During a typical NTT IndyCar Series season, much of the winning strategy is formulated during the team debriefs. Those are the seemingly endless hours of meetings between the drivers and engineers after practice sessions and qualifications.
The engineers collect millions of bits of data from the car, then pore through that information to help determine what the car is doing right, and what needs to be corrected.
The drivers play a key role in this process by providing human feedback to the engineering staff.
These “debriefs” are often anything but “brief.” They can sometimes become a mind-numbing exercise, especially on a multi-car team such as Andretti Autosport.
That team has one-quarter of the IndyCar field with drivers Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach and Colton Herta. Andretti Autosport has an engineering alliance with Meyer Shank Racing and driver Jack Harvey.
It is important for each driver to listen to what is important and sift through the information that isn’t.
As Rossi explains, it’s a matter of “sifting through the noise.”
“It’s all how you use the information,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “We’ve always been a big team. Ever since I’ve been part of it, it’s been a four-car effort with a fifth for Indianapolis. I never noticed a downside to that. The more information you got, if you used it appropriately and didn’t get lost in translation, it was a benefit.
“That is what you have to do with three cars, five cars or nine cars. You have to know the information you are looking for and have to filter though the noise. There is a lot of noise. There are a lot of opinions and a lot of people that have theories right or wrong. You have to know what works for you and what you need for that moment. If you can do that, it’s nothing but a benefit.
“I think the team wouldn’t take it on unless they were prepared to handle running all those cars.
“The more the merrier at Indy.”
Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay are the “old pros” of the team. That means they have sat through the most debriefs at Andretti Autosport.
“The debriefs become overwhelming because they take two hours at the end of the day,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSports.com. “There’s only so much time in the weekend to debrief over that many cars. That’s the good thing. You have so many more different channels of data to pull from and opinions to lean on. These are talented race car drivers and engineers involved, so it’s at our disposal to use it correctly.”
Veach is set to begin his third full season at Andretti Autosport. The 25-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio, works with engineer Marky Bryant. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep the focus but adding Herta’s input to the mix will provide more valuable data for the team to use.
“The debriefs already last way too long, so we’re excited for that,” Veach quipped. “Actually, I think it’ll be really good having Colton full time in all our debriefs will be really helpful. We’re just really excited. Last year was terrible, so we’ve forgotten about that already and ready to move on and have a much better year.
“Working with Mark Bryant has been awesome. The thing I like about Mark, he’s worked a lot with the younger drivers that the engineers in Indy Lights are used to. He’ll ask, ‘What’s the biggest problem and how can I make it better for you?’ It’s not, ‘This is the setup that’s quick, you’re going to run this.’
“I don’t drive like Alex. A lot of people can’t. Ryan even struggles with it and so does Colton because Alex likes to be half backwards every corner. It’s nice to have this relationship with Mark where it’s a little more self-centered on ‘let’s not think too much about what everyone else is doing. Let’s think about what you want and what you want to feel and need, we’ll beat them with our own thing.’
“I’m really looking forward to that. That’s not exactly the environment I had last year. It was very this is what the car is, you need to figure it out. And it’s like we have 40 minutes to figure it out, it’s hard to put all the pieces together.”
The Andretti Autosport debriefing room is jammed with six drivers and six race engineers, as well as Andretti Autosport Technical Director Eric Bretzman and Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards.
With so much data and so many different engineering concepts, how do the participants in this forum deal with information overload?
“With great difficulty,” Bryant said. “It is a massive task. Having another driver again for this coming season is a huge task.
“It is really trying to pick out those really important things in the debrief and making sure we work together as a group to point us all in the right direction, rather than the nitty gritty details of certain things that aren’t specific to your driver that need to be portrayed. You look at how the setup has evolved over the weekend, rather than focus on every little detail.”
There are many advantages to having a multi-car operation in IndyCar. On a three-car team, such as Team Penske, each driver can work on different race setups in practice to determine which one is best for the entire team. Testing becomes more valuable because more can be accomplished simply by having more drivers and engineers.
Andretti Autosport, however, has taken multi-car teams to a new level. For years, it was a four-car operation. In 2020, Andretti Autosport, took over its partner team at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, featuring 19-year-old star Colton Herta.
