The NTT INDYCAR Series is the most competitive racing series in the world. Without many changes however, one season to the next, as well as several disciplines of tracks to race on, it’s increasingly hard to stay on top each year. Think about it, if you’re good in an area, why would you spend your limited time and resources by testing trying to stay good there. Wouldn’t you want to focus on areas that you weren’t as good at and find ways to be better there?
For Penske, well they are coming off of a championship season to where they had all 3 of their drivers finish in the top 4 of the final standings. They won 53% (9-for-17) of the races. It’s a wildly difficult task to single out problem areas to improve upon if you’re them.
The other teams, well they have problem areas that they each could focus on because well for starters, they’re not on top. They’re the ones chasing Team Penske and each have glaring holes and weaknesses that they’ll try and fix. Penske are the ones that has to dig deep and start pulling thin hairs here.
So the main question is, as the hunted, can Penske stay on top?
Josef Newgarden is aggressively after that 3rd championship. He’s finished runner-up in each of the last three seasons. Scott McLaughlin is eyeing the next step after greatly improving himself between years 1 and 2. Will Power is coming off of a championship winning season.
For Newgarden, the 32-year-old is pissed that he’s lost the last three championships. His main goal in 2023 is he’s wanting to improve so much, to the point that he has the title firmly in his hands by time we get to the season finale in Laguna Seca.
“How are we going to build a bigger gap where that’s not even possible? I don’t even want to be messing with it at the end of the year,” said the two-time series champion at Media Day on Wednesday. “In an ideal world, if we get to the end of a season where we don’t have to mess with the gap, if we can just get that out of the way, that would be ideal. That’s where my mindset is at, how do we get to that place where it’s not even on the table, it’s just done.
“I think I’m not arrogant enough to believe that that’s easy. It seems near impossible these days to do that. I think that’s valid. It’s very difficult to do that. I understand that. But I still want to find a way where we can get to a place where we don’t have to mess with it.”
When pressed about if he truly meant that, he doubled down on his remark.
“It’s not easy. It’s possible. I do not think that will be easy whatsoever, but we need to figure out how to do that,” he said.
The reason for that feeling is that Newgarden is sick and tired of coming away runner-up in points.
“Yeah, I mean, it gnaws at me for sure,” he said. “It’s annoying, there’s no doubt. How could you not be frustrated by it, right? I think it’s normal, very frustrating. I try and take the frustration and just put it into motivation.”
That frustration has been weighing on Newgarden since he left Monterey last September.
While he had the most wins during the course of the 17-race season, he also struggled to put a complete season together. Newgarden had as many wins (5) as he had finishes of 13th or worse (5). That’s where this title was lost.
“You know, for sure we just needed to have a more consistent season,” Newgarden noted that day. “There’s no doubt. I think that the peak performance was there all year. We just didn’t have the consistency. That ultimately is what put us in an unfavorable position when we came here.
“If we can clean that up, I have no doubt we can challenge for the championship again next year.”
Newgarden’s attitude hasn’t changed one iota since those comments.
“Honestly, I don’t feel that different leaving Laguna, where I was kind of at mentally there, my statements, what I was projecting. I feel very similar to that place,” Newgarden quipped at the 2023 Media Day on Wednesday.
A main reason as to why is the fact that Newgarden notes that not a lot has transpired between now and then. He’s in the same spot now as he was on that day and ready to get back in the car to show that they can improve and put a full season together.
“I don’t think we’re going to change much,” he continued. “I don’t know that we need to change anything as far as our approach or process. I think everything that we’re doing is what we need to be doing.”
Will Power had 1 win compared to Newgarden’s 5 last year. He took home the title. It was the complete opposite in 2021. No one had as many top 10 finishes (13) as Newgarden then.
So where’s the sweet spot?
Newgarden says there truly isn’t one as when you’re in a series as competitive as INDYCAR, sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce in your direction and when it does, you have to capitalize. There were several instances in 2022 to where he had a car to win, but bad luck got in the way instead.
