In his rise to become the United States’ most acclaimed racing driver in history, Mario Andretti’s life story captures the spirit of the great American dream. Born in Italy in the early stages of World War II, he spent his early childhood years in a displaced person’s camp before the family emigrated to the USA.

Childhood memories of watching the likes of Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss instilled in him a desire to emulate his boyhood heroes, and initially unbeknown to the family, he started racing.

Mario entered his first Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and won this hallmark race just four years later.

Mario Andretti, 1971 Canadian GP

With considerable success in the American series’, he ventured to Formula 1 and achieved the unthinkable: pole position on his maiden outing in a Lotus 49B at the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen! He took his maiden podium finish in 1970, and picked up his first Grand Prix win a year later at Kyalami driving for Ferrari.

One of the most versatile drivers of his era, he won in everything from F1, Champ Cars, oval racers and endurance races. Purely and simply, he had an unwavering love of motorsport and loved nothing more than being behind the wheel of a racing car.

Finally, it all came good, and in 1978 he won the Drivers’ Championship at the wheel of the Lotus 79 ground-effect car, and he remained in F1 full-time for three further season.

Mario Andretti, 1994

Mario Andretti, 1994

In 1982 and into his forties, he made a one-off appearance for Williams at the Long Beach event and was later called up to Ferrari for the Italian GP, where he shocked all comers by planting the car on pole, in his ancestral homeland, in front of the adoring tifosi.

He continued in Champ Cars for another ten years, becoming the oldest man (aged 53) to win a Champ Car event before retiring at the age of 54.

With a list of career achievements and accolades that simply beggars belief, Andretti is the true elder statesman of US racing and is still actively involved in the motorsport career of his grandson Marco, who is currently competing in IndyCars and whom, Mario hopes, will become the first third-generation Formula 1 driver.

Fresh from his recent reunion in Bahrain with past and present World Champions (and their cars) to mark 60 years of modern-era Formula 1, Mario kindly accepted our interview request and talked candidly about his time in F1 and his opinion on the return of Lotus, the current state of Formula 1 and what needs to be done to get the United States back on the Formula 1 radar.

Mario Andretti Mario Andretti Mario Andretti Helmet

Full Name: Mario Andretti
Nationality: American
Born: 28 February 1940, Montana (ITA)

First GP: 1968 United States Grand Prix
Last GP: 1982 Caesars Palace Grand Prix
World Champion: 1978

Entries: 131 Grands Prix: 128 Non-starts: 3
Wins: 12 Podiums: 19 Pole Positions: 18
Fastest Laps: 10 Points: 180 Retirements: 65

Entries: 408 Races: 407 Non-starts: 1
Wins: 52 Podiums: 95 Pole Positions: 67
Laps Led: 7587 Points: 3079 Titles: 1

