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The magic number? Why Andretti are downsizing to three cars

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Joe Skibinski

What is the ideal number of cars for a team to run in IndyCar?

It is a pertinent question in a series where, unlike the likes of Formula One, the amount of cars run by a team is not uniform across the grid. In 2024, there will be as few as two and as many as five cars to a full-time team, with Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) adding Kyffin Simpson to form a five-driver lineup.

There is not really one answer in particular to what works best. It largely depends on a teams’ resources and personnel, to determine what is within the realms of reasonability. CGR, for instance, dominated the 2023 season with a four-car operation.

But Team Penske switched to three cars from four ahead of the 2022 season, and have reaped the rewards of consistency across the team. Andretti Autosport, now rebranded as Andretti Global amid their F1 pursuits, have also struggled to maximise their performance as a four-car team, in recent times.

Andretti now seem set to become the latest to make the switch from four cars to three in advance of the 2024 season. The team will field a lineup of Colton Herta, Kyle Kirkwood and Marcus Ericsson, with Devlin DeFranceso outgoing and as yet without a seat, and Romain Grosjean leaving for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

This spells the end of a period of Andretti almost always running at least four cars since 2004, and it marks the second downsizing for the team in recent years, after reducing the operation from five cars to four, as Marco Andretti’s full-time career came to a close at the end of 2020.

Credit: Joe Skibinski

The No.29 entry missed out on the additional funding from finishing inside the Leaders’ Circle in 2023 after a mechanical issue, which meant DeFrancesco couldn’t maintain competitive speed in the season-ending race at Laguna Seca. It seems significant funding would have been required for the No.29 car to remain, given the team also lost DHL as a sponsor.

That ruled out options such as the newly-free Callum Ilott. And ultimately taking funding from a driver could have been at the sacrifice of performance. This was the unfortunate case in the last two years, as DeFrancesco was probably fast-tracked into the Andretti-Steinbrenner programme, following compatriot James Hinchcliffe’s departure.

DeFrancesco commenced his IndyCar career as a 22-year-old in 2022, having finished sixth with only two podiums across his one year in Indy Lights. A second year in the premier Road to Indy series could well have better prepared the Canadian-Italian driver.

He would go on to finish 23rd in the standings in his first season, improving only one place in 2023. DeFrancesco managed a best race finish of 12th-place across his two seasons, which makes you consider whether Andretti running the extra fourth car has been anything but a little counterproductive in recent years.

DeFrancesco did show the talent he possesses when everything is hooked up at the Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Road Course in August. He qualified as the best Andretti in fifth-place in his maiden Fast Six appearance, before going on to execute an audacious move around the outside of four cars, to take the lead on the opening lap.

It rather summed up DeFrancesco’s Andretti stint, as he tumbled down the order and eventually finished a lap down, in 19th.

Credit: James Black

Andretti are a team desperately chasing the return of better days. They have failed to win a championship since Ryan Hunter-Reay reigned supreme in 2012, while their most recent Indianapolis 500 victory came through Takuma Sato back in 2017.

Since they returned to a four-car operation again in 2021, it has remained a struggle for Andretti. There became intra-team tensions and divides, with multiple collisions between their drivers at Mid-Ohio in 2022 seeing a head of toxicity reached within the team.

The switch from five cars to four was necessary, amid Marco Andretti’s slump to 16th and 20th in the standings in 2019 and 2020 respectively. But mediocrity only persisted despite the downsizing, with no drastic improvement in 2021. Hunter-Reay struggled to a 17th-place finish at the back end of his full-time career in 2021, with Hinchcliffe three places beneath.

These are drivers with pedigree — Hunter-Reay a championship winner, and Hinchcliffe a six-time race victor. The same could be said for Alexander Rossi, who embodied the struggles Andretti have endured, since the aeroscreen’s introduction for 2020 in particular.

Rossi capped off 2019 with third in the championship, having finished runners-up the year prior, displaying championship-contending pedigree. But in his final three seasons with the team before departing to Arrow McLaren in advance of 2023, the 2016 Indy 500-winner twice finished ninth, and once 10th in the championship.

