It seemed only a matter of time before Andretti Autosport could bank a result worthy of their drivers’ improved performances this year, and it came Sunday in the Honda Indy Toronto with a bit of luck and a bit of pace.
Alexander Rossi was unlucky to roll off eighth in his No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda – he and Takuma Sato were both caught out when the qualifying session restarted and it knocked them out of the Firestone Fast Six. Meanwhile from 11th and 16th, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay needed some help to make it up the order on Sunday.
Luckily it came in the form of a Lap 23 caution Sunday in the race. Once Tony Kanaan nosed into the Turn 1 wall, it brought out the yellow after a handful of the Andretti contingent had been into the pits for their first scheduled stops.
Sato was among those caught out by the yellow in fifth as he hadn’t pitted, but Rossi (10th), Andretti (13th) and Hunter-Reay (15th) had and suddenly found themselves poised to capitalize as a result of the jumbled sequence that would follow.
Rossi rebounded to a net second after the restart, behind leader and eventual race winner Josef Newgarden with Ed Jones and Charlie Kimball ahead but needing to stop, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay also into the top-10 following the shuffle.
They were able to stay there the rest of the race. Rossi wasn’t able to close enough on Newgarden to make a proper passing attempt, but was pleased with his first podium finish in IndyCar that wasn’t, well, that one at Indianapolis last May. Rossi hadn’t finished better than fifth in an IndyCar race outside of last year’s Indianapolis 500 so second was a needed result for him and the team.
“It’s been a long time coming. Now we can go to chase more wins,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt post-race. “I’m relieved we got the monkey off our back. To get this car where it needed to be was a huge effort. Very proud of Honda for their effort, and a huge shoutout to the fans.”
Rossi expanded on how many changes the team made from Friday to Saturday to even get the team in a good position.
“We were really at the bottom of the barrel, staring into the bottom of the barrel, I guess, Friday afternoon. We were really lost. We were the slowest, Andretti Autosport cars. Here is a tough place to be coming from to start off strong,” he explained.
“We had a lot of soul searching Friday night. We stayed quite a bit later at the in a long time. We just really analyzed everything that we could, and made some pretty solid changes overnight that suited me really well Saturday.
“If you look at where we were last year, the last four cars in qualifying, to having three cars in the top 10, really having something to fight for today, it’s a testament not only to this weekend and the strength the team has shown, but also this off-season and how much better 2017 has been for us, has been for Honda.”
Andretti admitted a bit of luck in ending fourth, but couldn’t express how much it was needed for both himself and the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda team, led by strategist Bryan Herta.
“It’s refreshing for sure. A trophy would have been fun. But I had fun today,” Andretti told NBCSN’s Anders Krohn. “The UFD car was great. It’s starting to put the fun back in this sport for me. Next goal for me is more hardware in the trophy case. He gave me the old go faster and save fuel, Bryan has put some fun back into it. It’s time to make this a regular occurrence going forward.”
Hunter-Reay enjoyed a combative bout with polesitter Simon Pagenaud in the final stages, Pagenaud finally making the pass in the final few laps for fifth place. The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda then held off a bunch of others in the final couple laps as his car and tires fell off.
Speaking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Hunter-Reay said about the battle, “Yeah he gave me a nudge, I got back by him, I was loose in Turn 6, and I got in there pretty deep, he got by me. He was quite a bit quicker than me. But all in all, a good day. 2-4-6. Considering we started 16th, it was a good day.
“Some of the worst pickup I’ve ever experience with marbles It took four laps to get rubber off the car. It wounding turn! All in all I’m thankful to bring it home P6.”
Takuma Sato, who fell to 16th on Sunday, still is the best of the Andretti quartet in the championship, but has all but lost any title hopes after a rough patch of four races where he’s not finished better than 10th.
He sits seventh in points, 72 back of points leader Scott Dixon. Rossi is eighth, Hunter-Reay 13th and Andretti 14th.
All four of the Andretti Autosport drivers encountered significant problems during the Kohler Grand Prix, and none of them were able to salvage finishes inside the top ten as a result.
Most notably, Takuma Sato endured the most difficult weekend of the four-car armada after suffering a pinched nerve in his neck on Saturday, which forced him to miss the morning warmup.
And things didn’t get any better during the race, as a lap 28 spin exiting the Kink saw him lose a lap and forced him to play catchup even more than he already was. Although Sato managed to finish the race, hardly insignificant given his neck injury, he did so in 19th after starting 20th in what proved to be his worst race since winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“It was a tough weekend and tough race,” lamented Sato. “I injured my neck during practice Saturday morning. We started in the back row, tried to make a push up, but I caught an accident. The engine was stalled and I wasn’t sure if we could continue, but the safety crew came and fired up the engine, so I came back to the pit, buckled again and I was able to keep going. In the end we made the finish, but we need a better weekend.”
