A quarter of a century ago Michael Andretti made a brief Formula 1 foray, his spell in the top flight flopped and ended after only 11 races, but according to the now successful Indycar team owner, he was dealt a tough hand at a time when he believes he could have matched his teammate Ayrton Senna on pace.
At the time it when he came into Formula 1, did not help Andretti, whose father is legend Mario Andretti, that his rookie season coincided with Ayrton Senna at his peak being his teammate. His McLaren team were reduced to Ford engine customer status and the American insisted on frequent trans-Atlantic Concorde trips commuting between races – added together a recipe for failure as it proved.
Reflecting back 25 years since that ill-fated 1993 season, Andretti recalled the spell in his career during an interview on the official McLaren site, “Ron said he wanted to hire me for the 1993 season after I won the [CART/Indycar] 1991 championship, and that’s where it started.”
“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.”
“It was a great opportunity, and I was very excited. Although 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 were caught wrong-footed and unprepared for the 1993 season, they scrambled to get their customer Ford engine powered cars ready, with Senna leaving his signing to the morning of practice for the first race that year. It was chaos at McLaren for their American newbie who also had very little test mileage under his belt.
He recalled, “Every rule change that happened, and the engine change, hurt me, because all of a sudden we couldn’t start testing until late. 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.”
“We went to the first race in Kyalami, and on the first day I qualified sixth. The next day unfortunately there was a problem with the car, but I still ended up ninth.”
“We thought that’s looking good. Then we were sitting on the dummy grid and I put it in gear and there was no clutch, so the car just didn’t move. So I ended up starting the race one or two laps down.
“In Brazil, I qualified fifth, which I thought was not bad – Senna was third. We went to start the race and the car didn’t shift when we started to go. I kept calling for the gear and it wouldn’t shift. Then because I was going slower I pulled out and I got hit by Berger, and had a big crash…”
“At Donington, I qualified sixth, and in the wet morning warm-up, Senna and I were among the quickest. I never had a car that good in the wet, it felt like it was in the dry. And that’s probably where I made my biggest mistake of the year. I got a good start, I think I went up to third, and I was trying to pass Wendlinger. I got too greedy. I think he could have given me room, but he didn’t, and we ended up together.”
Contrast Andretti’s series of unfortunate incidents which resulted in a one-lap race and DNF, while teammate Senna powered to one of his most famous wins in treacherous conditions.
The sad thing for Andretti is that he believes he had it in him that day to match his illustrious teammate, “I really think I could have raced with him, that’s the worst part. My car was so good. I was right up there with him at the start – I still shoot myself on that one! That was my biggest mistake of the year.
“At Imola, I crashed in practice, but Senna crashed twice. We ended up finding that when the car hit the kerb it thought it was raising the ride height, so it dropped the car on the ground, and we were both spinning. We couldn’t figure out what it was, but that’s what it ended up being. I was crashing because the car was doing some weird stuff!”
He remembered how his luck finally changed, “In Spa, in I finally got my first points, fifth, which was nice. It was a boring race, it was one of those races where I was running the whole race in my spot. I had a good start there, and kept my position the whole race.”
“Monaco was so disappointing! I loved the track. That’s a race where you like to qualify and like to drive by yourself, but when you have to try to pass somebody, forget about it. At the start, I had another problem. When I lit up the tyres the car went from first to third gear, and brrr… and everyone passed me.”
“When I came down to Loews Hairpin I had never experienced anything like it. The field was literally stopped, and I hit somebody and broke my wing. I then spent half my race behind De Cesaris.
“That race I had the fastest pit-stop that McLaren had up to that date, it was four seconds. And if you remember there were no speed limits in the pits. It was insane. I was behind De Cesaris, I went in the pits, I came out, and in one lap I was right behind him again! Then I went for it in Turn One and I passed him, and I finished eighth,” added Andretti, on the day teammate Senna won again.
A visit to North America for the Canadian GP brought yet more misfortune. Through no fault of Michael’s the car didn’t fire up on the grid, and he started the race from the pits, three laps down. He finished a lowly 14th. His woes continued on the return to Europe.
“In France, I had another problem, somebody shut my ‘beacon’ off in qualifying, and when you shut that off the car didn’t know where it was on track with the fully active suspension. Throughout qualifying it was raising the car and lowering the car and changing gears and not changing gears.”
