Last week Jacques Villeneuve announced he’s returning to race in this year’s Indianapolis 500 for the first time since winning the race 19 years ago.

Villeneuve is 42 and has raced irregularly in recent years in NASCAR stock cars and Australian V8s. He will also do some World Rallycross events this year and says he decided he wanted to race at Indianapolis again because he found the close competition in IndyCar today very attractive.

Many people think Villeneuve is well past his prime and will struggle at Indianapolis this year. It will be his only IndyCar race of the season and he’s likely to have a tough time getting up to speed on the big four-cornered oval.

But Jacques is an optimistic fellow and can take heart from the fact that Bobby and Al Unser scored their last Indy 500 wins in 1981 and ’87 respectively, both at 47 years of age, while Emerson Fittipaldi was 46 when he won his second 500 in 1993.

Of course, Mario Andretti enjoyed one of the sport’s most enduring careers. He scored his 52nd and last Indycar win at Phoenix in 1993 when he was 53 and when he retired from racing Indycars at Laguna Seca in the fall of the following year he was 54 and still entirely capable of running with the leaders.

indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
Indy, 1994

“Nobody could ever question my desire or my passion for the sport,” Mario says. “At the same time I had enough pride that I wanted to remember my last year and last days in the sport in a positive way. I looked over my shoulder and looked at some of my compadres who overstayed themselves a little bit. I said I just hope I don’t have those memories. That was always my fear and it’s real because your career doesn’t last forever.

“I like to think I accomplished that,” Mario adds. “I was still competitive with any of the young guys. I’m sure that some of it was missing, but not a lot, and that’s part of my satisfaction in my career. My head is high about my last year. I have great memories. I look at the positives and I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.”

What made Mario great

Jim McGee was Andretti’s chief mechanic with Clint Brawner’s Dean Van Lines team during Andretti’s formative days in Indycars between 1964-69. McGee was also Newman/Haas’s team manager for Mario’s last two years in 1993 and ’94.

indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
Andretti on the way to his only Indy win in 1969. Credit: IMS

“I think Mario still could win on the ovals,” McGee adds, “but the road courses get tougher as you get older. They’re physically demanding. You have to use 50 per cent more energy and exuberance on a road course and that sharpness was just going away a little bit. It’s tough to keep up with the young kids, but at Indy, or on an oval, Mario was still going to be a guy to beat. He probably could have continued on for another three or four years on ovals.”

Tony Cicale was Andretti’s engineer at Newman/Haas through the team’s formative years and says the effort Mario put forth never dwindled. “I think when Mario started to decline it was really because he started to lose that remarkable memory of his and he started to lose his eyesight a little bit,” Cicale observes.

“I think it was those things. It was certainly not motivation because he always had as high a motivation as you could ask for and he always put in a huge effort.

indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
With son Michael in 1988

“I think when he couldn’t be competitive it wasn’t because his effort was lacking or he wasn’t physically capable of doing it. I think all those little things started to trouble him a little bit and it was much more difficult for him to remain confident in his ability because he sensed deep down I think that these things were slowly and naturally degrading.

“I think throughout his prime, his memory was just phenomenal. He could remember any change he’d made in set-up over the years and how each change had affected his car. I think that was a key element in his excellence as a driver.”

Brian Lisles was Newman/Haas’s general manager and engineered Andretti’s cars through the final years of Mario’s career. “I think he was pulling all of the tricks out of the bottom drawer to stay where he needed to be,” Lisles says. “He used all of those skills he had learned and all the things that he understood. I think the reason he was able to go on like that was because he loved it so much. He didn’t ever tire of it.

indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
At Pocono in 1984, when Andretti took the title for Newman/Haas at age 44

“I think if you look at most drivers who run in the top echelon in Formula 1 or Indycars, they pretty much do 10 years at the top and that’s about all they can sustain mentally. They’re exhausted with the travel and all the pressures, the press and the expectations, and having to make the big effort for practice, qualifying and the race. But for Mario it was no big effort. It was just what he wanted to do. Driving a racing car was such an important part of his daily activity.

“I only came to realise after working at Newman/Haas for a few years what made Mario extra special. There are two things. One was his absolute love of driving a car, of driving anything mechanical, to use it, to make it work properly and make it flow properly.

“He just has a love for the feel of the machinery – airplanes, cars, motorbikes, motorboats, anything – and making them operate properly and smoothly. He’s very inquisitive mechanically. He wants to know how everything works and how it’s going to affect him, and what he could change to make his life better.

indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti
With grandson Marco in 2013

“The second thing is, he was always optimistic that the next change was going to be the one that really made the difference. And that optimism never, ever died. I think in Mario’s view there probably really was no such thing as an ultimately bad racing car.

“He believed if you work at it hard enough you can get it to be competitive. And those are very unusual qualities in a racing driver. There are very few drivers who are willing to make that kind of intellectual effort to just never give up, regardless.”

If Jacques Villeneuve can absorb some of Andretti’s many great qualities he may have a chance to look good at Indianapolis. If not he’s bound, as Dario Franchitti suggests, to eat some humble pie.

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indycar  The racing wisdom of Mario Andretti