After two seasons mired in IndyCar’s midfield, Marco Andretti has found the 2018 cars very much to his taste, and he’s attacking the season with optimism. And before you say, ‘Heard it all before,’ read his reasoning, writes David Malsher.
When it became clear from driver feedback just how dramatically the 2018 universal aerokit has altered the handling of the Dallara IR12, how drastically its downforce has been slashed (and redistributed to its underbody), and how wayward its tail-end can be under hard braking, I considered which drivers this would hurt most. In my top three ‘sufferers’ was Marco Andretti, a driver who has always said his driving style demands that his car be inherently stable at the rear when turning into a corner.
But that can’t be the full story. Even in the context of Andretti Autosport’s difficult 2016 and ’17 seasons (notwithstanding the Indy 500 glories), and despite driving a car drenched in preposterous amounts of downforce that pin it to the ground, the third gen racer has been alarmingly anonymous for two years, scoring just one top-five finish in 33 races. Sure, de facto team leader Ryan Hunter-Reay has gone winless over the same period, but RHR has scored several podium finishes and only misfortune has robbed him of two or three wins. Marco, by contrast, hasn’t even been knocking on the door of Victory Lane, except at Indy in 2016 when a pitlane tire blunder punctured his chances.
So why, after two grim seasons and faced with a car that theoretically should punish his driving style, is Andretti sounding more positive than he’s been in five years?
Getting the feel back, giving the feedback
I’ve never known Marco to lie, nor twist unfavorable statistics to bolster his self-belief, which is why his opinions are always valid as well as entertaining. But there have been occasions in the past when he could be accused of over-optimism – and, hand on heart, I’ve been blinded by some of the same false dawns, on his behalf. That’s been a godsend for the critics… and damn, Marco has some fierce ones.
So it’s an older and wiser Andretti who tells Motorsport.com, “Honestly, I do think we’ve got a lot to look forward to this year. But I’ve got to get out and prove myself. Getting results is all that matters now, right?”
Right. But why this year, why this car?
“Well first of all, I’m not going to hide from the fact that I really struggled with the last aerokit,” Andretti says of the ugly manufacturer-designed aero packages that IndyCar ran from 2015 to ’17. “The grip from those was very light-switch, nothing in the middle, so it was absolutely stuck with downforce or it was gone, ya know? Extremely hard to feel the limit, plus, with all that topside downforce, very unpredictable in traffic.
“So I didn’t reach a point of absolute confidence with the last car and others did,” he continues. “It’s not an excuse: I’m just explaining that when the car lacks feel, I can’t get the most out of it. I like a car that’s superlight, where you can feel what it’s doing and predict what it’s going to do, and thankfully that seems to be what we’ve got with this new aero package.
“On ovals, I can feel the rear of the car now, not just driving it hard into the turns and hoping it’s gonna stick. If it’s sitting on the right-rear and feels like it’s going to snap at any moment, then that’s great as long as I can feel that it’s right on the limit. I’m happy to drive it loose. What I struggle with is if it’s understeering everywhere and then snaps loose without any warning.”
Those reestablished lines of communication between car and driver have already made a noticeable difference in pitlane, too.
Says Andretti: “Now the car’s talking to me again, I can come into the pits and say to Nathan [O’Rourke, race engineer], ‘I need it to do this,’ instead of, ‘Let’s try this but I don’t know what it’s going to do, good or bad.’ That means my feedback is more useful to the team now, too. Nathan is one of the best at saying, ‘Just tell me what you need,’ and it feels like I’ve got better feedback to give him because I’m getting a clearer picture of what the car needs.”
Upping his road/streetcourse game
Marco’s automatic veer toward talking ovals is partly due to the fact that left-turn-only tracks have traditionally been the best part of his repertoire, and partly because his most recent chance to drive the cars was during IndyCar’s Open Test at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix. Andretti ended the test sixth fastest, and quickest of the Andretti Autosport quartet.
