Rossi's hard lessons learned in Detroit
If Alexander Rossi misses this year's title by fewer than 22 points, he'll rue his Motown mistake, but the racer's misjudgment was no worse than that of his critics, whose misguided antagonism emerged in full flow, writes David Malsher.
I know people who cannot stand Alexander Rossi and think that talent-wise, he’s nothing better than average. I know even more people who really respect his ability but still don’t like him, regard him as a cold fish, or simply lacking personality. And I know others who really like him, love his sense of humor and think he’s on the brink of being classified as one of IndyCar’s true aces.
I first saw him race in 2008, at the season-opening Formula BMW USA round at Laguna Seca, in which he dominated from pole position until his engine blew. He’d score 10 wins in 15 races that year on his way to the title, before his career took him through the junior European ranks. I noted the consistency of his results as well as the wins. He showed a canniness for staying out of trouble even when, for whatever reason, he wasn’t a threat for victory. He won races when he could and knew when, how, and with whom to pick his fights. His F1 results were inconclusive but how could they be anything else in the struggling Marussia team?
I was therefore enthusiastic when Bryan Herta announced he was uniting with Andretti Autosport and had signed Rossi. I spoke to IndyCar’s new arrival over the phone, and he was quiet, reserved – you’re shocked, I’m sure – and made a few references to his contract as reserve driver for Marussia. My heart sank a little at that. The best drivers in the series are the ones who don’t regard IndyCar as a means to an end but as an end in itself, the ones who’d consider an F1 offer if it came along, but aren’t actively seeking it. Over the years, we’ve all witnessed drivers who, for whatever reason, waste an IndyCar team owner’s time by just playing at this, by not studying data, by not eating/sleeping/breathing it, by not regarding it as a vocation.
We need not have worried in Rossi's case. Despite still harboring ambitions of an F1 return, he threw himself into IndyCar. He recognized that in Andretti Autosport incumbent Ryan Hunter-Reay he was partnering one of the fastest drivers in the series and therefore had a fantastic gauge for his own progress. He also became swiftly aware that he’d joined a team in one of its periodic lulls.
This could have provided him the opportunity to learn the finer points of IndyCar racing well out of the spotlight, had it not been for the minor inconvenience of winning the biggest race on earth in only his sixth IndyCar start. The world, it seemed, initially regarded Rossi’s Indy 500 triumph as a major inconvenience. Why?
1) As is now well known, he passed the checkered flag at only 137mph having perfectly followed Bryan Herta’s strategy of skipping a fuel stop and eking his fuel to a the end.
2) It didn’t look like the finishes we’d witnessed at Indy over the previous five years.
3) People are skeptical of a rookie winning Indy, as if it’s an insult to IndyCar’s more established drivers.
4) America didn’t know much about Rossi because he’d spent most of his career on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Perhaps because of that, already their perception of him was similar to Red’s first impression of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption – “That tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass.”
5) Rossi's understated character meant he didn’t really convey excitement post-race, as if he didn’t appreciate the magnitude of victory at this hallowed temple of speed. Al Unser Jr.’s famous expression, “You just don’t know what Indy means,” would have been a legitimate accusation.
Yet over the next 12 months, Rossi came to savor his achievement: he liked his new quadruple-barreled last name – Alexander Rossi-Indy-500-champion – and actually enjoyed his extra obligations to IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Borg-Warner, Honda, Andretti Autosport and sponsor NAPA.
That startling triumph was his only real moment of joy in his rookie season but finishing fifth in the wheel tracks of teammate Hunter-Reay in the season finale at Sonoma was symbolic of Rossi’s progress. Through the latter half of the season, he had looked a match for the 2012 champ and 2014 Indy winner as often as not. That momentum carried into 2017, although it took a while to show in hard results. Finally, well into the second half of the season, Rossi put together a sequence of five consecutive top-six finishes whose zenith was a second win, this time at Watkins Glen.
