Michael Andretti aviating his Reynard 941 Ford over the Surfers Paradise kerbs. Andrettis’ victory in The Australian Indycar Grand Prix in March 1994 was just the fillip the American needed after his abortive McLaren F1 season the year before…
Nigel Mansell started ’94 where he left off, the Brit a winner in the 1993 ‘Indy championship in his Lola Ford, the season after his F1 World Championship victory for Williams in 1992. Nige was on pole with Andretti alongside in the brand new Malcolm Oastler designed Reynard 941 Ford, the marques first Indycar.
The race was restarted 3 times, first lap contretemps famous on the Surfers circuit. In the final restart Michael got the jump on Nigel and lead all 55 laps, the race shortened by 10 laps due to lack of light.
Michael won again in the Reynard later in the season at Toronto but the Penske PC23 was the best car of the season and the ‘Dream Team’ of Al Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy extracted all the car had to offer winning most rounds and Unser the drivers title.
By seasons end Mansell had returned to F1 albeit briefly, with Michael competitive again with 2 victories and 7 top 5 finishes in a year where the pickings were slim for all but Penske.
So what Went Wrong in F1 for Michael?…
Andretti came into racing via Karts, Formula Ford, Super Vee and Formula Atlantic. Before long he was an established Indycar Star and after a dominant season in CART 1991, on pole 8 times, winning the title and demonstrating his versatility with a Porsche drive at Daytona, he was looking to F1 as the next challenge.
Joining McLaren for 1993, alongside established team leader and candidate for the Greatest Grand Prix Driver ever was always going to be a tough ask, the Brazilian famous for taking no prisoners and intimidating his teammates in all ways possible.
Into 1992 things were looking a bit grim for McLaren…the teams performances were down, Honda were withdrawing from F1 and Ron couldn’t achieve the alternative factory engine deal he wanted. He attempted to buy Ligier to get the Renault engines, a deal vetoed by sponsors. The best he could achieve was Ford customer engines, one spec below those used by Benetton, who had the factory Ford deal, Michael Schumacher of course the driver.
Ayrton was watching all of this but couldn’t get a better drive, the best seat was with Williams, and engine supplier tipped Alain Prost into it rather than arch rival Senna.
Ron needed a name driver in the event Senna decamped and signed Andretti…on paper a driver with potential albeit unfamiliar with both the cars and circuits. His announcement was made at the 1992 Italian Grand Prix to a bemused media.
The plot thickened somewhat with the signing of Mika Hakkinen, lately of Lotus, who was to be either test driver or race driver in 1993 depending upon what Senna decided, the Brazilian ultimately signing for the team again but on a race by race basis.
For Andretti things started badly with rule changes which limited testing…he badly needed seat time in both the car and on as many circuits as possible, the differences in characteristics between the relatively heavy single turbo 2.65 litre V8 Indycars, and 3.5 litre normally aspirated peaky, light, nimble and ‘very nervous’ Grand Prix cars immense.
The delivery of the Ford engine was late, only a month before the season opener at Kyalami, so was completion of the car and critical systems testing and checking which became clear with many failures particularly on Andrettis’ chassis during the year.
His season could be summarised as a series of own goals, accidents of his own making and mechanical or electrical failures which were entirely beyond his control.
Mixed in with that was his sheer pace which justified Andretti a second season in F1, at least.
F1 wisdom seems to be, including McLarens website, that the American didn’t really commit to F1. Indicative, in this view is continuing to live in the US, commuting by Concorde to the UK and the races as required. The theory is that living closeby to Woking, shootin’ the breeze with the Ronster and technicians would have helped.
It probably would have, as he would have done the testing miles Hakkinnen did but it’s too simplistic a view.
Andretti started the season behind the eightball, noting he was ‘silly enough’ to sign for McLaren alongside Senna in a team ‘he owned’…
Jackie Stewart was smart to sign with BRM not Lotus for his debut F1 season in ’65, he had the choice but figured the lower pressure environment at BRM would be better for him, and allow him to come up to speed without the pressure of going head to head with Jim Clark, the standard by which all other drivers assessed themselves at the time. Noting that his BRM team leader, Graham Hill, the ’62 World Champ was at the top of his game at the time.
But these guys aren’t like you and I, they have towering self belief, why not go up against Senna in a great team, the chance may never come again? In that sense Andretti is be admired for putting his balls on the line, he was not the first or last Ace to be blown off by the Brazilians mesmeric other worldly skill.
On balance, looking from everyone’s viewpoint; McLarens’, Andrettis’ and the sponsors’, the deal made sense.
The McLaren MP4/8 Ford was a competitive car, Senna took victories at Monaco, Donington (one of his best) Brazil and Suzuka in the rain and in Adelaide, his last GP for McLaren and final victory.
