INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Andretti smiles like a kid when you ask what’s different in 2013.
He’s not giving away the trade secrets that have turned his team from competitive in 2012 to dominant so far in 2013. He just wants to savor the moment and keep chugging along.
“I just think we’re getting more experience, more confidence all the time,” Andretti said after another successful practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “When you get more experience and get more confidence, you get better results.”
Andretti’s team wasn’t exactly a pushover before.
Last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay won four times and dethroned three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti, James Hinchcliffe had five top-five finishes in 15 starts in Dania Patrick’s old car, and Marco, Michael’s son, closed out the season with three top-10s in the last seven races.
Andretti Autosport saw those results as a good start.
This season, those same drivers have combined to win three of the first four IndyCar races and take three of the top six spots in the points standings, and they have simply dominated the early practice rounds at Indy.
On Sunday, the five Andretti Autosport drivers hoping to qualify for the May 26 race posted fast laps that ranked among the six fastest. On Tuesday, during the busiest practice session yet, Hinchcliffe grabbed the top spot early in the day with a fast lap of 224. 210 mph.
What exactly changed during the offseason?
Michael made some personnel moves that he declined to talk about, Hinchcliffe had a full offseason to work with his team, and Marco went to work with a driving coach to shore up his skills on road and street courses.
The payoff has been nothing short of remarkable for a team with two 500 titles and three points championships under Michael’s stewardship.
Marco said his coach told him he was relying primarily on his natural talent – and it was causing him problems he could have avoided.
“I learned how to fight and I learned some fundamental things about how to drive on streets. The biggest thing was I learned how to fight,” Marco said.
Hinchcliffe has earned the first two wins of his career and will be one of the favorites for the May 26 Indianapolis 500. Heavyweight owners Roger Penske and Chip Gansassi are still looking for their first wins of the season.
The 26-year-old Andretti appears to have mastered those street and road course demons with two third-place finishes and two sevenths in four races – none on ovals – and is off to the best start of his career. Marco trails Japanese driver Takuma Sato by only 13 points at the top of the standings.
Hunter-Reay is back in the title hunt, newcomer E.J. Viso is driving well and even the newest member of the team – Colombia’s Carlos Munoz – has excelled at Indy. The Firestone Indy Lights leader needed less than 12 hours of time on the Brickyard to go from untested rookie to the top speed of Sunday’s speed chart.
“I still need to prove myself,” Munoz said. “We have to continue to work on our practice checklist and figure out what is going to work best for the team.”
That’s not all.
After Kurt Busch took Hunter-Reay’s car out for a test last week and turned laps at more than 219 mph, speculation swirled about the possibility of the 2004 Cup champion attempting “The Double” in one of Andretti’s cars.
It will have to wait till next year because Busch wants to run a couple of other IndyCar ovals before giving this tricky 2.5-mile track a whirl.
The future looks bright, too, as Andretti grooms 18-year-old American Zach Veach for an IndyCar career. The budding star is eighth in points in the Lights series this season.
With things going so well, the obvious question is what’s next? The end of the Andretti Curse?
At Andretti headquarters, there are always reasons for caution.
“A lot can happen throughout the month,” said Marco Andretti, who was the 500 runner-up in 2006 and still hasn’t been to Victory Lane at the 2.5-mile Brickyard. “It’s a very humbling business. As soon as you think things are going really well, you can roll out the next day and everything’s different.”