“INDYCAR just has that intangible side to it where you just can’t predict everything,” he said. “You do need a little bit of I don’t want say lock but you need the tides to favor you at times. It’s preparation, hard work, maximizing each day, then timing needs to be on your side. Sort of the tides need to flow for you.
“I think most of everything went well for us last year. There were just too many events, just a couple too many races that didn’t go our way that we needed.
“I think you can have a bad race. You just can’t have three or four of ’em. Three or four is a lot. It depends on the year.”
So how do you improve between seasons then?
“I think the complexion of each year is different,” he says. It’s always been hard for me to assess things by comparing year to year. They’re all different. There’s some years you probably could afford three or four bad races. Last year was not a year that you could afford that.
“It depends on who’s having a great year. Sometimes people just have a good run and nothing seems to go wrong for them. That’s just the nature of the beast.
“I’ve done this enough I think to have a fair assessment of it. It’s my opinion there’s that intangible you can’t control. When I analyze other drivers and the seasons they’ve had, even my own, sometime timing just seems to work out really well for certain teams and individuals. That’s a thing you can’t control, unfortunately, right?
“With that kind of comes peace of mind. I focus on controlling how can we build the best cars possible to give ourselves the best speed, how can we make the best decisions we can strategy-wise, position-wise. You really just have to hope that the timing blesses you throughout the year as well.
“I am so positive, when we get a year where we get good timing paired with great speed and decisions, it will be a great year. It will be really great. Much better than what we had last year.”
Power agreed with that saying this a day prior.
“Every season flows differently, but just in general in my life, I just don’t put too much emotion into situations,” he said. “There’s nothing to be gained from it.
“There’s just a lot of things that clicked last year within my team, the crew. Obviously Dave Faustino and the new crew chief are all pretty good group, pretty good, positive group, enjoying the job.”
Then you have their teammate, McLaughlin.
Prior to this season, he made 17 starts with 0 wins, 1 podium, 2 top 5 finishes, 5 top 10’s, 1 race led for 5 laps and 16 times he was running at the finish.
Last season: 17 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 8 top 5 finishes, 12 top 10’s, 8 races led for 433 laps and 16 races he was running at the finish.
“Look, absolutely. I know that we made a massive step personally for me last year,” McLaughlin said during Media Day content on Wednesday afternoon. “That was due to a number of things, things clicking, working out really good.
“But now what we know of INDYCAR racing, you just need to continue stepping up a little. McLaren is going to be fast, Andretti, Ganassi as we know is unreal. We need to continue to build as a team, myself. I’ve certainly looked at negatives that I can improve on. Hopefully that bodes me well for the rest of the season.”
Some athletes say that you can’t take much away from one season to the next. It’s a clean, fresh slate. Others say just the opposite. What side of the coin does McLaughlin fall?
“I think it’s more up to you and your mentality and what you think,” he told me. “I certainly believe you can’t stop me from learning what I learnt last year. I still know what I learn understand and what I can improve on.
“Whether it’s momentum or whether it’s just learnings, I know what I learnt and what I need to learn and be better at from last year, I know what I’ve had to work on in saying that. That’s what I’ve worked on.
“I think that hopefully will put me in good stead.”
Even with how well 2022 ended, McLaughlin reflected back on it and found some areas that he could be better in.
“Yeah, for me, I made a couple mistakes mid-season,” he said. “My Indy crash, Detroit going down the escape road, a few things that just sort of put me on the back foot championship-wise.
“If you looked at my season from maybe Road America on, I felt like everything sort of clicked. I just took races as they came. The way I finished the season last year, I’ve got to start and continue to do every race of the year like that. I can’t afford mistakes. You can’t afford mistakes in INDYCAR and be on the back foot.
“I think right now I feel comfortable with where I’m at. I know, I believe I’m fast enough to win the championship. It also comes up to me executing and doing what I can to perform on the day.
“What I tried to do last year was sometimes when I had, like, an eighth-place car, I tried to make it a second-place car and I’d crash or go down the escape road or something like that. That’s what I changed towards the end of the season. It’s just about letting it happen, letting the pace come, hopefully it bodes us well towards the end of the season.
