Courage Best?

He may not be doing much since he retired from single-seater racing, but the Le Mans 24 Hours still gives Mario Andretti a buzz like little else. He told David Phillips

The final weekend of April was a good one for lndycar drivers past and present. First, Al Unser Jnr, Robby Gordon and Scott Pruett finished 1-2-3 in round two of the IROC series, then Jacques Villeneuve earned his first Formula One win at the Nurburgring and finally, Michael Andretti scored a popular victory at Nazareth Speedway in his hometown IndyCar race.

And though he garnered less attention than his son and other former rivals, Mario Andretti was preparing for his latest attempt to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While Jan Lammers qualified the WM Courage 036 fourth fastest, Andretti focused on race set-ups – a decidedly different situation than he found himself in 1995 when he joined Bob Wollek and Eric Helary on the team at the last minute.

“Last year was sort of impromptu,” said Andretti. “It all came together the last weekend in May. That was fine; it was a very happy experience, but this year going in I was able to do driving during pre-qualifying. I came away really pleased, not only with the performance of the Michelins, but also how well the cars were prepared. They just ran, ran, ran and the cars felt really good.

“I had to do very minor adjustments with some of the aerodynamics, the mechanicals to bring the car right to a balance that allowed me to be quite consistent, and I think quite a bit faster than last year in race trim.”

The Courage will have to be considerably quicker this June than last in order to keep up with the competition. Eric van de Poele’s Ferrari 333SP cut nearly five seconds of Woelek’s ’95 qualifying time (although the Belgian’s lap was later disallowed on a technicality) and, all told, some 20 entries failed to make the cut for the starting field.

“This year is so much deeper,” says Andretti. “The Mclarens are that much better, you’ve got the GT1 Porsches, which are legitimate overall contenders, and then you have the Joest team, Kremer, Riley and Scott. The Ferrari will definitely be a force to be reckoned with; the fact that it finished second in Daytona and as strong as it had to go to do that says the car is capable of finishing the 24 Hours.

“What kind of pace they can maintain, I don’t know. But I know one thing; we can’t maintain a torrid pace and we aim to do that because we can do it without taking anything out of the car. We can run 3m 52s all day. They can probably go faster, but for how long?”

The depth and quality of the field is testimony to Le Mans’ return to the top echelon of the world’s great motor sports event, if not to the glory days of the 50s and 60s, when it was the world’s most important sports car race. And not on reputation alone.

“You can see the aura is back,” says Andretti. “In the Golden Days, the best drivers available in the world were racing there. And the best drivers available today are not racing there. But you’re getting a lot of them back.

“Win or not, if I feel like I do right now, I’m going back again next year. It’s not that I’ll go and, if I win it, say, ‘Goodbye. No. I won’t because I enjoy it so much.”

It’s been a long time since Andretti had as much fun as he had at Le Mans last year. Down six laps after a shunt in the second hour, he, Wollek and Helary tigered back to a worthy second place, half a lap behind the winning McLaren.

“When we were up there on the podium I guarantee you, at least I felt, that us three were certainly the ones who had the most fun,” he said. “We were just really balls out. And I loved that… God I loved that.

“It’s the same when we finished second in the Nine Hours of Kyalami, in 1972, I think it was. I was leading when we had a fuel pump problem and it put us back something like 14 laps. [Jacky] Ickx and I drove like we were possessed and finished second. But that second was more satisfying than all four wins we had that year by far. By far.

“The car that won was our sister car, driven by [Clay] Regazzoni and [Ronnie] Peterson, and at the end of the race you shoulda seen the two cars. Ours looked like it had just done Paris-Dakar. I think we touched everything out there.

“At Le Mans it was so satisfying at night in the wet, and you couldn’t see… I was picking out church steeples, whatever, for markers, and going-in really deep and bringing my laps down. Some laps I’d pick up 25s on the McLarens depending on who was driving. I mean, I was balls out; I was hung out totally. It’s what gives you satisfaction. You want to know when you’re in the car you’re carrying your own weight. You don’t just want to be along for the ride.”

Similar sentiments caused Andretti to back away from a one-off return to Newman/Haas Racing alongside his son and Christian Fittipaldi for the US 500. Mario opted not to pursue the opportunity in the face of a difficult start to the season for Newman/Haas, and his concern that a third car would dilute the effort.

Yet Mario did drive during practice for the US 500, lapping at speed in a ’96 Lola-Ford with a massive camera shooting footage for an OmniMax film on Indy car racing. Sitting atop the roll-bar, the 75 pound camera did little to enhance the Lola’s handling or straightline speed. Nevertheless, Mario lapped in the 205/206 mph range.

“You feel like you want to remove that lump from the top and go for it,” he said. “That thing is really a slug, there’s a lot more frontal area than people realise. Actually, you could pick up three or four mph by putting some shape into it …

Once a racer, always a racer.