Marco Andretti set for landmark 100th race
20 March 2012
Marco Andretti seemed rather startled when reminded what a personal landmark in his IZOD IndyCar Series career this weekend's season opener at St Petersburg will be for him.
"Yeah, well, that's right. My hundredth race," he mused. "All I could say is I wish I had a little more to show for it. It definitely doesn't feel like going into my seventh year already in IndyCar ... It's been fun and stuff like that. But now it's time to string together a few wins."
Marco did return to victory lane in 2011 for the first time since his rookie season in 2006, when he won a famous duel against former Andretti Autosport team mate Tony Kanaan to clinch the oval race at Iowa Speedway. It was a lean four seasons in between, not helped by the inevitable pressure of his famous surname.
"The pressure of the family, yeah," he conceded. "The way I look at it is I show up at the race weekend because I want to win, not because they won at that place. I show up because I want to win for me. That's it."
But the forthcoming season is going to be radically different for Marco as it will be for all the IndyCar drivers and their teams, with a complete technical overhaul of the series on both the chassis and engine front for teams to cope with.
"It's actually not that different from the old car - I always say it still has four wheels!" joked Marco when asked how different the new car felt. "A lot of the things that worked on the old car are working now. It actually has more grit and more down force and stuff like that, so that's always fun for a driver.
"I guess the biggest thing you get used to is probably the brakes, the carbon brakes," he continued. "I've driven it in F1 and the P2 car, but with these cars it's a little different. The tyres are maybe can use a little more grip on the last part of the braking when you lose the downforce we're dealing with some locking and stuff like that."
Marco's father, Andretti Autosport team boss Michael Andretti, made the call to switch the team to Chevrolet engines in 2012 after several years of working with Honda while they were the sole engine suppliers to IndyCar. Marco is quick to say that he's happy with the change, and things that Chevy will be the marque to beat in 2012.
"I definitely have been pleased with Honda and the reliability, we've had a great relationship with them," he said. "[But] last time Chevy was in the series, they were the ones to beat. I mean, they really were ... I think we made the right decision, and we have all the confidence in the world in those guys, so it's going to be fun."
For everyone in the paddock, preparation for St Pete has been all about team mates needing to work closely together for the benefit of the squad as a whole - as Marco was quick to agree.
"I can say we're three guys with the same goal in mind," he said of his relationship with Andretti Autosport team mates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. "We all share the same goal. We're all big‑picture thinkers. We're going to work together. We're all going to be truthful to each other and we're going to work together to the last lap because that's the only way we're going to be able to beat these bigger teams.
"We've been progressing nicely as a team. I think me, myself, James and Ryan have been working great together. So far, so good!," he said. "We all share the same goal. We all want to win races. It's all business with us, and the business is racing ... We're going to just focus on winning races, period."
Heading to the traditional season opener on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida, Marco said that he always enjoyed the race here - but hoped he'd get further into the race than he did in 2011.
"Hopefully I don't go upside down in turn one!" he joked. "I think it's going to be great for the fans as usual. I'm a big fan of that place."
Marco's enthusiasm for St Petersburg was shared by his team mate James Hinchcliffe who'll be replacing Danica Patrick in the lime green GoDaddy.com livery in 2012. "I'm beyond excited to race in St Pete this weekend," said the young Canadian driver. "It will be my first time racing this circuit after sitting out last year waiting on sponsorship to come through. It's such a good feeling being able to start the season with everyone else."
St Petersburg was the adopted US home of Dan Wheldon, which will give the weekend an added poignancy as the first IndyCar race since the tragic death of the British two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, something that was particularly on Marco's mind in the run-up to this weekend's race action.
"Obviously, we're going to be driving with very heavy hearts because of Dan Wheldon," he admitted, having been Wheldon's team mate at Andretti Green in 2006. "He was proud to call that place home, so we're going to go there and try to enjoy ourselves and we're going to compete because Dan was a competitor."
Marco will be wearing a special design on his helmet at St Pete in remembrance of Wheldon, combing Marco's traditional look with a "Lionheart" design on the back of the helmet like Wheldon had worn
"The first thing I thought [was that] I don't want to do too much because a lot of it is being thrown in Susie's face, his wife," said Marco. "But I called her and said I'd like to do something, and and basically my painter worked with Dan's, and we came up with something. So excited to see what it looks like!"
St Petersburg has already commemorated Wheldon in its own way, renaming a stretch of the race course near the Dali Museum as Dan Wheldon Way in a midweek ceremony attended by Susie Wheldon. The stretch was particularly special for Wheldon, being the spot where he made a crucial pass on Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan that gave him victory in the inaugural race here in 2005.
"I am so proud and blessed to be part of this community and to be able to call St Petersburg home," Susie Wheldon said. "Sebastian and Oliver will be so proud to know the impact that their father had on this community and on the world of motorsports.
In between the emotional memories of Wheldon, the excitement of a new season in brand new cars with unfamiliar engines, and not to mention the series début of F1 driver Rubens Barrichello, Marco's 100th landmark race this Sunday on March 25 should be as unmissable as it gets in motor sports.
IndyCar Series coverage is provided in the UK by Sky Sports. The first race of the season from St Petersburg is featured live on the new Sky Sports F1 channel on Sunday evening from 5.30pm.