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Analysis

Why it may be time for Alexander Rossi to change teams

Former IndyCar title contender Alexander Rossi remains blighted by misfortune, disguising the fact that his driving form is back where it should be. How much longer can he tolerate his current situation?

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Back in 2019, this writer rated Alexander Rossi as the best IndyCar driver of the season. Yes, he’d missed out on the title – indeed, he slipped to third in points at the final round – but the Andretti Autosport driver made fewer mistakes than champion Josef Newgarden, despite having the best car on fewer weekends, and despite being just as aggressive.

Since his seventh and most recent win, at Road America that year, 40 rounds of the IndyCar series have passed by without Rossi visiting victory lane. In 2020 he scored five podiums, but his luck was so appalling elsewhere that he could still only muster ninth in the standings. Last year he slipped to 10th, with just one podium to his name.

Rossi has by no means been flawless over this period, but usually his mistakes are the consequence of trying to make up for bad luck earlier in the race – or trying to make up for misfortune in previous rounds. Most drivers for whom great opportunities have become infrequent can be prone to overreaching – Gateway and Laguna Seca last year could have been “easy” podiums for Rossi but he was going for more, and spun. The only near-certain win that he threw away with no one to blame but himself was St. Petersburg in 2020.

Last weekend in Long Beach, Rossi made his 100th IndyCar start, and three rounds into the 2022 season, his luck seems as atrocious as ever. In St. Pete, by his own admission, they “missed the boat” in terms of qualifying set-up, starting 13th, and forcing new strategist Brian Barnhart to take a huge gamble which didn’t mesh with the way the full course cautions fell. Rossi’s 20th finishing position was also partly down to a poor pitstop.

At Texas Motor Speedway, you can be sure that Rossi would have been one of those ready and able to make both grooves work in order to climb from 12th on the grid, but he barely got the chance. He posted the first DNF of the day when an improperly fitted wiring loom failed.

And then last weekend, at the event he dominated in 2018 and ’19, he was on for a 65.45s lap during the Firestone Fast Six; a little over one-tenth slower than team-mate Colton Herta but good enough to put himself on the front row. That was until another of the Andretti drivers, relative newcomer Romain Grosjean, had a shunt that brought out the red flags and Rossi had to abandon his run, thus relying on his banker lap, good enough only for fifth.

Alexander Rossi has been blighted by poor luck in IndyCar over the last three years

Alexander Rossi has been blighted by poor luck in IndyCar over the last three years

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Come the race, after passing Felix Rosenqvist to grab fourth, Rossi found he was using up his Firestone alternates a tad too quickly, and so pitted slightly earlier than intended. But it was the mediocre first stop and bad second stop that left him trailing home eighth. So Rossi now lies 18th in the championship, 78 points behind his former championship rival and current points leader Newgarden.

“It’s unfortunate,” Rossi tells Autosport a couple of days later. “We as a team went into the weekend looking at a potential podium sweep for Colton, myself and Romain, because as usual, Andretti had strong cars there, and somehow none of us won, and only one of us finished in the top three. Our cars were fantastic, a genuine joy to drive. I wasn’t going to beat Colton’s lap in qualifying – that was a phenomenal performance from him – but we’d have been a pretty straightforward second by a couple of tenths and better track position at Long Beach would have made all the difference on Sunday.

“The silver lining is that the speed was there. The dark cloud is that we didn’t capitalise, and you have to do that through the year to compensate for the tracks where you don’t have the strongest car. Like, next we go to Barber, and that isn’t one of our best, as a team. We improved there by a significant amount last year and we had a good test there a couple of weeks ago, too, but we don’t go there expecting to be the best in the same way we did at Long Beach, because Penske and Ganassi are very good at Barber.”

"For me, each race weekend has become its own little championship that we just keep starting over: We’re taking a very short-sighted view, not looking at the championship points" Alexander Rossi

Rossi professes not to know how many races it’s been since his last victory, and maybe that’s key to him tamping down his disappointment.

“It’s annoying, very annoying, but I guess in some ways it’s easier to swallow when it’s factors outside your control that have cost you, rather than it being self-induced,” he muses. “That doesn’t make the experience any more enjoyable, that’s for sure. But yeah, mentally I’m fine, it doesn’t wear on me. It’s been going on so long that it’s become an accepted state. I’m definitely not as affected by it as I might have been a year-and-a-half ago.

