F1 – Mario Andretti, a flat-out hero from two worlds

F1 – Mario Andretti, a flat-out hero from two worlds

Here’s the sum total of the F1 world championship up to now: 70 seasons contested, including this one, 33 different world champions, and only three of them holders of passports issued in North America. And that on its own goes to show how, despite the best hopes of F1 promoter Liberty Media – which is aiming to get increasingly closer to the Stateside audience – F1 is still something of an alien species for the American public. 

In fact, only one of those three champions – Phil Hill – was a fully-fledged Yankee, while another was Canadian (Jacques Villeneuve) and third was born in what was Italy at the time, to an Italian family and with Italian blood flowing strongly through his veins.

ITALIAN ISTRIA

We’re talking, of course, about the inimitable Mario Andretti. Mario was born in 1940 in Montona, Istria, in what was then Italy (it's now Motovun in Croatia). By 1955 the Andretti family had emigrated to the United States, where Mario found fame and fortune by racing and winning in nearly all the categories of American racing out there, including Indycar, not to mention his triumphs at iconic races such as the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. 

But as well as the United States – which had given so much to the Andretti family over the years – Mario was looking at Europe, where he had already raced in 1966 with a Ford GT40 at Le Mans. Specifically, he was eyeing Ferrari. By the late 1960s he was a regular in F1, and it was Enzo Ferrari himself – impressed by Mario’s performances in a March that certainly wasn’t at the top level – who decided to put him in one of the red cars for 1971. It was a dream start: Andretti made his Ferrari debut in South Africa, taking the win as well as the lap record. There would be more grands prix dressed in red for him in 1972, as well as the four endurance races that he won for the Prancing Horse.

A HERO FROM TWO WORLDS

In those years, Andretti was increasingly a hero that straddled two worlds, both in terms of the races he won and his nationality. When he won on ovals, he was an American with Italian roots. When he took on Formula 1 stars like Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart on equal terms, he was an Italo-American who spoke his own brand of slang and was not intimidated by anything or anyone on track. 

His career was one that it's a shame to sum up merely by his achievements, impressive as they are. The crowning glory was perhaps the world title that he claimed with Lotus in 1978, two years after he joined the team, but even before that notable triumph there were so many other episodes worth recounting. 

One of them took place at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, remembered by most people for the showdown between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who had returned like a phoenix from the flames from his accident at the Nürburgring, only to be pipped to the title by just one point. Andretti was one of the most vocal drivers against starting that race, despite the pressure of television rights. After the decision was taken to start though, he got away from pole position at Fuji but lost several places in the hellish spray, before – without any real drama – eventually fighting back to win by a lap. That was just one of the many myths that grew up around the unflappable American.

THE FIGHT WITH RONNIE

In 1977, Mario was increasingly competitive thanks to the Lotus that Colin Chapman was making more and more unbeatable with the beginnings of ground effect, which would ultimately lead to a dominant world title in 1978. But Mario wasn’t entirely unopposed, as alongside him was a certain Ronnie Peterson in an identical Lotus. Ronnie was speed personified: a fearless Swede who attacked flat-out corners with boundless commitment and bundles of opposite lock. By 1978 though, the hierarchy at Lotus was quite clear: Andretti was Lotus’s number one driver, with Peterson as number two. When at one point in practice for the Dutch Grand Prix it appeared that Peterson was going a little too quickly for everyone’s liking, Chapman decided to fit a set of harder tyres onto his car. Despite his irritation, Peterson still managed to set fastest time. A journalist eager to get to the bottom of the story asked Peterson which tyres he had on. “Round and black” said the Swede, through gritted teeth.

But Andretti never really cared about games like that. Many years later, with Peterson already long-dead but fondly-remembered after his tragic first-lap crash at Monza in 1978, Mario recalled: “He was so fast because he was going at 101% all the time. But I was going for the title instead, so I needed a bit more of a margin.”

BECOMING A LEGEND

By the 1980s, Andretti has become established as a true legend. He regularly accompanied his son Michael, who in 1993 arrived in Formula 1 as Ayrton Senna’s team mate at McLaren. At the same time, Mario was still competing himself, which helped the Italo-American even more to hand out precious pearls of wisdom. “If you’re going flat out and you feel it’s all under control, that means you’re not going fast enough,” he famously quipped in an interview.

Legends only tend to grow, of course. But when they imprint themselves indelibly on even the most rational minds of motorsport’s top designers, that’s another thing entirely. One day, Mario was testing a Reynard in the United States. Its designer and technical director was none other than Adrian Newey, who later became technical guru for Williams, McLaren and Red Bull, sweeping up countless race wins and championships.

“I was on the pit lane and watching Mario closely, who had just got going again after a long break,” remembered Newey. “As he was leaving the pits, I saw from a distance that his rear wing appeared to be moving: it wasn’t properly attached. I feared the worst. There was no radio so it was impossible to get a message to him. I was listening intently from the pit lane: the engine was at maximum revs, then, suddenly, silence. I found a car and a couple of mechanics and headed out onto the track, not sure what I was going to find. When we got to the scene of the accident, there were bits scattered everywhere. The car was half-wrecked and Mario was standing next to it, intently staring at his wrist. I asked him what the matter was and he said: “Goddam! My watch has stopped...”.

He may have cheated the reaper once more, but Mario was more concerned with his non-functioning timepiece…

FERRARI ONCE MORE

In 1982, Ferrari was hit by a series of tragedies as had never been seen before. The 126C2 was competitive, but in May, Gilles Villeneuve lost his life in the build-up to the Belgian Grand Prix. Three months later, a tragic accident in the wet at Hockenheim shattered the legs of his team mate Didier Pironi. Ferrari drafted in Patrick Tambay, who was competitive straight away, but not quite up to it physically. For Monza, Enzo Ferrari got on the phone to his American friend. Mario arrived by plane from the United States, landing at Milan Malpensa airport early on the Monday before the race. He drove to Maranello for a seat fitting and did a few laps of Fiorano. He’d never driven a turbocharged F1 car before and gave it everything until lunchtime. 

At the famous Cavallino restaurant, opposite Ferrari’s main entrance, he tucked into tortellini, salami, and two glasses of red wine. Then he was back in the car and set the fastest-ever lap of Fiorano in the afternoon. By the evening, he said to his mechanics: “don't touch the car anymore; just send it to Monza now. It’s perfect as it is.” On Tuesday morning he borrowed a powerful motorbike from a friend and took the scenic route to Monza with his wife, enjoying a day off to absorb the beautiful Italian countryside. He arrived at famous Autodromo refreshed and relaxed, duly passed his medical, and  then stuck the car on pole position on  Saturday. The race didn’t go so well due to technical problems but it didn’t really matter. Another chapter of Andretti motorsport history had been written.

THE FIRST LAP OF COTA

And that brings us up to date, or nearly. Mario Andretti was the very first driver to take an F1 car out at COTA, the Circuit of the Americas, which will host the 2019 United States Grand Prix on Sunday 3 November. On that occasion seven years ago, he used his championship-winning Lotus from 1978. It was back in 2012: Mario was 72 years old but still maintained the spirit of a young driver interested only in going faster and faster. And that’s never changed. He still has the heart of a true racer.

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