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.