Has Andretti Autosport truly recaptured its lost form?

Last Sunday, Andretti Autosport scored a convincing 1-2-3 finish, but it came toward the tail-end of a hugely disappointing season for the team. David Malsher-Lopez asks whether it was a genuine breakthrough or a one-off high.

Almost four weeks ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s pitlane was Andretti Autosport’s bête-noire. Three of its six cars were fast in the Indy 500, but pitstops let them down for various reasons. A week later, at World Wide Technology Raceway’s double-header, the AA cars were very ordinary in terms of pace, and even strong pitlane turnarounds weren’t going to make up the difference.

Yet two weeks after that, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last weekend, the team scored four top-three finishes across two days, including a victory. But was that of Andretti Autosport’s new normal, or a rare oasis in a largely barren 2020?

It would be wrong to say that Michael Andretti’s squad has been in crisis this year; its cars had not been the slowest anywhere. But nor, apart from at Indy, had they been the fastest. Sometimes Andretti drivers were victims of simple bad luck – the ECU failures for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi at Texas, RHR being knocked into a sandtrap by Will Power at Road America, the startline pile-up in the first of Gateway’s races that accounted for Rossi among others.

But Fate can’t be blamed for everything. Andretti Autosport runs five full-time entries, and nine races into a 14-race championship, just one of those drivers, Colton Herta, was in the Top 10 in the points table. Hunter-Reay, cornerstone of the team’s driving force for so many seasons, sat 11th, while Rossi, a preseason championship favorite, was a scarcely believable 18th. His third place at Road America was his solitary top-five finish and, shockingly, the team’s sole podium this season.

Colton Herta leads Alexander Rossi at Mid-Ohio.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

The Mid-Ohio double-header of course helped to change that – Herta scored a ninth place and a win, Hunter-Reay a fifth and a third, and Rossi a third and a second, so that this trio now sit fourth, ninth and 12th respectively in the championship table. It’s still far from stellar but better than the team’s previous nadir, 2016, when the best placed Andretti drivers finished the year 10th, 11th and 12th in points. That season, however, the squad at least had the salve of an Indy 500 win for Rossi. This year there was similar potential at the Brickyard but it dissipated due to operator errors.

Rossi was penalized by IndyCar for his pitlane bump with eventual winner Takuma Sato, and was sent to the back of the field. Did the punishment exceed the perceived crime? Team COO Rob Edwards thought so. But Hunter-Reay and temporary sixth driver, James Hinchcliffe, missed out on pit road, too. The 2014 Indy winner ran second in the opening stint, felt sure that none of his rivals had anything he couldn’t match, but tardiness at pitstop time dropped him down the field and so he was left struggling in a car that was designed to deal with the wake of two other cars rather than 10.

A downcast Hunter-Reay remarked afterward: “We built a car to run in the front, and that’s where we should have been in the end. The car had the pace. I drove a clean race; we just didn’t get it done. Sometimes races are won and lost on the track, and sometimes they are won and lost in the pits. We had the first part covered, but unfortunately the latter is what wrote our story today.” A fairly blunt assessment.

Polesitter Marco Andretti, while admitting his car wasn’t fast enough to threaten for victory (much like Herta’s), also noted his stops weren’t good enough to compensate for what he was losing on track.

The pitbox problem that affected Hinchcliffe was more forgivable and more bizarre. IndyCars have a safety mechanism that ensures a driver can’t put his car in gear while it’s being refueled, and on one of Hinch’s pitstops, this sensor malfunctioned. The problem was narrowed down to overzealous use of the water/fire suppressant mixture that is squirted via fire extinguisher at each car’s fuel buckeye when departing the pitbox. Hinch’s car was thus left revving impotently as Hinch tried to engage first gear.

In all, then, a wasted opportunity on a day when the AA cars were so strong.

Rossi’s misfortunes at the hands of others has been just one factor dragging down his points tally.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

To be fair, every team, every crew, loses its mojo once in a while. One of the reasons Team Penske didn’t win an Indy 500 between Helio Castroneves’ third triumph in 2009 and Juan Pablo Montoya’s second in 2015 was because of cars being sent out with fuel hoses still attached or wheels improperly attached. It happens to the best of them. But at least if Indy was ruined, Penske still knew that Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and Castroneves had fast cars in all other rounds of the championship. This year, Andretti drivers have had no such solace.

Until Mid-Ohio, frustration was being felt throughout the team, and the timing of this slump was particularly bad for Michael Andretti and team president J.F. Thormann. Both Gainbridge (primary sponsor on Zach Veach’s car) and DHL (primary on Hunter-Reay’s car) are up for renewal this year. The other three cars tend to undergo regular NASCAR-style swaps of primaries throughout a season, although Rossi’s is fairly routine, since NAPA Auto Parts and AutoNation have half a season each. NAPA we know is on board through to the end of 2022, but this writer is given to understand that US Concrete, primary on Andretti’s car more often than not, is like DHL and Gainbridge – a deal that requires extension at year’s end.

