A man for all seasons

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Contesting the Le Mans 24 Hours does not sound much like the common perception of ‘retirement’. Even in the twilight of his career, Mario Andretti remains a case apart. Peter Dick engaged him in conversation

The conditions were hot and terribly humid. I had been feeling uncomfortably sticky since before breakfast time. The man I was about to meet, however, was a marked contrast. Now 55 years old. Mario Andretti was a paragon of unflustered calm. Still a major focus of attention in the busy Indycar paddocks, he looked cool.

For all his relaxed manner, however, it is evident that Mario is as passionate about racing as at any time in his life, constantly stabbing the table with his fingers for emphasis when he speaks. And there are no taboo topics, not even those he clearly found painful …

Let’s talk about safety, particularly in Formula One. Since the death of Ayrton Senna a lot of the most exciting corners in the sport have disappeared. How can F1 strike a balance between making the circuits as safe as they can for drivers without destroying all of the classic corners?

To me, the balance is to try to have better run-off. I totally disagree with some of the “chicanery” that comes about. That’s a terrible fix if it’s a fix at all. From my standpoint as an observer, a lot of the Formula One circuits have too many flat-out quick corners where it is impossible to pass. They don’t have enough of the long straights ending with a hard 90-degree-corner, whereby you have decisive braking and honest road racing. They’re screwing up Imola, which is a phenomenal course, little by little. I looked at the layout of the revised Zeltweg – they needed some help, but I couldn’t believe the solution. I think somebody is having bad dreams at night and then putting it down on paper the next day. I’m a very big critic of the Formula One circus because they don’t give these guys a chance at all for passing. None. All they have is quick corners and lousy chicanes. They need somebody who really understands what’s needed to do things properly.

What do you do with a truly exposed corner like the “Kink” at Road America where they don’t have that kind of run-off?

Obviously, there are some places where there’s no possible way to create a run-off, and then you gotta do something even if it is stupid. But there are many other areas where they are doing this instead of just creating a proper corner where you can pass. They put in a Mickey Mouse chicane which looks too artificial. Chicanes should be a temporary quick fix. Then you do it properly. It seems like they put a chicane in there and it stays forever.

What about refuelling in Formula One? Should they have it? Do they need it?

Well, it adds to race strategy. I think the refuelling is fine. I don’t see that to be a critical factor one way or another. It’s working to some people’s advantage because they know how to use it, and to other people’s disadvantage. It’s neither here nor there.

Formula One this year has been kind of a snore, while I’ve never seen the IndyCar series closer. Why do you think that is?

It’s very simple. Formula One has an inbred ruling whereby each team is supposed to manufacture their own car, creating so much diversity between teams that you have clear dominance that is predictable. I think some events have been pretty interesting this year. But you can always count on who: Benetton, Williams –it’s going to be nip and tuck – and Ferrari on a good day, kind of putting their horns in there. But other than that… McLaren at the moment seems to be out of it. The rest are just filling in the slots. And in IndyCar you have more teams possessing a “Williams”.

You have three chassis and three engines…

Right. I don’t know if that’s the ultimate either but, as far as competition goes, it obviously gives more people the opportunity to express their talents. If a driver is in a Minardi or a defunct Simtek for instance. I don’t care if he’s the Lord himself, he’s just not going to do anything. And that’s what you have in Formula One. You have some talent that probably goes unnoticed because they cannot express it as their equipment is so far off.

Do you think it’s time in Formula One for them to let a company, like Reynard for instance, build a chassis that they can sell to any team?

I think it’s time for them to revise their policy for sure. For the sake of the show. You can be a purist all you want, but ultimately you have to provide a show, too. There’s no reason that you can’t maintain the technical sophistication, but just allow more teams to have the opportunity at the same thing teams that don’t have the $100M that Ferrari can put into it so they can buy a Ferrari. Sure, they’ll pay their share, but they won’t have to pay for the development they can’t afford. Maybe there could be some other Italian teams that could run a Ferrari chassis keep them honest.

And if they didn’t change the rules so often you could run a year-old chassis as well. Yeah.

Why is everyone so miserable in Formula One? Mike Hailwood, when he moved from motorcycle racing to F1 was quoted as saying, “Did you ever see so many miserable buggers making half a million quid a year?” People seem a lot more relaxed here.

It’s not that the pressure’s not on. The pressure’s everywhere, but it seems that there’s too much arrogance in Formula One. It seems to be in vogue.

