As you read these words, in the lead-up to the 2013 United States Grand Prix, I’m reminded of one of the greatest driver-selection gambles ever taken by McLaren.
No, I’m not referring to Lewis Hamilton or Kevin Magnussen, McLaren’s most recent rookie signings, both of whom are clearly extremely talented, but to Michael ‘Mikey’ Andretti, son of racing legend Mario, whom Ron Dennis signed up to partner no less an in-cockpit luminary than the great Ayrton Senna for the 1993 season.
McLaren drivers from the United States had been thin on the ground since the days of Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue and Peter Revson a generation earlier (about whose exploits I waxed pretty lyrical in a recent mclaren.com/formula1 blog). That being the case, there was wonderment in the air at Monza in 1992, when during a press conference Ron revealed that Mikey would be replacing Gerhard Berger at McLaren for the following season.
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Most of the F1 paddock cognoscenti regarded Ron’s decision as a massive risk, but a few others were more ready to be convinced that it was a clever move. After all, as I say, Mikey was the scion of one of Stateside motor racing’s most prestigious dynasties. His father, Mario, undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers in the history of motor racing, had first raced a hand-crafted go-kart in his native Montona (Italy, now Croatia) in 1945, at the age of five, and, following his family’s emigration to the land of the free, had amassed one of the most impressive Indycar CVs of all time, making his Indycar debut at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1964, at the age of 24.
Twenty-eight years later, in the autumn of 1992, as his son was being named by Ron as a 1993 McLaren driver in F1, Mario was a craggy-faced 52-year-old, still racing in Indycars, and had won 51 races in that series, including the Indy 500 in 1969, and had been Indycar champion four times.
He’d also won the World Sports Car Championship for Ferrari, as well as dozens of races in various midget cars, sprint cars and Nascar cars.
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And, most significant of all as far as Mikey’s 1993 ambitions were concerned, Mario had won grands prix for Ferrari and Lotus, winning the 1978 F1 World Championship for the latter in the revolutionary and beautiful Type 79, with six dominant victories from 16 grands prix – seven if you include Monza, where he crossed the line first but was penalised for jumping the start – his final victory of the season, at Zandvoort (Netherlands), remaining to this day the last grand prix win by a driver from the United States.
And that, I think you’ll agree, ladies and gentlemen, was quite an act for Mikey to follow – and his task was made even harder by the fact that, well into his fifties, daddy was still racing successfully in Indycars.
Mikey had been super-successful in Indycars himself, but his curriculum vitae lacked the richness and variety displayed in excelsis in his father’s awesome CV. Nailing high-speed banked turns at well over 220mph (354km/h) was clearly right up Andretti junior’s street, but still Ron’s Monza press conference audience looked sceptical: could Mikey really make the transition from Indycar to F1, from ovals like Indy to road circuits like Monza? At the time, Andretti senior was the only driver who had ever successfully done so.
"I think Mikey can win grands prix and become world champion,” said Ron, pursing his lips in that trademark I-know-best manner. “It isn’t a question of which country you come from. No, it’s a question of how you demonstrate a desire to win. There are probably less [sic: he meant fewer] than five drivers in the world who have the necessary aggression with which to deliver on that desire, and Mikey is one of them."
Presumably, Ron had not only all his fingers but also all his toes very firmly crossed as he uttered those words.
Ayrton and Mikey would go into battle in 1993 with the all-new Cosworth V8-engined McLaren MP4-8. When Ayrton first drove the car in testing, his impression of it was very favourable – a fact that encouraged Mikey initially. Nonetheless, when he came to drive the car himself, he struggled. He had a lot to learn, and not much time in which to learn it: F1 circuits were not only new to him but fundamentally different from the Indycar superspeedways he’d gotten used to, and he found the nervy and pointy handling of an F1 car very foreign, a truth made starkly apparent to everyone watching by the fact that Ayrton immediately showed the MP4-8 to be nimble and grippy and capable of winning grands prix despite its Cosworth V8’s comparatively meagre power output.
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Mario firmly believed his son would get the hang of F1 before long, however. “I tell ya [always Andretti senior’s favourite intro], in traffic Mikey is just awesome,” he one day told a group of cynical European F1 hacks, of whom I was one. “He goes for gaps I wouldn’t even think of going for.”
Before very long, that over-aggressive approach would present an extra dimension to Mikey’s fast-developing crisis – for, when he tried to play tough in traffic against quick and seasoned F1 drivers, he came unstuck. His old rivals on the Indycar ovals, over the pond, may have trembled at the sight of Mikey’s silver helmet (modelled on his father’s, incidentally) filling their mirrors on the high side of 220mph (354km/h), but in Europe he was just another rock-ape rookie who was failing to keep it on the island.
In the first grand prix of the 1993 season, at Kyalami (South Africa), Mikey took a wheel off his McLaren against Derek Warwick’s Footwork. At Interlagos (Brazil), he somersaulted over Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari as the pack jostled for the first corner. And at Donington (UK), he spun off on wet grass after braking hard to avoid Karl Wendlinger’s skidding Sauber. Three races, three retirements. And, adding to his humiliation, in those same three races Ayrton had finished second once and first twice, the most recent of those wins, at Donington, ranked by many observers as among the greatest victories in F1 history.
In other words, Mikey’s F1 adventure was already coming apart at the seams. Despite patient tutoring from race engineer Steve Hallam, he clearly found the technical complexities of a state-of-the-art F1 car beyond him. And, in his efforts to make up for what he lacked in finesse with dollops of derring-do, he began to shunt more and more.
In truth he surely already knew he was out of his depth, but he tried manfully to rationalise his issues. “An Indycar responds to a firm hand,” he mused early in the season. “If you wring its neck and really throw it about, you get a pay-back in terms of a better lap-time. But an F1 car doesn’t respond in the same way. You need to be smoother, more precise. It’s taking me a bit of time to get used to that.”
In the end, he ran out of time – and Ron ran out of patience. With three races left of the 1993 F1 season still to run, Mikey "accepted a negotiated release from his McLaren F1 contract", as the press release euphemistically phrased it, but everyone knew that what was being so politely described was in fact a sacking that dare not speak its name.
At Estoril (Portugal), Mikey’s drive was taken over by a young Finn by the name of Mika Häkkinen, who marked his McLaren debut by outqualifying his visibly stunned team-mate, Ayrton (Häkkinen was P3, Senna P4).
Mika then went on to rack up one of the most successful careers in F1 history himself, winning 20 grands prix and two World Championships, in 1998 and 1999, both of them for McLaren.
Mikey went back to Indycar. His 1993 season with McLaren had been an embarrassment and a disaster. In stark contrast, back home, Mario had very much enjoyed his 1993 Indycar season. He had won his 52nd Indycar race, in a Lola, at Phoenix, at the age of 53. And, a few weeks later, he had taken pole position for the Indycar race at Michigan with a lap average of 234.275mph (377.029km/h), a new world record.
Mikey never drove in F1 again.