Marco Andretti felt closer to being back in form in 2018. With a key personnel change in the offseason, the third-generation Indy car driver is hoping to knock down the barrier to victory lane that’s been up for nearly eight years now.
Andretti, whose last NTT IndyCar Series win came at Iowa Speedway in June 2011, achieved a goal in 2018 by winning the pole position for the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader. He scored a pair of top-five race finishes and eight top-10s to wind up ninth in the championship – his best points effort in three years.
Now, armed with team co-owner Bryan Herta calling strategy for a third straight season and a new engineer in Mark Bryant, the driver of the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco Andretti and Curb-Agajanian Honda is looking for more this year.
“I want a road- and street-(course) win,” Andretti said. “We knocked on the door (last year).
“It'd be nice to have more than one win this year and capitalize on the ones that (got away). I've had to pit on (potential) podium (finishes) on the white flag last year (at Toronto) and stuff like that. That stuff hurts. It'd be nice to just capitalize and get ones that we’re in command to get.”
Entering his 14th season in the NTT IndyCar Series, the 31-year-old Andretti has watched 21 other drivers celebrate on the top step of the podium in the 126 races since he last won. While it has been undoubtedly tough to endure, Andretti’s methodical climb back has been aided by his focus of not over-analyzing things.
“Being a veteran now, it's easy to get too in tune with the engineering aspect of it,” Andretti said. “I need to actually step away and just drive the car. The reason you see a lot of fast rookies is because ignorance is bliss sometimes. They're just driving the car.”
The engineering role is the biggest change for Andretti this season. Bryant, who won the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship with Andretti Autosport driver Patricio O’Ward, replaces the departed Nathan O’Rourke in the No. 98 timing stand.
“He is really studying my style and he's had a lot of ideas already of how he can help me,” Andretti said of his new engineer. “He knows some deficits that I need to work on in my game, and he knows that if we focus on those areas with the race car, then hopefully I'm quick enough in the other type of corners to overcome that. Really, looking at where we need to work, that's what we have to do, right?
“I think sometimes new blood is good, so I don't really feel at a deficit. I think he's a future superstar, honestly. He's come in and given completely outside-of-the-box ideas to our entire team already, so it's pretty cool.”
When critiquing his own race craft, the two-time race winner is aware of where he needs to improve to join teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the championship conversation.
“It would probably be high-speed corners, learning to really trust what (the car) is going to do there,” Andretti said.
“What helps me is continuity with a certain setup. I’m not good at running through three different setups in three different sessions – I’m not that good at adapting. It’s hard to really wring out that lap and to really trust what it’s going to do, especially with the bumpiness of a street circuit and stuff.
“Last year at Detroit, I remember being sixth in practice, having a little lift in a corner and coming in and saying, ‘Don’t change the car. We’re on pole if I can execute.’ That helps me because I know what I have, so changing the car less is big for me. That’s a new approach this year.”
Being the grandson of Mario Andretti and son of Michael Andretti, Marco knows he carries the family racing heritage wherever he goes. He’s also well aware that the spotlight will shine even brighter on him at this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, since it’s the 50th anniversary of Mario’s 1969 win.
“As if the 500 wasn't big enough already!” Andretti quipped. “I have thought about it. I want to win any Indy 500, but if there is one to win, if I could pick one, it'd be this one, for sure.
“I just keep saying, 'What would you do? What would you do?' I'd cry, probably publicly and I think I would just feel 49 years of ‘close but no cigar.’ All of that would come into how I'd be feeling at that time. It'd be overwhelming, but it'd be amazing.”
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series calendar features 17 races, all airing live on NBC or NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Opening with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and followed by the INDYCAR Classic at COTA on March 24 (1 p.m., NBCSN), the schedule is highlighted by the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26 (11 a.m., NBC) and closes with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (2:30 p.m., NBC).