“I know I have the speed to win a championship, but I’ve got to put it together. That’s the same for Indy 500. I’ve learnt a lot over the years that I know I’ve got the right ingredients around me, I feel like I’ve learnt enough to be a force come May. At the same time it’s about executing at the moments that you really need to and not risk too much in the moments you don’t need to.
“Yeah, I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. It’s a tough series in that regard.”
In saying all of that, this is the year the pressure comes. No one outside of himself expected that he showed in the first two years. But we all now saw this quick trajectory and with that comes pressure. The training wheels are now off. Championships and Indy 500 wins are expected. Can he live up to this pressure?
That’s something he’s not had since really 2019. Yes, he felt pressure internally since then, but not from the outside. Now, he has both factors weighing on him entering this season. Can he produce?
“I think now you just know, like, the learning is over now,” he told me. “Team Penske, you got a car that you know can win races. You’re expected to compete for championships. That’s just an expectation that I have, that I had in Australia for five, six years. I understand the mentality and understand what it’s like to have that pressure.
“I feel like it’s not an unknown for me. I’m not really stressed about it. I sort of know my ability, what I can do. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough. Yeah, it’s not an unknown and I’m not too worried about it at all.
“I put more pressure on myself than anyone can put on me. I just focus on that myself.”
Ganassi is clearly the top dog to take back over as Penske’s arch rival in 2023.
Since 2013, these two teams are the only two organizations that have won championships in this series. Chip Ganassi Racing has titles from Scott Dixon (2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) and Alex Palou (2021) while Team Penske has titles from Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017, 2019).
That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles a piece. Also, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15 year span.
Even further, with this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.
They have the resources and capability of turning the tide from Penske on top to themselves and have dug deep this offseason to fix some key areas that they were lacking in.
“You know, I think the outlier was definitely road courses, where we had the inconsistency either between the cars or in general,” Scott Dixon said on Wednesday from Day 2 of INDYCAR’s Content Week. “None of us got a pole, which I would say right now the road course kind of tire and combination is probably Alex’s specialty and he’s extremely good at it, and to see him not get a pole I think was definitely something that was missing for sure.
“There was definitely some instances where we made pretty heavy mistakes, I think, on the 9 car side of just not being in the right configuration or doing silly things that shouldn’t have been done.
“But I think there was two pretty big things in the off-season that we saw that we were probably doing wrong and then also not emphasizing enough on.
“I hope that once we get to kind of the first few rounds of road courses that that understanding of what we’re missing definitely helps. I think outside of that, our other packages have been pretty strong.
“Yeah, so it’s — I don’t know, you keep working at it in the off-season is where most of the preparation is done for understanding kind of your weaknesses, and that was definitely a big outlier for us.”
For Marcus Ericsson, his weakness last year was in qualifying. He was pissed off, his words, not mine, about how last season ended and says that his race craft is as good as anyone’s in the sport today. He’s confident that he can improve.
His Achilles heel in 2022 was just that – qualifying. 9 times did he started 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.
Consistently coming from behind was the culprit. Imagine if he started closer to the front in those races. It’s not like he wasn’t a hard charger. He went from 14th to 3rd in Texas, 18th to 4th in the GMR Grand Prix, 13th to 6th in Mid-Ohio, 15th to 6th in Iowa 2, 25th to 11th in the Gallagher Grand Prix.
“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.
“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.
“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”
You even have Alex Palou.
He struggled with the drama was circulating him last year. Prior to the drama surfacing, Palou had 3 podiums in the opening 4 races of the season. He then had just two Top-5 finishes over the next 12 races. When a settlement was to be had, Palou won by a half-of-a-minute in the season finale at Laguna Seca.
He showed what he is capable of if operating with full resources and also showed what he is made of when he’s not. He said that he has all his access back again and that things are going as well as ever with the team. However, how long does it stay that way?
That trio is aiming at Penske. Can anyone top that “Big 2” bubble? Well, they’re trying.