1965 Indianapolis 500, Brawner Hawk Ford, 3rd overall
1966 Indianapolis 500, Brawner Hawk Ford, Pole Position, DNF
1967 Indianapolis 500, Brawner Hawk Ford, Pole Position, DNF
Daytona 500, Holman Moody Ford GT40, 1st overall
12 Hours of Sebring, Ford GT40 1st overall with Bruce McLaren
1968 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 49B, 1 race, 1 pole position, 0 points, Not Classified
1969 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 49B / 63, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified
Indianapolis 500, Brawner Hawk Ford, 1st overall
Pike’s Peak Hillclimb, 1st overall
1970 Formula 1, STP March Ford 701, 5 races, 1 podium, 4 points, 16th overall
12 Hours of Sebring, Scuderia Ferrari 512S, 1st overall with I. Giunti & N. Vaccarella
1971 Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari 312B / 312B2, 5 races, 1 win, 12 points, 8th overall
1972 Formula 1, Scuderia Ferrari 312B2, 5 races, 4 points, 12th overall
6 Hours of Daytona, Scuderia Ferrari 312PB, 1st overall with Jacky Ickx
12 Hours of Sebring, Scuderia Ferrari 312PB, 1st overall with Jacky Ickx
1974 Formula 1, Parnelli Jones Ford VPJ4, 2 races, 0 points, Not Classified
1975 Formula 1, Parnelli Jones Ford VPJ4, 12 races, 5 points, 14th overall
1976 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 77, 13 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 22 points, 6th overall
Formula 1, Parnelli Jones Ford VPJ4B, 2 races, 1 point
1977 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 78, 17 races, 4 wins, 5 podiums, 47 points, 3rd overall
1978 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 78 / 79, 16 races, 6 wins, 7 podiums, 64 points, 1st overall
1978-9 International Race of Champions, 1st overall
1979 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 79 / 80, 15 races, 1 podium, 14 points, 12th overall
CART World Series, Penske Ford PC-6, 1 race, 1 podium, 11th overall
1980 Formula 1, Team Lotus Ford 81, 14 races, 1 point, 20th overall
CART World Series, Penske Ford PC-9, 4 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 16th overall
1981 Formula 1, Alfa Romeo 179C, 15 races, 3 points, 17th overall
CART World Series, Patrick Racing Wildcat Ford 7 races, 4 podiums, 11th overall
Indianapolis 500, Patrick Racing Wildcat Ford, 2nd overall
1982 Formula 1, Williams Ford FW07D / Ferrari 126C2, 3 races, 1 podium, 4 points, 19th overall
1982 IndyCar Series, Patrick Racing Ford Wildcat 8B, 11 races, 6 podiums, 3rd overall
1983 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T-700, 13 races, 1 win, 6 podiums, 3rd overall
24 Hours of Le Mans, Kremer Racing Porsche 956, 3rd overall with P. Alliot & M. Andretti
1984 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T800, 16 races, 6 wins, 8 podiums, 1st overall
1985 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T900, 15 races, 3 wins, 5 podiums, 5th overall
Indianapolis 500, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T900, 2nd overall
1986 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T8600, 17 races, 2 wins, 4 podiums, 5th overall
1987 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Chevrolet T8700, 15 races, 2 wins, 3 podiums, 6th overall
Indianapolis 500, Newman/Haas Lola Chevrolet T8700, Pole Position, 9th overall
1988 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Chevrolet T8800, 15 races, 2 wins, 8 podiums, 5th overall
1989 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Chevrolet T8900, 15 races, 4 podiums, 6th overall
1990 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Chevrolet Lola T9000, 16 races, 4 podiums, 7th overall
Motorsports Hall of Fame of America Inductee
1991 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Chevrolet T9100, 17 races, 4 podiums, 7th overall
1992 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T9200, 15 races, 6th overall
1993 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T9300, 16 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 6th overall
1994 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas Lola Ford T9400, 16 races, 1 podium, 14th overall
1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, Courage Compétition C34, 1st in WSC Class with E. Hélary & B. Wollek
1996 24 Hours of Le Mans, Courage Compétition C36, 3rd in LMP1 Class with J. Lammers & D. Warwick
National Sprintcar Hall of Fame Inductee
2001 International Motorsports Hall of Fame Inductee
2006 Awarded Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana

You’ve just returned from Bahrain to mark 60 years of modern-era Formula 1, and were reunited with your championship-winning Lotus 79 (pictured). Can you tell me about your experience in Bahrain?

The weekend was just fantastic and I enjoyed every minute of it immensely. To be able to reacquaint ourselves with one another, with drivers of the past who spent so much time together, and also to be acquainted with the new champions as well. It was a wonderful event: the hospitality was superb, and of course the venue is spectacular in every way. I highly recommend it!

Andretti demonstrated his championship-winning Lotus at the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix

Andretti demonstrated his championship-winning Lotus at the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix

It was my first visit to Bahrain and my first call at the circuit. The venue was, as you can imagine, fabulous.

[Driving the circuit] it is very busy in some areas, very technical, but I’m not sure it would be one of my favourite ones. But nevertheless, it was very challenging and I still enjoyed the opportunity to be able to learn the circuit from a racing car.

I’ve had some opportunities to drive the Lotus 79 in the last few years, here and there, since I won the Championship. Every time that I have the chance, I just welcome the opportunity to do it. It brings back fond memories, of course.

The cars I’ve been able to run in have been very well maintained, so I was actually having fun. I was really disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to run as much as I would have liked to.

The event also marked the return of the Lotus name to Formula 1 for the first time in 16 years. You had a long and successful association with the team – what is your take on their return, and can they achieve the same level of success?

I would love to see Lotus do that. It seems to me like it’s a very serious, long-term effort and also you could definitely see that they had a very special appreciation for the brand and they feel all the responsibility that goes with it. I think that they are definitely also enjoying the attention that they’re getting because of that.

Quite honestly, it’s a new team and, like the other new teams, they were quite a bit off the pace, but the presentation was extremely professional, the cars looked great, and they finished. So you could see that it’s a very serious effort.

I was very, very impressed as to how well the team looked all round – how professional it looked in the relatively short time they had to get it together, infrastructure included. I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch their progress and of course I would love to see them really do well. I think it would be a satisfaction from this side to see them represent that brand with some great results.

[Technical Director] Mike Gascoyne is a no-nonsense type of individual who can get the job done and I think, if given the opportunity to progress and develop and do more internal work – they all know they’re a bit short on downforce – it’s going to make all the difference in their performance as time progresses.