“For me, each race weekend has become its own little championship that we just keep starting over: We’re taking a very short-sighted view, not looking at the championship points. The priority is to carry on being quick, and I think at Andretti Autosport I get a fair chance to show my speed because the engineering department is continuing to operate at a pretty high level and keep gaining performance.

“For example, at St. Pete I think there were a couple of teams better than us, but when our engineers recognised that, they worked hard in the five weeks after that to gain a better understanding of Firestone’s new street course tyre, and by the time we arrived in Long Beach, we as a team were back to the level that we’ve come to expect of ourselves there, relative to the other teams. So I think that is really encouraging, and it speaks to our team’s depth on the engineering side.

Rossi celebrating his most recent IndyCar win - back in 2019 at Road America

Rossi celebrating his most recent IndyCar win - back in 2019 at Road America

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

“Barber will present a different challenge to the engineers – to the whole team, actually – in that Firestone also have new road course tyre this year, and none of us have had a chance to test that yet. We go in with no preconceived notion of how the tyre will behave. So that weekend, for all the teams, will be about learning and adapting quickly over the course of the weekend; that’s going to determine who’s fastest. Is that us? I don’t know; we don’t underestimate the opposition. But it’s good to know that Andretti is strong enough and deep enough that it may be us who gets our set-ups just right for the new tyre.”

Many may assume that Herta’s rise to prominence within the team – remember, his first team, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, was an Andretti car in all but name – is the worst thing that could have happened to Rossi, who joined the team in 2016, won the Indy 500 in an otherwise poor year for the squad, and by the end of 2017 appeared to have taken over the de facto ‘lead driver’ role from Ryan Hunter-Reay. But being two-tenths slower than Herta over a qualifying lap (depending on circuit length) on several tracks is hardly shameful: you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of drivers who could regularly match Herta. And there are days when it’s Rossi who has the edge in the intra-team battle – last year in Portland, Barber and the first Detroit race, for example.

No, what temporarily damaged Rossi’s performance on certain tracks was the arrival of that hefty aeroscreen in 2020.

“Where we’ve struggled – on my side, particularly – has been the road courses,” he says. “I think we addressed that in the second half of last year, and I’m not concerned about it any more, but yeah, that was an almost-two-year trial-and-error period for myself and Jeremy [Milless, his highly regarded race engineer] until I got a set-up I was happy with. I think it was a fairly straightforward adaptation on speedways and street courses, and as a team we’ve always struggled on short ovals so I don’t think the aeroscreen made any positive or negative difference. But on road courses, for me particularly, it caused a performance issue.”

On request, Rossi explains the problem.

“The road course tyre is stiffer,” he says, “because it has to deal with more loading than on, say, a street course. There are longer duration and quicker corners with a more grippy track surface than you get on a street course, so it has to be harder and therefore it’ll have less grip. Then couple that with the front axle already being worked pretty hard – and worked extremely hard with the extra weight and raised centre of gravity of the aeroscreen – and now your front tyre’s operating window is much smaller, depending on the compound. So we put a lot of effort into taking more stress off the front axle to bring the front tyre back into a better window.”

And this can’t be compensated for by running more negative camber to increase the contact patch of the outside tyres on fast corners?

Rossi's pace has been hurt the most by the introduction of the aeroscreen to the current generation of Indycars

Rossi's pace has been hurt the most by the introduction of the aeroscreen to the current generation of Indycars

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“Well, of course you can do that to a point but ultimately you’re then reducing the contact patch of the tyres on the straight, so although you’ve increased your cornering speeds because in terms of lateral load the peak will be higher, you’re now hurting the longitudinal stuff. You have to brake earlier, for example. And you can’t just throw front wing at it because that too has a knock-on effect, such as drag.

“Like I say, I think we made a big step in the second half of last year, but up to that point the road courses were a struggle with the aeroscreen. When you’re working on margins so small as we are with a spec car in IndyCar, the little things – positive or negative – add up.”

