Tuesday, February 23, 2021

2021 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

Our penultimate IndyCar Team Preview is Andretti Autosport, which will undergo a slight contraction for the 2021 season. Last season, the team expanded to five cars with the Harding Steinbrenner Racing organization officially brought under the Andretti Autosport umbrella with Colton Herta. The team got off to a slow start, one of the few teams caught out due to the season delay. The team found its legs, Herta led the organization, Alexander Rossi fought back from a sluggish opening and Ryan Hunter-Reay held his own, but despite fielding almost a fifth of the grid, the team won only one race.

The team will only run four full-time cars in 2021, with Marco Andretti stepping back to a part-time role. Herta will switch seats within the organization while James Hinchcliffe returns to full-time status. 

2020 Andretti Autosport Review
Wins: 1 (Mid-Ohio II)
Poles: 2 (Indianapolis 500, Mid-Ohio II)
Championship Finishes: 3rd (Colton Herta), 9th (Alexander Rossi), 10th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 20th (Marco Andretti), 21st (Zach Veach), 23rd (James Hinchcliffe)

2021 Drivers:

Colton Herta - #26 Gainbridge Honda
Herta was the only Andretti Autosport driver to start 2020 on a good note. He picked up four consecutive top ten finishes to open the season, including three consecutive top five finishes between Texas and the Road America doubleheader.

Iowa were two difficult nights for him. In the first race, he launched over Rinus VeeKay when a restart was waved off and it ended a possible top five run. He started fifth in the second Iowa race, but never found a good balance in the car and finished 19th, three laps down. 

His second Indianapolis 500 start was much better than his first. He qualified tenth and went the distance, spending much of the race in the top ten, but he didn't get into the lead pack and contend for victory. He ended up finishing eighth. He followed up his Indianapolis success with a pair of strong races at Gateway with finishes of fourth and sixth. 

After a ninth in the first Mid-Ohio race, he won pole position for the second Mid-Ohio race and led 57 of 75 laps on his way to a dominant victory, leading an Andretti Autosport 1-2-3, the team's second podium sweep and first since 2005. At the Harvest Grand Prix, he led 29 laps in the first race, but slid back as his tires faded in the closing stint and finished fourth. In the second race, he spent the entire day in second behind Will Power, pushing the Australian but falling 0.893 seconds short of victory.  

He spent much of the St. Petersburg season finale running second to his teammate Alexander Rossi. When Rossi exited the race due to an accident, Herta inherited the top spot but he experienced a turbo issue. He dropped from the lead and then ended up in the turn four tires, knocking him from a podium position to 11th.

Numbers to Remember:
7.428: Average finish in 2020, third best in IndyCar.

1: Retirement in 2020, down from seven in 2019.

282: If Herta wins the IndyCar championship this season, he would become the youngest champion by 282 days.

After winning two races and finishing seventh in the championship as a rookie and winning one race and finishing third in the championship as a sophomore, little room remains for improvement in Herta's third season. With only first and second remaining, 2021 does have a tinge of championship or bust. That is a very narrow window for success. 

If Herta combines the best parts of his rookie season and sophomore season in year three, he could pull off a championship. It is asking a lot to expect a 21-year-old will win a championship. 

For all of Herta's outstanding accomplishments, he does have areas he has to clean up. Too many times Herta has had the fourth or fifth-best car and only finished fourth or fifth. Champions take a car in that range and win a race or finishes second. Top five finishes are great, but not good enough when Scott Dixon opens a season with three consecutive victories and Josef Newgarden doesn't put a wheel wrong either.

We saw Herta pull the car up a few positions last year, but we also saw days that looked good before sliding back. That's what happened in the first Harvest Grand Prix race, falling off the podium in the closing laps, but the next day he pushed Will Power to the limit after Power had led every lap up to that point. 

If everything goes right, Herta can win a championship. I am not sure that will happen in 2021. I expect him to be between third and seventh, which is still great for a 21-year-old in year three of his career. I expect he will win once or twice, but I am not sure if the killer instinct will be there along with a car that can go from fifth to first. He will also have fierce competition within the Andretti Autosport organization. I cannot say for certain he will be the top Andretti driver; therefore, a championship will be just out of his grasp. 

What does Herta need to do in 2021?

Win at least two races. 

Finish between third and seventh in the championship again. 

Be the top Andretti Autosport driver.

Get at least five podium finishes. 