The other significant event was Schumacher’s return. You yourself have made comebacks and have had a very long and successful career, and Schumacher’s return at the age of 41 has garnered a huge amount of media attention. In some circles, key figures have remarked that his return is great for the sport. When I spoke with Allen Berg, he raised concerns that Schumacher was placing himself at risk, putting himself in competition with young driver while essentially having a target on his head. What do you expect him to achieve in this comeback?

I don’t think there can be downside for Formula 1 to have a driver of the calibre of Michael Schumacher back is phenomenal. Millions of fans around the world are welcoming that.

The only one who stands to lose from this, and is potentially taking the risk is him. Obviously when he retired, he was a winner and now everybody expects him to do the same. And I think he expects that more than anyone. But he’s taken on the challenge and he’s the one who knows himself the best.

And I’m going with him. I think that Michael will win races; it’s in him to win the championship. He’s with the right people, people who have been part of his success in the past. It’s an extension of the same family. There are so many elements on his side. I think he did respectably well for his very first race after his lay-off, and to me, he can only get stronger form here. I don’t see any negatives here; I only see positives going forward.

Would you parallel it with your situation in Ferrari in 1982, when you came back with Ferrari to replace the injured Didier Pironi when you planted the car on pole at the age of 42?

Mario Andretti, 1982 Italian Grand Prix

Andretti likens Schumacher’s return to his own comeback at the 1982 Italian GP with Ferrari. Aged 42, Andretti planted the car on pole position and finished third

I think I probably understand his situation better than most people. On an equal level and on an equal age, I came back and still drove competitively many years later. So just coming back, the biggest factor for me was having a competitive car and I found that at Ferrari. The opportunity to familiarise myself before the race, I had that. And I felt very comfortable going into the race, and the result came out of it.

That’s why, looking at the spark in Michael’s eye, and the way he speaks about coming back, you can see that there’s a burning passion and a love for the sport and for driving still in him. Physically, I think he’s as fit as anyone there, if not better, so that should not be an issue whatsoever. The fact that he wants to come back is certainly only because he loves the sport, and I did the same thing. I did it it purely because I loved driving, I loved the opportunity, the challenge. A lot of that parallels with my situation.

There has been a lot of debate following the Bahrain Grand Prix that the rules reintroducing the refuelling ban have had the opposite effect intended, with the race itself proving less action-packed than hoped. As someone who raced in Formula 1 when refuelling was also banned and when Grands Prix were something of an economy run, what was your take on that race and the subsequent debate?

Everyone was very curious as to how the tyre situation was going to play [out] because of the two compounds available. What we expected to happen [there being more pit stops] didn’t happen. I was speaking to several of the engineers, and one in particular, Adrian Newey, and I asked him he had any idea of what to expect. And he said, ‘Absolutely not, we don’t even know if we’re going to do one or two stops yet.’

What happened was that the Bridgestone tyres were too good. Even the softer tyres performed extremely well, and all the top teams went for one stop. They were able to run a long stint with the soft tyres – long than they expected – and then finished the race on the harder compound with no problems.

The degradation that was expected just wasn’t there. The track temperature was some around 50º C – the ambient temperature was almost that high too! The only thing that would have made the race more interesting and unpredictable was if the tyres had not performed the way they did. But they were too good! They are victims of their own success.

If you had the magic wand to cure Formula 1 and bring more excitement to the sport, would you change anything?

There are not a lot of things I would change, but there’s one thing I would change: I would get rid of the carbon brakes. That precludes, in my opinion, some of the potential to pass another car. You’re braking so late that it’s almost impossible to outbrake your competitor. You come along a straight at some 200mph and you can brake at the 50-metre marker. If they were braking at 100-120 metres, then it allows for some jockeying before the turn. This way, you’re braking and turning. That’s why, whenever there’s a passing opportunity, the competitors come together.

I don’t see any technical advantage of carbon brakes. It’s not something that’s prevalent in your everyday passenger car, so why even have them? Aircraft have carbon brakes, but so what?

[Removing carbon brakes] would clear and immediately improve the situation, as far as overtaking is concerned.

You’ve worked for some of the most famous Formula 1 team bosses: Colin Chapman (pictured, in 1978), Enzo Ferrari, Sir Frank Williams. What were they like to work for?

Andretti and Chapman

Andretti and Chapman

They all had their own special personality characteristics and were icons in their own right. These are the individuals who are considered the movers and shakers in Formula 1 over the decades, and I dealt with them personally.

