Why Andretti’s slow start in IndyCar in 2022 raises questions

Why Andretti’s slow start in IndyCar in 2022 raises questions

by kandacemeacham
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Not for the first time, many of us made preseason predictions of Andretti Autosport-Honda fighting for the championship. “It will be a shock if [Colton] Herta isn’t in title contention come September’s finale at Laguna Seca,” I wrote in February and, in time, that form may emerge.

But right now, after two rounds, Herta lies eighth in the points table, 47 points off the lead – and he’s the best of Michael Andretti’s drivers. Series sophomore and team newcomer Romain Grosjean is 11th, 62 points down on championship leader Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske-Chevrolet. Alexander Rossi, a driver who has seven race wins to his name and has twice fought for the IndyCar title, is 27th and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco 28th. Yes, Rossi sits behind four drivers who have only started one of the two races held so far.

It’s too early to suggest Andretti Autosport is in crisis: after all, thanks to Herta’s California sweep at Laguna Seca and Long Beach at the tail-end of 2021, it has won more recently than any IndyCar squad other than Penske. But for the last several years the Andretti squad has been on the pace or setting it at street courses, and went into the most recent off-season vowing to focus on ovals, and yet the team’s paltry points haul so far has come from one street course and one oval.

Romain Grosjean On His Race Debut With Andretti Autosport Honda At St. Petersburg.

Romain Grosjean on his race debut with Andretti Autosport Honda at St. Petersburg.

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

Had Grosjean not lost track time at St. Pete after running into the back of Takuma Sato in practice, he might have started a little higher there, which could have shaped his race somewhat differently. Instead he came home a somewhat muted fifth, just behind teammate Herta whose pit strategy was compromised by a fueling issue and who also found he was among the many to use up the new-spec Firestone ‘reds’ too rapidly in the opening stint.

At Texas, Herta had a bad pitstop that dropped him to an eventual 12th place finish, while Grosjean retired after a missed downshift caused him to over-rev his engine – apparently belying the theory that semi-auto gearboxes have eliminated such issues.

Rossi led at St. Pete while very off-strategy, but the brave tactic after a mediocre qualifying didn’t work with how the yellows fell, and a bad pitstop threw a large dose of salt in the wound and dropped him outside the Top 20. At Texas, looking to bounce back, an electrical failure caused by a cut wiring harness made the #27 car the first DNF. DeFrancesco enjoyed a quite incident-free St. Pete and finished at the end of the lead lap, but at TMS he allowed ambition to override his sense of realism, and eliminated himself and two rivals with a crash just after half-distance.

Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards confesses the team’s results have been a disappointment, but isn’t about to draw conclusions based on just a couple of the season’s 17 races.

“In St. Pete we had two cars qualify in the Firestone Fast Six,” he tells Motorsport.com, “and I think if you look at our street course performances over the past few years, you’d say that was normal. Alex wasn’t in the Fast Six but wasn’t too far away [13th, having been only 0.08sec from making it through to Q2] and St. Pete was Devlin’s first race and, speaking candidly, he has more speed than we thought possible so soon into his IndyCar career.

“Texas – yeah we weren’t in the first six in qualifying, but we had three cars in the Top 13… You always want to be faster and the thing that gets you up every morning is if your cars aren’t 1-2-3-4.”

Andretti Autosport is by no means the only team to have stumbled in the opening two rounds of 2022. Arrow McLaren SP was proclaimed by many as potential Ganassi/Penske-beaters in 2022, yet right now Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist sit only 13th and 19th in points. But at least in Texas AMSP landed pole and clearly had the race pace to put both drivers on the podium. Andretti, by contrast, has looked rather less convincing.

Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport W/ Curb-Agajanian Honda At Texas Motor Speedway.

Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian Honda at Texas Motor Speedway.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

For instance, Herta ran away with the 2021 edition of St. Pete, and one of the prime factors in that success was having a car that was strong on both of Firestone’s compounds, so that he was able to push without cooking his tires, and could respond to the threat of Josef Newgarden’s Penske in the closing stages. This year, Firestone brought a softer alternate street course tire that increased the gap in grip and durability to its harder primary counterpart, and Herta struggled with it sooner than most of his major rivals in the opening stint.

“We’re talking about such small items [in terms of performance],” says Edwards, “and clearly Penske have found something over the winter. But in all honesty, in Colton’s case at St. Pete, we got bitten by not doing what we’d normally do. Many teams were concerned – or at least, unsure – about the red tire and I think in our case, that caused Colton and Nathan [O’Rourke, Herta’s highly respected race engineer] to not be as aggressive with the setup as they usually are. Uncertainty over the tire’s behavior made them a little more cautious than normal, to make sure they didn’t burn off the tires in three laps and leave them just hanging on for the remainder of the stint.”

Further crippling Herta’s challenge was that he also had to stop early for his final set of primaries, not because he had used up the previous set too quickly but because “there was some concern that we didn’t get all the fuel in at the second stop,” according to Edwards.

As discussed in previous columns here, Chevrolet is allowing greater flexibility in engine calibrations on a race weekend, and Edwards believes that Honda’s rival has “made a step, made some gains,” but doesn’t believe it’s fair to judge the HPD vs Chevy-Ilmor battle on just two races.

“Let’s wait until we’ve had another four races or so before assessing that one,” he says. “If you look at St. Pete, the Fast Six was made up of three Hondas and three Chevys, and the top six qualifiers at Texas were also three Hondas and three Chevys.

Michael Andretti And Rob Edwards.

Michael Andretti and Rob Edwards.

Photo by: Gregg Feistman / Motorsport Images

“So I think it’s less that Chevy have got an advantage and more that they have caught up a little bit and that Penske as a team have also made gains too. If they’ve both made an incremental gain, and they have three highly skilled drivers, then in a field as tight as IndyCar, if they execute as they should then all those factors come together and they get the kind of results we’ve seen.”

While there aren’t many holes in the amassed strength of the best of Andretti Autosport’s drivers and engineers, and yes, it’s prudent to wait a couple more rounds before assessing the speed of their cars, it’s only fair to swing the spotlight over the operational procedures on pitlane for cars #26 through #29. Two years ago, it seemed that barely a race went by without at least one Andretti driver grumbling or even fuming over a pitlane foul-up that cost them a top-three or top-five. Last year, in general, that situation appeared to improve – although not enough to have the best Ganassi or Penske crews questioning their respective methodologies.

Two races into the 2022 season, Edwards admits that pitstops remain a weak point at Andretti.

“For sure, we have to do better,” he says. “I think you’re right, we’ve made gains over two years ago and last year showed that, but this year we’ve had two very visible issues already. One was on Alex’s car at St. Pete, and one on Colton’s car at Texas. It’s interesting that Colton slid long on his first stop [at TMS] and the inside-front guy did a fantastic job of recovering from that despite having the wheel on his lap! But yes, there was an issue with that corner of the car on Colton’s last stop which cost him some places.

“So yes, obviously our pitstops are not where they should be at the moment, so it’s a case of putting the frustration and emotion to one side, and analyzing the reasons for the issues in both those cases. It’s better to get on top of that now than later on.”

Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda, Texas Motor Speedway.

Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda, Texas Motor Speedway.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

On the positive side, Grosjean has already integrated comfortably with the AA squad, and Edwards says the same applies to the #28 car’s race engineer Olivier Boisson, as he works alongside O’Rourke, Jeremy Milless (Rossi’s engineer) and Andy Listes (DeFrancesco’s engineer).

