Mario Andretti: Multiple Motorsport Champion
Those with just a passing interest in motorsport will be aware that Mario Andretti was a serious competitor in Formula One for many years. F1 World Champion in 1978, Andretti enjoyed two long stints in the sport and would go on to claim 12 Chequered Flags in his career.
But his influence on four wheels extends far beyond one discipline. He excelled in racing cars right across the world and he remains one of only two men to have won races in F1, IndyCar, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship.
There are other records too which we will cover as we look back on the Mario Andretti story.
Mario Andretti is known as an American driver but he was born in a region known as the Kingdom of Italy, on February 28, 1940. The town of Montona, as it was known at that point, is now Motovun which is situated in Croatia. It would, after Andretti’s birth, be annexed by Yugoslavia and that led to an unsettled period in young Mario’s life.
As part of the Istrian Exodus, the Andretti family became refugees in Italy for a time before settling, via connections, in the United States. Now living a settled life, a love of cars was inherent in Mario and it wasn’t long before he was taking part in amateur events.
Mario Andretti’s racing skills developed quickly and by 1965 he was competing officially in the United States Automobile Club (USAC) Stock Car events. He would stay within the division for over ten years and won his first race in 1967. It was a solid start to his racing career but it gave no real hint as to the genius that was to follow.
By the mid-1960s, Andretti was competing in other disciplines and in 1967 he had made the step up to NASCAR. He would only take part in 14 NASCAR events during his career including the Daytona 500 which he won for the Holman Moody team.
Mario Andretti also took to IndyCar at an early stage and would compete between 1964 and 1974. At the start, the division was more widely known as Champ Car Racing and the American would win his first race in 1965. Progression from this point was spectacular and he would become Rookie of the Year and Series Champion within a few months.
Andretti went on to claim pole at the Indy 500 in 1965 and he would finish second in Indy Cars in both 1967 and 1968. Success continued but by the late 1960s, a more glamorous circuit lay in wait.
FI Comes Calling
Aside from NASCAR and IndyCar, Mario Andretti has also competed in Sprint Cars, Open Wheel Racing and others. He was clearly a versatile driver who liked to spread his talents around so perhaps it’s no surprise that his first venture into Formula One came on a part time basis only.
By the mid-1960s, the driver had struck up a relationship with Colin Chapman, owner of the Lotus F1 team. The two stayed in touch and by 1968, both felt that they were ready for Andretti to make his debut.
And what a debut it was! At his home Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in the US, Andretti took Pole. Driving the Lotus 49, Andretti had made an immediate impact but he would only drive on an occasional basis over the next four years. Preferring to concentrate on his career back home, the American managed to compete in F1 for Lotus and March before, in 1971, he claimed his first GP victory on his debut with Ferrari.
Andretti would go on to secure a second win that season but he chose to return to the US and pursue his interests away from the F1 circuit. Finally, it would take a familiar American manufacturer to tempt him into the highest division on a full time basis.
Full Time F1
The 1975 season saw Mario Andretti compete in Formula One for the entire campaign. His host for the season was the Parnelli team - an American manufacturer who was making its own debut in Formula One. The two parties were, however, well known to each other. Parnelli had enjoyed some success in IndyCar racing and in Formula 5000 with Andretti at the wheel so it seemed like a perfect fit.
Few had ever doubted that the driver was meant to be in F1 but the team struggled in that year. Mario Andretti would win just five points in that 1975 season and, by the following campaign, he was back with Lotus.
1976 was a period of rebuilding for this historic team but Andretti would record one victory - taking out the very last Grand Prix of the season in Japan. This was the year of James Hunt’s titanic battle with Niki Lauda but before too long, there would be another driver at the forefront of the sport.
In 1977, the new Lotus 78 Wing Car proved to be the fastest on the track but some problems with reliability meant that it didn’t always finish. Mario Andretti would go on to finish third in the Drivers’ Championship but, with certain issues fixed for 1978, he was in pole position to claim the ultimate prize.
Lotus became the dominant force in Formula One in 1978 and Mario Andretti was its chief beneficiary. The American set the standard by winning the opening race of the season in Argentina and shortly afterwards he would claim two Chequered Flags in a row - in Belgium and Spain.
Further victories came in France and Holland before Andretti closed out the title in Italy. It had been a dominant drive and no more than the American, and his Lotus 79 had deserved.
It was, however, to be a strange swansong at the very same time. Mario Andretti continued to compete but he wouldn’t claim another GP win after that World Championship drive. Nevertheless, that 1978 success, together with his exploits in NASCAR, IndyCar and the rest, had ensured his place among the world greats.
It’s incredible to think that, even in 2019, Mario Andretti was the last American to win a Grand Prix with that success in the Netherlands back in 1978. To an extent, this fact is down to a dearth of drivers from a country that still prefers to focus on NASCAR and IndyCar but is also due to the greatness of the man himself.
He’s a legend and, in his native US, he continues to inspire a generation of younger drivers on the home circuits. Perhaps in time, that legacy will extend and some of that crop will follow Andretti’s path and enjoy some success in Formula One.