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda
Electrical gremlins kept Rossi from rolling off from eighth on the grid at the Texas season opener and because he received assistance on the grid, he had to serve a penalty immediately. This knocked him off the lead lap and a penalty for speeding on pit lane while serving his first penalty knocked him two laps down. The race was over before it had begun, and he had to settle for 15th. 

The problems continued. He lost fuel pressure while in the top ten at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he had multiple instances of contact and off-road excursions in the first Road America race. He got off the snide in the second Road America race, driving from tenth to third. The momentum continued at Iowa with finishes of sixth and eighth. The eighth came after starting 21st.

Rossi returned to Indianapolis, a place he has mastered in a way, and again he was one of the best drivers in the Indianapolis 500. He found himself running with Scott Dixon for the lead, but Rossi paced himself. It was all ruined when he made contact with Takuma Sato in the pit lane. While Sato suffered no damage, Rossi was handed a penalty and sent to the back. He could not charge through the field and he ended up in the turn two wall, out of the race after 143 laps. 

It got worse at Gateway, being run over from behind before the start and being handed another last place finish. All he could do in the second race was finish 14th.

With the championship out of reach, Rossi went on a tear with finishes of third, second, second and third between the doubleheaders at Mid-Ohio and the Harvest Grand Prix. He dominated St. Petersburg from second on the grid and he was lining up to end his season with a victory. However, while negotiating lapped traffic, Rossi got into the marbles and hit the barrier exiting turn three, knocking him out of the race after leading 61 of the first 69 laps.

Numbers to Remember:
12.1: Average finish in 2020, the worst of his IndyCar career.

4: Retirements in 2020, the most in a single season of his career.

3: Races led in 2020, tied for the fewest led in a single season of his career.

5: Podium finishes in 2020, tied for third-most in IndyCar behind only Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, and tied with Will Power.

Rossi will see an improvement over his 2020 season. The entire Andretti Autosport organization was slow out of the gates last year. Rossi overcame it and was on fire at the end of the season. Unfortunately, victory was not in the cards and his toughest defeat happened to be the last race of the season, where he dominated before spinning out of the lead. 

Last year, and even the end of 2019, was concerning. He did not lead a lap for 13 consecutive races. He had only three podium finishes and four top five finishes in that span. Four consecutive podium finishes and a victory that slipped away from him has him heading into 2021 in the right direction, but we are going to need him to start on a high note. 

Similar to Herta, Rossi in his best form is a championship contender and because we have twice seen Rossi go to the finale with a chance of leaving with the Astor Cup, none of us would be surprised if he pulled out a championship. He has won on the big ovals of Indianapolis and Pocono. He has won the streets of Long Beach. He has won on America's finest road courses of Road America, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. No place on the 2021 schedule should catch him out, though he struggles at Barber. 

There could be races where it is between him and Herta. Two Andretti drivers could take points off one another and allow a Penske driver or Dixon through. These two should make Andretti a powerhouse. Andretti hasn't had a great one-two combo. Rossi and Hunter-Reay have been suitable, but Rossi might have come just after the highest point of Hunter-Reay's prime. Herta and Rossi both could win three or four races. If they did that, one of them is likely champion and the other is no worse than third.  

I think Rossi will top Herta this year in the championship. This is shaping up to be the bounce back season that could define Rossi's career. Three to five victories, podiums in close to half the races and another shot at a championship, this time at a Long Beach finale.

What does Rossi need to do in 2021?

Be alive for the championship in the finale.

Lower his average finish by at least 4.5 positions from the year before. 

Complete at least 98% of the laps. 

Win a race from a starting position outside the top five.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
Hunter-Reay was one of three Honda drivers kneecapped due to electrical issues on the grid at Texas. He was knocked out of fourth position to a lap down. Fortunately, he cycled back to the lead lap and was able to climb to eighth despite the difficult conditions at Texas for overtaking. 

He had a ho-hum Grand Prix of Indianapolis and spent much of the first Road America race in the top five. He was fighting with Álex Palou for a podium spot but came out in fourth. He started fourth for the second race at Elkhart Lake, but contact with Will Power before reaching turn out took him out. This led a slump and he spun in both Iowa races exiting pit lane. The first time, it only cost him time and he finished three laps down in 16th. The second time, he hit the interior wall and it ended his race. 

