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Rossi confident he and Andretti team have bounced back

Alexander Rossi says he believes that he and Andretti Autosport-Honda can approach all but one race with confidence in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series, after both he and the team made big improvements.

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Rossi, who contended for the 2018 and ’19 IndyCar titles, slumped to ninth in the points table last season, as Andretti Autosport struggled for raceday performance in the first two-thirds of the season, and then saw pitstop issues hamper them on strong days such as the Indianapolis 500.

Ahead of Sunday’s 2021 season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park, Rossi said that the team’s late-season turnaround and an early offseason test have given him hope that the team will be win contenders at all but World Wide Technology Raceway, the 1.25-mile oval at Gateway.

“Mid-Ohio and Indy GP the second time [Harvest GP double-header] were really good,” he told Motorsport.com, “but I think we would have been good at pretty much any track though. We just found the car’s sweet spot in mid-August/early-September time.

“I think the team’s only weak spot is short ovals and thankfully there’s only one of those this year, Gateway. So I think we can feel pretty confident anywhere. Barber hasn’t really been a great track for us over the past six years, but we had a test there right after St. Pete last fall, and immediately Colton [Herta, teammate] and I were really happy with the car and it was the first time I really felt competitive at Barber. So hopefully that will transfer to the weekend.”

Some Chevrolet drivers have commented, publicly and privately, that Honda appears to have a low-end torque advantage this year, while Rossi said he remains uncertain if those rumors have some validity but said he wouldn’t be surprised.

“I think we’ve been on different programs at different times during group tests,” he said, “so I don’t think we’ve seen where everyone is, relatively speaking. I think Honda’s advantage in the past has almost always been bottom-end grunt, getting off the corners. There was a time period in 2019 where that went away from us a little bit, and now maybe it’s come back, but we won’t see the true picture until practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

Part of Andretti Autosport’s performance deficit in early 2020 – aside from the deletion of all but one of the street races, traditional AA strongholds, due to the COVID pandemic – was the squad failing to roll off the truck with their cars in the requisite operating window. That’s where Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet, as one example, made big gains, especially on the several weekends where there was reduced track time. Rossi agrees, but looked inwardly too, in preparation for a 2021 season in which all road course events will see the IndyCar action packed into two days.

“[Our problem] was a little bit of everything, and it actually starts with the drivers,” he replied. “For example, we’re going into this weekend with a different mindset than we would have had last year – me especially. At the beginning of 2020, I was still treating a race weekend like the ‘old days’ where we’d have three practice sessions [before qualifying] and in Practice 1 I wasn’t getting up to speed quick enough. That puts you on the back foot regardless of how good your car is.

“On top of that, it was the first year of the aeroscreen and I think our offset for it, in terms of what we thought the aeroscreen was going to do to the car’s handling and tire wear etc., was wrong. So as there was really no testing, it took until the middle of the season for us to understand what the car really needed, what changes we needed to make.

“The other area of improvement from this time last year to now, has been our sim work – the vehicle sim, the driver-in-loop sim. Honda was a huge factor in helping us get better with that, very supportive.

“In testing, we’ve been going to Sebring, going to Texas, with setups that were derived from the sim and they worked pretty well. I know for a fact that Ganassi was really strong last year, and one of the reason they pulled out such a good lead at the start of the season was because of what they’d learned setup-wise in the sims. Because of the packed schedule, no one had time to really catch back up.

“So that’s been a huge focus of ours this offseason, and after the tests that we’ve had, I’d say we’ve had pretty good success with the sim program.”

As the 2016 Indy 500 winner Rossi said he was in two minds as to whether he’d prefer 2021 to be the year he clinched a second 500 or a first IndyCar championship.

“Impossible question, but thinking purely selfishly, I’d take the championship, without a doubt, no hesitation,” he admitted. “But thinking with the mindset of my crew, and in particular my engineer who has finished second at Indy five or six times, I’d really want to win Indy for him, so that sways my thinking quite a bit.

“The good thing is that with Indy being double points, that can really help toward the championship…”

Regarding which race he would most like to see IndyCar turn into a double-header should the Toronto race be canceled, Rossi had no hesitation there, either.

“Long Beach!” said the legendary event’s 2018 and ’19 winner. “This year it’s the season finale, championship decider – so a double-header there could be pretty good for us!

“But honestly, anywhere except Gateway…”

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Photo by: IndyCar

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