Bryan Herta, co-owner of Alexander Rossi’s Andretti-Herta Autosport entry, says the whole AA team has made major progress in the offseason as it seeks to recover from a relatively poor 2016.
Although Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500, the four-car team enjoyed just six more podium finishes and Carlos Munoz, Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti finished 10th, 11th, 12th and 16th in the championship standings.
However, although Hunter-Reay and Rossi crossed the line fourth and fifth in the season finale at Sonoma, Herta believes it has been since then that Andretti Autosport-Honda has taken the big steps forward.
He told Motorsport.com: “Yeah, Sonoma was positive, certainly our best road course performance of the year, so it’s good to have your last race be your best one.
“But I think the real ‘Ah-hahs!’, the real revelations, have been coming through winter testing and work at the shop. I’m very optimistic there’s a lot of really good work going on right now.
“It’s going to take time; things don’t transform overnight, but we’re moving in a very positive direction and the cars are evolving and improving for the drivers. So if we keep that going, I’m confident – actually, bullish – that next season will be much better than last.”
Asked if the team’s primary problem had been a shock and damper issue, given the AA drivers’ major struggles on bumpy tracks, Herta said, “Actually it’s been a few things. If it had been just one thing, it would have been easier to chase down, right? Unfortunately, there have been several aspects at play here and over the course of a race weekend and with limited testing, it’s hard to experiment to dig yourself out of a hole.
“I’m obviously not going to go into details but I can say I really believe in the direction the engineering group is now going, and the test at Sebring a couple of weeks ago started to bear that out. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic when I say that.
“I’m not saying we’re going to dominate in 2017, but I’d be very surprised if you don’t see us take a very noticeable step forward.”
New pressure as Ganassi joins Honda
With Andretti Autosport outperformed for a second straight season by another Honda-powered team, the single-car operation of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Herta admitted that the legendary Chip Ganassi Racing’s switch to HPD engines added yet more pressure by way of being a direct comparison. However, he insisted this was “a good thing.”
Herta commented: “I see it as nothing but positive to have Chip’s team switch to Honda, because it gives us that great benchmark to measure ourselves against.
“Yeah, it adds a little bit more pressure on us to perform but maybe last year if we’d outperformed everyone, people would have said, ‘OK, but how would they have fared against a Penske or Ganassi if they’d had the same engines?’ Now Chip is going to answer that question.
“I’d say that’s a big positive for Honda obviously and for us, too.
“As for the pressure to perform, that’s always there – for the sake of the sponsors, the team, the drivers, the fans, the personnel, and so on. We all have that desire to be the best by beating the best.”
Different driver tastes not a factor in AA’s slump
Herta dismissed speculation that in the recent past, the team’s four drivers have been pulling in different technical directions, and that this had hindered team progress.
“Sitting in the team debriefs after every session, I didn’t get the impression that there was a big difference between what the drivers wanted,” he remarked. “In fact, I’d say for 90 percent of the time, there was consensus among them about the issues they were fighting with their cars.
“I mean, yeah, sometimes they’ll want a slightly different feel, some of them want the handling to be more ‘on the nose’, others want a more secure rear end. Those differences always exist between teammates. But I don’t think they were factors that hurt us as a team.”
With renowned ex-Ganassi engineer Eric Bretzman coming on board this off-season to guide the team’s engineering direction, next year will see Ray Gosselin reverting to being a pure race engineer for Hunter-Reay. Herta said this was a positive move for all concerned.
“Ray was doing a tremendous amount of work,” he said, “and splitting up those duties again is really good for both him and the team. But on the other hand, it gave him another view, another insight into the issues everyone on the team was facing.
“To be honest, I think Ray could do either one of those jobs – race engineer or technical director. He’s fantastic, very smart. It’s just that now he has chosen to focus on race engineering, probably because he loves racing, and loves going racing with Ryan.”
Herta made a firm "No comment" to the news Motorsport.com revealed last month that Takuma Sato would replace AJ Foyt Racing-bound Carlos Munoz in the team's #26 car.