Marco Andretti (27) and Takuma Sato (26) in St. Pete. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti Autosport’s street course program comes alive at St. Pete

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One race does not a complete year-to-year turnaround make, but it’s safe to say Andretti Autosport had a significantly better opening weekend to kick off its 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season than it did this time last year.

Although the team didn’t get on the podium as it did with Ryan Hunter-Reay last year, all four Andretti Autosport cars were more competitive over the weekend. All four cars qualified within the top 15 and finished in the top 11 in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The first stat doesn’t sound like much but considering Marco Andretti only made it outside the bottom three rows on a road or street course twice last year – starting 14th at both St. Petersburg and Sonoma – it was a solid achievement. And there were far too many occasions last year for the whole team, owing to a deficit in overall mechanical grip, struggled to break into the top 15 and would all line up from 14th or 15th on back with all four cars.

Hunter-Reay’s Sunday was a roller coaster in the No. 28 DHL Honda and at a track he’s traditionally done well at, ending fourth after his brake failure-induced morning warm-up crash and first lap power woes was a significant result.

Takuma Sato came fifth in his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda, same as he started after making the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday, which itself came after a possible brake-related issue sent him into the wall Friday afternoon in practice.

This marked Andretti Autosport’s first double top-five finish on a street course since Detroit race one 2015, when Carlos Munoz and Andretti finished 1-2 in a rain-shortened, strategy-affected race.

Those were the good finishes and yet for Andretti, who ended seventh in the No. 27 hhgregg Honda after starting 15th and Alexander Rossi, 11th in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda after starting eighth, these were probably the two drivers who could have ended even higher.

Andretti ran in the top three earlier in the race after the Lap 26 yellow flag caused following contact between Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin, having vaulted there on the first notable strategic move from Bryan Herta since going onto Andretti’s No. 27 timing stand. He fell back during the race as he had to save fuel and his brake pedal was too close to him throughout the rest of the event, and caused him to cramp up a bit. It’s crazy to note the seventh was better than Andretti finished every race last year, when his best was eighth.

Rossi’s day was compromised by the yellow as he hadn’t pitted yet and fell from sixth back down the order. He eventually made it back to 11th, but with a slow puncture limiting his forward progress. Like Andretti, Rossi was happy with his new strategist, in Andretti’s Rob Edwards.

The out-of-the-box good result for Andretti and Honda may have been overlooked by Dale Coyne Racing winning for the manufacturer and with Chip Ganassi Racing hogging most of the offseason headlines with its highly publicized switch from Chevrolet to Honda. But that makes it no less important.

The early cohesion between the new elements from an operational standpoint are important to note, with Eric Bretzman stepping in as technical director thus allowing Ray Gosselin to focus exclusively on Hunter-Reay’s engineering car, the aforementioned strategist switch, and new engineers for Sato (Garret Mothershead, who he’d worked with before) and Rossi (Jeremy Milless, coming over from Ed Carpenter Racing) respectively.

“We made a lot of changes,” Michael Andretti explained during a Friday media availability. “Ray Gosselin used to be our technical director and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engineer. Eric Bretzman who used to be in NASCAR with Ganassi is here, and that takes a lot of pressure off Ray. We brought in Jeremy as well. We have a lot of time for him. We made some changes within the team, and I think we made it much better.”

Rossi, who was newest to the team a year ago, outlined how different the mentality at the team is year-to-year, compared to how Hunter-Reay and Andretti are team veterans while Sato was in his first race weekend since joining Andretti Autosport this offseason.

“I think it’s just less running around to be honest and less chaos,” Rossi explained to NBC Sports during that availability. “Last year not only was I new as you know, but everyone was in new roles. It was a really stressful first weekend. Now we know what we’re trying to achieve.

“I miss (Bryan), but that’s OK. He’s still co-owner of the car, so he’s pretty involved with what’s happening with me. But Rob is amazing, I worked a lot with Rob last year away from the track, learning how Andretti Autosport and IndyCar worked. Bryan was in California.”

Marco Andretti, too, hailed his respective new additions in separate conversations.

“He’s fantastic. It’s what we needed in the team,” the youngest Andretti said of Bretzman. “I talked to him a lot in the offseason. He really includes us in the development process.”

