MPH Grand Prix debuts: the sensational arrival of Mario Andretti

Mario Andretti was instantly quick in his first F1 practice session at Monza in 1968. Perhaps too quick, as he found himself banned from the race - Mark Hughes looks back at a delayed Grand Prix debut

Mario Andretti at the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen

Mario Andretti makes his grand prix debut - at the second attempt - at Watkins Glen

Grand Prix Photo

Continuing our series of notable Grand Prix debuts, this time we look at one of the most sensational of all – that of Mario Andretti in 1968. 

Andretti was already 28-years-old by the time he got to try F1 for the first time. That wasn’t such an outrageously late age to be making your F1 debut then as it is now, but still later than average. But Mario had been detained by success – in Indycars (or Champcars as it was more commonly known then), where he’d been a major star since winning the 1965 championship in his first full season. He’d set pole as a rookie at that year’s Indy 500 and had got talking to the great Jim Clark – who would go on to win the race. Clark had insisted to his boss – Lotus’ Colin Chapman – that he must meet this guy Andretti, that there was something about him. The two met and, as Andretti recalls, “Colin said to me whenever you feel you’re ready for F1 give me a call. I didn’t feel ready at that point but obviously that was my dream.”

By ’68 he felt he’d gained enough experience to try for that dream and part-way through the season made contact with Chapman. Andretti was making good money in the USA, with Firestone paying him a very good retainer. This restricted the drives Andretti could accept to those using Firestone tyres – which happily included the Lotus F1 team. Chapman agreed to run a third Lotus 49 for Andretti in two late-season races, Monza and Watkins Glen. “I realised that for Monza, which was all about slipstreaming, I’d need a towing mate,” recalled Andretti, “and as the new boy I knew I couldn’t rely on getting help from the established guys. So I arranged to have my friend Bobby Unser get a drive with BRM and I figured we could tow each other.

Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser at Monza in 1968

Andretti and Unser at Monza in ’68

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There was a complication, though. Monza clashed with the Hoosier 100, a sprint car dirt track race that counted towards the USAC championship that both Andretti and Unser were contesting. But that race, at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds, was on the Saturday. With Monza qualifying held on both Friday and Saturday, it was theoretically just about possible to qualify at Monza on the Friday, fly to Indianapolis for the Saturday race there, then fly back to Monza to race on the Sunday. It was a crazy schedule – but that’s what Andretti and Unser agreed to do, with the full agreement of their teams. There was a clause of the sporting code that could be invoked which said that drivers taking part in any other event up to 24 hours before the grand prix would not be eligible. “But that had all been agreed, Colin and BRM had spoken with the organisers and it had all been cleared for us to do it.”

The Lotus 49 in which Andretti would be making his debut vied with Jackie Stewart’s Matra MS11 and Denny Hulme’s McLaren M7A as the class of the field. Stewart, Hulme and Lotus’ Graham Hill were engaged in an epic struggle for the title, a contest still far from resolved as everyone arrived at Monza. Ferrari’s 312/68 was arguably the fastest car of all that year, but its lead driver Chris Amon had suffered an appalling run of fortune and the car’s only victory had come from Jacky Ickx in the wet French Grand Prix, aided by an inspired choice of tyres. The expectation upon the Scuderia at Monza was therefore even greater than usual.

That was the backdrop as Andretti began living out his childhood dreams by driving an F1 car around his beloved Monza, a track he’d visited as a small boy before the family emigrated to the USA. The Lotus didn’t disappoint. “Oh, it was just a lovely jewel of a thing,” he recalled. “It was so much lighter and more responsive than the Champcars I’d been racing. It had a lovely balance and I just felt at home in it right away.”

Mario Andretti in his Lotus during practice for the 1968 Italian Grand Prix at Monza

Andretti during practice at Monza...

Grand Prix Photo

Mario Andretti in his Lotus at Monza ahead of the 1968 Italian Grand Prix

...and in the pits

Grand Prix Photo

On the Thursday he’d quickly acclimatised and had run among the quickest. The first qualifying session on the Friday was then treated as if it were final qualifying – which for Andretti of course, it was. He proceeded to set the track alight, his best lap towards the end of the session putting him quickest outright. It was a remarkable display for someone with no previous F1 experience and underlined Andretti’s white hot credentials. Life seemed sweet as Andretti and Unser left the track for the airport soon after the session ended, but everything had changed by the time they returned there on Sunday morning.

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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.


Andretti prepares to start from pole at Watkins Glen

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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.