Friday, 20 January 2012


Mario Andretti 1971
Crouching just a metre from the inside kerb of Kyalami’s steep, climbing Leeuwkop Corner, watching the sports-racers practice for the 1972 Nine Hour Endurance Race, I was amazed by the difference in technique between the two Ferrari 312P drivers, Ickx and Andretti. The Belgian swirled round in a rapid series of multiple corrections, sawing continually at the steering, the car’s tiny front wheels rapidly flip-flopping, almost lock-to-lock, the accelerator blipping constantly. The American’s method could not have been more contrasting: the car hugged the kerb and went round in a smooth arc, the front wheels never varying their attitude, the throttle opening being evenly increased as he blasted onto the long straight. In a lifetime of spectating, I have never seen such differing cornering techniques, especially from two top-class drivers in same-cars.

Mario Andretti the grand prix driver: pole on his 1968 Formula One debut in a Lotus-Cosworth at age 28 years and 7 months, pole for his 1982 finale in a turbo-charged Ferarri at age 42 years and 7 months. Twelve wins, eighteen poles and ten fastest laps. The young Indianapolis driver who so impressed Jim Clark in 1964 that he pointed him out to Colin Chapman. The experienced veteran who joined Lotus in 1976 and helped develop their novel, ‘ground-effects’ cars in the 1977 and 1978 seasons and win the Drivers’ World Championship.

1978 Lotus-Cosworth 79
Mario’s driving smoothness was legendary, despite adverse comments from Jackie Stewart. His ability to set-up and assist with car development was at least up with Stewart’s, Prost’s or Schumacher’s. Initially the Europeans were sceptical when Mario had the tyres lined up against the pit wall and carefully inspected them, wanting this one left rear, that one right front... The team personnel soon learned to respect this new ‘black art’ in Formula One; what American oval-track racers called ‘tyre-stagger’, selecting optimal diameters for each circuit. My brother Michael O’Brien explains the engineering: “Oval track racing tyres were measured on their centreline circumference and were inflated up or down which altered the diameter by 10 to 15 mm. This was enough across the rear axle track measurement to equalise the rotational speeds of the outer and inner tyres during cornering.” Mario’s oval track experience also played a crucial part in Lotus’ alleged experimentation and use of the ‘locked’ differential. Michael again: “The locked differential eliminated the loss of traction on the inside wheel as both rotated at equal rpm. But it needed a smooth, sensitive driver like Andretti, who could maintain a constant line around a corner, unlike the styles of Jarier, Peterson or Keke Rosberg. The locked diff also kept inner and outer tyre temperatures more even and slightly improved acceleration from the grid and out of corners. Limited-slip diffs were the norm and on suitable circuits the better drivers ran with them tightened by up to 80%. The danger of a fully-locked differential was that tyres could be destroyed with anything other than very smooth driving. Gearchanges too had to be smooth, otherwise the locked differential could not absorb the torque shocks through what was effectively the ‘single’ shaft that connected both wheels.” Is further proof needed of Andretti’s special and sensitive talents? This explains what I witnessed at Kyalami in 1972: a vast difference in technical knowledge of what happens when a car is cornered and accelerated, and not merely a difference in driving style!

At age 14, ever since Mario and his brother Aldo had seen Alberto Ascari racing a Ferrari and leading Fangio’s Mercedes-Benz at Monza in 1954, Mario had wanted to do grand prix racing. Chapman wanted him after Jim Clark’s fatal crash early in 1968. The successful relationship between Andretti and Chapman began in 1976. It was similar to that between Jackie Stewart and Ken Tyrrell or Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn, based on personal trust, respect, admiration and a very competitive and practical engineering understanding of car performance.