He found his legs at Indianapolis, finishing tenth but not being a front-runner in the "500." It was the start of a rebound for him. He finished seventh and 11th at Gateway and was fifth and third in the Mid-Ohio races, rounding out the Andretti podium sweep in the second race. 

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is not Hunter-Reay's cup of tea. Finishes of 19th and 16th in the Harvest Grand Prix supports that prior statement. Qualifying 19th at St. Petersburg suggested Hunter-Reay would end 2020 on a down note, but he went from 19th to fifth, the top Andretti finisher despite the team having occupied the top three spots in most of the race and at no point was Hunter-Reay one of those three drivers.

Numbers to Remember:
4: Laps led in 2020, Hunter-Reay's fewest since zero in 2009.

31: Starts since his last victory.

0: Laps led on road/street courses in the last two seasons.

3: Consecutive seasons averaging a starting position below 10.0. Prior to this three-year stretch, he had only averaged a starting position below 10.0 in three of 14 seasons as a regular IndyCar competitor.

Hunter-Reay is 40 years old and we cannot ignore he has been slipping for the last five years. The 2018 season is looking like an aberration. He has not won a race in four of the last five years. His average championship finish is still 8.6 since 2015. 

There are still good days, but they are not happening at a championship-level. He had one podium finish last year and two the year before that. In four of the last five seasons, his best finish is third. It's good, but it is not good enough. He led only four laps last year. He has led in only two of the last 31 races.

I am not sure he can turn it around, but he's not far off being great. He averaged a starting position of eighth last year. His average finish of 11.5 is respectable. It leaves room for improvement, but it is better than most. The problem is Hunter-Reay is teetering on falling into the back half of the field. 

No career lasts forever. I have hope he will still have those good days, finish on the podium a few times, have a handful of top five finishes and have a race where he is a contender for a victory. I feel like Hunter-Reay has plateaued and the fight is no longer going to be for a championship or a top five championship finish, but rather a scrap for tenth and there are nine guys also thinking they are good enough for tenth. That is a fight you are bound to end up on the wrong side of after a while. 

What does Hunter-Reay need to do in 2021?

Finish in the top ten on all the ovals.

Get a top ten in one of the two IMS road course races.

Lead at least 100 laps spread across at least five races with at least one of those races having him lead at least 45 laps.

Stay in the top ten of the championship. 

James Hinchcliffe - #29 Genesys Honda
After losing his full-time ride at Arrow McLaren SP late in the offseason prior to the 2020 season, Hinchcliffe pieced together a part-time effort with Andretti Autosport, signed on for the first two Indianapolis races and Texas. 

Texas was an uncompetitive night in 18th, but Hinchcliffe picked up the pace at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished 11th. Hinchcliffe had one of his best Indianapolis 500s, qualifying sixth and running much of the race in the top ten. He ended up the best Andretti Autosport finisher in seventh.

When Zach Veach stepped out of the #26 Gainbridge Honda after Mid-Ohio, Hinchcliffe filled in for the final three races. His Harvest Grand Prix was underwhelming, with finishes of 14th and 13th, but he qualified fourth for St. Petersburg and was a part of a three-car Andretti Autosport pack that saw Rossi leading, Herta in second and Hinchcliffe in third. 

However, the St. Petersburg race unraveled in the final quarter. Rossi got into the barrier and under that caution, Hinchcliffe spun on his own in the final corner. Hinchcliffe made contact with Jack Harvey when trying to get his car righted doing more damage than his initial spin had caused. Gone was the podium finish and Hinchcliffe ended the year in 14th.

Numbers to Remember:
10: Consecutive seasons with at least one lap led. Hinchcliffe has led a lap in every season of his IndyCar career.

13.4: Average championship finish.

11: Average championship finish when you remove his two part-time seasons, both of which he finished 23rd in the championship.

I think we are on the verge of accepting Hinchcliffe is just a good driver. There is nothing wrong with being a good driver. He is 34 years old. His best championship finish is eighth. That came in 2012 and 2013. He has had more than three podium finishes in a season only once. He has one pole position, his 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole position. He has one season where he won multiple races. That was 2013. 

He is kind of this generation's Christian Fittipaldi, capable a of solid days, capable of a victory now and then, but it never meshes together in a full season. 

Hinchcliffe ran six races last year, his best was the Indianapolis 500, he coughed up a podium finish in St. Petersburg and he looked pedestrian in his other starts. Pedestrian isn't a bad thing when part-time. 

But he isn't better than Alexander Rossi, he isn't better than Colton Herta and he might not be better than Ryan Hunter-Reay. If I think Hunter-Reay is going to be clawing just to finish in the top ten of the championship, how can I think Hinchcliffe will do any better? I expect him to be in the same fight. A few races might go his way. He could win one, but I don't see him being spectacular with a half-dozen podium finish, top five finishes in half the races and finish a dozen times in the top ten. 

The more realistic season is one or two podium finishes, three or four top five finishes, eight to ten top ten finishes and somewhere between eighth and 12th in the championship for another season. 

What does Hinchcliffe need to do in 2021?

Not finish fourth amongst the Andretti cars in the championship. 

Have at least two top five finishes on road courses.

Be the top Andretti finisher in at least four races.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete Honda
The worst season of Andretti's career actually started on a good note. He was competitive in the Texas season opener. He was running in the top ten, but what hurt him were fumbled pit stops. He lost positions every time he came to pit lane and that dropped him to 14th. 

Good days were hard to come by after that. Despite being in the top ten during practice for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Andretti qualified 25th and finished 22nd. He started tenth for the first Road America race and then lost power 16 laps before the finish. He was 19th the next day. His clutch failed in the first Iowa race and he had to scrap to get tenth in the second Iowa race. 

Indianapolis was set to be a turning point. Andretti was running with his teammates at the top of the practice sheets. When it came time for qualifying Andretti had the fastest car. He was the final car out in the Fast Nine session and won pole position with a four-lap average 231.068 mph.

Momentum was behind Andretti until the green flag waved for the 104th Indianapolis 500. Once the race began, Andretti slid backward. There would be no fairy tale story. It wasn't a bad race, but after winning the pole position and earning the hype, finishing 13th with no laps led felt like a massive letdown. 

His best finish over the final seven races was 15th at Gateway. That was despite starting in the top ten twice and fifth in the first Harvest Grand Prix race. Twice he was taken out of races and an engine failure was not a fitting end to that first Harvest Grand Prix. 
Andretti was set to end the season on a good note. He drove into the top ten at St. Petersburg and looked confident. Then he got hit him from behind and his season ended 26 laps early.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Finishes outside the top twenty in 2020.

19.285: Average finish position in 2020, the worst of his career.

4.785: Positions worse his 2020 average finish was compared to his previous worst, 14.5 in 2012.

8.8: Average championship finish in Andretti's first ten seasons.

14.6 Average championship finish in Andretti's last five seasons.

There are no expectations for Andretti's part-time campaign. Mostly because we don't know how many races outside of Indianapolis he will attempt, but also because there is a good chance whatever he accomplishes will be better than his 2020 season. 

Andretti's career continues to be perplexing. He can be in the top ten of every practice and then qualify 18th and can only get to 15th. He is an oval sleeper and then he is bringing up the rear. He is fifth in the championship with at least two victories slipping away from him, a top ten championship regular for the first two-thirds of his career and for the next third he is regularly outside the top fifteen. 

He qualified on pole position for the Indianapolis 500 at over 231 mph and then couldn't stay in the top ten in the race. 

People love tearing Andretti apart, yet they do not listen to respect he has gotten from his peers. 

There is a fair description for Andretti's career, somewhere between saying he is not good enough to be champion and casting him as the worst driver in series history. He is a competent driver. He doesn't tear up equipment. He has never been a liability on track. Why the last five seasons have been so frustrating are a mystery. 

I hope that in however many races Andretti runs in 2021, he has balanced results. I don't want to see him bouncing from sixth in practice to 19th in the race. I want him to practice and qualifying 12th and then finish tenth. I want him to find a groove and be happy. 

I want him to run more than Indianapolis. Every track discipline has been giving him troubles. Ovals aren't his specialty. His last top five on an oval was third at Fontana in 2015. He has only six top ten finishes on ovals since the start of 2016 and three of those (the last three coincidentally) are tenth-place finishes.

My hope is he runs Indianapolis and then runs three or four more races. I hope he finds that spark and he is able to return full-time in 2022. If that doesn't happen, then I want Andretti to be able to move on and find success down that next road. It could be a different form of motorsports with a yearly one-off entry for the Indianapolis 500, or maybe that success comes in a different walk of life.  

His happiness is more important than however any spectators feels about him.

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season will begin on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. NBC will have coverage of the season opener.