Motor Racing: Andretti masters forces of change: Derick Allsop on an American carrying the expectations of a nation and the reputation of a family into Formula One

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A GENUINE smile has been a long time coming, but at last there is conviction in Michael Andretti's contented countenance.

All winter Andretti has wrestled with mind-blowing electronics and his own nerves. The man arriving from the supposedly perilous arena of American IndyCars to the sophistication of Formula One has reached the conclusion that this is the brave new world.

But at least he approaches Sunday's opening grand prix of the season, in South Africa, buoyed by an encouragingly productive final two days of testing in the all-new McLaren-Ford. No doubt in the momentum of Ayrton Senna's phenomenal performance at Silverstone last week, Andretti outpaced the third member of McLaren's driving squad, Mika Hakkinen, and came within a 10th of a second of Damon Hill's best time in the Williams-Renault.

'I feel a lot happier than I did a week ago,' Andretti said. 'I've suddenly got within striking range and been able to give it a go. Sure, it's been tough, but we're getting there.'

It has patently been a tougher initiation than Andretti anticipated, and the worst may yet be confronting him. When the light changes from red to green at Kyalami, the examination proper begins.

Every driver out there will have his own pressures and aspirations to contend with, yet few will be burdened as heavily as Andretti. He is the standard bearer for his country, for IndyCar racing, and even his family. His father, Mario, has lived with the best on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the world title in 1978.

Michael, 30, won the IndyCar series two years ago, and led last season's Indianapolis 500 for most of its course. He has earned a reputation for pace and aggression, much as Nigel Mansell, the reigning world champion, did before taking Michael's seat alongside Mario in the Newman-Haas Lola-Ford.

Successful though Andretti Jnr has been in IndyCars, that remains an essentially insular environment and he is essentially a small-town boy. Now he has left the bosom of his family and entered a harsher commune, driving a car which is the last word in technology, in what he maintains is a far more dangerous contest.

He said: 'I always wanted to have a go in Formula One and if I hadn't taken this drive with McLaren I might never have had such a good chance. There's no point in looking at my father's achievements. Yes, I'd like to be as successful as he was but I can only do what I can.

'I think it's far more difficult for me to adapt to Formula One than it is for Mansell to adapt to IndyCars. Believe me, you have to be brave to drive these cars. In IndyCars you can use a bit more finesse.

'There is a lot of misunderstanding about IndyCars over here. I think IndyCars are very safe. You could classify only Indianapolis and Michigan as dangerous. But those cars are built for super speedways.

'The G forces here in Formula One are crazy. You just hang on as well as you can. You experience a similar sensation at Phoenix, but the car is set up for left-hand corners and you can use a headrest. In Formula One you can't do that because you twist this way and that. I have tried not to be stupid in testing because there is so much I have to learn about Formula One and the car. We've had to handle a lot of problems. I have had to build up my confidence to be aggressive. The aggression comes from the heart. I guess it's the big fear of losing - that's my motivation.'

Just as there are those who fantasise about the United States winning the World Cup on home ground, there are those who expect Andretti to give 'them thar Europeans a whopping'. He is more prudent.

'The fans back home told me to go get 'em,' he said. 'They want me to do well because it would bring credibility to the whole of the American scene. If I start doing well the interest in the United States will go up as it did when my father did well in Formula One. He was bigger in the States than Formula One. I know, though, that I have to be patient. Hopefully the car will be competitive and we can be up there. If the Williams is quicker it's because they have something we don't. That's the way it is in Formula One.'

Will he miss IndyCars? 'Yes,' he said, the smile of the small- town boy rippling across his face again. 'I really enjoyed it. It's a great series and I suppose I'll return to it some day. Right now, though, I want to make a success of Formula One.'

And will Mansell make a success of IndyCars? 'He will do well. He's with a really good team, the car is better than it was last year and they've done a lot of testing. I think he should clean out.'

(Photograph omitted)