Why Michael Andretti may be looking for F1 redemption

  • In 1993 Michael Andretti left Indy auto racing to race with McLaren in Formula One, with many feeling that his only season in the series fell far short of expectations.
  • Andretti served as the second driver behind three-time world champion Ayrton Senna, whom he later credited as his only ally at McLaren.
  • Andretti’s offer to return to F1 could offer the current team owner some redemption from his series failures as a driver.

    It’s a really big year for formula 1 fans in the United States, right?

    There will be a huge party of F1 racing under the lights of Las Vegas after the stunning debut of the Miami Grand Prix last season, making for three US Grands Prix. Originally from Florida Logan Sargeant, the 22-year-old former FIA Karting World Champion and Formula 2 Rookie of the Year, joins the struggling but always optimistic Williams team as a second driver. And team owner Michael Andretti, now in partnership with GM Cadillac Division, is scrambling harder than ever to acquire ownership of an F1 team.

    Amidst this fanfare and excitement, it’s worth noting that 2023 also marks 30 years since the season that classic cars consider the last Yes, really Big Year for F1 Fans in the United States: The Year driver Michael Andretti – fast, experienced and at his sporting peak – went to race for one of the best F1 teams of the early 1990s.

    That didn’t go down too well. Conventional racing wisdom says Andretti’s season at McLaren was a bust, and 30 years later it’s hard to put it differently. The default setting also suggests that failure rested almost entirely on Andretti’s shoulders – perhaps even that he just wasn’t good enough to pull it off. In retrospect, it’s clear that there was more than enough guilt to spread. The positive spin would say Andretti’s timing was just terrible.

    Finally, the long-suffering F1 fans in the US had something to rejoice in.

    It was September 1992, during the Italian Grand Prix weekend at Monza, when McLaren announced Andretti would be joining three-time world champion Ayrton Senna for 1993. Andretti just had five consecutive wins in the CART PPG World Series and achieved one of the most dominant drives of all time at the Indianapolis 500 (which unfortunately for him ended up in the lead after 160 laps with a defective fuel pump and laps the field to third place). Finally, the long-suffering F1 fans in the US had something to rejoice in. For the first time since the late 1970s, as Andretti’s father Mario raced and won for Lotusthere was American bred talent driving for a team capable of winning F1 races.

    Unfortunately, the ’93 season started badly for McLaren, even more so for Andretti, and it mostly got worse. Longtime engine supplier Honda left F1 that year and the team was forced to use customer Ford-Cosworth engines. The car was delayed and finally finished with just enough time for Andretti to complete two short days of pre-season testing. Perhaps worse, the FIA ​​introduced new rules for race weekends, limiting drivers to 23 laps in free practice and 12 in qualifying – at circuits Andretti had by and large never seen before.

    Michael Andretti, Ron Dennis, San Marino Grand Prix

    Andretti with McLaren Formula 1 Team Principal Ron Dennis.

    Paul Henri CahierGetty Images

    At the season opener at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami in April, Andretti qualified ninth, seven places behind teammate Senna. His car did not retire for the formation laps due to a defective clutch. He had lost the first four races – sometimes his work, sometimes the car – and lost seven of his 13 starts. The weight he carried in the States as Mario’s son was like a hydraulic press in Europe. He didn’t collect any points until the French Grand Prix in July and only finished on the podium in Monza with three races to go. There, almost a year to the day after McLaren announced Andretti’s signing, team boss Ron Dennis said he and Andretti had agreed to part ways. Test driver Mika Häkkinen, much cheaper than Andretti, would end the season in the second McLaren.

    The positive turn of Andretti’s recent foray into Formula 1? He scored points in half of the six races he actually finished and qualified several times by just a hair’s breadth of Senna at tracks where Andretti had clocked a relative handful of laps.

    The most cited factor in Andretti’s failure at McLaren, then and now, is his reluctance to move from his home in eastern Pennsylvania and establish a base nearby McLaren in the UK. Instead, he preferred to commute back and forth across the Atlantic. Then as now, Andretti called the hypothesis “would not move” “absolute B—s—-“.

    “People who have said that have no idea or have a problem with me and didn’t want me to do well,” he told Autoweek years later, just before retiring as a driver. “Maybe I would now because my kids are older, but not living there had nothing to do with my performance.”

