Marco Andretti

Luck, qualifying gains could fuel a Marco Andretti title challenge

1 Comment

Like Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti is nearly a decade into his top-level open-wheel career, yet has not entered the prime of it.

To chronicle Andretti’s, now 27, career arc, it goes a little something like this:

A breakout rookie campaign at 19 in 2006 features the near-win on debut at the Indianapolis 500 and his first actual win at Sonoma. In 2007, it was a pair of flips (Indy and Mid-Ohio), occasional highlights but frequent frustration. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, same story, but he axed the flips.

The 2011 season was a comeback, with an authoritative drive to his second career win in Iowa. But in 2012 it was a trying, forgettable campaign featuring only three top-10 finishes from 15 starts, and a career-low 16th in points.

In 2013, the comeback, part two. A career-high fifth in points, best of Andretti Autosport’s four cars, with results consistency and a renewed focus after an offseason soul search that saw him transform his game following work with a driver coach.

So which Marco Andretti shows up in 2014? It stands a good chance of being the close-to-finished article.

Save for the last two years, Andretti finished seventh or eighth in points five of his first six seasons. He knows how bad the low can be, after the disaster of 2012. And while there were highs in 2013, the misses – the losses at Milwaukee and Pocono – stick out like a sore thumb.

Andretti made huge gains in 2013, and is primed to make even more in 2014.

“I think ’13 was a good start to the direction I wanted to go,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We confirmed a lot of my work is in the right direction anyway. We just need to keep plugging away with that, and we have.

“I think I made gains since. I’m more confident going into ’14 than I was ’13. I was pleased with my consistency. But some of my best results of last year were on the street courses, which is where I was struggling.

“But I think this year the goal has to be to capitalize where we’re dominant, because I think that’s what really took us out of the championship the second half of the year last year.

“I think the races we know we can win we just have to win.  If we’re able to do that, string a few together, I think we can be champions.”

These are perhaps bold words from a driver who, as mentioned above, has only two career wins. But here’s why they’re not as far-fetched as you think.

Andretti is coming into 2014 with the team consistency needed to make an impression. He’s into his second year with engineer Blair Perschbacher, while teammate James Hinchcliffe has a new engineer in Nathan O’Rourke, and rookie Carlos Munoz is just new to a full-season ride.

Andretti has the confidence from his near-breakout 2013 to know he can in fact mix it in a deep field that has so many talented drivers.

And Andretti has now shown a marked improvement at the street circuits, the ones that were his downfall in years previous. As street circuits make up a type-of-circuit high eight of 18 races this year, it’s imperative to capture as many points as possible from those weekends.

He knows the next step in that street circuit development is improving his qualifying. He made only one Firestone Fast Six – qualifying fourth at Mid-Ohio – in 2013.

“I’m still not where I want to be on the road and street courses,” he admitted. “I think what’s really been hurting me, what I’ve really been working on is qualifying, making Sundays easier on myself.

“There were a lot of races last year we had to come from the middle through the back of the pack. Nowadays it’s how we’re measured, is qualifying.”

He makes an interesting and key point about how with the spec-Dallara DW12 chassis, it’s harder to take advantage of a bad qualifying day, and that makes Andretti’s results from poor grid spots in the past all the more impressive.

“Back in the day, dad used to not even focus on qualifying, hardly even care about it,” he explained. “Everybody in the field knew he was coming halfway through the race.

“But it’s a lot harder to achieve that nowadays with the competition, the spec cars.  Everything is so close. I need to start further forward.

“My race craft is there, stuff like that.  It’s been more difficult coming from the back.  I want to be in the Fast Sixes all year.”

It’s not that Andretti was the only one left out of frequent Fast Six appearances – Hinchcliffe and their other 2013 teammate, E.J. Viso only made it to the Fast Six two times apiece.

But Ryan Hunter-Reay, established team leader at Andretti and the 2012 series champion, made it six of a possible nine attempts. That tied for second-best in the series, trailing only Will Power’s seven.

For Marco Andretti in 2014, he’s got the name, the renewed confidence and the determination to want to be the best.

If he gets the qualifying down and adds one or more victories, look out as it may finally be his time.

Chilton says IndyCar test debut went “swimmingly well”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  Max Chilton of Great Britain and Marussia speaks with members of the media during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Along with new Chevrolet aerodynamic components being tried out at the “it’s green in February and it’s never this green the later into the year we get” Sonoma Raceway, the other interesting storyline out of Wednesday’s six-car Verizon IndyCar Series test was that it marked Max Chilton’s testing debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Chevrolet.

Chilton’s made the announcement, addressed the media and had his sponsor confirmed within the last week-plus.

But it was on Wednesday that the talking stopped and the driving restarted, for what was not only the 24-year-old Brit’s first time in an IndyCar but also his first time at Sonoma.

“It’s a bit of a shock today,” Chilton said, via a track-issued release. “I haven’t been in a racing car in six months and that was an Indy Lights car, so I’ve got to learn the track today and the car.

“But I think the morning went swimmingly well. I was quicker than I thought I would be.  It’s a really nice kit and I can’t wait to explore it throughout the season.”

Here’s a few photos on social media, either ones he or the track shared, of his maiden day in an IndyCar.

