Mario Gabriele Andretti was born in Motovun, a small town in Istria, in February 28, 1940. Moving to Lucca with his family after the annexation of Istria by Yugoslavia, the future Formula 1 World Champion shows from an early age a particular interest in the world of Motorsport, as told by his mother herself:
"When they were only two years old, Mario and Aldo (the twin brother, editor's note) took the pot covers from the cupboard, starting to run around the kitchen as if they were driving a car. And to say they had never seen one yet".
In 1950, after having stumbled upon the reading of various motoring magazines, and impressed by the films on the Formula 1 cars, Mario became passionate about the world of racing, and not even a teenager, he found work, together with his brother, as a mechanical assistant. in a garage in the Tuscan city. It is here that his love for motor racing finally blossoms, as revealed by Andretti himself:
"The first time I started a car, I heard the roar of the engine and the steering wheel come to life in my hands: I was immediately captured. It was an emotion that I still can't describe".
Once he obtained the necessary visa, Mario moved to America and began working in his uncle's workshop, where he developed a car to compete in dirt track races, competitions that take place on oval tracks. Then, in 1959, he took part in the first official events in the Limited Sportsman Class, achieving two victories each together with his brother in as many races. It is the beginning of a glorious career. Andretti won twenty-one of the forty-six races organized between 1960 and 1961, before starting to compete in USAC stock cars and midget cars, very small cars with mostly four-cylinder engines, with a high weight-to-power ratio. The Italian-American, during 1963, participated in more than a hundred events of the category, generally along crowded dirt tracks, sometimes competing and winning even three races a day.
This type of racing allows Mario to acquire a good driving experience, and to fully learn the style of American races, making it particularly useful for future participation in the 500 Miles. The 1964 is the year of his debut in the USAC (United States Auto Club) National Championship. Andretti takes the place of Chuck Hulse, who was injured a few weeks earlier, in Al Dean's team. It is here that Mario meets one of the most important figures for his personal growth, the mechanic of the same team Clint Brawner, with whom he will form one of the most successful pairs in the history of competitions in America. Before that, however, the Italian-American needs to adapt his driving style to the new roadster cars that compete along oval and asphalted tracks, which require higher steering precision than midget cars and dirt tracks.
The 1965 marks the turning point: in his debut at the Indianapolis 500, Mario wins pole position aboard his Brawner-Ford, finishing the race in third place behind Jim Clark's Lotus and Parnelli Jones, obtaining the prize of Rookie of the Year. It is during this race weekend that the Italian-American driver has the opportunity to meet Colin Chapman, owner of Lotus, with whom he has a very meaningful exchange:
"Mr. Chapman, my greatest desire is to race in Formula 1".
"Call me when you are ready".
The paths of the two will cross again in the future, when they will form an explosive and winning combination. In the meantime, there is a long career in intermission, made up of extraordinary successes, starting with the first career victory in USAC, obtained only a few weeks later, on the occasion of the Hoosier Grand Prix. At the end of the season, Mario will conquer twelve placings in the first four positions, graduating at the age of twenty-five as the youngest National Champion.
Andretti quickly gained a solid reputation, proving to possess the non-trivial characteristic of versatility, and being able to compete at the highest levels in different types of races. The Italian-American driver reaffirms himself as champion in the same category the following year, a season in which he got eight wins out of fifteen total races, taking away the personal satisfaction of signing the pole position in the Indy 500. In 1967 Andretti is committed on different fronts: he participates in several stock car races, managing to seize the first victory, finishing in seventh final position, ending the USAC National Championship in second position, losing the title during the last laps of the last race for the benefit of J. Foyt, and finally participates in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Mario proves his versatility once more, taking part in and winning the 24 Hours of Daytona the following year, and the 12 Hours of Sebring. In the same year he finished again in second position in the USAC Championship, having the title blown by Bobby Unser during the last race. Thanks to this amazing series of successes, in September he was invited by Chapman to take part in the 1968 Italian Grand Prix, on the demanding Monza circuit. However, Saturday's qualifying is not exciting, and the Italian-American driver only finishes in tenth place. Despite a less than optimal result, numerous teams, led by Ferrari, exert enormous pressure on the International Federation to prevent Andretti from taking part in the Grand Prix. And so it was: Mario will therefore be forced to postpone the appointment with destiny.
However, in October the moment he has been waiting for a lifetime arrives: Andretti participates in his first race in Formula 1 aboard the Lotus-Ford right at the home Grand Prix in the United States at the Watkins Glen circuit. The result is amazing: he immediately conquers the Pole Position, respectively seven and eight cents ahead of Jackie Stewart on Matra, and teammate Graham Hill. Sunday's race is one that a rookie could never forget: the atmosphere is electrifying and 93.000 people are the setting for a race full of emotions. At the start Andretti is overtaken by Stewart and the two continue alone until the ninth lap, when the Italian-American breaks the nose of his Lotus, finding himself with the front right wing crawling on the asphalt. On the thirteenth lap, the Italian-American makes the pit stop and returns to the track with his nose sutured with adhesive tape, finding himself sailing in the center of the group, before finally ending his race on the thirty-third lap, due to a brokenn clutch.
His commitment to Formula 1 becomes greater in the following year. In March 1969, still in the Lotus seat, Andretti took part in the South African Grand Prix, alongside his teammates Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, he qualified in sixth position ahead of Hill and being eight tenths slower than poleman Jack Brabham, but in race retires due to a gearbox problem. Subsequently, in August he participates in the German Grand Prix in the historic Nurburgring circuit, on the original 22 kilometers long layout. In a race weekend marked by the tragic death of the home driver Gerhard Mitter, who crashed into a tree following the probable failure of the suspension, Mario closes the qualifying session in fifteenth position, only to retire following an accident a few meters after the start.
