The Way It Is/ Michael & Al Jr's F1 lessonsby Gordon Kirby
Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti have been friends since they were kids. Their famous fathers broke into Indy car racing--the USAC Championship as it was then known--in the mid-sixties a few years after Al Jr. and Michael were born six months apart in 1962.
From 1972-'76 Al Sr. and Mario were teammates at Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing and during that time Al Jr. and Michael got to know each other well. By the time they made their own moves into Indy cars in 1982 and '83 from the likes of Super Vee and Atlantic cars (and in Al Jr.'s case, Can-Am cars) they were good friends.
During CART's great days through the late eighties and nineties Al Jr. and Michael established themselves as two of Indy car racing's biggest stars in company with their fathers, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan.
"We were friends really, rather than rivals," Michael says. "We were competitors, sure, and we raced each other hard. But we were more friends than rivals."
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Through the heart of his career Michael was a furiously feisty racer, winning 42 races, and is ranked third on IndyCar's all-time winners list behind A.J. Foyt's 67 wins and father Mario's 52. Michael also won the 1991 CART championship and finished second five times in 1986, '87, '90, '92 and '96.
Al Jr. was a more cagey driver than Michael, not quite as good in qualifying but often an electrifying racer in his prime. He's fourth on IndyCar's all-time winners list with 39 wins, ranked directly behind Michael and ahead of his uncle Bobby and father Al Sr. Junior won the Indy 500 in 1992 and '94, took the CART title in 1990 and '94 and finished second in points three times in 1985 (to his father), '88 and '95.
Andretti and Unser continued to race regularly in CART through the turn of the century, eventually ending their careers in the IRL. Both ran their last races at Indianapolis in 2007. Al was 45 at the time, Michael was 44. The CART/IRL war raged during this time and it had a deleterious effect on Al Jr. and Michael's dispositions. Al Jr. missed competing in the Indianapolis 500 from 1995-'99 while Michael wasn't there from 1996-2000.
"The split series wasn't fun," Andretti remarks. "The latter years were a little disappointing. I lost five years at a shot of winning the race at Indy. I felt like the last part of my career was a little bit cheated because of that. The glory days were definitely before the split. From then on it was not as fun because it just wasn't the same."
Adds Unser: "Because we weren't running at Indy, outside the car I lost interest in the whole thing. I did IROC and the Daytona 500 and I did Daytona in the IMSA series and raced all these different cars and races to be better at Indy. My whole life from a child growing up was all about Indy and I think that had a lot to do with why I didn't go to Fomula One because it was all about Indy to me."
While Al Jr. won the 500 twice, Michael was never able to make it to victory lane at the Speedway. He led nine 500s for a total of 431 laps, more than any driver who didn't win the 500.
"At least Al was lucky enough to get a couple of wins there," Michael grimaces. "At least he had those two before the split. I feel I got cheated."
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"But it's not the same," Michael says. "It was cool winning as an owner but you always feel like--especially missing those five years--it was a bummer."
Al Jr. deserted CART for the IRL in 2000 while 2002 was Michael's last year in CART. Michael ran the first few IRL races on '03 and retired after that year's Indy 500, coming back for two more 500s in 2006 and '07. Al Jr. ran the IRL series from 2000-'03 and did a handful of races in '04 before announcing his retirement. Like Michael he came back for two more Indy 500s in '06 and '07 before retiring for good.
Al Jr. and Michael both had brushes with Formula One in 1992 and '93 respectively and their experiences are instructive for any American hoping to make it to F1. Michael drove for McLaren in '93, of course, beside Ayrton Senna when McLaren was at a comparatively low ebb with Ford/Cosworth engines as a stopgap after a brace of successful years with Honda engines.
"It was the worst time of my career," Michael declares. "It was a program that was destined to fail from day one. I could write a book about it. It was a joke. I think I matured and I think I learned a lot about people and how dishonest people can be. I learned a lot about life. I grew up that year. I went in very naive and I came out a lot more aware of the real world. From that standpoint I think it was very good, but other than that it just about ruined my career."
Al Jr. tested for a few days with Williams in Portugal in '92 and had a seat-fitting at Benetton before rejecting Benetton boss Tom Walkinshaw's offer of less than half the money he was making in Indy cars.
"I felt exactly the way Michael feels about it," Al says. "I tested with Williams for a week in Portugal. Frank was giving me the indication that he truly wanted me, but from the time I landed Patrick Head was just rude."
