It seemed as though Michael Andretti had all the credentials to lay claim to a significant F1™ career, but this son of the 1978 world champion Mario Andretti saw his world championship hopes thwarted by the unfortunate timing of his move into the sport’s most senior category. For 1993 McLaren signed up Michael to partner Ayrton Senna in the Cosworth V8-engined MP4/8s and, when the deal was announced at Monza over the weekend of the 1992 Italian GP, most observers nodded approvingly. Only when things went wrong did the critics emerge with that priceless of all commodities, hindsight.
His father’s running mate in the pace-setting Newman-Haas Lola Indycar team for the previous three seasons, Michael had been acknowledged as one of the most naturally talented and motivated drivers to have emerged from the Indycar series over the previous decade. Since his debut in that category in 1984 he had won 27 races and scored an equal number of pole position starts. In 1992 he had led the Indy 500 for 161 of its 200 laps before mechanical failure intervened.
“I think he can win Grands Prix and become the world champion,” said Ron Dennis. “It’s not a question of which country you come from. It’s how you demonstrate your desire to win.” That was as maybe, but there were practical factors that mitigated against Andretti being able to show competitive form in his crucial freshman year in F1™. Rule changes destroyed Michael’s hopes of unrestricted laps in free practice during which he could learn circuits which were unfamiliar to him. From the start of 1993 there were just 23 laps allowed in the morning’s untimed session and a mere 12 in the qualifying session.
With the pressure intensifying, Andretti began the season with crashes at Kyalami and Interlagos. He then qualified a fine sixth for the European GP at Donington Park – a whisker behind Senna who would win the race – but he collided with Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber on the opening lap. At Imola he again fell foul of the Sauber driver after a zestful drive which might have ended with a podium finish, and many people cited this as the key turning point of the pleasant American’s year.
Andretti scored points on only three occasions, but he could never quite string things together consistently. Despite the unflinching support offered by the McLaren management, the season proved to be a disaster for the unseasoned new boy. True enough, he finished third at Monza, but with three races still to go the whole deal with Andretti was quietly wrapped up and his place in the team taken by test driver Mika Hakkinen. It reminded people just what they had been missing.