In 1993 Michael Andretti joined McLaren with high hopes of launching a successful F1 career – but it wasn’t to be. Twenty-five years later, and now part of the McLaren “family” once more after last year’s Indy 500 programme, he recalls that season.
Michael Andretti was at the top of his game in America when he made the momentous decision to join McLaren for the 1993 season, at the age of 30. He already had almost a decade of experience in the highly-competitive world of IndyCar racing, and had won the CART title with the Newman-Haas team in 1991.
It was that achievement that provided the impetus for a serious look at a move to F1. Following some exploratory test outings with McLaren he agreed a deal with Ron Dennis to be Ayrton Senna’s team-mate. He then finished the 1992 CART season as runner-up, signing off with a 29th career win in the season finale. His stock could not have been any higher.
McLaren’s split with Honda had been confirmed in September ’92, and after plans to switch to the Renault V10 fell through the team signed a deal to run Ford HB V8s, although the Detroit manufacturer’s main focus was the works-backed Benetton team.
Everyone at McLaren knew that it wouldn’t be an easy season after so many good years with Honda. The potent Williams-Renault combination had won the ’92 title with Nigel Mansell – the Briton had left F1 and taken Andretti’s place in the Newman-Haas team – and with Alain Prost now aboard, Williams looked to continue to set the pace.
“Ron said he wanted to hire me for the 1993 season after I won the ’91 championship, and that’s where it started,” Andretti recalls. “There was interest probably starting in 1990. I’d tested before I even won the CART championship. But every test I went to, unfortunately something was out, or the weather was bad, and I never got a real proper test.
“It was a great opportunity, and I was very excited. Although from the time I signed my contract to the time that everything started to happen, we lost an engine deal. We were supposed to have the Renault engine, but that went away.”
This was the era of high-tech, fully-active F1 cars that were incredibly complex to set up, and it wasn’t easy to optimise everything, especially for a newcomer who didn’t know the circuits. Any lost track time was expensive.
Hitting a bump before the first race
The late engine decision meant no testing with the new MP4/8. Race weekends were also going to be compromised for the rookie by a new restriction on the maximum number of practice and qualifying laps.
“Every rule change that happened, and the engine change, hurt me, because all of a sudden we couldn’t start testing until late. I literally got one and a half days of testing at Silverstone before the first race. That was the only real test I’d had ever in an F1 car, before I went to my first race. So it was pretty tough. Before we even got going from that standpoint things were stacked against us.
“We went to the first race in Kyalami, and on the first day I qualified sixth. The next day unfortunately there was a problem with the car, but I still ended up ninth. We thought that’s looking good. Then we were sitting on the dummy grid and I put it in gear and there was no clutch, so the car just didn’t move. So I ended up starting the race one or two laps down.
“In Brazil, I qualified fifth, which I thought was not bad – Senna was third. We went to start the race and the car didn’t shift when we started to go. I kept calling for the gear and it wouldn’t shift. Then because I was going slower I pulled out and I got hit by Berger, and had a big crash...”
Senna did a brilliant job to win his home race in Interlagos, proving that the MP4/8 had some potential on days when it went wrong for Williams. However, Andretti’s luck didn’t seem to be getting any better.
“At Donington I qualified sixth, and in the wet morning warm-up Senna and I were among the quickest. I never had a car that good in the wet, it felt like it was in the dry. And that’s probably where I made my biggest mistake of the year. I got a good start, I think I went up to third, and I was trying to pass Wendlinger. I got too greedy. I think he could have given me room, but he didn’t, and we ended up together.”
While Andretti’s race was over on lap one, Senna went on to score of the most famous wins of his career.
“I really think I could have raced with him, that’s the worst part. My car was so good. I was right up there with him at the start – I still shoot myself on that one! That was my biggest mistake of the year.
“At Imola I crashed in practice, but Senna crashed twice. We ended up finding that when the car hit the kerb it thought it was raising the ride height, so it dropped the car on the ground, and we were both spinning. We couldn’t figure out what it was, but that’s what it ended up being. I was crashing because the car was doing some weird stuff!”
Andretti spun off in the Imola race, but the next event in Barcelona brought some better luck.
Some luck arrives in Spain
“In Spain I finally got my first points, fifth, which was nice. It was a boring race, it was one of those races where I was running the whole race in my spot. I had a good start there, and kept my position the whole race.”
Having always loved street circuits Andretti was looking forward to Monaco, but while Senna scored his third win of the year, the American faced another frustrating weekend.
“Monaco was so disappointing! I loved the track. That’s a race where you like to qualify and like to drive by yourself, but when you have to try to pass somebody, forget about it. At the start I had another problem. When I lit up the tyres the car went from first to third gear, and brrr… and everyone passed me.
“When I came down to Loews Hairpin I had never experienced anything like it. The field was literally stopped, and I hit somebody and broke my wing. I then spent half my race behind De Cesaris.
“That race I had the fastest pit-stop that McLaren had up to that date, it was four seconds. And if you remember there were no speed limits in the pits. It was insane. I was behind De Cesaris, I went in the pits, I came out, and in one lap I was right behind him again! Then I went for it in Turn One and I passed him, and I finished eighth.”
