Getty Images

Opportunity to grow in year two excites Rossi for 2017 Indy 500

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – The thing that’s so exciting to think about for Alexander Rossi as he prepares to defend his title in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that he wants to be even better than he was as a rookie in his sophomore year for the entirety of the month.

Rossi’s win in last year’s 100th running from 11th on the grid has been written about to death, almost, and he’s been paraded through so many events and availabilities in the year since that’s almost hard to remember the preceding days that led up to race day and then-strategist Bryan Herta’s now-famous “clutch and coast” radio call.

Items such as Rossi not even having a primary sponsor on his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda until the Friday before qualifying, then Rossi getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout right at the end of Saturday, and his practice pace throughout the month are things that got overlooked.

For year two, while Rossi has enjoyed the accolades – and now has a proper sense of what he achieved and how his name and drive fit into all-time Indianapolis lore – the drive to improve upon the things he struggled with last year is a huge motivating factor.

“As much fun as it is to talk about last year, it’s time to regroup ourselves and prove ourselves once again,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “And there’s a lot of work we have to do to accomplish that, and be able to embrace the little things more.

“I’m now looking forward to a much different experience. One thing I’ll definitely keep in focus is Sunday morning itself, and just look at it as another race.”

By that line, Rossi noted the sheer magnitude of all 300,000-plus fans in attendance when walking out to the grid on race morning. That can be overwhelming and it definitely made an impact on Rossi’s viewing of the race, and understanding its scale in the greater sphere of the racing world.

When asked whether he wanted to be even better in traffic and qualifying, Rossi laughed and agreed as quickly as humanly possible.

“It’s all of that,” he said. “Now I know how qualifying works, so I guarantee I can do a second run. I still lose sleep over that because we had a Fast Nine car, and we should have been in the Fast Nine. I definitely want to make sure that’s the case come Sunday.

“I need to be better in traffic. It’s still something that’s uncomfortable to me.

“We were at the Texas test a couple weeks ago. The track has changed so much. And my engineer (Jeremy Milless) was like, ‘Dude it’s OK, it’s your fifth oval.’ And it’s weird.

“Because going into Phoenix, that was just my fifth or sixth oval race. Pocono we challenged for a win, Iowa we were strong, Indy obviously, but overall it’s still so super new for me.

“So it’s things like pit in and how aggressive I come in, needs to be better. I’m happy to have the amount of practice we do.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Rossi’s race title defense sees the notable changes of Herta to Rob Edwards, Andretti chief operating officer, as race strategist and Milless replacing Tom German as race engineer. Although Herta isn’t directly on the box for Rossi, he is still a co-entrant of the No. 98 car, which means he’s still an invaluable resource.

“It’s down in hour-by-hour decision-making, car direction and such as he’s on the 27 car,” Rossi explained. “But whether there’s good or bad things to note, or things I need advice on, he’s in the same truck. He’s literally an earshot away from answering any question.”

Edwards elaborated on how much more cohesive the Andretti and Herta team partnership is now this May, compared to when they were only four or five races into their combined program this time last year.

“Yes we’ve moved some pieces around. But particularly in early races, the Rossi/Herta merger was so new and close to the start of the year, we didn’t maximize the benefits of both,” Edwards told NBC Sports.

“The chemistry is there as we had the offseason to mesh. We could hit the ground running. With the continuity, we had the right pieces to move around. It wasn’t wholesale. It was good changes we’ve made.”

Edwards said Rossi had to endure a tougher learning curve last year because of that merger process, and he excelled in spite of that.

“I think last year was his education. Overall we weren’t as competitive, and it meant his learning curve was more difficult because of that,” he explained.

“Generally with his program, every race now we think we’ve got a legitimate chance of winning and being on the podium.

“Last year he developed off the radar because of how the season went. This year is a chance to realize what he learned last year.”

Rossi has the benefit of his five Andretti Autosport teammates to work with, in fellow winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, two near winners in Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato, and two rookies in Fernando Alonso and Jack Harvey. Rossi’s thoughts on Alonso are linked here.

Andretti Autosport is renowned for its “mini races” in practice with all five of its cars. Rossi described that process.

“No one wants to be in front – it won’t help because you burn more fuel,” said Rossi, whose final stint of 36 laps was as surprising as it was impressive last year.

“We all run to the back. We do a rotation, and each guys takes a couple laps. Inevitably then you’ll get passed.

“It’s funny now because other teams have latched onto it. Now with six cars and more, it’ll be a mini little race!

“Qualifying is wonderful, but it doesn’t matter where you qualify. Being with as many cars as you can provides the opportunity to be able to experiment.”

Rossi reflected on the whirlwind last year it’s been for him – from not having a ride as his Formula 1 dreams were put on pause, to the last-minute Andretti-Herta deal, to the ‘500 win, and how his life has changed as a result.

“For a year, I’ve been talking about something I’m truly passionate about – and that’s OK,” Rossi said.

“I so much love this race, and I’m so looking forward to going back. In 2017, we can talk about the 101st running and doing it again.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
Leave a comment

Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.