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 be…but 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 circumstantial…and 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.
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 championship…that'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