Some of the Formula One community and the press have been dismissal and critical of Mario Andretti. This originated at his Watkins Glen debut in 1968. In the sister Lotus-Cosworth 49B to Graham Hill’s he set the pole time! This did not go down well with The Establishment; one British journalist claimed that Andretti’s pole was due to the circuit “being virtually his own backyard; he knew it like the back of his hand”. While the F1 teams had competed here since the venue’s 1961 inception, Mario had “never even seen the place.” He led his first F1 race for half a lap until the Stewart/Matra-Cosworth went by. The rookie held on to Stewart for three laps, “with that same assurance of absolute control one saw in Clark’s driving” according to Motor Sport’s famed reporter Denis Jenkinson, until mechanical trouble caused retirement. Not a bad debut, especially from “A Yank who could only turn left”. Unfortunately Andretti only did this one F1 race in 1968 and just three more with Lotus in 1969. Chapman wanted Andretti fulltime, but sponsor contracts, race commitments and higher earnings made the US series his priority. 1970 saw Mario appear in five races, driving the all-new, but off-pace, March-Cosworth for STP. A third place in Spain was his best result.

For 1971 great things were expected: Enzo Ferrari had lured him to Maranello! Although again competing just five times when dates did not clash with his US events, Andretti won first time out in the South African GP at Kyalami. He then managed a fine fourth at the daunting Nurburgring. His team-mates were formidable full-timers Ickx and Regazzoni. Mario joined the same pair for 1972, but his now-customary five F1 races yielded just a fourth and a sixth place. On both occasions he finished ahead of Regazzoni and once ahead of Ickx. Clearly one cannot do F1 racing part-time; developing the essential rapport, understanding and mutual respect between driver and team cannot be achieved with sporadic appearances. Mario stayed ‘Stateside’ for 1973-4.

For the last two events of 1974 he was enticed back to F1 by the newly-formed Vels Parnelli Team, driving their promising Cosworth-powered car. Competing in 12 of the 14 races of 1975, the best results were a fourth, a fifth and a fastest lap. According to Andretti: “The car was had potential, if only Parnelli-Jones had concentrated on the F1 team. Instead his mind and time were on the Baja-Califorina off-road vehicles”. In early 1976 Mario did just two races, fulfilling his commitment before the Parnelli team withdrew. Best placing was sixth in the South African GP.

Andretti and Chapman had met-up late in 1975 when both careers were ‘down’. Still determined to achieve and still believing in each other’s abilities, Andretti re-joined Lotus for 1976. With the much-lauded Ronnie Peterson as team-mate they drove the innovative, ‘adjustable’ Lotus-Cosworth 77. At the season-opener in Brazil, Mario outqualified the Swede by over a second, but both retired early in the race. Ronnie pushed-off to re-join his old team March. Thereafter back with Chapman fulltime and rookie Gunnar Nilsson as team-mate, Mario and the team improved as 1976 progressed through some thirds, fourths and a fifth place and one fastest lap until Mario won the ultimate round in Japan.

For 1977 the Lotus team produced the trend-setting model 78, which used curved side-pod undersides, speeding up airflow and reducing pressure to generate ‘down-force’ and enhance cornering speeds. Lotus were front-runners again, Mario taking four wins, Gunnar one. For 1978 Peterson returned and many expected Mario to be shaded. With the beautiful, dominant Lotus-Cosworth 79, the American’s superior car-set-up and racing skills ensured that he won the qualifying 11 to 3 and scored wins at 6 to 2. One of Mario’s famous, laconic quips during Kyalami practice that year: “Some of these young drivers reckon the roll-bar is there to be used.”

During this dominant 1978 season, Goodyear conducted a test day with Andretti, Peterson and the retired Stewart driving the Lotus-Cosworth 79. Andretti was fastest, then Peterson and Stewart; the telemetry print-outs showed Mario’s traces were far smoother than Ronnie’s, but Jackie’s were smoothest of all. The Scot claimed that “Mario always was a hard driver”. Andretti responded with “It’s is easy to be smooth when you’re driving 1.5 seconds off the pace”. The Scot and James Hunt were often critical of the American in their race commentaries and in print. Yet veteran journalist Jenkinson was full of admiration for Andretti, as were Chapman and many others.

