Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wednesday Wrap-Up: Andretti Autosport's 2015 Season

The sixth team review features Andretti Autosport. While the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season seemed to have gone the wrong way for the championship winning and Indianapolis 500 winning team, consider this: They had just as many victories as Penske and Ganassi and was the winningest Honda team in 2015. The team also had a driver finish with the third-most top ten finishes. Their season just really didn't get going until summer.

Ryan Hunter-Reay ended on a high note
Ryan Hunter-Reay
The 2012 IndyCar champion's 2015 season started out well but it never seemed good enough. He was the top Honda at St. Petersburg in seventh, he was set for a top ten at NOLA before his accident with Simon Pagenaud and Sébastien Bourdais, he qualified fourth at Long Beach but faded to 13th in the race and after using pit strategy to his favor at Barber, Hunter-Reay came home with a fifth place finish.

The month of May was not as happy as May 2014 for Ryan Hunter-Reay. An 11th in the IMS road course race and he started 16th in the Indianapolis 500 but this wasn't a repeat of his 2014 drive, from the middle of the pack to the front and into victory lane. He stayed mid-pack all race and finished 15th. In the first Belle Isle race, he made contact with the back of Conor Daly while both were in the top ten and he had to settle for 13th. In the second race, he broke his string of bad results with an eighth place finish.

It appeared everything would turn around at Texas but a practice accident squashed all his momentum and he settled for an 18th place finish with Toronto being another disaster and his race ending due to a mechanical failure with a lap to go. He didn't lead his first laps of the season until Fontana and he was in position for a top ten finish but we all know how that ended. Milwaukee was his best race within the third quarter of the season and he finished 13th in that race.

Iowa turned their season around. Hunter-Reay started ninth and hung around the top five all race. Did he benefit from front-runners Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya having issues and being taken out of contention? Yes but on the racetrack he beat Josef Newgarden, who led 111 of 300 laps. Hunter-Reay led the final 37 laps and Newgarden could not catch him. A seventh at Mid-Ohio was followed by a bittersweet victory at Pocono but a race that Hunter-Reay took from the rest of the field. He overcame a handful of bad pit stops and made daring passes on Montoya, Takuma Sato and Gabby Chaves for the victory. Hunter-Reay ended the season strong at Sonoma. He started third, his best starting position of the season. He hung around the front all race and finished second, his lone road course podium in 2015.

Another good season for Marco Andretti but victory continues to elude him
Marco Andretti
It was another season of consistent results for Marco Andretti. He scored three top tens in the first four races and his worst finish in the first quarter of the season was 13th. His tenth at St. Petersburg was his third top ten at the track while he scored his third consecutive top ten finishes at Long Beach and Barber.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was not a great race as he started 24th and finished 16th but he qualified eighth for the Indianapolis 500 and while the Hondas struggled at the start to keep up with the Chevrolets, Graham Rahal and Andretti came on strong at the finish and Andretti finished sixth, his seventh top ten in ten Indianapolis 500 starts. He nearly stole Belle Isle 1 when he decided to stay out on slicks longer than everyone else but Carlos Muñoz. His teammate was able to go a few more laps and was able to pit and keep the lead while Andretti settled for second. In race two, he worked strategy again to his favor and didn't have to conserve fuel during the closing laps and was able to finish fifth.

He scored his second consecutive top five by stretching final stint at Texas to over 50 laps on one set of tires. He was the top Andretti Autosport car at Toronto but Toronto was a disaster weekend for the entire team and all it took to be the best Andretti Autosport car was 13th. At Fontana he started toward the front but faded only to rebound by taking tires late while other stayed out and he worked his way to a third place finish.

Andretti would score top tens in the following three races at Milwaukee, Iowa and Mid-Ohio. He had completed every lap through the first 14 races but that streak ended at Pocono when he had an accident with 62 laps to go. At Sonoma, he hung around the back half of the top ten all race but could only settle for 11th.

Carlos Muñoz's sophomore season was respectable
Carlos Muñoz
The Colombian started his sophomore season by improving on each race. After a 14th at St. Petersburg, he finished 12th at NOLA, ninth at Long Beach and sixth at Barber. He finished 13th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he started 11th in the Indianapolis 500. He was never really a factor at Indianapolis but did the best he could. He and Justin Wilson decided to stretch their fuel as long as they could on the final stint and Muñoz led three laps, the first three of the season for Andretti Autosport while Wilson would lead the following two but both would fade and have to stop and Muñoz finished 20th, the final car on the lead lap.