    Surely he missed tests during the season that allowed his eventual successor Häkkinen to develop a relationship with the team? Not according to Michael.

    auto f1 eng mclaren

    Andretti and Mika Hakkinen.

    JOHNNY EGGITTGetty Images

    “Ron hired Mika because he didn’t think he was going to get Ayrton back, then he did and now he has three drivers on his payroll,” Andretti said. “So he makes Mika the test driver and cuts my tests in half. When I came to test, Mika was never faster than me. Not even.”

    Looking back, the attitude that has evolved the most over 30 years relates to how good Andretti actually was – especially for a rider with no experience in Europe. The 1993 season was clearly the beginning of a prolonged period of decline for the team. With the departure of Honda, it was short of money and support. Yes, Senna has won five races this year, and that’s no small feat by any means. Still, we’re talking about a driver that a large segment of the fanbase consider to be the greatest and fastest racer of all time, driving for the team he grew up racing with and won his three world championships. What Senna accomplished in 1993 was largely a function of muscle memory and his vaunted will.

    The 1993 season was clearly the beginning of a prolonged period of decline for the team.

    Compared to Senna’s five wins, Williams accumulated 10, including seven for Senna’s archrival Alain Prost. Prost led the championship from South Africa. Two of Senna’s victories came after Prost had already won his fifth world title. Prost had 13 of 16 pole positions in 1993, while Senna (to many the greatest qualifier in F1 history) had one. McLaren didn’t have the car or the team that made the world go wild in 1993.

    Senna had seen the writing on the wall after ’92 when he won just three races and one pole and bought his services in the off-season. He only signed McLaren on the weekend of the opener at Kyalami and then from race to race. When Prost retired after 1993, Senna went to Williams and sadly to his death. He was killed in an accident in Imola Beginning of the third race of the ’94 season. McLaren – and Häkkinen – would not win a race four years after Senna’s departure.

    Michael Andretti and Ayrton Senna

    Andretti (front) with McLaren teammate Ayrton Senna in 1993.


    Some, understanding the challenges Andretti faced at McLaren, pushed him to take a spot on a smaller F1 team and move on. Andretti was never one for the back of the grid and couldn’t leave Europe fast enough. He took a seat this offseason Upstart Ganassi Racing in CART and made a statement at the 1994 kick-off in Australia. Andretti passed pole winner Nigel Mansell on a wet start on the first lap, then led every lap of the race and delivered Ganassi’s first Indy Car win and first for the Reynard chassis.

    Andretti drove nine seasons in CART after returning from Formula 1 and he was justifiably as competitive in his senior year as he was in his prime. In fact, he won at least one race every year, including the Long Beach Grand Prix in 2002 – his last full season in an Indy car. When he retired, his 42 all-time third-place wins in Indy Car history, behind his father Mario (52) and AJ Foyt (67). Since then, he has built one of the broader and more successful motorsport ventures in the United States, with 11 multi-series championships and five Indianapolis 500 victories. Now, of course, he hopes to bring success back to Formula 1 as an owner.

    Crown Royal and Andretti Autosport team up to honor military heroes

    Michael Andretti with son Marco Andretti.

    Rachel MurrayGetty Images

    It is worth noting that after his shortened season in Formula 1, Andretti never again won a championship as a driver. Before he went to McLaren, it was widely believed that there would be more.

    Free from the shadow of his famous father doing something different than what the world expects of him, Michael Andretti seems happier as a team owner than he was as a driver. We’re sure he remains an intense, very competitive individual at times and it’s reasonable to think his F1 debacle can occasionally tease him to this day. Perhaps ironically, given Senna’s reputation as a cutthroat competitor, Andretti called him “my only ally at McLaren”.

    “Ayrton was the only person who ever expressed any difficulty to the press,” he told Autoweek in 1999. “He knew my pace in testing. We got along very well. I think our friendship would have continued to grow if things hadn’t gone the way they came.

    “This year it’s just what ifs, but that’s a fool’s game. You have to take this experience and grow from it. In that sense it was priceless because I learned so much about life and myself. Was it good for my career? Probably not, but it was good for me.”

    Michael Andretti at McLaren


    Perhaps you think his season with Senna in 1993 underpins Andretti’s motivation to return to Formula 1 as a team owner? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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