About Michael’s year in Formula One… One of the major criticisms from the European press was a sense that there wasn’t a full commitment – that he still had a toe in America. I sat at the outside of Turn One at Indianapolis in 1991 and saw Michael pass Rick Mears, on the outside, at 220 mph. I would never use a term like “lack of commitment” to describe Michael. What happened that year?

It hurts me to hear that because here are the so-called experts judging a person without knowing the facts. The facts are simply this: Senna never signed a contract until after Monaco, which means Ron Dennis was compelled to cover his bases, so he hires Mika Hakkinen; then Senna signs, so Dennis has got three drivers and only two cars committed. He’s got one driver (not racing) that he promised seat time to. So who gets the testing? Mika. Michael, after every race, is begging. They don’t even look at him. They don’t even respond to the question, “Am I going to test this week?” What the hell is he going to do? Sit there in the garage? We’re not “hangers-on”. We don’t sit around the garage here. As far as Michael travelling back and forth, I did that, and it didn’t hurt me at all. Nobody is to dispute our commitment to the sport because that is all we really care for. Michael’s entry into Formula One was with the best possible team at the worst possible time. That’s the only way I can put it. They never supported him and, for whatever reason, the press started attacking his family and attacking him, and that created a very unpleasant situation all around. Why did he leave? He was given no choice because Ron didn’t pick up his option. Again, Senna wasn’t saying whether he was leaving or not. So Michael would have needed to wait until about November. The choice was take a gamble, wait ’til November and maybe still have the job, or a sabbatical because all the options would have been gone then even on this side (of the Atlantic). And Michael was not about to take a sabbatical.

Do you think it is a harder transition from Indycar to F1 than vice versa, in terms of what you have to acclimatise to?

Depends on the team.

Braking distances and so on?

Braking distance is nothing. I mean you’re braking at 150 yards, you figure, “Oh shit, I have to accelerate before the corner”. Next time you’re braking at 90 yards. That’s no big deal. If you go to the right team, the transition is a piece of cake either way. You go to the wrong team, it’s pure hell. I don’t care where you go, or who you are, it’s all a matter of going to the right team. The team that will bring you on with open arms, and will give you all the support possible, so you feel you’re part of it while you’re there. Then it’s up to you.

Denis Jenkinson did an article with Ayrton Senna for Autocourse in 1990 talking about the philosophy of racing. One of the conclusions he reached was that he believed the basic ingredients of a racing driver’s art have not changed over time from the ’30s to the ’60s to the ’90s. Would you agree with that?

I fully agree with that. I think you’re faced with different factors, but all you are, the human element, is still very much there. You just have a slightly different contribution to it.

Finding the limit without going over it would seem to be the core of a driver’s art, and maybe the hardest thing to articulate. How did you find the limit?

I don’t know. I think it’s just a personal thing. I don’t know what it is. It’s motivation. It’s how you look at things. Your philosophy about things. It’s something that is so personal that it’s impossible to teach. Why is one driver quicker than the other? It is just that one driver can see things differently. He’s got more confidence. It’s the confidence aspect over-riding certain fears sometimes, and gettin’ away with it, that lures you on. But to get to that point, to make yourself make that first move, is probably something where you either have to be stupid or totally unconscious And that’s what it is.

And then the limit’s always changing. It changes car to car, weather conditions, oil on the track, fuel load lightening…

Yeah, it changes every minute, But that’s the trick isn’t it?

So how come your “seat of the pants” tells you can do 205 mph and keep your foot in it, somebody else’s says 198 and lift, and somebody else’s says 208 and he ends up in the wall?

That’s a very good question. If I knew the answer to that I could probably have a great driving school and be a good teacher which I’m not. I can’t even teach my kids. I have a tough time putting names to things. I listened to an instructor from a driving school once, and I thought. “Oh, that’s what You call that”.

Sometimes, from one season to another, there’s a huge change in performance often related to the team. I’m thinking of the example of you from 1978 to 1979. In ’78 you had a world-beating package, and in ’79 the car didn’t give you the capability to even win. Does your driving change from the one year to the other?

Well, you’re driving harder and achieving less. It’s amazing. In ’79 we were looking at the Williams, and Nigel Bennett says, “That’s the way our car should look”. That should have been the natural progression. We didn’t make any progress in ’79, if anything we went backwards. And then the frustration sets in, and then you start doubting yourself. You can’t always blame or think it’s the equipment. Then you start believing what people are telling you –you try all different things and it doesn’t work.