“Romain’s arrival has worked out well,” says Edwards, “and him qualifying and racing in the top five at St. Pete kind of proved that. Actually, the fact that he qualified 13th at Texas was also impressive. There was a lot of focus on Jimmie Johnson’s performance, and rightly so, but it was also Romain’s first time qualifying on a superspeedway, and for him to start the race just behind Alex and ahead of guys like Marcus Ericsson [Ganassi] and Simon [Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing] was also good. He’s strong, and I think he and Olivier together make the whole team better and stronger.”

Edwards is similarly upbeat when asked about AA gaining input from two proven and successful IndyCar stars, now that technical partners Meyer Shank Racing have switched to two full-time entries driven by Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves.

“Meyer Shank ran two cars in five of the last six races of ’21, so we had a good lead-in for it,” he observes. “Now, during a practice day on a race weekend, those two cars work somewhat separately from our four, although all six drivers’ data is available to all of us. So if, for instance, any one of them is particularly fast in one corner or one section, that can be seen by the others. But it isn’t until the end of the day that all six of them and their race engineers get together for a full debrief.

“So while it’s great to have the extra resource and data from two drivers as fast and experienced as Simon and Helio, I’d say the work we do with them and the whole MSR team away from the track between races is at least as important as what we do on a race weekend.”

Next up is Long Beach, where Andretti Autosport will be held to a very high standard, both internally and externally. Whatever modifications Chevy allows to the mapping of its 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s, it’s hard to imagine they will be able to fully combat the smoother lowdown power delivery of the Hondas, particularly out of Long Beach’s 35mph hairpin onto the front straight. And after Rossi’s triumphs at this classic street course in 2018 and ’19, and Herta following this up with glory in 2021 [the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions], the Andretti team has a strong reputation to maintain.

“I would say there is an expectation,” says Edwards. “Over the last three or four years, if there’s a type of track that the Andretti cars have done well on, generally, it’s the street circuits. So yes, I would expect Colton, Alex and Romain to be qualifying in the top six, and on from there.”

Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda, St. Petersburg.

Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda, St. Petersburg.

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Edwards is, on the surface, one of IndyCar’s more placid individuals, known for casting a cool yet critical eye over the team in his charge. He played good cop under the austere if effective rule of Derrick Walker at Walker Racing, helped Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (as it was then) prove immediately effective as a frontline team when it entered IndyCar full-time, but has looked happiest in his current position, at last granted the decision-making freedom that Michael Andretti bestows on those he trusts. Edwards somehow also manages to juggle his responsibilities whenever the proprietor ventures into other branches of motorsport.

In other words, Edwards has seen too much to start panicking at Andretti Autosport’s sluggish start to the 2022 IndyCar season. This is a guy who witnessed first-hand the 2016 season when, aside from Rossi’s Indy 500 triumph, the team spent the majority of the season knee-deep in mediocrity.

“It’s never going to be my nature to declare a crisis,” he says. “It’s a matter of, ‘Where are we at? What are the issues? Let’s address those issues, and let’s come out the other side.’

“Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m maddened by how the first two races have gone, and the fact that we haven’t even got a podium… We want to win every race, so all of us are super-frustrated. But we’ll keep it in context and tackle the issues as they are.

Devlin Defrancesco, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda

Devlin DeFrancesco, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“Colton’s the same driver with the same crew around him that won the last two races of 2021, and as long as that group keep doing what they know they can do, and that Romain and Alex get the chance to show what they can do, then two or three races down the road this should be a different conversation.”

Still, the last time a driver outside of Ganassi and Penske won an IndyCar championship was in 2012, when the now-departed Ryan Hunter-Reay triumphed with Andretti Autosport. That seems a long time ago because, in racing terms, it is.

Michael Andretti has said that entering Formula 1, as he plans to do in 2024, would “raise our whole game”. But until another Andretti driver replicates Hunter-Reay’s achievement, onlookers will wonder if, in the intervening period, the team’s form in its core series has suffered as a consequence of pursuing glory in Global Rallycross, Formula E, Extreme E, IMSA, Supercars and now, F1.

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