Keeping sponsors or attracting replacements is never an easy task, especially in the current/short-/medium-term economic climate, but is far worse when there is little to show in terms of results. The prominence of Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Herta on TV last weekend will have helped… so long as this high point isn’t unique.

Ask how the team ended up in this hole and the team insiders who are prepared to talk about it candidly are only prepared to do so on condition they’re not identified. So all I can say here is that the ones I talked to are prominent, experienced and senior enough to know when things are not functioning as they should, but not quite senior enough to make a huge difference.

“The problem at Indy was purely pitstops,” says A. “We had good cars, some of them great. But what’s the point in going to all the efforts of having the fastest cars there – and I do believe at least two of them could have battled with Sato and Dixon to the end – if we’re giving up so much at pitstop time? 

“Everyone in the team would agree that we have plenty of good mechanics, but they’re not all up to speed in the pits. And at Indy, that wasn’t obvious just to us: everyone who watched the race must have seen that our pitstops sucked.

“To me, one of the problems is that we just had too many cars, so the quick crew guys were spread out between six cars. I’m not counting Meyer Shank [running Jack Harvey’s Andretti Autosport-affiliated car] because they bring their own crew, but we did have the extra car, the #29 [Hinchcliffe]. Well, maybe someone thought it was smart to spread the quick guys out across all the cars, but that’s completely wrong. Like they say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a pitstop is only as quick as the slowest crewman, so spreading out the quick ones makes no difference to the speed of your stops.

“So that’s one way of looking at it. But another way is that we are a top team – championships, Indy wins, other wins – so why have we got any slow personnel going over the wall? You look at Dixon’s crew or Newgarden’s crew: they never make mistakes, they always at least keep their guy’s position, and whenever they’re not running P1, those guys will usually gain their guy a spot. That’s because they’ve been practicing regularly through the offseason and every week between races. Ganassi and Penske recognize pitstops are so important right now because everyone is so close on pace.

“Why don’t we do the same? If our drivers are nailing their in-laps and out-laps before and after each pitstop – and they’re pretty reliable at that – you can guess how frustrated they’ll be if they see their efforts pissed away by a slow service.”

At Indy, I say, I’m fairly sure Hunter-Reay passed a dozen cars on track but lost more than that on pitlane.

“Exactly,” said A, “he truly got dipped in it. And you really notice it when everyone pits together under yellow. And there’s another effect too, because when you lose places in pitlane, a driver has to take more risks on track to compensate – and he’s not in a good place mentally to make judgment calls if you’ve sent him out feeling mad about a dropped wheelnut or whatever.”

Hunter-Reay’s pitstops at Indy were not swift enough to keep him in the lead battle.

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Pitstops are by no means the only issue for Andretti Autosport. As mentioned earlier, there have been too many races this year where the cars have just not been fast enough across the whole weekend. Herta has struck a compromise and showed his increasing maturity with vastly improved consistency, but until Mid-Ohio, he has rarely been able to show the sparkling speed he displayed in his first year.

“We came into this season thinking we were more competitive than we actually were,” says B. “We had great cars at the Speedway, where it all went horribly wrong, but outside of that, we haven’t the pace – or not the consistent pace – to challenge at the front like we did the last couple of years. It’s frustrating and there’s a lot of work going on. It feels like one of those cycles that we need to get ourselves out of and quickly.”

It’s been eight years since the squad was consistent enough across a range of tracks to take the championship, and one can hardly blame the drivers. While Marco Andretti and Zach Veach will never string a championship-winning campaign together, the same cannot be said for their teammates. Hunter-Reay took the 2012 title and doesn’t appear to have lost any of his speed and bravery; in 2019 he looked dispirited, in 2020 he’s been very impressive… when he’s had the car to show it. Rossi, 11 years his junior, finished top three in the championship for the last two seasons, and we know he gives it 101 percent effort. And Herta, who is a further eight years younger, already has three wins to his name and he hasn’t even completed his sophomore season. So to my mind, Andretti Autosport has three potential champions and, Mid-Ohio notwithstanding, their talents have been too often squandered in 2020.

“The reduced track time – zero testing, condensed race weekends this year due to COVID – really hurt you when you’re behind,” says B. “When you’re fast right away, you’re ready to go qualify right away. You don’t need time, and you don’t want the other guys time to catch up! So when we’re not one of the top two or three cars, extra sessions would benefit us more. This was the worst possible year to not be able to roll off the truck with cars that are ready to go race – Arrow McLaren SP are, Rahal Letterman Lanigan often are, and it’s fair to say we aren’t.”

B doesn’t believe running five cars is too much in terms of engineering stretch.

“I would say it actually helps from that perspective, because it’s how we support programs like damper development,” he says. “It’s not a stretch for us; we’ve always run a lot of cars, it’s not a new thing for this year.

