Rossi charges through the field to seventh at Sonoma, comes up short in title race


Alexander Rossi (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma
Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

After a mistake on lap one of the Grand Prix of Sonoma ultimately ended his 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship hopes, Alexander Rossi has vowed to “come back stronger” in 2019. Rossi came from almost a lap-down at the end of the first lap to take an eventual seventh-place finish, with Scott Dixon coming home in second place to secure the championship.

Rossi entered the final race weekend of the 2018 season attempting to overhaul a twenty-nine point deficit to Dixon in the championship standings. With double-points on offer for the finale, it was still entirely possible for Alexander to steal the title from Scott, but right from the get-go, it appeared as though Rossi in his #27 Andretti Autosport Honda was trailing Dixon in the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing car.

Rossi was behind Dixon throughout the three practice sessions and appeared to be off of the pace of other drivers, including his own team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rossi managed to get through to the final round of Saturday’s qualifying session, but with the team realising that they did not really have the pace to fight Hunter-Reay and Dixon for pole, they took a strategic gamble.

Rossi only made one run in the final session and did so on the slower primary tyre compound; with the team taking a risk with a slightly lower grid spot so that they could save a set of the faster alternate tyre compound for a potential aggressive strategy option in the race. Rossi would qualify in sixth place, with Dixon taking second place alongsde the pole-sitter Hunter-Reay.

Rossi admitted after qualifying that he was not sure whether they had made the right choice with their strategy gamble, but he went on to state that if they had a good car in the race, they could still be in the mix for the championship.

“I don’t see us starting behind [Scott] Dixon that big of an issue,” Rossi said on Saturday, “we just need to make sure we build a good race car and make sure we do the best job that we can and extract the most out of the No. 27.”

“We’ll make sure we make the right decisions to have a fast race car. We have really good teammates around us and in front of us, so we’ll lean on them to help build a fast car for tomorrow.”

Sadly for Rossi, he was unable to use his teammates in front of him to his advantage when the race got under-way. In fact, a mistake from Alexander after being caught out by Marco Andretti at turn one would effectively end his title hopes. The field had barely completed the short-run up to turn one when the green flag flew when Rossi ran into the back of Andretti and gave himself a right-front puncture and front-wing damage.

Rossi had to crawl back to the pits and, with no caution, he rejoined the race almost a lap down on the race leaders. For the remainder of the first half of the eighty-five lap race, Rossi’s sole focus was on remaining on the lead-lap so that he could rejoin the back of the field should a caution came out. He had to fight with both Dixon and Hunter-Reay, but crucially for Alexander, a caution would be called on lap forty-four when Graham Rahal stopped out on the track.

Alexander Rossi (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma
Credit: Stephen King / Courtesy of IndyCar

Rossi had just made a pit-stop and rejoined the race ahead of the leaders when the caution was called, meaning that he was able to rejoin the back of the pack for the second half of the race. When the race was restarted on lap fifty, Rossi immediately got to work, scything his way up five places on the first green flag lap, ultimately working his way up from twentieth to seventh in just five laps.

From there, Rossi was able to use the undercut on his final pit-stop to get up to fifth place, but he was unable to further reel in Scott Dixon who was still running in second. Come the end of the race, Rossi’s tyre life was fading and he also had to save some fuel. This forced him to lose positions to Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais, meaning that he would take the chequered flag in seventh place. Scott Dixon would finish in second place, meaning that he would secure the 2018 championship, with Rossi eventually finishing fifty-seven points adrift in the standings.

Rossi was left rueing what might have been after his lap one mistake. After the race, he would tell Autosport that it was an unfortunate” way for the race to have panned out, but he also stated that his team did “an amazing job” to get him back in a position to capitilise if Dixon had suffered any issues.

“It was unfortunate because I thought we got a good start,” Rossi told Autosport, “Just a two cars going for the same spot type of thing.

“The team did an amazing job of getting us back to a point where we could at least be in contention if something did happen to Scott. It didn’t. I knew it was probably a 1% shot at getting anything done. I just tried to attack it, move up as many positions as we could. If Scott did have some sort of failure or something, we still needed to be towards the top six or seven. That was the goal.”

Rossi went on to state in further post-race interviews that, despite coming up short in the championship, it had been a good season and that he and Andretti would look to improve and come back stronger in 2019.

“Hats off to the whole No. 27 NAPA Team.” Rossi said, “It was a great day for Andretti Autosport with Ryan [Hunter-Reay] winning. It’s very unfortunate what happened in Turn 1 on Lap 1. It’s a situation I’m sure we’ll all replay a lot of times but, at the end of the day, it’s been a good 2018 and I am very appreciative for all the support we’ve had this year.

“We came pretty close and we’ll work on the things we need to be better on and come back stronger next year. [Scott] Dixon’s the benchmark. He’s the five-time champion for a reason so he deserves it 100 percent and we’ll work very hard to come back and try to beat him next year.”

Rossi will be back with Andretti Autosport for his fourth season next year, with himself and the rest of the IndyCar field having several months to wait until the 2019 IndyCar Series kicks off. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on March 10.