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Hunter-Reay claims pole at Barber

6 April 2013

Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed his first pole of 2013 and the third pole of his IZOD IndyCar Series career, topping the Firestone Fast Six pole shoot-out on Saturday to ensure he'll lead the 26-car field to the green flag at the start of Sunday afternoon's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

"This team has done so well this weekend, we just kept progressing and we knew where we needed to work on it," said the reigning series champion after his first pole since Edmonton last year. "It's a great position to start from and now we need to go make it work."

Hunter-Reay could still lose the advantage at the first corner, however, with arch rival Will Power starting alongside him on the front row in the race. And he wasn't able to set a new track record for Barber Motorports Park, as his pole time of 1:07.0871s wasn't a match for the blistering Round 1 time of 1:06.7750s set half an hour earlier by Scott Dixon.

Behind them, Schmidt-Peterson rookie Tristan Vautier will start from third place alongside veteran Dixon, with the youngster caught by surprise when told he'd made it into the Fast Six pole shootout because of a penalty being handed to Takuma Sato for blocking Justin Wilson in Round 2.

"It's disappointing for us not to be able to show our performance in the Fast Six," said the Japanese former F1 driver. "In the second segment I had to back off because there was a slower car in front of me at the exit of turn five, so I abandoned my qualifying lap and I tried to stretch the space.

"I checked my mirror on the back straight and there was no one there," he continued. "Then going through turns 7 and 8 - which is where the elevation changes, which is probably the worst place for Justin Wilson to catch me because I couldn't see anything behind me. When I was able to see that he was coming on I tried to keep my line tight and let him have the racing line. Obviously it was close but I was disappointed to be penalised."

"I'm really upset by what happened," responded Wilson about the controversy. "We definitely had a top three car today, possible even a pole winning one. My red tyres were just coming in and I was working on a very quick lap when Sato slowed down in front of me and didn't get out of the way. That caused me to slow down and have to go around him. Once I came in into the pits I ran right to the IndyCar trailer to see if they saw the incident."

As per the IndyCar Series rulebook, Sato's top two times in Round 2 were deleted which Wilson described as "some sort of justice" although it did little for his own disappointing position. The penalty meant that instead of progressing through to the next round in the top six, the #14 AJ Foyt Racing car was instead classified in 12th position which is where Sato will line up on the grid for tomorrow's race.

Sato's place in the Fast Six went instead to Vautier, who had thought he'd missed out on the final round by two tenths of a second. The team had even taken the #55 back to the paddock and were required to hastily wheel it back into pit lane: they were still busy re-setting it for another qualifying run as the green flag came out at the start of the ten-minute Round 3. In such rushed circumstances, finishing in third place was nothing short of a triumph for the Frenchman.

Scott Dixon will be hoping to put his greater experience to good use at the green flag and possibly get the jump on Vautier into turn 1, after admitting that he was disappointed to only qualify in fourth place after setting such blisteringly fast lasts in the first two rounds, including that Round 1 lap that had been a mighty three seconds faster than the previous track record.

"I am a bit bummed about qualifying, you know we were fastest in Q1 and Q2 and then just a bit of missed timing," he conceded. "A bit on my behalf, didn't go out hard enough and then tried to expect some more from the tyres later and it just wasn't there.

"I don't think we quite would have gotten a 7.0 that Ryan did," he added. "You know we did a 6.7 earlier on new tyres but he did a hell of a job and putting a good lap together. [But] race day is a different day and hopefully we can move up three spots".

Dixon's junior Ganassi team mate Charlie Kimball will start just behind him on the grid after progressing to the Fast Six for the very first time, making fifth place his best-ever start in an IndyCar race. Dixon and Kimball's good fortunes contrasted sharply with those of the other Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti who fell at the first hurdle in Round 1 and will have to start from 17th place on a course known to be difficult for overtaking during the race except at restarts.

Franchitti will be in quality company in that part of the grid, with Simon Pagenaud, Alex Tagliani and Tony Kanaan all also losing out in the same Round 1 group. In the second group, the usually reliable Oriol Servia and St Petersburg race winner James Hinchcliffe also failed to get through, with Hinchcliffe in particular feeling hard done by.

"We didn't have the quickest car, but had enough for Q2," he insisted afterwards. "Got held up by another car and ended up getting knocked out. It's frustrating but we've got an extra set of reds than those guys now in the race and maybe degradation will come into it tomorrow."

Hinchcliffe said that it has been the #12 Penske car of Will Power that had held him up in the session, but - unlike the subsequent incident with Sato - in this case Power was cleared of blocking and allowed to keep his fastest lap times.

"I don't think I blocked him actually," responded Power. "Viso checked me up. Those guys checked up in front of me. Yeah, don't know what he's talking about. Blocking? Have to take a look at the video. Just whining because he didn't get through, I think!

"It's definitely hard around this track because everybody around 9 checks up, and then the next guy has to back up, then the next guy," Power elaborated. "It happened to me in the first round. Viso backed up going into 12, really checked me up. You're screwed your next lap as well."

Despite this hiccup, Power progressed through to Round 2 and ultimately into the pole shootout, and will now take second seat on the front row for the race start.

"I was happy to get to the Fast Six," admitted Power. "It was really tight, car wasn't quite there - probably me, as well. But, yeah, I was very happy to end up second. I didn't expect to be there."

It's certainly better than 2012 when he'd started from ninth position - but went on to win the race for a second year in succession. Whether he'll be able to make it a hattrick of race wins at Barber tomorrow remains to be seen, however.

"It's a track-position track, for sure," he said. "I'm not sure what these reds are going to do. Initially I thought they were going to come off, but they hung on pretty well in the Fast Six. I think that will make interesting strategy in the race for tomorrow."

Beside him, Hunter-Reay was also turning his attention to tomorrow's day at the office.

"It's a very challenging track that rewards aggressiveness, but if you step over just a little too far on set up or on driving, it'll definitely punish you," he explained of the 2.38-mile, 17-turn permanent road course. "Making these Firestones hang in there for an entire race, that'll be the challenging part."

Hunter-Reay said that having James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Ej Viso working alongside him made a huge difference in the team's approach to tackling Barber Motorsports Park: "We had a great test here, three great teammates, four overall all working together in one direction," he said.

"It's a good way to hopefully start our season this weekend," he added.


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