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 cafè 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-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois 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 cafè 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.
France also marked the fourth time in eight races that Andretti's car had miseries at the starting line. McLaren was late getting this year's car built, and a series of electronic problems were responsible for the cancellation of tests that would have allowed Andretti valuable experience in an F/1 car. "Going into my first race, I didn't know what I was doing," he says. In the first standing start of his career, at Kyalami, his clutch broke, and at Donington the throttle stuck wide open during his last warmup lap before the race. On that occasion Andretti nursed the car back to the pits and jumped in the backup car, only to have the radiator on the second car begin to leak. The mechanics were still fastening the bodywork to the car as Andretti was being pushed away for the parade lap.
At the Canadian Grand Prix on June 13, a dead battery was the culprit, and by the time Andretti left the pits the race was three laps old. And in France his car's engine sputtered to a stop while he was completing his final warmup lap. The problem was fixed, and he arrived on the grid with a minute to spare.
Following that race, and after three madcap days in Paris—Sandy asked to be taken to a fashion show, but there weren't any; Sandy begged to go to a disco, but Michael didn't want to go; they rode the bateau-mouche up and down the Seine; and they ordered room service a lot—Michael arrived in Silverstone, England, for the July 11 British Grand Prix looking depressed and worried. From McLaren's home base in Woking, there had come the first rumblings that the team might not renew its option on Andretti's contract next year.
At a lunch with the German-speaking press on the Friday before the race, McLaren boss Ron Dennis was asked why he would keep three drivers—Andretti, Senna and Mika Hakkinen, a prospect from Finland who has been testing for McLaren this year. The question was meant to be about Hakkinen's future, but Dennis quickly asserted that the Finn "will race a McLaren," then added the sort of intriguingly political coda for which F/1 is justly famous. "As a company, we pride ourselves on fulfilling our legal and moral commitments to drivers," Dennis said. "If any driver did not complete a season in a McLaren car for which he was contracted, it would only happen by mutual agreement." Was this the sound of the other shoe dropping?
A few days later Dennis is saying, "I don't think Michael's enjoying Formula One, and it's probably hurting his career. If he chose to talk to me about going back to [Indy Cars], I wouldn't wave a contract at him. It was that fact, rather than the opposite—that I'm considering replacing him—that I was trying to convey to him."
Conveying it to him in person seems not to have been an option. "We haven't really talked," Andretti says. "He's so busy, you hardly even see him on race weekends...." His voice trails off. He isn't even convincing to himself.
"He's been struggling a bit," Dennis says, "which has caused him to try too hard, leading to more mistakes and a level of desperation that he's put into his approach. Am I disappointed in Michael's performance? Yes, of course I am. But I think any disappointment I feel is overshadowed by his own disappointment in himself. I still have a belief in Michael, because his performance in America justifies that belief. My pressure comes from the people who support the team financially. I was keen to give Michael a chance. I've given Michael a chance."
Part of the McLaren strategy to give Michael a chance at Silverstone was to keep Sandy far out of sight. She made a brief appearance at McLaren's hospitality suite on the Thursday before the race, succeeded in annoying both an executive from Philip Morris's F/1 racing division and a U.S. TV crew that wanted to interview Michael, then left and did not return to the racetrack the rest of the week.
Unlike the wives of Indy Car drivers, the wives of Formula One are expected to be neither seen nor heard. And from the moment she arrived at the South African Grand Prix, wearing a body-hugging suit in a leopard-skin pattern, Sandy Andretti was both. "One guy wrote that she looked like Pancho Villa's wife," Michael recalls, and other descriptions seemed to fall somewhere between Darling Jill of God's Little Acre and Elly May Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies. Her shopping expeditions became the stuff of legend: Gidget gets a Gold Card.
"It's her way of seeing the city," Michael says. "She doesn't buy that much."
"I've always been that way since I was three years old," Sandy explained one day in Paris. "Besides, I don't think they dress very well over here at all."
"The glitz is just insecurity," Dennis says of Sandy's attire. "I've told her that she doesn't need all that makeup and the flamboyant clothes, that she's very attractive without all that. She had strong views about how she was going to attack Formula One, and perhaps that led to a bit of overkill with regard to her contribution to the team. She's an extraordinarily nice person whom I like a lot. She's just misguided. There are occasions when I feel Michael needs the freedom to improve his performance in Grand Prix racing."
For the benefit of those not wearing a translator's headphones at home, that last remark was meant to cordially disinvite Sandy Andretti from the McLaren pits. "I was treated so differently here, I was, like, confused," Sandy says. "I came in assuming women are part of the team the way they are in Indy Car racing. I would say that I was going up on the pit wall, and they'd say, 'Oh, no, you're not. You need a special pass for that.' So I told them to get me one. I feel I should be on that wall. That's the way it's always been.
"In Indy Cars, the wives are important members of the team, aren't they, Michael?" Sandy says as her husband chews his hamburger. "They sit on the pit wall and time their husbands' laps, and they are treated with respect, aren't they, Michael? Aren't they, Michael? Michael?"
But Michael is lost—spinning, spinning, spinning—his thoughts on the track. "The car," he says, "has to be an extension of your body, and I'm still searching for that. It's not fear. It has nothing to do with fear. You have to have enormous confidence in these cars. When you get into a corner, you have a ton of grip. But then there's a point at which you can lose the grip just like that. You have to commit yourself to staying on the throttle. I have not proved to myself that the car will stick. Once I do it, I'll know."
He has had to unlearn much of what he knew, and it has cost him confidence. When he spun out at Donington, he says, "I started to pass [Karl] Wendlinger, but then I hesitated. I had no confidence at that point. I second-guessed my move, and as soon as you do that you're finished. I started to go with my instincts, and then I stopped."
Two races later, on May 9, he earned his first championship points with a fifth at Spain. With an eighth-place finish in Monaco on May 23, a gritty 14th in Canada three weeks later and "the best sixth of my life" in France, Andretti had seemed to be regaining his poise. Then at the British Grand Prix, he made another disastrous mistake. Starting from the middle of the pack, Andretti had immediately shot past two cars when he suddenly overreacted to a pinching move by the Ferrari of Jean Alesi and spun off into the sand just past the starting line.
Dennis later called it "a silly mistake," and it might well have been one that makes it tough for any other American driver to find a future in Formula One anytime soon. "I would definitely love to go F/1 racing," says Al Unser Jr., the winner of the 1992 Indy 500 who had a test with the powerful Williams team last year. "But with Michael's rookie performance so far, it makes it difficult."
There has been talk of Mario Andretti's trying to form an Indy Car team with Toyota in 1995 so that he and Michael can be teammates again. "In a lot of ways I'd like to go back home, and in a lot of ways I'd like to stay," Michael says, still spinning, spinning, spinning. "It's going to come together soon, I know it is. There are a lot of races left. I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet." Might as well roll up the windows and step on the gas. Let's see what this thing will do.