Then there was Belle Isle. Muñoz was able to stay out longer than anyone on slicks while other teams switched to the wet weather tires while the rain was still minutes away from the race track. Muñoz opened up a mammoth lead and by the time the heavy stuff and the lightning came, IndyCar was past halfway and IndyCar called it, handing Carlos Muñoz his first career victory. The following day, he had a mechanical failure and finished last. He used the same strategy as Andretti at Texas and finished sixth and had an engine failure at Toronto.

He would finish outside the top ten at Fontana and Milwaukee but the final quarter of his season would be full of solid finishes. He would finish fifth at Iowa, the top non-American driver in that race, before getting a ninth at Mid-Ohio and a fifth at Pocono. The only bad race he had in the final quarter of the season was the final one. He ended the season with a 22nd at Sonoma.

What Could Have Been?
Justin Wilson
Justin Wilson's 2015 season began at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and that race ended early with a broken gearbox. He was the top Andretti Autosport and Honda driver in Indianapolis 500 qualifying, where he started sixth, a career best for him in the famed race. However, he wasn't able to stay at the front and he finished a lap down in 21st but led two laps.

Wilson was absent from the grid for the next five races and would return at Milwaukee, where he suffered an engine failure. At Iowa, he was in the back half of the grid all race and finished 18th. At Mid-Ohio however, Wilson benefitted from the same caution that eventual race winner Graham Rahal benefitted from. Wilson gave Rahal a good battle but ended up second, the fourth Andretti driver of the season to finish on the podium.

Then there is Pocono. There is no easy way to talk about Pocono. Wilson started seventh. He was running in the top five for majority of the first stint and was second on the restart after the caution for Jack Hawksworth's loose tire. He hung around the top ten for most of the race. He had a bad pit stop on lap 134 and that sent him to the back. He led two laps under caution before pitting himself on lap 170. He restarted 14th and was running 13th when Sage Karam had his accident while leading.

Only three races but Simona de Silvestro showed why she should be in IndyCar
Simona de Silvestro
The Swiss driver returned to IndyCar after a year away pursuing her Formula One dream with Sauber F1. At St. Petersburg, she started 11th but made contact with James Jakes and had to serve a penalty. She was the final car on the lead lap in 18th. At NOLA, she made a few impressive moves considering that there was so little green flag action for such moves to be made and finished fourth. Her final race was the Indianapolis 500, where she started 18th and finished 19th with her only notably action from the race being when she ran into the back of Juan Pablo Montoya, damaging both their wings and delaying the first restart of the race.

I think this was a very good season for Andretti Autosport even though it started off pretty rough. Entering the final quarter of the season, Ryan Hunter-Reay was 14th in the championship. After two victories, three podiums and four top tens in the final four races, he shot up to finish sixth in the championship. Did double points benefit Hunter-Reay more than other? Sure but that still doesn't take away that he still had three podiums and four top tens, something no other driver did in the final quarter of the season.

This season reminded me a lot of Andretti Autosport's 2011 season. They had a terrible start to the season. They had two cars fail to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. They had the Danica Patrick distraction. There was a lot of in-team fighting but when the season ended Marco Andretti had won a race, Ryan Hunter-Reay had won a race, Mike Conway won a race and things were looking up to 2012. Unfortunately, just like 2011, Andretti Autosport ends 2015 losing a driver they hoped would be with them the following season.

Whether Andretti Autosport expands to four full-time cars in 2016 still hangs in the air. Justin Wilson was a great addition to the team and it would have been great to see what he could finally do in top equipment. If Andretti does expand to four cars, who would take the #25 seat? Oriol Servià ran at Sonoma but I feel that will only be a one-off as Servià has an executive position with Dragon Racing in Formula E. Simona de Silvestro will be driving for Andretti Autosport full-time in Formula E starting later this month in Beijing. Depending on how she does in the first handful of races, she could skip the latter half of the season to switch to IndyCar full-time in the spring but for now she is a Formula E driver and will probably not be full-time in IndyCar in 2016. However, the door could be open for her to return for the 100th Indianapolis 500.

Andretti Autosport has a good thing going. Hunter-Reay ended strong. Andretti has proven he can finish races and finish races well. Now can he finish first? Muñoz scored a victory and while he finished 13th in the final championship standings, IndyCar is very competitive and he had a respectable season. The team definitely could find themselves in championship contention in 2016 if they are able to build off of how they finished in 2015.