Will EJ Viso Bring Subtraction By Addition?
One could argue that Michael Andretti is messing with a good thing with Andretti Autosport expanding from three cars to four for 2013. After all, they are coming off of a championship season with Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the crown. It is a legitimate question to ask if they are messing with the excellent chemistry the team had in 2012. Focusing only on three cars instead of four led to better results. It was a case of addition by subtraction.
Since 2004, the team then known as Andretti-Green Racing, had run four full-time cars up until this past season. For the 2003 season, Michael Andretti bought into the team known as Team Green and moved them from CART into the Indy Racing League. Their original drivers were Michael Andretti for the first few races through the Indianapolis 500, before his retirement; Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, who would become a fourth driver for the team at Motegi and Indianapolis, before stepping in for the retired Michael Andretti. Three drivers would finish the season after Indianapolis.
Unfortunately, Dario Franchitti broke his back in a motorcycle accident in April. He was replaced at Indianapolis by Robby Gordon, before Bryan Herta stepped into the car for the remainder of the season.
In 2004, the team had great chemistry. I don’t know if I ever remember a team of drivers that got along as well as they did. Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta all drove full-time for Andretti-Green, had an uncommon bond and each one seemed genuinely happy when one of their teammates won – even if they did not. From 2004 to 2007, Andretti-Green won three championships in four years – Tony Kanaan in 2004, Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007. Wheldon and Franchitti also won the Indianapolis 500 in the years they won the championships.
There were several steps taken that disrupted the team’s magical chemistry. Dan Wheldon was the first to break up the group, when he left after his championship season of 2005. He was replaced on the team by Michael’s son Marco. Having a rookie on the team could certainly affect the team chemistry. The same goes for having the owner’s son joining the group. When you add both of those factors to the mix, the good chemistry has the potential to dissipate quickly.
Whether it did or not is debatable, but the fact remains that the team did not win the championship that season. Four drivers accounted for four wins for AGR for the entire 2006 season. Most teams would be happy to have four wins in a season, but when you have four drivers and you’re coming off of two straight championships and an Indianapolis 500 victory – four wins is a little disappointing.
The next step to dismantling the chemistry of those original four drivers from the 2004 season took place in 2007. Danica Patrick was introduced into the mix at the expense of Bryan Herta, who was shipped off to AGR’s ALMS team. Danica had a huge contract with Motorola and was in the spotlight far more than her more accomplished teammates. Tony Kanaan won five races and finished third in the championship. Dario Franchitti won four races along with his first IndyCar championship. Marco and Danica went winless.
In 2008, the wheels came off. Franchitti left the team and the series to try his luck with Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team. Danica won the only victory of her career at Motegi. Kanaan won only one race – at Richmond. Marco went winless along with new team member Hideki Mutoh. Two wins among four drivers was unacceptable. It got worse.
The team had a meltdown at Edmonton, when Danica and Marco were battling at the back of field with Kanaan in contention for the win. As he tried to lap his teammates, their own battle slowed Kanaan and prevented him from getting to the front. Those in the paddock after the race could hear shouting coming from the AGR trailer. This was also when Tony Kanaan made the career decision to turn down overtures from Chip Ganassi and stay with Andretti out of loyalty. In retrospect, it was not a good move.
Dario Franchitti would return to the series in 2009 and take the Ganassi ride offered to Kanaan. Franchitti turned that opportunity into three championships and two Indianapolis 500 wins. In the meantime, Kanaan and the entire Andretti-Green team went winless. In the process, there were suspension failures, pit-stop missteps along with a slew of finger-pointing. Engineers left and the team was a shell of its former self.
The 2010 season was somewhat of a rebirth. Michael Andretti bought out his partners and rebranded the team as Andretti Autosport. Danica Patrick had a new sponsor in Go-Daddy, Ryan Hunter-Reay was signed as a part-time driver with a partial sponsorship with IZOD in lieu of the departed Mutoh. As the season wore on, Hunter-Reay ended up running the entire season after winning at Long Beach. Tony Kanaan also won a race at Iowa, giving the resurgent team two wins for 2010. Kanaan and Hunter-Reay bonded closely. For the first time since 2007, there was actually some chemistry on the team that had become dysfunctional in recent years. Unfortunately, Kanaan’s sponsor pulled out at the end of 2010 and the longtime loyal was suddenly out on the street.
For 2011, the four driver lineup consisted of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick, Mike Conway and Marco Andretti. Conway won at Long Beach, but the team had a disaster at Indianapolis, with Danica Patrick qualifying late and Marco being in the unenviable position of bumping his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing minutes. Mike Conway didn’t even come close to qualifying. Amidst fan protests, Michael Andretti bought a car on the grid for Hunter-Reay while Conway watched the race from the sidelines. Later in the season, the team rebounded as Marco won the second race of his career at Iowa and Hunter-Reay won at the controversial race at New Hampshire.
After a long agonizing and distracting process, Danica Patrick finally announced her departure from the team and series to run in NASCAR in 2012. Dan Wheldon was coming off of his second Indianapolis 500 win and was set to return to Andretti Autosport for 2012. Unfortunately, he was fatally injured in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas. Mike Conway also quietly departed the team prior to the 2012 season. That left Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay as the only drivers.
Enter James Hinchcliffe to drive the Go-Daddy car that had been slated for Wheldon. He brought his affable personality and superb driving talents to a team in need of a lift and completely devoid of chemistry. Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay immediately bonded.
For the first time since 2003, Michael Andretti’s team would be a three-car team. Although the team was named Andretti, this was in no way Marco’s team. Hunter-Reay was the lead driver, with Hinchcliffe as the promising up and comer with a ton of personality. The distractions that came with Danica were gone. Marco just seemed to lurk in the background and didn’t get in the way of the dynamics formed by Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe. Hunter-Reay won the championship while Hinchcliffe finished eighth as a second-year driver. Marco struggled to a sixteenth place finish.
Clearly the team had gelled and had finally recaptured the chemistry that had alluded them for the past few years. They had won their first championship since 2007 and the future looked bright. So why tinker with what they had by introducing a questionable driver and personality like EJ Viso into the mix?
First and foremost, don’t ever overlook the money trail. Quite honestly, I am not a Viso fan. To me, he is the prototypical ride-buyer. He comes across as quirky, but not in a good way – more in a creepy way. He has little talent, but that doesn’t seem to matter so long as he has the money from the Venezuelan government. Granted, he seemed to mature after his crash-laden season of 2011, but it didn’t help his results. He finished twentieth for 2012, which was his worst finish in points in his five year career. His respective points rankings in his five seasons from 2008 through 2012 are 18th, 18th, 17th, 18th and 20th. Yet, he continues to get the better rides in the series.
For the sake of the series, I’m glad that Michael Andretti has chosen to run four cars. Car count is always a concern and Michael is certainly doing his part. But you have to wonder if bringing Viso into the mix will alter the chemistry of the team that worked so well in 2012. I don’t know how much the PDVSA/Citgo package brings to the team’s coffers, but I hope it’s worth it. Otherwise, it could end up as a case of subtraction by addition.