PRUETT: Two different teams, two different paths

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PRUETT: Two different teams, two different paths

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PRUETT: Two different teams, two different paths

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For Arrow McLaren SP, it’s a perfect collision of timing and need. As the team laid out an expansion plan that would take it out to three cars in 2023, it identified the benefit of adding a proven veteran — an anchor – to fill one of the seats.

Alexander Rossi’s desire for a change of scenery has been well known for more than a year, and after conversations with the other big teams in the NTT IndyCar Series, he found the right fit with AMSP. Needing a fresh start, he’ll have every resource imaginable to make winning races and vying for a championship possible. In Rossi, the team receives a high-profile Indy 500 winner whose reputation for providing excellent chassis feedback will be missed by Andretti Autosport and prized by AMSP.

The question to ponder, though, is where Rossi will settle within the team. As three-year AMSP veteran Pato O’Ward sits second in the championship and continues to assert himself as the unquestioned team leader within the driver ranks, Rossi poses an interesting question to be answered. With O’Ward signed to a new contract extension through 2025, we can expect a reckoning of sorts when Rossi arrives, because O’Ward’s approach to racing involved destroying every driver around him, including teammates. At the moment, AMSP is O’Ward’s team, and that’s not something he — or any driver — would want to lose to a newcomer like Rossi.

Rossi, on the other hand, isn’t leaving Andretti Autosport to become O’Ward’s sidekick and play the role of a No. 2.

Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves dealt with it — unsuccessfully — when Josef Newgarden arrived at Team Penske in 2017. Scott Dixon and the rest of the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers watched as Alex Palou joined in 2021 and went straight to the top of the pecking order, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was forced to deal with being demoted from P1 at Andretti once Rossi found his groove. A few years later, Rossi experienced the same phenomenon when Colton Herta established himself as Andretti’s top dog.

The process will begin anew at the onset of the 2023 season when the stopwatch and race results will provide the ultimate answer on where O’Ward and Rossi stack up as AMSP teammates. O’Ward won’t be any easier to defeat than Herta, and Rossi’s blend of speed and chassis tuning expertise could pose a threat to O’Ward that’s unlike anything he’s seen in IndyCar. And depending on who AMSP signs to drive its third car, the intensity for that internal P1 position could be fierce.

At Andretti Autosport, the changes coming next season are altogether different. Where AMSP is adding a seven-year veteran to the mix, Andretti is heading in the opposite direction with the youngest lineup in its long history with the upcoming return of its Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood to backfill Rossi’s seat.

Kirkwood will help bring the average driver age at Andretti down considerably. But how quickly can the team bridge the experience gap? Chris Jones/Penske Entertainment

When Andretti’s four-car team headed into last year’s season finale at Long Beach, its average age with drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay (40), James Hinchcliffe (34), Alexander Rossi (30) and Colton Herta (21) was 31.25.

Entering 2023, Herta (22), Devlin DeFrancesco (23), Kirkwood (24) and Romain Grosjean (36) will take the average age down to 26.25, with three of the four averaging 23 years old. Going from three drivers who were 30 or older to three who are barely out of their teens is a big adjustment in not only age, but experience.

The main questions I have for Andretti involve veteran leadership from within the driver corps. Is Grosjean, with three oval races to his credit and 19 combined IndyCar starts, going to be the one to offer insights on what works best at Toronto or Iowa if the Andretti team is wide of the mark on the opening days of practice? That’s not meant to be critical of Grosjean in any way, but the team’s upcoming loss of deep and institutional knowledge among its drivers is hard to ignore.

In Rossi’s absence, it will make Herta, who turns 23 at the end of March, the true veteran of the group as he embarks on his fifth full-time season in the series. Minus Rossi, and without the wisdom of Hunter-Reay to draw from, it makes me wonder if Andretti would be wise to hire their version of a Dario Franchitti, a modern driver who can coach the drivers, advise the engineers, and provide that voice of reason or dissent to help steer the team in the right direction as its younger or less experienced drivers learn and reach their full potential.

The medium- to -long-term prospects for Herta and Kirkwood are phenomenal; in time, this tandem could rule IndyCar. But as Herta continues to work out a final few wrinkles in his game, and Kirkwood takes time to learn the ropes at his new team and polish some of his rough edges, the timeline for Andretti to rediscover its most competitive form could be longer than desired.

There’s no mistaking that Herta can add more wins this year, and as Grosjean gets closer to his first victory, more sunny days are ahead. Rossi is also more than capable of winning a few times before his move to AMSP. But what will 2023 and 2024 hold for the team? Will the loss of age and knowledge set the program back, or will we see something new as two of the best young drivers in the series show that they — along with Grosjean and DeFrancesco — can steer the organization back to the championship fight at the front of the grid?

It’s two big teams taking two entirely different approaches to their futures. Which one will prove to be the most successful, the acquisition of a veteran in need of a reboot or giving the next-generation the keys to a storied franchise?

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