At the beginning of October he takes part, for the second time, in the United States Grand Prix, at the Watkins Glen circuit. Here too, however, after an unexciting qualifying that only relegates him to thirteenth place, the Italian-American driver closes with a retirement due to a suspension problem. However, the lack of placements in Formula 1 is contrasting with the results in American races. When the patron Al Dean passes away, Mario and the chief mechanic Brawner gather the support of Andy Granatelli's STP, and reach the apex of their collaborative relationship. Andretti imposes himself in the USAC Championship taking possession of nine seasonal appointments, including the most coveted race of the Indianapolis 500.
At the end of the three-year period 1966-1969, the supremacy of the Italian-American in the USAC Championship is evident, given that he triumphs on twenty-nine occasions out of eighty-five total participations. In fact, at the end of the same year, he was awarded the title of Wide World Sports Athlete by NBC. In 1970 Andretti again took part in the Formula 1 championship, but only for five Grands Prix aboard the March 701 of the March Engineering team, also financially supported by STP. At the debut of the new season on the South African track of Kyalami, Andretti is not particularly impressive: he is classified in eleventh place more than a second behind the poleman Jackie Stewart, also on March-Ford, only to retire after twenty-six laps due to a problem of overheating.
The following month the Circus is presented on the Spanish circuit of Jarama. The race weekend is accompanied by numerous protests over the choice of the International Federation to reduce the number of cars participating in the event to only sixteen. The Italian-American finished Saturday's qualifying in a sad last position, almost two seconds behind the leader. The Sunday race is, however, one of the most chaotic in the history of Formula 1: Jackie Oliver and Jacky Ickx are victims of a frightening accident in which both cars catch fire, but from which they miraculously come out unscathed and with some burns on their bodies. Eight other drivers are forced to retire due to various problems, including Chris Amon, Jochen Rindt and Jack Brabham. Only five cars will reach the checkered flag, with Andretti in third position, one lap behind the winner Jackie Stewart.
The first podium in Formula 1 is undoubtedly a positive result, but the gap that separates him from the leading positions is still very large. During the season, Mario took part in three consecutive rounds at Brands Hatch, Hockenheim and Österreich in Austria, not being particularly brilliant and having to retire on all occasions due to suspension, engine and an accident respectively. In the same season, as happened the previous year, Andretti returns to impose himself in American competitions, this time aboard a Ferrari. The Maranello house offers its drivers the famous Ferrari 512 S, with a semi-monocoque chassis and a V12 that delivers up to 550 hp, allowing the driver to win the 12 Hours of Sebring alongside Ignazio Giunti and Nino Vaccarella, and to arrive on the podium in the 24 Hours of Daytona together with teammates Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario.
At the same time, he continues his commitment to the STP in the USAC Championship, this time in a fragmented way, obtaining only one victory at the Castle Rock event in Colorado, and finishing in sixth position in the Indianapolis 500. Thanks to the positive appearances aboard the 512 S as a guest driver, Andretti consolidates his relationship with Ferrari, which allows him to drive his own car for the 1971 season. Under the direction of Mauro Forghieri, the Maranello-based manufacturer equips its 321B with a new 12-cylinder engine, with the same arranged horizontally in two rows of six cylinders each. The new location of the engine allows for a lower center of gravity to be obtained, significantly increasing the deportation effect at the rear.
In South Africa, on the Kyalami circuit, Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell and Chris Amon's Matra dominate during qualifying. Third and fourth position for the two Ferraris of Clay Regazzoni and Mario Andretti. The third red led by Ickx, in difficulty, only hits eighth place. At the start of the race, the Swiss Ferrari driver sprints very well, taking the lead in front of Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus-Ford, then Denis Hulme's McLaren-Ford, Pedro Rodriguez's BRM, while Andretti and Stewart slip respectively to fifth and sixth position. After a few laps Hulme passes Fittipaldi climbing to second position, while on the seventeenth lap, the New Zealander of McLaren also slips Regazzoni who is soon overtaken by John Surtees' Surtees-Ford.
The McLaren driver appears to be heading for victory when his car begins to have problems with a suspension. In the meantime, Andretti, from fifth position, begins to step on the accelerator, and after passing Regazzoni and Surtees, he arrives close to Denis Hulme. On lap 70 the leader of the race was forced to stop in the pits for some repairs, and the Italian-American took the lead and will never leave it. His debut aboard the racing car from Maranello is one that a driver will never forget. However, the subsequent races are very different: the Italian-American driver retires due to an engine problem in the Spanish Grand Prix, and is forced, due to a problem, to park his Ferrari on the side of the track during qualifying for the race. Monte Carlo, and breaks the petrol pump in Zandvoort. Then he takes an excellent fourth place in the German Grand Prix after starting in eleventh position, in a race eventually won by the usual Jackie Stewart, and then concludes the season with a thirteenth place in the Canadian Grand Prix.
Andretti closed the 1971 season with several appearances also in the USAC Championship, where however he obtained poor results from which, however, the second final position in the Trenton Grand Prix stands out, and the thirtieth place in the Indy 500. In 1972 Mario took part in five Grand Prix of the Formula 1 championship, still aboard the Ferrari 312 B2, but retired in the inaugural round in Argentina due to an engine problem and in Spain, while closing the Grand Prix in sixth position. Italy's prize and the United States' seventh. He will get the best result of the season during the second round of the world championship, in the South African Grand Prix, qualifying sixth and finishing in fourth position, behind the winner Denny Hulme, Emerson Fittipaldi and Peter Revson.
