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Is Jack Harvey poised to join Andretti’s Indy rookie star club?

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Ask Jack Harvey about anything racing and you’ll likely get a standard answer, but ask him about his favorite show on TV at the moment – HBO’s genius tech satire “Silicon Valley” – and you’ll get even more of a response plus a few laughs.

And how does “Silicon Valley” tie into racing, you may ask? It’s not uncommon for young upstarts to blossom into becoming superstars in the industry, but only a select few make it while others flame out.

This intro provides the perfect background to consider that for racing’s young upstarts, Andretti Autosport is peak feeding ground for success, because they’ve provided unrivaled statistical success in recent times for Indianapolis 500 rookies.

In 2013, Carlos Munoz was known only to a select few folks who paid sincere attention to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires. But Munoz developed his “own line” – call it his own algorithm for navigating Turn 1 of the 2.5-mile mecca that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and it produced rapid success. Munoz finished second to popular winner Tony Kanaan, and was actually disappointed with the result.

Flash forward to last year. Alexander Rossi was known to the world from his Formula 1 pursuit, the dogged determination of an American trying to make it Europe. Then he came back Stateside last minute and promptly won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in the fuel save, clutch-and-coast special heard ’round the world. And Munoz was second.

This is where Harvey enters the picture. The Englishman turns 24 next week and is right in that critical period of his career where he still could on the verge of being a success in Silicon Valley, or risk falling off the radar altogether. And Andretti Autosport is his incubator for his IndyCar debut, a place he couldn’t be happier to enter… probably because Erlich Bachman isn’t part of the team.

“It’s super surreal mate, to be honest with you,” Harvey told NBC Sports. “If you look at what Andretti have achieved with rookies, it’s an incredible opportunity. As a single-car addition for the race, you’re getting to do it with a team that’s won it two of the last three years, and had the strategy covered either way last year. For me to be a rookie as part of a great organization, you couldn’t ask for anything more. Life has given us lemons and now it’s time to do a good job with them. With this team’s experience, it’s definitely a confidence boost.”

Harvey came Stateside with support from the Racing Steps Foundation in 2014 after success in the GP3 Series, and could well have won the Indy Lights championship in his first crack at it. But despite a late-season flourish of wins on road course, Harvey lost a tiebreaker to Gabby Chaves.

The 2015 season was particularly brutal for him to come up short again. Pegged as the preseason championship favorite, Carlin’s Ed Jones upset the form book by winning the first three races, and then Juncos Racing’s Spencer Pigot promptly completed three weekend doubleheader sweeps. That’s nine races lost there for Harvey, and despite his own month of May sweep at IMS on both the road course and the Freedom 100, his title hopes came unglued down the stretch, particularly during a contentious weekend with contact with Jones at Mid-Ohio.

Harvey sought to put an IndyCar deal together regardless for 2016, while Pigot and Jones have now advanced into IndyCar themselves on the strength of their Indy Lights titles and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarships that went with it.

Without racing, Harvey has stayed in the game as a coach for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Indy Lights team in 2016 and now for Neil Alberico, the Rising Star Racing-backed driver, at Carlin this year. But it was not easy for Harvey to keep his spirits up as he questioned how he could keep his dream alive.

“I think last year I made a conscious decision to come back just to be around,” he said. “I love living here. I love Indy with the people and the racing here. Everyone’s welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t have a drive. It was tough to stay motivated. We kept grinding.

“I’ll be first to admit the last 18 months have been the most challenging personally I’ve had to deal with. But to get it over the line now is a big weight off the shoulders.”

Of the three 2015 title rivals, it’s now only Jones and Harvey confirmed for May – Pigot’s status is surprisingly questionable now because Ed Carpenter Racing has ruled out a third car – and it’s Harvey’s chance to deliver.

Naturally, it takes a commercial partner to make it happen and longtime Andretti sponsor AutoNation is going in on a bigger role. Harvey’s program comes down in large part to the connections there.

There’s another thing that makes this entry notable: the No. 50. There’s an AutoNation connection with 50 million customers served over more than 20 years. And there’s an Indianapolis 500 connection, as well – the last time anyone raced the No. 50 there, in 2012, Dario Franchitti won the race by defeating Harvey’s now-teammate Takuma Sato, whose Turn 1 pass attempt failed.

“By racing the No. 50 car, Jack is celebrating the 50 million customers AutoNation has serviced over the last 20 years, who show their encouragement through their Pink Plates to benefit breast cancer research. The entire AutoNation team will be rooting for Jack Harvey and Ryan Hunter-Reay on race day,” AutoNation CMO and EVP Marc Cannon said in a release.

Harvey could only laugh when hearing the Franchitti nugget, wondering if that meant there was more pressure. Given that all five of Andretti Autosport’s cars qualified in the top 11 last year and any of Munoz, Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell had a realistic shot at winning it, Harvey thinks a top-10 finish for his debut is within range.

“To give a realistic projection, if we parked it in the top 10, I think that’d be a pretty solid result,” he explained. “Rookie-of-the-year would be mega. If the opportunity to win was there, of course you’d take it. But you need to finish and be smart first, go and try to make top-10, and see how testing and quali goes. I think that’s a strong starting point. I don’t want to be that guy to say, ‘win or bust.’ That’s not what this is about. It’s about showcasing what I can do, and how well can I do it, and see if they’ll be keen to bring me back for another race.”

This is Harvey’s opportunity and he’s determined to see his maiden month of May come good.

“There’s so much experience to pull upon,” he said. “When you have so many good teammates, not to sound cliché, but it massively helps. I’m excited to be a part of it and with one of the best teams in the world. It’s an amazing achievement really. Even people in the U.K. who don’t know much about America know Andretti Autosport.”

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.