Although Rossi never had a need to learn fuel-saving techniques in GP2 or Formula 1, or even during his one appearance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Andretti-Herta team spent some time during the pre-season showing their new driver the common ways to save fuel on road and street courses. It’s done by lifting and coasting into the braking zone, but with no braking or serious slowing required on the Indy oval, Rossi was on his own to figure it out while dialing his Honda engine down to fuel-sipping mode.
“We have the switches where we can lean the engine out in the car, but we couldn’t lean it out enough to make that number on its own,” Herta continued. “He had to do what we call ‘driver fuel saving’ too, which is techniques with the throttle when you lift, how much you lift. It is a really hard thing. You know, people think that when you are saving fuel you’re just cruising around, and it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. You’re driving your ass off. It is so hard to go fast and save fuel.
“He did it. Like I said, we were lucky, we had Townsend earlier in the race to pull us around. And [Andretti teammate Ryan] Hunter-Reay was up near us on the track and we asked him to pass us and let us draft and he did that for a while too. But by the end of the race we were completely off the book because we got where we were at, I think, more than a lap of fuel short of making it.”
Destined to run dry before the finish, Rossi got the call to try something crazy. Leaning out the fuel mixture is a common way to save fuel, which he did, but it wasn’t enough. The one electronic option left was to use the fuel map designed to use little more than drops of fuel while running at reduced speeds behind the pace car. Take the tiny amount of fuel provided for puttering around at 75mph, then try holding position with it while racing well over 200mph, and you have Rossi’s reality as the 500 sped toward its conclusion.
“So...we were running our yellow map, which normally you only run around for yellow,” Herta admitted. “Yeah, we were running our yellow map.”
Racing on the yellow map is a perfect way to get swallowed by a pack of angry cars, but Herta wasn’t done. If that task sounded impossible as the finish line drew closer, the next instruction to arrive over the radio was on a whole new level of crazy...