Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The fifth part of my latest series.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.
Behind the leading quartet was the first American to finish, Michael Andretti, who is who I am featuring this week.
Michael was born on the 5th October 1962, to Dee Ann and Mario Andretti, the 1978 Formula 1 World Champion and one of the greatest all round drivers of there has been. It ensured Michael was born into one of motorsport’s royal families however this does not mean he was going to be naturally gifted.
He did indeed inherit his father’s talent however and won 50 of his 75 Kart races over an eight-year period during his early career before progressing to cars at the age of 18 in 1980, having obtained his SCCA, Sports Car Club of America, licence. His early years of single seaters were spent contested various rounds of the Formula Vee Championship and Formula Ford championships, in which he enjoyed success, winning the 1981 SCCA Northeast Division Formula Ford Championship in 1981, before winning the Robert Bosch US Formula Super Vee Championship a year later.
As well as his championship successes in America during 1982, Michael also made his Le Mans debut alongside his father, qualifying ninth. Sadly, although the car they had chosen, a Mirage M12, had passed all pre-race inspections, it was pulled from the grid and disqualified just 80 minutes before the race was due to start due to a technical infraction.
A year later, Michael and Mario managed to take the start alongside Philippe Alliot in a Porsche 956, finishing third overall, a fantastic achievement.
1983 was a breakthrough year for Michael as not only did he make his Le Mans race debut, he also made his CART debut back in America, racing for Kraco Racing, contesting the final three events, before making his full season debut a year later in 1984, again for Kraco Racing. His best result in 1983 was ninth, a result he bettered in only his second race of the season when he finished on the podium at Phoenix.
It was a very successful season for Michael as he ended the year seventh, in year which he shared the Rookie of the Year honours with Roberto Guerrero at the 68th Indianapolis 500, while his father Mario claimed his fourth CART title. From the start of his career, Michael has been surrounded by legends with other drivers on the grid included, the 1984 Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr to name just a few.
Prior to his CART exploits, Michael also continued to broaden his horizons as he made his 24 Hours of Daytona debut again with his father. Despite it being his first tome at the event, he qualified on pole however sadly, he failed to finished, retiring during the race with a blown engine.
After such a strong and varied 1984, 1985 could be considered a blip in Michael’s career as he finished the season ninth with half the points he ended 1984 with, however despite this, he still managed to claimed his best result to date as he finished second at Mid-Ohio.
It would be the lowest Michael ever finished in the standings as for 1986, he battled Bobby Rahal for the championship all year long, in a year which saw him claim his first CART victories at Long Beach and Milwaukee, however Michael could have made it back to back victories at Portland following his triumph in Milwaukee but on the final lap, his car run out of fuel ensuring his father, Mario, won the race instead, beating his son by 0.07 seconds.
At the time this was the closest finish in the history of the sport, only bettered eleven years later in 1997. Victory at Phoenix came later in the season which gave him a chance at the title, going into the final round of the season just four points behind Rahal. Michael’s consistency ensured he had a shot at the title in 1986, only winning three times in comparison to Rahal’s six. Sadly, Rahal finished eighth while Michael failed to score after retiring with a broken halfshaft, leaving him as vice champion.
He again finished as vice champion to Rahal on 1987, although this time, Bobby was much more dominant in winning his second CART crown, although Michael did win more than Rahal in 1987, four wins to Bobby’s three.
Michael’s final season with Kraco Racing was a lean one for his standards as he failed to add to his win tally, ending the season sixth, just behind his father.
After a five-year hiatus, Michael returned to the 24 Hours of Daytona, alongside his father and brother John to contest the race in a Porsche 962C. The trio fared well in the January race, finishing sixth.
Michael continued to race as teammate to his father for 1989, leaving Karco Racing to join Newman/ Haas Racing in what must have been a fantastic moment for both of them. It was also an historic moment as they became the first father/son duo to race together in both IMSA and CART.
Come the end of the season, Michael beat his dad in the standings as Michael finished third behind Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears, winning twice in Toronto and Michigan.
It was the start of a second revival for Michael with Newman/ Haas Racing as he continued with the team into the new decade, again alongside his father Mario. After two victories in 1989, Michael won an additional three times in 1990, taking his season tally to five, ensuring he finished second in the championship, only being beaten by Galles-Karco Racing’s Al Unser Jr.
It was the most points Michael had ever scored in a season and remained with Newman/Haas for a third season in 1991, which is when he claimed his only CART title, winning the series in dominant fashion, winning the title by 34 points ahead of old rival Bobby Rahal, taking eight wins during the season. It was a fantastic season for Michael emulating what his father had done before him, becoming only the second son of a champion to win America’s premier single seater series.
Only Al Unser and Al Unser Jr, had achieved the feat before Mario and Michael.
Michael and Bobby found themselves battling for the title once more in 1992, as the duo remained close, Bobby now the owner of his own team, Rahal-Hogan. It was another gruelling season long battle between the duo, although this time it was Bobby who came out on top, beating Michael by an agonising four points, ensuring Michael finished second to Bobby for the third time in his career.
