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Alexander Rossi joins Andretti Autosport

February 23, 2016
Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi – photo courtesy Andretti Autosport

The power of money in racing boosts and ends careers at will, it often seems. So is the situation in the Verizon IndyCar Series at this time, as former Formula 1 racer and tester Alexander Rossi, a Californian whose goal has always been F1, joins Andretti Autosport to drive the No. 98 Honda for the complete 2016 season.

Rossi, who has methodically worked his way through the various smaller formulae in order to reach the pinnacle of the sport, drove for Manor Marussia F1 last year in addition to racing GP2 for Racing Engineering. It appeared he might have the second 2016 Manor seat but then money spoke and Indonesian Rio Haryanto stepped in, Rossi was out and those 209 formula car starts and 20.1 percent career win percentage were just numbers to be bandied about as the American looked for a new gig.

That he found it with Andretti’s satellite team, formed from the financial difficulties at Bryan Herta Autosport – a team that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in only its second try at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – is likely a positive item. But the real truth of this is that this country once again has zero driving representation in the pinnacle of racing (unless you listen to Bernie Ecclestone, who has decided the series he built is now crap).

Rossi has yet to get into his new No. 98 ride but will do so next week at Sebring in what’s billed as his rookie test. No doubt he’ll be on-site for this week’s test on the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) and will certainly need to take his oval test – as did former F1 driver Max Chilton at Auto Club Speedway little more than a week ago – before submitting himself to the G forces and downforce of oval competition, which for the Indy cars begins at PIR on April 2.

The No. 98 entry joined Andretti Autosport last week when former Andretti team driver Bryan Herta came to the final realization that there simply was not sufficient money for him to continue a smaller, single-car operation. There is safety in numbers in Indy car racing, after all.

This doesn’t mean California resident Herta is out of the picture; he serves as race strategist to Rossi while veteran Tom German is Rossi’s lead engineer. “Personally, I’m really pleased at how well all these pieces have come into place for this group,” Herta said. “Adding Alexander as a driver is going from strength to strength for us. We can’t wait to get on-track together and start our preparation for the 2016 season,” which begins less than a month from now on Florida’s west coast with the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg.

“I’m very much looking forward to making my IndyCar Series debut this season and am proud to be racing with a team of such high caliber and pedigree as that of Andretti Autosport,” Rossi’s official statement proclaimed. “As a racer through and through, I cannot wait to get started; our goal is to be competitive immediately at the first race in St. Petersburg.”

This will be a big adjustment for Rossi, 24, who has lived a Euro-spec racing lifestyle since becoming 2008 Formula BMW World and Formula BMW Americas champion with 10 victories. From there he moved to International Formula Masters, GP2 Asia, GP3, World Series by Renault and then on to GP2 and F1 testing and racing. He’s ensconced in that culture and this is a radical shift for him and, therefore, for the team.

This move casts aside the talents of 2014 Indy Lights champion Gabby Chavez, who’s shown he can do more than conservatively wheel an Indy car in order to keep the parts purveyors at bay; showing his capabilities in a one-off midget dirt race last year impressed a ton of people. There is no doubt in my mind that Chavez drove last year to keep the car intact and reap as much in points as he could under those circumstances. Now that he’s used his Indy Lights monetary prize with Herta’s team, there doesn’t seem to be much he can do to earn a full-time ride. People see your results but don’t always wonder how and why they came to be.

That being said, having an American former F1 driver and tester in the Verizon IndyCar Series is not a negative move at all; his peers in F1 are current Volkswagen Andretti (VARX) Global Rallycross 2015 champion Scott Speed and team owner/CEO Michael Andretti as former American F1 racers. That’s keeping it all in the family, right?

Although financial partners – other than Rossi’s personal supporters (Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., Kiton, Axcel, Arai) – for the No. 98 have not yet been named, it’s definitely certain that Michael Andretti would not take on this new entry without proper provisions in place. Rossi joins former Indy car champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz on the Indy car team.

“We’re really excited to have Alexander join the team,” Michael Andretti said. “His credentials speak for his ability and we’re confident he’ll transition seamlessly into Indy car racing. It’s neat to have the last three American F1 drivers in 25 years under one roof; I think it speaks to the level of talent we have.”

By Anne Proffit

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