For 1979 the other teams built ‘ground-effects’ cars and the Lotus 79 was outpaced! Despite Chapman’s having one of the most formidable, talented driver pairings in Andretti and Reutemann, two second places and three thirds were the best results. For 1980 Mario appeared to have lost some spark; he was now forty and had been racing for twenty years; the travel and hotels were getting to him. He resorted to hiring the Concorde for himself to cross the Atlantic to stay at home between races! Young team-mate Elio de Angelis managed better results with the Lotus-Cosworth 87.

Disillusioned with Lotus, Mario joined the newly-formed Alfa Romeo Team for 1981, engineer Chiti wanting him for his development skills. With the car over a second a lap off-pace all year, Andretti could only manage one fourth place; young team-mate Giacomelli a third and a fourth. His heart no longer in it, Mario retired at year’s end.

In the turmoil of the 1982 season, beset with technical feuding over hard-riding ‘ground-effect’ cars, the consequent sudden retirements of Jones and Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash and Pironi’s career-ending one, Andretti received two telephone calls! Frank Williams engaged him for the US-West GP at Longbeach, where he climbed from 14th on the grid to 9th before touching a wall to retire with damaged suspension. For the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the call came from Maranello. Having lost star drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Pironi, Ferrari had been competing with Tambay alone. The 42-year-old Andretti was new to turbo-cars, and up against some fast, talented young drivers in competitive cars: Piquet, Prost, Arnoux and Rosberg. The ‘Old Man’ took pole position, but unfortunately his car suffered a continually sticking throttle from the grid and he could only nurse it in to finish third. As brilliant a swansong as his debut!

Mario Andretti was a naturally friendly, well-balanced person, never succumbing to his success and potential celebrity status. That he was a real car and racing enthusiast, my brother and I discovered when chatting to him at Kyalami in 1979. We talked of cars in general and oval track sprint-car racing, for we had seen the several US sprintcar drivers and cars that competed in South Africa in the sixties. Nodding towards the Lotus team personnel, Mario said: “Don’t tell these guys, but nothing compares with the excitement of driving sprint cars, lifting the inside front wheel with the Chevvy’s torque!” Which explains James Hunt’s collision with him at Zandvoort in 1977. Mario’s pole-setting Lotus went round the outside of Hunt’s McLaren at Tarzan Hairpin and began to overtake coming onto the next straight; Hunt closed the door damaging both cars enough to retire. Mario explained: “In oval-track racing we often took the turns two and three abreast, even with such competitive drivers as Foyt and Parnelli-Jones. If someone was faster, especially if he could go round the outside, you did not block him; it was clean racing.”

An amusing sequel to the allegations and rumours of Colin Chapman and Lotus’s use of a locked differential in 1977-78 came about in 2009. There had been a lot of secrecy concerning Lotus’ use of the underwing ‘ground-effects’ design, to which Mario’s smooth driving style contributed. I wanted to know for sure if the locked -diff had been used, and asked Peter Windsor, expert grand prix driver analyst, veteran journalist since 1972,, team manager, television broadcaster and commentator. Peter was also not sure about Lotus’ locked-diff story, but of course knew Mario Andretti well, and kindly offered to ask him directly when next he met him in the USA. Mario laughed and said there was no use of or even experimentation with a locked-diff, but that he and Chapman had spread the story, “to further wind-up rivals Teddy Mayer and the McLaren team!”

With the driving talent of Stewart and the car set-up and development strengths of Lauda, how much more could Andretti have achieved in Formula One racing had he started five years earlier, in 1963 at age 24, and competed full-time in top teams? The dominance of Clark, Stewart and Lauda would certainly have been diluted. Mario Andretti was a worthy successor to the greatest American grand prix drivers, from the pre-1921 days when the US staged seasons of great road racing and their drivers and cars competed against the best from Europe: world-class, top-rate US drivers such as Ralph de Palma, David Bruce-Brown, Earl Cooper, Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy.

Now retired after over thirty years racing, Mario reckoned he had been very lucky, having had just one serious crash, when he went into the wall at Indianapolis and damaged his feet. With his typical and laconic humour, he remarked: “The only injuries I have are a couple of chicanes in my toes that weren’t there when I started.”

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.