Of Herta he said pre-race: “He is so good at working through to make big problems, little problems. He helps turn mountains into molehills.” After the race, he said, “That was big… still, as much as it helped we had to save (fuel) all race. I didn’t run one flat out lap. We got a gift. It’s better to be lucky than good, but we want to be both all year.”

For once, Andretti Autosport as a team was both, and the fact they had a good St. Petersburg weekend and could afford to be disappointed with four cars ending in the top 11 is a very positive sign for the rest of the season.

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Fast Facts

Image courtesy Barber Motorsport Park
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Here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:

Race weekend: Friday, April 20 – Sunday, April 22

Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course (clockwise) in Birmingham, Alabama

Race distance: 90 laps / 207 miles

Entry List:  Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (PDF)

Push-to-pass parameters: 200 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 20 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate

Twitter: @BarberMotorPark @IndyCar, #HIGPA, #IndyCar

Event website: www.barberracingevents.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2017 race winner: Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet)

2017 Verizon P1 Award winner: Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet),1:06.9614, 123.653 mph

Qualifying lap record: Sebastien Bourdais, 1:06.6001, 124.324 mph, April 23, 2016 (Round 2 of knockout qualifying)

NBCSN qualifying telecast: Saturday, April 21 (4 p.m. ET, live)

NBCSN race telecast: Sunday, April 22 (3 p.m. ET, live)

Leigh Diffey will be the play-by-play announcer for NBCSN’s telecast of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are the pit reporters.

Radio broadcasts: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network is led by chief announcer Mark Jaynes, with analyst Anders Krohn. Turn reporters are Jake Query and Nick Yeoman, with Rob Howden and Michael Young reporting from the pits.

All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying is broadcast on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app and Verizon IndyCar Series practices are broadcast on  IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Video Streaming: All practice sessions will be available on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and on the INDYCAR YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/indycar)

At-track schedule (all times EASTERN):

Friday, April 20

12:15 p.m.-1 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

3:50-4:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4:55-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 21

11:50 a.m.-12:35 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, April 22

3 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – NBCSN on air

3:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command

3:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Race Notes:

* Alexander Rossi firmly established himself as a championship contender, claiming his first win of the season at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15. The 26-year-old Californian leads reigning series champion and defending Barber race winner Josef Newgarden by 22 points heading into this weekend’s race.

* The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be the ninth Verizon IndyCar Series event conducted at Barber Motorsports Park. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race in 2010.

* Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won at Barber Motorsports Park. Power won the race in 2011 and 2012, Hunter-Reay in 2013 and 2014, Newgarden in 2015 and 2017 and Pagenaud in 2016.

* Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won the pole position at Barber Motorsports Park. Pagenaud won the pole in 2016. Power claimed the pole position in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and Hunter-Reay won the pole in 2013.

* Three drivers have won the race from the pole – Will Power in 2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

* Scott Dixon has finished on the podium in seven of his eight previous starts at Barber Motorsports Park – including five runner-up finishes – but he has yet to finish on the top step of the podium at the picturesque road circuit.

* Eight drivers have competed in every Indy car race at Barber Motorsports Park – Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Castroneves is not entered this year.

* Team Penske has five wins at Barber Motorsports Park (2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017). Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing are the only other teams to win at the track. Andretti Autosport won in 2013 and 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ed Carpenter Racing won with Josef Newgarden in 2015.

* Six Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders – Rene Binder, Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, Matheus “Matt” Leist, Zach Veach and Robert Wickens – are entered this weekend. It is the most rookies entered for a Barber race since six rookies started in 2011.

*  Eighteen of the 24 drivers entered in the event have competed in Indy car races at Barber Motorsports Park. Ten entered drivers have led laps: Will Power 208, Ryan Hunter-Reay 93, Simon Pagenaud 87, Josef Newgarden 60, Scott Dixon 44, Graham Rahal 24, Charlie Kimball 14, Sebastien Bourdais 2, James Hinchcliffe 2 and Marco Andretti 1.

* Tony Kanaan seeks to start his 286th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Kanaan will attempt to make his 347th Indy car start, which ranks third on the all-time list.

* Scott Dixon has made 227 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the second-longest streak in Indy car racing. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has made 203 consecutive starts, which is the fourth-longest streak in Indy car racing.

* Scott Dixon, the longest-tenured driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, is fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with 41 wins. 2018 St. Petersburg race winner Sebastien Bourdais is sixth on the all-time list with 37 wins and Will Power ranks ninth on the all-time list with 32 wins.