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Marco Andretti: Weekend fall off hiding improvements this year

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Marco Andretti’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was so miserable and forgettable, and it meant 2017 was always going to be better.

The problem for him is that even though 2017 has gone better for him, it’s still not been the quantum leap hoped for or expected – similar to his offseason turnaround from 2012 to 2013, his best career season in 12 years in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

As Andretti heads to his home race next weekend, the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda for Andretti Autosport remains in search of both his first win since Iowa 2011 – more than 100 races ago – and his first podium since Fontana in 2015, when he came third.

Consistent flashes have been there all year. Andretti has been a regular pace setter in practice on road and street courses, leading several sessions while working with engineer Nathan O’Rourke and his new strategist, Bryan Herta as part of Andretti Autosport’s improved performance this year under new technical director Eric Bretzman. He sits 13th in points – all four Andretti cars are within seventh and 13th this year – with a best finish of fourth at Toronto.

Andretti’s qualified better – he’s qualified higher at every race this year than he did last year with the exception of St. Petersburg and Iowa – and has a season-best start of eighth on two occasions, at the Indianapolis 500 and Road America.

Still it feels like there’s been much more because in that pursuit for ultimate performance after strong practice pace, setup directions have gone the wrong way ever so slightly that leave Andretti on the outside looking in.

“For me, I really just focus on the 27 side. I haven’t taken much from my teammates this year,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“There’s some races I know I should have, like Iowa. Obviously Ryan (Hunter-Reay) did a great job there. I’ve tried to pave my own way working with Nathan and Bryan, and make changes for what I like in the car.

“Last year we were guilty of really jumping around setups. For a driver it’s hard to pinpoint and work on yourself when it’s different every session. But for us, our roll off cars have been a lot better this year. So we can make smaller changes.”

Mid-Ohio is a perfect example though of when those smaller changes go the wrong way. Andretti was third in first practice, seventh in second practice, and then fell to 14th in qualifying, before making up spots in the race early and falling into a fuel save situation in the race.

“Mid-Ohio, unfortunately, was one we slid backwards,” he explained. “In the race we got the pace back again but we short filled on the last stop; otherwise we would have been seventh or eighth, and instead got 12th.

“If you miss out in Q1, that’s exactly it – you’re boxed in. If I would have backed it up in practice, I would have been third (in my group) with that pace.

“But it’s IndyCar racing, I prefer it like that. In this sport, it takes perfection to beat the best. I think we need to make the right decisions. I felt we got too conservative. We got the balance back for the race. It’s tough to make up ground. We needed better qualifying.”

The quartet of Andretti Hondas should be good at Pocono, a track where Hunter-Reay should have won last year before a quick mechanical cut out and where he did win in 2015. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi, of course, have won the last two Indianapolis 500s. And Andretti himself has been close to success at Pocono, most notably in 2013, but struggled last year with 13th in qualifying and 12th in the race.

“Pocono is just about finding the balance between (Turns) 1 and 3,” he said. “What helps in (Turn) 1 doesn’t help the other.

“How we achieve it, I’m not sure with the limited practice. I’m sure we will be good. The Honda package should be good. I have been strong there in the past, but last year was an anomaly.”

Despite Hunter-Reay raving about the improved Gateway Motorsports Park surface, Andretti wonders how what he learned from his first test there in May will translate to that short oval race.

“I think that’s one we’ll have to salvage because we’re at a big deficit (aero-wise),” he said. “With the improved track grip, that will mean more we trim out, and more disadvantage we’re at. We had a decent test balance wise in May, so hopefully it’s still relevant.”

As Andretti heads into the final four races of 2017 – his last four before he gets married to fiancee Marta Krupa in late September – he’s already optimistic IndyCar’s latest reset with the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit will better suit his driving style.

At the same point, he is putting aside any of the critiques or distractions from doubters, saying he has to stay focused. What people outside the paddock on a full-time basis fail to realize is that Andretti actually has such an innate desire to succeed and perform, despite it sometimes looking appearance-wise the opposite situation. He admitted as such in an interview last year.

“What I like about it is I hope we get some predictability back,” he said. “It’s so in and out of grip right now. That’s where I suffer. I need a car to tell me what it can do. So that’ll be friendly downforce, with the underbody. That’s what I’m hoping for. We’ll try to adapt.”

As for any critiques? “I know what I have going on. I know what I’m doing, that’s all that matters. So none of that phases me anymore. Even the criticism. I’m extremely hard on myself. Honestly I don’t even read it much anymore. I just have to focus on making myself better.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.