But before they discovered that, there was the small matter of getting to the track from the airport. Timing was tight, and there was Milan’s traffic on a grand prix weekend…. They were picked up by David Phipps in a rental Fiat 124. Mario insisted on doing the driving. “That was the wildest ride of my life,” recalled Unser years later. “Mario was going against the traffic, over the kerbs, everything! We finally get to the gate and there’s a cop there not letting us in – and he’s got a gun pointing straight at me as Mario tries to edge forward! Anyway, Mario just gave it the big rev and we took off.”
But all that crazy effort was for nothing. The organisers had had a change of heart… They were invoking the clause. “I’d gone quicker than Amon on the Friday and I think that was where it went wrong,” recalled Andretti. “Maybe Ferrari had gotten to the organisers, I don’t know. Colin was up there trying to sort it out, but they weren’t wearing it.”
The dream had been stolen from him – but there was still Watkins Glen to look forward to a month later. “Everyone sort of assumed it was my home track,” recalled Andretti, “But I’d never been there in my life! USAC didn’t use it back then. So I was learning the track as well as learning F1.”
For most of the final qualifying session pole was being fought out between Stewart, Hill and Amon. But two laps from the end Andretti strung together all he’d learned – and sensationally stole pole position on his official F1 debut. He was the first in the sport’s history to do this and even today is one of just three.
As the flag fell Andretti sprinted into an immediate lead but was passed on the first lap by Stewart. The pair then pulled away from the pack, Andretti matching Stewart’s every move, until the Lotus’ nosecone began to droop, and then scrape, forcing Andretti to pit. He rejoined just ahead of Stewart but a lap down and stayed there until finally having to retire with a clutch problem. So no result – but one of the most scintillating F1 debuts of all time. It would be another eight years before Andretti was able to devote himself fully to F1 – but the world title would quickly follow. That potential was made very clear at both Monza and Watkins Glen ’68.