The easiest explanation for Marco Andretti’s maddeningly frustrating 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season would be to blame it all on mechanical mistakes and what was wrong with the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda.
But Andretti first points a psychological finger at himself.
So much of what transpired in his descent to 16th in the points became mental. After ample time to reflect on what wasn’t right, Andretti realized he had never given the psychological side of racing much thought in the past.
“I think my problem last year was I was too focused,” Andretti said recently. “I questioned everything I did and that’s a problem. Having a clear mind is how you go fast. As a rookie, there’s a lot of that clear mind because you’re just driving the race car. My dad (team owner Michael Andretti) pointed out, ‘As a rookie, you came in and you beat Dario (Franchitti), you beat TK (Tony Kanaan). You were just driving the car.’
“Last year, when hard times happened, you start questioning things. You start saying, ‘Am I training too much? Am I not training enough?’ I think that is what takes you out of it. I think you’re already out of it because you’re questioning yourself, not necessarily questioning can you drive, but it’s just such a cloudy way of approaching the season and every race.”
The mental tipping point was May’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The team was running strong and Andretti thought he was in excellent position before a disastrous pit stop — air pressures were incorrect after his front tires were mounted on the wrong side — and he faded to 13th.
What’s worse, he couldn’t let go of the mistake, which manifested into more.
“I let Indianapolis ruin the rest of my season mentally,” he said. “I drove extremely frustrated and you’re never going to be fast that way. I wasn’t having fun, I wasn’t smiling. Obviously you’re not smiling when you’re not doing good, but I sort of let it spiral out of control.
“The biggest thing for me going forward is to stop thinking about the past – the could’ve, would’ve, should’ves – because you can’t fix those anyway. I’ve really been working on the mental side of the game, it’s such a big part of it, and working on trying to get really excited again. I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m in a really good place for this season, and I feel like it’s because of last year.”
Think back to when Andretti was a rookie and driving with a clear mind in his first Indy 500 in 2006. He was leading on the final lap before being overtaken in the final 450 feet by Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. The second-place finish, although heartbreaking, was proof of a then-19-year-old’s promising potential.
Andretti is usually in contention at the Indy 500; he’s also been third three times and fourth once. But being an Andretti means growing up in a racing family that knows the most important goal each year is to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
That honor in 2016 belonged to rookie Alexander Rossi, who gave Michael his fourth Indy 500 win and co-owner Bryan Herta his second as owners. Although Michael was one of the greatest Indy car drivers with 42 career wins that rank third on the all-time list, he also holds the dubious distinction of leading the most laps (431) without winning the Indy 500.
Marco’s grandfather, Mario, won the 1969 Indy 500 and ranks second in all-time wins (52), but to this day laments so many missed chances at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. More family frustrations instead of successes at the Brickyard created the mythical “Andretti Curse.”
Marco seemingly ignored that psychological stuff early on. After last season, he has a new appreciation for maintaining a strong mindset.
“Honestly, I’ve been saying my character’s built, I don’t need any more character building,” he said. “But I think I was wrong because I really believe I’m a better person because of last year.
“I was in a good position to win the Indianapolis 500 last year and we had a mistake happen and I let that ruin the rest of my season. As a team we struggled, that’s obvious, but if we’re struggling and our best car is 10th, it needs to be me. That’s my approach going forward.”
Rossi’s win was one of the few bright spots in a down year for Andretti Autosport, whose top points finish was Carlos Munoz in 10th. Marco’s best race result was eighth in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“I went into Sonoma last year and I approached it mentally as a test session, because obviously I was nowhere near the title, and really brought our 2017 stuff forward and our pace was really good,” he said. “I was really happy with it. We actually had a shot at pole but we had a bit of an over-boost in qualifying, quickest practice in (the third session), so we had pace there and it makes me feel good about this year.”
Confidence isn’t an issue, Marco insists, but rather maintaining that confidence during tough times. His 16th place in the championship tied for his career worst in 11 years. His best points finish was fifth in 2013.
“I’ve had bad seasons before, but last year was a season that needed to be my best and it was my worst,” he said. “A lot of that approach where I felt like it needed to be my best, that was a lot of the problem.”
A series of offseason changes has re-energized Andretti Autosport. The hiring of Eric Bretzman as technical director will provide a new seasoned set of eyes on all four cars. He won three series titles and the 2008 Indy 500 at Chip Ganassi Racing with driver Scott Dixon.
Herta, who also won the Indy 500 as an owner for Dan Wheldon, will move over from handling Rossi’s pit strategy to call Marco’s races.
“He’ll be a good counter because I’m very passionate if you’ve heard my radio,” Marco said of Herta. “I have a lot of respect for him. He believes in me, which is something I definitely need. He’ll bring the fun back into it, for sure.”
Marco Andretti is optimistic it’s merely a matter of time before he puts 2016 behind him.
“It’s just driving the race car and smiling more. Obviously it’s hard to do when you’re struggling, but you’re not going to go fast if you’re not,” he said. “I definitely have my back against the wall and I know that, but I’m going to make that the fun part of it. I’m going to make the people that aren’t on my bandwagon regret it. That’s my goal. If I’m able to do that, I’ll be able to smile.”
Marco and the entire Verizon IndyCar Series field get their first chance to show who’s made progress in the offseason at the Feb. 10-11 open test on Phoenix Raceway’s 1-mile oval. The second day is open free to the public beginning at 2 p.m. ET and will include an all-driver autograph session.
The 17-race season tips off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 10-12. It marks the seventh straight year that the Verizon IndyCar Series will begin in the Florida city.