Q+A: Alexander Rossi on Alonso, Phoenix and Andretti Autosport gains

The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion tells David Malsher about his predictions for Fernando Alonso, the good and bad he experienced at Barber Motorsports Park, and his high hopes for both Phoenix and the Indy GP.

Q+A: Alexander Rossi on Alonso, Phoenix and Andretti Autosport gains
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Fernando Alonso in the Honda Performance Development simulator
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda, pit stop
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda sign
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda pit stop
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Michael Andretti, Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda, Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi Borg Warner trophy unveiling
2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi with the Borg-Warner trophy and team owner Michael Andretti and co-entrant Bryan Herta
Alexander Rossi, Herta - Andretti Autosport Honda

So have you grown tired of all the questions about Fernando Alonso yet?
Ha! Not at all. I’m actually glad to see so many people are so excited about it. It could have gone one of two ways, right? I think it’s great that people have reacted in a largely positive way.

As someone who’s raced in Formula 1, is there much you can pass on to Alonso about how very different the cars are?
Yes and no. I think I can definitely help initially, so I was in the simulator yesterday with him and talking to him about fairly straightforward things that are fundamentally different. No power-steering in IndyCar, for example, and what steering weight is good. But when it comes to talking about the Speedway and getting into the driving side of it, Ryan [Hunter-Reay] and Marco [Andretti] are way more qualified than I am. I mean, I still rely on them for oval assistance, so I know their advice is good.

So I’ll help him with any questions, but at the same time, Ryan and Marco and also Bryan [Herta] and Michael [Andretti] are probably better resources than I am.

As someone who's made the transition from F1 to IndyCar recently, what’s your take on how Alonso's talent will transfer?
Oh, well I’ve been saying all along that Fernando is one of the best drivers in the world and I don’t think he’ll have any problems in getting up to speed. The only question is one that hangs over all rookies – how comfortable are they in 220mph traffic when the car doesn’t feel good, and placing your car just right through turns.

Kind of along the same lines, do you think “European” formula racing – GP2 or rather, Formula 2, and Formula 1 – are good preparation for IndyCars?
No, absolutely not. I thought it was going to be; I came over thinking GP2 experience would be helpful, but in terms of the cars, there’s no crossover at all. It’s amazing how different an IndyCar is from anything else on a racetrack. The racing in GP2 – sorry, F2 – is great and super-competitive and the drivers are really aggressive, so from that aspect is good because the cars are so similar to each other in both formulas. But in terms of how to be quick, driving-style and engineering the car, there are zero similarities.

Nonetheless, do you think there will be more people still brave enough to make that leap from F2 when they can’t find budget for F1?
Yeah, I think so and I hope so. The more guys that we have interested and the more teams that we have on the grid, the stronger the series gets, and it’s a positive. So I hope people realize how attractive the Verizon IndyCar Series is and how good the racing is and, frankly, how much fun it is. And I’d like to think that if we get more coming, that we had something to do with it, but Fernando coming is very significant and emphasizes the importance of the Indy 500 on a global scale. The fact that he’s giving up Monaco to do it is huge feather in IndyCar’s cap.

OK, let’s talk about you. Excellent run at the weekend to go from 18th on the grid to finish fifth. Was that a sign that you and Jeremy Milless [race engineer] had gotten on top of the understeer issues that plagued you in practice and qualifying?
Hmmm, no. We got rid of some of it but I don’t know, it was a real mystery and something we’re delving into this week because the things we changed should have at least induced oversteer and it never came, and we don’t know the reason why. I went through a variety of different setups, matching my teammates and then doing everything possible to go the opposite way to my teammates, and nothing changed! We got halfway through improving it on Sunday.

But during a race you can overcome a lot more than you can in qualifying so we came in early to go off strategy, I went mental for four or five laps on new reds [softer compound] tires to get track position and then it was about going fast enough while saving fuel which is something I’ve become quite decent at. But I’m looking forward to running a race where I can go flat out from start to finish.

But we made it work and the car was good enough whereby I could make the fuel number pretty easily and stay ahead of Tony [Kanaan] for as long as I needed to and then that yellow came out. It was good that we were in fifth and didn’t go backwards, but I definitely didn’t have anything for the Penskes and Scott [Dixon] in front of us.

