Wednesday, October 18, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Andretti Autosport's 2017 Season

We are getting closer to the sharp end of the IndyCar grid and as we have entered the second half of IndyCar team reviews, we have reached one of two teams that had multiple drivers win a race this season. Andretti Autosport also had three drivers finish in the top ten in the championship. Unfortunately for this team, it did not have a driver finish in the top five in the championship for the fourth consecutive season.

The stud everyone in IndyCar is falling for: Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi
His sophomore season began with a lackluster result in St. Petersburg. Rossi started eighth but the debris caution during the first round of pit stops shuffled him back and he could only finish 11th. He made the Fast Six for the first time in his career at Long Beach and he started fifth. He was running at the front the entire race and he was looking to at least have a podium finish before an engine failure ended his race after 62 laps. Barber did not start any better and he was 18th on the grid but two consecutive stints on alternate tires got him up to seventh and he finished fifth. A brush with the wall ended his night early at Phoenix.

He had a solid eighth place finish from ninth on the grid in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and it set him up nicely for Indianapolis 500 qualifying. He was fifth fastest on the first day of qualifying and improved to third on the second day of qualifying. Rossi was at the front for most of the race and it appeared his chances of going 2-for-2 were going to stay alive right until the very end but one botched pit stop dropped him to the back and he had to settle for a seventh place finish. He kept up on his good form at Belle Isle with finishes of fifth place and seventh place.

An apparent tire failure caused Rossi to be the first retirement of the night at Texas after starting third. Rossi was one of the first drivers to go to the four-stop strategy at Road America after starting 15th. It appeared it might have been good enough to get him into the top five even with the cautions. However, he suffered a front wing failure and he had to limp home to a 14th-place finish. This was followed by a mediocre day at Iowa in 11th. Things picked up when he crossed the border. He started eighth at Toronto and fortunate timing for his pit stop put him in fourth. He then passed Charlie Kimball and Ed Jones to get up to second but Josef Newgarden was gone and Rossi had to settle for second best. He was in podium contention at Mid-Ohio but his alternate tires fell off earlier than most in a stint and he settled for sixth.

The second 500-mile race of the season at Pocono was another race where Rossi was up front all race and in this one he was arguably the best driver all day. He started sixth and led 44 laps but Team Penske driver Will Power and Josef Newgarden jumped him in the order and Rossi could do no better than third. At Gateway, Rossi ran in the top ten all race despite Honda being at a deficit and he finished sixth. He took his first career pole position at Watkins Glen and despite losing the lead after a bobble on a wet spot, Rossi had the superior car and drove away from the field and held off Scott Dixon after the final restart to take the victory. His season would end prematurely as a mechanical issue hampered his race and he had to settle for a 21st place finish.

Alexander Rossi's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 7th (494 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 99
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 8.647
Average Finish: 9.529

It will never get better than this for Takuma Sato
Takuma Sato
His first race with Andretti Autosport was surprisingly competitive. Not only was he the top Andretti Autosport qualified but he also started fifth and ran at the front the entire race. He was overtaken by his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in a drag race to the line for fourth but it was an encouraging start. He was just one of four Andretti cars to bit by a sick Honda at Long Beach however he followed that up with a solid ninth place finish at Barber. Unfortunately for Sato he could only make it to the fourth race before his first accident in a race and that occurred at Phoenix.

He had an unenthusiastic 12th place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he qualified fourth for the Indianapolis 500. Sato was at the front with Rossi and teammate Fernando Alonso and to be honest, I never took him seriously when he was apart of that trio. I figured if there was an Andretti car to fade it would be Sato but when Hunter-Reay and Alonso retired and Rossi fell back Sato was there and not only was he there but he was aggressive and for one glorious day in May it didn't bite him. The man who had a Indianapolis 500 slip through his hands five years earlier grabbed onto this one and never let go.

Even better for Sato was he didn't have a slump at Belle Isle and finished eighth in race one, won pole position for race two and came home in fourth in that race. His first arguably bonehead move of the season came at Texas with five laps to go when he dropped his tires into the grass and slid into Scott Dixon, ending both their nights while both were in contention for the victory but he was still able to be classified in tenth and head into summer third in the championship. He was dealing with a stiff neck at Road America and finished 19th. Sato didn't have the car at Iowa and he finished 16th.

