Alexander Rossi was on top of the IndyCar world after winning the 100th Indy 500 in 2016.
He continued his roll the next two seasons, finishing second in the IndyCar championship in 2018 and third in 2019.
However, after capturing two wins in 2019, he’d go winless the next two seasons and managed one visit to victory lane (plus two other podium appearances) in 2022.
This year, Rossi is hoping for a reset and a change of scenery as he moves from Andretti Autosport to Arrow McLaren.
When Alexander Rossi won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2016, it appeared as if the IndyCar world was his for the taking. He’d go on to win Rookie of the Year that season and, if everything went according to plan, he’d ultimately lead Andretti Autosport to several IndyCar championships.
Unfortunately, the latter never happened. Even in the year he won the 500, he finished a disappointing 11th in the season standings. The highest the California native and former Formula 1 racer reached in those championship standings was second (2018) and third (2019).
From there, it was down, down and down, finishing ninth (2020), 10th (2021) and eighth (2022). After capturing two wins in 2019, he’d go winless the next two seasons and managed one visit to victory lane (plus two other podium appearances) in 2022.
By mid-June of this past season, it became apparent to both Rossi and team owner Michael Andretti that both sides had gone as far as they could with the other, they’d done the best they could together and it was best that they part ways.
That’s what happened and now, with roughly five weeks before the start of the 2023 IndyCar season, the 31-year-old Rossi is looking forward to a fresh start and potentially see either himself or his two new teammates—Pato O’Ward or Felix Rosenqvist—all very capable, we might add – in winning the 2023 IndyCar championship.
Rossi doesn’t want to be just a contender for the title this year. Rather, he’s in it to win it.
“Yes, sure,” Rossi emphatically said in an exclusive interview with Autoweek. “Here's the thing, the past two and a half years, three years, have been a challenge. There's been a variety of reasons as to why it's been a challenge. But the main thing that's remained is if you look at our qualifying performance, it hasn't really varied from 2018 all the way through the past couple of years.”
He's 100% spot on with that assessment: in the 81 races from the start of the 2018 season through the end of the 2022 season, Rossi qualified on the pole six times (out of a total of seven in his seven-year career), in the top five a total of 34 times and 24 times in the top 10.
“It's just on race days, we haven't been getting it done,” he said. “And that's really been the difference maker. Some of that was self-inflicted, some of that was my issues, some of that was just bad luck (and) some of that was the team's issues.
“If you look at the trajectory and what McLaren has done in the immediate past, they were a better team as a whole thing than where I came from. And that was with a very new influence from McLaren and a very new investment from McLaren, and that's only growing and getting larger. And the team's incorporating itself into the McLaren family more and more, kind of as every week goes on.
“So in that regard, the growth has been exponential, and it's only going to continue to get better.”
He then adds with a good-natured laugh, “So I think that, coupled with the fact that I'm extremely motivated to not make us all look silly, is a really good combination.”
In addition to working with new McLaren Racing director Gavin Ward, Rossi has been reunited with Craig Hampson, who helped lead Rossi to his historic win at Indy. Wright will serve as Rossi’s race engineer this season.
“I think one of the big things for me that was really important was getting to work again, with Craig,” Rossi said. “I worked with him in 2016, when we were both at Andretti. He wasn't my direct race engineer, but he had kind of a lot of oversight, so I had a lot of dialogue with him and I have a huge amount of respect for him. So getting to get back together with him was critical.”
Rossi is unquestionably excited at what lies ahead of him, although it’s also natural for him—or any driver who switches teams, for that matter—to have somewhat of a fear of the unknown and how he’ll respond after the last few years and at his previous IndyCar address.
“Yeah, you're right,” Rossi said. “I went into this being not naive in the sense that when you're at a certain place for a long period of time, you start to know the strengths and weaknesses, know the good and the bad.
“When you go somewhere new, you're going to discover new skeletons in the closet. That's just the reality of life and sport and business. So yeah, I mean, obviously, there's areas I feel that we need to focus on and address and get better on already. But that's part of bringing all these different types of people together.
“When Gavin (Ward) joined the team, he brought with him experience from not only F1, but also from Penske, as well as me coming in with the experience that I have from Andretti. We've hired some people from some different teams around the paddock that brought in ideas and prior historical points in terms of this was a really big transition phase for us. … So yeah, I mean, there's certainly there's certainly weaknesses. As much as we're trying to identify the positives, we're looking at what areas we’re weak in and how we need to improve that in the time that we do have before the season starts.”
