Team Report Card: Andretti Autosport
2017 was a glass half-full year for Andretti Autosport in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Although the operation secured its third Indianapolis 500 victory in the past four seasons, the team was often no more than a mid-pack runner at a majority of the 17-race schedule, particularly on road courses. After winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, Japan’s Takuma Sato has jumped to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for 2018. The team has filled his void by tapping Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran Zach Veach. The addition of the Ohio-based pilot puts the squad in an unusual situation of featuring an all-American driving team with Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, and Marco Andretti all returning.
The team had hinted about a possible switch of engine allegiance to Chevrolet for 2018; however, for now, Andretti Autosport remains a Honda entrant. While the decision could prove helpful on the high-speed ovals, where the Japanese-powered cars have dominated the past two seasons, it is unknown whether progress will be made on road courses, where bow-tie brigade leader Team Penske ruled the podium places.
So how did Andretti’s quartet stack up in the full-time fleet in 2017? Let’s take a look at the efforts posted by its team members.
Alexander Rossi (7th in points): After a four-year stint as a Formula One test driver, the Californian spent 2016 largely getting himself acclimated to the world of IndyCar. Despite the fact he managed to win the 500 on a clever fuel strategy call by Bryan Herta, the NAPA Honda pilot seemed to be a step behind the opposition in year one.
For Rossi, 2017 was not a sophomore slump, but instead, it represented a surge. The No. 98 chauffeur more than doubled his top-five efforts from his rookie campaign, and was featured more often up front and contending for race wins. In addition to his penultimate round victory at Watkins Glen, he took runner-up honors in Toronto and placed fifth in Detroit and Alabama.
If there was any pressure placed upon him as the reigning champion at the Brickyard, Rossi did not show it as he qualified on the outside of the front row for the 2017 edition, and he was in contention throughout the 200-lap distance before settling for seventh.
Despite not having yet won a championship like his teammate Hunter-Reay has, Rossi could be ready to challenge for the Astor Cup in his third IndyCar season.
Takuma Sato (8th in points): The veteran avenged his near miss at Indy in 2012, driving aggressively in the final 100 miles this past May to outlast Helio Castroneves. Despite a solid start to 2017, the ex-Formula One driver’s title challenge went in reverse during the season’s second half.
Despite being aided by the double points payout from Indy, Sato fell apart following his 10th-place effort at Texas. A victim of mechanical gremlins and poor starting grid positions, the Japanese veteran would post only one top-ten outing in the year’s final eight rounds (fifth at Pocono).
While Sato was able to take advantage of the Honda horsepower on the high-speed tracks, he lacked the consistency needed on the road and street circuits. Although he did have his moments on the twisty layouts, they were not nearly enough to counter the bad outputs.
It will be interesting to see how he fares in his second foray with Rahal, this time with the team boss’ son Graham as a teammate. With the Buckeye State squad bolstering its engineering staff this offseason, Sato might have an outside chance to at least match his points table placement from 2017.
Ryan Hunter-Reay (9th in points): The DHL Honda pilot ended the 2017 season with top-ten placements in six of the final seven events. However, this past year’s difficulties were ironically on ovals, venues where RHR has been at his strongest, particularly at the Indy 500.
After looking like a threat to claim his second triumph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, engine failure sidelined him at the three-quarter mark. An accident forced retirement in a crash-marred Texas 600, while DNFs likewise at Phoenix and St. Louis also stunted his point production.
If the Floridian is to contend for his first Astor Cup since 2012, a stronger start in 2018 is necessary. Although RHR ended the year on a hot streak, he was only able to secure top-10 placements in just three of the opening 11 races.
Marco Andretti (12th in points): Even though he is only 30 years of age, one has to wonder if the third-generation member of the famous racing family will ever return to the potential he showed as a rookie in 2006.
Andretti’s fourth-place finish at Toronto this past year is his only top-five placement in the previous 40 IndyCar races. Although he only has three DNFs during that same run, performances have been limited to the middle and back of the pack at most venues. The No. 27 Honda pilot has struggled to avoid elimination in the first phase of qualifying at most road course events and his performances at the Indy 500 have become increasingly less impressive by the year, even though he did manage to come home in eighth this year.
If more aggression and speed can be found in Saturday qualifying, a return to the top half of the points table is possible. However, if the story plays out like it has the past two campaigns, it could be difficult for the veteran to hold off new team member Zach Veach for third-best honors with the family-based operation.
Team Outlook: The team could be motivated to regain its footing in the Honda Performance Development food chain in 2018. With Chip Ganassi Racing flying the flag for HPD in 2017, yet only running two cars next season, the opportunity is present for Andretti Autosport to jump back to the top of the pecking order.
If Rossi and RHR can increase their top-ten outputs, and possibly be joined up front more often by Marco Andretti and newcomer Zach Veach, the path to one of the four team pilots hoisting the Astor Cup after the season finale in 2018 is possible. However, a boost in car performance and luck will be required likewise to get there.
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