Contact with Spencer Pigot forced him to change his front wing at Toronto and he picked up another 16th place finish. He followed that up with a fifth at Mid-Ohio and he won pole position for Pocono. However, he dropped like a rock in that race and had to settle for 13th. He had nowhere to go when Will Power spun at Gateway and his race was over early. A wastegate issue caused him to be off the pace at Watkins Glen and he had a spin. An engine failure at Sonoma ended his season early.

Takuma Sato's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 8th (441 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 41
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 8.588
Average Finish: 12.352

Ryan Hunter-Reay did well but 2017 could have been better
Ryan Hunter-Reay
The 2012 IndyCar champion started 12th for the season opener at St. Petersburg and he worked his way to the front and made a late pass on Sato to be the top Andretti finisher in the first race of the season in fourth. He started third at Long Beach and had the car to beat leading 28 laps. James Hinchcliffe jumped him in the order when the second caution came out but Hunter-Reay would be right behind the Canadian. Unfortunately, Hunter-Reay's race ended 23 laps early due to an electrical issue. Things didn't get better in the next two races as he finished 11th at Barber and brushed the wall one too many times at Phoenix.

Hunter-Reay had an improvement in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He started eighth but made a fair share of passes and finished third. He was unable to make the Fast Nine in Indianapolis 500 qualifying but he topped the first group of Sunday qualifiers and started tenth. It took him no time at all to be at front and content for the victory. He led 28 laps and his engine let go while running in the top five after completing 136 laps. Things didn't get better at Belle Isle. He was not a factor in race one and finished 13th and despite starting second in race two he fell like a rock after slight contact with Hélio Castroneves and finished 17th. Any progress was stunted at Texas when he was caught up in the lap 152 accident.

He was in position for a top ten at Road America but like his teammate Alexander Rossi, front wing damage bit him late and he had to settle for 14th. It finally started to turn around at Iowa. He was in the top ten all day and his car improved over the course of the race. He was the top Honda when it was all over in third position. He caught a break with Tony Kanaan's caution at Toronto and he lost a tough battle for fifth with Simon Pagenaud but sixth was a well-earned finish. Mid-Ohio was nearly a disaster after he spun due an incident with Rossi while both were in contention for top five finishes but Hunter-Reay kept going albeit he slipped to 12th after the incident. He made a handful of passes and finished eighth.

A hard qualifying accident at Pocono led to a trip to the hospital and questions if Hunter-Reay was going to race. Despite a slight hobble, he charged to the front and even led 12 laps before sliding back to an eighth-place finish. He started seventh at Watkins Glen and was in the top five for most of the race. He even led four laps when Rossi had to make an early pit stop. He wasn't able to challenge his teammate once Rossi retook the lead but he did manage to finish third. Bent suspension after kissing the wall exiting turn two at Gateway ended a top ten run and he started seventh and finished eighth at Sonoma.

Ryan Hunter-Reay's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 9th (421 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 8
Laps Led: 72
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 10.705
Average Finish: 11.117

Things were better for Marco Andretti in 2017 and he got married!
Marco Andretti
After starting 15th at St. Petersburg, his speed came out in the race and he started the season with a seventh place finish. Unreliability bit Andretti the hardest this season among the four Andretti Autosport cars. He was the first of the four to go at Long Beach and he was running in the top ten. At Barber, he had to stop in the pits coming to the green flag because of a gearbox issue. By the time the issue was corrected he was two laps down and never had a shot for a respectable finish. Andretti had nowhere to go when Mikhail Aleshin spun at Phoenix and his race was over before lap one was completed.

The month of May started with him in the 11th position on the grid for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he was penalized on lap one for contact with Tony Kanaan and he had to settle for 16th. He had a solid car on the oval and started and finished eighth. He didn't do much at Belle Isle and finished 12th and 13th in the respective races. Andretti got a sixth place finished at Texas through survival. He started eighth at Road America but lost a lap because he had to fix his car to prevent his throttle from sticking and he finished 18th.

Andretti had a horrendous day at Iowa, starting 20th and finishing 18th but he led seven laps through a pit cycle. He may have benefitted from the Tony Kanaan caution at Toronto but he was competitive prior to that. He had a solid run to a fourth place finish, his first top five finish in over two years. He was mid-pack all race at Mid-Ohio and finished 12th.