Next up is Arrow McLaren. Penske and Ganassi had drivers 1-2-3-4-5-6 in points. McLaren had 7-8 and in the offseason, added the 9th placed finisher. That wasn’t their only addition. They added over 40 new employees this offseason in order to improve.
All three drivers talked about how it’s almost like having to wear a name tag every day inside the walls of the company because of how many new people are truly there.
“Honestly, the biggest one is people, just learning who does what and what everyone’s kind of roles are, experience levels, who you need to go to for help on whatever issue you may have. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Rossi told me on the main challenge of changing teams.
“I still think it was very difficult. Every day you’re still trying to fill little roles here and there.”
O’Ward agreed about the new hires but says he trusts the team will ensure that it’s not a distraction.
“A lot of new faces. A lot, a lot of new faces. I’m still in the process of learning all the names,” he says.
“It’s so cool to see, we’re all growing. There’s been big steps each year. I feel like in terms of personnel this year, it has been a very big one. One reason being probably because of the third car, just the team is growing.
“It’s great to see. It’s great to see everybody’s enthusiasm. Everybody’s here for that one goal, right? We all put so much time and sacrifice and energy into making these race cars go quicker.
“I feel like it’s been so hard to find people in all departments I feel like. From talking to not just the people in our team, but from other drivers, other friends, they’re like, Man, it’s hard to find people.
“I trust the team. I think the group of people that are in charge, seeing who joins the team, seeing who comes about, I think they know exactly what we need, and I trust they’re going to make the right decisions.
“Honestly, from what I’ve seen, there’s so much talent. There were already so much talent in the group. I feel like so much more has been added on which is just going to help us to really get us where we want to be.
“We as drivers put it into: how can we maximize it? Just really, really excited to get this season underway.”
Rossi and Rosenqvist did each note that the key to expedite this learning process up is Gavin Ward. He’s the glue that’s going to hold this all together.
“Ultimately I think the brand is synonymous with a lot of things, and performance is one. Like I said, in terms of Gavin’s leadership style, maximizing people and encouraging people to bring ideas to the table, kind of have that diversity that exists and is so often overlooked in motorsports sometimes, to have opinions come from all different aspects of the team. I think that really encourages people to come.
“I think Zak also kind of leads the charge in that. It’s pretty amazing to me with how easy he is how involved he is with every aspect of the INDYCAR organization, the F1 organization, but like his sports car program, I don’t know how he’s in so many places at once seemingly.
“He makes an effort to kind of keep everyone up to date from top to bottom as to where things are, what the current objectives are and what’s future looks like.
“I think Gavin kind of feeds off that and has a similar style as well.”
“I mean, it’s a big team at this point. The difference when you change one person to another, it’s obviously less the bigger the team is,” he said.
“I think Gavin is good at trying to make every individual perform their best. Might be some kind of a culture difference there where instead of trying to change people — I’m not saying that’s what Taylor did, but I think Gavin in general is very interested in the individual performance of each guy or girl to make sure everyone is maximizing their skills. Maybe someone is better at this position, maybe someone’s in the wrong position. You can swap them out for different jobs and things like that. I think he’s very into that, kind of the lineup of the team is his little hustle that he’s trying to improve.
“Obviously there’s millions of other things that he’s in charge of. Honestly, I don’t really know about that. He’s been very good with me. We’ve had quite a lot of chats. He’s trying to help out if there’s anything you need. I think that goes for the same with everyone else in the team.”
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing hired their “Gavin Ward” too with the signing of Stefano Sordo.
“Yeah, I feel really good about where we’re at,” Rahal said. “As I was thinking about this exact kind of media conference last year, I was pretty reserved in some of my comments about the outlook, and I was thinking about it this year, I feel a lot more positive.
“I think Stefano (Sordo) has done a great job as he’s come in, but I think also organizationally from the team perspective we seem to be in a much better place. Everybody is working towards achieving the same goals.
The engineering side is more focused I would say. Not that they weren’t last year, but I would say more focused on the right things and not spending time doing things that aren’t moving the program forward.
