Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jnr carried their fathers’ lndycar rivalry into a new generation. David Malsher tells their stories
The parallels are obvious: Al Unser Jnr and Michael Andretti, sons of Indycar legends and born within a year of each other, each take the CART title and a great many wins and both step out of their fathers’ shadows to become legends in their own right.
But it’s the differences as well as the similarities that make their careers so fascinating. Andretti: a natural pole-taker, a man who never said die, someone who wanted to be fastest in every session, a driver who felt obliged by his own burning desire to take fifty-fifty chances to make a pass for the lead rather than settle for a certain second place. Unser: a man who raced with his head as much as his heart, who drove with one eye on the championship, who rarely reached the ragged edge because his forethought and deep mechanical understanding had enabled him to perfect his car’s setup, who could make sublime passes look easy, who could pressure the driver ahead into a mistake simply by being there in his mirrors.
If that’s what makes them different from each other, it is also what makes Michael and Al so obviously sons of their fathers, Mario and Al Snr respectively.
Unser agrees: “I would guess I was taught by my dad that if you went out there in practice and you were driving over your head then you had the increased risk of crashing. I approached it that practice and qualifying don’t pay any money, don’t pay points… So on Fridays and Saturdays of a race weekend I spent most of my time trying to make my car comfortable for raceday, and how it usually panned out was that the pace I was able to go in practice I carried through to the race and I could keep turning in those times. The better a car is set up, it gives you less work to do and you can apply yourself to the actual racing of it against your opponents.”
And usually one of those opponents was Mario’s son, who declares: “It wasn’t a conscious thing to try and drive like dad. That’s just the way I had been ever since I was a kid: attack from the word go. Al was very different from me in that he was very smart and patient from very young. I had to pass guys on this corner, this lap and that helped me get results, no doubt about it, but I reckon on some days driving like Al — letting the races come to me — would have served me better. Overall though, I can’t say which of our approaches worked better because we always seemed to end up racing each other at the front come raceday.”
Everyone knows statistics can tell lies, but in the case of Andretti Jnr and Unser Jnr they accurately represent the pair’s vastly differing approach to a race weekend. In 309 CART starts Michael took pole 32 times, converting just 12 of those into victory. Al, by contrast, started from top spot just seven times in his 273-race career, but converted six of those into wins. (In other words, if Junior was that fast in qualifying, the rest might as well go home!) More startling still is the difference in laps led: Al was at the front for 3113 circuits, Michael 6607. Yet Unser quit CART with two championships under his belt, Andretti with just one. How so?
Well, for one thing Michael did make more errors than Al. He just didn’t know how to give up, so unless he was leading he was going flat out. It’s a great attitude that earns you fans, plaudits and self-generates an ability to drive harder, faster and longer. What it doesn’t do is necessarily reward you with what your talent deserves. As Unser puts it: “If you are driving on the edge constantly then you have an increased risk of crashing. Whoever you are, you cannot drive like that all day long without making a mistake. Michael won more races than me, but you’d have to say he got through a hell of a lot more equipment too.”
If that reads like a criticism, it was in fact said as an affectionate observation, identical in content and tone to what Al Snr will say about Mario.
“Myself and Al were definitely able to relate to each other’s family backgrounds being so similar,” says Michael. “I don’t even know if I’d call it a rivalry, because we just had a mutual respect for each other and we were pretty friendly too. My goal was never just to beat Al; my goal was to beat everybody. He just happened to be one of those guys because he was so good. Al was a year ahead on the ladder because he was a year older, and because he was doing such a good job that put a little pressure on me too.”
By 1990 each of them had twice finished runner-up in the series. Unser was entering his fifth (and third consecutive) season with the Galles team and driving a Lola-Chevrolet. Andretti would have the same chassis-engine combo but run by Newman/Haas, having joined his father in this team the previous year. Kraco Racing, his original Indycar employer, had taken him as far it could go before its Cosworth powerplant was left breathless by Chevy’s swift development, prompting Michael to look elsewhere.
