DETROIT – To understand why Alexander Rossi felt he needed to switch things up and leave Andretti Autosport – a team he won seven times with (including four times in 15 races over 2018-19) – we need look no further than why he nearly left three years ago.
Rossi, who joined Andretti in 2016 after several years chasing an F1 career that sputtered out, began his 2019 campaign in a contract year and started 5th-9th-5th. To most drivers, those aren’t anything to write home about, but similarly nothing to panic over either. And yet, having finished runner-up in the championship the year prior, Rossi and his father Pieter, who manages his career, were nearly ready to pack up shop and find a new home.
Then Rossi won from pole at Long Beach and finished on the podium five times in six races between the Indy 500 and Toronto. But take a second and think about that: A pair of top-5 finishes to start the year, something that at that point in the year, only three other drivers had done. One who hadn’t (Simon Pagenaud) managed to edge Rossi for 2nd in the championship race.
At that point, Rossi was 27 and making what, at the time, was arguably the most important contract decision of his life. He held extremely high expectations, and if he couldn’t consistently find himself on podiums at minimum, then he believed he wasn’t at the right place.
“I don’t believe you can just wake up one day and magically lose all your talent,” said Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel.
And that’s why, as Rossi explained Friday, the American driver began searching for a new home for 2023 last summer – halfway through that latest three-year deal with Andretti Autosport. Because two years after that contract was announced (including 29 races), Rossi amassed all of six top-4 finishes, including none through the first 10 races of 2021.
More on Alexander Rossi’s move to AMSP:
“That was the team I’d driven for. That’s where my relationships were. At the time, that was an easy decision, but ultimately, I don’t think this has met anyone’s expectations,” Rossi said Friday, one day after his move to AMSP for 2023 and beyond was announced. “I think there have been scenarios that have been outside our control, but that’s motorsports, life, just the way things go sometimes.
“Life ebbs and flows, and I think it was time for a change. Ultimately, for me, it was time to do something different, and I don’t think there’s a better pairing out there for who I am as a person and a competitor than Arrow McLaren SP.”
Three years ago, with interest from IndyCar’s other three big hitters, Rossi bet grass wouldn’t be greener elsewhere – that the team who hadn’t won a championship since 2012 had the best shot to lead him to one with the foundation they’d built since the start of 2016. For myriad reasons, including mistakes by his team, his crew, himself and his competitors, with additional mechanical failures along the way, that bet didn’t hit.
In his latest move, joining a team that hasn’t yet won a championship or a 500, Rossi finds himself betting on momentum instead of history, but given what he’s suffered through since the start of 2020, he says that’s plenty.
“I think it’s very obvious what (McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown) and (Kiel) have done over the last couple years,” said Rossi, in reference to the two-plus seasons since McLaren Racing bought into what previously was Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “Arrow McLaren SP’s competitive. The overall performance of the team has exponentially increased every event we go to, and that was a pretty easy decision for me to see a championship contender.
“The results they had last year, just a huge amount of respect for Pato, and he’s still new to the championship and relatively young. The results he had were phenomenal; I think the inherent performance is there. It exists. I think if you look at what the team did at Indy this year, they were the second-strongest team.”
McLaren’s takeover (first as a minor partner, now as a majority owner) began in 2020, O’Ward’s first full-season in IndyCar. That year, the young Mexican driver landed four podium finishes and took 4th in the championship. In 2021, O’Ward landed his first two wins, totaled five podiums and took 3rd in the title race. Over that same span, Andretti’s top driver, a similarly-young Colton Herta, finished on the podium seven times with four wins. Ultimately over 2020-21, O’Ward scored 27 more points than Herta, but both drivers (and teams at-large) went through extreme highs and lows, and neither had what it took to match Ganassi and Penske (who went 1st-2nd both years).
Between the two, there may not have been a clear favorite since Rossi began what would be his final three-year deal with Andretti, but this time, he felt a change was the right choice. And seemingly with no openings at Penske or Ganassi to hop into, if Rossi felt a change in scenery was important, even sliding over to a team with similar results for its best driver since 2020 was worth it. For Rossi, there’s no reason why he can’t be producing results as good (if not better) than Herta or O’Ward, so if Andretti couldn’t get him there, why not give AMSP a chance?
“I think this is a team that’s going to be a championship challenger. They already were last year. They will be this year. I certainly think that will be the case going forward,” Rossi said. “This decision was made for me last summer, when it was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there.
“But there’s a lot of other things that had to happen. From a personal standpoint, I had to look at what options were available, and January is when it all started to become clear what those were going to be.”