The greatest satisfactions come from the great classics, aboard the Ferrari 312 PB. The Maranello house designs the car on the basis of the Formula 1 312B. With an engine layout similar to that of Porsche, equipped with a 3.0-liter twelve-cylinder engine with a very low center of gravity, the Maranello house introduces a system of water-cooled and four-valve heads. Having solved the reliability problems of the previous model, the 312 PB dominates the 1972 World Sports Car Championship. Jacky Ickx and Andretti himself win the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 1000 Kilometers of Brands Hatch, the 6 Hours of Daytona and the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen. At the end of the season, the Maranello car will prevail in eleven races out of the twelve total. The Italian-American driver will close the year with two podiums in the USAC Championship, both during the rounds in Phoenix and with eighth place in the 500 Miglia.
In the following season, Mario only participates in competitions in America, taking a sabbatical from appearances in Formula 1. In a year marked by the division of the USAC Championship in track and dirt races, Andretti wins the Trenton Grand Prix and two second places in those of Ontario and Michigan, finishing in fifth position in the ranking of events on asphalt and in second place those on dirt. He also participates in the Formula 5000 championship, winning several seasonal events and finishing in second position in the World Championship standings. During 1974, Andretti returned to the Formula 1 Circus together with the Parnelli team with which he imposed himself on several occasions in the USAC Championship. The VPJ4, conceived by the British engineer ex Lotus Maurice Philippe and powered by Ford Cosworth, thus makes its debut in the top car competition and the Italian-American driver performs a small miracle: after having closed Saturday's qualifying in sixteenth position with a 1.8 gap from poleman Fittipaldi on McLaren, on the Mosport Park circuit in Canada, is the protagonist of a beautiful comeback up to seventh place, close to the points. It is a historic result for the Parnelli-Andretti duo.
At the next and last round of the season on American soil, at the Watkins Glen circuit, Andretti conquers a spectacular first position in the first qualifying heat on Friday, with the unofficial track record set at 1'39"209. He precedes the Brabham of Reutemann and Carlos Pace by a handful of thousandths but, arrived on Saturday, he cannot defend the partial result due to technical problems on his VPJ4, qualifying in third final position. Sunday starts along the lines of Saturday: the Parnelli car accuses a problem at the injection system, forcing the mechanics to race against time to allow Andretti to take part in the race. Thanks to the delayed start by the race marshals, the Italian-American manages to participate in the race, but is disqualified after five laps due to the action of his mechanics, guilty of having implemented unauthorized external help.
The 1974 season continues with his commitments in the New Continent, in which he wins the USAC Championship in the classification dedicated to the Grand Prix on dirt roads. He participates again in the Formula 5000 championship, taking victories on the Watkins Glen, Road America and Riverside circuits but, thanks to a second, third and fourth place added to a retirement, Andretti closes in second position, eight points behind the champion Brian Redman. The Italian-American driver returns to victory in another great classic, conquering the 1000 Kilometers of Monza aboard the Alfa Romeo 33 T12 of the Italian team Autodelta, flanked by the Italian Arturo Merzario.
The 1975 is the year of his definitive turning point, starting to race full time in the Formula 1 World Championship aboard the Parnelli, thus reducing his appearances in American competitions only at the most important races. However, the first part of the season was marked by reliability problems, and Andretti was forced to retire on three occasions in the first five races. He gets the best placement in the second race of the World Championship in the Brazilian Grand Prix when, after starting in eighteenth position, he becomes the protagonist of a good comeback, once again finishing close to the points zone, in seventh place.
Subsequently, he collects another excellent result in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix, when he takes fourth place in a race weekend marked by protests from drivers who threaten not to participate in the event due to the poor safety conditions of the track. He will then retire in the race due to a suspension problem. Close to the middle of the championship he decides to skip the Zolder Grand Prix in Belgium and Zandvoort in Holland to take part in the Indianapolis 500, which ends with a not thrilling 28th place. On his return to Formula 1 he runs on the Swedish circuit of Anderstorp. Friday practice sees the Italian Vittorio Brambilla win on March, who will see the first position confirmed due to the track conditions on Saturday, judged by many riders as very dirty.
Andretti qualified only in fifteenth position, with a gap of 2.2 from the leader. After a muted start, thanks to the numerous retirements of the riders ahead of him, including Patrick Depailler and Jean-Pierre Jarier, who started second and third respectively, and that of Carlos Pace, Andretti finds himself incredibly in fourth place behind Reutemann and the Ferraris of Lauda and Regazzoni. He will maintain his position until the end of the race, guaranteeing the first placement in the points area of the US team. In the following French race at Le Castellet, in the face of a once again subdued qualifying in which the potential content of his car is confirmed, Andretti finishes fifteenth, only to become the protagonist of a spectacular comeback race. By the time the third race draws to a close, Andretti finds himself in eighth position to tail Jody Scheckter and Tony Brise, only to overtake them a few laps later. He ends a memorable race in fifth position, in which Lauda precedes Hunt for a few seconds.
It is the high point of a season that will end without further ideas, with the driver who will finish out of the points zone in the British and German Grand Prix and will be forced to retire due to an accident in subsequent races in Italy, Austria and the United States, finishing a positive season, however, with the fourteenth place in the championship standings, against a total of five points. In the same season he participates in four events of the USAC Championship, also managing to seize the victory during the appointment in Phoenix.