“The deal to join Newman/Haas actually came together pretty late in ’88,” he recalls, “but it was the right thing to do, because with a Chevy I started winning again. And it was good to be able to exchange technical information with dad because before that, being in different teams, we didn’t really talk about those sorts of things.”
That wasn’t enough to tip the title balance in his favour though. Being a year older, it was appropriate that it was Unser who became the first of this great ‘son-of’ generation to win the CART title. Appropriate too that Michael was his closest challenger in terms of both points and race wins.
“To be honest, no, that didn’t mean anything extra to me,” says Unser. “I was just trying to beat everyone. What meant the most to me was the relief of pressure. I felt it had taken way too long to win my first championship — I had a real shot at it in my third year (’85) and lost by one point to my father.”
Andretti will admit to being “a little frustrated, but mainly because it was me who had finished right behind him,” but he responded conclusively in 1991 — eight wins and eight poles meant no-one else was really in the frame. Despite this dominance, however, Newman/Haas surprisingly elected to switch from Chevy to Cosworth power in 1992. The unit was smaller and lighter than that which it was replacing, but even so this seemed a curious time to switch. The team knew it would be a development year, but the unit’s potential soon raised hopes that Andretti could again challenge for the title. And he might have done if that potential had been more closely matched by reliability. Despite leading 54 per cent of the laps that season, Michael couldn’t match Bobby Rahal’s finishing record. “If that season’s races had been half-distance, I think I’d have led almost every lap!” laughs Andretti. He’s only half-joking: remarkably he led the opening lap of all but two rounds.
The cruellest loss was at Indy. The Andretti family’s ill luck at the Brickyard is legendary, of course, and even though he won it himself that year Unser Jnr has a little sympathy for Michael: “Everyone remembers that race as me beating Scott Goodyear by a fraction of a second and that we did it in the Galmer. But the reality is that battle should have been for second place. I mean, Michael was gone! He was in a class all of his own that year. Then with about 10 laps to go he breaks and gives me my chance.”
Two years later Unser, having switched to Penske just as it became dominant, would win Indy again and follow this up with his second CART title. In the meantime, Michael to this day feels he sacrificed a tilt at both those accolades by making his ill-fated move to Formula One, handing the keys to the best Indycar to Nigel Mansell, who was crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction.
“Yeah, big mistake because by 1993 that Cosworth had the reliability to go with its power. Before I signed the deal with McLaren it was constantly in my mind about what I was sacrificing. I think one of those sacrifices was the Indy 500. Nigel gave that race away on the final restart because of his inexperience, and I don’t think I’d have made that same mistake.”
When Andretti’s unhappy sojourn at McLaren ended and he returned to Indycars in 1994, driving the Chip Ganassi-run Reynard, it was with some relish that he beat Mansell — and indeed everyone else — in his first race back. But neither he nor Nigel had any answer to the Penskes throughout the rest of the year, and when Mansell went back to Europe at year’s end Andretti was able to return to his spiritual home at Newman/Haas for ’95. On reflection that might not have been the wisest move: from ’96 to ’99 only Ganassi drivers won the CART title, driving Reynard-Hondas on Firestone tyres. Armed with a Lola-Ford on Goodyears, Andretti challenged ’96 champ Jimmy Vasser hard, but Newman/Haas switched to Swift in ’97 and, although Michael was fully supportive of Carl Haas’s decision to try to beat Ganassi by doing something different, wins were pretty thin on the ground.
Not as thin as they were for old rival Unser Jnr, who by the late ’90s only got to see Michael on track as the Newman/Haas car went past to lap him. After stoutly defending his Indycar title in ’95 (albeit in vain), the fortunes of Unser and Penske went into sharp decline. Failing to qualify at Indy in ’95 had been a low point, but at least there had been four wins. As things transpired, his victory in Vancouver that year would prove to be his last CART success. He couldn’t figure out the Penske PC25 on road courses, and in ’97 it was team-mate Paul Tracy who grabbed three oval wins on the trot. By ’98 the team’s engine partner Mercedes had also slipped well away from the cutting edge of technology
If the car wasn’t up to much, neither was Al. His 18-year marriage to Shelley was ending, he was drinking heavily, had let himself get dreadfully unfit and, in early 1999, his family suffered a huge blow when eldest daughter Cody was struck by transverse myelitis, leaving her paralysed from the chest down. It was hardly surprising then that his racing was half-hearted, and unsurprising too that Roger Penske could no longer justify the retention of his services.
