EXCLUSIVE: Mario Andretti On Williams' Lap of Legends, F1 Entry, Fourth US Race, And More

May 27, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; IndyCar Series former driver Mario Andretti during Legends
May 27, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; IndyCar Series former driver Mario Andretti during Legends / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated’s Lydia Mee, motorsport legend Mario Andretti shares his invaluable insights on the enduring legacy of Williams Racing, reflecting on his own experiences and the pivotal role of figures like Frank Williams in shaping its history, the integration of traditional circuits like Silverstone amidst the expansion of street circuits, and the broader implications of Formula One's growth. 

The 1978 F1 champion opens up on the potential entry of Andretti Global into the F1 arena, the impact of the 'Drive to Survive' series on fan engagement, and the evolving challenges of the sport's demanding schedule.

'Lap of Legends' - Williams Racing - Michelob ULTRA
'Lap of Legends' - Williams Racing - Michelob ULTRA / Williams Racing - Michelob ULTRA

Andretti also discusses the latest project he has been a part of, “Lap of Legends'' which has been put together by Williams Racing and Michelob ULTRA. The groundbreaking event that bridges real and virtual racing realms, showcases drivers from various Formula 1 eras. 

Logan Sargeant, the first full-time American F1 driver in over a decade, is set to compete against the digital representations of iconic F1 champions such as Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, and Jenson Button, among others.

To recreate the racing legends with remarkable accuracy, Michelob ULTRA utilized advanced technologies, including AI and augmented reality, analyzing over 720 races and 1,260 hours of footage to replicate the driving styles and strategies of the legends. A specially designed augmented reality helmet was used by Logan Sargeant, offering him a dynamic view of the virtual competition and real-time race data.

Lydia Mee: The Lap of Legends celebrates the history of Williams Racing. With so many teams changing their branding over the years, how important do you think it is for Formula One to have a team with such a rich heritage?

Mario Andretti: “Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's what it's all about. That's what creates the richness of our sport. To celebrate and to continue to celebrate these names that have really come to life as the sport has grown into, say, the modern times, so to speak.

“And what they have accomplished. You look at the amount of world champions that Frank [Williams] has created.  I remember Frank Williams when he was actually working for the [Walter] Wolf team. He was a team principal there and we were walking in Belgium and I was walking behind Colin Chapman and he said to me out of the blue, he said, ‘Mario, someday I'm going to be like Colin Chapman.’

“And before you know it, he became a team principal, team owner, and look what he has accomplished. Frank and I had a wonderful relationship and, for me, of great respect and joy to see the success and how many champions created, how many people he made happy by having a successful team as he did.” 

Mario Andretti drives a historic car Sunday, May 28, 2023, during the 107th running of the
Mario Andretti drives a historic car Sunday, May 28, 2023, during the 107th running of the / Gary Mook/For IndyStar / USA TODAY

LM: James Vowles joined Williams at the beginning of last year and the team already seems to be on the up again. Do you think James Vowles will be able to take Williams back to its winning era?  

MA: “Well, James is very experienced. He knows what he needs [to do] and it's something that sometimes you cannot accomplish overnight.

“But I think for ones like ourselves to follow, [we’ve] seen a tremendous upswing already, which is exactly what you'd love to see. It's all good stuff. 

“And with this promotion that Michelob ULTRA came up with, it's going to create just another vehicle to showcase the Williams team.

“It showed what the Williams team has created in the past.  And of course what they're looking forward to in the future. From my standpoint, I'm so flattered that I was invited to be part of this. I only drove in one race for them at Long Beach in ‘82.

“And of course, I only had two races that season, at the end of the season and I was with Ferrari. But Frank thought of me when I had to substitute for Carlos Reutemann. And to be part of it again, it's quite a joy because I've been following this whole project with so much interest in it, and they created a lot of interest even around my team here.

“I always gauge the value of something that's going on [with my team]. So it's not just me. We can't wait to see the totally finished product. We've seen enough to have an idea to really appreciate what's going on quite honestly.  But I think we're as anxious as anyone.

“To just see the finished product and see how good I'm going to do in that 1982 car versus a 2024 car.” 

LM: The Lap of Legends is set around the iconic Silverstone circuit. With the news of Silverstone’s 10 year contract extension, do you think it’s important to retain legendary tracks as more street circuits are added to the calendar?

MA: “I think to expand the sport is always a positive.

“I think we have to be very careful to keep the traditional circuits that have made Formula One what it is today, and not ever forget that. Many of these traditional circuits like Silverstone have upgraded to the standards that you expect. And again, I'm one of those individuals that value so much where we came from and let's not ever forget that.

“It's fine to go forward and bring on new things, but never forget where we came from. So in my opinion, nothing will substitute Silverstone at the moment in England. Silverstone, or Brands Hatch, but Silverstone are the ones that actually have invested tremendously to come up to the standards that we need to go with the rest of the world. And I'm happy that this event is happening right there in Silverstone.” 

Andretti Global Silverstone Facility
Andretti Global Silverstone Facility / Andretti Global Press Image

LM: Andretti Global revealed its plans for it’s new HQ which includes facilities for Formula One. Can you give us some insight into the next steps in Andretti’s hopes for a Formula One entry?

MA: “We're continuously working on it every day, regardless of what was represented to the press so far. I think that we have a valid approach to it.