As relatively clear-cut as Rossi made this week’s news out to be, things were even easier and more clear-cut for AMSP, as Kiel explained. “It’s really a no-brainer for us,” the team president said of hiring the 2016 500 winner. “I feel very strongly about the fact that if we give Alex all the tools to succeed that he will.”
Kiel added that, even as AMSP has struggled to deliver consistent results in its second car each of the three years since McLaren hopped on-board (via Oliver Askew and current driver Felix Rosenqvist), the team had no trepidation about adding a third full-time car before becoming a championship contender with both its first two. And with Rossi’s championship-caliber pedigree on-board, it only further emphasizes what’s expected of Rosenqvist, should he hope to keep his seat in the No. 7 for 2023.
At the moment, the one-time race-winner sits 9th in the title race after qualifying 8th and finishing 4th in the 500, but after a string of qualifying from Texas to the 500 (six starts, all from 8th or better), Rosenqvist starts last at Detroit on Sunday after a penalty for interference in Round 1 of qualifying Saturday ruined his session. Many in the paddock believe Brown and Kiel have their eye on Alex Palou for that final full-time seat, a driver who inherited Rosenqvist’s ride at Ganassi a year ago when the latter bolted for AMSP and jumped from 11th (where Rosenqvist finished in the No. 10 Honda in 2020) to the title winner.
Kiel implied Rosenqvist was still under consideration for the No. 7 for next year and said he felt like his driver finally had the tools and comfort at his disposal to show what he can do.
“Felix is doing what he needs to do,” Kiel said. “I think Felix is a fantastic driver, and he’s a great fit for our team. Felix just needs to continue doing what he’s doing. We’re evaluating how to make our team better all the time, and Felix is a part of that right now.
“As long as he’s doing what he needs to do – and he knows what that is – he’ll be driving for us.”
Newgarden grabs first ’22 pole at Detroit
Josef Newgarden understands racing on the streets of Belle Isle can come down to the smallest of margins. It’s how he took pole Saturday from Takuma Sato, edging the Japanese driver by 0.1337 seconds after throwing down a lap of 1:15.2153 to cap the Fast 6 after the checkered flag had been thrown. It’s also how, after leading the first 67 laps of a 70-lap race here a year ago, Newgarden lost the lead and the eventual win to Pato O’Ward following a late-race restart.
In the final race on the Detroit island before the event moves to the city’s downtown streets in 2023, Newgarden hopes the momentum he built in qualifying can carry over into Sunday afternoon’s race.
“Today it was hard, harder than last year to get the pole. Sunday last year, it was a lot simpler. The car was hooked up, was not loose, just fast. Today was a real fight. I mean, we really had to work,” Newgarden said. “What that means for tomorrow, I don’t know yet. I think we’ve got a fast car, quick enough to win. It’s just a matter of getting the strategy right, not having any missteps. This field, it’s too difficult to keep everybody behind you nowadays, even when you have a fast far.
“You just can’t make any mistakes, but I feel confident we can do this job.”
Outside Newgarden and O’Ward, who qualified 5th for Sunday’s race, Saturday’s Fast 6 was filled with a couple pairs of surprising teammates – Dale Coyne Racing’s Takuma Sato (2nd) and David Malukas (6th), as well as Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud (3rd) and Helio Castroneves (4th).
A major part of that is owed to consistent top-level pace both relatively smaller teams have shown since Friday’s opening practice, but Saturday’s Fast 12 also saw a major shakeup with just seconds to go when Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean tapped the wall and appeared to break a toe-link, which sent his car out of control. He quickly spun across the track and slammed hard into a concrete barrier.
Coming right as the checkered flag fell on the session, cars still on-track making their final run at a Fast 6 bid lost their shots. The group included Colton Herta (7th), Marcus Ericsson (8th), Scott Dixon (9th), Scott McLaughlin (10th) and Rossi (11th).
Elsewhere, Conor Daly (13th) missed out on a Fast 12 bid by less than a hundredth-of-a-second. After pacing Friday’s practice and taking pole in his IMSA GTD ride, Kyle Kirkwood crashed early in Saturday’s practice, injuring his right hand. He’ll start 14th. Behind them sit championship contenders Will Power (16th) and Alex Palou (18th), as well as substitute driver Santino Ferrucci (17th), who’s driving this weekend at Juncos Hollinger Racing for Callum Ilott due to the Brit’s broken right hand he suffered during his Indy 500 crash.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.