firestone grand prix of st. petersburg

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.