“The FIA has put us through the ringer, if you will, for us to be able to check all the boxes and we have one more blessing that we need from the FOM but we're having a key meeting coming up and hopefully we have some positive results from that.” 

LM: Can you tell us how far along in F1 development Andretti is and if they were to enter when they wanted to, would they be optimistic in their performance against the current teams on the grid?

MA: “We have never stopped working from the very beginning. We already have a car and wind tunnel and so forth. Right now the objective is to be on a grid in 2026.

“There's so many key elements here to be defined once we have a total, ‘Okay’. Because even personnel, very experienced individuals that want to join us and we have to have a positive ‘yes’ that we're going to go before we obviously extend a contract.

“Once we get the ‘okay’, we don't start from scratch. We are already on our way.”

LM: Jeremy Clarkson recently wrote in a column that Carlos Sainz’s victory in Australia after his surgery implies that the current F1 cars are much easier to drive. From winning your championship back in 1978 to driving the likes of the 2013 McLaren MP4/28 at COTA, what are your thoughts on this?

MA: “In so many ways, obviously, there's a difference because of the progress and new rules, everything. I can only tell you just in one sentence, yesterday's champions would be champions today, and today's champions would have been champions yesterday.

“The human element. [You’re] asked to give 100 percent of whatever you have under you. And you can dissect this thing until the cows come home. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, yeah, in the old days, we used to do this and that’. It's up to the individual. Carlos Sainz would have jumped in a car then and today.

“I remember I had a couple of accidents that kept me out of two races. Over 900 races in my career and fortunately, I only missed two races because of that, and because I could not wait to go back.

“I had broken ribs, I had a cracked sternum, and I still entered two weeks later, a 500 mile race. And why? Because I wanted to, I didn't have to, but I did. So it's all about individual. And you overcome so many obstacles when you have that passion to do it. And Carlos Sainz did exactly that.

“You could say, ‘Oh gosh, I had appendicitis, I'm not going to drive for another three weeks’. He's a true racer and he had a strong objective. He didn't want to have anyone else in his cockpit. I know how I felt when I had someone else substituting me. He goes out there and he performed spectacularly, obviously.

“That was so wonderful to see because that's what really gets my emotions going. That's the quality that I want to see in a real racer.”

LM: There has been talks of a 4th race in America, potentially New York or Chicago. Would you like to see another street race in America or a more historically connected permanent circuit like Watkins Glen where you had your F1 debut, for example?

MA: “Well, personally I think you have to be a bit careful not to overstay. I think there has to be something that you really look forward to. Sometimes if you have too much of a good thing, you don't appreciate it as much. That's my opinion. 

“I can take it any way they'd like, but I think three Formula One races where you know, 75 years ago, we were hoping for at least two, but now we have three. They’re three very popular races. We've seen that with the attendance and so forth. Let's not try to overdo it.

“I think even from the standpoint of the teams. The season is to be able to move from continent to continent. I think you have to be realistic somewhere. It's one thing about wanting to grow but somewhere along the line, you want to make sure that you don't overdo it.”

May 28, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; IndyCar Series former driver Mario Andretti reacts prior
May 28, 2023; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; IndyCar Series former driver Mario Andretti reacts prior / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

LM: With your last F1 race being the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in 1982, I know F1 was very different at that point but can you talk me through what it was like driving in Vegas on what was a temporary track in a car park? And in comparison to that, what were your thoughts on the 2023 Vegas GP - did you think it was a success?

MA: “Well, there's no comparison to that race in Caesars Palace.

“It was the preparation and the effort that went into the infrastructure and so forth. What was done in Las Vegas [in 2023] was purely spectacular. And so, no comparison here.

“It's awesome, as you mentioned that you have three totally different venues far away from one another, but it doesn't matter, they create the interest that you were hoping for because all three of the venues, they had tremendous attendance and so you want to keep cultivating that.

“It was presented properly, beautifully, and the one that was probably the most delicate was Las Vegas, because you're intruding in the center of the city as popular as that is. It turned out to be just spectacular and viewing that, I was mesmerized quite honestly.

“So let's keep cultivating that side of it. It's in a good place right now. I think Formula One is enjoying [one of the] greatest moments ever as far as popularity in the United States so let's keep the bubble going.” 

LM: I know in the late '70s you were flying here, there and everywhere, with 24 Concorde flights in 1978. With the expansion of the current F1 calendar, what are your thoughts on the complaints from some of the drivers and team personnel that it might be too much?

MA: “Well, like I said, I think you have to be very careful not to overdo certain things because of the logistics of it. Not just the drivers. I mean, I could just pick up and go and. At the time, like you mentioned, going on the Concorde - in 3 hours and 20 minutes, I could cross the continents. Nowadays the travel is a little different, but it's just the logistics of moving the teams.

“That's where the issue is. The drivers can get there. It's not the drivers. As a matter of fact, as a driver, the way I thought was the more races, the better. I never said let's not have any more races. 

“It's the teams that are the important part and the lives of team members, the mechanics, everyone that has to be there, not just the race weekend, but throughout the preparation and everything. Those are the logistics that need to be paid attention to.”


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Lydia Mee

LYDIA MEE

Lydia is the lead editor of F1 editorial. After following the sport for several years, she was finally able to attend the British Grand Prix in person in 2017. Since then, she's been addicted to not only the racing, but the atmosphere the fans bring to each event. She's a strong advocate for women in motorsport and a more diverse industry.