“I feel really good about where we stand.
“I’m excited to be back with Eddie. I had a great time with Alan. I love Alan. But I think it was time. It was time for a change, and I think it was time for Jack, too, in particular.
“I felt like Jack, when I sit back and look at things from an unselfish perspective and the team, which I often do, I feel like Jack was going to need change to get him on track this year, and to be back with Mike or to be back with Eddie, who he was with last year, I didn’t feel like for him that was going to move the needle on his side of the team enough.
“But for me to have Eddie is awesome. Eddie and I are kind of both pretty low-key guys. We’re on the same page. Super fiery and competitive, but off the track I think we both have a similar mindset.
“Adam Kolesar is going to be the assistant. He’ll be race engineer I’m sure shortly with us. Adam has been under Alan for a long time. He’s a great kid. The hardest working guy on our team by far, not even close, and to have him with Eddie I think will also help further his career.
“We’ve got a really good staff obviously with Derek Davidson on my car, as well, this year. I’m excited about that because I’ve never gotten to work with Double D in that regard, and he’s a guy I have tremendous respect for as a leader, an organizer and a manager and everything else.
“I’m excited about that.
“We’ve had a little bit of turnover this year, as to be expected. There was time for change in certain things. But with Eddie, he and I won five times in three years. We know how to win together, and hopefully we can get this thing back on track. We’re pretty fired up about it.”
Rahal also mentions that a huge positive is that the direction is now simplified. Bringing Sordo on was a huge moment with is experience and direction which solidified Rahal’s thinking process from before.
“I think what we needed most was pretty simple, and that’s just direction,” he noted. “I thought that from the top on down, we needed a clearer path, from the engineering corps in particular. We didn’t have a technical director. We didn’t really have somebody that was leading the charge. We didn’t have enough depth.
“That’s becoming clearer to us now that we know like what McLaren is doing. With Stefano coming in you see what all they’re doing, and we were not even in the ballpark as far as depth and stuff like that. We’ve learned that now. We’ve been able to add. We’ve gotten ourselves into a really good spot.
“You see, though, it’s not like we’ve fired a bunch of engineers. Our guys are good. We’ve got good people. But we needed direction, and we needed somebody to kind of stand up and go, no, this is a — I’m not going to say what it is, but there was some testing we’ve done for a while that we’ve all been saying, this is worthless, we’re getting nothing out of it, but we kept getting told, no, we’ve got to do it.
“Luckily Stefano comes in and says, that’s worthless. Why are you doing that? Thank goodness. Here’s somebody else who can back up what we’ve been saying for a long time. Now we can focus our energy. Engineers aren’t doing all these crazy projects. It’s just let’s focus on what actually can move the needle.
“I thought that’s what Stefano really brought to the table. Kind of helped drive us a little bit better, so I’m really excited about that. We’ve obviously all talked about Ryan Harbar a lot this off-season. I gave him — he’s our trainer, head of human performance for us.
“Given him a lot of s— about the fact that he’s gotten more media attention than anybody else in the INDYCAR paddock this off-season.
“But having said that, he has absolutely changed the mental side and the culture within the team and gotten everybody locked in and focused and working out and using the sauna and playing pickleball tournaments at the end of the day for the camaraderie and the competition, and getting everybody — I mean, the pit stop practice have been amazing, the breakdown of the videos and everything.
“Ryan has also done a great job, I think, just moving the needle on the mental scope for the staff, for us to make our game to the next level.
“Hopefully we can put all those pieces together and have a great year.”
AJ Foyt Racing, like McLaren and RLL, also boosted up their engineering efforts too.
New faces in new places were capped off by highly respected veteran engineer Michael Cannon joining the team this year. Cannon will lead the team’s race engineers Daniele Cucchiaroni and Roberto Garcia along with drivers Santino Ferrucci and rookie Benjamin Pedersen.
“It was an opportunity to do something that interests me,” said Cannon. “I know that Larry has been working hard to move the team up the grid. I saw this opportunity to both help him and Santino and obviously Benjamin Pedersen who’s coming on board. I want to see if I can make a difference here.”
Cannon’s career spans five decades dating back to the early 1980s.
In saying that, can this new group end a near decade long winless drought for AJ Foyt Racing?
Takuma Sato is the last one to win for Foyt and this car in general back in Long Beach for the 2013 season. It’s winless in the last 164 races. Can Pedersen and Ferrucci change that tune next season?
The drought is nearing a decade this April.
It will be somewhat tough to go from a team that made up the bottom of the standings and immediately jump to mid pack.
“We just needed some organization,” Ferrucci said on Tuesday’s Day 1 of INDYCAR Content Day. “I had this chat with Larry back a while ago. The team has all the fundamentals to really put a good car out there.
“If you look back at the results, they’re really not a reflection of the actual speed of the car, in my opinion. I think that having someone like Michael Cannon come onboard to really help organize this team, put them on the right track, give them as what he calls Racing 101. We needed some consistency. I think that was the biggest thing. That’s what we’re hoping to really find.
“I’d like to see this team back inside the top 10 consistently, then go from there. We got to be a little bit realistic. It is tough coming off of where the team has finished in the last couple years. We definitely can see a lot of rapid growth hopefully throughout the winter.”
Pedersen may be a rookie, but he also had a front row seat to seeing the team last year. The plan was always for him to be a driver for them in 2023, so he spent most of his weekend’s in 2022 shadowing the team. He says this new energy brought to this team in the offseason is a great start to improving off of a struggling year for them last season.
“It’s been very exciting times at AJ Foyt Racing, new people, new organization, new structure, new methods. People are so hungry right now to be there and to improve,” said the rookie driver on Tuesday. “I think it’s been a lot of time, but before my time there, of people wanting it but not necessarily knowing how to get there. But now there is a very good path with as a team how we can accomplish things that we have as goals.
“People are staying extra during the weekends to practice pit stops when they don’t have to be. People don’t have to be there to help them are showing up to help with that, and it’s just really special to be a part of.”
Pedersen says that the time with the team last year was so valuable and made him feel already like a piece of the team. The only thing he wasn’t doing for them was actually driving the car itself.
“Every team meeting I was part of. You know, being on the timing stand, seeing strategy come into play, it was a really big help, and kind of made me feel like I got a season’s worth of experience without driving the car,” he continued.
“And the only difference is now I’m driving the car. Strategy meetings, everything like that will feel very similar, and I am very grateful to the team for letting me be a part of that last year, and can’t wait to do it now for real and as an official driver for them and working together.”
How much does that level play out for these three organizations?
Andretti, Juncos and Dale Coyne Racing was very young and inexperienced, so how does this shake up the pecking order in the most competitive racing series in the world?
Andretti Autosport boasts one of the more inexperienced lineups in the paddock. Yes, they have 4 drivers, but combined, 3 of them have 1 full-time season under their belts. Romain Grosjean was part-time in 2021 but moved to his first full-time foray in INDYCAR with Andretti in 2022. He has made 30 career starts.
Devlin DeFrancesco was a rookie last year. Same for Kyle Kirkwood, except he spent his rookie year at Foyt. Each have 17 total INDYCAR starts.
Colton Herta is now the lead man of the group. Is he ready for that? Herta has made more starts himself (65) than the other three (64) combined. He’s also only 22 and the youngest of the grouping as well. As the highest paid driver in the paddock, is he ready for this type of role?
“It’s not much of a difference for me,” Herta said. “Maybe they’ll rely a little bit more on my feedback and I might have to do a little bit more, but for me, it’s kind of business as usual.”
His teammates see it exactly that way as Herta describes. He doesn’t have to be that vocal leader, it’s his data and feedback to what will help them propel their programs forward.
“I’d say it’s a little bit different with Andretti. I think Colton’s way of saying that he’s like kind of brushed off his leadership role is in a sense that he’s not beating on his chest, like I’m a driver; everyone kind of bows down to me. He’s trying to brush that away,” said Kirkwood.
“But at the end of the day, he’s the one with the most experience, and if he does something, we’re kind of going to ask him the questions, be like, hey, Colton, when you tried this, what exactly happened, because he’s the one with the most experience, and he’s been the most successful driver on the team that we’ve had. It’s a sure thing that we’re going to reference off of him, which in a sense makes him kind of the lead driver, yeah.
“It’s definitely a unique situation, but at the end of the day he’s the one with the most experience. He has a right to be kind of in that position. It’s not a — I’ll say it again, it’s not a position that we’re all expecting him to lead us on track or expecting him to lead us off track and lead us with car development. He’s ultimately our main source of contact really.”
DeFrancesco views Herta as a leader to him and one that benefitted his rookie year greatly.
“Very fast. Very, very fast last year, just looking at his data, some of the qualifying laps he was able to put in were very, very impressive, and definitely someone I’ve been able to lean on and learn from for sure in many different ways, and I’m looking forward to putting that to use this year and making a big step forward.”
The team better hope so in order to stop this downward spiral.
Andretti once boasted a talented cast of veterans. From Marco Andretti to Ryan Hunter-Reay to James Hinchcliffe to Alexander Rossi, etc, they always had experience and talent. That’s turned in favor of youth and inexperience.
With such a young lineup, can they truly compete for a title this season as a result?
With 2023 being the same engine package as 2022 and 2022 being the same as 2021 and 2021…you get the picture. Why would the Penske and Ganassi domination stop now in favor of someone like Andretti?
“I think mature is a good word for that. I feel like, yeah, there’s obviously with years of experience, you learn a lot of things, so I feel like us being a younger group, we’ve got to pick it up,” said new addition, Kirkwood. “We’ve got to pick it up really quickly, and I feel like Colton, I think Colton is younger than me, and he’s going to be really the one leading this program for us, and obviously he’s had five years in it, so he’s got a lot of experience, but he’s also still very young.
“But I think he’s done a fantastic job, and that’s something that we need to mature on. I think we need to definitely be at a standpoint that we need to act like these veteran drivers, like Dixon, like Newgarden, like Will, even though we’re so young.
“It is a tougher position for us, but I think we’re very capable of doing it.”
Since 2013, Penske and Ganassi are the only two organizations that have won championships in this series. That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles a piece. Also, if you go back to 2008, this iconic duo has combined to have taken 14 titles in a 15-year span.
Even further, with this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) too and 100% of the championships.
They just went 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the championship last season.
Does anyone buck this trend for the upcoming campaign?
Most years, Andretti Autosport would make the most sense to do so. But, are they truly ready in 2023?
Andretti however, is the only other organization to have won a championship outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps since 2003 though and they have the resources to do so. Are the drivers ready?
Grosjean’s stats with Andretti Autosport weren’t really all that much different than with Dale Coyne Racing w Rick Ware Racing a year prior. In 13 races during his 2021 part time rookie season, Grosjean had 1 pole, 3 podiums, 4 top 5’s 6 top 10’s and 53 laps led. In a full 17 race season in 2022, he had no poles, 1 podium, 3 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s and just 4 laps led. However, a 2nd year with Andretti could propel him to a breakout, especially with Rossi departing.
“I think we looked at everything,” Grosjean said on Content Day on Wednesday morning. “As I say, it wasn’t one thing, it was a few things together that we could do better, so we’ve tried to tidy everything up. The team has done some great work. I’ve been doing my own work, too, on my side.
“I think also for Olivier and myself it will be easier in year two as a team. Olivier has had the whole winter break to do his stuff, whereas last year we came in and was like almost ready to go.
“Yeah, I’m excited about that. But what I’m excited about the most is that I am genuinely looking forward to jumping back in an INDYCAR, and that’s a feeling I like having, because that means I still love more than anything — well, I love my job a lot and I want to go racing.”