Some semblance of order had returned to his life by 2000, when he switched to the (then) all-oval Indy Racing League and, over the next four seasons, he added three IRL victories to his CART tally of 31. He also went through rehab after again falling prey to bouts of excess alcohol, culminating in a much-publicised roadside brawl with his girlfriend. Then he quit the sport, citing loss of enthusiasm and alarm at the driving standards in the IRL series as his (de)motivational factors.
By then Andretti had joined him in the IRL, albeit as a team owner. Michael had departed Newman/Haas at the end of 2000, after 10 seasons, to join Team Green in a three-car operation (along with Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy) and the trio competed in the IRL-sanctioned Indy 500 in 2001 and ’02. After buying into the team in ’02, and scoring his 42nd and final CART victory, he and Barry Green switched across to the IRL full-time to form Andretti Green Racing, with full Honda backing. Andretti started the 2003 IRL season in order that he could compete at Indy for the 14th and final time, and had led 28 of the opening 94 laps when (predictably) his car failed with a broken throttle linkage. He then refired from the cockpit for good.
Since then Andretti Green Racing has become the IRL team to beat, and in both 2004 and ’05 has produced the series champions — Brazil’s Tony Kanaan and Briton Dan Wheldon this time around. Gratifyingly, this year Wheldon also put the Andretti name in the Indy 500 victory circle for the first time since Mario won the race in 1969.
It strikes one as strange, then, that two careers that so closely paralleled each other should have now so comprehensively gone their separate ways. Andretti has made a real success out of his racing team, while Unser has slipped into obscurity. Now their sons, Marco Andretti and Al Unser III, are trying to make their way to the uppermost branches of single-seater racing and the former, at least, is showing every sign of becoming an ace.
It will be a tall order for either of them to reach the status their fathers once held: just 10 years ago Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jnr were genuine giants of the sport.
“I never thought of myself as a legend or anything like that,” says Andretti. “I did think there was a period from the late-80s to the early-to-mid-90s when I was the driver to beat in Champ Cars. My strengths over Al were being more aggressive and qualifying better than him. As the years went on and track position became more important that started to catch Al out, and I was able to carry on being competitive for longer because I could still qualify. But in his prime Al was as good as anyone I’ve ever raced against.”
The respect, as mentioned earlier, is mutual. “Michael was a great racecar driver, always tough to beat on any type of circuit, right to the end of his career,” says Unser. “If you came in during practice or qualifying, checked out the timesheets and you were anywhere near Michael, you knew you were competitive. Simple as that.”
Who was the best is a tough one to call, since although they sometimes had the same chassis/engine/tyre combo, they were never on the same team — although both state they would have welcomed that opportunity. But if pushed, I reckon as team-mates Andretti would have scored way more poles, they would have won the same number of races, but Unser would have won the title on the strength of racking up more minor placings over the course of a season. My reasoning? Well, as Unser himself exquisitely phrased it: “Michael’s strength was that he went all out all the time. My strength was that I didn’t.”
Parallel Lines — Al Unser Jnr and Michael Andretti…
– Al Jnr wins Formula Super Vee title.
– Michael wins SCCA regional Formula Ford title.
– Al Jnr makes Indycar debut in one-off for Forsythe at Riverside and finishes fifth.
– Michael’s turn to win Super Vee title!
– Al Jnr’s first full Indycar season for Galles team; takes his first podium at Elkhart Lake.
– Michael starts Indycar career by competing in final three races of the season for Kraco racing — after taking the Formula Mondial (Atlantic) title. Finishes third in Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing car with dad Mario and Phillippe Alliot.
– Al Jnr takes his first Indycar win (Portland) and two other podiums to pip Michael in the title race, 103-102!