The 1976 season saw the Parnelli team go into serious economic difficulty due to the loss of its major sponsor, the Viceroy tobacco industry, which inspired the livery of the helmet used by Andretti himself up to that moment. For these reasons the team decides not to participate in the opening race of Interlagos, allowing the Italian-American to race for Lotus, replacing Gunnar Nilsson. The Italian-American closed qualifying in a disappointing sixteenth place before being forced to retire due to an accident in the next day's race. At the second round of the season in South Africa, Andretti returns to driving his Parnelli. A very tight qualifying concludes in thirteenth position in which this time Hunt wins ahead of Lauda, and then reassembles in the race, finishing with an excellent sixth place finish.
The third race takes place in the American circuit of Watkins Glen, and once again the driver finds himself sailing in the middle of the standings, confirming himself in fifteenth position on the starting grid. The start of the race, however, was angry, and Andretti recovered up to ninth position, also setting the fastest lap. However, a loss of water from the engine forced him to retire a few laps later. It will be the last appearance of the Parnelli team in the Formula 1 Circus, after a three-season history for a total of sixteen races. Before his retirement in his Long Beach race, Andretti is approached by a reporter who asks him:
"What do you think of your last race in Formula 1".
"What are you talking about?"
The reporter adds:
"That's what Vel Miletich told me".
"It will be his last, not mine".
Andretti ends his relationship with Miletich and Jones Parnelli, but the following morning he meets Colin Chapman and the two sign an agreement to continue the season together, replacing Bob Evans, and for the following ones. The return to the team with which he made his debut in Formula 1, however, is not one of the memorable ones: he finishes qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix in ninth position, and is forced to retire from the race due to a gearbox problem. He was born in the Belgian Grand Prix, before skipping the Monte Carlo appointment to participate in the Indianapolis 500 with Penske Racing, finishing with a good eighth place.
Back in Formula 1, the seventh round of the season is held in Sweden. Andretti closes qualifying with an excellent second position behind Scheckter. In the race he immediately takes the lead and starts to push hard, managing to put a decent margin between himself and the South African. On the fifth lap, however, he is penalized for an early start with a penalty of one minute to be added to his final time. He leads the race until lap 45 when he is abandoned by the engine of his Lotus 77.
The initial design of the Lotus 77 saw a very narrow and low weight monocoque (only 23 kg), with radiators positioned in the sides and both front and rear suspensions with attachment points on the double brake callipers, therefore not directly on the monocoque. All with the initial intention of having a car that could best adapt to all tracks by changing the wheelbase, carriageways and weight distribution depending on the circuit: for this reason the car was nicknamed the Adjustcar. However, the disappointing mid-season results lead Chapman to the decision to undertake a mini-revolution of the project: the suspensions are completely redesigned with the advice of Len Terry, so that the front brakes are brought back to the wheels and the aerodynamics undergoes an important modification., with the oil cooler moved to the nose. The efforts of Andretti himself contribute decisively to the good results of this work, who proved to be not only a skilled and versatile driver but also a great developer of the car.
The results of this enormous work are immediately evident: the Italian-American finishes fifth in the subsequent French Grand Prix, then takes an excellent third place in qualifying at Brands Hatch before retiring due to an injection problem, finishing fifth in Austria and closes on the lowest step of the podium in Zandvoort and Canada. It is the high point of a season that will end without further ideas, with the driver who will finish out of the points zone in the British and German Grand Prix and will be forced to retire due to an accident in subsequent races in Italy, Austria and the United States, finishing a positive season, however, with the fourteenth place in the championship standings, against a total of five points.
In the same season he participates in four events of the USAC Championship, also managing to seize the victory during the appointment in Phoenix. The 1976 season saw the Parnelli team go into serious economic difficulty due to the loss of its major sponsor, the Viceroy tobacco industry, which inspired the livery of the helmet used by Andretti himself up to that moment. For these reasons the team decides not to participate in the opening race of Interlagos, allowing the Italian-American to race for Lotus, replacing Gunnar Nilsson. The Italian-American closed qualifying in a disappointing sixteenth place before being forced to retire due to an accident in the next day's race. At the second round of the season in South Africa, Andretti returns to driving his Parnelli. A very tight qualifying concludes in thirteenth position in which this time Hunt wins ahead of Lauda, and then reassembles in the race, finishing with an excellent sixth place finish.
Hunt immediately takes control of the race ahead of John Watson and Andretti, while Lauda navigates in tenth position and at the end of the tenth lap he returns to the pits and voluntarily withdraws from the race due to the dangerous track conditions. Following Fittipaldi, Pace and Perkins make the same decision. The show continues under the same conditions until halfway through the race, when the rain stops and the track gradually dries up with Hunt leading the way ahead of Patrick Depailler and Andretti. Hunt, in crisis with the tires, begins to slow down, being overtaken by Depailler and Andretti, so much so that fourth place is enough to earn the title. Following a puncture hits Depailler, with Andretti who finds himself leading the race again. A few laps later Hunt also punctured, forcing him to change tires with just four laps to go. Hunt was only fifth at the restart, but in the last few laps the Englishman first overtook Jones then Regazzoni, to finally establish himself in third position and conquer the World Championship. Andretti wins a crazy and memorable race, repeating the success of the 1971 South African Grand Prix aboard a Ferrari.
