Hunter-Reay steals Sonoma pole from Dixon, Rossi to start sixth for season finale

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Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma
Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

Ryan Hunter-Reay has qualified on pole position for the season finale of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway. The Andretti Autosport driver took the pole away from the championship leader, Scott Dixon, with the final lap of the day. Dixon’s closest rival, Alexander Rossi, will roll-off in sixth place with a potential strategic advantage for the race having saved some tyres.

Hunter-Reay was in stellar form heading into Saturday’s qualifying session, with the American having set the fastest time of the three practice sessions combined. He lowered his own benchmark in the first session of qualifying and then went even quicker in the second session to advance to the shoot-out for pole position.

The tricky Sonoma Raceway was taking no prisoners throughout qualifying, as the 2018 aerodynamic package combined with heavy winds into a number of corners on the circuit, made it tough for the drivers to nail a lap. This was evident by the numerous off-track excursions for multiple drivers throughout qualifying, with the particularly tricky corners being at the top of the hill at turn two and the entrance to the chicane of turn nine.

It was the turn nine chicane that potentially decided pole position. In the final session of qualifying, it looked to be a straight duel between Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon. Dixon already had provisional pole thanks to his banker lap, but he was searching for improvements to guarantee himself pole position and the bonus point in the championship that would come along with it.

However, Dixon entered the chicane, the final corner of his qualifying run, a touch too fast. He was forced to take to the gravel trap, which ended his hopes of improving his best lap.

Scott’s mistake opened the door for Hunter-Reay, who was the last driver on a qualifying run when the chequered flag flew. The American put in a stellar lap that may not have been as fast as he ran earlier in the day, but it was enough to secure him his seventh career pole position and his first of the 2018 season. Crucially, Hunter-Reay would also steal the bonus point for pole position, which would help his team-mate Alexander Rossi as it meant that Dixon could not further extend his championship advantage.

A frustrated Dixon would have to settle for second place, with the New Zealander admitting that it was his own error that caused his last lap to be abandoned. However, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is still in a strong position heading in Sunday’s race as he looks to claim his fifth IndyCar title.

Josef Newgarden is still mathematically in contention for the championship and will start the race in third place. He will have to rely on problems for Dixon and Rossi, but anything is possible in the world of motorsport. It was not a smooth session for Josef, who is fighting off a bout of food poisoning this weekend. The reigning series champion had a small incident in the pit-lane when he locked up coming into his pit-box which caused him to hit a crew member. He bounced back from the early mistake to finish just under two-tenths off of pole position.

It was a great run for Marco Andretti, who qualified his #98 Andretti Herta Honda in fourth place. The American is looking to end a somewhat disappointing 2018 on a high and has a decent chance to do so in Sunday’s race.

Undoubtedly the start of the session was a driver making his IndyCar debut this weekend. Patricio O’Ward was crowned the 2018 Indy Lights champion two weeks ago at Portland International Raceway and was duly rewarded with a Harding Racing seat for this weekend.

Patricio O'Ward (MEX), Harding Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Stephen King / Courtesy of IndyCar

Despite it being his first IndyCar race and the fact that he had never driven at Sonoma until a test the week before the event, O’Ward impressed massively. He had a number of off-track moments during the session, but he bounced back to set multiple impressive lap-times which saw him advance all the way into the final session of qualifying; the first time that a Harding Racing car has made it to the “fast six” all year. O’Ward would go on to secure fifth on the grid; an incredible achievement for the Mexican teenager and the team.

Sixth place may seem like somewhat of a disappointing result for Alexander Rossi, who sits twenty-nine points adrift of Dixon in the standings heading into the race. The #27 Andretti Honda looked capable of going a little faster, however, Rossi only did one run in the final session of qualifying, as he and the team elected to save a set of the faster Firestone Alternate tyre compound for the race.

This could allow Rossi to execute an aggressive strategy call during the race, which may well give him a shot at the title if things were to play out well for him. With tyre drop-off looking crucial this weekend, tomorrow’s race will certainly be an interesting title decider.

The remaining two Team Penske drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power just missed out on the final session and will line-up in seventh and eighth respectively. The result is decent for Pagenaud, who seems to be finding some better pace on the road courses as the season draws to a close. For Power, it is the worst qualifying performance of the year; which underlines his great pace due to the fact that he is still inside the top ten.

Graham Rahal and Zach Veach will complete the top ten on the grid, with Sebastien Bourdais and Takuma Sato the final two drivers who made it through to the second session of qualifying. Pietro Fittipaldi was the driver in the disappointing thirteenth place having come so close to advancing out of the first round.

It was a tricky day for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, with both James Hinchcliffe and substitute team-mate Carlos Munoz failing to advance out of round one. The pair qualified in fifteenth and twenty-second respectively.

Jack Harvey was the fastest of the three British drivers in the field. The Meyer Shank Racing driver took sixteenth on the grid, with his fellow countrymen Max Chilton and Jordan King taking grid spots further back in twenty-first and twenty-fifth.

Colton Herta‘s first IndyCar qualifying session didn’t go the same way as his Harding Racing team-mate O’Ward. The Indy Lights runner-up will start the race in nineteenth place, just ahead of fellow rookie Santino Ferrucci in twentieth.

The stage is set for yet another thrilling IndyCar championship decider. Sunday’s race will be the last IndyCar race at Sonoma Raceway for the foreseeable future, but it looks as though the fans at the track will be treated to one last spectacle as the 2018 season draws to a close.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Grand Prix of Sonoma – Qualifying results:

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Reporter from the East of England. Covering the NTT IndyCar Series for The Checkered Flag. Also an eSports racing driver on iRacing.
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