A visit to North America for the Canadian GP brought yet more misfortune. Through no fault of Michael’s the car didn’t fire up on the grid, and he started the race from the pits, three laps down. He finished a lowly 14th. His woes continued on the return to Europe.
“In France I had another problem, somebody shut my ‘beacon’ off in qualifying, and when you shut that off the car didn’t know where it was on track with the fully active suspension. Throughout qualifying it was raising the car and lowering the car and changing gears and not changing gears. It was a mess, so I qualified 16th. But I came back and passed a lot of cars – I remember passing some in the outside at some corners – to finish sixth. It was an OK race.”
However, his luck changed again, and a first lap spin in the British GP did him no favours.
“Silverstone was disappointing. In qualifying up until the last couple of corners I was right there with Ayrton on his lap, and it started to rain, so the last three corners were wet. It screwed up my qualifying, and I qualified 11th or something.
“I decided that I was going to go for it on the outside in Turn One. When I got there it was all marbles! In IndyCar they sweep the corner. I was used to having a clean track on the outside, so that was disappointing.”
Some tough questions
By now questions were being asked about Andretti’s future, despite so many of his problems being beyond his control. With test driver Mika Hakkinen also in the McLaren camp, and logging a lot of miles in the MP4/8, it was obvious that the team had easy access to an alternative.
There were also suggestions that Michael wasn’t fully committed to the F1 programme, because he frequently returned to the USA between races. He denies that was an issue.
“People loved to say that, and I think Ron liked to use that as an excuse. I spent one or two months in the heat of it over there. I could be there in six hours because of Concorde, and I never let myself get off the time, I always stayed on European time when I was in the US. I could get to Woking almost as quickly as Senna could, living in Monaco!”
Hockenheim saw another early retirement, this time after a collision: “I got together with Berger there. I guess it was 50-50, but he didn’t give me any room, and we touched. I was stuck behind him, he was so slow in the Ferrari.”
Meanwhile gremlins continued to thwart his progress.
“In qualifying in Hungary, I was on a front-row time until I caught Ukyo Katayama in the last couple of corners, and it screwed up my whole run, so I ended up 11th. But at the start I went up to sixth, and that race I think I was going to be on the podium. The car was good and I was running with the leaders, and then the throttle broke. So that was disappointing.
“I loved Spa, one of my favourite tracks. Again there were problems in practice, I didn’t get many laps, so I was literally learning the track in the race. I think I would have finished fourth, but when I came into the pits I went to push the button for neutral and I switched the engine off. So I ended up falling back to eighth by the time they got the engine started.”
One last hurrah
The Italian GP at Monza was to be the last race of Andretti’s McLaren adventure – and the last of his short F1 career. After signing off with third in Italy having recovered from an early spin Andretti cut his ties with McLaren, and announced that he would be returning to the USA with the Ganassi team in 1994. For the last three GPs of the season Hakkinen was promoted to a race seat.
“Mika was never quicker than me ever in a test. I was always quick, I was always right there with Ayrton in testing, and it’s not like Ayrton was running slow. I knew I was capable of being on the podium in a lot of the races. In many of them stupid things were happening that were unexplainable, so it was very frustrating, really disappointing. But that’s life.”
He knew that there was little chance of relaunching a career in Europe: “Nobody was going to touch me with a 10-foot pole, there was no way! Honestly, I was over it. I loved IndyCar racing, and I just went that way.”
It was a painful at the time, but Andretti says that ultimately he gained from his season with McLaren.
“I grew up a lot that year, I learned a lot about people. So in terms of experience, it made me a better person, a stronger person. So I try to not look at it as negative, it’s part of life. Everybody’s going to have stuff like that. It made me a better person at reading things, reading people.”
He retains fond memories of his time alongside Senna, who was to lose his life in May 1994.
“He was amazing. He knew what the cars could do, but I was still learning the limits of them. We’d both be there until late at night. With the active car you’d dissect every corner, and you could make the car do whatever you want. ‘If you can drop the front here as I turn in and then have it raise as I leave.’ There were so many things you could do. I felt that given another year I was going to be right on par with the best of them.
“Ayrton was awesome, we became very good friends. Everybody knew he was a special guy. To tell you what kind of guy he was, the next race was Portugal, he had a press conference and said how unfairly I was treated, and I was one of his best team-mates ever. He was really behind me, and saw what happened.
“He knew how quick I was when we were running in testing, so he knew what was going on. It was cool of him to do that. He was the first one to call me when I won the Australian IndyCar race [in March 1994], he stayed up all night to watch it in Brazil. We would have been very close had the tragedy not happened.”
Turning full circle
In 2017 the wheel turned full circle as the Andretti and McLaren names were reunited for Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 programme. The race itself ended in a disappointing retirement, but it was another step in enabling Michael to put his 1993 frustrations far behind him.
“I can’t believe the difference since Zak took it over, it’s really refreshing. Last year was just a great programme, it was seamless, both sides got a lot out of it, both sides had a lot of fun doing it, both sides leaned from each other. It was a positive experience all around. It couldn’t have been any better, unless Fernando had won! But other than that up until the race it was the best experience ever.”