One of the most exciting storylines of the 2023 IndyCar season will be Arrow McLaren, whether it can continue its rise, and how expanding to a third full-time car will impact its fortunes.
Even bigger still perhaps is the matter of Alexander Rossi. One of the few drivers capable of pushing the likes of Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden regularly for an IndyCar title, there’s no doubt his IndyCar career stagnated at Andretti after a win-less streak from 2020 to midway through 2022.
Rossi’s IndyCar form
2022 – 9th, top Andretti driver, 1 win
2021 – 10th, second Andretti driver, no wins
2020 – 9th, second Andretti driver, no wins
2019 – 3rd, top Andretti driver, 2 wins
2018 – 2nd, top Andretti driver, 3 wins
2017 – 7th, top Andretti driver, 1 win
2016 – 11th, rookie of the year, 1 win
To some, Rossi is a sleeping giant, needing a shiny new team to help utilise his ability as one of the best drivers on the grid. After all, Andretti hasn’t won a title since 2012 or an Indy 500 since 2017.
To others, Rossi’s overhyped and should have done better in recent years when he has mostly been overshadowed by his ace team-mate Colton Herta.
As with all of these things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Rossi has admitted his own errors, and there’s no doubt the Andretti team has made plenty too, but his form in 2018 and 2019 especially shows what he can do.
Time for a fresh start at McLaren, then, which immediately exposed to Rossi differences between the way it and Andretti works.
“I think there’s kind of, I don’t want to say European, but it’s very structured, right?,” Rossi tells The Race in an exclusive interview, speaking a short time into starting with the team where there’s a “first day of school feeling”.
“That’s really what I was used to, for a huge amount of time, being in Europe.
“It was a little bit of a shift for me coming back to the States and the way Andretti does things, it’s not that it’s right or wrong, it’s just a little bit more free-flowing and you kind of just talk about things, we’d talk about them and stuff gets done or it doesn’t, and that’s kind of just the way it is.
“Whereas here, there’s much more kind of structured plans and timelines of progress and making sure everyone’s on the same page, which is honestly very similar to what I experienced when I did the IMSA programme with Team Penske.
“So it’s nothing new, it was just a little bit of getting back into that rhythm of having an open dialogue with various different departments, throughout the weeks and everything. So that’s been good.”
Without wishing to turn Rossi’s words into something that they aren’t, the clashing styles of the two teams at a time when McLaren has risen and Andretti has fallen is telling, given his description of the style.
Perhaps it points to one of the reasons Andretti has failed to execute on race weekends when its car has been strong – which has been a frequent occurrence in the last couple of years at least.
McLaren might be more progressive because it has gone through its own culture battle – and it remains ongoing – of how best to employ practices from the F1 team without changing the IndyCar team for change’s sake. Basically, it can benefit from adapting F1 culture and practices, but it’s not an F1 team so it shouldn’t necessarily run like one.
“It’s continuing to evolve and I think it’s evolving right before our eyes,” Rossi adds on the culture and working practices at McLaren.
“It was really interesting to meet some of the people that are based in Woking that their sole project is the IndyCar side of things.
“That we’re able to have a really interesting kind of dynamic that exists between the IndyCar team and the F1 team, it’s really been built as one team, which I think is really impressive that Zak [Brown] and Gavin [Ward] and the management are able to do.
“Because I think in the beginning, it was very much they shared a name and that was it. And now we’re able to integrate some of the resources that the F1 team has, which is obviously exponentially more than any other IndyCar team has had access to.
“But on the flip side to that, you don’t want to go so far to the other side, where you’re running it as an F1 team, because this isn’t an F1 team, right?
“It’s still its very own dynamic and its own kind of living organism.
“So I think that right now we’re in a really cool spot where we’re able to pull information and resources from the F1 team while still keeping the heart of the IndyCar team intact. And I think if we’re able to do that throughout the years, it’s gonna be a really big positive for us.”
