Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

The seventh IndyCar team preview takes a look at Andretti Autosport. For having a difficult time during the aero kit-era Andretti Autosport did put together a rather successful period, especially at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The team has won the last two editions of the famed 500-mile race and Michael Andretti could join Lou Moore and Roger Penske as the only team owners to win three consecutive Indianapolis 500s. The team has six Indianapolis 500 entries already confirmed but the team will be looking to succeed beyond the month of May.

2017 Andretti Autosport Review:
Wins: 2 (Indianapolis 500, Watkins Glen)
Poles: 3 (Belle Isle II, Watkins Glen, Pocono)
Final Championship Positions: 7th (Alexander Rossi), 8th (Tony Kanaan), 9th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 12th (Marco Andretti), 29th (Fernando Alonso).

2018 Drivers:

Zach Veach - #26 Group One Thousand One Honda
After finishing fourth in the 2016 Indy Lights championship, Veach sat on the sidelines for most of 2017 but the Ohioan got a few breaks along the way. The first one unfortunately came due to a break in J.R. Hildebrand's wrist at Long Beach, which opened a seat at Barber Motorsports Park and Veach found himself making his IndyCar debut as a substitute. The limited track time saw Veach be a non-factor in the race, starting and finishing 19th but completing all 90 laps and finishing ahead of his teammate Spencer Pigot, who finished a lap down in 20th after a spin exiting turn five.

Veach would make his Indianapolis 500 debut the following month but he moved to A.J. Foyt Racing in the team's third entry. A practice accident kept him from making a qualifying attempt on the Saturday and he was the slowest qualifier on Sunday with a four-lap average at 221.081 MPH. Veach had a typical race for the car starting in the middle of the 11th row and his race ended due to a mechanical failure after 155 laps.

Numbers to Remember:
6: Victories in Indy Lights at six different tracks (St. Petersburg, Barber, Milwaukee, Road America, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca).

22.5: Average finish in two IndyCar starts (19th at Barber, 26th at the Indianapolis 500).

66.667: Percentage of seasons with top five championship finishes in six Road to Indy seasons.

Veach has never been a driver that has stood out in his Road to Indy career. Never once has he been the sexy name. He has been overlooked at every level of the ladder system whether it be by Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves, Carlos Muñoz, Matthew Brabham, Ed Jones or Santiago Urrutia. He had a respectable career on his way up the ladder and he only seemed to improve every year he was behind the wheel. He knows most of the track and he shouldn't be caught off guard.

It is hard to see the long-term trajectory of Veach's IndyCar career. I don't see him stepping right into IndyCar and being a top ten driver even with Andretti Autosport. There are three full-time rookies and Veach is the most experienced of the three. He seems like the favorite to win Rookie of the Year over Matheus Leist and Robert Wickens but Leist looked good at the Phoenix test. I think a successful season for Veach, aside from winning Rookie of the Year, would be to get a top five or two and about six top ten finishes and maybe he could have a race where he is the second-best Andretti car on the grid and running with the likes of Hunter-Reay and Rossi. The good news for Veach is he has something most young drivers don't when entering IndyCar: A committed sponsor and a three-year contract. He will get to feel growing pains in 2018 and know there will be a tomorrow.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda
The 2016 IndyCar Rookie of the Year entered hoping to prove his 2016 Indianapolis 500 victory was not a fluke result. The results did not come off the crack of the bat. He had another ho-hum day at St. Petersburg and finished 11th but was running at the front and was in podium contention at Long Beach. The hopes of a podium in his home state ended with an engine failure. It seemed Barber would be three consecutive difficult races, as he qualified 18th, but he made a handful of moves and a strong race led to a fifth place finish. All the Hondas were off at Phoenix and he finished 15th but he entered the Indianapolis 500 portion of the calendar with an eighth place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Rossi's return to the 2.5-mile oval saw him qualify third and spend most of the race at the front. He led 23 laps but fell from contention for the victory after a slow pit stop and he had to settle for a seventh place finish. He followed up with a pair of top ten finishes at Belle Isle but hit a snag the rest of June with an accident at Texas and a strong run on a three-stop strategy at Road America was ruined after contact with Tony Kanaan and tumbled down the order. His slide continued into Iowa where he finished 11th but results turned around with a second at Toronto. A pair of sixth place finishes was split by a third at Pocono. Rossi won his first career pole position at Watkins Glen and despite a slip in the wet and a funky fuel strategy, Rossi won in dominating fashion. The season did not end well as a mechanical issue took him out early at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
0: Times Rossi has had consecutive top five finishes in his IndyCar career.

