(By John Oreovicz on ESPN.com 12-19-08)
In the brutal economic environment afflicting international motorsports, most organizations are cutting back their operations. Not Andretti Green Racing.
The Indianapolis-based team owned by Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree is best known for its four-car effort in the IRL IndyCar Series. Two years ago, AGR expanded into the American Le Mans Series, fielding an Acura LMP-2 prototype, and the team took on a two-car Firestone Indy Lights program in 2008, winning the championship with Rafael Matos.
Although AGR's future ALMS participation is in doubt, the team has added a potentially more beneficial project: It has taken over preparation of Team USA's entry in A1GP, the self-proclaimed "World Cup of Motorsport." After fielding up-and-comer Charlie Kimball in the opening round of the 2008-09 A1GP championship, AGR has tentatively slated Marco Andretti to drive Team USA's entry for the remainder of the campaign, though Danica Patrick also might be tapped to compete.
A1GP was formed in 2005 as a quasi-competitor for F1, but with a twist: The drivers' names play second fiddle to their nationality. So technically, it's Switzerland vs. South Africa vs. New Zealand and on down the line, with a total of 23 countries currently participating.
The first A1GP spec car was a rather unattractive Lola chassis powered by a 550-horsepower Zytek V-8 that featured an "overtake" function similar to Champ Car's Push To Pass. For the 2008-09 season, an all-new chassis based on the 2004 Ferrari F1car was introduced, instantly bringing interest and credibility to A1GP. A new engine, also sourced from Ferrari, boosts output to 600 horsepower.
Until this year, A1GP's critics harped on the ugly car and the insanity of going up against F1. Yet, in its fourth season of competition, the series is showing signs of staying power. Unlike the defunct Champ Car World Series, A1GP successfully cracked the Far East market, staging successful events in China and Korea.
A few A1GP events, from a street race in Durban, South Africa, to a weekend at the classic Brands Hatch circuit in Great Britain, have attracted huge crowds. And the series recently scored a coup by landing the co-headliner role at the popular Surfers Paradise Australian V-8 Supercar round abandoned by the IRL IndyCar Series.
Conversely, America's attempt at staging an A1GP contest at Laguna Seca Raceway in March 2006 was marred by snow flurries and a conspicuous lack of fan support. The USA could return to the A1GP slate; the series has a vacant spot on its schedule on March 29, and the race just before that will be March 15 in Mexico City.
American road racers have struggled to gain respect on a worldwide basis since Mario Andretti won the Formula One World Championship 30 years ago. In fact, since Mario's son Michael lasted less than a full season of F1 with McLaren in 1993, Yankee pilots basically have been laughed right back to the States.
Scott Speed's recent 28-race F1 tenure was more of a marketing exercise than a genuine effort to put a competitive American into Grand Prix racing, and the quirky Californian certainly didn't enhance the country's reputation in the F1 paddock.
So maybe it is appropriate that Marco Andretti is being given the opportunity to show that Mario's championship wasn't necessarily the exception to the rule, and at the same time gain some redemption for Michael, whose perceived failure in F1 was dictated mostly by circumstances out of his control.
Not surprisingly, given that he had no prior testing, Marco struggled in his initial A1GP weekend at Chengdu, China, finishing 15th in the sprint race and eighth in the feature race. At Sepang, Malaysia, he was involved in a spectacular starting-line accident in the sprint race, but he rebounded to score an excellent third-place finish in the feature.
"That was great!" he exclaimed. "I think it was quite an accomplishment. We're not that familiar with the cars yet, and those cars react the opposite way that we would normally fix the problems because the way they are designed mechanically is so different.
"We just have to hit the ground running every race and try not to go down a wrong alley making changes because you don't have much track time," Marco continued. "We have to take stuff that has worked for us the last two races, tick those boxes and put that in the bank for when we have that problem again. It will take a little bit to overcome the adversity, but I see us in the winner's circle within the next couple races."
Marco acknowledged that there is pressure on him and the team to succeed. Americans are generally not taken seriously by European road racers, and of course he has that famous surname working both for and against him.
"It's us against the world over there, man," he said with a chuckle. "First of all, the whole F1 or European mentality is that they do not rate American drivers. They just don't. So we do have to get our act together as far as setups go because we've gotta win.
"The only negative is that if we're not winning races over there, it's not just a closed test session … people are watching."
For his part, Michael Andretti thinks his team's involvement in A1GP will be beneficial in at least two ways: It will gain publicity for Andretti Green Racing on a worldwide basis, and, more importantly, it will create plenty of high-horsepower seat time for Marco, who, at age 21, is still learning.
"That was the big carrot for us really when we initially were in contact about this series because in IndyCar, it's very difficult to get miles for our drivers because of the testing limitations," Michael said. "This is a great opportunity to put our guys in a really difficult series racing on road courses, as well as from the team side in getting our Andretti Green brand out there on a solid, international platform. This is a great, great way to do it."
Michael realizes that the Andretti name brings added pressure to his team and his son, but he strongly believes both are up to the job.
"Running up front is going to be our goal, and we're not kidding ourselves -- we know it's going to be really difficult," he said. "If we can put a good race car under him, [Marco] can go and show his stuff to the international crowd.
"We've been used to dealing with pressure, so I don't see it as being a problem," Michael added. "The real pressure is going to be coming from within the walls of our garage. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to win, and that's what we are going to do here. We're not coming over here to just dillydally around -- we want to win races."
Marco also believes that competing in A1GP will make him a better Indy car driver, especially after a year when he and his AGR teammates struggled on road courses.
"The competition is unbelievable over there and the field is so tight, it's going to help when we come back to IndyCar on the road courses," he said. "There are no negatives, and it's the best possible scenario for the offseason. I mean, I'll drive a car every day if they let me!
"It will help me be fresh for St. Petersburg [the 2009 IndyCar Series opener in Florida]," Marco added. "You can run triathalons or whatever, but the best training for driving a race car is to drive a race car. And if you're physically there, you can think more clearly and slower and you're just in a better mindset."
Before AGR got involved, the Team USA A1GP franchise was run by Virginia businessman Rick Weidinger, who was a partner in the defunct Kelley Racing IndyCar Series team. Under Weidinger's guidance, Team USA scored a race win earlier this year with the old Lola in Shanghai, China, as 20-year-old Atlantic Championship front-runner Jonathan Summerton beat several highly regarded foreign F1 aspirants, including Neel Jani, Franck Montagny, Adam Carroll and Jonny Reid.
Jani, a former F1 tester who claimed three podium finishes in the Champ Car World Series in 2007, went on to win the 2007-08 A1GP championship for Switzerland. Jani has returned to defend Switzerland's A1GP title, and he relishes the opportunity to go up against established American stars such as Andretti and AGR.
"Even though they are big where they come from, that doesn't change anything and they are still competitors," Jani said. "If anything, as last year's champion, they should be thinking, 'I'm on the track with Neel Jani.'
"It's great for A1GP because they are very big names in the USA," he added. "But it's also great for them because in A1GP, you get real, hard European-style racing all on road courses. There is no fuel saving to think of, and it's flat out all the way. It will be hard for them, but nothing is impossible and at some stage we will have to count them as real competitors."