He ends the world championship with 22 total points and sixth place in the overall standings. At the starting line of the 1977 season, the British team presents itself with a new car, the Lotus 78, the result of more than a year of work. The car in question was born with a fundamental premise, namely that of clearly and decisively improving the deportation effect at the rear, with the aim of improving the stability of the car when cornering. The team technicians thus design a car equipped with side bellies shaped, in the lower part, like a wing, allowing the air flows to be channelled by two ducts placed at half the length of the car. The flows are then expelled upwards at the rear tires, so as not to disturb the area intended for depression. This is all made possible by the positioning of the radiators and the petrol tank towards the center of the car, thus leaving more free space in correspondence with the sides. In the face of a very innovative and ideally winning project on paper, the results that will come from the track will be mixed.
Lotus engineers, in designing the car, give little importance to the overall mechanical balance, with the result that the 78 will suffer for the whole season of instability due to a too high center of gravity. To counterbalance the enormous potential and pure speed of the car (an indisputable issue), there will therefore be numerous reliability problems throughout the season. However, the 1977 World Championship begins with quite encouraging premises for Chapman's men: Andretti qualifies in eighth position in the inaugural Grand Prix in Argentina, before recovering up to the partial third position in the middle of the race. Two laps from the end, however, the Italian-American was forced to retire due to a bearing problem, but was nevertheless classified in fifth final position in a race won by South African Scheckter, ahead of Pace and Reutemann.
The two subsequent appointments with the Brazilian and South African Grand Prix saw Andretti retire first due to an injection problem, and an accident with Reutemann later, despite having managed to obtain an important third position in qualifying on the circuit of Interlagos. At the fourth round of the season, Il Circus presents itself on the American track of Long Beach. Qualifying sees a close fight between Lauda, Andretti and Scheckter, with the Austrian taking pole in front of the Italian-American's Lotus and the South African's Wolf, with a gap between the three of only two tenths. It is the preamble to an exciting race.
At the start Scheckter takes the lead, followed by Lauda and Andretti. On the fourth lap Lauda tries to overtake Andretti, but the latter extends the braking and the two come into contact, with the Ferrari driver who sees his front wing damaged, remaining a victim of vibrations for the rest of the race. The trio leads a race on its own, proceeding with minimal gaps for the entire arc of the race, but keeping the positions unchanged. On the fifty-eighth lap the turning point: Scheckter crosses the finish line pointing to his wall on the right front tire which is gradually losing pressure. The result will be that the South African's lap times will suddenly rise, starting a desperate battle with Andretti. With three laps to go, the overtaking expected for almost twenty laps arrives, then the Italian-American imposes himself and wins, preceding Lauda and Scheckter himself at the finish line, ending with a car at the limit. At the end of the race, Andretti himself does not hide all his emotion:
"It is one of the best moments of my career, more satisfying than the victory at Indianapolis, and it is very gratifying to see how many people are cheering for me. The car remained perfectly balanced throughout the race, and the brakes performed very well. The overtaking. it was clear. It's a nice and very satisfying victory".
The following Grand Prix takes place on the Spanish circuit of Jarama. Andretti's dominance is overwhelming, and the driver wins an easy pole by seven tenths off Jacques Laffite and Niki Lauda. At the end of qualifying the Italian-American is radiant, and he does not hide the dream of being able to win the World Cup:
"The advantage I have today over those of Ferrari is the result of enormous work, mine and that of the whole team. At the beginning of the season we had problems due to the engine, now I have three different types of engines available, one prepared directly. from Cosworth and others from outside workshops. Now I can claim to be fighting for the world title. This is an excellent result in my own right. Here my Lotus is proving very balanced. I drive smoothly, effortlessly. And we also have excellent brakes: with all these curves they are often used".
The next day Lauda suffers a flare-up of a rib problem, and is forced to give up taking part in the race. This paves the way for Andretti who wins an easy victory, ahead of Reutemann and Scheckter, and is only three points behind the South African in the world championship standings.
The following three races, however, distance the Italian-American driver from the head of the world championship. In Montecarlo, after a bad qualifying that sees him start from tenth place, he comes back and finishes fifth. In Belgium he won one of the most overwhelming pole positions of his career: he precedes John Watson on Brabham and his teammate Gunnar Nilsson by 1.5 to the race of both. In Sweden, Andretti wins pole again and leads in the race without any particular problems, but with three laps to go he is forced to a stop in the pits due to a problem with fuel draft: he will finish only in sixth position. At the end of this trio of races, Andretti finds himself in fourth position in the championship standings, overtaken also by Reutemann, with a gap of nine points from the leader Scheckter.
At the ninth round of the season, on the Dijon circuit in France, the Lotus 78 shows once again its full potential: Andretti wins an easy pole, ahead of Hunt's McLaren by half a second. In the race he starts badly, and finds himself in third position at the end of the first lap. The superiority of the British car, however, is evident, and the Italian-American soon finds himself following the leader Watson, who defends himself very well. One lap from the checkered flag, the Englishman runs out of gas and delivers a well-deserved victory to Andretti. The Lotus driver is now only one point behind world championship leader Niki Lauda.
The tenth race of the World Championship takes place in Great Britain, on the Silverstone circuit. In qualifying, Andretti does not particularly impress and closes only in sixth position, seven tenths behind Hunt in pole position. In the race, the Italian-American suffers from food problems and is forced to retire, with Hunt winning the Grand Prix ahead of Lauda and Nilsson. The problem with power supply is the warning that something is changing: in the following three seasonal events, not only does the Lotus 78 lose competitiveness, but the ghosts of the beginning of the season return to manifest themselves, with Andretti forced to retire in all three circumstances. for problems with the Cosworth engine.