Do you drop into a lower mental gear when you know you don’t have a chance to win?

You drop into a no-man’s land. It is really the worst feeling in the world. It’s like going into battle with no bullets. You know you’re going to get shot at, and you know you can’t defend yourself – that’s basically what it is. I think we all, if we’re in there for the long pull, experience that at one time or another, unfortunately.

When you have crushing disappointments – I always come back to Indianapolis in 1987, though you’ve had many more than that – what kind of mechanism do you use to not let that eat you up? How quickly can you bury it? Or do you ever?

You have to. You can’t dwell on the negatives. You have to maintain a predominantly positive attitude in the game just to exist from day to day, let alone be proficient. Quite honestly, you just have to let the past go. You know the way I’ve always looked at it? I say. “If I’m healthy, I don’t have any broken bones and I’m here, ready to go again, God what a blessing.” And that got me out of it. You never really appreciate how wonderful it is to be healthy until you’re broken up. And I’ve been a few times. Maybe less than I probably deserve. You know, I’ve had to go to work, and sit in the car, and I’ve said, “It would be such a piece of cake if I didn’t have a broken rib, if I didn’t have a broken pelvis or a broken bone.” So you look back after you’ve had that experience, believe me, and that pulls you out of anything.

Which gets me to another issue – surviving the length of career that you have. Concentration camp survivors often talk about having a feeling for the rest of their lives of “Why me? Why did they all perish and I survived?” Do you ever ask yourself, “Why me?”

Many times. It’s totally out of my hands. For example, why did Senna have to have a mechanical? Why? I mean, I don’t care who would have been in the car, the same thing would have happened. It’s certainly not the driver’s inability to cope with the situation. He was unlucky. People have said many times to me, you know, “You’ve been so unlucky, you should have won more Indys,” or this or that. But I say I’ve been very lucky. Very lucky.

Who would be a true hero of yours outside of motor racing?

Gorbachev. I admire that man. People don’t give him the credit he should have received. I think he’s still a hard communist, but he’s a man who saw the light. And he should have remained at the helm because right now there’s no control. That whole society’s in disarray, but at the same time the whole Curtain’s come down. There’s a new world out there, because he was the catalyst

As a child your hero was Alberto Ascari – a world champion, a winner of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the big event where you were. Now you’ve grown up and won the World Championship and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, how does it feel to grow up and become the kind of person you idolised as a kid?

It’s a dream come true, isn’t it? You have no idea the feeling that I had in Monza. It was a wonderful feeling, because when I accomplished the championship that day, and Ronnie was still alive, I savoured it for a few hours until Ronnie died, but you have no idea no one could comprehend the satisfaction that I achieved that evening for myself because I knew that that’s where my dream really began. To win it where I saw my first Grand Prix, where I really first became passionate about Formula One and about racing, happening like that was a wonderful blessing.

And, of course, you won the Grand Prix itself the year before…

I won it that year, too (1978), but I got screwed.

The jumped start?

Yeah, but I didn’t jump. Good old Gilles jumped and I reacted. But I stopped. Then they penalised us both.

You’ve been quoted as saying the Sebring 12 Hours in 1970 was probably your greatest performance. Do you still feel that?

It was one of them in the sense of really reaching, because I had to get into another car. And it was decisively different because I went from a spyder to a coupe. Very different cars. And I knew what I had to do. I was just driven that night, I don’t know by what. I started doing laps; well, the kink past the pits, the whole weekend I could never do it flat, and I started doing it flat. So I drove my butt off. I really feel, even though I was in that car only an hour, I really contributed to that victory. That’s why I take some credit for it. I don’t think those guys would have won it, because I was running consistently six seconds quicker than they were. So, from that standpoint I feel justified to be satisfied with my drive that night, I really do.

What do you think was the best we ever saw of you in a Formula One car?

I think, believe it or not, one of the best drives was at Long Beach, I think the other one was at Monza.

The Long Beach that you won in ’77?

Yeah. And Monza the race that was taken away from me (’78) and I’ll tell you why. In Monza I drove without brakes. I chased down Villeneuve, and I knew I had two good hard brakings left. And I chased him down, chased him down, chased him down. It was at the Variante Ascari, which was hard braking, where I tried to get under him. It was one do-or-die, and my foot was coming out of the nose, you know? And I got by him. I really thought I drove a damned good race that was never appreciated. But nobody knew I was out of brakes either, because that whole season I had no brakes.

