Unique mystique

Mario Andretti’s childhood years in a refugee camp in Italy and early racing career on US dirt tracks gave him a background entirely different to those of his GP rivals – and real charisma

 As I walked into the Donington Park GPLive paddock in May, a lot of folk were clustered together around somebody or something, and curiosity drew me towards them. In the middle of the crush sat a Lotus 49 in Gold Leaf colours, and in its cockpit sat Mario Andretti.

“First time I drove it at Monza in ’68 I just flat fell in love with that car. I’d never been in an F1 car before, but I’d thought about it so much. It was exactly what I’d expected – taut, precise and a little underpowered compared with what I was used to in Indycars. It was a very sincere car, in that it gave you something for nothing. That first day at Monza we were quicker than Chris Amon’s Ferrari, and he was pretty much top dog that year.”

Now 67, and a dozen years on from his retirement from ‘open-wheel racing’, Andretti still pulls a crowd like few have ever done. He was loving it, once more sitting in this car which took him to pole position in his first grand prix, and when he stepped out the rush for autographs was immediate. He must have signed for more than half an hour.

An Italian friend, the distinguished journalist Pino Allievi, always says, “There’s no one like Mario – there never has been, and there never will be again.” I know what he means. Andretti has charisma to throw away, that much we know, but to me what really stands out about him is his humanity – that and his laconic way with a one-liner.

Later that day he talked about the good and bad of working with Colin Chapman. 

“When we first got together, Colin says, ‘Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.’ I says, ‘Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.’

“Over time, in fact, I dealt with the problem straightforwardly. Colin wanted to introduce titanium rockers, and I says, ‘Well, give them to Ronnie [Peterson] if you want, but I will not drive with titanium rockers on my car.’ Same with the pedals – I had a steel brake pedal because I demanded it. I used to work very closely with the mechanics like Bob Dance – I’d say, ‘Listen, if there’s anything you think is borderline, let me know, and I’ll deal with it.’

“The thing is, I believed in Colin from way back. My first time at Indianapolis was 1965, the year Jimmy Clark won in a Lotus, and I remember asking Jimmy to speak to Colin about keeping me in mind for a ride sometime. Jimmy reported that Colin had said he would do that, but I didn’t really believe it. Then the results started coming and by ’68 we were talking seriously.

“Working with him was no trip to Paris, but I guess you’re always going to have problems with a genius, right? All in all Colin was a wonderful chapter in my life – he was such a maverick. And of all the cars I ever drove, I guess the Lotus 79 was my favourite. Okay, it was the car that took me to the world championship, but every time I went into a race with the 79 I felt I could win it if the car would stay under me. I totally understood that car – including its flexing, which of course Colin would never admit to!”

There is a uniquely exotic quality about Andretti’s career in motor racing, and it comes from its astonishing diversity. Had his parents not emigrated to America in 1955, when Mario was 15, it is not impossible that he would still have achieved his ambition and become a professional racing driver, but it seems less likely. As he points out, “The blood in my veins is Italian blood and a passport will never change that; of course I will always love Italy, but it sure as hell didn’t offer me anything when I was a kid.”

Andretti was born in the north-east, in Montona near Trieste, a part of the world that is now in Croatia. At the end of the Second World War, his father had a well-paid job, and for a time life seemed good. 

“Then suddenly Communism arrives – everyone’s equal, right? Too damn right everyone’s equal – we all had nothing! From 1948 until we went to the States in ’55, we lived in a displaced persons’ camp, and for half that time we shared one huge room with 17 families. You don’t forget that when you’re a kid – you don’t forget your mother’s always crying and you don’t know why. I always get mad when people knock the American way of life, call it what you want, because they got no experience of the alternative. I’m not just blowing smoke here.”

Suffice it to say that, were Mario Andretti to live in the UK, it is unlikely he would be seduced by the politics of Gordon Brown.

There was, though, one thing to be said for life in the refugee camp in Lucca: alongside was a parking lot, and as Mario and his brother Aldo grew up, people would allow them to park their cars. “Actually, that was where we learned to spin cars! Those poor people – they had no idea.

