Andretti COO expecting no repeats of Mid-Ohio “mutiny”

Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport COO, spent Tuesday evening watching IndyCar coverage from Mid-Ohio – “the lowlights reel”, as he puts it – and relived his team’s intra-team strife. Such a farce won’t happen again, he assures David Malsher-Lopez.

Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Michael Andretti was left fuming after a race in which he saw all four of his drivers involved in intra team scraps that cost them three Top-10 finishes. Following a restart, Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean were dueling over 10th place on Lap 59 of the 80-lap race when Grosjean on Firestone alternates and Rossi on the harder primaries braked for Turn 2 with Rossi protecting the inside line and Grosjean on the outside.

Rossi perhaps braked a tad late and pushed wide from the apex, and the impact between his teammate’s right-front wheel and his own left-front was enough to tear the steering wheel from his hand. Rossi thus ran off the circuit but found just enough steering lock and space to regain the track unassisted, albeit now 19th rather than 10th. Grosjean had nowhere to turn with Rossi fully alongside him so was ushered nose-first into the tire barrier, from which he needed rescuing by IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team, which sent him a lap down.

Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda

Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport Honda

Photo by: Gregg Feistman / Motorsport Images

Bear in mind, at this point, Andretti had just seen his team’s best hope of a podium on this day get flushed down the pan on Lap 53. The #26 car of Colton Herta, who had been running third, was not called to pitlane for its second stop, as his rivals had been, in anticipation of an imminent full-course yellow for Tatiana Calderon’s AJ Foyt Racing car which had stopped at Turn 4. So while Herta moved to the front, when he did get called for fuel and tires under the next yellow (caused by the retrieval of Grosjean’s stricken car) less than two laps after the last caution period had ended, he did so while the field was still very bunched together and thus emerged from pitlane in 18th, just ahead of Rossi.

After the final restart, Herta passed Jimmie Johnson car into Turn 1, but when Grosjean tried to do the same to the Ganassi driver at Turn 2, he slightly outbraked himself and slid into Herta, nudging his teammate off track. That allowed Rossi to move ahead and, after some arguing over the radio, the furious Grosjean – now a lap down – allowed Rossi past.

On Lap 70, Rossi moved in on his other teammate, Devlin DeFrancesco, and at Turn 6, just as the Canadian rookie was turning in, Rossi lunged for the gap down the inside. The gap was more than sufficient, but it was a very late move – the kind you might make to win a championship, but which looks a tad excessive when performed on a teammate for the sake of 15th place – and just a few minutes after a clash with another of your teammates! Again, it appeared Rossi’s steering wheel was wrested from his grasp as the pair rubbed wheels, the pair ran wide, and DeFrancesco was briefly sent off-roading.

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport Honda

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Both Grosjean and Rossi would serve drive-through penalties for avoidable contact. But if those punishments were the end of the matter as far as IndyCar officials were concerned, there was rather more to address at team level, after finishing 15th (Herta), 17th (DeFrancesco), 19th (Rossi) and 21st (Grosjean).

“A lot of Andretti on Andretti crimes happening today,” said the commentating James Hinchcliffe, a man who spent five years at the team.

“There’s mutiny today at Andretti Autosport, I’ll tell you that much,” concurred co-commentator Townsend Bell a little later. “It’s every man for himself, absolutely no space given, teammate to teammate.”

And that’s exactly what sent Michael Andretti through the roof, as it would any team owner in his position. He and his sponsors don’t spend millions of dollars on their drivers for that kind of publicity, for that type of result.

The usual post-race team press release was interesting. Before getting into the driver quotes (which were innocuous and disingenuous in equal measure, of course), the official team line was that, “A round of incidents amongst teammates cost valuable track positions. The melee brought about high tensions and lowered finishing results.”

A couple of days later, Rossi was unwilling to talk to about the race, but Andretti himself sent a statement: “Our race results in Mid-Ohio did not go as planned. Sunday’s display was disappointing and unacceptable and not the way we operate – on or off the track.

“Racing is a passionate sport and we have four highly competitive drivers; however we are one team at Andretti and our drivers need to remember that we expect them to work together for the betterment of the team. That’s the way it will be going forward.”

Rob Edwards, who also serves as strategist for DeFrancesco, agreed to speak but was keen not to rehash the incidents, nor apportion blame to either Grosjean, who is remaining at the team beyond the end of the year, nor the driver who is departing at season’s end, Rossi. He denies there were simmering tensions between the pair before the weekend, even if each had little enthusiasm for the other.

“I’d say Romain and Alex are just typically competitive guys who are forced to work together because they are teammates and they recognize that working together, along with Colton and Devlin, is the way forward,” he says. “Every driver in any team, I’m sure, is reminded that they must work for the good of the team first. And that’s not what happened for us at the weekend. Had it been brewing? I can’t say that it had. Prior to the weekend, I wouldn’t have said anyone could predict that it was about to explode.”

There have been signs of desperation in Grosjean’s driving at times this year. Pile-driving his old Dale Coyne entry, now driven by Takuma Sato, in practice at St. Petersburg was an ignominious start, the petulant-looking banging against Graham Rahal at Barber Motorsports Park looked unnecessary, while RoGro’s shunts in qualifying at Long Beach and Detroit caused red flags that by unhappy coincidence both ended Rossi’s flying laps as he attempted to move up the grid. Grosjean’s Indy 500 shunt could be forgiven because he’s a rookie and he was certainly not the only driver to crash that day, but such an event was predicted the moment we saw him practicing in the dirty air of multi-car packs through the previous week. He looked a tad too brave.

