Mario Andretti's McLaren F1 drive: 'No-one will ever understand how much I love driving a racing car'


F1 champions have the same dreams as us... but a better chance of achieving them. Mario Andretti tells Motor Sport he's in "seventh heaven" after driving a modern McLaren at Laguna Seca. He's still searching for the perfect lap though

Mario Andretti on track in McLaren F1 car

Mario Andretti joked that driving a modern F1 car has given him another ten years of life, after a “bucket list” drive in a McLaren at Laguna Seca this weekend.

The 82-year-old completed several laps of the Californian circuit in the MP4-28a from 2013, and described an “exhilarating” experience at the Velocity Invitational event.

As the V8 wailed through the Corkscrew, spectators were also watching a form of parallel history, as Andretti turned down a McLaren Formula 1 drive for the 1981 season.

The spectacle follows a deal made on live TV at the Miami Grand Prix in May. Andretti, who retired from full-time racing in 1994, told Martin Brundle that driving a modern F1 car was “a bit of an itch to scratch”. Standing beside him was McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who said that he would make it happen around the US Grand Prix, which takes place next weekend.

“I was in seventh heaven since May, and now it’s finally here,” Andretti told Motor Sport from his trackside motorhome, shortly after stepping out of the car on Saturday afternoon. “No-one will ever understand how much I love driving a racing car. At this stage of my life, to have this chance is huge. It gives me more life, probably again another 10 years.”

Comparing the V8’s power to that of the turbocharged Ferrari 126C that Andretti raced in 1982, he said: “I was so satisfied to see what I was hoping: the power and the sincerity of the chassis, I mean it was so nimble… the braking, all those qualities, just tremendous.

“It was similar, to some degree, when the turbocharged era came, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I drove the Ferrari when I substituted for Didier Pironi in Monza, ’82,  and there you probably had some equal because [in] the qualifying mode, there was like 1100 horsepower. And that was unbelievable as well.

“I haven’t had that pleasure for, many, many years as you can imagine. So, to just do this again. It was just perfect. Life is good!”

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However Andretti — ever the racer — saved his praise for the car for after he had explained his frustration at not being able to drive at the limit of his ability.

“There’s quite a bit that I left on the table,” said the 1978 Formula 1 world champion, who didn’t have time for a full seat fitting, so was sat close to the steering wheel with limited visibility of the gear indicator. “Some of that worked against me. The car did everything that it’s supposed to do as far as the chassis and the handling.

“But at first I didn’t have the information on which gear I was in, especially on the downshift, and it’s so important to have the correct revs coming off a corner otherwise you’re off the range: the engine has a very narrow power curve. I would get three, four corners, right and then all of a sudden I’m coming off the wrong gear and just one gear would make a difference. You just cannot move the steering wheel column where I would really need it.”

He said that he hoped that some of the issues would be resolved for his run on Sunday where his hunger for every racing driver’s goal — the perfect lap — remains undiminished: “I’m really looking forward to see if I can put a proper lap together.”

Andretti is also hoping to drive it at the the Circuit of the Americas, ahead of next Sunday’s US Grand Prix.

Mario Andretti in cockpit of McLaren F1 car

Andretti in the cockpit

Velocity Invitational, via YouTube

Although his last top-level single-seater race was the 1994 Indy 500, he has kept his eye in with Indycar’s two-seat demonstrator, in which he still offers hair-raising 200mph speedway rides.

That role helped with the physical demands of driving the McLaren in corners, which Andretti said that he relished: “I expected that [level of g-force]. It was what I really wanted to be honest with you. It’s an exhilarating experience for any driver to get that type of performance.

“You never feel you have enough power. And you get this just great acceleration when when when you’re in the power curve, and the car really really performs so well, so unbelievable. You know, that’s what a driver looks for and that’s what you dream about. And when you have experienced that, you want more more and more.”

Zak Brown with Mario Andretti

Brown speaks to Andretti as he tries out the cockpit

Zak Brown via Twitter

In period, the MP4-28a rarely got the same level of praise from Jenson Button and Sergio Perez, who campaigned it with limited success in 2013. But driving such a machine, which has a KERS hybrid system, was still the stuff of dreams for Andretti — as for millions of fans — until a meeting with Brown at Goodwood two years ago.

The McLaren boss made an offer to get the racing legend behind the wheel, but it wasn’t firmed up until Brundle’s Miami gridwalk, when Andretti mentioned the “bucket list” item, Brown said that he’d make it happen at the US GP and Andretti looked stunned, saying, “Wow” before laughing.

“Zak Brown just gave me a gift that I can never I’ll never be able to repay him for to be honest with you,” said Andretti after his first drive in the car. “I don’t think he realises what he’s done for me so far.”

Andretti’s big hope is to compete against Brown, supporting the bid for an F1 entry by Andretti Autosport, owned by his son (and former McLaren F1 driver) Michael; one which can’t have been harmed by the publicity around this weekend’s run.

“I would do anything to try to help the cause,” said Andretti, laughing as he went on: “Like I said, I’m trying to get some points for my superlicence.”

But amid the exhilaration there was a touch of ruefulness as to what might have been if he had accepted McLaren’s offer 42 years ago: “When I came out of Lotus [in 1980], I had an opportunity to either go to McLaren or Alfa Romeo because of my Marlboro sponsorship. And I went with my heart instead of with my head.

“If I would have gone with McLaren, I think I would have probably stayed in Formula 1 for a couple more years instead of just coming away.”

His stint with the unreliable Alfa lasted one season. What might have been at McLaren, which won races throughout the early 1980s and then the title, with Niki Lauda, in 1984? “It could have possibly been mine, for sure,” he said.

“But it is what it is. All in all I have no regrets. You can’t always consider to do everything perfectly. But to have friends like this — Zak and McLaren — at this stage of my life. It’s really quite a gift.