Michael Andretti, the son of 1979 World Champion Mario, is celebrating his 49th birthday.
Despite bucketloads of success and being blessed with talent and great genes, Andretti Jr competed a paltry baker’s dozen worth of races for McLaren in 1993, a foray into Formula 1 that few regard as being nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
Quite how a driver who (at the time) was a renowned late braker, had 27 CART victories to his name and blitzed all comers to claim the 1991 title could fail so miserably in F1 is a great mystery to many.
On the surface, Andretti had the mighty Ayrton Senna as a benchmark team-mate, and the technologically superior McLaren was an altogether different beast in comparison to the cars he’d been driving in North America. Furthermore, the sport’s rules had been tweaked to limit practice mileage to drivers (a huge barrier, given he knew few of the circuits he was racing on). And lastly, Andretti refused to relocate to Europe, insisting on living and commuting from Pennsylvania during the year.
With little pre-season testing under his belt, Michael crashed out of the opening race at South Africa; he repeated the feat with nearly disastrous consequences when he and Gerhard Berger collided on the opening lap of the next race at Brazil.
At the next round at Donington, he collided with Karl Wendlinger on the opening lap – he’d now completed just four racing laps in three Grands Prix, while team-mate Senna was leading the championship race with 26 points and two wins.
San Marino was next up, and Andretti again crashed out after being unable to cure a braking imbalance in time.
Finally, he scored his first points with a drive to fifth, a lap behind, but the rumours kept building that he would be replaced by the team’s test driver, a certain Mika Häkkinen…
Another point with sixth followed at France, but this had been preceded by two more anonymous races at Monaco and Canada. He also spun out on the first lap at Silverstone, and retired after making contact with Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim.
A potential podium went begging at Hungary when the throttle failed, and this was followed by another lacklustre race at Belgium.
By now the writing was well and truly on the wall. McLaren boss Ron Dennis tore up Andretti’s contract, and the American would be sent packing after one more round, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza – the very venue where his father had claimed the 1979 crown.
A spin on lap two saw Andretti drop to 20th after a precautionary pit stop, but he finally enjoyed a change form (plus a bit of luck with the retirements of other drivers) to charge through the field to finish third.
Tellingly, Häkkinen would promptly outqualify Senna on his first appearance in the McLaren at Portugal, a feat that Andretti could scarcely have dreamed of in thirteen outings with the team.
Michael returned to his beloved CART championship in 1994, signing on with the Ganassi team and giving the Reynard chassis its first CART win at the Gold Coast round.
He rejoined Newman/Haas team for 1996, finishing runner-up to Jimmy Vasser, but then suffered a thin three seasons as the team used the Swift chassis. The team switched to a Lola chassis in 2000, and he returned to race-winning form again, and switched teams when Newman/Haas refused to join the IRL during the split with ChampCar. He later bought out the Team Green operation, and renamed in Andretti Autosport, where he now oversees the career of his son, Marco.
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