“This was the most misunderstood situation that you could ever have. The best way I can say it to begin with is that he went with the best possible team at the worst possible time.”
The look on Michael Andretti’s face suggests dental surgery performed with forks and knives would be more pleasant than discussing his ill-fated Formula 1 season.
IndyCar’s best driver, heading east in 1993 to test his mettle against F1’s titans, was shipped home early—three races shy of the finale—in embarrassing circumstances. A lone podium finish and a mountain of blame for stumbling on the sport’s biggest stage would soon be worn with the permanence of a bad tattoo.
Dredging up 1993 involves unstitching emotional wounds for Andretti. Given the decades that have passed, the intense bitterness that marked his McLaren experience has softened, but it’s lighter shades of the same disappointment. A full 25 years after the messy, life-altering encounter where his career nearly ran aground, Andretti was surprised to learn he’d reached its silver anniversary.
Within the concrete parking structure where his team was housed in March for the St. Petersburg IndyCar event, sitting in the engineering office at the front of an Andretti Autosport trailer, the 56-year-old inhaled deeply and went back to a place in time that has yet to warrant celebration.
The son of 1978 F1 world champion Mario Andretti and winner of the 1991 CART IndyCar Series championship was America’s great second-generation hope for grand prix racing. Few raced harder than Michael. Extracting bold speed from intense machines was his specialty. Al Unser Jr., another American progeny with a famous last name, was also courted by F1, but Andretti was the obvious choice. F1 was about the all-out attack, and in Michael, McLaren boss Ron Dennis had a new muse. Everything about Andretti’s talent and driving style should have translated into immediate success.
Testing with the McLaren-Honda team began in 1991—the year of Ayrton Senna’s third and final F1 title—with an eye towards a future engagement. Confirmed as McLaren’s new driver during a press conference held in New York in September of 1992, expectations were high and platitudes flowed freely. Immense faith was also required on Andretti’s part at the time.
In recounting all that would eventually go sideways in 1993, the unstable situation awaiting Andretti at McLaren is often overlooked.
A frustrated Senna was nearing the end of his McLaren contract at the same time Michael was being welcomed to the team. 1992’s McLaren MP4/7-Honda was no match for the dominant Williams FW14B-Renault. Senna wanted to join Williams for 1993, Williams wanted Senna, and not-so-secret discussions were held. The Senna-to-Williams chatter only grew in frequency as the season wound down.
While Senna was looking to ditch the MP4/7 for something faster, McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger was finalizing a similar move; he’d be leaving after the last race to rejoin Ferrari. And Honda, whose engines and finances made a world of difference at McLaren, was also set to depart F1 at the end of the season. From the heights of winning the world championship in 1991, McLaren was in an apparent freefall as three key pillars were staring at the exit door by the conclusion of 1992.
Instead of joining a stable, dominant McLaren with Senna as his teammate, Andretti put his name on a contract without explicit knowledge of who’d be driving the second car or which engines would propel the upcoming McLaren MP4/8. For Dennis, signing Mario’s son was the easy part; plugging the rest of the holes for 1993 would dominate his offseason.
“I have no idea where it stands on the second driver or the engine,” a 29-year-old Andretti said at the announcement. “My total confidence is in Ron and I know the decision he makes is the right one. I’d love to team with Ayrton. If I can run with Ayrton, I can run with anybody in the world.”
Leap forward a quarter century and the confidence in Dennis–or anything resembling a positive comment about McLaren’s former leader—has long been abandoned. Whatever trust Michael once placed in the notoriously cold and prickly Briton will never be restored.
“I understand why and the reasons why things happened, why people did what they did, and you just deal with it,” he says as sounds of GT cars lapping the St. Pete street circuit fill the background. “I think it was never a personal thing… but in the end, it almost ruined my career, and so it was a tough time, but a valuable time. Learned a lot, matured a lot that year, and I don’t hold any grudges. Maybe one, but he’s gone anyway.”
In addition to the unresolved matters of engines and a teammate, Andretti also accepted the challenge of competing in F1 as a rookie with zero circuit knowledge. Long before simulators existed, and after the era of unlimited testing, Michael would meet and learn most of the tracks he’d navigate while rolling out for Free Practice 1. The concept of taking a few years to figure out the new surroundings was not part of the plan; Andretti was expected to adapt quickly and deliver.