Going back to your handling issues, one of Helio Castroneves’ explanations for not being in the fight for the win was that with the reds, he found more initial grip obviously but very quickly the car would go loose. You clearly didn’t have that problem…
I wish! The reds just made my understeer worse! It was better balanced on the blacks, more consistent, and I would have chosen them for my final stint but the reds come up to temperature quicker so for a restart situation, that was the obvious way to go.

Right, looking ahead to this weekend’s race at Phoenix, scene of your first oval race this time last year. I recall you did very well until you pushed up into the wall right near the end but at least you’d gained a lot of experience in those laps. And in the test in February, you had a big shunt. But do you feel you have a better handle on short-oval racing now?
Yeah, for sure. The crash came because we were trying to go P1 which was something we’d never have even considered on an oval last year. So we’ve made a big step forward and Day 1 of the test was really positive for us and the Andretti team and Honda as well. I know what happened in the crash so I’m not worried about it and we go into it with a lot of confidence, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again, and I’m looking forward to trying to fight for pole. Qualifying at night is going to be awesome.

You say you’re going for pole – that’s an unusual statement from a Honda driver when talking about a short oval. Most drivers – and even HPD members, actually – have said that it’s going to be a major struggle.
Well I do think Chevy has an advantage, but from the test I’d say we can get close. Phoenix is one of those tracks that really punishes any kind of slip-ups in terms of missing the balance, and I think all four of us Andretti drivers were pretty happy with our cars in the test. Marco and Ryan each led a session, and I was fourth on the day I completed. So we all go in pretty optimistic. We’ll be at a slight disadvantage but it’s not going to be like at Phoenix last year.

Max Chilton, another ex-F1 driver, said recently that he still has a problem feeling the limit on ovals (although ironically he also had a very good Phoenix race last year). He says the grip feels like it is all there or he’s suddenly in the wall. Do you have that feeling?
No, that hasn’t been an issue for me. The tire’s a little different this year in that the right-rear doesn’t give you as much of a sensation as it did. And actually at the test in Texas, all the drivers complained about the fact that the Turn 1 banking is so gradual and so progressive that you don’t get that big loading feel on the right-rear when you go into the banking; it’s a much more numb sensation now. But on short ovals, I think the car feels pretty good still.

Was your shunt a center-of-pressure issue?
Yeah it was. Last year we took a pretty conservative approach to car handling on ovals, and Bryan told me that if anything feels a bit weird, I should just pit. That’s good to start with but you’re not going to outqualify Ryan or Marco or Scott on a short oval if you stay within your comfort zone. I’d looked at Marco’s steering traces from last year at Phoenix [in which he was quickest Honda qualifier] and it’s alive – you know, he was really hustling and having to hang on.

So when I went out [in the test], I thought, ‘OK, we’re on the limit with the rear grip but this is Phoenix, and this is how it should be.’ But at that point I didn’t know how much was too much in terms of center of pressure. Well, now I do – so I’m happy it happened and it happened in a test. I actually have more confidence now, because I know what a bad feeling on an oval is, whereas before I hadn’t had one. I have it more clearly defined now regarding what’s good and what’s bad in what you’re feeling from a car on a short oval.

From what you’ve experienced in the opening three races of 2017, do you think you and the rest of Andretti Autosport were right to be confident from Sonoma last year that you were all heading in the right technical direction?
Yes, we’ve looked much stronger than last year. Even Barber, which was bad for us last year and wasn’t great for us this year was better; obviously Ryan made it to the Fast Six. So we’ve moved forward, and although we’re still missing things, we’re in the window and fighting for something, and can show up for races with smiles on our faces. We’re still looking for that extra two or three tenths of a second to be at the front and be able to challenge Scott and the Penskes. Hopefully that’s coming soon and the good thing is, no one on our team is content with where we’re at. Everyone’s pushing, it’s not like everyone’s satisfied by being able to always be in the Top 10.

Given how Honda have performed this year, re. the speedtrap figures, I’m looking at the GP Indy layout and thinking that could be strong for you guys. There’s so much grip from the track surface that you can trim out for the two main straights. Are you looking on it as a venue where you can win?
Definitely. It was arguably my strongest road course last year and I’m honestly counting the days. Honda have made a big step forward and are continuing to push and actually it’s one of those tracks where GP2 and F1 knowledge comes into play, which slightly goes against what I said earlier. Traditional smooth road course, quite flat curbs, wide and fast-flowing corners and heavy braking zones. So yeah, very positive about that one.

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