From humble beginnings in Italy to the pride of motorsport, Mario Andretti is the perfect example of the American dream. From NASCAR to Formula 1, Andretti had been a winner and drove for Ferrari and Lotus, but one thing continued to elude him: the world championship.
In 1978 he got his big chance with a radical car which crushed the competition, giving Andretti a shot at winning the sport’s biggest accolade.
During an exclusive interview for Total Motorsport.com, Andretti reflects on a year of triumph, where he became only the second American to win the World Championship.
Seeking redemption from a lost chance
Following his departure from Parnelli in 1976, Andretti reunited with Colin Chapman and set about restoring Lotus to their former glory, taking victory in Japan before winning in Long Beach one year later. But Andretti could not challenge Niki Lauda in 1977 as the Lotus 78 was fast but fragile.
“The only reason we were robbed of the championship was how many races we fell out while leading,” said Andretti. ”What took us out of the championship was the reliability factor of the engine,”
“In Canada, I was one lap ahead of second place Jody Scheckter, and the engine blew on the last lap. I was classified sixth; winning that race would have been a world champion in 1977.”
But heading into the 1978 season Chapman and his designers had produced the Lotus 79 designed around ground effect, making the car sleek and, above all, ultra-quick. Andretti remembers the feeling of expectation in the Lotus camp during the winter.
“So going into 78, we felt the prospects had to be good,” Andretti continued. “‘Because I’m looking at the improvement of the car, how beautiful that car came out. It just cleaned up the aerodynamics.”
The 79 becomes unstoppable
But, the Lotus 79 developed some teething troubles in pre-season forcing Lotus to use the 78 for the opening five races of the season with mixed results putting Andretti third in the drivers’ standings.
When the 79 was finally ready for Zolder Andretti duly capitalised, putting the new car on pole and leading home teammate Ronnie Peterson to a 1-2.
“We were in Belgium; Ronnie Peterson had tested the 79 at Anderstorp,” said Andretti. ”They brought the car to Zolder, and I decided I wanted to race it. That was not intended to be raced, and I was on pole, and we won the race.”
From Zolder onwards, Lotus and Andretti took command, winning four of the next seven races, with teammate Peterson tasting victory in Austria.
Reaching the summit at the place where it all started
When the F1 circus rolled up to Monza for the Italian GP, only Peterson and Andretti could win the title, but the American had the advantage of having a 12-point cushion over his teammate.
Andretti made things easier for himself with pole position, whilst Peterson needing to win to stay in contention, crashed his 79 in the warm-up, forcing him to use the 78 from fifth on the grid.
“Not really, the pressure was there always”, explained Andretti. It’s something you have to deal with; it’s not just one race.
“The pressure is to bring home that trophy no matter what. I loved Monza and always felt very comfortable there. The first test I ever had in an F1 car was at Monza.”
However, circumstances would determine this wouldn’t be an ordinary race as starter Gianni Restelli failed to wait for all 24 cars to get into position, causing a bottleneck on the run down to the Retiffilo.
This resulted in an 11-car pileup which seriously injured Vittorio Brambilla and Peterson, who was freed from his burning wreckage by James Hunt, Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depailler.
Peterson was taken to hospital with a broken leg but conscious, and following a delay of over three hours, the race resumed with Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve holding duelling for the lead.
But, the pair were given one-minute time penalties for jumping the start dropping them to sixth and seventh, but a point was all Andretti needed to claim his maiden title.
“I saw my very first race at that level when I was 14, in 1954,” reflected Andretti. ”Watching my heroes race and then dreaming the impossible dream.
“To be able to clinch the World Championship, exactly there. I mean, how do you put that in perspective? You know it just couldn’t happen any better than that!
“I still think today, when you say you count your blessings, that’s certainly one of them, and that’s why I feel I owe the sport so much. It gave me everything I ever dreamed of.”
Peterson’s passing culls celebrations
Unfortunately, Peterson’s condition worsened overnight as he was diagnosed with a fat embolism that ultimately led to a kidney failure that ended the Swede’s life on September 11th.
Andretti ended his championship-winning season with a DNF in Montreal and a tenth-placed finish in Watkins Glen.
“The only thing that was a dipole moment was I thought Ronnie was injured,” Andretti reflected sombrely. ”I had seen him. He was in shock, but he was still with us, and I didn’t know that it would be the worst possible news I could have ever endured the following day.
“Unfortunately, I could not put myself in the way of celebrating the best moment of my career because of what happened to Ronnie.”