Mario Andretti, America’s Last F1 Champion

Mario Andretti ready to race
Mario Andretti – photo by Ted Van Pelt from Mechanicsburg, PA, USA

Who is Mario Andretti? Maybe you’ve heard the name and seen the old guy around racing. Perhaps you’ve never heard of him or you’re new to racing. If you are thinking “why should I care about Mario?”, then I suggest you continue reading. Mario Andretti is widely considered to be the greatest American racing driver of all-time. He won the Indy 500, and the Daytona 500, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, he placed 2nd at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and he is one of only two American F1 champions. Mario was also successful in IndyCar, sprint, and midget racing. Pretty much anything you could race, Mario has won. He is still the last American racing driver to ever win a Formula 1 race. If we ever have another one, there is no doubt they will be compared to Mario Andretti.

Early Years

a young Mario Andretti
A young Mario Andretti 1970

Mario Andretti was born in Italy. His family became refugees following World War II when Yugoslavia annexed their homeland. In 1955, Mario and his family emigrated to the United States, settling down in Nazareth, PA. Mario and his twin brother Aldo discovered a half-mile oval track near their house and immediately set about building a car to race it. Each won a few races the first year but Aldo was seriously injured at the end of the year. Mario went on to win nearly half of the races in 1960 and 1961. He won his first major race in 1962, a 100-lap midget race in New Jersey. This would eventually spring him into the big leagues.

The next year he would win three races on the same day. What was most impressive about this feat is that one was in Pennsylvania and two were in New Jersey. In 1964, Mario would join the United States Auto Club and finish 3rd in the points in the midget series. He would also complete his first IndyCar race finishing 11th. The following year, Mario would win his first IndyCar race and eventually the championship after an impressive 12 top-4 finishes. He would also finish 3rd in the biggest race in the world, the Indy 500. The two drivers in front of him? Parnelli Jones in 2nd and Jim Clark in 1st. Not bad company to be among. It took Mario just 6 years of racing to become a champion. He was just getting started.

Hist First Stint in Formula 1

Andretti at Monaco in a Lotus F1 car
Andretti at the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix – photo by Martin Lee

In the 1965 Indy 500, Mario Andretti met some guy named Colin Chapman who owned the car Jim Clark drove to victory. Andretti told Chapman that he wanted to race in Formula 1 and Chapman told Mario to let him know when he was ready. Three years later, in 1968, Colin would give Mario an F1 car which he took to pole in his very first race. Think about that for a second. That would be if someone came in Formula 1 for the first time ever and beat Lewis Hamilton to pole by .07 seconds. In that race, the 1968 US Grand Prix, Andretti would retire due to clutch issues. Jackie Stewart would go on to win that race but interestingly there were two other Americans racing. One was Dan Gurney who finished 4th and Bobby Unser who also retired due to engine failure.

Mario Andretti would continue racing for the Gold Leaf Team Lotus off and on in 1969 but was unable to finish a race. That year he won his first Indianapolis 500 and his third IndyCar title. In 1970, Andretti would win the 20th 12 Hours of Sebring running a Ferrari 512 S. He would finish just ahead of another legend, Steve McQueen in his Porsche 908. Andretti would get his first F1 win in 1971 behind the wheel of a Ferrari. He would finish over 20 seconds ahead of the legendary Jackie Stewart. Other notable names from that race include Brian Redman, Jacky, Ickx, Graham Hill, and Emerson Fittipaldi.

Endurance, Open Wheel, and Dirt Domination

Andretti's red Ferrari 712 endurance racer
Mario Andretti’s Ferrari 712 he drove in endurance races – photo by davehamster

Mario Andretti absolutely dominated endurance racing in 1972. He won the 6 Hours of Daytona with Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari 312PB. They beat out Brian Redman and his teammate who finished 4th. Ickx and Andretti went on to win the 12 Hours of Sebring, completing 259 laps in the Ferrari. They would win again at the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen and the 1000 km Brands Hatch race completing their dominance. Andretti would finish second in the 1974 & 1975 Formula 5000 series behind Brian Redman both years. Strangely, he says that he won the 1974 USAC Dirt Track Championship but I actually can’t find any records of that. But at this point, who am I to question the greatest American racing driver?

