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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Alexander Rossi

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. In seventh place, Alexander Rossi leapt up to the top-finishing Andretti driver in the standings, won another race with a wreath, and firmly established himself as one of the leading lights of the championship in an entirely more comfortable second season.

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda

  • 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
  • 2017: 7th Place, 1 Win, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 99 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 9.5 Avg. Finish

In a single sentence, Alexander Rossi was the most improved driver of IndyCar, season 2017 – and it wasn’t even close.

Rossi’s on-track results grew exponentially as his embrace of being a key part of IndyCar’s present, and its future, grew along with it as the year went on. It made covering his sophomore season a joy as his proper integration into the series truly felt achieved this season, whereas last year it was a slower process negatively affected by poor performance.

That Rossi’s results were as good as they were this year spoke volumes of his adaptation to new circumstances. He had to learn the dynamic of working with a new engineer in Jeremy Milless and also lost Bryan Herta as his race strategist, but got a like-for-like replacement on the box in veteran strategy whiz and Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards. Milless, considering he was coming from working with Josef Newgarden on a Chevrolet kit at Ed Carpenter Racing, acclimated incredibly well to his new team and his new kit, even if the results took a few races to come good.

And interestingly, they could have been even better. As we wrote earlier this year, between a puncture at St. Petersburg, engine failure at Long Beachfueling issue at Indy and being trapped in a “Ganassi sandwich” at Texas, Rossi lost close to 100 points alone between those four races. But he went on a tear from Toronto through the Watkins Glen, with five straight races between first and sixth, capped off by another fuel issue-turned-recovery drive to win at “The Glen” and defeat Scott Dixon in a straight fight. Rossi ended 148 points back of Newgarden in the championship, P7 and top Andretti Autosport entry, but could well have ended as high as third – perhaps even second – had he caught a few breaks.

Where Rossi starred as much if not more so than on-track was in his development outside the car, and shaped up as a driver IndyCar was truly lucky to have. Rossi grew into one of the year’s more candid, insightful quotes – never missing an opportunity to explain something in a smart, refined, mature level. He performed some ambassadorial tasks, particularly in the run up to the Sonoma finale. He wrote some great blogs for RACER’s website. He bonded with friends and fellow drivers Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe, with he and Daly set to appear on the new season of “The Amazing Race.” He perpetually poked fun at Marco Andretti on Instagram. He coined his No. 98 car “baby girl” and never missed an opportunity to thank NAPA Auto Parts for their support; NAPA and Andretti Autosport rewarded him with a two-year extension at year’s end. His advice offered to teammate Takuma Sato before Pocono qualifying spoke to his selflessness and dedication to his team. Thanks for that should be extended to his personal assistant Liza Markle, who rocked it in her first year working with him this year, but also to Rossi’s family and close friends around him – particularly his dad Pieter who’s been there all the way.

Going into his rookie year in IndyCar, I didn’t know how to feel about the American driver who’d long pursued his F1 dream coming into the series in what felt at first like a last-minute, last-ditch arrangement. After the conclusion of his second year, for me anyway, now it’s hard to imagine IndyCar without him.

F1: Lewis Hamilton chases history at US Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton is closing in on the F1 championship. Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — From New York to Texas, Lewis Hamilton returned to the United States this week with yet another Formula One championship ready for the taking.

Finish off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once and for all at the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend and the British driver would climb another step among racing’s greatest drivers. A fifth season championship would tie him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second all-time behind only Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who won seven.

Hamilton storms into what could be a chilly, rainy Texas weekend with a commanding 67-point lead over Vettel heading into the last four races of 2018. If Hamilton wins Sunday, Vettel has to finish no lower than second to keep the championship going another week to Mexico City. Any Hamilton finish that leaves him eight points or more clear of Vettel clinches the title.

Yet facing constant reminders of what’s at stake, Hamilton refused to get dragged into talking about his place in F1 history.

“None of us are saying how cool it would be. We are not focusing on `ifs.’ We are focusing on making sure we deliver,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We expect Ferrari to punch back hard here this weekend.”

Others were happy to do it for him.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, sitting next to Hamilton in the drivers’ news conference, ranked Hamilton among his top five champions in F1 history, no small compliment considering Alonso won championships in 2005 and 2006.

“Lewis showed talent from day one fighting for the championship his rookie year, then winning in 2008,” Alonso said. “He was able to win races when the car deserved to win it, but he was able to win races in seasons when the car wasn’t in top form … It’s impressive.”

If he’s feeling any pressure about the weekend, Hamilton isn’t showing it.

He spent the first part of the week in New York with an appearance on “Good Morning America” and a trip to Times Square to see his image on one of the towering video boards. On Thursday, he cracked jokes about fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights,” quipped about his love of American pancakes and talked up a Circuit of the Americas track that brings out his racing instincts.

“They really don’t make tracks like they did in the old days. Some of the new tracks really aren’t that good. This is one that is,” Hamilton said. “You can actually race here. I’ve had the chance to race here. Real races.”

Hamilton has dominated this track since it opened in 2012, winning five times and starting from the pole or second each time he won. He won the inaugural race with McLaren and his victory in the rain with Mercedes in 2015 clinched the season championship (his third). He comes back to Austin having won six of the last seven races this season, a streak interrupted only by Vettel’s victory in Belgium back on Aug. 26.

With 100 points still available, Vettel is still mathematically alive in the championship but would need a run of Ferrari victories and a historic collapse by Hamilton and Mercedes to win it. And it has to start this week.

The German is the only driver to beat Hamilton in Austin. That came in 2013 during his dominant season with Red Bull that won Vettel his fourth championship. Last year, Vettel led after the start but Hamilton easily reeled him in and passed on lap 14 and the Ferrari never threatened an easy Hamilton victory.

The circuit won’t quite be the same. Race officials installed new kerbs on turns 1, 16 and 17 to keep the cars from running off track. Vettel snatched the lead at the start last year when Hamilton forced him left but he was able to cut the corner and head downhill.

The 2017 race ended in controversy when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen around turns 16 and 17 on the final lap to finish third. Race officials determined it was an illegal overtake because all four of Verstappen’s wheels left the track and a 5-second penalty knocked him off the podium.