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IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Is this Andretti Autosport’s year?

Continuing our analysis of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season's big preseason questions, we reach the nearly-guys of the last two years at Andretti Autosport. Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta are all championship caliber, so team COO Rob Edwards explains what it will take for Michael Andretti's team to defeat Penske and Ganassi.

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IndyCar 2020 hot topics: Is this Andretti Autosport’s year?

For fans of Andretti Autosport-Honda – for fans of any team breaking up IndyCar’s Ganassi/Penske hegemony – 2016 was a recent nadir. Peculiar circumstances saw the team’s rookie Alexander Rossi scoop Indy 500 victory, and indeed, the whole team was strong at the Speedway that year, but elsewhere it was often anonymous and at season’s end the four AA drivers were 10th, 11th, 12th and 16thin the championship.

Then in the second half of 2017 – another year of Indy 500 triumph thanks to Takuma Sato – Rossi and race engineer Jeremy Milless found fertile common ground: the #27 scored a win at Watkins Glen and big points elsewhere, and since then it has been a championship threat.

That said, after dominating at Road America last year – much as he had at Long Beach for two years in a row – Rossi failed to lead another lap in 2019, and Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Josef Newgarden eased away in the points race.

Rossi provided his interpretation of what happened: now it’s the turn of his strategist and AA’s chief operating officer Rob Edwards to explain what needs to change.

“Obviously it’s frustrating to come close two years in a row and not succeed,” he says. “The common thread between 2018 and 2019, for us, was arriving at the final round with too much to do. In 2018, we identified some mistakes and errors we needed to address and, as Alex said, I think we did address most of them in ’19. But Road America was a high and from there until the end of the season we didn’t quite have the pace that Penske had, nor did we live up to our expectations.

“Also, as has been talked about, Pocono set us back massively [Rossi was taken out in the Lap 1 shunt] so we were on the back foot from there on. That and the loss of pace relative to Penske were the deciding factors, I would say. So the focus this year for the #27 car is to go to the last race on point, rather than playing catch-up.”

Rossi has been notably and understandably averse to crediting Chevrolet with Penske’s midseason boost and his own diminished title hopes, his reasoning being that Andretti Autosport wasn’t even the best of the Honda-powered cars at places such as Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca.

“Yes, I’d agree with that,” says Edwards. “We have spec cars, the rulebook is very tight and there is not one big development area where you can make big gains any more. It’s about coming up with a sum of all the small gains, and that gets ever harder, but that’s what we have to do and make sure we do it better than the rest.”

Progress is immeasurably aided if there is good data exchange between the drivers, and while Penske has a strong three-way dynamic between its drivers, and Ganassi and Dixon have benefited from Felix Rosenqvist being both fast and having different ideas garnered from experiences elsewhere in the sport, Rossi in 2019 had something of a lone struggle.

It’s not that Andretti Autosport’s last champion, 2012 title-winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, is fundamentally slower than Rossi; he isn’t. Magic performances should still be within RHR's grasp. But the relentless consistency of Rossi over the past couple of seasons, the fact that he so rarely underperforms, has made him the driver by which the team measures its pace relative to the opposition. Hunter-Reay is less self-assured, appears more prone to personal fluctuations and therefore a less dependable gauge.

Of the 16 grids decided by qualifying times last season, he was behind Rossi on 11 of them, and it was hard to believe this was the same driver who had ended the 2018 season with a dominant drive from pole in the finale. Many of us had taken that as a sign that RHR was back to his best and would go on to enjoy a super-strong ’19 season… 

 

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

So is Rossi “totally inside Ryan’s head,” as one close observer has since commented, did Hunter-Reay encounter some wretched luck (it’s been a regular feature of his career) or did Andretti Autosport’s development direction steer the current car away from the handling characteristics that induce Hunter-Reay to use all his skillset?

“I think it was a bit of everything, to be honest,” says Edwards. “As you say, he came out of 2018 very much on a high after winning at Sonoma, and probably a couple of things at the start of the year didn’t go well, and it’s a fine line on the psyche part of it. From every conversation that I have had with Ryan, there’s no question on the motivation side of things; it’s just that when you get off center a little bit – for any reason, be it luck or whatever – you need to mentally get back on center and by definition most of that has to come from yourself, from within.

“And then I think that some of the areas we went with the car didn’t suit Ryan quite as well as some of the other guys. That’s always the good news but also the bad news with running multiple cars in a team: you get a particular direction going, and you’re trying to make sure it’s good for everyone, but there were some directions that we went in that either weren’t quite so good for Ryan as they were for Alex, or they took Ryan a little longer to fine-tune to his liking. The consistency was there but maybe the ultimate speed wasn’t, and as you can imagine, there has been a big focus in this off-season to address that.”

While Andretti Autosport seeks to recoup the last percentage of speed that went missing in the second half of 2019, there has been continuity within the engineering ranks. Jeremy Milless remains race engineer for Rossi, and Ray Gosselin for Hunter-Reay. Meanwhile, Mark Bryant and Garrett Mothersead, who started last year with Marco Andretti and Zach Veach respectively, swapped drivers/cars a couple of races before the end of the season, each seemed to click with their new charges, and so have remained in their new berths.

And the ‘new’ fifth car, the former Harding Steinbrenner Racing entry, will again be driven by Colton Herta and engineered by Nathan O’Rourke. With good reason, many regarded that #98 entry as another Andretti Autosport car anyway, given that super-rookie Herta and O’Rourke used to debrief with the AA boys after each session. But Edwards says there has been a subtle change in structure back at the race shop now that the car is officially ‘in-house’.

“At the track, it was completely open-season between drivers and engineers before, so from that point of view the change will be invisible,” he comments. “But last year that [HSR] group had both the benefit of being part of a big team with lots of data and driver input but also being a small team in itself. As you can appreciate, when you start to run three, four, five cars, there’s a certain inertia to a team structure and so part of our analysis in the offseason has been looking at the benefits of a multi-car team and the benefits that Harding Steinbrenner had as a single-car entrant – facets that aren’t seen at the racetrack, such as car-build, the scheduling of car-build, flexibility, and so on.”

Into the breach left by Harding Steinbrenner being absorbed into Andretti Autosport comes a new partner, Meyer Shank Racing which, as a Honda team, could not continue its relationship with what was then called Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports because the latter switched to Chevrolet. AA will share assistant engineers with MSR, and driver Jack Harvey along with race engineer Andy Listes (who worked with O’Rourke on Herta’s HSR car last year) will debrief with the five Andretti groups on race weekends. However, Michael Shank’s sense of independence, and sheer geography – MSR operates out of Pataskala, OH. – will ensure the team remains its own entity.

Says Edwards: “Yes, I’m sure at the track the relationship will be along the same lines as Harding Steinbrenner’s with us and what Michael [Shank] had with Schmidt Peterson. But MSR is a very different team – it’s well established with a good structure and a lot of good people already within it, so they’re less reliant on the Andretti Autosport part of it. On a race weekend, hopefully the partnership will be beneficial to both Mike Shank’s group and ourselves.”

In terms of personnel, the Andretti Autosport team didn’t need a wholesale revamp, nor, in terms of technical progress, did it need a major rethink after falling down badly on one type of track. It just needed a little progress in several areas. Only time and results will tell if nirvana has been achieved.

Rob Edwards and Michael Andretti are itching to find those last two tenths that could turn one of their drivers into 2020 IndyCar champion.

Rob Edwards and Michael Andretti are itching to find those last two tenths that could turn one of their drivers into 2020 IndyCar champion.

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

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