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.

INDYCAR announces several rules and protocol changes for 2018 season

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The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series opener is still more than six weeks away (March 11, St. Petersburg, Florida).

But several rules and protocol changes that will impact much of the 17-race season were announced today by INDYCAR officials.

First is related to Indianapolis 500 qualifying on May 19-20, one week prior to the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing:

* Driver and entrant points will be awarded to the top nine qualifiers for the race. The pole winner earns nine points and the second-fastest qualifier eight points, with awarded points decreasing by one point for each position down to one point earned by the ninth-fastest qualifier.

* Race points for the Indianapolis 500 and the 2018 season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 16, will still pay double the normal points for driver and entrant.

There are several other changes on tap for the season, as well.

Here’s a quick rundown of those changes (information courtesy of INDYCAR):

  • The qualifying order for all oval track events except the Indianapolis 500 will be determined by entrant points entering the event. The qualifying order will run in reverse order of entrant points, with the highest in entrant points qualifying last. A car without entrant points will be placed at the front of the qualifying line. If more than one car has no entrant points entering an event, a blind draw among those cars will determine their qualifying order at the front of the line. The qualifying order for the Indianapolis 500 will still be determined by a blind draw.
  • Times have been set for the series-wide open test at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway), scheduled for Feb. 9-10. The track will be open to all cars from 3-6 p.m. and 8-11 p.m. ET both days. INDYCAR has also added four hours of track time on Feb. 8 (3-7 p.m. ET) for rookie drivers to complete their oval test assessments.
  • The series-wide open test at Portland International Raceway will be held Aug. 30, a day prior to the beginning of the Grand Prix of Portland race weekend. Indy car racing returns to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in 11 years in 2018.
  • A schedule change for the month of May will see the INDYCAR garages closed on May 13 – the day after the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – to allow teams time off for Mother’s Day. The track will not be open to the public on this day. The garages will be open on May 14, but there will be no on-track activity.
  • Practice for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 begins Tuesday, May 15 on the IMS oval, with the first two hours open for rookie orientation and veteran refreshers, then to all cars. Practice continues May 16-18, ahead of qualifications weekend May 19-20.
  • INDYCAR is granting teams that did not participate in fall manufacturer testing with the universal aero kit an additional half day of private testing. The testing is limited to one car per team and must take place in conjunction with the team’s first on-track test of 2018. Each team is permitted five hours of track time and two sets of Firestone tires.
  • Working with Firestone, INDYCAR has increased the tire allotment at five events. The race weekends at ISM Raceway (Phoenix), the Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Texas Motor Speedway, the streets of Toronto and Iowa Speedway will see teams receive an additional set of tires. In a related change, drivers outside the top 10 in the point standings will no longer have an extra set of tires available to them for the opening practice session of a race weekend.
  • The minimum car weight for 2018 has been increased by 10 pounds – to 1,620 pounds for road and street courses and short ovals, 1,590 pounds for superspeedways (both do not include fuel, drink bottle and its contents, driver and driver equivalency weight) – to accommodate for new parts and additional on-car cameras related to the universal aero kit all competitors will run in 2018.