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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Alexander Rossi

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series driver-by-driver lineup.

In 11th place, and the top rookie this season, was Alexander Rossi – whose season was a tale of one incredible victory and a dogged determination and pursuit of perfection in the other 15 races where he came up short.

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2015: GP2, and F1 with Manor (5 Grands Prix; best finish of 12th in U.S. Grand Prix in Austin)
  • 2016: 11th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 7th, 2 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 23 Laps Led, 14.3 Avg. Start, 11.8 Avg. Finish

What an odyssey it was for Alexander Rossi in terms of the 2016 IndyCar season. By his own expectations, it fell short of the standards he demands out of himself… and yet he walked away with the biggest race win of the year after driving one of the most impeccable months of May many series insiders have seen, not just for a rookie but overall.

That makes summarizing Rossi’s year all the more difficult. The first note can be expressed up front: his focus, something I wondered and worried about at the start of the year, was never lost all season. Rossi came into IndyCar determined not just to integrate, but to win. His determination in Europe shown through in those early races and it was evident how far he’d come early, that a 13th in St. Petersburg was tolerable, while a 10th with fastest race lap at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis was the first sign of disappointment, because more was possible.

Going into the Indianapolis 500 I figured Rossi had the best shot at rookie-of-the-year honors and say, a best-case fourth or fifth place finish if all the cards fell right. Consider his Andretti Autosport team, his strategist Bryan Herta and his own smooth style and immediately quick adaptation to ovals were all things he had going for him.

And his canny ability showed through in the race. How many other rookies would take a mid-race mistake – sliding high through Turn 2 in another car’s wash – and convert it into a learning opportunity for how he could save fuel? Rossi’s fuel saving was masterful, as was the coaching from Herta, and the resulting win that came with it was truly well-deserved.

The downside, inevitably, came with the fact that now Rossi hadn’t just won, but he’d won the biggest race on the calendar. Now he sought greater results in the rest of the races that made up the schedule. His next three best results of fifth (Sonoma), sixth (Iowa) and eighth (Watkins Glen) weren’t anything to scoff at, but again, they’re short of what he’d wanted to achieve. He was three points short of eighth in the championship after a solid, year-round effort.

Qualifying was a challenge. The average picked up in the last eight races slightly from 15.75 in the first eight to 12.8 in the last eight. It still left him a bit too much work to do on race day and like his Andretti Autosport teammates, playing catch-up or hoping off strategy moves could work to success.

Rossi didn’t make mistakes, either, which was impressive to see. A puncture cost a likely sixth or seventh-place finish at Phoenix, and he wasn’t at fault in the Pocono pit road incident as he’d been called out into the path of the oncoming Helio Castroneves. Perhaps he was a bit too aggressive in trying to get a lap back in Texas on a late-race restart. There were a few tough weekends when the team was anonymous and Rossi was part of it, but as the year went on, both were stronger forces.

Looking at where IndyCar’s past rookies of the year finished in points in the last five years, Rossi is in a good spot. James Hinchcliffe (2011, 12th), Simon Pagenaud (2012, fifth) and Carlos Munoz (2014, eighth) have finished in similarly decent positions and embarked on successful careers in the series – Pagenaud of course winning this year’s title. Meanwhile, Tristan Vautier (2013, 20th) and Gabby Chaves (2015, 15th) were one-and-done full-time with pop-up appearances since, and both are now fighting for their careers. Rossi should be in the former category and will only be better next year in his second year, particularly with new engineer Jeremy Milless.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).