Forty years after he became the last American driver to win an F1 world championship, Mario Andretti looks back on a remarkable season in this extract from an exclusive interview with the legendary racer from this weekend’s official United States Grand Prix programme.
Mario Andretti’s road to the World Championship title began in 1976. That year he was contracted to US team Parnelli, but they didn’t attend the opening race in Brazil, so he agreed to make a one-off appearance for Colin Chapman’s then-struggling Lotus team. Then, after the third race of the season Parnelli withdrew, leaving Andretti without an F1 ride.
“In ’76, Parnelli pulled out without even telling me after Long Beach,” Andretti recalls, “and Colin was having a miserable season as well at that point, probably his worst ever. The next day we just met casually at breakfast.”
“They say misery loves company, so we just chatted. I said: I’m out of a job in F1, I want to stay, I don’t want to go back to Indy yet. Colin said: Well Mario, I don’t have a very good car, but you’re welcome to join. And that’s how it started.”
After a single win in 1976 and four victories in 1977, Chapman pushed the boundaries of ground effect with the following year’s car. The season began with the Lotus 78, with Andretti winning from pole in Argentina, while team-mate Ronnie Peterson won in South Africa.
The original plan was to stick with the 78 until after Belgium, but Andretti insisted on racing the new car at Zolder [corrected from original Spa]. The mechanics therefore had to race prep the new 79 in the paddock at the last minute—and Andretti rewarded them with a dominant win.
“Whenever I would ask the mechanics if they were up for it, they were all in. They were just amazing; they would turn the world upside down if I asked them. It was an amazing start with that car.”
It was clear that the 79 was something special. “I had supreme confidence in the car and the team. I’d never felt like that before.”
Andretti won in France, retired in Britain, then won again in Germany. Peterson won that race, and by now it was clear that only he could deprive Andretti of the title.
In Monza, a multiple pile-up at the start saw Peterson pitched hard into the barrier. With the race stopped a fire was quickly extinguished; he was pulled from the wreck with serious leg injuries.
With Peterson set to be out of action for the last two races, Andretti was assured of the 1978 title, albeit in sad circumstances – which took a tragic turn the following day.
“It was a huge surprise the next day when we found out that he’d died from an embolism. It was a tragic situation. I’ve said this so many times, it was probably the happiest day of my career as a racing driver, and I couldn’t celebrate.”
Andretti’s superb season ended in frustration with retirement after taking pole at Watkins Glen, and a lowly 10th after a spin at the Montreal venue. However, that didn’t detract from his supreme achievement. Does it feel as though four decades have passed since that memorable year?
“This year I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of my World Championship, but also the 50th of my first Grand Prix, when I started from pole. These numbers are amazing and it really doesn’t seem like 40 years. Next year is the 50th anniversary of winning Indy. Now that doesn’t seem right!”