Andretti Autosport drivers had dominated Friday and Saturday practice, but when it came to qualifying it seemed Will Power had the upper hand. Sure enough, when the green flag came out for the rain-delayed start of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Penske car held off early advances from James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay to build up a huge six second lead over the first 15 laps.
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Hinchcliffe had came close to passing Power at the start, but at an early restart the Canadian lost out for second spot to Hunter-Reay who easily blasted his way around his team mate in the treacherous wet early conditions at Barber Motorsports Park. Even so it seemed that too much time had been lost, and the Andretti pair appeared to be duelling for the runner-up spot behind Power rather than competing with the Aussie for the lead.
That is, until Power's sudden off at turn 5 on lap 15 changed all that: suddenly Hunter-Reay found himself well out on front, and with the pace to make sure that no one - not Power, not Hinchcliffe - could get match him again even when full course cautions compacted the field.
"He was out there cutting the grass!" Hunter-Reay said of the moment he realised Power had gone off. "Will went off under-braking in turn five. All you have to do is make a mistake by five or six feet and you're off. I almost threw it away myself three or four times there.
"It was tiptoeing around, it's a fine line between getting it all right or all wrong. Any guy in an IndyCar will tell you that's how it is," he explained. "You have to go on the risk side to get the reward out of it [but] it's easy to throw it all away."
Having survived the early wet conditions, Hunter-Reay only seemed to improve as the race went on and as the track dried out almost completely on the racing line by the end of the time-capped event. "Just real happy," he said. "Thrilled for the team. To do it in that style where at the end of the race we were pulling away was thrilling for the race car.
"It was a huge race for us," he added. "This track used to be one of our weakest points. To put Andretti 1-2, it's impressive. It's a total team effort. Everybody has been working hard to move in the same direction. It's been a very strong start to the season for this team overall."
When the chequered flag dropped, Hunter-Reay was indeed at the head of an Andretti Autosport 1-2 - but the team mate behind him wasn't James Hinchcliffe, who had fallen back to seventh with technical glitches during the second half of the race. Instead it was Marco Andretti who had driven an impressive race, his assertive performance all the more eye-catching given that he's not known as one of the leading road course racers let alone a wet track specialist.
"I just put my head down and looked forward," he shrugged, explaining that he'd had to overcome intermittent radio problems during the afternoon. "The radio was in and out. It wasn't out totally. Sometimes I heard them, sometimes I didn't. It was probably just the weather.
"The only way I knew when to pit [was when] I saw - out of the corner of my eye - Ryan stop, and thought: 'I guess I'm coming in the next lap,'" he added. "It was definitely a blind race, but I just had my head down and tried to hit my marks."
Regardless of radio issues, Marco admitted that he had nothing left in reserve to even consider carrying the fight to his team mate Hunter-Reay and attempt any kind of challenge for the lead in the closing stages of the race.
"[We] didn't have much for the DHL car so we definitely need to hit the drawing board and see how he kicked my butt today," he said. "But Ryan deserved that race. He out-paced everybody. I think we'll take this [second place] for sure."
Marco's team boss and father, Michael Andretti, was delighted by the way that his drivers had performed on Sunday.
"I'm really proud of this whole team. Marco did a hell of a job, he drove his way to the front there. And Ryan drove a perfect race," he said. "We were lucky that Will made that mistake, and that gave up the top position. That was really important. Just the way everything fell with the rain and how it dried out, it came to us. It was a great day."
Unfortunately the final member of the Andretti line-up, Carlos Munoz in the co-entry with HVM, was the first driver to exit the race on lap 24. He spun out shortly after having made his first pit stop to change from his initial set of wet tyres.
"We had just put on the slick Firestone tyres," Munoz explained later. "Everything happened so fast, but I just stepped on the throttle, and I don't know... I spun around and couldn't do anything. I don't think we went to slick tyres too soon - everyone was on them at that point. Maybe I made a mistake and was too aggressive."
It's all part of the learning curve in his rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and with team mates like Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Hinchcliffe it's clear he's got some of the very best tutors on hand to learn from.
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