Superstars with super names

Graham RahalIn American racing the names Andretti and Rahal command instant respect. So it’s no surprise that Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal – teenagers both – are being touted as the next two drivers that could make it all the way to F1.

Have they got what it takes?

As if Formula One wasn’t hard enough to break into, now it increasingly seems that you need to be born into a motor racing family to get there. You need a surname like are Hill, Villeneuve, Piquet, Rosberg or Mansell.

To those add Andretti and Rahal. Marco Andretti, grandson of Mario and son of Michael; and Graham Rahal, son of Bobby.

Mario Andretti, Daytona 500, 1967Of the two families, Andretti clearly has the better pedigree. Marco’s granddad Mario was one of the most versatile drivers that ever raced. In addition to the 1978 Formula One World Championship he won the Daytona 500 and Indy 500, Sebring 12 Hours (three times), and was Champ Car champion four times from 1965 to 1984.

Michael Andretti, Lola-Ford, Portland, 1992His son Michael had a less distinguished F1 career, cutting short his only season for McLaren in 1993. But he was Indy Car champion in 1991, won 42 races and even ran in this year’s Indy 500.

Graham’s dad Bobby had an even briefer F1 racing career than Michael Andretti – two starts for Wolf in 1978. But he won back to back Indy Car titles in 1986-7 and added a third in 1992. He also won the Indy 500 in 1986, and returned to F1 briefly as the team manager for Jaguar in 2001 – though the marriage was unhappy and brief.

Bobby Rahal, Long Beach, 1986If the success of the family lineage weighs heavily on Marco’s mind, it doesn’t show. The American commentators on the Indy Racing League season he races in this year may lay it on thick, but there’s clear talent in the Andretti family’s third generation.

Marco, 19, claimed second in only his fourth IRL start – the Indy 500! He was denied victory by Sam Hornish Jnr by 0.0635s. He was tearing up the field at a damp Watkins Glen – one of few road courses in the IRL – before being punted off by Eddie Cheever.

Marco AndrettiMarco may have an excellent car underneath him (the Andretti-Green team is partly run by Michael) but he has often wielded it to better effect than two of the team’s more experienced drivers, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.

Graham Rahal is just 17 years old, but already he has a string of starts in A1 Grand Prix and Atlantic Championship (the feeder category to the Champ Car World Series) under his belt.

He raced in A1 for Lebanon thanks to his part-Lebanese nationality, and raced well at Laguna Seca in the wet until inexperience got the better of him. He’s begun to iron out those flaws in Atlantics and lies third in the championship with eight of twelve rounds completed.

Bobby Rahal, Jaguar, Melbourne, 2001But Graham is not looking for a move to his dad’s Rahal-Letterman racing tema in Champ Car. He is targeting a seat in GP2 next year as the next step towards Formula One. It’s a smart move, but he’ll need a drive with a top team to mark himself out in the fiercely competitive series.

Marco, however, has been advised by Grandad Mario to skip GP2 and instead look for a test drive with a top F1 team.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren-Ford, Monte-Carlo, 1993This is where he may have to rely on the lure of that family name to move him forward, and show greater willingness to commit to the series than Michael did. His F1 career was compromised by his decision to remain in America despite the majority of testing taking place in Europe. (That, and he was team mate to Ayrton Senna.)

They’ve got the talent, and they’ve got the right names. Don’t be surprised is America has three drivers in Formula One a few years down the line.

And if that happens, doubts about F1’s future in the States can be forgotten.

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