Marco Andretti - IndyCar champ in waiting?

Marco Andretti - IndyCar champ in waiting?

IndyCar

Marco Andretti - IndyCar champ in waiting?

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Marco Andretti was born into wealth and privilege, hangs out with the coolest cats in town, has his pick of great road cars and bikes, lives in a small palace and would probably have a thousand pretty ladies knocking at his door if they could get past security. And yet if you asked him, he surely wouldn’t change a thing

But it’s not enough and never has been. Not for Marco. Not for someone who’s surname is Andretti. He wants motorsports success and he’s prepared to earn it.

THAT WAS THEN

Ah, but trying to convince others of Andretti’s true purpose has often been a lost cause. The inverted snobbery that afflicts so many people when they see a 20-something with opportunities and money is no less repellent than snobbery in its more traditional form. To deride a young racer for not having to struggle to get the good rides in junior formulas is absurd. What’s he supposed to do, deliberately choose the career-debilitating mediocre car?

But it’s fair to say that having consistently good equipment during his meteoric rise did leave Andretti with one significant deficiency. Having the same fire inside that had consumed both his grandfather Mario, and his father, Michael, Marco naturally and rapidly developed into a plug-in-and-drive, ballsy racer but his car-sorting ability was left under-developed because there had rarely been much call for it. Missing a couple of tenths in final qualifying? No problem, just drive it harder. A handling imbalance in fast right-handers? No problem, just adapt technique to suit. Well, relying on improvisational brilliance rather than technical understanding is fine to an extent plus, it’s great for the spectator, it must be said! but there will be days when that approach is going to catch you out.

And those days arrived with increasing frequency three years into his IndyCar career. With the technically adept Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti having flown the Andretti Green Racing nest at the end of 2006 and ’07, respectively, and race engineer Allen McDonald following them out the door in ’08, the team started to stagnate. Through ’09, AGR was struggling with four drivers who relied on in-cockpit instinct, rather than in-transporter engineering strategy, and this was exacerbated by some fierce intra-team rivalry. Marco knew what he wanted from the car, but didn’t know how to attain it, so didn’t know what to ask for.

And, oh, how those who bravely steer laptops for a living or as a hobby reveled in the team’s discomfiture! People who’d long resented the silver spoons presented to Marco and, 25 years earlier, Michael were out to prove that the computer is mightier than the sword, and wrote condescending and/or damning observations in print, on websites, in forums and comments.

It was unpleasant and ignorant, and Marco inadvertently insulted his critics by appearing not to care certainly not enough to take issue with them. His natural shyness meant he’d always been visibly uncomfortable with much of the media and public but, in the bleak years, he further retreated into himself publicly, kept excess emotion positive or negative very much in check, never said five words when one would do, and was suspicious of almost anyone purporting to be a journalist. And this, of course, further raised the barriers between himself and those outside his close-knit group of friends and family.

Letting his driving do the talking would have been a nice option, but that wasn’t possible, not on a consistent basis. On ovals he was almost always a factor, on road courses he was frequently strong, frequently unlucky, and on street courses he usually struggled unless conditions were damp. On a slippery track, he excelled because of that aforementioned ability to improvise. But the results weren’t there, and sports are frequently judged too blindly by statistics alone.

The upswing in Andretti’s career was supposed to start last year. But the new Dallara DW12, the great leveler, the chance for everyone to get a do-over, left Andretti over and out. One teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, clinched the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. The other, reigning Rookie of the Year James Hinchcliffe, kept up his career momentum, scored podiums, finished eighth in the title race and  became the GoDaddy god.

And Marco? He was just 16th in the championship, a runner-up finish at Iowa and pole at Fontana being his main highlights. The journalistic knives appeared once more.

But that was then

WHAT HE LEARNED

It’s so very wrong to portray Marco as being a dilettante with a severe sense of entitlement just because he’s son-of-son-of, because for several years he’s been aware that he’s got to graft at the craft. Yes, there was a period a few years back when AGR/AA drivers tended to regard car problems as the engineers’ problems; when all four entries are off the pace, it’s easy to see how such an attitude can prevail and be accepted as the status quo.

Hunter-Reay’s arrival in 2010 and, more particularly, his speed from the outset, started to alter everybody’s week-to-week, weak-to-meek acceptance of the status quo. RHR’s performances were also the ammo that Michael Andretti needed to dispel the “we just suck” complacency; he kicked butts, knocked skulls and made the various strands of his team act as a team. These days, there’s still a rivalry between the Andretti Autosport drivers, but it’s a healthy and productive one and it’s what prompted Marco’s improvement in 2013.

