Watkins Glen. We can’t turn qualifying 19th into a win or second place, but if we make the best of a bad situation maybe we can finish seventh or eighth.

“So performance-wise, whatever you perceive were our strengths and weaknesses in 2016, they’ll remain pretty much the same in ’17 because of the aerokit freeze and the engines not being allowed to develop much. But results-wise, we can do a lot better than we showed last year. When you’re trying to put a championship-winning season together, those moments where you’re on the balance between things going well or going badly, they need to fall your way. Your season looks a lot better if you capitalize on good days and make the most of bad days.”

Making a four-car team work

Just as the perpetual points-scoring ability of Bobby Rahal was so often the downfall of superquick Michael Andretti back when they were rival drivers, so it is with their teams. Over the past two seasons, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team’s consistency with the Honda package has served to highlight the elongated valleys between the peaks of success at Andretti Autosport. The inevitable question is how a single-car squad can so often outperform a team with four times as much data coming in.

“To take full advantage of that extra input, you have to have drivers who are looking for the same things,” says Gosselin. “On a short oval, for instance, what Ryan wants from his car is not the same as what our other drivers want. So while there are many successful ways to get around a one-mile oval, there are some handling characteristics that suit one driver more than another.

“Same on street courses, where Ryan wants a car that turns when he asks it to turn. He doesn’t want to wait on turn-in. And if not every driver on the team wants it that way, that makes it tricky when you want to divide up testing responsibilities.”

This is a less than oblique reference to one of Hunter-Reay’s teammates, Marco Andretti, who tends to brake harder and later than Hunter-Reay, but therefore requires his car to have a much more solid and settled rear end on turn-in. By contrast, ex-Formula 1 driver and GP2 runner-up Alexander Rossi is a driver who, like Hunter-Reay, prefers a car to handle “on the nose” and his arrival at the team last year was a benefit in that what is good for one is generally good for the other. Gosselin expects that Rossi, with his rookie year behind him, will further benefit the team and so, too, will the arrival of Rossi’s new race engineer Jeremy Milless, who was Josef Newgarden’s race engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing and who therefore brings with him knowledge of Chevrolet’s aerokit.

“Alex did a really good job in his rookie year and toward the end of the season he was really pushing us hard,” says Gosselin. “The pace of the sessions, what needs to get done within the sessions, how to use your tire allocation over a race weekend – that’s all second nature to him now, so it will be really interesting to watch how he develops.

“And Jeremy has some good ideas about what worked for him before and we’ll see how they translate to the Honda aero package. He’s been a real strong addition.”

The changing IndyCar philosophy

While Gosselin is keen to accentuate the positive and not throw down on Honda, it’s clear he’s looking forward to IndyCar’s next era. Although there will be a universal aerokit, within certain technical areas the teams will gradually be allowed to develop their cars – a role that was once also performed by chassis manufacturers. Gosselin has said that engineers up and down pitlane have recently felt quite powerless.

“Go back 15 years or so, to the days of Reynard vs. Lola vs. Eagle – they weren’t just putting one kit out and boom, that was it,” he observes. “They did a lot of developing in any area they noticed they were deficient, in conjunction with the teams. You weren’t locked into where you were. The thing that sucks now is that if you’re struggling at any type of track, there’s nothing you can do about it.

“From IndyCar’s perspective, I understand that it’s a hard thing to manage. A lot of teams are working within considerable cost constraints so the series can’t let it go Wild West out there between manufacturers or teams. But look at it another way: sponsorship has become even more critical because the sport as a whole is not where it was 15 years ago, and if a team is struggling for a whole season with no real way to make progress, then it’s tough to find a sponsor for the following year.

“The problem is,” he continues, “whoever came up with the rules for this era assumed things would be a lot closer and there’d be less disparity between manufacturers. But even so, it shouldn’t be, ‘You have one shot at this and good luck to ya!’ Each year you want to reward the people who did a good job, sure, but you don’t want to perpetually penalize the people who didn’t.”

Like Gosselin said though, there’s considerable room for operational improvement within Andretti Autosport, whatever the technical deficit that burdens the team for one more season.

“We have a lot going on; we’re really trying,” he says. “It’s not like anyone here has thrown their hands up and said, ‘We didn’t do well last year so we can’t do well this year.’ We’re all digging in, we’ve been pretty honest about what our weaknesses are and we’ve shuffled some people around to try and truly maximize our resources. Hopefully that will pay off.”

Indeed. Last September, both Hunter-Reay and DHL renewed their contracts with Andretti Autosport through 2020. It would be good if they didn’t have to wait a further year for their faith to be rewarded.