In his fourth season of IndyCar racing, Alexander Rossi became the man to beat. Unfortunately for Rossi and Andretti Autosport, two drivers did beat him in the championship.
However, no one was left in any doubt that he has become the man at Michael Andretti’s team and, when his race engineer Jeremy Milless and technical director Eric Bretzman got it right – as at Long Beach and Road America - he demolished not only his team-mates but also all his rivals. As well as those two victories, Rossi accrued five other podium finishes, but at least a couple of those were cases of what might have been for the ex-Formula 1 driver.
Few can doubt that, with a Chevrolet engine, Rossi would have won the Indianapolis 500, while championship winner Josef Newgarden was twice (at Detroit's opener and Texas) placed ahead of him and in Victory Lane by perfect pit strategy.
When the Takuma Sato-triggered opening-lap collision at Pocono caught Rossi among its victims, the Andretti driver was on the back foot championship-wise, and Penske’s superior speed over the final four races extinguished his hopes altogether.
Rossi gave everything he - indeed, anyone - could while making startlingly few mistakes, and the fact that he was only third in the championship is a reflection on misfortune and his car’s inferior speed. The man himself was near-impeccable.
Do you believe you performed better this year as a driver, despite finishing third in the points race compared with second in 2018?
I believe I made fewer mistakes this year, which was a big focus for me and the team as a whole. Starting with myself, the aim for this year was to clean up unforced errors and not throw away points, and that’s what happened. Also, my qualifying average improved over last year so I think we executed in terms of car performance on Saturdays better than before. Ultimately, I think we came up short as a team at the end, although there was no specific event where you’d say we were terrible.
Pocono killed us, and Gateway was disappointing, but I think the pace was missing in the final races of the season. In fact, that’s what the big focus is this winter - finding out where the pace went in the second half of the year after we won at Road America.
It’s further evidence of how close the series is; just because you were good somewhere last year didn’t mean you’d be fighting for the win this year. As a unit, we made fewer mistakes but ultimately we just weren’t fast enough.
Was it a handling issue or was it the Chevrolet improvement on power/torque and fuel economy that brought it right up with Honda?
I haven’t really seen the analysis, because ultimately that was out of our control, and so there’s not a lot we could do about it.
Looking purely at the handling side of it, there were a lot of set-up philosophies we got almost too carried away with and distracted by, and I don’t think our sim programme was where it should be. I think there were set-up philosophies where we got a bit carried away, which isn’t really anyone’s fault, but after a couple of ‘off’ races we went looking for a silver bullet solution and it never transpired.
At the same time, Penske got really strong and we just couldn’t beat them.
But the races where Newgarden jumped ahead of you, it wasn’t as if your team did a bad job, but tactics and yellow flags went against you...
No, that’s a good point. Hindsight really is 20-20. But at the same time, when you have a good car, the best car, you have to win because it’s so difficult. I think we had the best car in Indy, Detroit race one and Texas, and we didn’t win any of those.
Had we done so, I think the second half of the season could have looked very different and a lot better; we’d have had a cushion. But when we needed the car to be fast to compensate for those losses, we just didn’t have it. We were third at Portland in a very average car, where we were missing three tenths of a second the whole weekend.
And although I did feel we made the best of it, that third place was just a result of the car not quite being good enough to threaten Will [Power] and Felix [Rosenqvist]. If you look at the season as a whole, I think we did a better job than the year before. The pace just wasn’t there in the car.