At the same time, Lauda won a victory, a second and a third place, pushing the Lotus standard bearer away by 31 points and putting a serious risk on the world championship. The season ends with the victory in the following race at the Monza circuit, after having overtaken Scheckter in comeback from fourth place, with a second place in the Watkins Glen appointment, a pale ninth position in the Canadian Grand Prix, and with the retirement in the final race of Japan, after starting from pole position. The 1977 season can be summed up in one word: regret. The Andretti-Lotus duo turned out to be the most successful over the entire season, achieving seven pole positions and four wins, but the lack of reliability of the Cosworth engine played a decisive role.
The 1978 season saw Lotus show up at the starting line with the previous year's 78 model. Ronnie Peterson replaces Nilsson as Andretti's teammate, while Lauda switches from Ferrari to Brabham. The season debut takes place on the Argentine circuit of Buenos Aires, and already from the Thursday tests, Andretti shows that he is immediately competitive, setting the best time and setting the new unofficial track record. The conditions are met by Saturday's qualifying, when by just seven hundredths of an advantage over Reutemann, the Italian-American wins the first pole start of the season. In the race, the Italian-American driver immediately sets a frenzied pace, creating a decisive groove against his rivals Watson, Reutemann and Lauda, and wins an apparently easy race by gap.
The second race takes place on the Jacarepaguà circuit, near Rio de Janeiro. Andretti is immediately the fastest in Friday practice, divided into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Saturday's qualifying is another story: Reutemann, Andretti, Hunt and Peterson compete for the first position, with the latter taking advantage of the last seconds of the session to set the fastest time. Behind the Swede are Hunt and Andretti. At the start, the Argentine Ferrari driver overtook the Lotus standard bearer, hoisting himself into first position ahead of Peterson, Hunt and Andretti himself. The latter immediately increased the pace, overtaking Hunt and then his teammate, positioning himself behind the leader Reutemann. The positions remain almost unchanged until the last laps, when Andretti's Lotus begins to suffer from gearbox problems, favoring the comeback of the opponents, condemning him to fourth final place behind Reutemann, to a Fittipaldi in great dust in front of the home crowd, and Niki Lauda.
The third round of the season takes place in South Africa. Lauda wins pole and Andretti follows him in second position, but at the start the Italian-American immediately passes the Austrian, going to take the lead. Then, he dominates the race ahead of Scheckter and Patrese, before starting to suffer from high tire degradation that relegates him to third place. At the end of the race he runs out of fuel and is forced to make an additional stop, finishing out of the points area in seventh place. Ronnie Peterson wins at the end of an incredible comeback from eleventh position, ahead of Depailler and Watson on Brabham.
This brings us to the fourth appointment on the American circuit of Long Beach. In a qualifying marked by the inability of the timekeepers to draw up a precise ranking due to lack of data, Reutemann prevails in front of team mate Villeneuve, Lauda and Andretti. In the race Lauda retires due to a problem with the injection system and Villeneuve due to a contact with Regazzoni, leaving the way clear for Reutemann who wins ahead of the Italian-American driver and Depailler. The next race is held in Monte Carlo, and here too an unexpected curbs Andretti's ambitions: he starts in fourth position, but punctures a tire and is forced to a very long stop due to the infiltration of fuel inside the cockpit. Closes in eleventh position a race won by Depailler, who temporarily also conquers the head of the world classification with five points over Reutemann and Andretti himself.
From the Belgian Grand Prix, however, the championship trend has changed. Lotus, which had already experienced the new car during the previous tests on the Jarama circuit, decides to debut the 79 model. The car has a low and sleek line and takes up and takes to extremes the concepts on which the 78 was built, namely those of the ground effect. The Lotus technicians create, in the area of the sides, real converging-diverging ducts that were sealed from the outside thanks to the so-called side skirts, side profiles made of a strip and mounted in the lower area of the sides themselves.
The air conveyed in these channels is accelerated by virtue of the narrowing of the main section, causing a strong lowering of the static pressure, which results in an increase in downforce. To improve the concept of aerodynamics compared to the previous model, the engineers focus a lot on the rear of the car, extending the side ducts up to the rear wheels, where the bodywork also ends with the first experiment of tapered sides in style bottleneck or Coke. Subsequently, according to the data collected on the track, it will be discovered that the deporting effectiveness of the new 79 model is Thirty per cent higher than the previous car.
The result of this project becomes immediately evident from the result of the qualifying held on the Zolder track in Belgium. Andretti conquers a tearing pole position, trimming Reutemann in Ferrari seven tenths of a second, and a good 1.7 to his teammate, Ronnie Peterson, at the wheel of the 78 model. Sunday's race is a fashion show: Andretti wins over Peterson and Reutemann, also going to take the lead of the World Championship. History repeats itself in the Spanish Grand Prix. The Italian-American precedes Peterson, this time also behind the wheel of the model 79, trimming a clear second to Reutemann's Ferrari. When the traffic lights go out, Hunt, who started fourth, takes the lead in front of Andretti, and keeps the lead until the sixth lap, when he is overtaken by Lotus. Andretti wins with nineteen seconds ahead of Peterson and almost forty seconds over Laffite's Ligier.
