Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

The eighth IndyCar team preview looks at Andretti Autosport, which had a strong year and it had not one but two drivers who were in the championship discussion. It had not two but three drivers finish in the top ten of the championship. It has not three but four drivers returning for 2019 and each driver could take a step forward. It has a veteran backbone with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti while the younger drivers Alexander Rossi and Zach Veach have not taken long to get to the front.

2018 Andretti Autosport Review
Wins: 5 (Long Beach, Belle Isle II, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Sonoma)
Poles: 5 (Long Beach, Belle Isle I, Belle Isle II, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Alexander Rossi), 4th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 9th (Marco Andretti), 15th (Zach Veach)

2019 Drivers:

Zach Veach - #26 Group One Thousand One/Gainbridge Honda
Veach's tenure with Andretti Autosport did not start off great. His first two starts ended with him finishing one lap down in 16th position. Third time was the charm and while Veach might not have been solidly in the front from the start he put himself in position to finish fourth and challenge Ed Jones for third down the stretch.

The bad news for Veach is he would hit a rough patch of results and be the worst finishing Andretti Autosport's car in the next eight races, which included a few fires along the way and a great run at Texas, where he was making up ground early but his race ended before the sun had disappeared behind the grandstands after he slapped the wall on the back straightaway.

In the middle of summer, Veach found his groove at Toronto when Andretti Autosport was having its worst race of the season and his seventh place finish earned him the best result of the four drivers. His first time racing in his home state was another good day with Veach coming home in tenth at Mid-Ohio. The final two oval races were standout performances. He was quick all weekend at Pocono and finished sixth while he had to start 16th at Gateway because the field was set by points but Veach charged up to fifth and if qualifying had taken place he might have been contending for the victory from the start.

It appeared the momentum would carry out west and he started sixth at Portland but an off-track excursion derail a good start and he was only ok at Sonoma, ending the season in 14th.

Numbers to Remember:
2.236: Improvement in average finish from the first nine races of 2018 (15.111) to the final eight races of the season (12.875).

4: Veach was one of four drivers to be running at the finish of every race in 2018 along with Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden.

8: Lead lap finishes in 2018, tied for 16th with Charlie Kimball and ahead of only Spencer Pigot (seven) and Max Chilton (five) amongst full-time drivers.

Keep up what he was doing at the end of 2018.

Veach's season turned around in the second half of the season. He still had bad days. He threw away a top ten finish at Portland when he went off course but that came after four consecutive top ten finishes and two impressive races at Pocono and Gateway but the mistakes were reduced over the course of the season.

There is a sense that Veach could win a race in 2019, especially at an oval. Besides Pocono and Gateway, Veach was quick at Texas and worked his way into the top five before he brushed the wall and forced his team to make repairs. We know Andretti Autosport will have it figured out at the Indianapolis 500. This is a great position for the Ohioan, who seemed to get a handle on ovals in 2018.

One area thing Veach has to improve on or at least prevent from happening again is being the worst Andretti Autosport finisher in races. To no fault of his own, Veach was the worst Andretti Autosport finish in ten of the first 11 races of the season with the exception being his fourth place finish at Long Beach. Some of those results came after rough days but there were other races where he held his own and his three teammates were just better. He had finishes of 12th and 13th at Belle Isle. Andretti Autosport is a good team but what are the odds that it would have three cars in the top ten in both races? And Veach started seventh in that second Belle Isle race.

Could Veach improve and fight for the top ten in the championship? It isn't inconceivable. If Veach starts 2019 how he ended 2018 and keeps that up throughout this season then he will be fighting for tenth. I think Veach moves up a few positions and he will be hanging around tenth. He should aim to get eight to ten top ten finishes and have at least three in the first eight races of the season. When it comes to qualifying, he should aim to lower his average starting position from 14.5 to around 10.5.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda
Rossi was everyone's dark horse for the championship at the start of the season, which means it was no surprise when he worked his way from 12th to second at St. Petersburg and found himself chipping away at the gap to Robert Wickens. We know how it played out. Rossi ran deep into turn one, there was contact, Wickens spun and Rossi dropped to third.

