When the 2018 Universal Aero Kit was being tested, few drivers were as excited for its introduction as Marco Andretti. The Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver expressed optimism that he would reverse fortune from a disappointing stretch in his career.
“I prefer it. I like a lighter car,” Andretti said when asked for his thoughts on the new car during the Open Test at ISM Raceway in February.
“For me, I really struggled with the aero kit car. I felt it was very light, switchy grip. You’re either slammed with downforce or it snaps like that. With this thing, it’s on the edge the entire time.”
Team co-owner Bryan Herta would be calling the shots as Marco’s strategist for a second straight year. That, coupled with the switch to the No. 98 Herta has seen two drivers take to Indianapolis 500 wins, gave Andretti and the team even more reason to look forward to 2018.
During the first few practices at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Andretti was mired in mid-pack. The Nazareth, Pennsylvania native would qualify 18th for the 110-lap race.
Race Day would be a different story for the team, as they would work their way through the field. Andretti got up to third in the running, but ultimately end the day in tenth. Afterward, he remained optimistic about 2018.
“We had to have been the ones to pass the most cars today,” he exclaimed.
“Overall, we’re still top 10 and we had pace, and that’s better than lucking into a top-10 finish. Good things are ahead from the No. 98.”
Next up after the three-week break would be a trip to ISM Raceway and the first oval of the season.
With the track using the weekend to pay tribute to grandfather Mario’s last win 1993 and Marco using a tribute livery, a good deal of attention was placed on the Honda-powered entry.
The weekend would get off to a stressful start for Andretti and the team, placing 15th in the opening practice. He placed eighth in the final practice and again improved during the race, battling to finish 12th, a lap off the pace.
A return to the historic Long Beach street circuit would again see the Dallara-Honda team get off to a rocky start and qualify 14th on the grid a week later. Using the same prowess he had shown the first two races, Andretti persevered to a sixth-place finish. After a race that teammate Alexander Rossi dominated, he lamented his qualifying struggles but lauded his crew’s effort.
“We had to just be persistent today,” he acknowledged.
“Myself and the guys, we just stayed in it and didn’t make mistakes. This race just comes down to attrition sometimes. There are so many corners where you can get taken out if you go too deep – that’s what took me out of qualifying yesterday. I keep saying that as soon as we qualify in the top 10, we’re going to win a race. Congrats to Alex on his win and great job to all my U.S. Concrete guys.”
A trip to Barber Motorsports Park would begin to net Andretti the qualifying success he had lacked. After starting seventh, he endured an early spin before rain postponed the race’s completion to the following day. Weather issues would not hamper his run, as he ended the 82-lap race in tenth.
The Month of May would get off to an uninspiring start for the driver, starting 14th and finishing 13th in the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Always a contender during the Indianapolis 500, the third-generation racer shifted focus to the oval. During the week, Andretti posted the quickest overall times in both boost settings.
Although he showed speed in traffic, qualifying would see Andretti and the Honda teams fail to keep up with Chevrolet’s pace. After running 17th-quickest on Bump Day, Andretti upped his starting spot to 12th, the fastest Honda outside the Fast 9.
Race Day would not be quite as fruitful for his 13th start as it had usually been. He finished 12th but did not lead a lap for the fourth straight year. A trip to Belle Isle and the “Dual in Detroit” one week later would yield his best results of the season.
On Saturday morning, Andretti would top the time charts and earn his first pole since Pocono in 2013.
“I’m definitely embarrassed to say that this is my first (road/street pole), but I’ve been outside pole so many times on road and street courses,” Andretti said.
“Extremely pleased to execute today. I think yesterday I knew we had the speed … so I knew we had it in the car. All I had to do was execute, and I was able to do that instead of just talking, ‘Oh we would have been first.’ Now we are.”
After leading the first 22 laps that afternoon, Andretti would fall back and finish fourth to race winner Scott Dixon.
Despite a 2-3-4 finish for him and his teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, the pole-sitter was left hungry for more.
“I guess you gotta be happy right,” Andretti quipped afterward.
“This AutoNation car was a machine and I really think it deserved a podium today. But, you know, we went backwards and that’s not what we wanted to do. You hate to go backwards. We definitely wanted another trophy, I haven’t had a podium in awhile and that’s been getting to me, let alone the win.”
Dual 2 would see Andretti start 12th and finish the 70-lap race in eighth, as the team looked forward to a Texas Motor Speedway race where Andretti had run strong before.
He qualified 11th at Texas, his best 2018 start on an oval. After working his way up to fourth, his night was derailed by a clutch failure during his second pit stop. He battled through the issue, finishing 14th-place, four laps down.
“We were running a legitimate fourth and the clutch failed during our stop,” he recanted.
“From then (them) on we had no clutch the whole race. I had the clutch in, grabbed first and then it just stalled and wouldn’t restart for five laps. We had just gotten by Ryan and the car was coming into its own. The U.S. Concrete car had the pace to win the race and we just had to cruise the rest of the way.”
Last weekend at Road America, Andretti started the race in 15th and again would be tasked with finding a way up front.
In the 55-lap race, he would work his way to 11th. Despite the improvement, Andretti took responsibility for a strategy call he admitted held the team back.
“I made the call to go to blacks (Firestone primary tires) at the end when we should’ve gone with reds (Firestone alternate tires) – so, I think that cost us a top-10 finish.,” he would admit afterward.
“I just completely lost the front and went off the track. I made an error there at the end of the race. I think I cost us a top 10 today.”
Next weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to the .875-mile bullring Iowa Speedway. The track has been kind to Andretti in the past, he earned his second victory at the track in 2011. Since then, he has not seen victory lane.
After seeing encouraging results in 2018’s first 10 races but not quite achieving the desired results. As they sit tenth in the points standings, Andretti and his team hope they can put everything together for the last seven races.
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.