Full Time Formula 1

Andretti raising the trophy after winning the 1978 Dutch GP
Andretti after winning the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix – photo by davehamster

Andretti would begin racing in Formula 1 full time in 1975 for the Parnelli-Ford American F1 team owned by Parnelli Jones. Mario would score the only points for that team scoring five points from a 4th place win in Sweden and a 5th place win in France. Mario Andretti would have better success in 1976 when he joined Colin Chapman’s Lotus team. These are the famous John Player liveried Lotus’s I talked about in a previous article. If anyone has seen the movie Rush, this is the same season depicted in that movie. Mario started the season slow only finishing two of the first nine rounds. His two finishes were 6th in Russia and 5th in France.

Things would really come together in the second half of the season. Andretti would finish 12th at the Nurburgring where Niki Lauda’s famous crash occurred. He would follow this up with a 5th place finish in Austrian and his first podium of the season finishing 3rd in the Dutch Grand Prix. He would get on the podium again in Canada where he finished 3rd. Andretti would win the final race of the season in Japan where Luada sat out because of the torrential downpour and terrible conditions. James Hunt would finish the season champion, one point ahead of Lauda. Andretti finished 6th and his Lotus team was 4th in the Constructors Championship.

Continued Success

Mario Andretti would improve in the 1977 season, again piloting the John Player Lotus of Colin Chapman. He would get 5 podiums that year with 1st place finishes at the US, Spanish, French, and Italian Grand Prixs. Mario also collected 7 poles that year but would ultimately finish 3rd in the championship with Lauda winning. 1978 would prove to be Andretti’s year. Again racing for Lotus, Andretti went on to win six races and take another podium. He would also collect 8 pole positions on his way to winning the drivers championship. Lotus would also best Ferrari in the constructors championship that year.

Andretti struggled the following year in the Martini liveried Lotus only collecting one podium for a 3rd place finish in Spain. 1980 was even worse with Andretti driving the Team Essex Lotus and failing to get a single podium. That year some guy named Nigel Mansell also joined his team but failed to find success. Andretti would move to Alfa in 1981 but again failed to live up to the 1978 season. That would be his last full season. The next year he raced part time for Williams getting a 3rd place podium in Italy.

Life After F1

the car the Andretti family ran at Le Mans
It runs in the family – photo by Alan from UK

In 1983, Mario would enter the 24 Hour of Lemans with his son Michael. They would qualify and finish 3rd in a Porsche 956 behind two factory teams. Andretti returned to CART racing in 1982 and had his most successful season in 1984 winning the championship as part of the Newman-Haas Racing Team. If you’re wondering, yes that is the same Haas Racing team in Formula 1 today. Newman is also the famous actor Paul Newman. That year, Mario won the driver of the year trophy marking the only time a driver has won it in three different decades. His son Michel would win the championship in 1991 and head to F1 in 1993. There Michael joined Aryton Senna but only scored points on three occasions.

Indy 500 and the Andretti Curse

and older Mario Andretti
Mario – photo by Stuart Seeger

Mario Andretti raced the Indy 500 a staggering 29 times and only won once in 1969. He has actually only finished the race 5 times. In 1991, four Andretti’s (his two sons, and a nephew) entered the race but none of them won. In fact, no other Andretti has one period. A total of 5 Andretti’s have raced at Indy including Marco, the grandson of Mario. I remember Marco leading the race one year but he just couldn’t make it happen. As some consolation, the Andretti race team has won a few Indy 500’s. Andretti is the first and will probably be the only driver to win races in 5 different decades although John Force has to be close. Mario would continue racing even finishing second in the 1995 24 Hours of Lemans. He is easily the greatest American driver of all time.

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