The next race Rossi again was at the front and looked to be in the discussion for race victory but a penalty for contact with a crew member on his first stop dropped him to the rear. It set up one of Rossi's many spectacular performances of the season with the Californian picking people off at a track that otherwise was seen as too difficult for passing. He got back on the lead lap all on his own under green flag conditions. He couldn't get to the lead but he finished third.

Like Veach, third time was the charm for Rossi and from pole position he led 71 of 85 laps on his way to victory and the points lead. He would drop to second in the championship at Barber but he remained second over the next three races, which included a breathtaking performance from 32nd on the grid at the Indianapolis 500 with passes on the outside while many others did not have a handle of their car. Rossi worked his way up to fourth and a third in the first Belle Isle race allowed him to re-take the championship lead.

He gave away at least second in the second Belle Isle race when he locked up while leading and his right front tire subsequently failed. He pulled off a 12th place finish but gave up a lot of points. He couldn't get around Simon Pagenaud for second at Texas and settled for third but he suffered one more blow at Road America when camber issues at the left front force him off the podium and to 16th.

After two mediocre results at Iowa and Toronto, Rossi found his stride with another beat down from pole position at Mid-Ohio and a historic beat down from third on the grid at Pocono. He preached patience at the start of the Gateway race and he was one of the few drivers to stretch fuel on the final stint. He didn't win the race but had enough to finish second.

It appeared the championship was falling into his lap at Portland when Scott Dixon was caught in the first lap accident and then had a pit lane speeding penalty. He was dominating again until the caution came out before a pit stop. This shuffled him back and behind Dixon. Instead of gaining ground he fell a few pegs back after finishing eighth. To make it worse, he shot himself in the foot at Sonoma after he ran into the back of Marco Andretti and cut down his own tire. He was able to get it changed and a caution allowed him to get back on the lead lap. He charged to the front but didn't have enough to catch Dixon.

Numbers to Remember:
11: It has been 11 seasons since the runner-up in a season won the championship the following year. Scott Dixon did it in 2008 after finishing second to Dario Franchitti in 2007.

7: Times has a driver gone from championship runner-up to champion in successive season (Jimmy Bryan 1955, A.J. Foyt 1962, Mario Andretti 1969, Al Unser 1970, Michael Andretti 1991, Bobby Rahal 1992, Scott Dixon 2008).

3: Rossi was never lower than third in the championship during 2018.

Championship. That is the goal. Rossi had a hand on the Astor Cup in 2018. Scott Dixon didn't blow Rossi out of the water and the title came down to a roll of the dice. Dixon didn't have it easily in his hands and just had to come home in the top 18 at Sonoma. Rossi pushed Dixon to the finale and we are a pair of cautions at Portland away from Rossi heading into Sonoma as the championship leader with the ball in his court.

Rossi made his mistakes. He coughed up points at St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Barber, Belle Isle II and Road America. He all could have finished better at those races. At St. Petersburg, if he doesn't get into Wickens, he finishes second and that is five more points to his total. If he doesn't make contact with a pit crew member at Phoenix, he might win that race. At Barber, he slid off in the wet and went from eighth to 11th. If he settles for second at Belle Isle he scores 20 more points. Road America he had a mechanical issue, those are going to happen.

In the second half of the season, Rossi didn't cough up as many points because of his own mistakes. Toronto is really the only case where he boned himself when he drove into Will Power and had to make a pit stop to change a front wing. Portland was out of his control. He should have won that race but a caution fell before his pit stop. He shot himself in the foot at Sonoma but had five of the seven races listed above gone his way then he likely enters as the championship leader and his entire approach to the start of that Sonoma race is different.

If Rossi limits the mistakes and keeps up the pace he is going to be in the championship fight again, he is going to win three or four or five races and he is going to be on the podium close to ten times.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
The year started with back-to-back fifth place finishes at St. Petersburg and Phoenix but Long Beach was a rough race for Hunter-Reay. He was forced to stop early to change a front wing and after he found himself back in the top ten Takuma Sato made contact and cut down a tire. He was able to work his back on the lead lap but S├ębastien Bourdais' spin in hairpin impeded Hunter-Reay and contact with the barrier ended his race.

