The dream isn't over
Andretti at Le Mans
Mario Andrelti has tried nine times to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. He isn't racing this year, but he still wants to go back even when he's 92...
There was an ulterior motive when Mario Andretti agreed a deal with Ford that would take him to the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. It was all part of his masterplan to become a Formula One driver.
The plan had been hatched the previous May when he had run into Lotus boss Colin Chapman at Indianapolis. "I'd expressed an interest in doing F1," explains Andretti. "Chapman said, 'Right, when do you want to start?' I said I'd call him when I was ready. I had to learn the craft of road-racing, so if I was being interviewed I'd express interest in doing this or that. Then the phone would ring and..."
Andretti had made his international sportscar debut in a NART Ferrari at Bridgehampton at the back end of 1965. He'd remained with the Italian marque for the Daytona and Sebring enduros, prior to getting the call from Ford in the wake of Walt Hansgen's death at the Le Mans test day.
Forty years on, Andretti remembers little of his Le Mans debut. Perhaps that's not surprising, given that he and Lucien Bianchi went out just before 11pm with headgasket failure on their Holman & Moody-run GT40.
The whole Le Mans experience did stick in his mind, though. "Back then they still had the old Maison Blanche section before the Porsche Curves went in," he recalls. "It was quite daunting, actually."
Of Andretti's two appearances with Ford at Le Mans, it's 1967 that has stuck in his memory. And not just because he and Bianchi were in the lead battle for the first half of the race. The American ended up breaking several ribs, though he never made it to hospital, as reports from the time suggest.
"Ford had stepped up on the safety side and had a truck where they could do medical procedures on site," Andretti explains. "Under no circumstances were we to allow ourselves to be taken to hospital."
The Andretti/Bianchi Ford was running second at 4am when it speared straight into the banking at the Esses. "Roger McCluskey had spun to avoid me and then came up and said, 'How ya doin' hombre?' When an ambulance arrived he threw the keys away and persuaded a corner worker to take us to the Ford compound in his little Peugeot.
"The only Ford we were worried about was the Gurney/ Foyt car, which went on to win the race. Lucien was a bit slower than Dan, but I was quite a lot faster than AJ.
"At the end of one stint I told Lucien that there was a lot of vibration with the brakes. We'd experienced this in testing and knew we had to live with it. Lucien went out and came straight back in and started chatting with the mechanics as though he was having lunch or something."
Andretti made his feelings clear to his team-mate: "I told him he had to deal with it but one lap later he was back. I got in the car while the team attended to the brakes: one of the mechanics put a pad in backwards. When I hit the brakes for the first time the wheel was pulled right out of my hands."
It should have been a historic double Le Mans comeback — Mario Andretti at the wheel of a Mirage. It sounds too good to be true. And it was. With less than an hour to go before the start of the race, the car was effectively disqualified. "I was all strapped in when an official comes up to the car," recalls Andretti. "He was shouting, 'Out, out, out!'"
I can't really remember how the drive all came together," he says, "but stopping F1 had something to do with it and so did giving Michael some experience."
Nineteen-year-old Andretti Jnr, then racing in Super Vee, never got that experience. The gearbox oil cooler was deemed to be incorrectly located, and even though the GTC team made the necessary modification in time, its pit had been reallocated to a reserve as the Cosworth-engined car returned from the paddock.
"The Mirage thing reinforced my belief that I needed to be with a factory team. That wasn't possible so I thought Kremer was the next best situation." Together with Michael and Philippe Alliot, Mario claimed his first Le Mans podium with third place behind two factory Porsches.
Yet Andretti maintains that this was another lost opportunity at Le Mans. A conservative fuel strategy eventually left the Andrettis and Alliot six laps down in the final classification, yet at two-thirds distance their 956 was in second place behind the winning Haywood/Holbert/ Schuppan Porsche. And that car effectively seized up over the course of the final lap. "If we had pushed harder, who knows what might have happened?"
Mario's Indycar schedule didn't allow another visit to Le Mans for a full five years. Yet when the famous name did return, it was in a third factory Porsche 962C for 1988.
It was nephew John who provided the catalyst, according to Mario: "John had been driving for Al Holbert's [works] Porsche team in the States. So we said, 'John, you know these cars, why don't we do Le Mans as three Andrettis?"
With Michael in tow, Mario was on course to match the '83 result and perhaps even win the race.
