Andretti keeps battling through his most difficult season

Updated: 

Marco Andretti couldn’t have been happier at the beginning of the year after announcing his engagement to model Marta Krupa in February.

Then the Verizon IndyCar Series season began a month later. It’s been a struggle for Andretti to enjoy much of anything since.

The 29-year-old son of team owner Michael Andretti and grandson of 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti is experiencing his worst season. It’s not just because the Andretti Autosport driver is 18th in points. He hasn’t been a serious contender in most of the races. His best finish was ninth at Detroit. His only other top-10 run was a 10th at Toronto.

“I’m not going to hide it. It’s been miserable. It’s been one thing after another,” Andretti said. 

“To be honest, it’s extremely trying, man. It’s hard to go home. I don’t relax. My poor fiancée has to deal with that. I’ll try to sit at the pool by her, I’m physically there but I’m not mentally there. I’m on the phone with my engineers. I’m training harder than ever, I’m in the best shape of my life.”

He points the finger first at himself first, but concedes his struggles can’t be attributed to only one factor. His team has made mistakes; be it a costly pit stop in the 100th Indianapolis 500 or race strategy or the shocks package. His No. 27 entry carries a Honda engine and aero kit, which has been consistently outperformed by the Chevrolets that have won 11 of the 12 completed races this season. 

“It’s me qualifying (poorly), that’s a big thing,” Andretti admitted. “The team, I think our shock package is out to lunch, quite honestly. I’m being pretty blatant about it. That’s making life pretty miserable on bumpy tracks. I think the manufacturer is not the strongest manufacturer in the series. So there’s a lot of things.

“My dad just says, ‘Stay in it, keep at it.’ Right now, we’re not the best Honda team. And Honda is behind Chevy. And Penske is the best Chevy. So it’s like we’re in the fourth class right now.

“A 10th (at the Honda Indy Toronto last month) felt like a podium. It’s frustrating. You drive almost a perfect race and it’s 10th. That’s just where we’re at right now. We don’t have cars that can go out and win every race like Penske can.

“But you know what? There’s going to be a year in my career when we’re going to have that. Learning to fight, this is really toughening me up.”

He said the shock problem has prevented the car from turning downforce from the Honda aero kit into grip.

“It’s not translating to the tire, so we’re not using the tires (to their maximum),” Andretti said. “You would think if you just put an aero kit on a race car, it’s just going to be better. It actually made our setups worse. It made (fellow Honda driver Graham) Rahal’s setups better. it’s just one of those things we need to adapt to and we haven’t done a great job because we’re trying to find the most grip instead of stabilizing the platform.”

Much like his father and grandfather, Andretti puts a lot of stock in the Indy 500. It’s always the most important race. In May’s 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” he was running 12th but confident he could make up ground in the final 35 laps as other cars on different strategies would need to pit. But then the front tires were installed on the wrong side in the final pit stop, which adversely affected the car’s handling.

“Fun day until the front tires were put on the wrong side,” Andretti tweeted. “Really bummed, the car was good. Unfortunate mistake but my guys are the best.”

Two months later, he still wonders what might have been.

“I think one of the biggest ones that hurt was Indianapolis,” he said. “I think we had a top-three finish going there, which in the championship was going to be a huge difference from where we are now to where we should be. Things would be a lot different if we were sixth or seventh in the points if we got the finish that I think we deserved there.”

Andretti arrived in 2006 with so much promise. Then 19, he lost the Indy 500 by 15 feet to Sam Hornish Jr. on a front-straight, slingshot pass in the final 100 yards. Andretti later won at Sonoma Raceway to become the youngest series winner (since surpassed by Rahal) and was the Verizon IndyCar Series rookie of the year.

His only other win in 169 starts came at Iowa Speedway in 2011. But he’s usually been in the hunt — he finished a career-best fifth in series championship in 2013. This season is the first time he’s not had a single top-five finish.

“It’s just one of those things, we just need to get that one result and once we do it will start coming back,” he said. “My qualifying has been just dreadful, which is making my Sundays worse. I’ve had to come up through the back row three times this year, two of them we’ve turned into top 10s.

“If we’re starting in the top 10, we’re going to have different results. Qualifying is huge and just getting the most from the car, not overdriving, because that’s what happens. You get more frustrated, you drive past what the tires are going to give you, now you have two problems instead of one.

“When you see guys go rattle off a couple of wins, they probably didn’t do much different. It’s just that stuff started clicking. I’m going to stay at it. I’m not going to quit because people think I should.”

He realizes the remainder of a lost season is still important. The sooner he figures out the problems, the better Andretti can be in the future.

“I’m just not going to write this year off,” he said. “Maybe for a championship write it off, but I need to approach every event like a championship in itself and try to maximize every session and just get better and get the momentum going because we’re not just going to come off a horrible year and win a championship. Having said that, (points leader Simon) Pagenaud is on his way to doing that (this year).

“You can look like you’re far off in this sport and you’re not. Once you find that one little thing, it will put you right back in.”

Andretti and Krupa are waiting for the 2017 series schedule to be announced before they set a wedding date.

“I have everything I’ve ever wanted off the track,” he said. “It’s just that I find it’s almost hard to enjoy everything because of the results. My life revolves around results. Once we get one or two of those, I think we’ll be right back on track.

“It has to come naturally and the only way that’s going to come is with results. She knows. You can’t hide it any other way. You’re not happy when it’s not going good.”

Andretti heads next to his home race, the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Practice and qualifying take place Aug. 20, with coverage for the 200-lap race beginning at 3 p.m. ET Aug. 21 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

From the fans