In a twist of irony, had fate not taken him in another direction and kept him in F1 rather than bringing him to IndyCar, Rossi may have eventually found himself with McLaren Racing in F1. Instead, now, he’ll be racing for Arrow McLaren SP in IndyCar.
Rossi had contemplated a move from the Andretti stable for the last couple of years, but kept believing things would get better. But by the start of last season, he knew his time was just about up and he started both entertaining as well as reaching out for feelers to drive for another team. McLaren was his first choice.
“It was really just a matter of do we really want to do this,” Rossi said. “In the middle of 2021, things were still not progressing the way that any of us wanted. And so it was like, well, a maybe, maybe not type of thing. And so that's when you really start to have to have internal conversation with yourself and start to understand where we're at, what you think you can do and what other opportunities are out there.
“But at the same time, you have to be very cognizant of the fact that you have a responsibility and you have an obligation to the people around you that are staying (with Andretti). And I don't care if you're moving on or not, every single day you have to put in the effort to try and give them the results that they deserve.
“So even though it was pretty clear that 2022 was going to be the end, it was never a negative situation with Michael, and really the entire Andretti family. I mean, Marco and Marissa are two of my closest friends. Michael, I would consider a friend of mine as well. It was all, none of us were happy. None of us were like, ‘Oh, it's great, what's wrong?’
“Michael and I had chats before and he's gone through the process of he switched teams, and sometimes that's just a part of life. For whatever reason, it wasn't working. So when the opportunity came to really sit down with Zak (McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown) and talk to him about what his plans were, and what his goals were for the future, it became a pretty easy kind of situation.
“The only thing that was the difficult part was managing the timeline of it, again, to be respectful to everyone involved. Not only on the Andretti side, but the McLaren side and then still focus on getting results for the team and sponsors that you currently drive for.
“It was really amazing to kind of come full circle in Indy in August and at that point everyone hadn't realized that we were going to be moving on, and to be able to end that relationship pretty much with the win with three (races) to go or whatever it was just special. It meant a lot to everyone because that group of guys and girls that were on the 27th car had been with me for five years. We’d been through a lot of highs and lows together and to finally break that dry spell, if you will, and put that behind us as a group was a really nice thing.”
After competing in last year’s Rolex 24 Hours endurance race at Daytona International Speedway, Rossi is sitting this one out. Perhaps it’s just as well, as next week he and the rest of the IndyCar world—drivers and teams, that is—will have their first full practice/test of the year with a two-day event (Feb. 2-3) at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, Calif.
Call it a gut feeling, but don’t be surprised if Rossi will be at or near the top of the speed charts in Cali. The event is taking place in his home state and it’s clear he wants to make a good—no, make that, great—impression in his first go-round in a McLaren speedster.
“Right now, it's just getting used to who's who and who does what,” Rossi said, adding, “trying to understand everyone's roles and obviously their histories, and also just having lots of meetings in terms of brain dumps and understanding why we did certain things the way we did and why they did certain things and answering questions about previous events and results, and pros and cons, and that sort of thing, which has been really interesting.”
Rossi is eager to get the 2023 season going and hopes he can kick things off with a bang—a win—in the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Doing so would establish a baseline right from the start that would only help improve things going forward with each subsequent race.
But he’s also honest and realistic about his chances.
“Being realistic, I don't think that street courses at the moment are our strongest attribute,” he said. “I really think we're going into St. Pete trying to win, (but) I think the second race of the year in Texas is certainly one that the team has obviously proven that they're more than capable of fighting for a win or winning. So, it's going to be an interesting adjustment.
“At Andretti, we knew that every time we showed up to a street course, we're going to pretty much be the cars to beat. … But really, that'll be our one weekend to kind of just learn and experiment with each other and understand how we all work together throughout a race weekend. And then, certainly one of our stronger tracks will be will be the second race on the calendar.”
As for his new teammates—O’Ward and Rosenqvist—they were previously two of Rossi’s chief rivals on-track. Now instead of fighting them, they’ll all be working together for a common goal to make AMSP as good as it can be individually and collectively.
“I'm very, very excited,” Rossi said. “What's cool is they're two very different people, both in and out of the car, and the characteristics that they have, in terms of driving, which I think is interesting, it allows us to really get a good benchmark of where we, where you need to go each race weekend in terms of what direction, what path you want to take in terms of whether it's a weekend where you want to be more on the conservative side from a setup standpoint, or more on the aggressive side.
“And even though they're expanding to three cars, it's still a much smaller organization than I've been involved with, so I think it's a lot more pinpoint focus on certain areas, which is nice to be a part of. I’m certainly looking forward to getting started in February.”
Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski