Despite late start, Andretti, Herta excited to reunite in 2016

Herta, HPD's Art St. Cyr and Andretti. Photo: Dan DiZinno
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Today’s a rarity in the calendar. It’s a Leap Year, and so it’s February 29 for the first time in four years.

Another thing that’s a rarity is when two team owners get together less than a month before the start of a season and add a driver to the mix who hasn’t even tested an IndyCar yet.

But tomorrow begins the Alexander Rossi in the No. 98 Honda for Andretti Autosport, with Bryan Herta as strategist and BHA crew on the car story of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Rossi, 24, returns to racing full-time in the U.S. for the first time since 2008, when he won the last full season of the Formula BMW Americas championship.

Meanwhile, longtime friends and friendly competitors Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta will reunite for the first time since exactly the same year, when Herta saddled up in Andretti’s Acura ARX-01b LMP2 car in the American Le Mans Series season. And Herta also drove for Andretti’s IndyCar team from 2003 to 2006.

The last-minute partnership was certainly a marriage of necessity, but also convenience given the two had worked together before as teammates.

And it comes following what can best be described as a very unfortunate situation for Herta, when a proposed sponsor fell through just mere weeks before the season.

“It came together really quickly,” Herta told NBC Sports during this weekend’s Test in the West.

“We’d had a couple sponsor deals that were ‘done deals,’ that ended up not getting done. And so we were fast approaching the start of the season and we weren’t in a funded situation.

“I called Mike originally and said, ‘Hey, I’m struggling. But here’s what I’ve got.’

“He was in a position where he wanted to run their fourth car again. So I have these pieces, and he has these pieces. It was very quickly we could put this together and make something really great.”

Andretti, for his part, was keen to get back to a full-time four-car operation, which is what his team has been most successful with since its move from what was then CART to IndyCar prior to 2003.

“I think it will strengthen our whole team,” Andretti told NBC Sports during this same test.

“Folding Bryan in with us, he’s got a lot of really good people. And folding his people with our people, equipment, we just strengthened ourselves a lot.

“Having four cars is the way to go if they’re all properly funded, and we’re there. We’re excited about it.”

The people part is a key element. Herta was able to maintain his full crew of 12 with the partnership, but driver Gabby Chaves was the lone truly unfortunate casualty of the process. More on him in a bit.

Rossi became available fairly last-minute once his possible Manor Racing F1 opportunity fell through. His IndyCar hopes opened once it became apparent Rio Haryanto would have the necessary funding to secure the final F1 spot.

“We were very aware of Alexander, yes, but Alexander had been in contact with Michael at various times the last couple years as I understand it,” Herta explained.

“When I came to Michael, there were a few other drivers on the list, and it really was where Alexander’s management had reached out to Andretti almost coincidentally, right in the time frame we started talking.

“‘We think the Manor thing is gonna happen, but if it doesn’t, is there anything there?’ And he very quickly became at the top of the list.”

That’s not to say Herta didn’t want to keep Chaves. Far from it, as the 22-year-old kept his nose damn clean all last year and had no DNFs by accident. His lone DNF in a year where he won both Indianapolis 500 and series rookie-of-the-year honors came at Pocono, when he had a shot to win and led 31 laps before a mechanical issue.

“Gabby is a great race car driver. No doubt about it,” Herta said, categorically.

“That’s why we worked so hard through the winter to put something together with him. I feel terrible for him we don’t have anything.

“But it shows that when Sam needed someone for this test, when (Mikhail) Aleshin couldn’t get his visa, Gabby was first on the list.”

Rossi will have two days of testing this week at Sebring, March 1 and 2, to get acclimatized and comfortable. It’ll be his first days an IndyCar and he’s primed for the opportunity.

Where Rossi will likely benefit is from Andretti’s four-car arsenal, compared to what Chaves had to do as a rookie on a single-car team. The trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz are known for their collective chemistry as a unit and adding Rossi in can only be a benefit for him.

The other ace in the hole is engineer Tom German, who’s a past Indianapolis 500 winning engineer with Team Penske and was most recently with Michael Waltrip Racing. Remember that name if or when Rossi puts together a big weekend.

“He’s gonna be great,” Herta said. “He is great engineer. He was somebody that we had reached out to, as BHA, and was planning to bring on board.

“When this kind of evolved into merging our operating for this year with Andretti, I was hopeful he still wanted to do this.”

That “this year” line is a key part – Herta seems to eventually want to get back to BHA as its own entity in 2017, and is keeping the name and shop for the Bryan Herta Rallycross team for that to continue as a separate entity from Andretti in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series.

“It’s a this year thing, right now,” Herta said. “But we didn’t tiptoe into this. We’re all the way in.

“Our guys, myself, we’re 100 percent committed to this and 100 percent committed to Andretti Autosport. Being a good partner and becoming a partner of what they’re doing. We don’t know beyond that. It should work out in a really good way. We’re going into this with the right intentions.”

Added Andretti, “Having Bryan back makes sense. We’re good friends. We’ve always been. I’m glad we could help each other out.”