“Ryan winning the championship really opened my eyes to the team’s potential,” says Marco. “I spent the whole off-season comparing my style to his, so in a way, you could say the improvements started in my office, when I was requesting certain data and traces, to study what Ryan was doing compared with what I was doing.

“My grandpa said it best: he told me, No driver performs magic,’ and that just sparked me to start looking for ways to get my style closer to Ryan’s, because his style obviously worked.”

Andretti hit an incontrovertible truth, one that he’d encountered before, a trap that his father admits to falling into during certain frustrating phases in his career: he was driving too hard.

“I was asking things of the car that just weren’t there,” Marco admits, “and that was creating more issues. We’d end up going down blind alleys to cure problems that wouldn’t have even been occurring if I had driven the car more within its limits and within the limits of the tires. Ryan would be in the Firestone Fast Six, trying to make the car faster by curing its understeer, whereas I’d be mid-grid because I spent the session overdriving on corner-entry, which would make the car too loose on turn-in. It seemed like I was constantly chasing the tail of the car.”

Thus the data traces of Hunter-Reay and Andretti weren’t very helpful to each other. Their different driving techniques meant they needed different car setups, their different car setups demanded different driving styles. It was a circular problem, and at the center of the circle was the bald fact that RHR’s way was usually the quicker of the two.

“When you think about it, there was a clue to what I was doing wrong in how a typical weekend would play out for me,” says Andretti ruefully, “and studying all the stats over winter, this race weekend regression was suddenly staring me in the face. I’d end the first practice in the top five, and then as I pushed harder and harder over the next sessions I’d gradually slip down the order.

“Come qualifying, I’d do six hot laps and come in absolutely knackered because I was dealing with four problems in a corner whereas Ryan might be dealing with one. When I needed the car to be at its fastest qualifying I’d be on top of the tire, the car would be dancing under braking and too loose under power on corner-exit and so on. I was almost always the first to hit the power but the last to go full throttle.”

The first step to recovery in any walk of life is to recognize you have a problem. The second is to identify the problem. The third is to discover the best way to solve it. The fourth, of course, is to stick with that solution. Marco started working on step three last winter, and step four is a work in progress.

So, how’s he doing?

THIS IS NOW

Rather than trailing the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series leader Helio Castroneves by 70 points, Marco Andretti could/should be leading the championship by about that margin. And if that suggests it’s been a dispiriting season for the Nazareth, Pa.,-born 26-year-old, the fact that such a bold statement can even be made is testament to how much he’s progressed as a driver.

He’s still not the fastest of Andretti Autosport’s fleet on street courses during qualifying, but he’s trimmed the gap to such an extent that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him outqualify Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and newest teammate EJ Viso. And besides, with AA so frequently proving the strongest team, he’s starting far enough up the grid that his race craft can do the rest and make him a podium contender.

“To come out of the gate this year and earn two podiums on street courses and two podiums that were earned, not down to strategy felt good. I’m still not where I want to bebut I’m never going to say I’m where I want to be until I’m champion, you know?”

Right. And he’s surely going to find more tenths of a second once this revised driving style becomes his default option. Accurately judging tire life over a whole stint is what earned him third place at the season opener in St. Petersburg, but driving with a sense of restraint is still not his natural way.

“I’m getting more comfortable with it,” he says, “although I still believe my natural grab-the-car-by-the-throat style works well in very high-grip situations. But pushing over the edge of the tire was killing my speed, yeah, so changing my technique has made my life a bit easier.

“And it’s paid off; this year I’ve been driving for the championship. It’s just that I’ve had a lot of bad luck on the ovals.”

That’s putting it mildly. On the circuits where he’s always shone, he’s missed out on two, possibly three victories already this year because of mechanical misfortune, slow pit stops and other bad luck; but maybe he can take some solace from the words of his grandfather after mechanical failure robbed him of a dominant victory in the 1987 Indy 500. Mario summed it up thus: “At least they knew we were here.” Despite the dearth of wins, there have been several races this year when everybody knew Marco was there; he was front and center.

Given the nature of the racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, that fourth place could easily have been first had the race not prematurely frozen with that final yellow flag. It’s hard to believe anyone could have stopped Castroneves in Texas, but a slow pit stop dropped Andretti to 20th and he ran out of laps to work his way higher than fifth; that was a potential second place out the window. Second behind Hunter-Reay was surely the lowest he’d have finished at Milwaukee if an electrical problem hadn’t caused the No. 25 car to grind to a halt. He was destined to be part of an Andretti Autosport 1-2-3 at Iowa until a broken rear shock made his car an unpredictable handful. And at Pocono, he dominated but ran out of fuel and plummeted to 10th.

