De Silvestro set for her best chance yet in IndyCar with Andretti in St. Pete

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Simona de Silvestro will arrive at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as fourth driver for Andretti Autosport, unsure of her future in the team beyond the first race.

The above sentence was written in a similar way five years ago, with a few different words:

Ryan Hunter-Reay will arrive at the IZOD IndyCar Series’ season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 as fourth driver for Andretti Autosport, but unsure of his future in the team beyond the first few races.

Indeed, de Silvestro will try to emulate what Hunter-Reay did when she makes her team debut in a few weeks, because the American was in a similar situation when he got his shot ahead of the 2010 season.

Hunter-Reay was one of America’s top open-wheel prospects in Formula Atlantic and overachieved in a Reynard chassis as a rookie in the 2003 CART season. But two years with midlevel teams – HVM being one of them – followed before he was tossed out just before the end of 2005.

He made it back in with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won a race and lost a ride when a sponsor departed. An eleventh hour deal with Vision Racing and an injury fill-in role with A.J. Foyt Enterprises kept him afloat in 2009, but those were both temporary.

This leads us nicely to 2010, when Andretti had a fourth car to fill, and the team provided Hunter-Reay the opportunity of a lifetime for an early season deal that was not confirmed for the full season, at least initially.

Hunter-Reay promptly finished runner-up on his team debut in Sao Paulo – a race where de Silvestro made her series debut – won at Long Beach a couple races later and had a full season confirmed by midseason.

De Silvestro enters Andretti’s fourth car having followed a similar career path. The Swiss driver raced in the U.S. for the first time in 2006, notably scoring a podium in Formula BMW on the Formula 1 weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three seasons in Atlantics followed and like Hunter-Reay, she won races but came up just shy of a title.

Her first three IndyCar seasons were spent with HVM Racing, a team which Hunter-Reay drove for and overachieved with. Several races marked her a potential future standout, notably her qualifying seventh her first year at Edmonton, finishing fourth at St. Petersburg and setting the fastest race lap in Sao Paulo in 2011.

But her year with a Lotus-powered sled in 2012 did her no favors; she won over fans even more with her class and resiliency in the face of driving a car with an inferior powerplant.

A chance with KV Racing Technology in 2013 was a roller coaster campaign. Several highs occurred, including her overdue first career podium in Houston, but a rough middle portion of the season and general inconsistency made it a mixed year in total. By the end of the season, her future in the sport was in doubt, more due to a lack of seat vacancies than a lack of ability level.

Her F1 dream fizzled before it ever truly had a chance to materialize. Sauber’s financial woes meant an early end to her planned testing program. She also announced a split from her longtime manager, and began targeting a return to the U.S.

Wednesday’s announcement for de Silvestro with Andretti was only confirmed for one race, but, it likely will be the start of a relationship for further races provided it goes smoothly.

For years, observers have noted her talent level and said if she had the right opportunity, she could be a race winner in IndyCar. She’s been hailed for her strength level to handle the high downforce (particularly now with the new aero kits) cars that lack power steering.

She’ll have a support group of teammates that is two more than she’s ever had in IndyCar. Tony Kanaan was her only teammate in 2013 at KV; with Andretti, she’ll have Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz and, naturally, Hunter-Reay to compare data and notes with.

She steps into the team that has worked to find additional sponsorship for its drivers. For example, DHL, Hunter-Reay’s primary sponsor, is on board for a three-year extension through 2017.

She has a big volume of fan support, as witnessed by the seemingly endless explosion of congratulatory posts hitting on Facebook and Twitter this morning.

She’ll also have no excuses, and with a lot of eyeballs on her, a fair bit of pressure to perform. This is a seat that has been linked with Justin Wilson all winter, among others, and while de Silvestro is still one of IndyCar’s more capable shoes, she’s not quite at Wilson’s level. Yet, anyway.

But this is a driver who has been defined by resilience, and refused to be defeated. She’s smiled after walking away from two fiery crashes. She’s garnered “Iron Maiden” as one of her nicknames.

She’s been in the U.S. for the better part of 10 years, save for last year, working tirelessly to advance into a seat of this caliber.

And in a one-shot deal, she’s got the best opportunity of her career, by far.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.