Asked whether Grosjean was feeling increasing pressure to succeed, given his high-profile, high-salary move from Coyne to Andretti for his second year of IndyCar racing, Edwards replies carefully.

“I’m sure Romain came into the season expecting he’d have a win by now,” he says. “But he’s also been driving long enough and in enough series at a high level that I don’t think that’s a reason for his incidents. He knows how to deal with frustration and contain it, and not let it affect his driving.”

Equally, Edwards doesn’t believe that Rossi’s eagerness to score his first win since summer 2019 and his imminent departure for Arrow McLaren SP have contributed to a loss of judgment, or a decrease in team spirit from the 31-year-old Californian.

Last Sunday evening, Michael Andretti left his drivers in no doubt that the team's best interests take priority over their own.

Last Sunday evening, Michael Andretti left his drivers in no doubt that the team's best interests take priority over their own.

Photo by: IndyCar

“Absolutely not,” says Edwards. “I actually think it’s the opposite. Since the announcement was made, it’s allowed him to get back to being the old Alexander. There was almost a frustration and tension in him before that but, following the announcement, the results started to come and the #27 crew started to get back to its best. It would have been easy, after the news became public, for them to go into ‘lame duck’ mode and in fact exactly the opposite has happened – credit to the crew, the engineers, Alex himself, everyone.”

So what caused this pair’s mutual antipathy to spill out at Mid-Ohio?

“Whenever there’s a scuffle in the playground, it takes two to tango,” replies Edwards smoothly. “As team members, you’ve got to not overanalyze what happened in incidents like that, not take sides, but instead move on and remind them all that what we saw last weekend is not what we expect from our drivers. It’s not acceptable and Michael addressed it Sunday night and in conversations since. Everyone is well aware that it cannot and will not look like that going forward.

“All the drivers listened to Michael after the race – they had no choice: it was very much a one-way conversation! – and no one was left in any doubt about what the boss thought of it.”

Edwards, as COO and a strategist, isn’t about to criticize the #26 team for failing to bring Herta in under the penultimate yellow for his second and final pitstop, saying merely that it “proves everyone is human.” Fair enough: as Colton’s strategist, dad Bryan Herta is very accomplished and this was a rare high-profile slip-up. And came on a weekend when Team Penske had twice messed up in qualifying – failing to warn Will Power on his warm-up lap that Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves was fast approaching, and sending Josef Newgarden out at a time when he would get held up by Tatiana Calderon.

On the subject of how a team moves on for three more months and seven more race weekends when intra-team rivalry is so near the surface, Edwards says, “None of the drivers have been left in any doubt about what is expected of them from here on. Going forward, the team will operate the way a team should work, because everyone is on notice and in no doubt that is the expectation and mandate of how it will be.

Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards has the unenviable task of helping Michael suppress outbreaks of self-serving attitudes among racecar drivers.

Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards has the unenviable task of helping Michael suppress outbreaks of self-serving attitudes among racecar drivers.

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“They will carry on cooperating with full technical exchange between all four drivers and all four race engineers. And they will want that to be the case, because as soon as one driver is quicker in a corner, the other three want to know why and how it is done. That’s how it should always work because that what makes everyone better and moves the team forward.

“Believe me, everyone has been reminded of that that in no uncertain terms. Colton was clearly not at fault for his off, and I’d say Devlin was pretty much a passenger, too. But nonetheless, I’d say Michael took the opportunity to remind all four drivers that we’re one team, we will operate as one team.”

So he’s not worried about what may happen in Toronto?

“Nope!” he replies immediately. “I wasn’t worried all year until I saw what was happening at Mid-Ohio, and like I said, what Michael stated very clearly in the aftermath of that race means I’m certainly not worried going forward.”

Neither should anyone else worry. In fact, we should be relishing this stark battle for intra team honors over the remainder of the season, a tasty little subplot in an already fascinating championship.

For Rossi, last Sunday’s result was a hit to his stated ambition of ending his seven years at Andretti Autosport with a top-three in the championship, as he achieved in 2018 and ’19, but the odds against him achieving that are by no means insuperable. With seven rounds to go, he sits eighth, 92 points from championship leader Marcus Ericsson but he’s only 58 outside the top three.

The problem is, he can’t expect any help from his teammates in his quest. Herta, the only Andretti driver to have scored a win this year, is only two places and 17 points behind him and is simply going to try to overhaul his teammate and win some more. Grosjean, whose title dream is in tatters, lies 14th, almost 140 points off the lead, and will be trying simply to win, and justify the effort, faith and money invested in him by Andretti and sponsor DHL.

For Edwards, though, it’s business as usual: IndyCar didn’t get involved once the checkered flag had fallen, the matter got handled internally, and now it’s time to move on.

“I just can’t wait to go to Toronto,” he says, “one, because I love going to that city and we’ve missed having it on the schedule the last two years, and two, so we can talk about something other than what happened to our team in Mid-Ohio.”

Sorry Rob. I salute your optimism, but I very much doubt you’ve heard the last of it, even if Mid-Ohio was the nadir.

DeFrancesco, one of two fairly innocent victims of AA shenanigans at Mid-Ohio.

DeFrancesco, one of two fairly innocent victims of AA shenanigans at Mid-Ohio.

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Previous article Lundgaard under the radar but top of the rookie standings
Next article IndyCar star Herta gets two-day McLaren F1 test in Portimao