For me, it’s something that was extremely special and I look back on those days when we were dealing back and forth with a lot of fondness. I learned from their wisdom in many ways, which is obviously a great thing, and I have great respect and admiration for all of them. I’m fortunate that I had first-person dealings with people like them who I admire so much.

You’re the only man in history to have won the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the Formula 1 World Title in an era where driver versatility was not uncommon. Do you think this achievement will ever be replicated in the modern era?

I think it’s up to an individual to put themselves in a position to do that much work. It’s a lot of work and a lot of sacrificing of other parts of your life. People who are closest to you have to make sacrifices as well, in that sense. I didn’t look at it as my sacrifices on my own side, because I was after my own goals and perhaps very selfish in that respect. But the sacrifice for me was not being there for important moments in my family’s life, and I missed all of that. Again, there was a price to pay for all of this, and I don’t know how many people would be willing to go to that point to satisfy a career like I wanted to.

The other part, nowadays, where the contracts are more substantial and whoever’s employing you as more control over your destiny because they’re paying for it. With the sport being more commercialised, it means there could also be more conflicts of interest with potential sponsors. There are elements that enter into it today that were not as prevalent as when I was doing it. Make no mistake, I had plenty of flak from all the people and the teams owners I was driving for who didn’t want me to do anything other than drive their cars, and I had plenty of problems in that respect and I had to fight and take a stand for myself. Colin Chapman was one such person, and I said to him ‘You could never compensate me enough for my own career’, and I undertook with him never to be late for any of my work and he just had to be cool and let me do my thing, because that was when I was happiest.

What are your thoughts on the modern-day street circuits increasingly visited by the IndyCar Series? Are you a fan of these versus the traditional permanent road courses such as Elkhart Lake and Laguna Seca?

I prefer a stable environment and a stable calendar of circuit where you can prepare and test beforehand, when you can arrive at the race prepared.

There is some volatility with the street courses because there are a few venues that have stayed on – like Long Beach, for instance, which is a classic event – but many others have come and gone.

That part, I’m not a fan of, but I am a fan of the challenge that some of the street events present.

It’s a level playing field in every way, because no one has the chance to go there beforehand and test and prepare, so we’re all in the same boat. It’s up to how quickly you learn and adapt that makes the difference.

Street circuit are less forgiving than other courses because of the lack of run-off and the proximity of the walls. It requires a different driving style. In my experience of temporary street courses, I’ve done quite well and I embrace that idea. I welcome the mix, but the fact that there’s a volatility about it: I don’t like to see a series depend on temporary courses so much because of the obvious.

Do you believe the that the IndyCar series needs to broaden its international reach further, to the likes of England, Germany, or even back to Australia?

I think the organisers should keep those options open if a country wants to host an event and really embrace it and get behind it to promote it well. I remember when the idea of coming to Australia was first floated, and when we arrived there, the organisers had done a great job. The course, the layout, the organisation, everything was great. The attendance was phenomenal as well.

If everyone has that 10/10ths effort behind it, then yes. Should the series concern itself with putting more emphasis on international events? I don’t think that’s necessary. I think that the US is large enough [a market] that the majority of the events should be here. But to branch out internationally with four or five events is a good thing. Most sponsors who are involved are global companies and they would probably welcome the idea of showcasing themselves internationally.

The Andretti name is something of a dynasty in motorsport circles. What was the transition like to move from being a driver to watching your sons and grandson race?

Three generations of Andrettis: Michael, Marco and Mario

Three generations of Andrettis: Michael, Marco and Mario

For me, I stayed on a driver for as long as I could, I milked it to the last ounce. When I retired, I was 54, and that was about as old as you could be in the sport and I didn’t want to give up driving. I didn’t have the easiest time watching from the sidelines, but you have to realise that there has to be a limit to that, and that’s a natural situation. I can only be thankful that I retired on my own terms.

I can be thankful that I was able to dabble in racing afterwards, such as Le Mans, which allowed me to scratch the itch, if you will.

I’m very fulfilled watching my kids race, watching Michael and now Marco, and I’m laughing and crying with them along the way, with every success and every pain.

Did Marco’s recent accident at São Paulo cause any concerns for you?

Marco has so much to give, and I hope he has his opportunity to do so, because he’s had some bad luck. Even that last race, as you mentioned, that was a stupid situation. That Mario Moraes (pictured above, mounting Marco’s car), I don’t know what he was thinking, but he could have killed Marco. It was a totally brainless situation.

Marco learns quickly, he’s one of these young drivers that can do it. He is one boy who I want to see in Formula 1.