“It was a mess, so I qualified 16th. But I came back and passed a lot of cars – I remember passing some in the outside at some corners – to finish sixth. It was an OK race.”
“Silverstone was disappointing. In qualifying up until the last couple of corners I was right there with Ayrton on his lap, and it started to rain, so the last three corners were wet. It screwed up my qualifying, and I qualified 11th or something.”
“I decided that I was going to go for it on the outside in Turn 1. When I got there it was all marbles! In IndyCar they sweep the corner. I was used to having a clean track on the outside, so that was disappointing.”
By now the focus was on Andretti, who could have provided a much-needed boost for Formula 1 in America had he succeeded but was simply not delivering. Many pointed to his inter-continental jet-setting to lack of commitment.
Andretti acknowledged, “People loved to say that, and I think Ron liked to use that as an excuse. I spent one or two months in the heat of it over there.”
“I could be there in six hours because of Concorde, and I never let myself get off the time, I always stayed on European time when I was in the US. I could get to Woking almost as quickly as Senna could, living in Monaco!”
Things got worse at Hockenheim, “I got together with Berger there. I guess it was 50-50, but he didn’t give me any room, and we touched. I was stuck behind him, he was so slow in the Ferrari.”
“In qualifying in Hungary, I was on a front-row time until I caught Ukyo Katayama in the last couple of corners, and it screwed up my whole run, so I ended up 11th.”
“But at the start, I went up to sixth, and that race I think I was going to be on the podium. The car was good and I was running with the leaders, and then the throttle broke. So that was disappointing.”
“I loved Spa, one of my favourite tracks. Again there were problems in practice, I didn’t get many laps, so I was literally learning the track in the race.”
“I think I would have finished fourth, but when I came into the pits I went to push the button for neutral and I switched the engine off. So I ended up falling back to eighth by the time they got the engine started.”
Andretti’s final race in Formula 1 was also his best, finishing third at the Italian Grand Prix – land of his forefathers – but it was too much, too late as McLaren had young upstart Mika Hakkinen waiting in the wings and gave him the nod for the final races of the 1993 season in place of Andretti.
“Mika was never quicker than me ever in a test,” reasoned Andretti all these years later. “I was always quick, I was always right there with Ayrton in testing, and it’s not like Ayrton was running slow.”
“I knew I was capable of being on the podium in a lot of the races. In many of them, stupid things were happening that were unexplainable, so it was very frustrating, really disappointing. But that’s life.”
After that episode, Andretti realised his F1 adventures were over, “Nobody was going to touch me with a 10-foot pole, there was no way! Honestly, I was over it. I loved IndyCar racing, and I just went that way.”
“I grew up a lot that year, 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 has fond memories of his time as Senna’s teammate, “He was amazing. He knew what the cars could do, but I was still learning the limits of them. We’d both be there until late at night.”
“With the active car you’d dissect every corner, and you could make the car do whatever you want. ‘If you can drop the front here as I turn in and then have it raise as I leave.’ There were so many things you could do. I felt that given another year I was going to be right on par with the best of them.”
“Ayrton was awesome, we became very good friends. Everybody knew he was a special guy. To tell you what kind of guy he was, the next race was Portugal, he had a press conference and said how unfairly I was treated, and I was one of his best teammates ever. He was really behind me, and saw what happened.”
“He knew how quick I was when we were running in testing, so he knew what was going on. It was cool of him to do that. He was the first one to call me when I won the Australian IndyCar race [in March 1994], he stayed up all night to watch it in Brazil. We would have been very close had the tragedy not happened.”
Now as chief of Andretti Autosports, Michael is being linked to a role in this new era for Formula 1, possibly even as a team owner and has already forged strong links with McLaren’s new bosses.
Andretti said of the team he once raced for, “I can’t believe the difference since Zak took it over, it’s really refreshing.”
And recalled their Indy 500 project with Fernando Alonso, “Last year was just a great programme, it was seamless, both sides got a lot out of it, both sides had a lot of fun doing it, both sides leaned from each other.”
“It was a positive experience all around. It couldn’t have been any better, unless Fernando had won! But other than that up until the race it was the best experience ever,” added Andretti.