This brings us to Sweden, where the script is always the same: Andretti precedes Watson by seven tenths on Brabham, and conquers another easy pole position. In the race he keeps his head until the thirty-ninth lap, when he slips on a slick of oil on the track and loses the first position in favor of Lauda. It is during the Swedish Grand Prix that the Lotus 79 shows its only limitation in reliability. The car suffers in particular from overheating in the terminal area of the exhausts and the ineffectiveness of the braking system. Andretti is forced to retire due to a problem with the Cosworth engine.
The ninth round of the season takes place on the French circuit of Le Castellet. Watson wins pole at the end of a tough battle with Andretti, who is the victim of an off track in which he damages his car. In the race, however, the potential of the 79 is unchallenged: the Italian-American conquers the lead on the first lap, and will not leave it until the end of the race. In second position comes Peterson, ordered by the men of the Lotus not to attack the position of his teammate. Lotus thus conquers the third double win of the season, inexorably lengthening both the drivers and the constructors' standings. The English team will take over all the remaining qualifying of the season, seeing their drivers alternate in conquering the pole position. The victories in the races in Belgium, Spain and France will be followed by those in Germany and the Netherlands, with the two cars practically on parade on the occasion of this last round, with Peterson acting as squire for his teammate.
These victories are interspersed with retirements due to engine problems at the Brands Hatch Grand Prix and retirements due to collision with Reutemann during the start of the Austrian Grand Prix. Despite the fluctuating succession of results, Lotus mathematically conquers the Constructors' Championship. This leads to the appointment with the Italian Grand Prix, in Monza. Andretti imposes himself with the best time in both sessions, preceding Peterson on the first day of testing and Villeneuve on Saturday, setting the unofficial track record on both occasions with a time of 1'37"780, lowered to 1'37"520 in the second session. The starting grid sees Andretti in front of the standard bearer in Ferrari, followed by Jabouille in Renault, Lauda and Peterson in fifth position.
At the start of the Grand Prix, Villeneuve immediately sprints well, managing to take the first position, followed by Lauda and Andretti. Peterson is the protagonist of a slow start and just before reaching the first chicane he is surrounded by numerous cars. During the fight Hunt comes into contact with the Swedish Lotus, triggering a carom that involves ten drivers in total. Peterson's car goes off the track, hits the guardrail and returns to the track surrounded by flames. The situation is dramatic. Hunt and Regazzoni rush to help the Swede who in the meantime is trapped in the cockpit of his car and the flames are quickly extinguished, but the driver's conditions are very serious.
In order to avoid the access of onlookers to the scene of the accident, the arrival of help is delayed and the consequent emergency hospitalization at the Milan hospital. The injuries sustained in the accident do not seem very serious, but Peterson dies the next morning. The world of Formula 1 is in shock. In the meantime, the race, resumed a few hours later, will see Niki Lauda prevail over Watson and Reutemann, with Andretti in sixth position and automatically World Champion. At the end of the race the declarations of the new champion arrive:
"It's hard to explain these things. He shouldn't have disappeared, not because of those injuries. Right after the accident I rushed to see Ronnie. He was visibly in shock, as normal, but the first thing I had thought on seeing him was: he'll be okay. I'll never get used to how things went. Today I didn't lose a teammate, today a friend left. Today should have been the best day of my career, but today is not the time to celebrate".
In the last two races Andretti will take pole at the Watkins Glen round, only to retire from the race due to an engine problem, and will finish outside the points zone at the last Canadian Grand Prix. The superiority of the 79 car was so enormous that it allowed the Italian-American to win his World Championship, despite the poor consistency of results due to too many technical problems. In the 1979 season, many teams design their own cars inspired by the dominant ground-effect Lotus 79, in an attempt to break the dominance of Chapman's team. In particular, Ligier and Tyrrel seem to be the most similar single-seaters to that of the reigning champions. In this regard, at the starting line of the new season, Andretti himself pronounces:
"I thought they would immediately try to get me in trouble, but I didn't think the attack would be so massive and heavy. It must be admitted that Ligier and Tyrrell worked very well. The former built an original car, very balanced, apparently easy to drive that exploits the qualities of the eight-cylinder Ford engine very well. As for Tyrrell, however, I must admit that if he copied the Lotus he did it in the best way, with intelligence. His team has very good mechanics, plus perhaps precise of those of the Lotus and I think that the idea of making the new cars a little longer than ours was apt. For the moment, therefore, I will try to defend myself, waiting for the Lotus 80 which, however, will still be an unknown factor. in any case, I am convinced that it will not be a monotonous championship".
The first qualifications on the Argentine track of Buenos Aires are dominated by Jacques Laffite on Ligier, a second faster than his teammate Patrick Depailler, in third place Reutemann, new teammate of Andretti, in fourth position the Tyrrel of Jarier and only in seventh place for the new World Champion, 1.7 behind the poleman. In a start marked by a carom whose protagonists are also Watson, Scheckter and Andretti, with the latter being able to restart with the forklift, Laffite prevails over Reutemann, with the Italian-American in fifth final position. In the second round of the season, on the Interlagos circuit, in Brazil, the Ligier of Laffite and Depailler once again prevailed, with Andretti fourth. An engine problem after only two laps from the start stops the Italian-American who is thus forced to retire. The race will end with Ligier's double ahead of Reutemann.