1: Rossi is responsible for the only road/street victory in IndyCar history for car #98, which came at Watkins Glen last year.

22: Consecutive victories for car #27 by non-American drivers. The last victory for car #27 by an American was Jim Guthrie at Phoenix on March 27, 1997.

At the Sonoma season finale, Rossi was everybody's sleeper for 2018 and expectations were high after a positive sophomore season. From what has been seen through the first two seasons, Rossi is a smart guy but a guy that always seems to be on. There hasn't been a race where Rossi has made a boneheaded mistake and before you bring up the pit lane incident at Pocono in 2015, go back and watch that frame-by-frame. There was more to that incident than Rossi being overeager leaving hit pit box.

Everyone knows how limited seat time is in the 21st century and the general feeling has been that a driver needs at least two seasons if not three to get a firm grasp of IndyCar. If Rossi can finish 11th and seventh in the championship in what can be viewed as learning years than what can he do in year three? If there is one thing against Rossi improving his championship position for a third consecutive season it is the new universal aero kit. The team is behind, as it did not test the car in autumn 2017, and it might take a few races for Rossi and everyone to get a hold of it. However, the Andretti cars looked strong at the Phoenix test.

Despite the uncertainty over the universal aero kit, I think Rossi can have a positive season. He could win two or three races and win on both ovals and the road/street courses. I think he can crack the top five and easily be the top finishing Andretti Autosport driver.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
The American started the season with a promising fourth place finish after a drag race to the line with teammate Takuma Sato at St. Petersburg, earning him the best result within the team. He started third at Long Beach and quickly found himself in the lead during the pit cycle ahead of the likes of Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe. It was Hunter-Reay's race to lose and Hinchcliffe jumped him during the pit cycle but he was challenging the Canadian until his car broke down while in second. At Barber, Hunter-Reay lost a top ten finish in the closing laps to Mikhail Aleshin. Another mechanical issue bit him at Phoenix but he recovered at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He started eighth but made a few moves, including on Hélio Castroneves, to get himself a third place finish.

Hunter-Reay led 28 laps from 10th on the grid in the Indianapolis 500 and spent a fair amount of the race in the top five until his engine blew up while being one of the toughest cars to beat in the race. Things did not get better at Belle Isle where he was stuck in the middle of the pack in both races. Texas was another tough night and right when it seemed the team figured something out, he was caught in the lap 152 accident that took out a third of the field. A broke front wing endplate cost him a top ten finish at Road America.

A strong third place finish got him off the snide at Iowa with top ten finishing following at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Pocono. A brush with the wall cost him a top ten at Gateway but he responded with a third place finish at Watkins Glen. He closed the season with an eighth place finish at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
6: Hunter-Reay's last six podium finishes have been third-place finish (St. Petersburg 2016, Belle Isle II 2016, Pocono 2016, Grand Prix of Indianapolis 2017, Iowa 2017, Watkins Glen 2017).

8: Finishes outside the top ten in the first ten races last season.

5,054: Days between Hunter-Reay's most recent oval pole position at Milwaukee in 2004 and the Phoenix qualifying session. That Milwaukee pole position is his only oval pole position.

It has been a rough two seasons for Hunter-Reay. In the aero kit-era, it seemed Hunter-Reay was always finishing strong after a difficult opening half to a season. The first two seasons it was Andretti Autosport being off with the Honda aero kit. Last season, Hunter-Reay had engines expire while in contention for victory at both Long Beach and Indianapolis. Over the last two seasons Hunter-Reay is two engine failures and an electrical glitch away from having three more victories to his name.

