Andretti Autosport‘s Alexander Rossi once again showcased his magnificent fuel-saving abilities in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park. Rossi took home a second place finish in the race, finishing just behind the race-winner Will Power but, crucially, ahead of the championship leader Scott Dixon.
Entering the race weekend, Rossi was hoping to score a third consecutive race win, having taken victory the last two times out at Mid-Ohio and Pocono Raceway. The Californian driver was gifted second on the grid for Gateway after qualifying was cancelled due to rain, but he would still be starting behind the championship leader Dixon. With just three races to go at the start of the weekend, Rossi was determined to further trim the New Zealander’s advantage in the standings.
Rossi had a poor start to the race, dropping behind the Team Penske drivers of Will Power and Josef Newgarden after not getting up to speed as well as he would have hoped. Rossi spent much of the opening stages of the race stuck behind Newgarden, but he would eventually manage to pass him and set about chasing down Dixon and Power at the front.
As the race entered it’s closing moments, there was a strategic decision to be made. A caution came out on lap one hundred and seventy-three after Rossi’s team-mate, Ryan Hunter-Reay slowed out on track. The teams and drivers had a choice to either go to the end without pitting at the risk of running out of fuel or to make another pit-stop and go flat-out to the finish.
Of the contenders for the win, Rossi was the only one who made the gamble to go to the end on fuel. He would take the lead when Dixon and Power pitted for fuel, but Rossi had a lot of saving to do if he was going to make it to the end.
In the end, the amount Rossi had to slow down was too much to be able to hold off Power. Will managed to retake the lead with under ten laps to go and would go on to secure the victory by just over a second. Scott Dixon was rapidly closing in on Rossi to try and take second, but ultimately the Chip Ganassi Racing driver would finish in third place; a second and a half behind Rossi.
The fuel strategy may not have been enough to take the win at Gateway, but it was worth the risk nonetheless. Rossi had been running behind Dixon before the strategies were enacted. A two-point gain on Dixon in the championship may not sound like much, but every point will count with just two races until the champion is crowned.
“Every weekend we just have to try and beat Scott [Dixon].” Rossi said after climbing from his car post-race, “Will [Power] was amazing today, so congrats to him. I’m a little lost for words. I’m not sure how we made that happen today, that’s unbelievable.
“I wasn’t full throttle at all for the last 70 laps. It was a huge ask when Rob [Edwards, race strategist] came over the radio and told me the fuel number. I was like, ‘Here we go again.’ I couldn’t have done it without a great NAPA Andretti Honda.”
Rossi was referring to the circumstances that led to his maiden win in IndyCar at the 2016 Indianapolis 500. On that day, Rossi pulled off the unthinkable and managed to save enough fuel to win the historic race on fuel mileage. Saturday night was yet another example of Rossi’s superb fuel saving and race management, but he would comment later on that the task was greater this time around:
“It’s a mental game because you’re trying to obviously hit a fuel number to go X amount of laps, and it was a very, very big fuel number,” Rossi added. “Unlike the [Indy] 500 in 2016, I didn’t have a teammate to tow me around, so I had to figure out how to do it myself, which was a big challenge.
“It was just enough [fuel] at the end. Obviously, you want to win the race, but the goal really is to beat Scott, and we were able to do that, despite it only be a couple-point swing. It’s something, right?”
Another pivotal moment of Rossi’s race came mid-way through the event. Will Power made a move up the inside of turns one and two on lap one hundred and forty-six of the race. On the exit of the corner, the rear of Rossi’s car stepped out from underneath him and sent him into a high-speed slide. The #27 Honda came within inches of slapping the outside wall, but somehow Rossi managed to get the car pointing back in the right direction and he was able to carry on.
If Rossi had hit the wall at the speed he was going, his race would have been over. The points loss that he could have potentially suffered may well have put him out of contention for the title; which just goes to show how one little mistake can have such a massive impact when you’re competing for a championship.
“It was one of those ones where I had pretty much given up,” Rossi said of the incident, “and it just came back, really, probably by the grace of God because I was on the brakes and ready to hit the wall. It just kind of corrected itself, and that was a pretty big blessing I got there.”
With just twenty-six points separating Rossi from Dixon and the championship lead, it is all to play for in the final two races of the season. There are still a lot of points up for grabs at Portland International Raceway and Sonoma Raceway, but Rossi said after Saturday’s race that he was aiming to get as close as possible to ensure that the double-points finale at Sonoma would be as even a contest as it could be:
“The goal right now is just to hopefully get within 20 points going into Sonoma, and then it can really be about ‘who beats the other person’ type of thing.”
Rossi does not have long to wait until his next chance to decrease Dixon’s points lead. The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series will be back in action this weekend for the penultimate race of the year, the 2018 Grand Prix of Portland, which takes place on Sunday, September 2.