He was the second-best car at Barber but a sour engine kept him from being competitive in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. This year everything lasted 500 miles for Hunter-Reay at Indianapolis and he finished fifth. He followed it up with a strong performance in the first Belle Isle race but a caution kept his three-stop strategy vaulting him to the lead and he finished in second behind Scott Dixon. In the second race, Hunter-Reay was able to run a three-stop strategy in full and he chased down Rossi, running over a second and a half faster, forcing an error and allowing Hunter-Reay to pick up his first victory since 2016.

Another top five followed at Texas and he was running in Josef Newgarden's shadow all day at Road America but just couldn't find a way through and finished second. Iowa was a difficult race as he had no radio communication throughout almost all of it and the team could not make the necessary adjustments on the car. He remained in the top ten despite this until the left rear camber shims fell out and made his car uncontrollable. Toronto did not go better as Hunter-Reay locked up into the turn three tire barrier all on his own while running third.

He came back with a seventh at Mid-Ohio but he was in the early accident at Pocono and he lost fuel pressure while in the top five at Gateway. While three stops were his call at Belle Isle, Hunter-Reay went with a two-stop strategy at Portland and he put him in second but the need to save fuel limited his chances to attack Takuma Sato. He made one great push late but Sato held on while Hunter-Reay took second. The season ended with Hunter-Reay winning the Sonoma finale from pole position and him finish fourth in the championship, his best result since he took the title in 2012.

Numbers to Remember:
11: Consecutive top ten starting positions to end 2018.

8.7: Hunter-Reay's average finish in 2018, the second-best of his career behind 8.4 in 2010.

6: Podium finishes in 2018, matching Hunter-Reay's most podium finishes in a season with 2012, 2013 and 2014.

9: Hunter-Reay has had either three podium finishes in a season or six podium finishes in a season for nine consecutive seasons. He had three in 2010-11 and 2015-17 and he had six podium finishes in 2012-14 and 2018.

Say his prayers that the mechanical issues do not bite him like they always seem to do.

Hunter-Reay was great in 2018 and going into 2018 I felt it was a year where Hunter-Reay's role of head of the table at Andretti Autosport was going to be challenge if not taken away by Rossi. That was the case but Hunter-Reay didn't give it up. Rossi might have finished second in the championship but Hunter-Reay had his hand on Rossi's shoulder every step of the way.

He finished fourth in the championship despite having mechanical issues cost him at Long Beach, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Iowa and Gateway and then there were races where he had accidents, most notably Toronto and Pocono. In a lot of these races, Hunter-Reay was in the top ten if not better when it all went wrong and that seems to be the case 95% of the time it goes wrong. Will Power might be the only driver who can challenge Hunter-Reay when it comes to average running position when everything hit the fan and even then Hunter-Reay likely has him beat comfortably.

Hunter-Reay lost the championship by 112 points and that is a gap larger than just making sure the car is reliable. Even if the car keeps running, Hunter-Reay still needs to finish in the top five on a regular basis if he wants to beat Dixon, Rossi, Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

The good news for Hunter-Reay is he enters 2019 coming off strong qualifying form in 2018. He started in the top ten in 15 of 17 races with the exceptions being 13th and 14th in the two Indianapolis races. He qualified in the top five in eight of those remaining races and he started in the top five at Gateway because qualifying was rained out. It isn't Will Power's record but it isn't worth trading.

After getting a desperately needed top five championship result in 2018, I think Hunter-Reay will still be strong and the intra-team battle with Rossi will be interesting to watch. Andretti Autosport is strong enough that Rossi and Hunter-Reay fighting will not somehow let Dixon or one of the Penske teams run away with the championship. I think Hunter-Reay will be fighting for the top five again.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda
Andretti might have started 18th at St. Petersburg but he was in the top ten for most of this race and came home in ninth. Phoenix never quite suited Andretti but he worked his was from 20th to 12th last year. He had another poor starting position at Long Beach but went from 20th to 14th early. The cautions went his way but he did have a solid race car on his way to finishing sixth.

