Michael Andretti: IndyCar champion turned team boss – and future F1 entrant? | News Focus


Michael Andretti is used to being underrated in Formula 1.

He spent all 13 grands prix of his short career trying to prove he deserved his place on the grid. Now, 30 years later, he’s attempting the same – only this time as a team owner.

The son of 1978 world champion Mario Andretti, Michael had a short stint in F1, followed by a return to the CART IndyCar series where he was already a star. But his desire to return to the top of motorsport has remained, and last week’s announcement he has secured the backing of General Motors to make it happen has brought it closer than ever, though obstacles still remain.

Andretti was first linked to F1 in 1986 when he made a superb start to the CART season. However he was denied the chance to make an F1 debut as a substitute in Detroit that year.

Feature: The forgotten story of the first time F1 snubbed Michael Andretti in 1986

He continued in CART, winning the 1991 CART title with Newman/Haas Racing. He scored 27 IndyCar race wins and pole positions before his move into F1. That could have come a year earlier than it did, as he had a contract with Ferrari for 1992, but team boss Carl Haas wouldn’t let him go.

Instead the McLaren F1 team came knocking to sign him for 1993, and the third time around the stars finally aligned for Andretti’s grand prix debut to finally happen.

“I think he can win grands prix and become the world champion,” said Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team principal at the time. “It’s not a question of which country you come from. It’s how you demonstrate your desire to win.”

Andretti’s eventual introduction to F1 involved a few setbacks, as he later explained. “There was interest probably starting in 1990. I’d tested before I even won the CART championship. But every test I went to, unfortunately, something was out, or the weather was bad, and I never got a real proper test.”

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Andretti switched to F1 after 1992 CART IndyCar season

His expectations that McLaren would find a new manufacturer engine partner to replace Honda, who left at the end of 1992, were dashed. “From the time I signed my contract to the time that everything started to happen, we lost an engine deal. We were supposed to have the Renault engine, but that went away.”

McLaren therefore resorted to customer Ford Cosworth DFVs – and not even the latest specification, which went to rivals Benetton. Meanwhile Andretti started on the back foot. After stalling at the opening round and then subsequently crashing out at Kyalami, he suffered the same fate during the second round at Interlagos after a massive shunt with Gerhard Berger.

Round three’s famed wet European Grand Prix at Donington Park saw Andretti qualify sixth, still adapting to F1 cars and desperate to prove his worth. Yet moments after the lights went off he collided with Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber on the opening lap, making it three out of three retirements for the American.

The season didn’t improve much from there. He retired from the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola after crashing into Wendlinger once again, this time while running fifth. He retired three more times that season and eventually reached the podium at Monza, only to step down and relinquish his seat to Mika Hakkinen.

Those 13 races were all Andretti had to prove his worth. His story was remembered for all the wrong reasons, invariably held up as an example of an IndyCar driver who failed to make the transition to grand prix racing. But the odds had been stacked against him.

Besides being partnered with one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time, the 1993 rules changes restricted Andretti’s testing from the start. F1 ditched unrestricted free practice sessions, with just 23 laps allowed in the morning’s untimed sessions and 12 in the qualifying session.

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“Every rule change that happened, and the engine change, hurt me, because all of a sudden we couldn’t start testing until late,” said Andretti. “I literally got one-and-a-half days of testing at Silverstone before the first race. That was the only real test I’d had ever in an F1 car before I went to my first race. So it was pretty tough. Before we even got going from that standpoint things were stacked against us.”

Long-awaited F1 debut in 1993 ended early

As was widely observed at the time, Andretti did not make life easy for himself by tackling a largely European series from a base in the US, and shuttling back and forth between the two. However he denied that was a significant factor.

“I grew up a lot that year,” he recalled. “I learned a lot about people. So in terms of experience, it made me a better person, a stronger person. So I try to not look at it as negative, it’s part of life. Everybody’s going to have stuff like that. It made me a better person at reading things, reading people.”

Andretti won immediately on his return to CART. He added another 14 victories after that, taking his all-time tally to 42 which places him fifth on the list of most successful drivers in the top-flight American open-wheel racing.

Having returned to Newman/Haas, in 2001 he moved to Team Green in his bid to finally break the ‘Andretti curse’ in the Indianapolis 500, a race his illustrious family has won just once. The following year, as he started to wind down his racing activities, he took over the team alongside Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.

Team Green was rebranded under the Andretti name once the sale took effect in December 2002 and continues today as the successful Andretti Autosport operation. The brand has branched out into other motorsports, including Formula E and Extreme E. Andretti recently announced an expansion into sports cars with Wayne Taylor Racing.

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Their successes include five Indianapolis 500 wins, plus IndyCar championship success for their drivers on four occasions. Yet Formula 1 has clearly remained a target.

Andretti comes from one of America’s great racing dynasties

Andretti originally attempted to buy Force India in 2018 after the team ran into financial trouble. He then again tried to buy the Sauber-run Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team in 2021 but was unable to strike a deal on terms he considered acceptable.

It took three attempts for Andretti to get on the F1 grid as a driver. Will it be a case of ‘third time lucky’ again as a team owner?

The Andretti Group has shown it is serious about competing at the top level. It is spending $200 million (£170m) constructing new headquarters in Indiana.

Two-times Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, who raced in the Indy 500 in 2017 with a McLaren entry heavily supported by Andretti, is among those in the sport who believes Andretti is a worthy entrant.

“It could be a big thing,” said Alonso last year. “I know Michael very well, I know the Andretti family and they are obviously a big part of motor sport in general and they are legends. So if we can have them in Formula 1 that will be the best news, I think for both.

Report: Andretti building new £170m headquarters to house ‘current and future racing initiatives’

“Formula 1 would benefit from that and obviously Michael and his team will benefit from the sport and from being in Formula 1. And I think they have the capabilities, the resources, they have the talent to be in Formula 1 and be competitive as well. So I hope this thing comes true in the next few years, and I will follow very closely.”

After FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem announced the governing body would launch an expression of interest process to assess potential new entries into F1, Andretti was first in line. Declaring they would partner with GM brand Cadillac to launch a bid to enter F1 further bolstered their credentials. But there is resistance from their potential rivals, and within F1, to expanding the grid beyond its current 10 teams.

In 1993 competing in F1 was a challenge, but 30 years later just getting on the grid would be an achievement. Michael Andretti has unfinished business in F1, but the first battle he must win is to be allowed to compete.

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