The Curse of Andy Granatelli’s kiss, or known better as the Andretti Curse, is an unfortunate irony to be associated with. 1992 and 2006 must have been the hardest years for the Andretti’s at Indianapolis. Can Marco break the curse and drink the milk in 2010?

I certainly hope so. We’ve had our moments at Indy – don’t forget the 1987 race when I led nearly every lap and had a lap on the field with 20 laps to go! The fact that we’ve had those moments is something that’s also very positive. I’ve never really looked at it in the way that others call it a curse, I never did.

I only won once, but I dominated that race more times than some four-time winners, so I have that as satisfaction in my trophy cabinet. The fact that I’m the second-highest lap leader at Indianapolis means that I had some good times there. The fact that I got away with never seriously being injured there is also good luck. I don’t look at it as a curse at all.

We did have some bad luck arriving at chequered flag when we were in a position to win. Marco hopefully will have plenty of opportunities to redeem the family name with, hopefully, plenty of wins!

There has been much debate about the success, or lack thereof, of American drivers who have graduated to Formula 1. Subsequent to your involvement, just three American drivers (Eddie Cheever, Scott Speed and your son, Michael) and only a handful of IndyCar drivers (Teo Fabi, Jacques Villeneuve, Alessandro Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Christiano da Matta) have attempted to make the move to Formula 1. What’s your take on the lack of American drivers in Formula 1?

What needs to be remembered here is the fact that America is one of the only countries that offers top-level disciplines of the sport where you can satisfy a career here without even having a passport. Whether its NASCARs or IndyCars, there’s a high standard of racing here and most other countries don’t have that level of sport, so Formula 1 would have to be the ultimate for them.

I’m certainly not saying that Formula 1 isn’t the ultimate as far as motor racing is concerned in the States, but because youngsters can have a successful career here, they’re not stimulated by Formula 1. Either the IndyCars or NASCAR: that’s what they want to pursue.

You could well argue that there isn’t enough talent here to compete on the world stage in Formula 1, and I’ll dispute that all day. I guarantee you that any of the top US drivers in any of these disciplines, if they really wanted to concentrate on Formula 1, they would do just as well and they could be winners as well as they achieve results here. It’s up to the individual to really want that.

When I was driving, I was in midget cars and I was thinking of Formula 1. When I fell in love with motor racing, it was Formula 1. I was a young lad still living in Italy, and my goals started early and I pictured myself emulating Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, those people, when I was a youngster. But you don’t have that here. That’s the difference that’s the only way I can explain it.

Can Formula 1 re-enter the American market with a United States Grand Prix?

Yes. It’s a travesty that Formula 1 is not in the United States, as much of a travesty as it is that there isn’t a race in France.

I think that it’s wonderful to see all of these beautiful facilities popping up in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, China, Korea, Malaysia and India, because it elevates Formula 1 in a very positive way and opens up a different market. But I also say that you should never forget the traditional venues that really made Formula 1, such as the classic European venues, or the united States, for one thing. The country, being such a large country, has many sponsors who support Formula 1 and do a lot of business in the United States and many are based here. That should not be ignored.

One other thing that I think is underestimated is the strength of the fan base in America. Having said all, that, there should be a race here, but there’s a big problem with the free enterprise system here. It’s really difficult to finance a Formula 1 race without any government help. It’s tough to compete with countries that have government support for its events, and it’s the job of Formula One Management to come to terms with respect to treating the situation in the US and making it happen.

We need to be able to enjoy a Grand Prix, but that must be with the understanding that we’re not going to be able to do it with the lavish presentation that we have in some of these new countries that are hosting Grands Prix. It still has to be a good business proposition for whoever is promoting these events, and that’s why countries such as England are having a difficult time hosting a Formula 1 race because of the cost of it.

How big is the loss of USF1 from the 2010 grid?

All I can say is how disappointed I am. When it was announced that they were starting this team, the two Team Principals (Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson) were two individuals who knew the scene quite well and you felt that the project was in good hands. Apparently a lot of the things that were promised to them did not come through, as far as financial support. Without that, nothing can happen.

It got to a point of no return. I don’t know the particulars and I’m just speculating, but a fundamental part of any project like this is the financing, and that didn’t materialise and that’s why they had to fold. That’s a big disappointment, no question. The announcement that we were going to see a Formula 1 team from the United States was very exciting.

Both your grandson, Marco, and Danica Patrick have recently been linked with roles in Formula 1. Who do you believe is America’s next Formula 1 prospect?

I’m only interested in Marco. Yes, I would like to see some other American drivers in F1, but since I have my own family involved I have just about zero interest in anyone else and a vested interest in Marco alone!

Hopefully we can make all of that happen.

Images via The Cahier Archive and Corbis Images

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.