The car's engine was revving near its limit when Michael Andretti began pouring on more power. "Let's see what this thing will do," he muttered. As the small car wound out to nearly 100 miles per hour, a stream of tiny Renaults and Peugeots and corpulent lorries from Germany danced before Andretti's eyes as if on the screen of an arcade game. He was trying to make up for another bad start, a wrong turn that took him back through Vichy—the resort that is synonymous with France's wartime collaboration with the Nazis—instead of out of the town Andretti now breezily referred to as Traitorville.
Most people go to Vichy for the waters, but as far as Andretti could tell that morning, they had been misinformed. During the night, a pipe had burst in his hotel and he had been unable to coax even a trickle from his shower. This had left him discernibly unbathed for the three-hour drive to Paris, a drive that would confirm, at least aromatically, what the European motoring press has been saying about Andretti's driving for months.
With a sixth-place finish in the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours the day before, Andretti had just passed the midpoint of his first season as a Formula One driver, and he felt he had turned an important corner, even if a voice from the backseat kept telling him it was the wrong one. "Yesterday I started passing like I would in an Indy car," Andretti said. "There isn't a single car in that field that will give you a position—ever—and I was running into some heavy blocking. But I stood my ground when they tried to put me in the grass. I kept my foot in it."
Until the race in France, every time Andretti had put his foot in it this season, he seemed to step into something unpleasant. No American driver had been more successful in the '90s than Michael Andretti, and certainly none had seemed better prepared to represent the U.S. on the F/1 circuit since Mario Andretti, Michael's father, won the world championship in 1978. Back then, Michael, now 30, had traveled with his father from the family's home in Nazareth, Pa., to half a dozen races while Mario was winning the driving championship, and he had never stopped dreaming of going back, even as he was dominating Indy Car racing by leading more laps (2,613), sitting on more poles (19) and winning more races (18) than any other driver in the '90s.
At Sunday's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, Andretti got away from the start cleanly, but four laps later he tangled with the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger and was out of the race. That brought the average number of laps he has completed in five of the 10 races this season to just under two. After leading nearly 54% of all Indy Car laps last year, Andretti had not even competed in half of the laps run in F/1 this year.
In Andretti's first three Formula One races, he failed to navigate the first lap with the rest of the field even once, and talking about him was practically all anyone in F/1 could do. He was granted a small indulgence for his March 14 debut at Kyalami, South Africa, after his McLaren-Ford stalled due to a faulty clutch and he was left sitting on the starting grid as everyone else roared away. But there was much grumbling about the fact that when he did finally get moving in that race, he completed only four laps before colliding with Great Britain's Derek Warwick. Then came first-lap crashes in successive races: in Brazil on March 28—where Andretti's car pinwheeled into a barrier, nearly decapitating Berger—and two weeks later at the Grand Prix of Europe in Donington, England. By then the press was in full-throated howl.
After the San Marino Grand Prix on April 25, where Andretti spun off after he couldn't reach a cockpit knob that balances the car's brakes, the howlers knew no bounds. "They crucified me," Andretti says. Michael's wife, Sandy, amplifies this point later at a sidewalk café in Paris. Fingering one of her giant gold Chanel earrings, Sandy says, "They've crucified my husband like Jesus Christ on the cross."
Michael and Sandy Andretti had never been to Paris—or "gay Paree" as he kept calling it, insinuatingly—until they rendezvoused there after the French Grand Prix. The French was only the second F/1 race that Sandy had missed, and as the pit-lane gossips pointed out, they were the same two races in which Michael scored his only championship points of the year. The couple's visit to Paris had been arranged by Michael's friend Jean-François Thormann, an American who once lived in Paris and was now trying fiercely to show off the City of Light to two people who made it clear that they care nothing about good restaurants, don't like museums and hate to walk.
"I admit it," Michael says, attempting to order a cheeseburger and fries at an outdoor café near the Eiffel Tower, "I'm a totally spoiled American." The waiter, summoning up that grand Gallic hauteur that the French seem to reserve for the un-French, says it is impossible to have ze chizbirgair, only ze hombirgair, despite a menu from which you can practically scrape the fromage. "You have to be a little more arrogant the way you do things here," Andretti says. "If you're a nice guy, they eat you alive. They lose respect for you. You can't wait for things to come to you, because they don't."
At Magny-Cours, after starting from the 16th spot, Andretti steadily improved his position throughout the race, frequently with bold overtaking maneuvers. At the end he held back the charging Ligier-Renault of Martin Brundle, helping to preserve teammate Ayrton Senna's fourth-place finish. And yet several times after the race Andretti remarked, "I just didn't want to do anything stupid" and "I didn't want to screw up"—not exactly the lyrics to the Andretti family fight song.