It’s one of those questions owners and managers hate to hear and loathe to answer: What’s gone wrong?

So far this year, Ed Carpenter Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have been in the uncomfortable situation of falling short of expectations in the early stages of the new NTT IndyCar Series season.

ECR has endured three rough races for Rinus VeeKay and Conor Daly; they’ve yet to earn a top 10 finish, and the Dutch-American duo sit a distant 22nd and 23rd in the drivers’ standings. RLL is in a better position with Graham Rahal owning the team’s best result so far of sixth, and he and Christian Lundgaard have their hands on 13th and 14th in the championship while Jack Harvey, the third member of the trio, is 19th. But where ECR made no significant changes to its engineering group for 2023, RLL made wholesale alterations and invested heavily in its engineering corps to improve its fortunes, and to date, its plans to break out of the midfield have not been realized.

With this Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix completing the opening quarter of the championship, there’s still plenty of time left for ECR, MSR, and RLL to turn their seasons around. But with the month of May swiftly approaching and rapid fire runs through the Indianapolis GP and Indy 500 to complete, the pressure is on to fix whatever needs fixing and prevent their early season slides from including the most important event on the schedule.

Among the three, MSR has been a particular anomaly due to its longstanding relationship with race engineering provider Andretti Technologies. With Andretti Autosport’s strong start to the year, which includes two poles, two podiums, and one win across St. Petersburg, Texas, and Long Beach, the gap from Andretti to the MSR cars driven by Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud has been a frustrating affair.

At present, Castroneves sits 20th in the championship and Pagenaud is mired in 24th in the 27-car field, and drivers both have experienced plenty of adversity along the way. Rather than leave each race focusing forward, extra time has been required to analyze and find the root causes of the issues that have blighted MSR’s results.

“We work constantly on every little thing that happens, whether it’s the team side, engineering side, or driver-wise,” Shank tells RACER. “You know, there’s stuff we can control from the shop or the pits, but there’s also some things that are out of our hands. We can’t do anything about Simon ending up in the overflow in qualifying for St. Pete; we qualified second to last and that killed our race. Helio spun in Turn 1 by himself, lap one, at Long Beach. Nothing we can do about that.

“But at Long Beach, we screwed the pit stop up for Simon, and he was fit to have a top 10 day for sure; he was racing with Will Power, who got sixth and we put Simon down to 15th because we messed the pit stop up. So there’s not just one thing to correct and make everything better. It’s three things or four things that we have to do to make sure that we’re on top of it and do a better job than we’re doing.”

With the same dampers, chassis setup info, and performance data made available from Andretti, plus the engineering staff supplied by Andretti for MSR’s Nos. 06 and 60 Hondas, the separation between Andretti and MSR in pace and results has been head-scratching. Their diverging results this year highlight another key point that is often overlooked. Despite having the ability to put Romain Grosjean’s pole-winning setup from St. Pete on the MSR cars, or Kyle Kirkwood’s Long Beach-winning race setup on the Nos. 06 and 60, what works to perfection for Grosjean might not mesh with Pagenaud’s needs. And Kirkwood’s rocket-fast setup that got him into victory lane might be perfect for him, but it could be nearly undrivable for Castroneves.

On its own, a setup sheet from a leading team will not turn a lackluster car into an instant threat; it’s in the small tailoring of settings where MSR’s drivers and their race engineers need to refine the strong baselines from Andretti to give a Castroneves or Pagenaud the same kind of comfort and confidence that Herta, Grosjean, and Kirkwood have demonstrated at every circuit in 2023.

The first area to improve is qualifying, where Pagenaud’s best starting position (14th) and Castroneves’ best (15th) have made for busy Sundays with half a field to pass, or more, to get to the front. With more speed to demonstrate on Saturdays, MSR’s fortunes would instantly rise.

Owing to Andretti’s 66-percent pole position rate this season, and the fact that former MSR driver Jack Harvey put the Andretti relationship to great use in 2021 with six visits to the final Firestone Fast Six knockout round of qualifying, there’s no question of whether there’s more potential waiting to be tapped.

“We do big investigating all the time, and even when we have a good weekend, we’re looking at what we did right and wrong,” Shank says. “We’re always analyzing, trying to understand what happens, what gets missed, so that we don’t do it again. Or, to repeat it if it’s something that worked for us. We learned a lot of new things last year with Helio and Simon about how we go racing and attack things that have made us better, so we’re always learning. We’re constantly doing that.

“But it’s crushing that it’s this difficult for us to begin the season. We wish we’d have all the answers right now. But we’ve had to double down on our efforts, get rid of the mistakes, make better decisions, and remember, we got all of the data from the guy that won the race last week, right? We know what we did and what they did from a car performance side, driver’s side, so we have the tools in front of us, and we’ve just got to execute better. And on all fronts. We need to execute better on every front than we do right now, because we’re not where we want to be.”

The plight of an ECR, MSR, or RLL, as they attempt to join the perennial championship contenders at the front of the field on a race-by-race basis cannot be underestimated. As Shank illustrates, there’s a blockade of star entries to be broken through before real progress is achieved, but that’s nothing new. Figuring out how to become part of that blockade is their collective wish, and with 14 races left to run, their mission is crystal-clear.

“You have a crew of three Penskes, three Andrettis, all four Ganassis, and a couple of McLarens to get through just to get into the top 12,” he says. “The cars are so difficult to drive already, and none of them will tell you being where they are — the place we really are trying to be — is easy. The fact of the matter is, this is the hardest challenge you can put yourself through to get yourself in that mix with the top teams and then to stay there. We aren’t there yet, but I’ll be damned if we aren’t giving it all we have to fix that.”