By then he’d also shed his F1 dreams and gained a lot of respect from fans, rivals and sponsors. Rossi was the quiet assassin who was helping Hunter-Reay lead Andretti Autosport back to prominence and who could fight mano-a-mano with the likes of Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Scott Dixon. Then came St. Petersburg this year…
After Rossi made his infamous passing attempt on IndyCar debutant, longtime rival (and kinda friend) Robert Wickens in the season-opener, I turned to social media to gauge the reaction. The inevitable criticism of Rossi seemed to center less on him having a go – in fact, many gave him props for being a true racer – but in not apologizing afterward.
Yet the California native’s reason for believing he was in the right was reasonably sound. Wickens had changed his line in reaction to Rossi pulling out of his slipstream – most definitely against the rules – and had he not done so, Rossi wouldn’t have had to approach the apex so much closer to the inside curb, thereby tightening his arc and on a part of the course where grip was sketchy. Although such a braking point/trajectory combo on painted runway lines could realistically only end in a sideways slide that required more room than Wickens was likely to give, I could at least see Rossi’s point of view.
My own view is that when Schmidt Peterson’s superrookie checked himself and moved back to the left to avoid a Race Control penalty for blocking, Rossi should have moved the same way in order to not only make his Turn 1 trajectory more shallow (less likely to spin) but also to ensure he was in control of the outbraking battle. He could have braked in a straight line for longer, even slightly overshot the regular turn-in point, and his Canadian rival would have been unable to do anything about it because he’d have nowhere to turn. There would have been a blue-and-yellow Andretti car in his way.
But that’s easy to say from the outside after watching the video again at full speed, half speed and quarter speed; rather different in the cockpit with five seconds to plan, execute and react. So I agreed with the verdicts that said that despite Rossi’s flawed bid for the lead, he deserved praise for having the heart of a racer. And we saw evidence of that again in his charge through the field at Phoenix, his domination of the Long Beach weekend, and his brave outside passes on restarts in the Indy 500.
The closing stages of last Sunday’s second Detroit race were something else again. Polesitter Rossi, aware that Hunter-Reay was fearsomely quick and gaining on him at one second per lap (and sometimes more), was reminded by his strategist and Andretti Autosport team manager Rob Edwards to “think big picture.” Rossi had come into the race heading the championship after taking third place in Detroit's Race 1, in which erstwhile points leader Power was able only to salvage seventh.
However, despite Hunter-Reay filling his mirrors, Rossi elected to try and hold on to the lead for as long as he reasonably could. With seven laps to go, he locked up his front left tire into the right-handed Turn 3; at the same point the following lap, he fried both fronts and smoked hard into the run-off area.
“In hindsight it was a big error,” Rossi admitted to Motorsport.com on Monday, “…but on the other hand, we started on pole, we led most of the race, and I was still leading with less than 10 laps to go. I’m not going to let the work of everyone on the #27 side of the team go by the wayside… Conceding a win is just not going to happen…”
True racer, remember? Yet a rational one, too, one who needs to know why, even when braking earlier than he did the previous lap, the car locked both front wheels, leading to his demise. Or why on the previous lap the loaded wheel had locked. Turns out it was because, with Hunter-Reay up his tailpipe, Rossi took a slightly different more defensive line and hit a seam in the concrete track surface.
Minutes after the end of the race, doubtless irritated with himself at throwing away 22 points, Rossi didn’t yet have this vital piece of knowledge to hand, so when approached by an ABC reporter enquiring what happened, he replied: “I don’t really have an answer for you. Need to talk to these guys [his team]. Um… I don’t, we don’t understand, so… I don’t have anything to say.”
And for some godforsaken reason, this was interpreted by some as a throwdown on his team, as if Rossi was washing his hands of his own error and blaming the squad for a bad setup or a faulty car.
Utter drivel. A racer who makes fewer faux pas than most of his rivals was wondering what the hell had induced a mistake that cost him a vague shot at a win and definite runner-up finish. I guess Paul Simon was right: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
As stated at the outset, I’m aware some folks have never taken to Rossi, perhaps resenting the fact that he seems so in control of his emotions that he comes across as quite ‘corporate’ or even bland. He’s not buddy-buddy with the TV or print media largely because he can neither fake nor reciprocate leaden humor, and so some of his on-the-record interviews can come across as somewhat anodyne. (That said, I can’t see how a terse “I messed up,” soundbite for ABC would have dispelled that perception).
