After Zolder and Hockenheim, Italy’s legendary F1 team was on its knees. The nation needed a star, a hero, for Monza. Mario Andretti had been ChampCar racing for the last year, but he fitted the bill perfectly.
The messiah made his second coming via Alitalia.
“I arrived in Italy on Friday, nine days before the Grand Prix. I didn’t have any idea the press knew all my movements, but it was a good feeling to know you had everyone’s approval, from Immigration on.”
But Mario’s early arrival wasn’t to bask in adulation. He had work to do.
“My only prerequisite for driving for Ferrari was that I got some serious testing miles under me. So on the Saturday we went testing at Fiorano, and the car felt fantastic. I did 87 laps in front of about 10,000 spectators and set a new lap record.”
A week later, the Monza crowd, massively boosted in numbers and enthusiasm by Mario’s arrival, watched in admiration.
“I hadn’t expected to be in the hunt for pole, but I kept coming into the pits and getting a little more screwed out of the turbo, which gave us so much power that we were getting wheelspin in fifth gear through the Lesmos. Eventually, pole came down to a battle between myself and Piquet.
“In the last couple of minutes of the session, I did my final flying lap. As I crossed the line, I saw the crowd waving and the flags and banners and so on, and then, exiting the second chicane, there were people running onto the track. I mean, jubilant? Jeez.” There’d be no problem for the organisers about race-day attendance.
As it turned out, the result wasn’t quite so euphoric but Mario, as ever, gave it everything he had.
“I had never started a race from standstill with a turbo, and although I did a couple of practice starts in the warm-up, I didn’t get off the line too well. I was determined not to stall but, as I pulled away, I hit the limiter, and one of the Renaults got by. Thereafter I had a turbo problem and was way down on top speed; Tambay in the other Ferrari passed me easily. It was a shame because, if it had been a healthy car, I feel! might have won.”