HIGH STRESS POKER
Tough negotiations between Dennis and Senna raged throughout the off-season as a shot at his dream ride with Williams closed when it signed arch nemesis Alain Prost. Talks with McLaren continued up to the final moments before the season opener in South Africa got under way; facing a hopeless situation, Senna even floated the idea of sitting out the 1993 season.
In a nightmare scenario for the team and the sport that grew darker as the opener in Kyalami approached, F1’s biggest attraction finally agreed to drive for McLaren four days before the grand prix season launched. Four days.
At a reported $1 million per race across a 16-round calendar, Dennis later proclaimed Senna’s giant retainer came at McLaren’s future expense; the monies to pay F1’s demi-God were supposedly robbed from the team’s 1994 R&D fund.
PLAN B AND C
Until Senna ultimately agreed to return, promising Finn Mika Hakkinen was the final piece of the McLaren driver matrix. The ex-Lotus F1 driver served as an insurance policy for Dennis to pair with Andretti in the event Senna failed to materialize.
Having positioned McLaren’s finances as being vastly overexposed, the second blow came with an inability to sign a major auto manufacturer to replace Honda. Minus the Japanese brand’s corporate and technical support, Dennis was left to lease customer Ford V8 engines from Cosworth. Thanks to an ongoing relationship with the Benetton F1 outfit, Cosworth’s contractual obligations meant Michael Schumacher and teammate Riccardo Patrese were first to receive the newest engine specifications. McLaren, Andretti, and an incandescent Senna would be left with second-tier Cosworths.
Down an estimated 100hp or more to the Williams FW13-Renaults driven by Prost and Damon Hill, and shy somewhere between 10-20hp to the Benetton drivers, the only advantage Senna and Andretti could look forward to was the sublime MP-4/8 chassis. With its excellent active suspension system and complementary aerodynamics, losing the horsepower battle to Williams and Benetton would not prove to be as lethal as some anticipated.
LEARNING TO CODE
F1’s digital formula was alien technology compared to the analog Indy cars Andretti mastered.
Traditional shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars were replaced by electro-hydraulic rams. Computers dictated ride height, roll, rake, heave, tilt. Downforce was reduced on the straights by raising the nose and lowering the rear. Optimal aerodynamic platforms were maintained from corner to corner to improve downforce. Traction control was legal, and for some of the more adventurous teams, active rear-wheel steering was employed.
Once computers took over, many of the normal inputs drivers used to feel the behavior of a chassis were erased. Finger strokes on keyboards would dictate those sensations, and in a critical point Andretti would raise after his abbreviated F1 season, it also gave teams immense power to secretly influence a driver’s competitiveness.
Noses would not dive under braking unless instructions were given to the computer to lower the ride height; squat during acceleration was also a value to manipulate to improve traction, as were the affects of G forces while cornering. Significant effort was made, largely through experimentation, to add ‘feeling’ back into the handling by dialing numbers up or down on the active components to lightly pretend it was an old spring-and-shock machine.
If a traditional spring-and-shock car possessed a dire handling trait, well-known solutions were readily available to solve the problem. Change to a different spring rate, soften or stiffen an anti-roll bar, or adjust the ride height if needed through the use of wrenches and sweat. An observant driver could watch from the cockpit on pit lane, or while the car was on the setup pad, to see the changes performed. In F1’s digital age, those visual checks were lost as all primary chassis inputs were sent via computers. Faith and trust on Andretti’s part would be required once more.
TIME TO RACE
Oddly, foreign cars and foreign tracks would not hinder Andretti’s initial efforts in 1993. It was new rules put in place by the FIA that did no favors for the American and other rookies in the field.
“The worst part about it is that, you look back, only that season, there was a rule that was instituted that every single practice, you could only have a maximum of 23 laps you could run, and that’s counting the in and out [laps]” Mario said.
“And you could not test at the track where you were going to race. So every track that he went to was obviously the first time, and he could only do a minimum amount of laps. If you put all of that together, you look at his performance, like South Africa, he was only half a second off of Senna, who was the best of the best.”
Senna rocked up and defied predictions in South Africa by qualifying next to Prost on the front row. Andretti managed an acceptable ninth on the timing monitors. Round 2 in Brazil saw the gap narrow as Senna qualified third to Andretti’s fifth. At the famed European Grand Prix at Donington Park where he produced one of his most acclaimed victories, Senna started fourth while Andretti was close again in sixth.
