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Michael Andretti: “The team’s never clicked this well before”

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Andretti Autosport CEO and team principal Michael Andretti is keen to rebound from a nightmarish 2015 season.

The Honda aero kit package was uncompetitive, its lone Indy Lights car struggled against a field of multi-car efforts and its Pro Mazda team battled inconsistencies, despite one driver still winning six races. The upside came with a championship in the Red Bull Global Rallycross with Scott Speed in his Volkswagen Beetle, and a number of impressive races in FIA Formula E with various drivers.

The on-track struggles though, came in addition to the Andretti Sports Marketing business having back-to-back tough debuts in promoting the first Miami FIA Formula E round, and the first NOLA Motorsports Park race. Following a lawsuit between that side of the business and the team side, Andretti Sports Marketing fused into LST Marketing with Andretti now out of the promotions and event business. Milwaukee, a race Andretti resuscitated and saved for four years, also went away despite Andretti and team throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it.

All this was bad enough before we even got to Pocono, and the loss of Justin Wilson occurred. Wilson made enough of a positive impact on the IndyCar program from a development and positivity standpoint in his handful of races that there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel.

It was not an easy 12 months for the man who’s worked tirelessly within IndyCar racing as a driver, a team owner and a businessman who’s provided for so many families.

Now, with a single, primary focus back to the team side, the sports marketing company now out of his hands and a reduced open-wheel focus to just the Andretti Autosport IndyCar and Indy Lights teams, the hope is that the team recaptures its usual Indianapolis 500 and championship-contending pedigree after the tough 2015 campaign.

“Last year was a tough year,” Andretti told NBC Sports during the Phoenix Test in the West.

“It was a real interesting year for all of us. It was trying, but we learned a lot. We came out of it, and we came out stronger. We’re excited about this year.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz all return with the same engineers, while Alexander Rossi joins the fray in the fourth car under the Andretti-Herta Autosport partnership.

More than anything, the revived hopes will rest on the aerodynamic updates Honda has been able to gain in testing, via both its planned upgrades from the three allowable boxes and via INDYCAR Rule 9.3, which is used to allow any manufacturer to close the gap if INDYCAR deems one manufacturer is too far behind.

Phoenix and Sebring have been the two major test beds for the team, with Road America and Mid-Ohio also getting some work before their winters occurred and the tracks closed. Andretti Autosport ended the Phoenix test as the top Honda team in testing, although that was down to running qualifying simulations at night to set the fastest laps.

“We have a really strong team. For us, it comes down to how’s Honda against Chevy,” Andretti said. “If we’re on equal ground, I believe we can run with the best of them. We hope we are.

“It’s better. We don’t know how much better the other guys got with their three boxes. We don’t know. It had to be a lot better. Is it better enough?”

Andretti noted the return to four full-time cars should also produce dividends, as for most of the team’s tenure since Andretti Autosport came into what was then the IRL in 2003, it’s been a four-car operation.

Blips have occurred, notably in 2012 and last year when the fourth car ran a partial schedule, but with the Bryan Herta partnership it gets Andretti back to its usual target.

“I think it will strengthen our whole team,” Andretti said. “Folding Bryan, he’s got a lot of really good people. Having four cars is the way to go if they’re all properly funded, and we’re there.”

While the IndyCar program is back to four cars, Indy Lights is increased from one to three cars. Shelby Blackstock continues with the team for his fifth season in the Mazda Road to Indy (second in Indy Lights, after two in Pro Mazda and one in USF2000) while Canadian Dalton Kellett steps up from Pro Mazda and Englishman Dean Stoneman joins in a third car.

The extra data at their disposal will be a benefit, and testing has appeared promising.

“It is, exactly. They’ve got teammates now, so they can learn,” Andretti said. “When you’re by yourself, it’s very difficult. Dean is good. He will turn some heads.”

While having been the only owner to have run a team in each level of the Mazda Road to Indy in the past, Andretti has cut back to just Indy Lights this year, with Pro Mazda equipment now sold.

“Our goal, we figured, we felt like we wanted to not do the Mazdas and run more Indy Lights. We were hoping for four, we got to three, which we’re happy with. We can just focus on that.”

Overseeing the whole operation is Rob Edwards, Director of Race Operations and Engineering, who enters his second year with the team. Andretti hailed his presence, said he’s been a steady force and has got the team clicking better.

“He’s been so great for us,” Andretti said. “We get along so well, him, me, JF (Thormann), the engineers, with Ray (Gosselin, Ryan Hunter-Reay engineer), it’s just clicking.

“The team’s never clicked this well before.

“Rob’s first class, he gets it, and that’s the reason I hired him. This guy gets it. There’s not a lot of people that get it in the sport. When you’ve got the shot to get someone like that, you’ve gotta get him.”

Indy Lights: Kyle Kirkwood joins Andretti Autosport

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One of the Road to Indy’s most talented young drivers will climb another step up the development system ladder this season.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion, has signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport in the 2020 Indy Lights season. Kirkwood will drive the No. 28 car for the reigning championship team.

A native of Jupiter, Florida, 21-year-old Kirkwood has been incredibly successful in junior formulas over the last few years. He won the F4 US Championship 2017 and won both the F3 Americas and USF2000 titles in 2018.

Driving for RP Motorsport Racing, Kirkwood won 9 of 16 races in his maiden Indy Pro 2000 season last year, allowing him to win his fourth championship in three years and earn the Road to Indy scholarship.

“We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our Indy Lights program,” Andretti Autosport CEO and Chairman Michael Andretti said. “We’ve followed Kyle’s career from when he started in 2018 with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and have been impressed with his success in every race that led to his Indy Pro 2000 Championship last year. As a championship-caliber team, Kyle displays the desire and talent that we look for in our drivers and are excited to see him hit the track for the 2020 Indy Lights season.”

Kirkwood previously drove for Andretti in a two-day test session at Sebring International Raceway in December. He will make his official debut for the team in the season-opening doubleheader at St. Petersburg on March 14-15.

“I am ecstatic that I can now say I am competing in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport this season,” Kirkwood said. “They have established a winning program in Indy Lights and we plan on carrying that reputation throughout 2020.

“We are a fantastic match for each other and our Sebring test in December proved that.”

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