F1

IRL: Honda returning Andretti to Jerez

"If they're good enough, they're old enough" might be the operating philosophy at Formula One's Honda Racing Team as they prepare for a second and more comprehensive Jerez, Spain test for Andretti Green Racing's Marco Andretti next week. The ...

"If they're good enough, they're old enough" might be the operating philosophy at Formula One's Honda Racing Team as they prepare for a second and more comprehensive Jerez, Spain test for Andretti Green Racing's Marco Andretti next week.

The nineteen year-old American driver, the grandson of 1978 World Champion Mario Andretti and son of 1993 McLaren driver Michael Andretti, returns on Wednesday and Thursday (February 7th & 8th) to the familiar southern European testing track where almost every F1 team turns pre-season laps.

The test will be Andretti's second behind the wheel of the Honda F1 car of 2006, the RA106, the same build-out as he drove on December 15th in his one- day trial under the eyes of ex-Penske driver and current Honda Racing Director Gil de Ferran.

"I am obviously very pleased to have been invited back," he said. "I felt that I did a good job in December but on the first day you spend more time getting used to the car and familiarizing yourself with the circuit. When I get in the car this time, I am sure I will be able to hit the ground running. I'm looking forward to it."

Andretti is under contract to his father Michael to continue to run in the IndyCar Series through the 2008 season. There's little doubt, however, that family pressure (particularly from super-granddad Mario) would trump words on paper if an opportunity to participate in F1 materialized before that date.

"I'm always getting advice from them (Michael and Mario)," Marco replied when asked about a switch to F1 while in Daytona last week for Indy Racing League testing on Wednesday and Thursday. "I don't know about quite yet, but in the future for sure."

"I'm forcing myself not to think about it or else I'll lose focus on my main goal, and that's to get an Indianapolis 500 victory and hopefully an IndyCar championship. I don't think it would be fair to me or my team to even think (about F1) because then it just sort of takes me out of contention this year. It means my mind isn't 110 percent into IndyCar, which is what you need."

Andretti won his first race of his Indy Racing League career in August, taking the checkered flag at Sonoma, California. Then-AGR teammate Bryan Herta spun as Marco's fuel ran low, bringing out a late yellow that brought down speeds as the field circulated behind the pace car until a late, brief rush to the finish. He nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in May, and would have, if not for a breathtaking sprint by Sam Hornish, Jr. to overtake him at the line.

Honda currently has a full roster of drivers and test drivers aboard for the 2007 Formula One season. The Brackley, UK based team is headlined by popular Brit Jenson Button and veteran Rubens Barrichello in the drivers seat of the two-car team's competition entries, with Christian Klien and James Rossiter handling the testing chores.

The team will be on location in Spain en masse next week as it continues development of its new RA107 chassis, affording a chance for Andretti to gather tips from the gathered Honda Racing brain trust and enjoy an unusually rich learning experience to broaden his skills and build an international driving resume.

"Given the potential that he has demonstrated and the availability of last year's RA106, we saw Jerez as a great opportunity to put him back in the car," said de Ferran. "We look forward to seeing his progress with a more specific program."

Honda Racing's head man, Nick Fry, told reporters after Andretti's successful test in December that the team had no further plans to pursue a ride for the youngster. He did, however, leave the door open for revisiting the possibility by saying, "He's done very well in the IRL, and he's clearly very talented, and we're always interested in young, talented drivers. We will obviously be keeping an eye on his progress, but it's very, very early days."

Marco's results from his initial test offered no more than "potential" though, as his sixty-eight laps in the car were hardly sufficient for him to master the F1 car's more sophisticated technology, traction control and braking power. At the end of his day at Jerez in December Marco had recorded a total of sixty-eight laps with a best time of 1:21.891 seconds.

By comparison, McLaren rookie F1 driver Lewis Hamilton drove the same circuit in the new McLaren MP4-22 last week with a practice time of 1:11.120 seconds, a whopping eleven seconds faster than Andretti. There clearly is a steep learning curve ahead for the reigning Indy Racing League Rookie of the Year.

Honda has a long F1 history that dates back to the 1960's with two memorable wins-Italy in 1967 with John Surtees behind the wheel, and in 1965 at Mexico with American Richie Ginther driving.

The team's success in the modern era has been built primarily as engine- supplier for the Williams and McLaren teams. A victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2006, and a fourth-place finish among manufacturers at season's end, began what de Ferran and crew hope is the first step in an upward march to more consistent podium finishes and a World Championship.

Marco is not the only member of the current AGR driver line-up to have tasted F1 Honda power. Teammate and close friend Tony Kanaan was invited to a one-day "reward" after winning the 2004 Indy Racing League championship for the Indianapolis-based team, which also includes Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Roscoe, Illinois' Danica Patrick.

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