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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.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.