In the hot seat - Mario Andretti

A champion who straddled the Atlantic, he worries about how drivers in the US will break into F1. Mario Andretti responds to your questions on oval racing, Penske, Ronnie Peterson and pet pigs!

I understand that spectating at a Mille Miglia inspired you: where did you watch from and what do you remember of the day? Alan Davidson, Angus

My elder brother Aldo and I watched on the Abetone Pass, near Florence, which was very far from where we were living. We saw the one won by Stirling Moss and ‘Jenks’ [1955] in the mighty Mercedes. What I remember most is the anxiety of waiting for the cars to come by: all of a sudden there was a big roar, the big moment, and then they were gone. It really sparked something inside me.

Why did you always seem to take the hard way on team choices? For instance, how come you didn’t drive for Penske more? Hugo Doyle, Wimbledon

An excellent question, and I agree with its assessment. A lot of it was a question of timing. Often there wasn’t a seat available at a team that I perhaps should have been with, and instead I’d opt for a choice that gave me a little more control of the team, more scope for my ideas. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations, but I’m of a gambling nature and so I went for it. That doesn’t always pay off, but it can help to motivate you. I drove for Roger on a part-time basis when I was still doing Formula One, and we had some good results. His cars were always fast and reliable — but like I said, it was a question of timing.

Just how dangerous was Langhorne? Peter Davey, Cobham

It was considered the most dangerous of all ovals in the mid-Sixties; it had claimed even more drivers than Indy at that point I drove it at the end of its life as a dirt track and during its short life as a paved track: both were difficult, because you hardly ever went straight It was shaped like a big D, but the straight was short and you were always busy. With a dirt-car you could put the tail out and steer with the throttle; you couldn’t keep hanging it out in an Indycar, but you were always drifting. The trick was never to think how good everything was feeling — because it was then that the corner tightened and you’d run out of room. It was a very peculiar track in that there were no decisive back-off points. A little further, a little further — oops.

You were recently pipped by Moss in a poll to decide the greatest all-round driver… Alan Collier, Aylesbury

I wouldn’t pretend to be better than Stirling: he had such mastery. I hold him in the highest regard, and there’s no question that he should have been world champion many times. But I wonder how people decide such things. Your record has to speak for itself — but it’s when you really delve into the details that it becomes difficult. Plus guys like Stirling and Jimmy Clark didn’t get to complete the whole cycle of their potential careers.

Is there very much difference in the set-up demanded by a tri-oval compared to a conventional speedway? John Wing, Brighton

No, the basic set-up is the same. At a tri-oval what we call the kink is usually a non-event, and so you do the set-up for the corners with the highest loadings. But no two ovals are the same, and when it comes to damping and the final tweaks, each circuit has to have its own fine-tuning. I consider Pocono to be the most challenging of the superspeedways we ran. I loved its diversity; it required an absolute compromise in the set-up. Its first corner was a high banking and so you had to have the car stiff to deal with it; the kink, if everything was really right, could be taken flat in qualifying; the last turn has no banking but a long radius a great corner, in which you really got a feel for the car.

What kind of reception did you get from the NASCAR drivers when you won the Daytona 500 at your first attempt in 1967? David Cox, Preston

I felt very much at home with the drivers there. It was the beginning of a time of exchange; it was me who encouraged Cale Yarborough and the Allisons to come to Indy. Yeah, sure, if one of them had won Indy, none of us guys would have thought it a good thing, but deep down, once the initial emotion had vanished, there would have been respect. That’s how it was for me. Remember, it was not a win that I fell into; I fought hard all day for it. I really went out and won it and they all knew it.

What are your views on the CART/IRL battle? M Baird, New Cross

More than ever, if American open-wheel racing wants to regain the status it enjoyed back in the ’90s, it needs to be pulling in the same direction. Parallel series create confusion among the fans; I also believe that it has diminished the mystique of Indy. An all-oval series is wrong, too: five ovals would be perfect, with the rest of the races run on road and street circuits. I don’t see how IRL can groom anyone for F1. [Champion] Scott Dixon is a fine road-racer, but if he doesn’t get the chance to hone these skills, which F1 team is going to look at him? None.

Did the McNamaras you drove at Indy in 1970 and ’71 have some unlocked potential? Peter Stanley, Canberra

Theoretically, its offset cockpit gave more aero effect to the inside, which is where you want it on an oval but this was never proven. The car understeered incredibly; I don’t think the suspension geometry was right. Designer Joe Karasek was good at research, but didn’t have enough practical knowledge. Some of his questions had me thinking, uh-oh, we’re in trouble’.

Do you think that your Lotus team-mate Ronnie Peterson could have passed you at Zandvoort in 1978? Gordon Morison, via e-mail

I thought he was going to pass me, and I did everything to prevent that. One of my exhaust systems had burned away my righthand venturi, which cost me 40 per cent of my downforce: through the corner onto the straight I was all over the place and he was easy flat. It was the hardest I fought all year.

Have you read the quotes attributed to Peterson that he was driving ‘one-handed’ behind you throughout 1978? Tom Clark Weymouth

I just wish Ronnie were alive so that he could say these things himself. We were really good friends and I never heard him say that. It would have been a real feather in his cap if he could have passed me, and then pulled over and let me pass with two or three laps to go. That’s why I drove my butt off in Holland; I knew that’s what he had in mind, but I just wouldn’t allow it. And anyway, if he wasn’t ‘allowed’ to pass me, why was he trying so hard? There was nobody pushing him, he had his second place. I wish he had pulled back that way I wouldn’t have had to drive so hard.

What’s the story of your crash helmet design? Peter Balsio, Hendon

I always appreciated the European way of keeping a recognisable design, the fact that you can spot some driven instantly. I’d always had a silver helmet, and then, in 1972, [team sponsor] Viceroy wanted a red stripe down the middle and I kinda liked that. When I was no longer with Viceroy, I kept the red stripe, but changed the trim lines to blue.

Picture it: Audi has an R8 with your name on it at Le Mans would you accept the drive? Tim Clark Bristol

Sign me up today; I’ll start training tomorrow.

What is it exactly that your wife doesn’t like about your pet pig, Martini? Pam Bryce, Southend

He doesn’t respond like a dog, and he only obeys me; I think Dee Ann is just jealous! I’ve had lots of pets and I’ve always loved them, but he’s my favourite.