IndyCar: Andretti Autosport 2018 Review

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Editor’s note: MotorSportsTalk continues to review how each organization in the IndyCar Series performed in 2018 and also takes a look ahead to 2019.

Thus far we have featured Juncos RacingMeyer Shank RacingCarlin Racing, Harding Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser SullivanDale Coyne Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Team Penske.

Today we feature Andretti Autosport (one more reviews remain after today: Chip Ganassi Racing on Monday):

Andretti Autosport 2018 Season Review

Andretti Autosport was back in championship form after a tough three years in the aero kit era.

They won five races, with Ryan Hunter-Reay (2) and Alexander Rossi (3), and five poles, between Hunter-Reay (1), Rossi (3), and Marco Andretti (1).

Rossi and Hunter-Reay ended up second and fourth in the standings, while Andretti eeked out a top 10 – he finished up ninth. Zach Veach also enjoyed a solid year, his first full IndyCar season.

This team has been a powerhouse under various iterations. They were Indy 500 winners and champions under the Team Green banner in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s under the Andretti Green moniker, and have remained so under Andretti Autosport branding since 2010.

And after a couple lean years, at least in terms of championship prowess – they did win the Indy 500 three times between 2014, 2016, and 2017 – Andretti Autosport is back in championship form and should contend for another title in 2019.

 

Alexander Rossi

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Team: Andretti Autosport, No. 27 Napa Auto Parts Honda
Years in IndyCar: 3
Career wins and podiums: 5 wins, 12 podiums
2018 final standing: 2nd
2018 final stats: 17 starts, 3 poles, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 10 top fives, 14 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 1st (Long Beach, Mid-Ohio, Pocono)

SEASON WRAPUP: Rossi turned himself into a bonafide title contender in 2018, with three wins as he pushed Scott Dixon all the way to the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.

Rossi has everything you need to be a champion. He’s fast. He’s aggressive. He’s calculated when he has to be. He is very much the real deal…and another Indy 500 win may be beckoning as well.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Rossi just needs to do more of the same, and maybe rein himself in just a tad so he doesn’t give away any points (like he did at Detroit Race 2). Still, Rossi should be a title contender again in 2019.

QUOTE (following Sonoma, where he finished sixth): “Hats off to the whole No. 27 NAPA Team. It was a great day for Andretti Autosport with Ryan (Hunter-Reay) winning. It’s very unfortunate what happened in Turn 1 on Lap 1. It’s a situation I’m sure we’ll all replay a lot of times but, at the end of the day, it’s been a good 2018 and I am very appreciative for all the support we’ve had this year. We came pretty close and we’ll work on the things we need to be better on and come back stronger next year. (Scott) Dixon’s the benchmark. He’s the five-time champion for a reason so he deserves it 100 percent and we’ll work very hard to come back and try to beat him next year.”

 

Ryan Hunter-Reay

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Team: Andretti Autosport, No. 28 DHL Honda
Years in IndyCar: 15
Career wins and podiums: 16 wins, 41 podiums
2018 final standing: 4th
2018 final stats: 17 starts, 1 pole, 2 wins, 6 podiums, 10 top fives, 11 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 1st (Detroit Race 2, Sonoma)

SEASON WRAPUP: Ryan Hunter-Reay had a strong 2018 season, but he also might be wondering what might have been.

He was back in championship form, with one pole, a pair of wins, and six podiums, and he stayed in the title picture through the first half of the season. However, six finishes of 16th or worse blighted his title efforts and he settled for fourth in the standings at season’s end.

Still, he had his best year since his 2012 championship season. And the soon-to-be 38-year-old is not slowing down at all, so another championship or Indy 500 victory could be in his future.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Hunter-Reay should definitely be a title contender again in 2019. And if he can somehow avoid DNFs, he might be one of the favorites.

QUOTE (following Sonoma, where he won): “Today was great. I felt like the race just didn’t want to end. I guess that’s what happens when you spend the whole day out front. Any time I needed the pace to put it down, we leaped out to a lead. I was able to maintain that. Hats off to this team, DHL, AutoNation, Honda – everyone involved. Honda really gave me great drivability, reliability. The Firestone tires were great. Shout out to Kerry Doughty, CEO of Butterball, fighting cancer at home right now. His name was on the side of our car today – this is a special win for him and we’re honored to have him with us in spirit. Also, a big shout out to Robbie Wickens – I want to dedicate that win to him and his fight. It was great to see the video message from him today and, hopefully, he will be back with us as soon as possible.”

 

Marco Andretti

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Team: Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, No. 98 U.S. Concrete Honda
Years in IndyCar: 13
Career wins and podiums: 2 wins, 20 podiums
2018 final standing: 9th
2018 final stats: 17 starts, 1 pole, 0 wins, 0 podiums, 2 top fives, 8 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 4th (Detroit Race 1)

SEASON WRAPUP: Marco Andretti got better in his second year under the tutelage of Bryan Herta, finishing in the top 10 in the championship, scoring a pole (Detroit Race 1), and netting a pair of top fives.

Andretti continues to rebuild a career that has hit several stumbling blocks, though he remains one of the more talented drivers on the grid. His style also seems more fitted to the 2018 universal aero kit than the previous Honda aero kit, which may have also contributed to an uptick in form.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Andretti will be desperate to end a winless streak that goes back to 2011 (at Iowa Speedway). He’ll also seek that elusive Indy 500 win.

QUOTE (following Sonoma, where he finished fifth): “I’m very pleased to be this quick on a road course here. Not a bad finish for the last race at Sonoma, I would’ve liked it to have gone a bit better. I think if we went with (Firestone) reds early on I think we could have kept (Simon) Pagenaud behind us. (Alexander) Rossi was amazingly quick and we tried to make it easy on him out of the pits and give him a shot. It was pretty cool of them, they knew I gave them the position, and they gave it back there at the end, so we were able to come out with a top five. Congrats to Ryan (Hunter-Reay) for closing out the year with a win. We’re ready for 2019.”

 

Zach Veach

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Team: Andretti Autosport, No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda
Years in IndyCar: 1
Career wins and podiums: 0 wins, 200 podiums
2018 final standing: 15th
2018 final stats: 17 starts, 0 wins, 0 podiums, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s
2018 best race finish: 4th (Long Beach)

SEASON WRAPUP: Zach Veach’s rookie campaign was unspectacular, but he got better as the year went on and he earned the trust of his teammates when it comes to setup knowledge – when Rossi won at Pocono Raceway, he was keen to compliment Veach, who tested at Pocono earlier in the month, for gathering valuable setup data.

It’s surprising that Veach’s best result came early in the season given that he got much better as the year went on, but he never was quite able to get on the podium despite the improved form.

Still, it was a fine rookie campaign and a strong foundation on which he can build.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019: Veach will aim for his first career podium and win in 2019. Finishing in the top 10 in the standings isn’t out of the question either.

QUOTE (following Long Beach, where he finished fourth): “(Fourth) feels like a win, to be honest. The crew was pushing me pretty hard at the end to try to get on the podium but… after St. Pete, after Phoenix, we’ve just been chipping away on it and we took a big swing at it today. I’ve got to thank my Group One Thousand One guys, honestly. I kind of made a mishap in qualifying to put us 16th. Today we had great strategy, great stops. They got me to where I could capitalize on it so this is more for them than me.”

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500