His teammates did not fair much better. Alexander Rossi, who qualified a disappointing 15th, ran a four-stop pit strategy, and while he cycled into the top five at one point, an issue with the front wing saw him fall to 13th at the finish.
“I think we started with a good strategy, going for a four-stop race after starting 15th, but it all caught up to us on that first yellow,” Rossi explained. “Luckily, we had already gained track position and speed running on open track. We had an issue with our front wing, which ironically or not, is the same issue we finished the race with here last year, so we definitely need to figure out exactly what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, had strong pace, even leading the Sunday morning warmup and running inside the top ten late in the race. But, contact with Charlie Kimball while battling for sixth broke the front wing on the No. 28 DHL Honda, and Hunter-Reay languished in 14th at the checkered flag.
“Charlie (Kimball) made a late block and took off my front wing. I had a good race going until Charlie moved out late like that, it’s just really unfortunate,” Hunter-Reay said of the incident.
Meanwhile, Marco Andretti battled a litany of problems, ranging from throttle issues to a broken pit speed limiter, which resulted in a drive-penalty for speeding during a round of pit stops. Andretti was a lowly 18th at the finish.
“We started eighth, but ran into throttle problems. We went off track on the first stint because the throttle stuck wide open. We came into the pits to try to fix it and got hit with a pit lane speed violation because my pit lane limiter wasn’t working. We still weren’t getting full throttle – I was barely hitting sixth gear,” he lamented afterward.
Sato remains in the top five in the championship, now sitting fourth, 56 points behind leader Scott Dixon. Rossi sits ninth, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay 13th and 15th respectively.
INDIANAPOLIS – Alongside NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, we have the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which this week features interviews from Indy 500 media day leading into Carb Day.
Anders Krohn is back in action, ahead of a busy day for him as he will be in the booth calling the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100.
Interviews took place with Ed Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s coverage highlighted media day, as there was an absurd number of people populating around his station on Thursday.
Dixon has the pole for Sunday’s race, with Carpenter starting second, Alonso fifth and Andretti eighth.
INDIANAPOLIS – The contrast was stark on the dais among all six Andretti Autosport drivers set to compete in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
There were the four full-season Andretti drivers, plus rookie Jack Harvey in black, standard Andretti polos with the appropriate partner logos.
On the far right of the stage, or far left for the onlooking media, was Fernando Alonso – seemingly resplendent sitting in a white polo with his McLaren Honda Andretti colors, this year’s theoretical “white knight in shining armor” in among the other 32 cars in the race.
Seeing Alonso there on the same stage with these other five drivers, though, provided a good glimpse at the divide between Alonso and the rest of the field in visual form.
It was also a reminder that while Alonso is the worldwide star interloper in this year’s race, he enters into a team where the results achieved by the other four veterans should be more noteworthy than they are.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the lone American champions of the Indianapolis 500 in the last 11 years, Hunter-Reay having snapped an eight-year drought since Sam Hornish Jr. edged Marco Andretti in 2006. And Rossi’s famous fuel strategy-inspired victory last year has become the latest chapter in this race’s lore.
Andretti himself? That eternal wait for victory number one here began when he came up so short as a rookie. He’s never been that close since.
Meanwhile Takuma Sato provided one of the race’s best moments in recent years as well, perhaps overlooked in the grand scheme of things. In 2012 he dove to Dario Franchitti’s inside into Turn 1, but with Franchitti’s smart and sneaky race craft having coaxed Sato into a mistake, the likable and talented Japanese driver’s “no attack, no chance” mentality bit him as he came up short.
Harvey – again fitting into the “overlooked” department – has a record that none of his other teammates can boast. He’s the only driver who can say he’s won on both the IMS road course and the IMS oval, having done both in the same year in the 2015 Indy Lights season.
The other five drivers have all raced on the IMS road course, and Sato scored his lone Formula 1 podium there in 2004, but none has won in non-‘500 races except for Andretti in 2005, in Indy Lights.
Hunter-Reay is Andretti’s most successful driver in IndyCar, the most successful active American driver in the series. He’s one of only four drivers in the field (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya) who have both an Indianapolis 500 victory and a full-season IndyCar title, which proves how hard it is to do both.
Yet the desire for win number two here at Indy, especially after coming up short last year, burns brightest.
“I think every year I come back here I want it more and more,” Hunter-Reay said. “That probably has something to do with the hard times I had earlier on here. It’s just one of those places that becomes more and more important to you the further you get in your career. You just realize how much it means.
