After taking pole position last year at the Indy 500, qualifying weekend this May was much less kind to Marco Andretti and his No. 98 Andretti Herta-Haupert Autosport with Marco and Curb-Agajanian Honda team. Andretti was 16th or worse in all but one of the first five practice sessions and the struggle continued in qualifying, leaving the veteran starting on the inside of Row 9. However, after wholesale changes and a thorough investigation, the team believes it has found the source of its problems and is positioned to make a much stronger impression in the race.
“We’re lucky we made the race,” admitted Andretti. “We found an issue after qualifying. We changed everything mechanically in the car, and the whole first week I was saying ‘There’s something aero that’s dominating (the car), and it doesn’t matter what we change — it’s the same characteristics, the same speed and we’re just slow.’ It didn’t matter what we did. Then we found (it was) the floor. We changed the floor and picked up downforce and lost drag, so we were right back in the game.”
Indeed, Andretti’s pace looked significantly improved in the post-qualifying practice last Sunday, when he ended up 10th.
“I was bummed that we qualified where we did but I’m super confident after Sunday with the race car,” he added. “I feel way better about the race this year than when I was on pole last year. So if I had to pick, I’d rather be in this scenario.”
Andretti offered a deeper dive into the issues that plagued the team.
“Even Dad and I in our meeting every night, we were saying, ‘There’s something wrong,’” he said. “We couldn’t find it. The engine actually lost an injector and we put a new engine in (on Friday before qualifying). We found the floor was actually broke and that’s something that comes with experience, something that I was able to say ‘it’s aerodynamic’ and shift the focus towards that because I would probably have raced that floor if I was a rookie and I don’t know anything else.”
Andretti Autosport’s technical director, Eric Bretzman, is up on the timing stand to reprise his longtime role of engineer, and that’s something that Andretti feels is a huge benefit.
“We have a pretty good operation here,” said Andretti. “If you look at last year where we were weak, it was in this race in particular — we changed the engine and we lost the pole speed. As soon as we lined up on Carb Day, I knew I was out of the race. And then pit stops did the rest of it. Now, the team has made huge strides in pit stops since that race last year, so a lot of the problems we had last year I don’t feel we have this year. He [Bretzman]’s just a natural, a really smart guy. He worked with Scott [Dixon] a lot. Him and I, literally, do most of our work by text because we have so much experience. It’s been really good. It’s just like, anything I’m thinking, he’s like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ It’s just been easier, you know? Normally, when stuff goes pretty good with race work and stuff, it’s supposed to be easier.”
Marco shared his thoughts on what’s next in his career, should he come from 25th to win on Sunday. The 34-year-old third-generation driver from Nazareth, Pennsylvania is a veteran of 248 IndyCar starts, running full-time from 2006-20. However, this year he has opted for a limited IndyCar schedule to coincide with other opportunities, including running in the SRX, a new series created by Tony Stewart.
“I mean, I’ve thought about that,” said Andretti, who finished runner-up in the 2006 Indy 500 as a rookie. “I just think when you’re able to do that, there’s a lot of opportunities that might arise and I would have to just game plan it at that point.
“If a unique one comes with a great offer that’s hard to turn down, you take it. That’s why I can’t give you a definitive answer. I don’t know. We’ll see. That would be a good problem to have.”