– Michael’s first full season is with Kraco — he scores five podiums on way to seventh in the championship.
– Driving Doug Shierson’s Lola T900, Al Jnr loses championship by just one point — to his dad, Al Snr. Wins at Meadowlands and Cleveland; six other podiums.
– Michael has poor year, only three times qualifying in the top six and only once mounting the podium.
– Al Jnr finishes fourth with one win, and a whole lot of consistency — just two DNF’s.
– Michael’s turn to shine. He takes his first three wins and first three poles on his way to runner-up spot in the title race. Leads more laps than champ Bobby Rahal (699-436).
– Al Jnr is a distant third in title chase with four podiums but no wins.
– Michael scores four wins and two poles on way to runner-up spot in the title race. Leads more laps than champion Rahal (again!).
– Al Jnr returns to Galles, running a March-Chevrolet to four wins and second in the championship.
– Michael comes sixth, with five podiums, no wins and a solitary pole. Kraco switches from March to Lola mid-season.
– Al Jnr wins Long Beach from his first ever Indycar pole, and has four other podiums on his way to fifth.
– Michael joins father Mario in Newman/Haas Lolas and wins two races and two poles to finish third in championship.
– The year the sons come of age. With both driving Lola-Chevys, Al Jnr takes six wins to Michael’s five to claim the title. Just one pole (Long Beach again).
– Michael leads more laps but retires four times and is runner-up once more. Proves his speed again with four poles to Al Jnr’s one.
– This time Al Jnr wins just twice and is put in the shade by Michael, though he takes third in the points.
– Michael’s turn! He takes eight wins, eight poles and leads an amazing 965 laps on his way to the title.
– Al Jnr drives the Galmer to third in points, but earns more money than champ Rahal and runner-up Michael as his solitary victory comes in the Indy 500 — by 0.043sec ahead of Scott Goodyear.
– Newman/Haas switches to Cosworth power and Michael is even more dominant — yet somehow fails to scoop the title. Five wins, seven poles and 1136 laps led, compared to Rahal’s 4-3-421!
– Galles switches back to Lola, but again Al Jnr can win just one race and he finishes seventh in points.
– Michael departs for F1, driving for McLaren — just one podium finish in 13 races.
– Al Jnr moves to Penske as team switches to Ilmor power (Mercedes for Indy 500). Wins Indy and seven other races to claim title again.
– Two victories in Chip Ganassi-run Reynard give Michael fourth in points — the closest rival to Penske triplets Al Jnr, Fittipaldi and Tracy.
– Al Jnr scores four wins but is beaten to title by Jacques Villeneuve, despite leading more laps.
– Michael returns “home” to Newman/Haas. Three poles but just one win. Fourth in points.
– Winless, but consistency takes Al Jnr to fourth in title race.
– Michael is championship runner-up to Jimmy Vasser with five wins. Six DNF’s cost him a serious tilt at the title.
– Al Jnr is blown away by team-mate Tracy: racks up just one podium finish to languish 13th in the championship.
– Newman/Haas switches from Lola to Swift, and Michael wins on its debut. Just four more podiums restrict him to eighth in points.
– Al Jnr takes two podiums and 11th in the championship. At least that’s a bit better than in ’97!
– Champion Zanardi leads 499 laps and Michael leads 468. Alex wins seven races, Michael just one to take seventh.
– Al Jnr tries both Penske and Lola chassis but the best he can do is fifth at Cleveland.
– Michael is fourth in championship with a win and a pole — but the Swift is no threat to Reynard.
– Al Jnr switches to IRL and wins in Las Vegas on his way to ninth in points.
– Michael has two wins and leads more laps than Montoya and Castroneves, but Mr All or Nothing winds up eighth.
– Al Jnr is seventh in IRL points with win at Gateway.
– Michael moves to Team Green. Third in championship with one win.
– No wins, but Al Jnr is seventh in points once again.
– Michael’s qualifying pace is withering. One win at Long Beach.
– Al Jnr closes his career victory tally with glory in Texas.
– Michael is now running team in IRL. Competes in four races, leading in three of them, including Indy 500.