However, given that 11 of the 17 races on this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series schedule are road/street courses, mastering the car’s handling for those tracks is a priority for anyone wishing to finish well in the championship. Yet on that topic, too, despite being able only to gauge two days of testing at Sebring Raceway’s short course, Andretti is uncharacteristically upbeat.
“It’s just like I said about ovals,” he responds. “On a road or street course, I want a car that’s talking to me, and so far so good. We were in the top three at Sebring, although obviously that was without Penske and Ganassi being there. So I have high hopes for everywhere, any type of track.
“I feel like as a series we’ve gone back to basics, back to ‘normal,’ if you will. By that I mean this car is behaving more like the DW12, where things made sense in my head! The last three seasons, there were a lot of things the car needed that I found hard to adapt to. There’d be times when you made changes that you’d logically think would cost you grip, but actually they gained you grip because they made the aero more efficient… But it still wouldn’t help as much as it should because you still couldn’t feel what the car was doing.
“If I can feel the limit, I push to it. Heck, I’ll run qualifying laps all day! But when the car was understeering but it felt like it could bite me at any point, then when I’d feel a slight movement I’d back off. I think I’m a driver who’s sensitive to the car, and that sensitivity hurt me because it was a negative in that particular formula. Again, that’s not an excuse: I should have adapted better like some of the others and just kinda numbed myself to the little movements I was feeling.
“But with the car being light now, and communicating better to the driver, I feel I can run at the limit everywhere. It’s gotten back to where having a feel for the car and the tires is a strength again.”
Coping with higher tire degradation
And there Andretti touches on a key point – the tires. One of the crucial aspects of IndyCar’s 2018 overhaul is that Firestone is in step with the series, and is currently in the first stage of revamping its compound choices. The basic idea is to provide more mechanical grip while also making the sidewalls more supple in response to the reduction in downforce. As a result, tire degradation is going to play a bigger factor on all types of track.
For now you’d have to say that is a question mark over Andretti, at least on street and road courses. One of the theories to explain his strong pace in wet conditions has been that he works the tires harder than most and therefore generates more heat and grip – obviously not a favorable trait in the dry. It’s surprising, therefore, to hear Marco say he welcomes the challenge of preserving tire life over a whole stint.
“Any kinda track, I always like trying to get that sweet spot in speed where you’re fast from the beginning to the end of a stint, not super fast at the start and then too slow at the end,” he says. “Firestone basically made their tires too good over the last couple of seasons, and you can understand why – they don’t want drivers talking about degradation, right? But obviously it helps the racing when tires go off at different stages of a stint, so the guy who’s been smart and managed his tires better is gonna move forward.
“In long runs at the Phoenix test, it seemed like we’re back to the cars slipping and sliding and it’s more in the driver’s hands as to when the tire deg process starts. Then, once it starts, you still have a lot of laps to do before the end of the stint, so you need to have the car handling right so you keep it car under you. To be honest, it’s fun.”
Indy 500 prospects
Talk of Andrettis and ovals and it’s inevitable that conversation eventually turns to Memorial Day Weekend, where the family traditionally shines, then smiles bravely as Fate lends a hand – usually in the form of a fist. Mario won as a driver in 1969, Michael of course has five wins as a team owner, but Marco’s had little but frustration upon which to reflect.
And so he tries to avoid reflection, and focuses forward. Although he hasn’t yet tried the new car in superspeedway trim, the youngest of the Andretti racers is encouraged by what he’s read in terms of feedback from rivals and data from IndyCar and Honda.
“Any time you take topside downforce off and put it on the floor, I’m going to be better because predictability comes with that – sorry to keep repeating a theme here,” he says. “Looking at the numbers of what this new car is supposed to do, I’m sorta hopeful we’ll go back to the days of the old Dallara [IR05, as used 2005-’11] where track position is key.
