Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

The fifth 2017 IndyCar Team Preview looks at the team that was probably the most frustrated from 2016 but not because nothing went the team's way but rather for how close many things were to going its way but didn't. Andretti Autosport's four entries might not have finished as well as expected but 2016 wasn't a disaster and there were plenty of bright spots for the team, including another Indianapolis 500 victory. The team has a new driver and has shuffle some of the pieces on the pit stands as it looks to find itself back in the fight at the top of IndyCar.

2016 Andretti Autosport Review:
Wins: 1 (Indianapolis 500)
Poles: 1 (Texas)
Final Championship Positions: 10th (Carlos Muñoz), 11th (Alexander Rossi), 12th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 16th (Marco Andretti), 27th (Townsend Bell).

2017 Drivers:

Takuma Sato - #26 Andretti Autosport Honda
After three seasons at A.J. Foyt Racing, the Japanese driver will continue his IndyCar career by heading to his fourth team in what will be his eighth season. The 40-year-old driver is coming off matching his second-worst finish in the championship after finishing 17th. Despite the poor championship finish, Sato did have two top-five finishes, the fifth time he had multiple top five finishes in a season.

Numbers to Remember: 
66: Starts since Sato's most recent victory.

4.57: Average amount of top ten finishes a season in Sato's seven IndyCar seasons.

11: Lead lap finishes in 2016, the most in Sato's IndyCar career.

Expectations aren't high for Takuma Sato. After seven seasons, we know who he is and what he is capable off. There is no point in wondering if this will be the year Sato figures it out and turns his pace into results with an absence of accidents. However, he is coming off 11 lead lap finishes in 16 races last year and only retired from three races, two of which were accidents and both came in the 500-mile races. The goal should be not to finish last among the four Andretti drivers and match what he did last year.

Marco Andretti - #27 hhgregg Honda
The only way to describe Andretti's 2016 season would be consistent but mediocre. The American finished all 16 races and completed all but eight laps but he didn't get a top ten finish until Belle Isle and added just two more in the back half of the season with an eighth-place finish at Sonoma being his best finish of the season. Nine of Andretti's finishes in 2016 were between 11th and 14th position. Qualifying was not any better with 11th at Phoenix being his best grid position.

Numbers to Remember: 
92: Starts since his most recent victory (He went 77 starts between his first two career victories).

2,062: Laps completed in 2016, the second-most in 2016.

0: Laps led in 2016, the first time Andretti did not lead a lap in the season.

Andretti turns 30 years old the day after St. Petersburg. He has to be a bigger factor than he was in 2016. He needs at least two or three top five finishes and turn a lot of those near top ten finishes into top ten finishes. Eight top ten finishes isn't out of the discussion for Andretti. He is also going to have to improve his average starting position by at least three points from 17.5. Ultimately, while Sato's goal should be not to be the bottom of the four Andretti drivers, Andretti's goal should be to at least stay ahead of Sato in the championship.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
Despite having as many podiums, more top five finishes and more top ten finishes than his 2015 season, Hunter-Reay dropped six places in the championship from sixth to 12th, finishing behind two of his teammates and going winless for the first time since the 2009 season, where he didn't get a ride until the week before the season opener at St. Petersburg and then had to switch teams midseason from Vision Racing to A.J. Foyt Racing.

Numbers to Remember: 
17: Starts since his most recent victory (Longest drought since he went 18 starts between his Iowa victories in 2014-15).

3: Third-place finishes in 2016, the most third-place finishes in a season for Hunter-Reay.

48: Races since most recent pole position (Long Beach 2014).

I think the goal is to win and get back into the top ten of the championship and compete to be the top Honda in the championship, which has only gotten harder now that Ganassi has moved back to Honda and Sébastien Bourdais has joined Dale Coyne Racing. I think Hunter-Reay does get a victory possibly two and will find himself in the back half of the top ten of the championship but not the top Honda driver but maybe good enough to be the second-best Honda driver.

Alexander Rossi - #98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda
Coming off earning Rookie of the Year with a Indianapolis 500 victory as the cherry on top of that, Rossi looks to make more strides forward. While his Indianapolis 500 victory was a surprise but also came after Rossi had a strong month of May, success came slow to him. He didn't get a top ten start until ninth at Texas and didn't make it out of round one of knockout qualifying on road/street circuits until Mid-Ohio with his seventh-place start at Pocono being his best of the season. He closed out the season with back-to-back top ten finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember: 
2: Of the previous rookie Indianapolis 500 winners won a race the following season (Frank Lockhart won four times in 1927 and Hélio Castroneves won twice in 2002).

22: Of Rossi's 23 laps led in 2016 were on ovals (Indianapolis: 14, Iowa: 4, Pocono: 4).

118: Rossi won the 2016 Rookie of the Year award by 118 points over Conor Daly.

I think Rossi has to make a step forward on road and street circuits and I think he will. I think he gets at least one podium on a road/street circuit and makes it to the Fast Six session at least once. I think Rossi can rival Hunter-Reay in terms of success and challenge him for being the top Andretti driver. Look for Rossi to have between four to five top five finishes and eight to ten top ten finishes and either finish just inside the top ten of the championship or finishing 11th for the second consecutive season.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.