RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Andretti Autosport.
2022 Entrants’ Championship Positions (1-25):
9th, No. 27 Honda with Alexander Rossi
10th, No. 26 Honda with Colton Herta
13th, No. 28 Honda with Romain Grosjean
23rd, No. 29 Honda with Devlin DeFrancesco
No. 26 Honda with Colton Herta
No. 27 Honda with Kyle Kirkwood
No. 28 Honda with Romain Grosjean
No. 29 Honda with Devlin DeFrancesco
Everyone’s happier when you’re fast. Life’s easier. The sun’s brighter. Anything seems possible. That’s the vibe at Andretti Autosport as we head into the new season.
Wind the clock back, though, and no team took a bigger step backwards in 2022 than Andretti Autosport. In kind, no team is poised for a bigger change of fortunes this year than Andretti Autosport, with the possible exception of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The team’s struggles were exemplified by Colton Herta, who recorded his worst IndyCar season to date. Andretti Autosport lost a step across the board; even its client at Meyer Shank Racing felt the competitive sting as the dampers and chassis setup sheets it received mirrored the same loss of speed being experienced by the mothership. Herta went from being the king of average qualifying starting position in 2021 to dropping something like six positions (again, on average) in 2022, and that had a devastating effect on his ability to be effective on race days.
Teammates Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean were in similar situations, and as a whole, the Andretti drivers — including rookie Devlin DeFrancesco — went into too many races with serious starting position deficits to overcome. As expected, and between the occasional miracles, it was a rough year as its top driver from 2021 — Herta, who placed fifth in the championship — slid to 10th in 2022 with Rossi edging Herta (in ninth) for the first time in the standings.
Grosjean was rarely comfortable or confident in a car that, until the final races of the season, spoke a different language, and DeFrancesco, who had a lot of learning to do on the job, had a messy introduction to IndyCar before finally getting the hang of things over the latter stages of the championship.
For all the things that misfired last year, a number of smart and positive changes have been implemented to get the S.S. Andretti back on course. Of the areas Andretti’s prodigious engineering department went to work on in recent months, a ton of effort and budget was expended to find the roots of the team’s single-lap qualifying pace deficiency and address it for the new season.
Take a look at how fast the team was as a unit in Spring Training and afterwards in testing at Sebring, and it sure seems like Andretti’s shortages in short-burst speed have been solved. If that gets Herta and Grosjean closer to where they belong on the starting grid, that will be huge.
Then we have the newest addition to the team in Kyle Kirkwood. Based on his pre-season pace, Herta will have some new pressure to deal with from the 2021 Indy Lights champion. Said another way, Michael Andretti, who laughed while acknowledging he appreciated the fact that Kirkwood appeared to get all of his rookie crashes out of the way in a Foyt car last season, could have a markedly stronger team this year if Kirkwood can turn his rocket-fast testing speed into rock-solid race results.
If Andretti’s cars are indeed faster and Kirkwood can keep the No. 27 between the walls, they could have a powerful one-two punch they’ve been missing since the trio of Herta/Rossi/Ryan Hunter-Reay were always in the mix a few years ago.
Then there’s Grosjean, who could turn Andretti into a three-way threat if all of his positive energy is maintained to start the season. Things got dark at times for him last year, but if you’ve seen him recently, his batteries are recharged and the optimism glass is full. Holding onto that sunny disposition is going to be important on the bad days.
Lastly on the driver front, DeFrancesco’s brimming with confidence and I expect his gap to Herta/Kirkwood/Grosjean to be greatly reduced as he and promising new race engineer Ron Barhorst develop their relationship.
On the team side, Andretti’s management group has been amplified with the signing of Scott Harner, who left Foyt and brings big-team experience with him after being half of the team management duo at Chip Ganassi Racing during its legendary championship runs with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Harner’s been added as a team manager alongside Andretti veterans Paul ‘Ziggy’ Harcus and Josh Freund; with the team undergoing so much expansion, Harner allows COO Rob Edwards to pass down more IndyCar-specific duties to the group while he helps establish Andretti’s new electric skateboard team, new Pro Bass Fishing team, and its new BattleBots team, among other ventures.
Folks love working with Ziggy and Freund, and the same can be said for Harner. This is a strong move by Andretti, and with the same basic lineup of chief mechanics and crews across the four cars, barring a few new members here or there, this is an organization that’s attacked its weaknesses and added more layers of oversight where needed.
WHAT THEY NEED
Start better. Finish better. That’s about as stripped down and straightforward as it gets. The more appearances in the Firestone Fast Six, the better. If Andretti can turn their Saturday afternoons into qualifying celebrations, the Sundays will sort themselves out.
On an individual basis, Herta no longer has race-winning veterans to be big, loud, and influential voices when necessary. Like it or not, at 22, he’s the old dog within Andretti, and whether it’s the need for correction or encouragement, it’s time to lead on and off the track.
For Kirkwood, he needs to prove last season was a fluke. His mission is to show that he’s as close to a complete driver as possible, and if that happens, IndyCar will have a new star on its hands. It’s in Grosjean and DeFrancesco where we have an interesting situation to ponder.
Andretti’s new partners and major investors are known to have made it clear that they want nothing but winners in the cars, and if possible, winners who bring major pedigrees with significant championship victories attached to their names and Indy 500 wins. Herta’s on the first of a new and lucrative multi-year deal and Kirkwood’s on the first of a multi-year deal, but Grosjean and DeFrancesco are on the second and final year of their current deals, and it’s here where their needs are painfully clear: As the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis loved to say, ‘Just win, baby.’
What I don’t know is if it’s too late for Grosjean and DeFrancesco to hold onto their seats, regardless of whether they go on epic runs and win on a regular basis, but I can say that without giant performances in 2023, we could see new names driving the Nos. 28 and 29 next season.
Think of what Arrow McLaren is preparing to do in 2024 by stacking the mercurial talents of Pato O’Ward, Rossi, and Alex Palou together as a frightening trio, and that’s all I’ve heard Andretti is angling to do next year across all four of its entries. Not across two or three, but a four-deep assembly of hunter-killers.
It makes for a unique dynamic where half of this year’s lineup is looking to do more than have good seasons; if things go exceedingly well, a contract extension could be offered, but if there are difficulties, it’s almost inevitable that changes will be made after the final race.
Putting all of that aside, fans of the Andretti team have a real reason to be enthused over all that could be achieved. We also can’t forget that just as Andretti has made great engineering strides, their arch rivals haven’t exactly been asleep since the season finale in September. By the end of qualifying on Saturday at St. Petersburg, we’ll know where Andretti Autosport stands in relation to Team Penske, Ganassi, and Arrow McLaren, which slipped ahead of them in the Entrants’ standings.
If pre-season testing can be trusted, Andretti will be fine. But until we get through qualifying, plenty of TUMS will be consumed under their tent as they anxiously await the outcome of time trials.