Yankees go home: Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser's failed F1 attempt at Monza '68

Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser moved Heaven and Earth in a bid to make their Formula One debuts at Monza in ’68. Then the establishment did the dirty on them. Mark Hughes tells a story of mad dashes and dashed hopes.

You’ve no idea what we went through to get to that race on time,” says Bobby Unser of the 1968 Italian Grand Prix. “We picked up a rental car at the airport because we figured no one would be able to get us there quicker than us, because we were a little bit crazy. Mario sort of knew where he was, so he read the map and I drove. I ran down side walks, I outran a policeman, I drove up the side of ditches, ran down centre islands.

“We get to the circuit gates and there’s a soldier there with his little ratty-tat-tat and he’s pointing it straight at me. I don’t know what the guy’s saying because I don’t speak anything other than Albuquerque English, and not too well at that. Mario’s saying, `Go, go, go!’ and I said, ‘Mario, you’re going to have to tell this sonofabitch who we are because he’s pointing that thing right at my chest and he’s going to shoot.’

“As soon as Mario talks to him, the guy lets us through. But we were chasing a few minutes — we were even debating how much [racing] uniform we could get away with not putting on, that’s how tight it was. We figured there was no way they were going to hold up the start of the race just for a couple of Americans.”

But it was worse than that. The fates of Unser and Andretti had already been decided by officialdom even as the pair were making their heroic efforts to get to Monza in time. Someone, with motives suspect at best, had dug into the FIA rule book, plucked out an obscure clause about drivers not ntrunng in an international race within 24 hours of having competed elsewhere, and insisted it was enforced. The visiting Indycar stars — who’d left partway through Monza’s Friday practice for the Hoosier 100, the biggest dirt track race on the American calendar, then recrossed the Atlantic ready to make their grand prix debuts — were deemed unfit to be on the track. Whether it was a petty act in a clash of cultures or the cynical removal of a key competitor by a rival team, Formula One did not emerge from the episode with credit.

Ironically the story began when the old world and the new met going in opposite directions a few years earlier. It was 1965, Lotus was poised to take the first all-European win at the Indy 500 for 51 years, and Mario Andretti had just met Colin Chapman. “I was in my rookie year,” says Andretti. “I was making something of an impression and I told Colin that I’d like to do Fl some day. He said, ‘When you’re ready, give me a call.’ By ’68 I felt it was time. So I called Colin and he said, ‘Right, I’ll enter you for Monza and Watkins Glen.”

Ever since Indy ’65, after Jim Clark had taken Chapman aside and said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy Andretti,’ Chapman had been a fan. Clark’s death in April ’68 had left Lotus bereft of a megastar number one. Chapman had two replacements in mind for ’69: Jochen Rindt and Andretti. Consequently, no effort was spared in providing Mario with the best equipment for his Fl debut.

“When I first got into that 49 it just felt so right. I thought, ‘Oh man, this is the way it should be.’ It made an Indycar feel very big and cumbersome. I was used to much more power and I thought, ‘Gee, this thing feels like a toy.’ There was such a fantastic balance between the power and the handling. I adapted to it very easily, so quickly.

“In all my career I always felt that if I was with any of the top three teams in any discipline, I would be okay. Going into Fl with Colin, well, I could’ve gone to the moon with him and felt that somehow I’d do the job. If not, shame on me. Aside from his brilliance, I felt he and his team were firmly on my side. Colin loved it if you showed a lot of energy and spunk and I was a pretty good charger. He made me feel very welcome and the entire crew was like that. We were like almost instant friends. That ambience is so very important for a new driver.”

Unser would concur. But unfortunately, there was little bonhomie on offer for him at BRM. That year’s Indy winner and series champion, he was a close friend of Andretti’s. Partly it was Mario’s influence that got him to go Fl with him — “I figured I needed a pal to help me with the drafting necessary to set a time at Monza,” says Andretti, “and I didn’t think I’d have too many friends there.” Bobby didn’t exactly need convincing, though.

“I’d wanted to do F1 for a long time,” he says. “Any normal race driver would like to conquer all the world and F 1 was one of the things I wanted to conquer. I was a good road racer and so it was a natural place to go. I was a beneficiary of Goodyear and they put the deal together. I went with Louis Stanley’s BRM team, but it wasn’t a good team at that time. I was kinda cocky, though, thought that I could make the difference. Little did I know how much politics would play their part.

“Lou Stanley was quite a nice person — and he was getting paid a lot of money by Goodyear — but I’m sure he didn’t have a clue what his team management were up to. The team managers in Fl then could make or break a driver without him having a say so, just by juggling the machinery around. It was rife at BRM.

“But it was more than that. Formula One didn’t seem honest to me, compared with what I knew in America, and the mechanics and team members didn’t seem to have the same dedication towards their driver. Maybe it was just because I was coming in from the outside, but I really tried hard to get close to the team and spent a lot of time with them. But I still got the impression that those guys didn’t care whether their driver lived or died.