“I don’t know what it was that ignited in us this thing about motor racing – but it was there even then. We used to watch the Mille Miglia, and in ’54 we were taken to Monza for the Italian GP, where I saw Ascari.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Alberto Ascari should have become the hero of this young boy in Italy. “He was portrayed by the press as very cold, very determined – there was something about him that was very exciting. Cold as ice, entirely composed – I just loved that.”

In May 1955 Mario and Aldo watched Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson win the Mille Miglia, and then prepared themselves for what seemed like exile. They could understand why their parents had decided on emigration to the USA, but there seemed to be nothing there for them. “We knew of Indianapolis, of course, but only because Ascari had run there once. We figured we were kissing racing goodbye – and to make matters worse, Ascari was killed at Monza just before we left Italy.

“We were really down, Aldo and I, but it didn’t last. When we got to the States we went to Nazareth in Pennsylvania, because we had an uncle who’d settled there. After just a few days we were working at his gas station and this guy drives in with his pickup, towing a sprint car. Man, it was like it had been a Mercedes W196! ‘Where’s the track?’ we said, and he tells us it’s right over there, a few hundred yards away. Suddenly we had a whole new life.”

Indeed they had. In time the boys acquired an old Hudson Hornet and went stock car racing, and from there Mario progressed to midgets, then sprint cars, then finally to championship cars – Indycars – as well as taking in a little NASCAR.

A little NASCAR… in 1967 Andretti won the Daytona 500.

In the early- to mid-1960s, though, even as he pounded round countless dirt ovals in what was a horribly perilous era for sprint car drivers, at the back of his mind was always Formula 1.

“I knew I had to make my mark in Indycars, to get myself established, and it was all I was worried about then. The world championship was something far away, something to look into later on – if I ever got the chance. 

“When I finally got into F1 my racing background was entirely different from the other guys, but that was because of circumstance. I was living in the United States, I wanted to be a race driver – and I had no money. It wasn’t a matter of opting to go with the midgets and sprints, rather than F3 or something. I didn’t even have the fare to Europe.”

And that says it. That is where so much of the Andretti mystique comes from – the fact that on June 21 1964, when such as Surtees and Hill and Bandini and Gurney and Rindt and Amon and McLaren were competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours, prior to moving on to Rouen-les-Essarts for the French Grand Prix, he, Mario, was driving the Windmill Truckers Special in his first championship race on the dirt, at Langhorne, a track not far from the Andrettis’ home and the most feared in North America.

Mario’s apprenticeship in other words was unique: no driver ever came to grand prix racing with as broad a brush of experience already behind him. His silky style in an F1 car belied the fact that he had learned his trade in a form of racing where opposite lock was a way of life. Andretti was always of the Prost school, dedicated to finding a car’s perfect set-up, but at heart he was an old-fashioned racer, and if the occasion demanded would bully an ill-handling car into positions it shouldn’t have been.

Except on the ovals, that is. “You can’t do it at a place like Indy, where the speeds are just too high. You might get away with it on a four-lap qualifying run, but it’s a bit too character-building to keep it going for long. Sooner or later, you’re looking for a piece of the wall.”

It may be 25 years since his last grand prix (at Las Vegas in 1982) but Andretti’s love of Formula 1 remains. His great hope is that his 20-year-old grandson, Marco, will ultimately make the switch from Indycars, and he keeps right up with what is happening in what remains his first love.

“I really like the way F1 is at the moment. In some teams the number one and number two haven’t been established – the jury’s out in that respect. The ones who were expected to lead the train – like Räikkönen and Alonso – haven’t necessarily done it: their young team-mates are giving them hassle, and I think that’s great.”

For all his love of technology, though, he has a fundamental distaste for ‘driver aids’. 

“The cars forgive you so much these days, I think. You can’t miss a shift, you can’t over-rev the engine, stuff like that. Most of all, though, I hate traction control, and I’m so glad – so glad – to see that they’re throwing it away next year.”

It was Mario who long ago came up with the phrase, ‘The educated right foot’. And there was no better school for that than the dirt of Langhorne.