A Brighter Future Than Normal

Much of the late-season and off-season talk has been about either the dominant 2017 season by Team Penske or how the wheels came off at Chip Ganassi Racing this season. Not many people noticed that in the same time frame, there was an uptick in performance and results at Andretti Autosport.

Some may point out that Michael Andretti’s team dominated the Month of May. Not only was all the talk about Fernando Alonso coming over from Formula One, Alexander Rossi starting on the front row and the team qualifying three cars in the Top-Five spots before Takuma Sato gave Andretti Autosport their second consecutive Indianapolis 500 victory and the team’s third win in the past four years.

But for the most part, in the five races leading up to the Indianapolis 500 and the three races following it that lead the halfway point in the season – the results posted by Andretti Autosport were forgettable at best.

But from the race at Iowa until the end of the season, two of the four fulltime Andretti drivers posted remarkably better finishes for the season – yet not many people noticed. Granted; once Alexander Rossi won at Watkins Glen, he started gaining attention. But Ryan Hunter-Reay quietly put together a strong second-half of the season with hardly a mention from anyone.

In the first five races of the season, Alexander Rossi had an average finish of 11.6. In the seven remaining races beginning with Iowa, Rossi’s average finish was 7.14. If you take out the season finale at Sonoma where Rossi left with mechanical issues and finished twenty-first – Rossi’s average finishing position in that stretch was 4.8. In that six-race stretch, Rossi had one win, a second, a third, two sixth-place finishes and a worst finish of eleventh. Not too shabby.

While Ryan Hunter-Reay’s final seven races did not represent as dramatic a turnaround as Rossi’s, it demonstrated a great deal of consistency. Hunter-Reay’s average finish in the first five races of the season was 9.6 – nothing decent, but nothing disastrous either. The last seven races, Hunter-Reay turned in an average finish of 7.2. He had two third-place finishes, three eighth-place finishes, a sixth and a worst finish of fifteenth.

Neither driver was a threat to win the championship leading into the final race of the season at Sonoma. But had both drivers replicated the last seven races in the rest of their respective seasons, the championship could have taken on a different look besides three Penske cars and a Ganassi car.

There will be a different look to Michael Andretti’s team next season. Gone is the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, Takuma Sato – who moved on to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to be a teammate to Graham Rahal. In his place will be promising rookie Zach Veach, who only has two starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series – both in 2017. He finished nineteenth at Barber while subbing for the injured JR Hildebrand, and then posted a twenty-sixth place finish in the Indianapolis 500 while driving the third car for AJ Foyt. While Veach has familiarity with Andretti Autosport and seems to have a lot of potential, he is still a rookie and that will show many times next season.

To be blunt, at this point I think Marco Andretti will never be more than what he has shown us over the last five seasons. He will post a random good finish and will always be a threat at Indianapolis. But if the team is ever counting on a strong season from Marco, I think that is more out of hope than anything else. I would like to be proven wrong on this, but Marco will be heading into his thirteenth full season with his father’s team next season. I think we have enough of a track-record on Marco to know what to expect going forward.

That leaves it up to Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi to carry the torch for Andretti Autosport for 2018. Those two represent the past, present and future of their team and even the series. Ryan Hunter-Reay will be thirty-seven before the start of the next season, while Rossi just turned twenty-six last week. They each have an Indianapolis 500 win to their credit, while Hunter-Reay won the series championship in 2012. Hunter-Reay may still have some outstanding seasons in him, but the calendar says that the bulk of his driving career is behind him.

Most of the experts agree that Alexander Rossi’s best days are still in front of him. Some might argue that his 2016 Indianapolis 500 win was a fluke won on a fuel-mileage gamble. But there is no arguing that he was the class of the field at Watkins Glen last month. His results down the stretch this past season suggest that he has figured out the DW12 chassis and the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole.

Just as Andretti Autosport built the team around Ryan Hunter-Reay from the 2010 season moving forward, I think they will start building the team around Alexander Rossi in the future. Ryan Hunter-Reay will continue to win races and possibly another championship for Michael Andretti in the next couple of seasons; but their future is with Alexander Rossi.

Once Andretti Autosport made it official that they would be staying with Honda as their engine supplier for the foreseeable future, Rossi was eager to resign with the team that he has spent his short two-year IndyCar career with. The former Formula One driver now seems a lot more comfortable as an IndyCar driver. Where once he seemed to view IndyCar as an inferior Plan B to F1, he now seems to embrace the series and appreciates what he did in winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

Many people are excited for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season for many reasons. One reason being the unified body kit for the DW12 chassis. Most think it will create a more level playing field between the Chevrolet and Honda teams. That speaks well for Michael Andretti’s team. With two drivers that were on a definite upswing at the end of this past season, the future looks much brighter at Andretti Autosport than it has in several seasons.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “A Brighter Future Than Normal”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    It wasn’t that long ago (2013) that Marco finished 5th in the standings, but man it seems like a decade. The Andretti team clearly never cared for the aerokits, moving to the single kit should benefit them, even Marco. It would be good to see Rossi and Hunter-Reay up front every week.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    Interesting how the pendulum swings.

    At one time we were reading about the financial challenges of Andretti Autosports. And Target Chip Ganassi Racing was contentedly moving forward with four drivers and nary a mention of financial challenges.

    Now we are reading of Andretti Autosports four driver team. No mention of financial challenges.

    Meanwhile, what was Target Chip Ganassi Racing is now Chip Ganassi Racing with only two drivers. And there is apparently or may be a financial challenge in funding their team of only two drivers.

    Wonder what the outlook would presently be for Chip Ganassi Racing had the team stayed with Chevrolet power?

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