“When I worked with Audi a few years later those guys gave me their total dedication — they became Bobby Unser people. If I’d got in a bar room fight they would have jumped in. If I’d poked an official in the eye they’d have said I didn’t do it. But I just didn’t get that with BRM. All I got was the shaft.

“I got an engine that was in no way comparable to that of Pedro Rodriguez, something I found out for sure when I took Pedro’s spare at Watkins Glen. It wasn’t Pedro’s fault. But I was the guy who had gone to their dyno and showed them they had water cavitation problems. I gave them a lot in dedication, honesty and whole lots of smarts. Then I saw that someone was benefiting from what I did and I wasn’t. It was all part of the minefield of politics I found there.”

It wasn’t just the team that was upsetting Bobby’s equilibrium either. It was the culture — of F 1 and Europe. “The drivers, I immediately realised were just the same as us,” he says. “It was at Monza that! realised for the first time in my life that colour or pronunciation of a name made no difference to the human being inside. But our fellow drivers were the only thing that I felt any affinity with. For example, we weren’t exactly in heaven in America with regards to safety, but at that time we were way ahead of F1.

“I first drove the BRM at Snetterton, and there were club racers running. I came back in and said, ‘There’s somebody out there on the track, a little biddy car, an MG Thor something, doing about 60mph. Who let him out?’ Then they told me that’s just how it was. There was no ambulance there, no fuel bladders, no marshals. I could not believe it. When I got to Monza we’re sitting having lunch and I see the Ferrari mechanics drinking wine! I said, Woah, hold on here!’ I even used to try to stop my guys drinking too much the night before, or I’d figure out a way to get rid of ’em.

“Also, I was used to having the convenience of Holiday Inns or whatever. When I first arrived in England Lou Stanley put me up in this big antique hotel in London and I froze my ass off. I couldn’t get any extra blankets and I actually got another mattress and slept between the two. There were no showers, the hot and cold water came out of separate faucets. It was like that wherever you stayed in England then. To someone who spent all but 45 days of the year away from home, these things mattered. And the food! I told Stanley the next day this was the worst friggin’ hotel I’d ever stayed in. His eyes kinda opened wide.”

Andretti, of course, was more at home in Europe. It was, after all, where he’d been born, where he’d lived until the age of nine. And there was the small matter of the superb Lotus 49. In Monza testing, in his first serious run in an Fl car, Mario went round faster than anyone before him. “It was faster than Chris Amon had managed two weeks earlier for Ferrari,” says Andretti, “and I think that’s where my problems really started.”

In Friday qualifying, Mario was again conclusively fastest. Before the session had even ended, however, he and Unser had high-tailed it to the airport. Others would eclipse Mario’s time in his absence, but it still stood him 11th on the grid. It was a stunning debut Unser was 20th.”We slept on the floors of the airplane,” recalls Bobby. “We really put a lot into it. There was no question of missing the Hoosier. We were committed to that It’s not something we could’ve got out of.”

Andretti had been aware of the 24-hour ruling even before agreeing to the Lotus drive. “I had spoken to Count Lurani,” he says, “who was head of the automobile club in Italy and he said, ‘No problem with the 24-hour rule, I promise you,’ and I spoke with the manager of Monza, too. They all understood that rule had to be waived and they assured me it would be.

‘Then Bobby and I arrived at the track and no one would speak to us. It was weird. When we’d left, it had all been cool. I tied to find Colin but he was nowhere around. Actually, he was in a meeting with the Italians trying to get us our race. They said we were unfit. I offered to take a medical, let them have a blood sample, whatever. But they wouldn’t even talk with us. I was never told officially, but Ferrari had protested us.”

Unser: “It wasn’t the circuit’s fault They wanted Mario there real bad. It was the FIA. There was a jealousy there between Indycars and Fl and they just didn’t want these Americans showing up in their backyard, especially with Mario going so well. Together with the BRM stuff, this just burned me out”

With time on their hands the two friends took a tour of Italy. “My mother and wife had come over,” says Bobby, “we’d spent a few bucks being there. So instead of wasting it, Mario got us a couple of cars from Alfa and we toured the country. He took us to his home town, we went to Rome. We drove like madmen through the nights, then became tourists during the day. It was nice. But it wasn’t the way we’d planned to spend our time.”

Four weeks later, they got to make their F1 debuts on home soil at Watkins Glen. Andretti continued his sensational form and set pole. It was the beginning of his Fl love affair. Unser, by con trast, wanted nothing more to do with Fl and wouldn’t even be wasting a backward glance. “When I took that spare car out and felt the huge difference between it and my car I just told them straight that I didn’t think this was honest I remember sitting in Lou Stanley’s limousine and telling them that they could take this and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”