Michael made another statement in qualifying for Round 4 at Imola; Senna was fourth, he was sixth, and in isolation—at least while determining the starting grid on Saturdays—the IndyCar star was beginning to shadow his teammate. Sundays, when it came time to race, is where the story starts to turn ugly.
Andretti’s F1 debut lasted all of four laps after ended his run. For the nation’s F1 fans watching at home in the U.S., it was a painfully deflating experience. Two weeks later in Brazil, and it was another race-ending crash, this time on the opening lap. Round 3 at Donington was more of the same; over and done within a minute.
Three races down, four laps complete, and all of the European doubts and negative stereotypes regarding American talent were being fed by Andretti’s brutal F1 baptism. Fast when it didn’t matter, unable to get to the checkered flag when it did; dark clouds were forming around McLaren’s rookie.
Although Andretti was far from innocent, Michael wasn’t responsible for all of the , nor was he deserving of all the blame and derision that came his way, but while he was finishing 23rd, 22nd, and 25th to start the season, Senna delivered a second, a win, and another win for good measure.
Strip qualifying from the conversation, and the cash-strapped, underpowered McLaren team had one driver spraying champagne and leading the championship after three races, and the other vying for last place. It’s hard to say how the conversations went inside the team, but outside, calls for a change were already being made by some fans and members of the media alike.
The move to San Marino for Round 4 had all the markings of a turnaround for Andretti. That sixth-place starting spot—directly behind Senna—was put to good use until an unforced spin on Lap 33 pitched Michael into the gravel and out of the race. Another collective groan was heard Stateside. Patience–thin prior to the spin, was nearing its end.
Left to stew for two weeks until the Spanish Grand Prix, the qualifying routine continued; Senna was fourth, Andretti was sixth, and come the race, Michael’s breakthrough arrived. Finishing fifth, albeit a lap down to Senna, was like a small victory for Andretti. He’d finish three more races in a row, with a sixth-place at the French GP adding to his points-earning performances.
A three-race slide would bracket the positivity as a spin in England, crash in Germany, and an electronic failure in Hungary cast a pall over the upcoming push through the final rounds. Spirits were slightly lifted with an eighth in Belgium, but another trend had developed by this stage of the season.
Despite Andretti’s prowess over a single lap in qualifying, Senna was routinely finishing one lap ahead of Michael when both McLaren drivers completed a race. Even the fifth-place in Spain and sixth-place in France involved Andretti crossing the finish line one lap arrears from his teammate. Something was clearly adrift.
Andretti would close the chapter on his F1 career at Monza. Senna started fourth, Michael was a remote ninth, and this time, it was the Brazilian who tangled with another driver and exited the race prematurely.
Andretti was swift and clean, always moving forward, and celebrated his first podium—an amazing third—that only weeks before seemed like an impossible result. Standing on the podium, his big smile beaming, Andretti was where he belonged from the outset.
And while stepping down from the podium, he also knew it was his last race as an F1 driver.
The charges against Andretti by Dennis worked variations of the same theme: A lack of commitment.
The go-to example of Michael’s failings involves maintaining his family residence in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Rather than uproot his young family for Europe in order to be close to McLaren’s U.K. factory, and most of the F1 races on the schedule, Andretti chose a steady diet of trans-Atlantic flights.
Still today, the decision to commute is consistently cited as an indictment of Andretti’s character.
“It wouldn’t have done anything,” he says. “No, it wouldn’t have done one thing. People are clueless. Me even being there–first of all, when I was there [at McLaren], they’re like ‘okay, you guys need to leave,’ when I was at the shop, you know? Then so what was I going to do? Twiddle my thumbs? I never got off the time zone when I’d be there… thank God for the Concorde because I could be there in, door-to-door, six hours.
“It was like, shit, takes you that long [driving] from Monaco, so it was no problem there. I just laugh when I see people [make this claim]. They’re just so clueless. But they just loved using that. That’s the excuse everybody uses, but nobody knows the truth of everything that’s happened.”
Mario Andretti believes his son was viewed as an expendable luxury once Senna returned to McLaren.
“He went there, and he was hired by Ron Dennis because Ayrton Senna was leaving, but the deal was not complete,” he says. “Also, Ron Dennis hired Mika Hakkinen from Lotus. At the time, [Dennis] got [Hakkinen] basically for nothing. And since Ayrton’s deal did not mature with Williams at the time, Ayrton is staying and you’ve got two high paid drivers there and you’ve got a third driver, a good one, that’s there for free almost, doing nothing. Almost the minute the season started, Michael was in a very daunting position because he was the unwanted one, no question about it.”
