ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Verizon IndyCar Series will serve as “first priority” for Alexander Rossi’s 2016 season, as he prepares to embark on his maiden voyage in the championship in the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda.
Rossi, who returns to race in the U.S. full-time for the first time since securing the Formula BMW Americas championship in 2008, will see IndyCar’s 16 rounds take precedence against any conflict weekends. His role as Manor Racing reserve driver in F1 will occur on the 11 non-conflicting weekends this season.
While optics-wise, the timing of Rossi’s Manor’s reserve role announcement wasn’t ideal in coming after his IndyCar confirmation, Rossi ensured IndyCar has his full focus, attention and dedication as he looks to succeed in a deep 22-car field.
“IndyCar is first priority. That’s it,” Rossi told NBC Sports Thursday at St. Petersburg.
“I think from the very beginning when the announcement came out about me joining Andretti, it was about how excited I was – and am – for that opportunity.
“But I was still keeping the relationship with Manor, keeping my foot in the door. The reserve role is an extension of that.”
Michael Andretti, team principal, added in a separate interview: “This gets first priority, but I’m happy he’s still doing that. I think it’s really good he’s still doing that.
“It’s no problem. I think it’s all off weekends. Any conflicts, he comes here. I’m impressed with him. He has a good head on his shoulders, is fast and will be a good addition.”
Having already worked within his first few weeks to embed himself with the team, from moving to Indianapolis, visiting the shop on a regular basis and attending the Phoenix Test in the West before his first two days in the car at Sebring, Rossi has been diligent in his preparation.
Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport’s director of engineering and race operations, expanded on that diligence.
“I would have to say, right from our first interaction with him, I’ve been super impressed,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “I think his approach and his level of commitment [is there].
“We had a session at the shop earlier this week, which was two hours, and was nothing but questions he had. And not one of which was written down. He’d retained all the level of detail of what he was asking.
“I was really impressed with his commitment to it. After two days at Sebring, and Honda impressed with his feedback. So far, we’re really impressed with him in and out of the car.”
Rossi also noted he’s well versed in having a dual program, having done so last year with a GP2 full season to go along with his first five grands prix.
“What a lot of people forget is I did an entire season in GP2 last year and finished second. I only did five F1 races,” he said. “While I was an F1 driver, I was also a GP2 driver. For me it’s a direct transition from GP2.”
Even while Graeme Lowdon and John Booth are no longer with Manor Racing this year, the Stephen Fitzpatrick-owned team has ensured Rossi’s stayed on their radar for another season, which was key for Rossi to keep his F1 dreams alive. Rossi noted they’ve been through a lot together over the last year and a half.
“That relationship remains strong regardless,” he said. “My relationship with the team as a whole has had a lot. We went through some pretty intense stuff from the middle of 2014 through this year, so as a general group I’m very close with all of them.”
Meanwhile Rossi spoke of his integration into the Andretti team, working with Edwards, team principal Michael Andretti and his three teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz.
“It’s a process that grows every day,” he said. “Not only am I trying to get immersed in the environment, but with the combination of Bryan Herta Autosport and Andretti Autosport, they’re getting used to as well.
“We’re all growing and getting more comfortable, and knowing what the respective roles are. We had a positive test in Sebring with very few testing issues. The performance was pretty good straightaway. Hopefully we carry it over. We all have very high expectations.”
Race formats change slightly for him this year. The GP2 feature races were roughly an hour on Saturdays with a pit stop, while Sunday’s sprint races were straight 45-minute sprints without pit stops. The F1 races do not feature refueling, just tire changes.
Adjusting to shorter circuit lengths will also be something for him to adapt to.
“The track for me is a normal street track; I’m not used to the tracks being so short. I’m used to them being around the 3-mile mark. Generally, there’s nothing too extreme about it.
“If a caution comes out, it’s nothing you can control or anticipate. There’s a lot of strategy that [IndyCar] involves. Refueling is new to me, but until I get into a race environment, and move forward, there’s always going to be some unknown questions. Thanks to the people around us, we’re more than capable of going in the right directions.”
Rossi noted the team support and a continued determination to grow day-by-day.
“Everyone’s been very supportive of what I’m doing. You have to take it day-by-day as it comes up.
“Everyone across all four cars has been open. It’s helped me progress an exponential amount.”