Michael Andretti made the switch from Indy cars to Formula One racing this year with two consuming motives: to fulfill his dream of competing on the glamorous Grand Prix tour, on which his father, Mario, won the 1978 world championship, and to prove to the snobbish F/1 crowd that today's American Indy Car drivers are just as good as the Formula One elite.
Through three races this season Andretti, 30, has completed a grand total of four laps for the McLaren team. On Monday, the day after the Grand Prix of Europe, at Donington, England, a headline in London's Daily Mail said it best: ANOTHER RACE, ANOTHER NIGHTMARE. Andretti had tried to pass Karl Wendlinger of Austria while entering a corner where passing isn't recommended and had spun off the course, ending his day and Wendlinger's as well. On the first lap.
On March 14 in his Formula One debut, at Kyalami, South Africa, Andretti, the 1991 Indy Car champion, stalled and failed even to get off the grid with the rest of the pack. F/1 cars take off from a standing start, Indy Cars from a rolling start. Andretti's team later explained that the stall at Kyalami was because of a problem with the clutch; still, it was embarrassing. After finally getting under way, Andretti ran four laps before colliding with Derek Warwick of Great Britain. Then on March 28, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, near Sao Paulo, Andretti crashed into a barrier on the very first turn.
As if that weren't enough humiliation, Andretti's McLaren Ford teammate, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil, won two of those three races—Brazil and Donington—and is leading in the world-championship point standings. To top it off, reigning world champion Nigel Mansell of England, who moved over to Indy Cars this year, won the opening race of the season, on March 21 at Surfer's Paradise, in Australia—in the Lola Ford that Andretti had vacated.
Despite their similar appearance, Formula One and Indy Cars are quite different. The F/1 cars have more-sophisticated computer systems and semiautomatic gearboxes that are controlled by a flick of the thumb on the steering wheel. Andretti admits that he needs more time in the McLaren, and, publicly, team officials have been patient. But some team members privately complain that Andretti hasn't been testing often enough.
Some observers also feel that Andretti is not coping well with the mental transition. In Indy Cars he was an intimidating force, and other drivers tended to yield when he charged; in Formula One, drivers are not as willing to give him ground.
On Sunday, Andretti conceded that the crash was his fault. "I thought [Wendlinger] saw me coming, but I guess he didn't," he said. And with 13 F/1 races left in '93, Andretti has put on a brave face. "There's a lot more to come," he said. But the British press was not kind. On Monday morning the Times of London referred to the Donington fiasco as "yet another failure by an American who cannot get started."