Chilton’s next test comes later this week, still in California, at Auto Club Speedway for his first oval run in an IndyCar.

Chilton joined his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, for the test. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also tested on Wednesday.

Pabst adds Jordan Lloyd as third USF2000 driver

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

Pabst Racing has added a third driver to its Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda lineup, in the form of talented 19-year-old Australian driver Jordan Lloyd.

Lloyd raced the first two weekends of last year’s USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing before being sidelined due to financial woes, but he showed quite a bit of promise in those two weekends at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park. He finished second in one of the NOLA races.

For 2016, Lloyd returns to the U.S. after winning the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 championship last year, and was thus awarded with the ‘Road to the World’ scholarship.

“I only touched the tip of the iceberg when I was here in 2015, so on a personal level there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be tended to,” Lloyd said in a team release. “I am looking forward to a strong season.”

Lloyd, who will drive the No. 21 car, joins the previously announced pairing of Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo at Pabst, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based team, as the USF2000 field for 2016 continues to grow both in terms of size and talent.

Luca Ghiotto steps up to GP2 with Trident

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Luca Ghiotto (ITA, Trident) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBL7306
© GP2 Series
Leave a comment

Luca Ghiotto will step up to the GP2 Series with Trident in 2016 after an impressive season in GP3 last year that saw him finish second in the championship standings.

Ghiotto made his GP3 debut at the end of 2014 with a four-race run-out for Trident before remaining with the Italian team for 2015.

It proved to be a memorable year as he won five races – more than any other driver – but fell eight points short of the title as Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was crowed champion in Abu Dhabi.

Ghiotto will remain with Trident for 2016, stepping up to its GP2 operation after a successful test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

“I can’t wait to line-up for this new adventure,” Ghiotto said. “Last year, it was tough for me to fight so hard and not winning the title. However, it has been an extremely useful experience with the help of the excellent teamwork among the whole Trident stable.

“I want to thank once again Maurizio Salvadori and Giacomo Ricci for their support, and the Italian Federation for believing so much in me. I really look forward to be back on-track.”

Newgarden on Phoenix: “You have to be really committed”

josef newgarden 2015 getty
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Phoenix International Raceway replaces The Milwaukee Mile on the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2016 schedule as the lone one-mile oval the series competes on.

And that’s exactly where the similarities between the two end.

While Milwaukee’s nearly all-flat banking nature rewards those who find the setup early, and punishes those who don’t, Phoenix is going to be significantly faster and has a series of rises and falls that might make for a more interesting challenge.

Josef Newgarden, who took his first laps during a Chevrolet manufacturer test Monday at Phoenix aboard his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, had high praise for the commitment level it takes to nail a lap at PIR.

“Phoenix, you don’t need as much courage to be flat,” Newgarden told NBC Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It just seems more crazy. From a commitment standpoint, the commitment level is higher, for different reasons.

“From a speed and physicality standpoint, it seems more of a commitment than Milwaukee. That was interesting to me. You really had to be committed… it was almost hard to breathe. It’s a very tough lap.

“It’s easier to be flat than at Milwaukee, and you’re generally flat out, but it seems higher commitment.”

Newgarden, who won his first career IndyCar pole position and dominated at Milwaukee last year, has lamented the loss of the oldest continually operated track from the schedule.

“I loved Milwaukee. It was a very difficult track. It took a lot more courage at Milwaukee to figure out how to get flat, or to get flat,” he admitted.

Newgarden hadn’t been to Phoenix previously and comments leading in – that the track serves as sort of a roller-coaster featuring the track’s legendary, albeit changed, dogleg in the backstraight – were apt.

“The whole thing is flat all around. The dogleg, there’s actually kind of a bit of a hill,” he said.

“You exit out of (Turn) 2, you run up the banking out of 2, then you get high enough, then run down pretty far and it’s kind of a downhill run into the dogleg, then you climb back up before 3. You’re almost constantly going up and down.

“I saw some NASCAR drivers describe it as a roller coaster, and that’s somewhat true. There’s a lot of elevation changes for an oval.”

How intense is the oval on the drivers, from a G-loading standpoint?

“Easy 4 to 5. I’d say 4.2 or 4.5 depending on downforce levels,” Newgarden said.

And that might be the most interesting thing to monitor for when IndyCar arrives at Phoenix, both for the Grand Prix-view open test February 26 and 27 and the race itself on April 2, is what downforce levels teams will opt to run to try to create better racing.

One of North America’s greatest open-wheel oval drivers, Rick Mears, has long been a proponent of less downforce.

Newgarden said less downforce will certainly create more separation and make the cars harder to drive, but it might not provide as close of racing.

“It’s hard to tell. I think if you want to see the cars racing and passing constantly, you’d need more downforce. If you trim it out and guys have to pedal them, it should separate the field better. I think more downforce would equal more racing around there. But it depends on what you want.

“Take Texas for example. Take the downforce away, it’s hard to drive, and there’s no passing. But it’s difficult on the drivers. There’s not as good racing. Add the downforce back, now everyone’s (sort of) packed up, but you’ll have amazing racing action. It really depends on what you want.”

Newgarden’s test was his first day in a car since he and team principal and teammate, Carpenter, tested at Texas Motor Speedway back in October.

A video from IndyCar featuring Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya from the Phoenix test is below.