While the box scores read two 3rd place finishes for Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, the results have been far from easy to secure.
As the Verizon IndyCar Series hit the track on Saturday night for round two of the 2018 championship (weeks after the season-opening race at St. Petersburg in March), the Honda driver was tasked with storylines that placed him as a villain for the first time in his career. In the time spent between races, Rossi defended his decision to pop alongside Robert Wickens at St. Petersburg with the race victory on the line that resulted with Rossi coliding with the rookie Wickens.
This past weekend in the desert, the two drivers made amends while Rossi put on a 250-lap driving clinic.
For Wickens, the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix was a bit less eventful that the night that Rossi had. The rookie Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pilot qualified 6th in his first oval race of a budding IndyCar Series career. Once the green flag flew, Wickens settled in nicely in the top five while keeping pace with veterans Sebastien Bourdais, Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate James Hinchcliffe.
Rossi was in the mix until the first caution flew at lap 41 for rookie Pietro Fittipaldi’s evening-ending crash. As pit stops followed, both Bourdais and Rossi overshot their marks by sliding into their concrete pit boxes and making contact with crew members. Not only did they lose track position with extra time spent on pit road, IndyCar forced the two drivers back down pit road once the green flag flew for a pass through penalty stemming from the crew member contact.
Bourdais, the season-opening winner the last two years, lost a lap in the sequence while Rossi suffered the same fate. Their races, quite identical up to that point, would begin to differentiate during the 179-lap green flag run that followed.
Fighting through less-than-favorable passing conditions with cooler track temperatures and one-groove racing in the corners at ISM Raceway, Rossi proceeded to un-lap himself in astonishing fashion. Per IndyCar, he made 53 on-track passes during 47 different laps. Out of those numbers, 24 of the overtakes were completed in turn one, the more difficult passing end of ISM Raceway on Saturday night.
While the racing became a bit stale in the middle stages of the 250-mile event, it was Rossi that saved the show as he triumphantly marched back to the lead lap and then made an assault on the top five.
The yellow flag flew with 21 laps remaining when Chip Ganassi Racing sophomore Ed Jones was caught behind Spencer Pigot’s wake before binning his No. 10 NTT Data Honda. Three drivers stayed out on old tires while the rest of the field pitted, leaving Wickens, Hinchcliffe and Rossi as the leaders with Newgarden right behind in 4th.
On the ensuing restart, Newgarden devoured Rossi and Hinchcliffe to move to 2nd place behind Wickens. The Canadian driver held off Newgarden’s charge for a couple laps before the tire degredation difference was too much to bear.
The 2017 series champion Newgarden would overtake Wickens with 4 laps remaining in the event by executing a dazzling pass on the outside in turn one.
Facing worn tires, Rossi would hold off the remaining challengers on fresh tires and even passed Hinchcliffe to secure his second podium finish in as many races this season. Looking at the results on a box score you would see a pair of 3rd place finishes in 2018 for Rossi and assume he had a couple of uneventful days at the track – but you’d be thinking wrong.
In season’s past, a younger version of the Andretti Autosport driver may have struggled to completely overcome what was a devastating penalty early in Saturday night’s race in Phoenix. What the third-year IndyCar driver did was un-lap himself under green flag conditions, a monumental feat considering a four-time Champ Car champion in Bourdais could not escape the same circumstances and finished one lap down in 13th.
By facing the adversity he dealt with over the past few weeks relating to Wickens at St. Pete and the display put on in Phoenix this weekend, Rossi is validating what many expected from him in 2018. In the early stages, he has been unflappable, aggressive, and finally in his career, driving with an edge.
If the first two races of 2018 are any indication, Rossi will be a threat to win each week with competent equipment. Shed from Honda’s underperforming short oval aero kit that plagued teams last season, there isn’t a course where Rossi will face a significant disadvantage in terms of power or downforce.
An improved team-and-driver relationship between the California native and his No. 27 mates should be on full display as they navigate through the 17-round championship this summer, and if that is the case, Rossi may be the final driver left standing when the dust settles in Sonoma.
Images courtesy of IndyCar Media.