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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Alexander Rossi

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. In seventh place, Alexander Rossi leapt up to the top-finishing Andretti driver in the standings, won another race with a wreath, and firmly established himself as one of the leading lights of the championship in an entirely more comfortable second season.

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 11th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 7th, 2 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 23 Laps Led, 14.3 Avg. Start, 11.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 7th Place, 1 Win, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 99 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 9.5 Avg. Finish

In a single sentence, Alexander Rossi was the most improved driver of IndyCar, season 2017 – and it wasn’t even close.

Rossi’s on-track results grew exponentially as his embrace of being a key part of IndyCar’s present, and its future, grew along with it as the year went on. It made covering his sophomore season a joy as his proper integration into the series truly felt achieved this season, whereas last year it was a slower process negatively affected by poor performance.

That Rossi’s results were as good as they were this year spoke volumes of his adaptation to new circumstances. He had to learn the dynamic of working with a new engineer in Jeremy Milless and also lost Bryan Herta as his race strategist, but got a like-for-like replacement on the box in veteran strategy whiz and Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards. Milless, considering he was coming from working with Josef Newgarden on a Chevrolet kit at Ed Carpenter Racing, acclimated incredibly well to his new team and his new kit, even if the results took a few races to come good.

And interestingly, they could have been even better. As we wrote earlier this year, between a puncture at St. Petersburg, engine failure at Long Beachfueling issue at Indy and being trapped in a “Ganassi sandwich” at Texas, Rossi lost close to 100 points alone between those four races. But he went on a tear from Toronto through the Watkins Glen, with five straight races between first and sixth, capped off by another fuel issue-turned-recovery drive to win at “The Glen” and defeat Scott Dixon in a straight fight. Rossi ended 148 points back of Newgarden in the championship, P7 and top Andretti Autosport entry, but could well have ended as high as third – perhaps even second – had he caught a few breaks.

Where Rossi starred as much if not more so than on-track was in his development outside the car, and shaped up as a driver IndyCar was truly lucky to have. Rossi grew into one of the year’s more candid, insightful quotes – never missing an opportunity to explain something in a smart, refined, mature level. He performed some ambassadorial tasks, particularly in the run up to the Sonoma finale. He wrote some great blogs for RACER’s website. He bonded with friends and fellow drivers Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe, with he and Daly set to appear on the new season of “The Amazing Race.” He perpetually poked fun at Marco Andretti on Instagram. He coined his No. 98 car “baby girl” and never missed an opportunity to thank NAPA Auto Parts for their support; NAPA and Andretti Autosport rewarded him with a two-year extension at year’s end. His advice offered to teammate Takuma Sato before Pocono qualifying spoke to his selflessness and dedication to his team. Thanks for that should be extended to his personal assistant Liza Markle, who rocked it in her first year working with him this year, but also to Rossi’s family and close friends around him – particularly his dad Pieter who’s been there all the way.

Going into his rookie year in IndyCar, I didn’t know how to feel about the American driver who’d long pursued his F1 dream coming into the series in what felt at first like a last-minute, last-ditch arrangement. After the conclusion of his second year, for me anyway, now it’s hard to imagine IndyCar without him.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne