Luck, qualifying gains could fuel a Marco Andretti title challenge

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Like Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti is nearly a decade into his top-level open-wheel career, yet has not entered the prime of it.

To chronicle Andretti’s, now 27, career arc, it goes a little something like this:

A breakout rookie campaign at 19 in 2006 features the near-win on debut at the Indianapolis 500 and his first actual win at Sonoma. In 2007, it was a pair of flips (Indy and Mid-Ohio), occasional highlights but frequent frustration. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, same story, but he axed the flips.

The 2011 season was a comeback, with an authoritative drive to his second career win in Iowa. But in 2012 it was a trying, forgettable campaign featuring only three top-10 finishes from 15 starts, and a career-low 16th in points.

In 2013, the comeback, part two. A career-high fifth in points, best of Andretti Autosport’s four cars, with results consistency and a renewed focus after an offseason soul search that saw him transform his game following work with a driver coach.

So which Marco Andretti shows up in 2014? It stands a good chance of being the close-to-finished article.

Save for the last two years, Andretti finished seventh or eighth in points five of his first six seasons. He knows how bad the low can be, after the disaster of 2012. And while there were highs in 2013, the misses – the losses at Milwaukee and Pocono – stick out like a sore thumb.

Andretti made huge gains in 2013, and is primed to make even more in 2014.

“I think ’13 was a good start to the direction I wanted to go,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We confirmed a lot of my work is in the right direction anyway. We just need to keep plugging away with that, and we have.

“I think I made gains since. I’m more confident going into ’14 than I was ’13. I was pleased with my consistency. But some of my best results of last year were on the street courses, which is where I was struggling.

“But I think this year the goal has to be to capitalize where we’re dominant, because I think that’s what really took us out of the championship the second half of the year last year.

“I think the races we know we can win we just have to win.  If we’re able to do that, string a few together, I think we can be champions.”

These are perhaps bold words from a driver who, as mentioned above, has only two career wins. But here’s why they’re not as far-fetched as you think.

Andretti is coming into 2014 with the team consistency needed to make an impression. He’s into his second year with engineer Blair Perschbacher, while teammate James Hinchcliffe has a new engineer in Nathan O’Rourke, and rookie Carlos Munoz is just new to a full-season ride.

Andretti has the confidence from his near-breakout 2013 to know he can in fact mix it in a deep field that has so many talented drivers.

And Andretti has now shown a marked improvement at the street circuits, the ones that were his downfall in years previous. As street circuits make up a type-of-circuit high eight of 18 races this year, it’s imperative to capture as many points as possible from those weekends.

He knows the next step in that street circuit development is improving his qualifying. He made only one Firestone Fast Six – qualifying fourth at Mid-Ohio – in 2013.

“I’m still not where I want to be on the road and street courses,” he admitted. “I think what’s really been hurting me, what I’ve really been working on is qualifying, making Sundays easier on myself.

“There were a lot of races last year we had to come from the middle through the back of the pack. Nowadays it’s how we’re measured, is qualifying.”

He makes an interesting and key point about how with the spec-Dallara DW12 chassis, it’s harder to take advantage of a bad qualifying day, and that makes Andretti’s results from poor grid spots in the past all the more impressive.

“Back in the day, dad used to not even focus on qualifying, hardly even care about it,” he explained. “Everybody in the field knew he was coming halfway through the race.

“But it’s a lot harder to achieve that nowadays with the competition, the spec cars.  Everything is so close. I need to start further forward.

“My race craft is there, stuff like that.  It’s been more difficult coming from the back.  I want to be in the Fast Sixes all year.”

It’s not that Andretti was the only one left out of frequent Fast Six appearances – Hinchcliffe and their other 2013 teammate, E.J. Viso only made it to the Fast Six two times apiece.

But Ryan Hunter-Reay, established team leader at Andretti and the 2012 series champion, made it six of a possible nine attempts. That tied for second-best in the series, trailing only Will Power’s seven.

For Marco Andretti in 2014, he’s got the name, the renewed confidence and the determination to want to be the best.

If he gets the qualifying down and adds one or more victories, look out as it may finally be his time.

F1 Paddock Pass: United States Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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As Lewis Hamilton took another step towards his fourth Formula 1 World Championship Sunday at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas, plenty of other topics of discussion emerged in the wake of Round 17 of the season from Austin.

Hamilton’s win came as his Mercedes AMG Petronas team claimed its fourth consecutive Constructor’s Championship, Scuderia Ferrari came up short once again despite a valiant effort in second and third, and Max Verstappen’s penalty after the race was the major talking point.

Elsewhere Valtteri Bottas struggled again, the Sahara Force India twins continued to pick up points, Carlos Sainz Jr. made a major positive impact in his first start with Renault, Brendon Hartley impressed on debut at Toro Rosso and Romain Grosjean and Haas F1 Team endured a tough weekend on Haas’ home soil.

Check out all the recap from the latest USGP in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, below.