So do the big things, and in Rossi’s case, the major negative at the moment is that his pitcrew, as a collective, is not dependable. It’s far from a new problem for Andretti Autosport as a whole; 2020 was the nadir, and while the situation improved last year, it’s taken a downturn again, as team manager and COO Rob Edwards admitted two weeks ago. And this at a time when all teams are scrambling for crew members, given the combined car-count boom in IndyCar and IMSA, so replacements – or rather, replacements who want to embark on a full season – are damn difficult to come by.

"When you’re working on margins so small as we are with a spec car in IndyCar, the little things – positive or negative – add up" Alexander Rossi

On Rossi’s car, the crew has not been the same from race to race at the opening three events, and running a blend of old and new members, and them having precious little time to practice together and become a cohesive unit, is a sure way to cause fumbles and stumbles, the sort that can lose you two or three places in a pitstop sequence.

Rossi struggles to find words to describe the aggravation of seeing hard-earned track position being lost on pitlane, and so gives up. Despair, it seems, has given way to a morose acceptance of the way things are and have been for some time.

“Sad to say, I’ve gotten used to it so I don’t stress about it over the radio, I just get back to work,” he says. “The thing is, the crew members are all trying hard. But Long Beach was the third race in succession where we’ve had to fill a gap. In St. Pete, Honda was gracious enough to provide one of my old mechanics, so he was suiting up for me on Sunday morning, which was great.

“I think we’re all aware of it, and we’re all aware that it’s not just my car; Colton has suffered a couple of slow ones as well. But there’s only so much I can do. I think I told you last year that I got my crew at Pit Fit and contributed to that training program as best I could, and it worked OK, I thought. But people have shifted since then. I think we’ve got one, maybe two new members coming for Barber so we’ll see how that goes. We’re all trying to find a consistent solution – consistency is the key – that can do an acceptable job in time for the Indy 500. You’ve got to pit at least six times there, so it’s vital we find a good solid group for May.”

Rossi knows his pitcrew could make or break his Indy 500 chances

Rossi knows his pitcrew could make or break his Indy 500 chances

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Finding a good solid group of crew members who actually want to stay the course would probably also convince Rossi to stay on at Andretti. He alone among the ‘big’ names has a contract up for renewal this year, and while that fact may also suggest there will be fewer berths vacant elsewhere, so Rossi’s frustration – muted at this stage – could persuade him to make something happen. For example, were Jimmie Johnson to give up on his open-wheel dream, or Marcus Ericsson’s Huski Chocolate money failed to materialise, there might be a Chip Ganassi Racing up for grabs. Who could resist the allure of driving for the best Indy car team of the last quarter century?

Nor should we assume that Rossi will only consider a Honda ride. That would definitely be his preference, without question, because he loves the folks at HPD. But Autosport has it on good authority that he wouldn’t spurn an offer from say, Arrow McLaren SP or Ed Carpenter Racing solely on the grounds of them being Chevrolet teams.

Rossi is confident that his value has not been reduced by his dearth of strong finishes because “I trust people to see beyond just the end results and look at the circumstances I’ve dealt with.” But the team owner in the best position to appreciate those issues is surely Michael Andretti, and only he – and Edwards – can change the circumstances sufficiently to where Rossi can be convinced to stay. Alex implies that he doesn’t want to leave, but also that his current situation can’t go on indefinitely.

“There’s a lot of performance that exists at Andretti, they put some very fast cars on the race track in the majority of the races,” he says. “Yet the results still aren’t coming. That’s the big thing for me.

“I love the people here, Michael has become a friend of mine and I enjoy driving and working for him, I immensely enjoy working with Jeremy, and I had a great time with Rob as my strategist – him switching cars wasn’t a decision by me – but equally I think Brian Barnhart has been an excellent replacement. I like driving for NAPA and AutoNation – they’ve been great partners, very supportive.

“So there are plenty of reasons to stay, along with what we all know to be true – the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. But it’s hard to commit and sign up for something with things as they are at the moment. When we signed this deal in 2019, these were not the results that anyone was anticipating.

“I’m 30 and this next decision could define my future in IndyCar. I have 10-12 years left, probably, and the next deal I sign is going to be a decent chunk of that. I need it to be right.”

Where will Rossi end up in IndyCar by 2023?

Where will Rossi end up in IndyCar by 2023?

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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