It was double heartache for Michael in 1992 as it was the closest he came to winning the Indy 500, the points would have been enough to win the title. Even now Michael looks back on the 1992 race distraught that he did not win, a year which also saw his younger brother Jeff involved in a horrible accident leaving him with severe leg and ankle injuries.
Michael was winning with 10 laps to go, a staggering 28 seconds clear of Unser Jr, until the “Andretti Curse” struck again, his car crawling to a halt down the backstretch, his fuel pump had failed. He had dominated the race, leading 160 of the 189 laps so far, a devastating blow for the reigning champion.
Following his near miss in 1992, Michael took a sabbatical from CART in 1993, as he was approached by Formula 1, joining McLaren alongside Ayrton Senna for 1993. It was an opportunity which could have been one of such promise however it did not materialise for Michael as he struggled in a car not as competitive as McLarens of the past. In team politics also hampered his only season in the sport, and even failed to finish the year, being replaced by Mika Hakkinen after the Italian Grand Prix, after he achieved his only podium in F1.
It was a shame for Michael who had potential to be a star in F1 similar to his father however it was never to be.
Michael returned to CART in 1994 with Chip Ganassi, his vacated seat at Newman/ Haas was filled by 1992 F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell who remained with the team for 1994. Michael was immediately back on the pace, winning the first race of the season around the streets of Surfers Paradise in Australia, eventually finishing the season fourth.
1994 was Michael’s only season with Chip Ganassi as he returned to Newman/Haas in 1995 following the retirement of his father from CART racing. He was joined at the team by Paul Tracey who joined from Penske, who replaced the departing Mansell. Despite the change of team, Michael again finished fourth, behind Rahal, Unser Jr and Jacques Villeneuve, who won the series in only his second season.
Villeneuve moved to Formula 1 for 1996, however the old guard were joined by another young charger in Alex Zanardi, who joined Chip Ganassi for his rookie season in the series after leaving the world of Formula 1. The Italian finished he rookie season third behind Andretti who again finished second, this time missing out on the title to Jimmy Vasser, who’s early season form was enough to win him his first crown.
1996 was the first season following the IRL and CART split, resulting in Michael and the rest of the field not being able to compete in the Indy 500. Michael would not return to the race until 2001, when CART’s momentum starting to dwindle in comparison to the IRL.
It was also the last time Michael finished as high as second in the series, his next best result being in 2001 when he finished third, in what was his first season with Team Motorola. Although Michael continued to win races for Newman/ Haas between 1996 and 2000, the highest he finished was fourth in the standings in 1999, in a year Juan Pablo Montoya won the series.
Although 2001 saw Michael finish third, the title was fought between Gil de Ferran and Kenny Brack, the two drivers who dominated the Rockingham 500, my first ever race. This was the first time I had the pleasure of watching Michael race. Even as a seven-year-old I recognised the significance of seeing an Andretti race, although my mind was blown that he had a different livery to his teammates Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracey.
I was already aware of Michael and his father Mario and what the duo had achieved. My dad was also a big Mario Andretti fan as a kid so it was nice for him to see his son race.
It was a big year for Michael as Motorola Racing soon became Andretti Autosport, as Michael bought a majority stake in the team ahead of the 2003 season after the team ran into financial difficulties following the instability of the CART championship.
Michael immediately switched the team to the IndyCar series rather than remain in CART, where the shift in momentum had begun two years previously, when drivers like Andretti and teams like Penske returned to the race after a five-year gap 1996 open-wheel split.
Michael raced for the team for the first four rounds of the season before retiring from full time driving to focus on the running of his new team. Brit Dan Wheldon joined the team to take his place alongside Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, with Robby Gordon contesting Indianapolis.
Throughout their history, Andretti has run four cars in the series and has had huge success as a team owner, as Tony Kanaan won the team’s first title in 2004, with teammate Wheldon winning 2005.
Michael also had his first taste of Indy 500 success in 2005, albeit as a team owner as Wheldon claimed his first victory at Indy. Ever since Michael acquisition of the team, Andretti Green Racing, and now Andretti Autosport following Michael’s complete takeover in 2009, have been successful, claiming a further two titles with Franchitti in 2007 and Ryan Hunter-Raey in 2012.
As well as the overall title, Andretti Autosport has also won the Indy 500 four times with Franchitti, Hunter-Raey, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato all winning for Andretti Autosport. Michael’s team were also Fernando Alonso’s team for his first attempt, in which the sport went up a notch in Europe with many experiencing IndyCar for the first time.
Currently, Michael runs teams in IndyCar as well as Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and US F2000 championships, the complete ladder of American single seater racing as well as Formula E and Australian Supercars.
Andretti Autosport has continued the success of the Andretti name, with Michael’s son Marco now an integral part of the team too.
It is fantastic to see and I hope to see the name continue in motorsport for many years to come.
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