Going into Sunday’s penultimate IndyCar race of the year in the streets of Baltimore it looked like Ryan Hunter-Reay’s championship chances were fading fast.
The previous weekend at Sears Point in California Hunter-Reay lost a likely third place when he was spun by Helio Castroneves and in Baltimore he made a tactical error in qualifying and missed making it beyond the first round of IndyCar’s knock-out qualifying system. As a result he started tenth while championship rival Will Power took his fifth pole of the year in dominant style; as race day dawned the taciturn Australian appeared capable of wrapping up his first championship.
But a bout of light rain early in the race gave Hunter-Reay the chance he needed. As almost everyone else stopped for rain tyres, Ryan was advised to stay on slicks by team owner Michael Andretti enabling him to take the lead for a handful of laps and be in position to make a run to the front in the closing laps. Driving beautifully on the bumpy Baltimore track Hunter-Reay took the lead for good from Ryan Briscoe with five laps to go and held on to score his fourth win of the year.
There was some dispute over the restart in which he passed Briscoe, but the Australian gave him full credit for a job well done. “It was a bit frustrating at the end on that final restart,” Briscoe remarked. “They waved the green and we weren’t even lined up yet. It was a little bit unfair, but Hunter-Reay did a great job today.”
Meanwhile, after leading the opening laps, pole man Power got himself mired in traffic, eventually fighting his way back to finish sixth behind Briscoe, Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon and Rubens Barrichello. So Hunter-Reay has cut Power’s championship lead in half to seventeen points with the final round over 500 miles at the California Speedway on Saturday night, September 15th.
“I can’t really describe how nerve-wracking it is when it rains on a street circuit and you’re on slicks and you know the championship is on the line,” Hunter-Reay said. “Unbelievable emotions in the car, trying to tip-toe through some of those corners. These cars are very stiffly-sprung and putting 700 horsepower down on a city street when it’s wet is one of the toughest things in racing. I’m just glad I got through that. It was very nerve-wracking but it was absolutely critical to our win today.
“You never like being out there in those conditions on slicks. That’s not a nice feeling. But Michael said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ He said, ‘We’re going to win the championship. Let’s do it. Coming in fourth or fifth isn’t going to do anything for us.’ That was a pretty good move and it worked out. I had to keep the thing off the walls and when it started drying I had a big smile on my face.”
The rough track in Baltimore and a crude chicane resulted in a brace of accidents during practice and qualifying. There were more shunts in the race and it was a messy weekend to be sure. But the result couldn’t have been better for IndyCar with the championship going down to the last race of the season. Whichever way it goes – Power with Penske or Hunter-Reay with Andretti – it will produce a first-time champion.