“To be fair, Indy could have gone one of three or four ways,” he shrugs, “and I don’t want to take anything away from Tony [Kanaan]. You can say we were in an ideal position to win before the caution flag came out, but so were TK, [temporary fifth teammate] Carlos Munoz and Ryan and the way it went is the way it went. Tony earned that, and I don’t want to talk about green-white-checkered finishes because as soon as you ask for that, you know it’s gonna come back to bite you the other way!

“I think if Indy is always going to come down to those last-stint shootouts, as long as I’m in it, that’s all I ask. Eventually, hopefully, the cards will fall my way.”

Away from the heat of the moment, Andretti is similarly philosophical about the brief spate of refueling problems that afflicted him while running in prominent positions. “I’m not someone to point fingers after the event. I’ve made my fair share of errors. I think I’ve done my best to minimize them this year, but it is a team sport. I wouldn’t even blame my strategist for the Pocono problem: we were leading and so we were burning more fuel. That’s just circumstantialand the circumstances were caused by having the quickest car in the race!”

At the time, though

“Man, it was soooo frustrating,” he growls, “and to be honest, it hurt worse than missing out at Indy. When you know you have the fastest car and you don’t capitalize on that, it rips your guts out, especially when we’re contending for the title. We’re fourth in points but we’ve certainly had some bad luck.

Iowa is another one that got away, as far as Marco is concerned. “I was doing my post-race report and I said to Blair [Perschbacher, his engineer], I don’t know what to tell you because it was like I drove two different cars today.’ In the second stint, I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to win this race, another good day at Iowa.’ Not taking anything away from Hinch, because I’m sure it would have been a tough fight. But we were extremely strong. But then in the third stint, the handling went away completely. When the boys stripped the car down, they found a bearing broke on the right-rear shock.”

No racer can expect perfect reliability, perfect service or a perfect car, for a whole season, any more than a team can expect perfection from its driver over the course of 14 races. But it’s not a stretch to say that had things gone just slightly more right for the No. 25, then this October IndyCar fans could have been hailing a champion by the name of Andretti for the first time since 1991.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Well, we shouldn’t write Marco out of the championship equation just yet. There are six rounds to go, over 300 points up for grabs and your heart says it would be great to see a four-way scrap for the IndyCar title go right down to the wire.

But your head says that a driver can’t lose so many potential first and second places and still expect to grab the crown. The series is so close now that the competitive order can change from race to race. Andretti’s agony at failing to seal deals when he and his car were at their strongest is rooted in the fact that, deep down, he probably knows the championship has slipped a little too far out of reach, especially if Castroneves’ consistency and Dixon’s front-running pace continue to season’s end.

Three or four years ago, Andretti would have struggled more to deal with these disappointments but his self-confidence is continually improving. Out of the cockpit, he’s more independent and working harder, yet also more relaxed about his obligations, more comfortable with his responsibilities. They aren’t distractions, now; they’re just part of the job. On stage at the IndyCar Nation gathering in Fontana last year, Marco was sharp, witty and erudite and afterward was happy to hang around to sign autographs and pose for pictures. And things have improved with the media, too: there is now a slightly larger circle of journalists with whom he feels reasonably at ease.

And surely Andretti’s relative equanimity in the face of adversity this year has its roots in his improved confidence in the cockpit, too. Races where he contends for victory but which end with a DNF or a WTF would be far harder to take if they came around only once every couple of years. But continued hard work, continued self-improvement, and regular breakthroughs such as he made last winter will see him fight for P1 with increased frequency. And then it’s only a matter of time before trips to Victory Lane become more regular.

“Just knowing that I’ve put my thoughts and put my work into improving my performances and now seeing it pay off by knocking on the door for the championshipthat’s a strong feeling, a good feeling,” he says with conviction. “Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not where I want to be; I want to be setting pole positions on street circuits before I can declare myself as happy. But going from scratching our heads last year, to at least having a handle on where I need to improve this year, has lifted some pressure and the momentum keeps on building.”

Momentum, confidence, results they all feed off each other. And while his career may yet still suffer the odd bump and the occasional slump, Marco Andretti has probably now made two major breakthroughs: proving himself to himself, and proving himself to others. The critics are losing their case with each passing race. He’s increased his pace, yet makes fewer significant errors. He’s confident about his talent, but he displays humility and an eagerness to learn. In short, he’s only going to get better still. And when regular success does arrive, you can be sure he earned it.

Tomorrow: Marco Andretti by his race engineer, Blair Perschbacher

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