“But I know it means that much to every other driver in the field, too. So everybody’s going to be fighting for it. Like Fernando said, we’re all working together. We have six cars now, so it’s a lot of data to pull from, a lot of opinions and perspectives to put into play. I think we all work very well as a team. We’ll be trying to use that as a strength.”
Rossi’s been asked a lot about winning last year and how it changed his life, so much so he needs to keep thinking of refreshing answers. Again though it’s the desire to go back-to-back that drives him.
“I think just the appreciation for this race and the desire to win it. Like Ryan talked about earlier, every year you come back, it’s greater. I think there was a point brought up in terms of once you’ve done it once, the desire to do it again is much increased,” he said.
“It’s an amazing experience that happens for the year afterwards. I had no idea it was as detailed and involved as it actually is.
“But it gives you that desire to do it again because you don’t really want to give it up. So definitely coming into this with the goal of trying to do it again. We’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”
Andretti’s not come as close to winning as he did in 2006. It seems hard to believe this is already his 12th Indianapolis 500 and he’s only just turned 30 years old. While Andretti’s been solid in practice nearly every event this year, getting his car good in race trim has been a challenge. That remains his goal this month.
“I’m as pleased as I’ve been with the car right now in race trim. No complaints there,” he said. “Now it’s just about keeping it there, you know, which is very tricky at this place. Every day seems to throw you some sort of a curve ball. The better you react I think the better you’ll be in the end.”
For Sato, it’s about having the opportunity to be part of a team that is at least double anything he’s ever been in before. Sato’s been in one, two and three-car teams at the Speedway – and come close to winning with all of them – and being part of a “six-pack” of entries is quite a chance.
“It’s been ‘almost’ success,” Sato laughed. “I know how the race gets competitive and tight towards the end of the race, which is pretty different. This year experience you never know. That’s good to know.
“Obviously coming to join the team, it’s a new experience for me again. I never have been around kind of like a group in the past, until really after the qualifying. It’s a whole new experience; trying to get more out of the car and learning how the team operates every single day.”
Lastly there’s the rookies, each of whom are here in wildly contrasting situations. Alonso’s story has been covered quite a bit while Harvey’s debut is one of the more intriguing ones. Both have new team principals presents – McLaren’s Zak Brown and Michael Shank in partnership with Andretti – and they have different goals.
One area worth asking Alonso about, beyond the on-track activity, was how he is experiencing the Indianapolis experience.
“I was expecting more activities off the track. Probably I will think differently when I arrive next Sunday!” Alonso said. “But right now, you know, it’s still more or less okay. Yeah, the biggest surprise is to see the fans out of the garage or even on the pit lane. That’s completely new thing for us, for me.
“But apart of that, you know, we are quite busy. Being two weeks, I think everything is spread a little bit, day after day. When we go to the Formula One events, it’s just Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so everything is compressed in four days. Here we have a very tight schedule, as well.”
As for Harvey, it’s been a roller coaster week thus far, but the past Indy Lights race winner is rolling with the challenges.
“I think more likely (Michael Shank’s) helping me realize my dream of running at the Indy 500,” he said. “Honestly the whole rookie experience at this point has gone about as far from what I’ve expected it to as possible. Honestly I ended up yesterday pretty good, way better than the timing sheet showed. Hopefully it’s just a platform to have a great month and keep building off that.”
For the team, ensuring the group runs maximize data gathering for the race has been key to success in past years, as explained by Andretti chief operating officer Rob Edwards.
“When you look at the whole event, it’s in two parts. There’s qualifying and with points, that’s important. But come race day it’s three hours in traffic, so the best way to set up to be successful is to learn as much about the cars as possible,” Edwards told NBC Sports.
“The ultimate advantage is controlling specific advantages to do that, and trying different things within those runs. As you say, historically, it’s been part of the Andretti approach. I think we’ll continue to do that. With six cars there’s more opportunity.”
And as for managing six cars, something only a handful of other teams (notably Team Scandia’s seven in 1996 and Dick Simon Racing’s five-plus in the past) have ever done?
Michael Andretti said he hasn’t had as many sleepless nights as one would assume given the whirlwind he’s had the last couple months.
“I sleep really well actually!” Andretti laughed. “We have such a great organization. It’s scary to be honest because between the Fernando thing with McLaren and bringing them in, then with Michael (Shank) and Jack, on paper it should be a nightmare but it’s scarily good. It’s been fun.
“Everyone on face of it acknowledges that it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun work.”
Will that fun work pay off in Andretti Autosport’s fifth Indianapolis 500 win, after others in 2005, 2007, 2014 and 2016? Only time will tell.
Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
Marco Andretti, No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda
Fernando Alonso, No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti
Jack Harvey, No. 50 Michael Shank Racing w/Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS / Curb Honda