With more than two seasons since his most recent victory, there are two trains of thought: Hunter-Reay is either due or he is slipping. I felt last year Hunter-Reay had more results fall out of his grasp when he was in position for something good. He turned 37 years old in December and IndyCar had two other notable droughts with Hélio Castroneves, which stretched over three seasons before ending at Iowa last season, and Tony Kanaan, whose drought continues into 2018 and could reach four years if he does not break through this season. I am sure Hunter-Reay doesn't want another season without standing on the top step of the podium.

Hunter-Reay can win any of the ovals and we know Andretti Autosport can provide him the car. I think he can be competitive on road and street courses and I think there will be at least one road/street course race where he is in the top three the entire race. I think he gets that victory but he will finish in the back half of the top ten in the championship.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete/Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda
After struggling for most of the 2016 season, Andretti opened 2017 with a seventh place finish out of the gate at St. Petersburg. A tenth place starting position at Long Beach was squandered after his race ended due to an electrical issue early in the race. Another promising day at Barber was crushed before the race got started due to a gearbox issue and he started the race two laps down. Phoenix completed the hat trick of poor results, as he had nowhere to go when Mikhail Aleshin spun in turn one. He finished a lap down at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in 16th.

He had a good day in the Indianapolis 500, where he started and finished eighth but had a pair of mediocre days at Belle Isle. Survival at Texas earned him a sixth place finish and he matched his total number of top ten finishes in 2016 within nine races in 2017. A stuck throttle cost him a lap in repairs and while he would lead seven laps at Iowa, he was never a factor and finished two laps down in 17th. He caught a break at Toronto but had a strong run to a fourth place finish. A 12th-place finish followed at Mid-Ohio and a roll of the dice on fuel at Pocono left him with only an 11th place finish. He had another tough short oval race at Gateway and a top ten finish fell out of his grasp at Watkins Glen before he finished a strong seventh at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
4: Times a teammates has won the Indianapolis 500 (Dario Franchitti 2007, Ryan Hunter-Reay 2014, Alexander Rossi 2016, Takuma Sato 2017).

11.632: Average finish in the aero kit-era with two podium finishes and five top five finishes.

11.673: Average finish in the Dallara aero kit-era with five podium finishes and nine top five finishes.

I was surprised when I saw Andretti's average finish during the aero kit-era was better than his average finish from 2012-14, mostly because for the last three seasons Andretti seemed to be an afterthought. Honda teams struggled in general but he noticeably fell off after a few positive seasons. However, if there is one thing that we can take away from the numbers is while Andretti was not impressive from 2015-17, he was consistent. In 2016, Andretti completed 2,062 of a possible 2,070 laps, second-most that season behind only Charlie Kimball. He also had no retirements in 2016 and his average finish was 12.8 compared to an average starting position of 17.4. Last season, Andretti completed 15 of 17 races with his only retirements being things out of his control and his day was over at Barber before it evens started for, once again, something out of his control.

Andretti did well with the lower downforce Dallara aero kit and with a move away from topside downforce I expect Andretti to do better in 2018. The guy can win on any oval, or at least that what we think, and he has been a bit unfortunate not to be the Andretti driver out front coming down the stretch at the Indianapolis 500 for a second time. Outside of ovals, I want to see Andretti put together good weekends. I want to see him make the Fast Six in a road/street course qualifying session and then run the entire race in the top six. I want to see him carry over practice speed into qualifying and not go from third fastest to 18th on the grid.

He gets more attention than 95% of the grid and most of it is from people who take pleasure out of seeing him struggle. I think he will be clawing to get into the top ten of the championship but it will be a tough fight between six drivers for those final two spots on the first page of the championship results.

Besides the four full-time drivers, the two Indianapolis 500 one-offs will belong to Stefan Wilson and Carlos Muñoz. Wilson had a ride for last year's Indianapolis 500 before a call from McLaren led to Fernando Alonso's famous 500-attempt. He will be attempting to make his second Indianapolis 500 start after he made his debut in 2016. Wilson ran with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights in 2011 where he won two races and finished third in the championship. Muñoz spent 2017 with A.J. Foyt Racing where he picked up six top ten finishes and finished 16th in the championship. He made four Indianapolis 500 starts with Andretti Autosport from 2013 to 2016 and finished second, fourth, 20th and second in those four starts.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.