“I’d say our problem is that we haven’t done as good a job adapting to the new weight distribution caused by the aeroscreen, and the slight changes to the Firestones. It’s not like we’re completely out to lunch; we’re just that tiny bit off and I don’t think it will take that much to get us back where we want to be as far as speed is concerned. But there is a process involved and we haven’t quite gotten to the end of that process yet.”

 

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Rossi’s preseason comments now look like the result of misguided optimism, I remark to someone we’ll call C.

“Yeah, he was just way off,” says C. “Alex is normally pretty shrewd and doesn’t get too excited about predicting anything positive. He’s a ‘it is what it is’ guy who just wants results to dictate how you’re going to write a story about him. Not much talk beforehand; wait and judge the outcome. So I don’t know where he got the idea we’d have super fast cars.”

Well, because the last test he did was at Sebring where track conditions vary hugely throughout a session, and it’s hard to judge who’s on what fuel load. If the car feels good, something a driver can really lean on and see the reward in lap times, then that’s often as much as can be taken from a Sebring test. Also, of course, the team thought it was heading from Sebring test to St. Petersburg race, an event that had often produced strong pace from the Andretti Autosport team.

“That’s the other problem,” says B. “This championship – and it’s no one’s fault – has not played to our strengths. We can normally expect to be strong on street courses and we haven’t had a single one yet because of COVID. Instead we’ve had double-headers at a lot of tracks where we’ve struggled in the past. For some reason, we’ve never been that strong on the Indy road course, and by the end of this season we’ll have raced there three times. Iowa and Gateway, short ovals, are not our forte, and haven’t been for some time but they were both double-headers. Road America we were OK at – Ryan qualified well, Colton did the best he could. But look at what we’ve missed: Alex and Ryan normally shine at St. Pete, Long Beach and Detroit, the team as a whole were very quick at COTA last year, we’re normally pretty good at Barber – and they’re all races that got scrubbed this year.”

That’s a fair point, although again it’s strange to think of a top team being able highlight the tracks where it is good and where it is mediocre. The main point of track diversity in IndyCar is for drivers to prove their versatility; the second point is for teams to do likewise. That was a point I put to person ‘D’ in my small list of people who were prepared to open up. He, like B, was positive and – quite meaningful, this – was positive even before the Mid-Ohio weekend.

“I think we’ve made a breakthrough,” said D. “I’m expecting us to be good next weekend, and I think you’ll see us move up the grid at the Harvest GP, too, even though Indy road course hasn’t been our strongest. Shank [Michael Shank Racing via Harvey] and Colton gave us a good steer there in July – they qualified in the Fast Six – so I think you’ll see our other guys move forward there.”

Following last Sunday’s 1-2-3 finish – Andretti’s first podium sweep for 15 years – Herta, Rossi and Hunter-Reay sounded less certain, but did at least sound hopeful that Mid-Ohio was the breakthrough race in terms of setup. Certainly the pitstops appeared to be much slicker.

Herta of course wasn’t prepared to go into specifics of what had changed technically that brought the enlightenment. All he would allow was that the key aim had been “finding out how to make our dominant setups from last year work with the aeroscreen and its weight.

“We had an idea of what we thought it was going to do, and it didn’t do that, so we’ve been trying ideas on how to get our setups back to where they should be, back to where they were last year, because we had a lot of really good racecars last year.

“I think we’ve found it, this thing that works, so we can come to the track with our setups from last year and they’re relatively similar and they work relatively well. That’s not to say that that’s everywhere. Obviously it changes different weekends.”

Rossi was determined to put a positive spin on a troubled season.

 

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

“This year has given us a very good ability to identify our weaknesses,” he said, “and really use this off-season to our advantage to fix the things that are obvious that we’re struggling with, so that next year we’re not doing the same things, having the same problems and having two years like this. We’ll just do our best to keep making small steps forward through the rest of the year and make sure that our off-season is very productive so we can come out strong in ’21.”

Said Hunter-Reay: “I think as a whole we all believe in ourselves that we can get it done. We just need to iron out a few things and need some things to go our way. [This result provides] good momentum. Looking forward to the Harvest GP. [Indianapolis road course] hasn’t been one of our strongest tracks, but we’ve found some things we think might apply there that might work, so I’m optimistic to keep this momentum rolling, go out and have a good weekend at Indy and hopefully finish well at St. Pete, which has also been a good track for us.”

No one likes to see a team that is headed by a legendary name, and which has been brimful of potential since the day it was formed, struggle as Andretti Autosport has done in 2020. But in a driver-focused championship, holding three aces leaves the squad few excuses to not be winning consistently and being the fastest regularly – both on track and in pitlane. And any deficits in car speed or operational slickness need to prompt a sense of accountability, a look inward at structure and process. Otherwise strong talent and good money are simply going to waste.


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