It’s clear that Rossi was ready for a change, and that he sees the opportunity to work with new people as a positive for the future regardless of the previous team he raced for.
It’s not necessarily ‘escaping’ Andretti, but just establishing himself in a fresh environment, an admirable step to take as it comes with its own risks as you step outside of your comfort zone. After all, don’t forget Andretti is the only team Rossi has raced for since he came from F1 in 2016. It’s all he’s known in the US.
“When you’ve been in a certain environment for so long, everything kind of remains status quo,” Rossi adds.
“And it’s hard. It’s human nature, right? It’s hard to come up with new and exciting ideas because it’s kind of the same group of people that you’ve been working with and that has its advantages as well, because you don’t need to necessarily have these kinds of brain dumps because you kind of are all on the same page.
“But what’s cool is when you get myself and the different engineers all in a room, and you start to like, compare notes and experiences, a lot of interesting ideas and revelations kind of come up from that, because you’re all kind of seeing things from a different viewpoint.
“And I think that that’s kind of the most exciting point, I’m able to bring in some information and experience that, I think it will be a positive addition to the team.
“Already, there’s been some things where it’s been like, ‘Oh, that makes so much more sense’. Like, why didn’t I ever think of that sort of thing?
“I think that side of things is really exciting.
“But on the flip side, there’s obviously things that are still unknown. Not every situation is going to be perfect, every situation is going to have its own set of unique challenges that you kind of have to adapt to and overcome.
“We won’t really know those until we get on track for the first time and really understand how this car is different and what I’m going to need from the team and what they’re going to need from me.
“Again, it’s all in theory right now. So we kind of have all these sheets of paper of things that we want to do, and we think we understand, but until we actually put it in practice, it’s still a bit of a mystery.”
The big questions surrounding Rossi now are whether he can adapt quickly and whether McLaren can catapult him back to the form that made him the most attractive driver in the silly season market for 2020, just before the aeroscreen device came in and his form dipped, admittedly along with Andretti as a whole.
He has been voted IndyCar’s most popular driver and while he may divide opinion in how direct he can be when interviewed and how fans interpret his sometimes abrupt reaction to things, taking that out of the equation it would only be a good thing for everyone to see another top driver fighting for a title again. IndyCar as a whole would be much richer for it.
Asked if the team move would be the biggest help in rekindling his form, or if there were elements of his driving he needed to work on to turn things around, Rossi says; “If I knew that then we probably wouldn’t have had the challenges of the past three years!
“Ultimately, what was so interesting about Arrow McLaren SP is its growth over the past couple of years.
“I think that in a lot of ways Andretti, we have very fast race cars, like that was never a question. But for one reason or another, results were not coming.
“We would show up for the most part on Saturdays and be in the fight and then just not really convert on race days.
“Whereas I think that this team and what they’ve shown over the past couple of years, like every year, they’re getting better, and they’re getting stronger.
“I think that the runway that they have in front of them is, is really unlimited. In a bigger organisation it’s harder to have that always upward trajectory and exponential growth.
“I think that was really the big thing that I was looking for.
“I’ve already seen what the team is doing and how they go about things. And then it makes a lot of sense as to why they’ve been able to improve at the rate that they have since McLaren came on board and took over the team.
“So that’s really exciting to be a part of. And yeah, I mean, our targets are from St. Pete [the first IndyCar race of the season], like, we’re not looking at any time to acclimate or get used to each other.
“We want to hit the ground hard at St Pete and immediately be back in the fight where we should have been the past couple years.”
Whether you’re a Rossi fan or looking elsewhere for drivers to support in IndyCar, any series would be lacking without its characters and Rossi is one of the most perplexing and interesting on the grid.
There’s absolutely no doubt he has the talent to win a championship. With a new team, he has the chance to go out and prove that’s exactly what he can still do.
Watching that unfold will be fascinating in 2023.