Of the various items on Alexander Rossi’s to-do list next season, one of the more important tasks involves solving the complex challenge young teammate Colton Herta has presented at Andretti Autosport.
As a rookie in 2018 with the Andretti-affiliated Harding Steinbrenner Racing team, Herta scored two wins – same as Rossi – and earned three poles compared to the two captured by the 2016 Indy 500 winner. Rossi ended the season with the upper hand in the standings, taking third to Herta’s seventh, but it was the last time Rossi held high ground within Andretti’s driver roster.
Herta added another win and pole in 2020 after joining the big Andretti team and went on to take third in the championship as Rossi dealt with an extraordinary amount of misfortune and missed opportunities that left him winless in ninth. Any hopes for a Rossi turnaround in 2021 were quickly dashed, as adversity remainder a regular visitor on race day. Herta, meanwhile, started inside the top six on 12 occasions and added three more poles and wins to his tally on the way to fifth in the championship.
Rossi, left to wonder what he’d done to deserve another dispiriting season, endured the winless year and placed 10th.
Having seen Rossi destroy the field on multiple occasions since he joined the series in 2016, there’s no doubt as to whether he’s capable of returning to the stop step of the podium and taking the fight to Herta. Whether he’s destined to move Herta back to second on Andretti’s depth chart – all while contending with new teammate Romain Grosjean – will be a fascinating subject to follow when the new season gets underway in February.
From Rossi’s perspective, catching and consistently beating Herta will take more hard work on the engineering side to further improve the No. 27 Honda. The quest starts with road courses, which comprise nearly half of the IndyCar calendar.
“There’s no mysteries in motorsports,” Rossi says. “I think he’s exceptionally talented. Him and (race engineer) Nathan (O’Rourke) found a really good rhythm and are they aren’t looking for anything. So they’re able to show up, and they have their setup, and they run it. And it’s quick. Until… really the end of August, when we had a Laguna Seca test, I would always have to revert to Colton’s setup in some capacity, and frankly, I can’t drive it.
“But backing up to the 1000-foot view, our street course package is awesome. Me and Colton can drive the same race car on street courses. It’s not a problem. We are within half a degree of front wing most of the time; I feel like we’re the two quickest cars on track, period. So that’s street courses. Ovals, aside from the (Indy) 500, we’re both looking for something. I think St. Louis was a huge step forward for us this year. It surprised kind of all of us that we had pace there, the two of us, but still, I think ovals are kind of a question mark for the organization. The big difference is road courses.”
By the midway point of 2021, Rossi and race engineer Jeremy Milless were making solid gains as a fifth at Mid-Ohio, fourth on the Indy Grand Prix, and second at Portland – his best result of the year – gave the No. 27 entry the boost it needed. In most instances, though, Herta was slightly ahead in qualifying, the race, or overall speed.
“For me, I was having to bring a completely different car to all of these tracks and with limited practice, just couldn’t get it in the window, and then would end up reverting to his car which was quick, and then realizing I was still two and a half to three tenths off of him,” Rossi explained.
“And so it wasn’t until August where we actually found a road course car; we took that car to Portland and qualified on the front row. Took that road course car to Laguna, qualified on the front row. And things were starting to trend in the direction that were really positive, but ultimately, we didn’t get any results out of those.”
In the simplest of terms, getting results is all Rossi is aiming for when he embarks on his seventh IndyCar season. He enters 2022 in the final year of his contract with Andretti Autosport, needs to give all the teams with open seats for 2023 a reason to make lucrative offers, and has a benchmark in Herta to deal with if he’s going to secure his first championship.
Rossi figures that if he and Milless can hold onto their rediscovered road course mojo, the good times will make a swift return.
“There’s always a reason in racing,” he reiterated. “The big thing for us on the 27 car side was we didn’t have a road course car that we were comfortable with. And that is now behind us. So going into St. Pete, we know that that car will be fast, and then, hopefully going into the first road courses. That all translates here in a couple months.”