“The last few years have almost been… well, not like NASCAR at Daytona, but like it could be anybody’s race at the end because of that huge slipstream the DW12 and IR12 made. You just had to be the right place, right time, because the fast cars could tow the slower ones. At the Speedway, I preferred the old car before that, because when you got to the lead you could stay there if you had the best setup. You got rewarded for getting it right and driving it right.
“So at Indy this year I’m hoping we’ve got a situation where drivers and teams need to be perfect in order to have the speed to win.”
The Herta factor
This off-season, Andretti Autosport has undergone a subtle but potentially significant transition, even aside from its 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato departing to be replaced by rookie Zach Veach. The #98 Andretti-Herta entry for the past two years has been driven by Alexander Rossi, even though in 2017 Bryan Herta himself started calling strategy on Marco’s #27 car. This year Rossi and Andretti have switched cockpits.
That doesn’t sound like a major move, granted, but Andretti appreciates the extra psychological support from a veteran he leaned on as a teammate when he first arrived in IndyCar a dozen years ago.
Whereas this time last year, Marco was talking about the calming influence Bryan would provide over the radio whenever his own emotional excesses started to affect his performances, now Andretti can cite another very useful service that Herta provides.
“Working with Bryan has changed the vibe, because within the team he fights my corner,” observes Andretti. “A lot of the time I do exactly what my teammates are commended for, but it’s like I’m bitching because I’m the team owner’s son, right? I’m serious! I hear and read stuff like, ‘Ryan’s great because he’s constantly on us to do better as a team,’ but when I do the same thing it’s… not perceived the same way. So Bryan reinforces what I’m saying, fights the battles I need fought, and that’s really helped the team dynamic and built up better camaraderie in the organization. And for me, it’s a huge help: it means I can just focus on driving and working with my engineer.”
Plowing his own furrow
As ever, Andretti is insightful and charmingly blunt. But there’s also a sense that 2018-era Marco Andretti – I’ve lost count if this is Marco v4.0, v5.0 or whatever – has a new determination to stand on his own two feet. He turns 31 next month, and not only is he committed to improving his performances, he’s certain how to achieve it – primarily by following his own instincts.
“I finished 12th last season which looks a bit pathetic but I think I had 6 DNFs that were out of my control,” he says. “That hurt us badly in points but the knock-on effect was worse than that because we also allowed it to affect how we approached a weekend. Last year we were quick in preseason testing, but then right out of the gate we had a bunch of issues and, like Bryan said, that took the wind out of our sails. We started losing confidence and going with our teammates’ setups.
“Well, relying on your teammates’ setups can only work if you’re down in 20th and it can maybe get you to 15th on the grid. Generally, if you put a Hunter-Reay setup on my car, I’ll be two or three tenths slower than Ryan because it’s a setup that suits him. Last year we got to a situation where every time I’d go out with a different setup on my car, so I didn’t have the confidence to push to the limit, couldn’t feel where the limit was. So we’d get a bad result, lose more confidence and just keep spiraling down. I realize I’m a lot to blame for getting so frustrated.
“Anyway, when our part of the team just focuses on what I need, I’m almost always better off. So in the Phoenix test, one of our engineers plugged in and said, ‘Hey, Ryan’s found this really good change.’ And I almost didn’t care. I said, ‘Nathan, what can we do to get the back end [of the #98] better on corner entry?’ Focusing on our car is how I’m going to go faster… and more consistently.
“Like I say, Nathan is the best at finding a way to give me what I want from a car, and now that I can feel it again, I’m going to be a lot better at telling him what I need.”
What Andretti needs now is what he mentioned a sentence earlier – “to go faster… and more consistently”. Several years ago I wrote that even a lucky win could work wonders for Andretti and his confidence, but he’s now too grounded, too experienced, to be duped by a victory that doesn’t feel earned. Instead, a bunch of races where he starts and finishes ahead of his teammates – particularly if Andretti Autosport is regularly competing in the top five – will be far more fulfilling.
And maybe even his harshest critics will be convinced.