The third Grand Prix takes place in South Africa. Jabouille wins pole ahead of Scheckter and Villeneuve's Ferraris, with Andretti only in eighth position. In a race that started in dry conditions, but was interrupted due to rain, then resumed in wet conditions, the Italian-American recovered and reached fourth position, behind the Ferraris of Villeneuve, Scheckter and the Tyrrel of Jarier. At the following Long Beach Grand Prix, Lotus presents the new 80 model without the car taking part in the race, preferring to use the 79 model of Reutemann and Laffite, starts in fourth place, to then confirm the position at the end of the race the following day. This leads to the Spanish Grand Prix, where the Lotus 80 makes its debut. The new car born from the inspiration of Chapman and his engineers, was conceived with the aim of revolutionizing the Formula 1 Circus once again, trying to take the winning concepts that led to the creation of the dominant Lotus 79. The car comes with the ducts for the generation of the ground effect elongated beyond the axis of the rear wheels, going to be configured as a sort of modern rear diffuser.
Chapman is so excited about his new creation that he immediately declares:
"This is the most beautiful car I have ever made. So beautiful and innovative it will make the 79 look as old as a London bus".
After testing the car, Andretti recognizes the potential but nevertheless remains perplexed, as reported by the same before qualifying for the Jarama Grand Prix:
"I am convinced that Colin Chapman committed an imprudence. Instead of developing and improving the Lotus 79 which was the progenitor of ground effect cars, he wanted to create a revolutionary, completely new car. This fact involved extensive studies, a construction that it has gone slowly and has big set-up problems. Unfortunately, I think it will still take a long time before the 80 can compete to its fullest potential which should be considerable, according to the data provided by the wind tunnel and the studies carried out. It must be said that there is always a huge difference between theory and practice and a car has to get out on the track before it can be fully evaluated".
The car, as anticipated by Andretti, proves to be aerodynamically unstable with every variation of the set-up given by the classic road bumps that make the car jump, resulting in highly unpredictable behavior. The debut was however encouraging: the Italian-American qualified in fourth position behind the usual Laffite, Depailler and Villeneuve, finishing the race with an excellent third place. This positive result is followed by the disappointing one in Monte Carlo. Among the streets of the Principality, the new Lotus single-seater, four and a half meters long, is clearly in difficulty, with Andretti only thirteenth at the end of qualifying, then retired due to a suspension problem in the race.
On the next track in Dijon, the problems emerge even more clearly, and the Italian-American is forced to retire due to a problem with the brakes. The British technicians try extreme solutions to remedy the chronic problems of the single-seater, but in vain, resulting in the decision to abandon the project and continue participating in the World Championship with the old model 79. The season, however, is one of the most unfortunate in Andretti's career, who after the Dijon Grand Prix is forced to retire in the following four races and in the last one in Watkins Glen, closing the world championship with the meager consolation of fifth place at the Grand Prix. Italian Prize, in Monza.
The Lotus driver closes the World Championship with 14 total points and the twelfth final position in the world championship standings. In the same year, the Italian-American took part in two events of the first IndyCar championship, aboard the Penske Racing car, obtaining the lowest step of the podium of the Ontario Grand Prix. In the 1980 season, Lotus presents the new model 81. Given the poor results of the previous Lotus 80, the British engineers opted for a much more conservative project, relying on proven technologies previously used with the 79 model. The chassis is in fact very similar. the latter single-seater, with tapered sides to optimize flows towards the rear and the consequent ground effect. Both the front and rear suspensions take up the pattern of those of the 79 with only minor changes in detail. The sliding side skirts ensure significant downforce, so much so that the project was not originally intended to use front wings. But like the previous car, the 81 model suffers terribly from the disconnections of the tracks, making driving extremely difficult.
The season, as expected, will be particularly bad. The single-seater obtained the second place of Elio De Angelis, Andretti's new companion, as its best result, while the Italian-American, on the fourteen races of the World Championship, will be able to see the checkered flag only on five occasions, managing to capture only one point world champion at the last Grand Prix of the United States of the East, on the Watkins Glen track, recovering from eleventh place. During the same year, as well as the previous year, the Italian-American driver took part in various competitions, including the IndyCar Championship, also managing to take a victory at the Michigan Grand Prix, and a second place in the appointment in Phoenix.
Subsequently, Andretti starts second in the great classic of the 500 Miglia, but ends the race with an opaque twentieth place finish. At the end of the season, in 1981 he moved to Alfa Romeo driving the 179 model, alongside Bruno Giacomelli. However, with the new team the Italian-American is not getting particularly exciting results. Despite an encouraging debut on the Long Beach track, where, after starting sixth he closes in fourth place behind the Williams of Jones and Reutemann and the Brabham of Nelson Piquet, the season is a continuous alternation of retirements and placements outside the points. Mario achieves much better results in American racing, taking second place in the Indianapolis 500 and four podiums in the IndyCar championship. During the 1982 season Andretti left the Formula 1 Circus, returning to race on a permanent basis in America, but nevertheless participated in the Long Beach Grand Prix aboard the Williams FW07, replacing the retired Reutemann, where after an opaque qualifying ended in fourteenth place, and is forced to retire in the race.
Subsequently, the Italian-American driver replaced the injured Didier Pironi in Ferrari at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, and in Las Vegas, obtaining a fantastic pole position in the Italian Grand Prix, but failing to repeat the same competitiveness. in the race, finishing in third position behind René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay. Andretti will not be able to repeat the good performance in the United States, as he will be forced to retire in the Las Vegas race due to the failure of the rear suspension of his Ferrari. The 1982 season marks his final farewell to the Formula 1 Circus, but the Italian-American driver will continue to race only in the United States, managing to win the IndyCar Championship in 1984, a season in which he will prevail on six occasions.