MILLER: The story behind the Rossi contract negotiations

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MILLER: The story behind the Rossi contract negotiations

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MILLER: The story behind the Rossi contract negotiations

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The saga of Alexander Rossi’s contract negotiations had more twists and turns than Laguna Seca, and it involved Roger Penske, Zak Brown, Chevrolet, Honda, Ted Klaus, NAPA, Pieter Rossi, AutoNation, Michael Andretti and the most coveted driver in the IndyCar paddock.

In the end, Rossi re-upped with Andretti with a multi-year deal that will maintain the balance of power in the series, and allow Honda to retain its A team. However, it was anything but a done deal until recently because of a number of potential scenarios.

The most intriguing approach came from Brown. He contacted his good pal Andretti with a supposed multi-million dollar offer to become partners in a full-time Andretti/McLaren effort for 2020. Since Honda of Japan hasn’t forgiven Brown, McLaren and Fernando Alonso for their Formula 1 criticisms, the only option for this alignment would be Chevrolet.

“It was a substantial offer,” admitted Andretti. “But there wasn’t a firm commitment, and the timing of everything… we had to make a move. We have a great relationship with Zak and McLaren, and if they end up with somebody else it’s going to kill me, because we’ve spent so much time and effort trying to make it happen.

“But unfortunately we couldn’t make it work with their relationship with the manufacturer, so it didn’t work out.”

If that deal had materialized, the repercussions would have been dire for Honda. It would have not only lost Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, but also teenage tiger Colton Herta, whose contract with Harding Racing binds him to Andretti technology.

Of course the real elephant in the room was The Captain. When Team Penske comes knocking on your door, you answer it and your career is usually sent into another sphere. Prior to May, a lot of people were convinced that Rossi was going to replace Simon Pagenaud, who had gone winless in 2018. But the 2016 IndyCar champion swept the month with a magnificent performance, and probably saved his job.

“Our position was this,” said Penske. “With his contract up, they (the Rossis) approached us and we had dialogue about it. I made the comment after Simon’s great performance at Indy he’d be a driver for us in 2020, and following that only thing we could do would be to run a fourth car, and that’s not what they were interested in. So I think they made their decision on that basis.”

Alexander Rossi in a NAPA-backed Andretti Autosport Honda. And keeping all of those elements together beyond this year required a lot of moving parts. Image by IndyCar

You can read that as, if Penske had an open, third seat, then Rossi may have filled it.

Pieter Rossi, who manages his son, simply said they had a very solid offer from a great team.

Still, even though Andretti has Gainbridge, DHL, NAPA, U.S. Concrete and AutoNation as sponsors, and obviously gets whatever Honda can offer in terms of engine subsidies, wind tunnel time and some money, it probably couldn’t match Brown’s offer, nor what Penske could have paid Rossi. So what sealed the deal?

“It was definitely short (financially), and about three things came together to make this happen,” Andretti reveals. “But AutoNation came in and saved the day. They made it happen. They’ve been a great supporter with Ryan, and they really stepped up.”

Andretti also paid tribute to Honda Performance Development president Ted Klaus, who made keeping Rossi and Michael his No.1 priority after replacing Art St. Cyr last spring.

“Ted made a lot to things happen in a very short period of time, and had a lot to do with it,” he said. “He’s been great to work with, and I just can’t say enough about all the people who helped pull this together.”

But the bottom line in all this is the driver. It made sense for Rossi to stay because he’s got a great relationship with engineer Jeremy Milless, and this is “his” team. But I also believe he had a great sense of loyalty to Michael and Honda for giving him a chance and believing in him when nobody knew him in America. Rossi is his own man and it’s very possible that this was ultimately more about loyalty than money.

“It’s a little of both,” Rossi says. “But I think we’ve got huge potential with this team to be better than we are. It’s a four-car team and we feed off each other, and I wouldn’t here without my three teammates.”

And some untapped talent that got a chance to shine in an IndyCar.

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