During the rest of the season the Williams of Prost and Hill were the class of the field, Prost taking the title and retiring.
Let’s look at Andrettis’ year race by race…
.Kyalami clutch failure on the line, fundamental preparation or lack of testing issue. He then ran into Derek Warwick on lap 4 trying to make up for lost time.
.In Brazil he goosed the start having muffed the 1-2 shift, qualified 5th (Senna 3rd), Wendlinger jigged one way, Michael the other collecting Bergers Ferrari initiating a spectacular shunt with the two cars cartwheeling thru the air.
.At Donington for the European GP. Q6 whilst Senna disappeared into the gloom in a sublime drive, from 5th to 1st in 10 corners and a lead of over 4 seconds at the end of lap 2. Andretti again took out Wendlinger leaving the Sauber and McLaren beached in the Leicestershire mud.
.At Imola for the San Marino GP Q6 again, he completed 32 laps before spinning, whilst dicing for fourth with, you guessed it, Wendlinger. The spin was induced by a brake or suspension balance problem.
.In the Spanish GP Andretti finished fifth behind Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Patrese, the latter duo Benetton Fords with the factory engines.
. At Monaco Q9, his clutch did its own thing, up shifting early, losing revs and power, he was engulfed by the field, then hit Barbazzas’ Minardi up the chuff at Loews. He pitted to replace his front wing but then had a great run from last to 8th…but Senna won.
.In Canada the car again ‘cacked itself’, this time a dead battery, he started the race 3 laps down and was classified 14th, Senna also had electrical gremlins that day, finishing 18th with alternator failure. Whilst in more recent times (2008) there have been claims by Marco Andretti that McLaren ‘sabotaged his fathers career’, the claims don’t hold water as Senna had as many gremlins as Michaels’ cars did. Hakkinen was ‘standing in the wings’ but McLaren had every commercial and sporting reason for Andretti to succeed not fail.
Andretti was the only American F1 driver at the time, their was no USGP either, the US is the largest global economy which McLaren was keen to tap into via the interest provided by their American driver…the conspiracy theory makes no sense to me at all and contradicts the facts.
.In France at Magny Cours the semi-automatic shift misbehaved resulting in Q16 but a strong showing, finishing 6th and getting valuable mileage.
.Michael looked forward to Silverstone as he had tested there pre-season, but his qualifying run was spoiled by rain, Q11. He started well but spun on lap 1 again going too hard too early.
.German GP, Hockenheim he qualified 12th after more mechanical dramas unrelated to him. But he thumped Berger on lap 4, DNF.
.At the Hungaroring, his fly-by-wire throttle failed in a run as high as 4th. Senna experiencing similar problems 2 laps later.
.Belgian classic, Spa. He had a long tyre change during which the engine stopped, Andretti 8th
.Monza, Italy. Andrettis’ final GP. He qualified 9th, Senna 4th. In the race both cars had brake balance problems, both spinning, Senna into retirement. Andretti continued after having grass removed from the radiators, fighting his way back through the pack from 20th to 3rd, a great run and his only podium finish, ironically in his last race, Michael being sacked, the drive going to Hakkinen.
Andretti returned to Champcars successfully…he was competitive throughout his career but didn’t win another title and famously lead the Indy 500 for 431 laps in multiple 500’s the most of any driver without taking victory…
There are so many ‘Ifs, Buts and Maybes’ in life and racing…
If McLaren had done a better engine deal or installed the Ford earlier, maybe the glitches both drivers experienced all year would have been sorted in pre-season testing.
If the testing rules hadn’t changed Andretti would have driven the miles he needed in cars alien to him rather than doing his testing and familiarisations in the full glare of race weekends…and as worked so well for Villeneuve at Williams 2 years later who did a million miles in the car on all sorts of circuits.
If he had lived in the UK maybe his intent and commitment to McLaren would have been clearer.
Hakkinens’ signing added to the pressure on Michael, if he hadn’t been signed, the imminent potential replacement would not have been there.
If Andretti had started some of his races less agressively the DNF’s would have been reduced giving him the miles he needed and making him look less of a novice.
But, as the saying goes, ‘if yer Aunty had balls she’d be yer Uncle’ …
At the end of the day none of the above happened and it made more sense for McLaren to sign Hakkinen to partner Senna for 1994 albeit Senna went to Williams and Martin Brundle got to race the McLaren Peugeot in 1994, a combination which made the ’93 cars look like paragons of speed and reliability. In short had Andretti raced on with the team in 1994 he would not have had a car capable of running at the front.
Michael Andretti and F1 is still one of racings intriguing ‘mighta-beens’ all the same?
Short History of the Surfers Indycar Grand Prix
McLaren MP4/8 Ford…
Adrian Reynard and Reynard Racing Cars…
The Cahier Archive