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?