Unser was half a second quicker than Riccardo Patrese and Damon Hill and flew back to England to talk terms.
"We went into Frank's office and I said, 'Let's do a deal.' And he said, 'We were only interested in you. We never said anything about having you as a driver.' Patrick was sitting there and he just instantly stood up and said, 'Time to go.' He walked me to the door and shut the door behind me. And that was it.
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Unser received some good advice about F1 from two-time World Champion and double Indy 500 winner and CART champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
"Emerson said to me, 'Al, you really need to think about it because they'll stab you in front, they'll stab you in the back and they'll stab you in the side.' He said they'll do everything they can to take you out. He said you really need to think about it. Well, Emerson knew what he was talking about. I was fortunate to have a guy like him give me that advice and then I found out for myself that he was right."
Adds Michael: "We tested in Spain the day after the race that year and both me and Ayrton were within a tenth of a second of each other and were running times that would have put us on the front row. Ayrton had qualified third and I was about 20th. So I was saying, 'I'm not doing anything different. How can this be?' And they were saying, 'Oh, Ayrton doesn't test that fast.' And I said, 'But our times are quick enough today to be on the front row.'."
Michael swears that a key McLaren team member deactivated his car's active suspension system for qualifying that weekend.
"Someone shut my beacon off in qualifying," he insists disgustedly. "I know who it was--a guy who didn't want me there at all. He shut my beacon off and those were all active cars and my car was just lost. The ride heights were changing and it was downshifting in the middle of the corners and I qualified 16th or something. That night Ron said, 'I want you out of the car after the race.'
"I finished sixth in the race. I passed Barrichello on the last turn on the last lap to get in the points and Ron called and said, 'I want you out of the car.' We fought from race to race. That was the sixth race and I made it all the way to Monza fighting to stay in the car. And finally they put Mika (Hakkinen) in who never was quicker than me in testing."
Michael believes Dennis and Bernie Ecclestone conspired to make him look bad.
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"They were all in it together. They were all making millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. They were all in business together. Racing is secondary in Formula One. Nobody really cares about what's going on the racetrack. It's unbelievable!"
Andretti was able to bounce back from his unhappy time in F1 when Chip Ganassi offered him a ride and Michael was delighted to win CART's 1994 season-opener in Surfers Paradise, beating defending Indy car champion Nigel Mansell after a fierce battle.
"I was lucky enough that Chip gave me a chance to come back and drive for him. One of the biggest wins in my career was when I won for Chip at Surfers Paradise and beat Nigel. He was King Nigel and I beat him. It made me very happy."
The following year Michael rejoined Newman/Haas for whom he had raced from 1989-'92. He drove for Newman/Haas for a second time from 1995-'99, then joined Barry Green's team for his final three full-time seasons, eventually becoming a partner, then sole owner of what is now Andretti Autosport. In addition to winning two Indy 500s with Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti the team also won two IRL titles with Tony Kanaan in 2003 and Franchitti in '07 and the 2012 IndyCar championship with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
You can take Andretti and Unser's unhappy memories of Formula One as sour grapes, but Emerson Fittipaldi's words of advice to Unser add some valuable perspective to F1's hard edge. Emerson provided some further observations about F1 in 'The Art of Motor Racing', a book I co-authored with him many years ago.
"In Formula One," Fittipaldi wrote, "they are ready to destroy a guy as soon as he makes one mistake. If you make it in the door to F1 you must be prepared for this aspect. Formula One is a very hard-headed form of motor racing. The American mentality is different and it's one of the reasons I enjoyed Indy car racing so much. In F1 they are always looking at who is going to replace this guy or that guy next year. If a young guy is off the pace, for whatever reasons, they will soon be saying something is wrong with his mind, that he can't do it anymore.
"There is a lot of bull like that in Formula One. There is a lot of talking behind peoples' backs. It takes the smallest thing and they will start calling somebody a wanker. They'll say that somebody else is too old, too set in his ways to do it any more. If you are not hard-headed enough in Formula One, they will destroy you very quickly."
Believe what you will, but any young driver--American or otherwise--and their sponsors or patrons should pay heed to these lessons in how F1 works. It's an extremely tough, hard-edged world, as any young American who tries to break into F1 and the promoters at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin and Weehawken in New Jersey are sure to learn.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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