ST. PETERSBURG — Ryan Hunter-Reay feels right at home in St. Petersburg.
He should. Hunter-Reay believes the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street course for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday has been a place of success.
Or frustrating failure.
“St. Pete's one of my favorite races,” said the 33-year-old American, who drives the No. 28 car for Andretti Autosport.
“It's a fun racetrack,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar Series champion. “It's got everything you need — big braking zones, passing zones, technical bits. It can be tricky during the race because it changes so much.”
Hunter-Reay has won nine times on the IndyCar circuit, including twice in 2013. He won the Milwaukee IndyFest in June and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama after finishing 18th at St. Petersburg.
As part of Andretti Autosport, with Marco Andretti and, of course, 2013 St. Petersburg champion James Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay thinks it is vital to start the season right, which means posting well on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg.
“I'm back again for, I think, year five with Andretti, with the same group of people. I couldn't be happier. We're ready to go for it.”
The Andretti team had two podium spots at St. Petersburg in 2013, as Marco Andretti finished third, and he knows a good start can make or break a season.
“Going into last year, obviously, there were a lot more unknowns,” Andretti said, “if we were going to be strong and stuff. St. Pete is one of them. I race strong there, but we need to put together an unscathed qualifying session to start towards the front.”
Despite the early win by Hinchcliffe and success by Andretti, it was Hunter-Reay's wins and finishes — podiums at Indy, Detroit, Texas and Iowa — that helped pace the team.
“If you look at the second half of the year, we were actually way more consistent than people realize,” said Hinchcliffe, who also won twice more following St. Pete. “I think as a team we lost a little bit of pace. We weren't qualifying as well — Ryan wasn't qualifying as well.
“We actually ended the year on more of a high than people realized. As long as we know it, that will put us in a good position for this year.”
Hunter-Reay loves the chemistry of Andretti Autosport, how the drivers feed off one another's success, saying the “communication is perfect” and “its got a fun side, too.”
“I'm happy where I am; couldn't be more thankful for the position that I'm in,” Hunter-Reay said. “A couple years ago, looking for a shot at even a truck test, (then) to be an IndyCar champion a few years after that, you know, it's all about doors opening at the right time and taking full advantage of it.
“As long as we can continue on that same path, pick up where we left off, I'm confident we can be fighting for the championship again.”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.