Rossi went three years winless, before finally capturing victory again in the second race on the Indy Road Course in 2022.

Credit: James Black

Amid Andretti’s tough years, Herta proved the shining light. Coming onboard in 2020 after a seventh-place rookie season finish with Harding Steinbrenner Racing, during which he took two wins, he immediately finished third in the standings. He followed this up with a fifth-place, but back-to-back 10th-places in the last two years emphasise the Andretti demise.

Herta had a particularly tough 2023, with the seven-time winner failing to take a win in a year for the first time in his five-year IndyCar career. Still only 23, Herta’s talent remains raw, and there are imperfections, sometimes resulting in incidents, that need ironing out. But it is no marker of his pedigree that he only achieved one podium in 2023.

Despite his youthfulness, Herta has seemed to be the driver spearheading the Andretti charge in recent years. But 2023 saw sophomore teammate Kirkwood take many of the headlines in his first year with the team. He imposed himself with victories on the streets of Long Beach and Nashville, albeit ending the season four points behind Herta.

The fact that Kirkwood’s wins were his only two top-five finishes across the season outlines the team’s inconsistency, but at the same time, it encapsulates what they can produce when everything is put together in a weekend.

Shown by two pole positions for Grosjean and Herta, and a further one for Kirkwood, Andretti remain capable of producing field-topping pace. But they scarcely had complete enough weekends, and it is nigh on impossible to pick out a weekend where every entry maximised what was possible.

Credit: Chris Owens

As much as he showed streaks of being a potential race-winner, moving on from Grosjean is one way for Andretti to eradicate some of their inconsistency. There were glimmers that suggested two 13th-place championship finishes in his two years with the team are unjust, but his form was far too errant for anything more.

Ericsson is, in many ways, the polar opposite to Grosjean as a driver. He is by no means the fastest driver in the series over one lap, or even often a race distance. But he is one of the series’ most reliable drivers — always in the top 10 ballpark, and there to pick up the pieces if opportunities opened up.

Ericsson only finished outside of the top 10 thrice in 2023, and across his 64 races in four years with CGR, he finished inside the top 10 on 47 occasions — amounting to 73.4 percent of races.

Grosjean, by contrast, only featured inside the top 10 on three instances in 2023. Across his 34 races with Andretti, the Frenchman only managed 10 top-ten finishes. It makes sense for the team to recruit somebody of Ericsson’s reliability as he searched for a paid ride.

The struggles endured by Grosjean were not all his fault. The team suffered car problems and strategy blunders across all of their entries. Too often they have squandered promising race results from encouraging positions, and the onus is by no means always on the driver.

Ultimately, downscaling should lead to improved the level of performance for a team struggling for consistency if all goes well. Resources can be focused across three cars, as opposed to having an additional fourth programme to worry about. Essentially, if the team desires, they can spread four cars’ worth of personnel across three cars.

Credit: James Black

This off-season has already seen Ed Carpenter Racing remove their all-oval third entry, which will only run the Indy 500, as they attempt to focus their resources across two full-time entries, looking for an elevation in performance. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have opted against expanding to four cars, until they have three entries firing on all cylinders.

Since Simon Pagenaud’s departure to Meyer Shank Racing for 2022 as Penske reduced their lineup to three cars, the team have seen their three drivers very well-matched for the most part. Will Power led Josef Newgarden for a one-two in the championship in 2022, with Scott McLaughlin fourth. All three finished inside the top seven in 2023.

Andretti enter 2024 with three of the series’ top drivers, including two of its brightest young talents, with race-winning pace and championship-winning pedigree. All three of their drivers have won multiple races in the series.

It is by no means a given that removing an underperforming entry will see an upturn for the team’s three other cars. But downscaling has been proven to be a very good solution for teams struggling for performance in IndyCar. On the face of it, this looks to be a shrewd move by Andretti.


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