Kirkwood is the all-time winningest Road to Indy driver shifts over to the No. 27 Dallara-Honda in replacing the departing Rossi. We witnessed what Rossi could do with this car and saw just how good Kirkwood can be in his rookie year with AJ Foyt Racing. Now imagine what Kirkwood can do with an Andretti seat in INDYCAR.
Kirkwood also notes that not many rookies get a chance with a top team anyways so paying your dues elsewhere can lead to more success when the opportunity does arise.
“Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of people that look at it that way,” he said. “If you look at one of the most successful teams being Penske, they don’t take rookies. That’s kind of how it goes.
“To that point, Colton did the same thing. He was with Harding Racing when he started off. He had a very successful season there with them. But it’s nice to have that transition year, right, where you have — where you’re able to hone in on your skills and learn everything, but even with that being said, last year for me, I was fully focused on doing so well with that team and trying to progress them forward and stuff.
“But now that I’ve gotten into this year now and taken this step back and kind of looked at it, I was like, man, I needed a year to learn and try and hone in on my skills and learn all the different things about INDYCAR that you don’t learn in junior formulas. Biggest thing is pit stops and strategy and having two different types of tires. Those are way different than anything I’ve done.”
DeFrancesco got quicker as the season went on and Herta on more cases than not, had a car capable of winning. He just has to put it all together.
Herta had 10 Top-5 finishes in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums among those 10 Top-5 finishes.
2021 was supposed to be that breakout though with 7 Top-5 finishes and 5 of which being on the podium. That gave him more podiums in 16 races that season than in the 32 starts prior. Last year he took a step back in scoring just 4 Top-5 finishes, all podiums. However, he failed to score a single one though in the final seven events.
As he enters 2023 on a backslide from 2022, can he get back to the 2021 level but be more consistent in the process? If he wants to be a champion he better.
Since 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark. Will Power was 9-for-17 in that category last season.
That’s entirely what Herta is missing.
The thing is, it’s not like he hasn’t been capable. It’s just turning solid days into podiums and he’s fine.
2021: The Indy 500 he qualified second but faded to 16th. Belle Isle 1 he was in the top five and going for a podium before a caution flipped the field. He finished 14th. In Belle Isle 2, he was running second but faded to fourth in the closing laps. Mid-Ohio saw him go from a podium to 13th. Nashville saw a dominating weekend end in a crash and 19th. World Wide Technology Raceway saw a top two finish and maybe even a win end in a broken drive shaft and a 18th place result. He was eighth in Portland.
2022: Long Beach Pole (bad 1st pit sequence 1st to 3rd, crash pushing hard to pit lane on 2nd stop), Carb Day flip, Mid-Ohio crew kept him out instead of pitting coming to a yellow, INDY GP in Aug. Gear box while leading.
That’s the difference right now in making him a champion, because he was already there before those problems occurred. The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into more wins too.
That’s why I’m not as low on Andretti as others may be.
“Very much so. We all know each other quite well,” DeFrancesco said of the team being young but also using that as a bonding role too. “We’re all very familiar with each other. Romain included. We’re there to do the best job we can for Andretti Autosport and to move ourselves up the grid, and I think we’ve all looked at things and analyzed things from the off-season, and I think we’ve found quite a few interesting things. I think we’ll have a good team dynamic and look forward to moving up forward this year.”
Kirkwood said last year for the team, even though he wasn’t a part of it, just didn’t align right.
“It just seems like things, stars needed to align a little bit better for them last year, whether it was a pit stop mistake here or a small error here or a wreck here, whatever it might have been, it kind of hindered them from winning a lot more races than I think they should have,” he says.
“I think the team has recognized that, and I think we’re very much on our “A” game to make sure that these small little mistakes don’t happen.
“Yeah, and that’s ultimately going to be the goal, right, because the fundamentals are there.
“We know we’re going to have a fast car at a lot of tracks. Obviously the street courses are probably a strong suit for Andretti Autosport as well as like Indy GP and whatnot, so we expect to be extremely fast there and be able to win races, but we need to make sure we get all the fundamentals together and make sure the stars align, but that’s within our control, too.
“That’s the important thing.”