The trio were lying fourth when a part of the water pump needed replacing around midnight. A few hours later a fuel line broke, damaging a cylinder and forcing it to be blanked off for the remainder of the race.
"There was a big fight between the other works Porsches and they were using too much of their fuel allocation. Norbert Singer [who engineered the Andrettis] said, 'Don't worry, we'll take the lead during the night.' The other guys were going to have to slow down and pay the piper.
He may have retired from Indycars but Andretti had no intention of hanging up his helmet: Le Mans was a priority.
This new goal coincided with Porsche's return to top-line sportscar racing with the TWR-built WSC95. Andretti signed up to drive it at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, only for the firm to abandon the project after a late rule change.
Instead, a last minute deal put Mario in one of the Courage team's Porsche-engined cars alongside Bob Wollek and Eric Hélary. Le Mans 1995 will always be remembered for the McLaren F1's unlikely win, but Andretti maintains that Courage "lost that race five times over".
Andretti had shunted during the horrific conditions early in the race: "That was really stupid of me, but when I got back to the pits they weren't prepared at all."
The Courage may have dropped to 35th, but victory really was still in their grasp. The car was up to third by half distance, into second with less than two hours to go and on the lead lap in the final hour. "We were making up time on Sunday morning and I got on the radio telling them to send Wollek out on drys at the next stop. There was a definite dry line. Bob came back, and I have to say this verbatim: 'No f**king way. Andretti, you're crazy.' He did two laps before coming back for drys."
There was another incident that made Mario just as mad: "All the cars were caked in brake dust and Courage was very concerned about its sponsors. The car came in and sat there for two minutes while they washed it down. And how much did we lose the race by? A minute?"
If an on-track lapse cost Andretti victory in '95, then another error of judgment came between him and that elusive Le Mans win 12 months on. This time, though, the mistake was made long before he rolled up at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
"I'd been talking about driving the WSC95 for Joest, which that year was a kind of factory deal, but I wanted to be in Porsche's GT car," he remembers. "That was a mistake, because Joest went on to win for the next two years."
There was talk of a seat at Porsche privateer Roock Racing, but in the end Andretti opted to return to Courage: "Courage sold themselves to me. But it wasn't the same once the help from Porsche had disappeared."
Electronic gremlins struck early on: more time went west when he damaged the car at Indianapolis before retirement.
"It really didn't make sense to do it again unless I had a special reason, and doing it with one of my kids was that reason. I had to talk Michael into doing it."
A third consecutive start with Courage's ageing prototype was unlikely to yield a decent result, and the car lapsed onto three cylinders in the first stint. The Porsche-powered C36 was long since out of contention when Andretti went off at Tertre Rouge at two-thirds distance.
It started out as a casual chat over a glass of wine and ended with a 60-year-old racing in the 24 Hours. Andretti and Don Panoz were talking about linking up in the wine business when the latter threw a curve ball into the conversation.
"Don said, 'How'd you fancy going back to Le Mans in one of my cars?" explains Andretti. "I thought he was joking, but he said he was serious and said I could drive with David [Brabham] and Jan [Magnussen]."
It wasn't the fairytale return romantics had been hoping for. Andretti admits that "I never got a handle on that car."
That, you might think, was the end of the Le Mans dream. But no. "I've only ever retired from open-wheel racing. I may be 92," he jokes, "but I'll be keeping my options open."
Year by year
1966: Holman & Moody Ford GT Mk2. Result: retired (engine). Co-driver: Lucien Bianchi
1967: Holman & Moody Ford GT MkIV. Result: retired (accident). Co-driver: Lucien Bianchi
1982: GTC Mirage-Cosworth M12. Result: disqualified. Co-driver: Michael Andretti
1983: Kremer Porsche 956. Result: 3rd. Co-drivers: Michael Andretti, Philippe Alliot
1988: Works Porsche 962C. Result: 6th. Co-drivers: Michael Andretti, John Andretti
1995: Courage-Porsche C34. Result: 2nd. Co-drivers: Bob Wollek, Eric Hélary
1996: Courage-Porsche C36. Result: 13th. Co-drivers: Jan Lammers, Derek Warwick
1997: Courage-Porsche C34. Result: retired (accident damage). Co-drivers: Michael Andretti, Olivier Grouillard
2000: Panoz Roadster LMP S. Result: 16th. Co-drivers: David Brabham, Jan Magnussen