In terms of all-round ability and success, few drivers in history can match the American Mario Andretti. He is also one of the few drivers to transcend the generations, in that his is a name young and older F1 fans will know.
Born to a farming family in Italy in 1940, Andretti’s story is one of hard work, perseverance and talent that has spawned a motor racing dynasty covering several generations. The family moved to the USA in 1955 after a time of great upheaval in Italy, and so began one of the greatest motor racing stories of all time.
The Early Years
Mario and his twin brother, Aldo, were interested in mechanical things in their childhood days, and Mario remembers being thrilled by watching part of the Mille Miglia in 1954, as well as the Italian Grand Prix at Monza that same year.
The twins were delighted, upon settling in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to find a half-mile dirt track close to home, ad immediately began racing stock cars without their parents knowledge – but with quick success. When Aldo was seriously injured towards the end of 1959 their parents naturally found out the secret; they were not happy at all that the boys were racing.
Nevertheless, Mario continued in a variety of machinery, racking up a great number of wins during the nest couple of years. His racing career took off and he entered a number of different series with success in each, including the premier US NASCAR series, before trying his hand at open-wheel racing, which would inevitably lead to Indycar racing and, in turn Formula 1.
During the 1960’s Mario Andretti rapidly became a name to be reckoned with – and practically a household one – with wins across the board; notable victories included the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, the Daytona 500 in ’67, and the Sebring 12 hours – then one of the most important sports car races in the world – in 1967, 1970 and 1972.
The latter two of these victories came in Ferraris. He would also win the IndyCar Championship in ’65, ’66 and ’69, and again in 1984. His association with Ferrari would be a lasting one, thanks not only to his clearly brilliant ability but also to his Italian heritage, although he made is F1 debut driving a Lotus 49 at Watkins Glen in the 1968 US Grand Prix. Astonishingly, the newcomer took pole position and would feature strongly in the race before retiring with clutch failure.
F1 First Time
Andretti concentrated on open-wheel racing in the USA, and with his sportscar rides, for the early 1970’s, but also made occasional appearances in F1. His first race for Ferrari was at the 1971 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, which he won – a feat that endeared him even more to the tifosi back home.
His decision to move to F1 full-time came in 1975 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was with the new Parnelli team, a US set-up run by the team he raced for in IndyCar. Despite promise, it was not a success, and as he was also still driving in IndyCar he ran a punishing schedule. Upon Parnelli’s withdrawal from F1 after a couple of races in 1976, Andretti took the opportunity to return to Lotus, where he was instrumental in helping develop the very first of the ‘ground effect’ cars that would change the face of F1 beyond all recognition.
In the beautiful Lotus 79, for many people one of the most glorious racing cars of all time, Mario Andretti and Lotus would clinch the 1978 F1 World Championship with his sixth victory of the season, fittingly in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. It was a victory that was not to be celebrated, however, as his team-mate and friend, the Swede Ronnie Peterson, died later that day following injuries sustained in an accident at the start.
Andretti continued with Lotus – with cars that were less and less competitive as the opposition got to grips with ground effect – until the end of 1980, when he left for a year at the promising – but ultimately unsuccessful – Alfa Romeo F1 team. He officially retired from F1 at the end of 1981, citing his dislike of the new generation of cars, and returned to race in the USA.
It would not be long before Mario Andretti was back in a Formula One car. 1982 was to prove one of the most turbulent and incredible in the sport, and began with an infamous ‘drivers strike’ at Kyalami, South Africa, inspired by new contracts that some drivers saw as too restrictive. Very early in the season. The Argentine driver Carlos Reutemann quit the Williams team abruptly. Andretti was drafted in as a replacement for a one-off drive in the Long Beach Grand Prix, which was not a success.
With the death of Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder in the early part of 1982, followed by the career-ending injuries suffered by Didier Pironi at Hockenheim later in the year, Ferrari was a team dealing with tragedy almost throughout the season, thus it was heartening to see the calming influence of the elder statesman of F1, Andretti, return to help the team claim the Constructors Championship title for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
This was a sort of homecoming for Andretti, and it was to the sheer delight of the watching crowd that he put his car on pole position. In the race he would finish third, behind Rene Arnoux – who had announced he was moving from Renault to Ferrari for the 1983 season – and Ferrari team-mate Patrick Tambay. Andretti would also drive in the next race, the US GP at the absurd Caesars Palace circuit in Las Vegas, but would retire with car trouble. This would be his final appearance in Formula One, although he was offered drives in various teams over the next few days.
Mario Andretti has arguably achieved more in the various disciplines of motor racing across his lengthy career, and it is fitting that RACER magazine and Associated Press designated him ‘Driver of the Century’ in 2000. With a family legacy including several successful racing drivers – notably his son Michael, a former Formula One driver and IndyCar champion – and now team owner – Mario Andretti is as close to a living legend as it gets.
Mario Andretti is a popular figure when he makes appearances in public, and one of the mist recognisable names in world motor sport. He continues to live in Bushkill Township, Pennsylvania – close to grandson Marco who is another successful member of the racing family – in the family home. His long-term wife Dee-Ann – the two were married in 1961 sadly passed away following heart attack in July, 2018.
It is doubtful that, in this day and age, any driver will achieve the widespread success Mario Andretti has in such a wide variety of motor racing disciplines.
Starts – 128
Wins – 12 (1 for Ferrari)
Pole Positions – 18
F1 World Champion with Lotus in 1978
IndyCar champion Four Times