But to automatically ‘spinterpret’ a post-race “I have no idea why it happened”-type non-comment into something that deserves retribution or a patronizing, judgmental yet superficial analysis of a character flaw is the reaction of people just itching to put the boot in. What their agendas may be, I cannot fathom; perhaps they’re trying to fabricate a villain, which some believe IndyCar sorely needs. Trouble is, as Rossi admitted after studying the data: “I was hoping for a different answer but at the end of the day, the problem was with Alex!” Oh yeah: this guy’s got villainy written all over him.
Just to verify that I hadn’t gone too far the other way, given too much leeway to a driver I hold in high regard, I spoke to Edwards, a dependable and publicly stoical figure who can also be a hard-nut – he worked for the notoriously hard-to-please taskmaster Derrick Walker for almost two decades. Had Edwards regarded his driver’s post-race reaction as criticism of the team, he’d have had no compunction in slamming down on him like a sumo wrestler. Instead he was puzzled by the non-subject and swiftly moved onto the important matter – how the team performed.
“I absolutely did not interpret Alex’s words in that manner, no,” he stated firmly. “He’s a loyal guy, we’re a tight group and you take the lumps along with the good days, right?
“The guy who drove from 12th to second at St. Pete and had the opportunity to win and went for it – that was the same guy who saw a chance to win last Sunday. Yes, it’s disappointing to not come out of Detroit leading the points, but at the same time, we went into Race 2 with that opportunity because Alex does his job well, the group on the #27 car are executing at a strong level, and because of the work across the whole team.
“I thought Alex raced very well until the mistake. He pulled out a good gap until the tires started to fall off and then he managed that. The fact is, Ryan was just on a different planet – his fastest lap was 0.8sec faster than anyone else’s! – and that was fantastic for the team as a whole, after a couple of seasons of him having strong weekends that went unrewarded.
“Alex and Ryan work really well together and they learn also from Marco [Andretti] and even Zach [Veach], despite him being a rookie. It’s a team that’s pretty harmonious considering we have four really ambitious drivers, and we’re starting to see that pay off. I know it’s a cliché about open-book policy but that is how the best teams operate and make progress, and I think all four of our drivers had strong moments throughout the weekend at Detroit. We emerged with two poles, two podium positions and a win. Considering where we were on street circuits just two years ago, last weekend speaks volumes for our progress.”
Which is why, so long as Andretti Autosport doesn’t lose its mojo, Rossi’s more venomous critics may at least have to acknowledge him as the IndyCar champion. But if he loses this year’s title by 22 points or fewer, he’ll ruefully reflect on Detroit Race 2 and accept he was fighting a losing battle. In fact he accepts that already.
“Ryan was in a class of his own and fully deserved to win,” he said. “We had slightly different setups and we were also on different strategies. But don’t put it down to setup or strategy; that didn’t dictate the result. Even if Ryan had been on a two-stopper like us, we’d probably not have had anything for him. The time loss to pit was around 25sec, but he made one more stop than me and still he was under my rear wing with 10 laps to go! Ryan was just on it all weekend. And just because I lost second doesn’t mean I’m not pleased for him getting the win. He’s had some shitty luck the last couple of years.”
Someone once told me his theory regarding Rossi’s demeanor – that he was conceited, believed he was the best, and that IndyCar was somehow beneath him. I’m no shrink, but in two-and-a-half seasons of grabbing three-minute post-session comments, listening to him in press conferences, or conducting longer-form interviews, I’ve caught none of that. I do, however, know which IndyCar drivers Rossi holds in highest regard, and even which driver he believes is the absolute best. And no, it’s not him.
But maybe one day he will be the absolute best, and if, after lifting the Astor Cup, his quotes are still on the bland side, then maybe it’ll be because he’s choosing his words a little more carefully, avoiding any hint of ambiguity that might trigger the frothing wrath of the rush-to-misjudgment brigade. And so, on that day, they too will be able to congratulate themselves and feel like winners.
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