As greater levels of hindsight come into play, Michael wonders if staying in CART for 1993 to build upon the heavy momentum he’d found with the sleek Lola-Ford/Cosworth package—while remaining alongside his father at Newman/Haas Racing—would have been the smarter play.
“That was tougher to leave,” he says. “There was a moment where, okay, it’s time to sign, and I’m like, ‘Dad, there’s something … I don’t know, man. I could stay here and rack up a record,’ because I’m like, ‘Next year, we’re going to win literally every race.’ I just knew it because we were going to have the reliability and stuff. [He said] ‘You’re crazy if you don’t do it,’ and all that. All right. So then I did it, and that’s the last time I ever listened to Dad on any advice like that…”
With Andretti’s Newman/Haas vacancy, 1992 F1 world champion Nigel Mansell came to America, filled the seat, and promptly took IndyCar by storm, winning the title in his first attempt.
“But yeah, it was a tough decision, but it was a cool experience,” he adds. “I can say that I raced with Senna as my teammate, enjoyed it. We became friends, and he, for one, said that I was one of his best teammates, but nobody even knew it. He even had a press conference after I got let go, [said] how bad I’m treated, that it was wrong the way I got treated, and that was cool that he did that for me. You know, he didn’t need to, and he was so good.”
Driven by Mansell’s CART success in his absence, Andretti missed out on a prime chance to score a second CART championship while toiling away in F1. In one regard, having the world’s best in Senna as a benchmark was only possible by leaving IndyCar, which bears fond memories. Drawing back to his great qualifying-but-poor race result routine, Andretti is convinced McLaren manipulated the computerized MP4/8 chassis to limit his race-day performances.
“It was cool when I was quicker than [Senna] in certain corners and stuff, and it was never on a race weekend because my car never did the same thing at a test,” he says. “At tests, I’d always be right there with him, literally within a tenth, but I go to a race and mysteriously I’m two seconds off the pace.
“I qualify at a race last, and then we go to test the day after the race, and I’m running pole speeds with Senna. It’s like, okay... But anyway, it was a cool experience to be able to race with Senna, and I knew that I was being compared to one of the best ever. There were times when I was right there on pace with him.”
Michael would sign with the Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar team for 1994. With Mansell on the second of a two-year deal with Newman/Haas, reclaiming his former ride wasn’t an immediate option. And Ganassi’s team, despite all it’s achieved since 1994, had yet to become a front-running outfit. With Andretti on board, CGR won its first race—at the season opener—as Michael was welcomed back to the paddock. He’d win again at Toronto and place fourth overall in the championship.
Andretti’s IndyCar career would wind down following the 2002 season; a few more attempts to win the Indy 500, a race he dominated at times, continued through 2007, and with that lone 1991 CART title in hand, he retired and turned his full attention to team ownership.
A funny thing happened late in 2016. Dennis was politely moved aside at McLaren and American Zak Brown was given control of the team Michael had come to hate. Brown, a fan of Andretti’s work as a driver and his team’s stature as a perennial Indy 500 favorite, made peace with Michael on behalf of the company.
He went one step further by achieving something that was previously impossible: Andretti and McLaren formed a partnership to field an Indy entry for Fernando Alonso in 2017.
“I despised McLaren until the last couple years,” he declares. “I love it now. I love–you go to that race team, it’s like you’re in a different team. Just the way it’s run, they’re having fun with what they’re doing, which with Ron, you weren’t allowed to have fun.”
By the end of our conversation, the tinge of bitterness in Michael’s voice had gone, mostly.
“You know, thank God that at least I can say in my last race I was on the podium,” he says. “So that was cool, but I could’ve been on the podium so many times that year with so many things happening. Like I said, it was an experience that, for my career, was probably not the best, but for me, I learned a lot, and I think I came out a lot more mature than I was when I went into it.”
Mario remains a fierce protector of his son’s legacy, and namely, with Michael’s disillusioning F1 experience.
“Nobody can tell me that Michael was not up for the job,” says the Italian-American icon. “[Dennis] wanted to give Mika Hakkinen a couple of races before the end of the season, and he said, ‘So I’ll have Mika in Italy.’ I said, ‘Please, let [Michael] at least do Italy, just for me,’ and he did. In Italy, he finished 3rd, a good 3rd. You know what I mean? You don’t discard somebody like that and tell him that, oh, he didn’t belong.”