Really?

That was my big fight with Colin Chapman. That car would run out of brakes halfway through the race, because he was insisting on using magnesium calipers. We had inboard brakes with magnesium calipers, which were part of the gearbox package the first half of the caliper was integrated. He insisted magnesium was the way to go because of the weight. But it was so porous that, by the time you reach a certain temperature, you would get seepage. You’d get leakage, and I’d have no brakes.

Was that not something that could have been changed mid-season?

Oh hell, yeah.

But he wouldn’t?

He would not. The first race that I won with the Lotus 79 in Belgium, I had no brakes zero brakes.

You also lost a few races because of his cutting the fuel very close.

Yeah. He was notorious for that.

Do you have any idea what the Lotus budget was in ’78?

In ’78 it was probably a whopping six million, and Colin was putting about two and a half of that in his pocket and buying helicopters!

To my mind, IndyCar racing has never been healthier than it is right now. There’s an old adage about, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Why doesn’t Tony George see that?

Yes. Why? Where is the so-called “better Idea”? The field the last couple of years, at the Indy 500 itself, has had the best quality of drivers and teams they’ve ever had. If not for the stock block rule, we would have had the most exciting qualifying of all time. All the ingredients are in place. They want a new league without the road races. Why? IndyCar has created a great road racing alternative to F1. All the permanent road racing facilities have been upgraded, which means that they’re obviously doing well financially. All the existing temporary courses have long-term contracts – Long Beach recently celebrated their 20th year. All these venues are so well attended. Industry-wise, IndyCar racing is running flat out. Why would anybody want to start a new league to compete with the current series? Why does the IRL think oval racing is the only thing Indycars should be doing in America? The best thing in Indy racing is the mix. We’re doing better than we’ve ever done before. So what is Tony bringing to the party? He says he has a better idea, that he’s catering to the promoters, yet all the promoters in place now, except two, are expressing support to IndyCar as it is now. The overwhelming majority is on this side, yet he wants to create a new situation.

He’s also mentioned that he doesn’t like there being so many foreign influences.

Well, my God – now you’re going to have to show a passport. Look at golf. The winners of eight of the last 12 Masters have been foreign-born. Is that bad for the sport? That’s what has created golf, and really brought golf to the dimension that it is. Indy racing is no different. When I was driving Formula One and Indy, lndycars were considered club races over there. I was winning over here, two or three races here, then I was winning races over there, yet over there nobody cared. If I would do that today I would be the hero of all-time. Now is it bad what we’ve achieved today? It is significant progress. We have almost equal spacing in some of the top magazines in England, Italy and France about our events. The races are televised in over 100 countries. That’s an achievement, real progress. Let’s fix the things that need to be fixed without throwing away the baby with the dirty water.

Back in the late ’60s you would go from dirt, to pavement, to Pike’s Peak, all kinds of different disciplines one week after another. Did you have any problems in adjusting that quickly to completely different disciplines?

It can be a problem, but you have to have the ability to switch things off. The biggest single problem used to be to go from a single-seater to a stock car. Single-seaters, or even sports prototypes were not that big a deal. The biggest was the stock cars. You get into a stock car, you stand up in the seat, you go slower. You cannot put the energy that you put into a single-seater into a stock car because it will not accept it. You can’t hustle it the same way. That was my biggest problem. But as far as disciplines, the dirt, etc., if you’ve been doing it for a while, you pick it right back up. You never really forget how to ride a bicycle.

Le Mans. How many more years do you think you’ll compete?

It’s hard to say. I’ll call it from year to year. I’d like to think it should be at least another couple or three.

You didn’t look like a retired driver up on the podium.

No, I felt good. Physically, I feel excellent. Now that I don’t do as much, I feel motivated. I feel like I really want to drive. It’s such a great feeling in my life. I’m going to keep it up as long as I feel like this.

How difficult is your first year out, looking over the fence?

It’s difficult enough to know that I could have endured should have done another year. And I know I can’t come back.

You feel you could have done another year?

Yeah. All I needed was a sabbatical of two months, to be out of the race car and charge my batteries, and I think you would have seen a new me for another year, and then it would have been enough. But, you know, there’s no use reliving that. I think, ultimately, I made the right decision.

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