Neither Indianapolis race was all that impressive with finishes of 13th and 12th. Andretti took a surprise pole position in changing conditions at Belle Isle. He led the first stint but could not open a gap over Scott Dixon and after the first pit stop the New Zealander had leapfrogged ahead of Andretti. He fell back a few more positions but still finished fourth. He was not as challenging in the second race with a finish of ninth.

The next three races saw Andretti struggle with finishes of 14th, 11th and 16th with his Texas race hampered after clutch issues on one pit stop. He was running fourth late at Toronto but the team did not get the car full of fuel on the pit stop and a splash-and-go relegated him to tenth. After an 11th at Mid-Ohio, Andretti was running well at Pocono but he couldn't get the same fuel mileage as the other drivers at the front and finished seventh. He was in the top ten at Gateway before a caution a few laps after a pit stop trapped him two laps down.

At Portland, Andretti had nowhere to go on lap one after three cars spun in front of him and he didn't even make it to turn four. Andretti Autosport was on its A-Game at Sonoma and Andretti qualified fourth, stayed in the top five for most of this one and closed the year with a fifth place finish.

Numbers to Remember:
11: Andretti has had 11 lead lap finishes in three consecutive seasons.

9: Andretti's ninth-place championship finish in 2018 was the ninth time he finished in the top ten of the championship in 13 seasons.

14: This could be Andretti's 14th Indianapolis 500 start. Sam Hanks holds the record of most starts before first Indianapolis 500 victory with 13 starts.

0: Andretti was the top Andretti Autosport finish in zero of the 17 races while Rossi led the way with ten, Hunter-Reay was second with six and Veach had one.

Continue what he was doing in 2018 but focus on the troubled areas.

Andretti is a good driver. He can bring the car home, he get a handful of top ten finishes and if it gets him ninth in the championship every year then good for him but he isn't going to be satisfied with that. Not when Rossi and Hunter-Reay are each winning multiple times a season and are in the top five of the championship.

His qualifying form improved noticeably from 2016 to 2018 going from 17.4 to 12.4 but Andretti still has some more to gain when it comes to qualifying results. His career best average starting position was 8.9 in 2013 and that might be asking a lot for Andretti but three times in 2018 was Andretti the first car to miss out on advancing from round one of road/street course qualifying. Right there is where he could make up one to three positions on the grid. The good news for Andretti is his starting position improved in every race from Iowa, where he started 19th, to Sonoma, where he started fourth. If he can continue that trend into 2019 then he will start the season on a good note.

With improved starting position should come more opportunities to run at the front of the field. There were a few races where Andretti went from the back to the front and if he starts 11th instead of 18th it puts him in a spot where he could be fighting for a top five result instead of settling for eighth or ninth. Those extra few positions go a long way in the championship.

One area Andretti has been consistent on is bringing the car home. Last year, his only retirement was Portland where he was caught in an accident where he had nowhere to go. In 2017, he had two retirements and one was for an electrical issue. He was running at the finish of every race in 2016 and his only retirement in 2015 was an accident at Pocono, which unfortunately came when he was toward the front of the field.

If there is one area Andretti has to work on it is, surprisingly, his oval form. In 2018, his only lead lap finish on an oval was Indianapolis. The only time he finished off the lead lap on a road/street course was his retirement at Portland, where he didn't complete three corners let alone an entire lap. You are not going to finish well when you are a lap down at any of the ovals. There are only five oval races this season but those are valuable places to make up points and we know Andretti Autosport is one of the best teams when it comes to oval programs.

The problem with Andretti is it is hard to project a great improvement. He could finish ninth again in the championship or he could fall to 14th and neither would be surprising but with the depth of the grid it is hard to see him shooting up the championship any higher than 7th or 8th. He had that great year in 2013 and he could replicate that again but it is hard to say he is going to do that before a season starts. We almost have to get through eight or nine races and look at the results then before we could seriously say Andretti will challenge for the top five in the championship.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.