Now that Michael Andretti has bolstered his Andretti Autosport operation with a series of offseason hires, Rob Edwards is looking to create a culture that will lead to a bounce-back Verizon IndyCar Series season in 2017.
After two seasons as director of engineering and race operations, Edwards has a new title as Andretti Autosport’s chief operating officer. Eric Bretzman, who won three series championships and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 as Scott Dixon’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, is the new technical director. Jeremy Milless, most recently the engineer for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, will now work with Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who re-signed with Andretti and car co-owner Bryan Herta in early October.
Truth be told, Andretti was looking ahead as far back as early summer, when conversations began about what the team could do to improve. Aside from Rossi’s memorable triumph in May’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the season was a constant reminder of the need for change with the Honda-powered cars as Carlos Munoz finished 10th in the points, Rossi 11th, Ryan Hunter-Reay 12th and Marco Andretti 16th.
What outsiders might not realize about Andretti is the intensity with which he approaches his business. He’s just as passionate as when he drove. Edwards observes how his boss is usually at the Indianapolis headquarters daily by 9 a.m., often earlier if he’s working on something in particular.
As much as Andretti sets an overall tone, he can’t do it alone. He must hire the right people, which is why this offseason has been so important and why Edwards is vital to carrying the message.
“In 2016, we win the Indy 500, we win the Freedom 100 (in Indy Lights presented by Cooper tires) for the first time ever as a company, we added another Global Rallycross championship, and we’re all like, ‘We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve this year,’” Edwards said. “That sort of says what we’re trying to do and what our goals are.
“May was an absolute highlight, but the rest of the year we clearly struggled. Although a lot of the moves we made happened in September after the season, the wheels were put in motion over the summer. When we looked at why we weren’t performing at the level that we should be at, it obviously takes time to find the right people, the key people to do that.”
While an obvious observation would suggest Andretti Autosport, one of the series’ largest operations, will return with added pressure to rebound from a one-win season, Edwards cautions against looking at the situation the wrong way.
“My personal philosophy is if you’re thinking about the pressure, then you’re not thinking about what you need to do to fix it,” he said. “It’s a distraction. What you need to do is work through it, logically and systematically. As a manager of the group, that’s part of what I need to do, create that culture here for everyone.
“We’re all here because we want to win. Keep it light, focus on tasks, and if you achieve the tasks the best that you can achieve them, the rest is going to follow. But if you say, ‘Today is the day, I’ve got to do it,’ I think you’re setting yourself up to fail.
“That’s one of the things we’ve said to Marco. You can read his quotes. ‘We have to win this race.’ Marco, get away from that. That creates more pressure. We’re going to go to this race, we’re going to try to execute on every level that we can, the best we can with where we’re at and with what we’ve got at that time.”
Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Rossi are under contract. Takuma Sato officially joined the team as the fourth driver for 2017, replacing Munoz on Dec. 2. Three returning engineers are Ray Gosselin with Hunter-Reay, Nathan O’Rourke with Marco and Garrett Mothersead for the fourth car.
“I’m really excited about what we’re doing,” Michael Andretti said recently. “I think we’ve really improved our team. Our engineering, we’ve strengthened a lot. Our commercial side, we’ve done a lot of things to make it better. I’m really excited about the future for us.”
A series of talks with Bretzman – whose brother Ben was the championship-winning engineer for Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud this year – began in June, Edwards said. Milless didn’t emerge as an option until Newgarden accepted a 2017 ride with Team Penske. Newgarden enjoyed a career-best fourth-place finish in the points this past season while working with Milless at ECR.
“Our original plan was to have Craig Hampson to work with Alexander Rossi in 2017,” Edwards said. “When Craig went to Dale Coyne Racing to work with Sebastien Bourdais, it sort of coincided in a week or so with the underlying current that Josef Newgarden was going to leave Ed Carpenter and do something different. We saw Jeremy as someone we actually had our eye on for a while, someone we thought would be a good fit with Alexander.”
The team also received commercial boosts before the end of the season when hhgregg was announced as Marco Andretti’s primary sponsor in 2017 and DHL extended its sponsorship through 2020 on Hunter-Reay’s car. The 2014 Indy 500 winner likes where his team is headed.
“We’re making moves and we’re moving forward,” Hunter-Reay said recently. “That’s the biggest thing. The objective is to progress. We’re looking to do that. Certainly we had our weak spots this year and we had our strengths. A few race wins got away from us and we need to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I really like everyone involved, the additions we’ve made and the direction we’re headed.”
A few hours before that DHL announcement on the weekend of the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, Michael Andretti confidently predicted his team would inevitably return as a strong series contender. He couldn’t have sounded more convinced this would happen, speaking with such certainty, although he didn’t know then how all the parts would fall into place.
“That same passion he had on track that drove him to win as many races as he won, that’s in the DNA of our company,” Edwards said. “When I think of what makes Penske unique, what makes Ganassi unique, what makes Andretti unique, some of those things that are in our DNA from Michael are a big part of that.
“Michael has been around long enough. He’s seen it. We need to make sure the last couple of years are the exception, right? With the changes we’ve tried to make, hopefully in 2017 it will put us back to where we need to be.”
(Pictured above is the Andretti Autosport engineering team, consisting of (left to right): Ron Barhorst, Nick Heinz, Garrett Mothersead, Jeremy Milless, Amanda Lund, Eric Bretzman, Scott Graves, Nathan O’Rourke, Mike Cicciarelli, Ray Gosselin and Brian Page.)