At his home race of Pocono, Andretti started 16th but spent a fair amount of time in the top ten. He led nine laps after stretching his fuel as late as possible and a stop for a splash of gas took a little longer than it should have and he finished 11th. He had an uneventful day and finished 14th at Gateway. He had a top ten run going at Watkins Glen before losing positions late and settling for 16th. A top ten finish did not slip from him at Sonoma where he finished seventh after starting 11th.

Marco Andretti's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 12th (388 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 16
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 13.117
Average Finish: 12.941

It was a solid year for Andretti Autosport when you consider it had drivers seventh, eighth, ninth and 12th for the championship but these results are also unacceptable when you consider Andretti Autosport is one of three four-car teams and it hasn't had a driver alive for the championship entering the finale since 2014. This team should expect more and I think deep down they are all a little disappointed the team didn't accomplish more.

Rossi is the sexy pick for 2018. Don't think you are special if jumping on his bandwagon. It is more crowded than it appears. Part of it is rightfully so. He only looked better after every race and enough people were cast under his spell by his Watkins Glen performance. He is the championship sleeper to 99.9% of experts. No pressure kid.

When you look over the results, Sato rarely put a wheel wrong and for the better part of five years I have been saying we know who Sato is and he isn't going to change. However, he had only three retirements this season due to accidents and one of those was not his fault. Last year, he had only two retirements due to accidents. I am not saying the best is yet to come but I think Sato could have another solid season or two in IndyCar at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Something has been bugging me about Ryan Hunter-Reay and more specifically it is something someone wrote about Ryan Hunter-Reay. Jeff Gluck covered the IndyCar finale at Sonoma and while writing about Josef Newgarden's championship he mentioned that Hunter-Reay's championship in 2012 did not revitalize IndyCar and he speculates part of that is because Hunter-Reay has not finished in the top five of the championship since he won the title.

I like Jeff Gluck. I think he is a good writer and I admire what he has done to make it as a journalist and I recommend donating money to him. Hunter-Reay hasn't finished in the top five of the championship since 2012 but that doesn't tell the whole story about Ryan Hunter-Reay. It is one of those sports oddities like the fact Walter Payton never scored a touchdown in a Super Bowl or Ernie Banks never played a postseason game. When you consider where Hunter-Reay was ten and a half years ago and the era of IndyCar racing he came up in the fact that he is full-time in IndyCar in 2017 let alone a champion, an Indianapolis 500 winner and a regular top ten driver in the championship is outstanding. His career was over at the start of 2007. He lost his Champ Car ride the year prior, he had no sponsors to get him back on the grid and he could have been another American driver who couldn't make it in open-wheel racing and had to settle for sports car options.

Hunter-Reay might not have finished in the top five in the championship the last five seasons but he does have an Indianapolis 500 victory and he was fourth in the championship entering the 2014 season finale at Fontana before a spin exiting turn four put him a lap down and double points dropped him to sixth in the final championship standings. He has also had some incredible races, most notably his Iowa victories in 2014 and 2015 and he had a stunning drive at Pocono last year to go from 12th to third in the final 20 laps after going a lap down due to an electrical glitch in 2016. Even this year's Pocono race was incredible considering he wasn't 100% after an accident the day before. I am not going to say Hunter-Reay is one of the ten greatest American IndyCar drivers of all-time but he has been a respectable driver for a decade and he hasn't won the last two seasons but it hasn't been without his fair share of quality races and heartbreaking misfortune. He is bound to win a race again and it will likely come in 2018.

I think Andretti Autosport expects to pick up the results next year with the new aero kits. The team might be slightly behind on paper considering four teams have tested the universal aero kits and Andretti Autosport wasn't one of them but Andretti Autosport was the test team for Honda's aero kit and that caused nothing but problems heading into the 2015 season. The team is bringing in Zach Veach and I don't think he will be able to match the results of Sato but Rossi is on a tear, Hunter-Reay ended the season strong and Marco Andretti improved from 2016. This team is bound to rid itself of the misfortune that has snuck up on it the last three years and 2018 might be that season.