By moving Herta’s team into the Andretti Autosport stable, that created five full-time entries in INDYCAR.
Another entry; another set of data.
“We all get along really well,” Herta said. “We are more similar behind closed doors than most people think. That we get along really well helps with a healthy relationship.”
As far as racing ability, each has different styles and that is what makes this collection so interesting. It’s a chance to see what may work for one driver, may not work for another.
“Some people have some strong suits in their driving where they can repeat better at other tracks,” Herta explained. “Rossi is exceptionally well at Long Beach. I was really good at COTA and Laguna Seca. Ryan is really good at Iowa. You can go through and see where these guys are really good. Through all five of our drivers, we have places where somebody is good at that track and we can leave from them.”
Rossi’s drive style is as different as any of these six drivers.
“Alex can make things work,” Bryant said. “That is very true. Sometimes, it’s about being in the right zone, the right frame of mind. Some guys are able to pull that off more often than others.”
Finding the similarities and capitalizing on the differences are key to success on any multi-car team in INDYCAR.
That is why it’s important for each driver to recognize their own strengths, weaknesses and driving style as they try to help each other perform better in a team environment.
“I think we try to help find things,” Herta explained. “Over the years working with teammates, you see patterns of what works for them and what works for you. That’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that you work towards through the years of experience. There is some stuff that is really clear that we want to do with the car and then there is other things that are not. You can see what happens to them when they do the change. If there is drastic change and you are struggling with oversteer and the drastic change is for understeer, it is something you would want to try regardless of whether it suits your driving style or not.
“I’m probably more like Ryan Hunter-Reay when it comes to driving style,” Herta continued as he described his driving style. “Marco Andretti is on a different spectrum. He likes a lot of understeer and Alex is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He likes a lot of oversteer.
“Ryan and I are more neutral. We can handle both ways but prefer a little bit of oversteer. Zack Veach is similar to Ryan and I.”
When it comes to racing style, Rossi believes that all depends on the track IndyCar is competing at during the weekend.
“Sometimes, we are all pretty much on the same thing and other times we are not,” Rossi said. “We all try to learn from each other. Hopefully, we are able to use the advantage of having five cars to work with so if one car is doing well, all four of the other cars can follow suit and get into the top five.
“It’s pretty straightforward. I’ve been working with Marco and Ryan and Zach for three years now so we know the things we can take from each other and the things we can’t. Last year, Colton was involved in our team as well. These are all guys we are all pretty familiar with. Once you know a particular driver’s likes and dislikes; pros and cons, it’s pretty easy to know what you are looking for. It’s not that big of a deal at all.”
How does all of this information, though, not turn into “too much information” for these engineers to fully comprehend and formulate?
It’s a matter of getting to the point and staying on that point.
“Sometimes you apply your personal filters and pay particular information to this or that,” Marco Andretti’s engineer, Garrett Mothershead explained. “There is way more information than you can digest in a period of time. When you have a group this size and you have to get through five guys going through their debriefs, you learn to be brief. You learn to get to the point.
“There is not as much conversation because there is much more known. I don’t have to ask what springs were on Alex’s car or what Ryan was running at that point. We know that already. So, a lot of those conversation pieces are information right in front of me. Now, we get into a lot more nuances and small things.
“You can still race these things.”
Translating the data is very important. But perhaps the most important trait of all on this team is the ability to communicate that seemingly endless information for the betterment of the overall operation.
“I don’t think we have a flow of information problem,” Bryant said. “The systems we have in place for sharing and having those available for all the different cars is very open. The engineers are open with each other in terms of seeing what everybody else is doing. We try to make the cars as much the same as we can, really. There are little test ideas that pop up and we try to communicate that. They all get the same equipment.
“Generally, the setup direction moves in the direction it needs to go based on what everyone has done in practice. Sometimes, there is strength and weakness in having such a big group.
“Not everybody is going to roll out the same car, are they? When you do have a big swing like that, it comes down to the consensus of what everybody things are sensible and then each team has choices they make for themselves that make sense for that team and that driver.”