It has been 16 years since an American won the world driving championship. That's long enough for a country to forget the champion (Phil Hill) and Grand Prix racing altogether. But Mario Andretti is reminding us that there is more than oval racing in this world. After toying with Formula I on and off for nine years, he is taking the world championship seriously. "I don't know if I could ever describe how much it means to me," Andretti says, his voice edged with intensity and sincerity.
A year ago they weren't taking Mario seriously in Europe. Now, after two consecutive Grand Prix wins—the Long Beach GP and the Spanish GP—they talk about him as if he were magic. Mario is all the rage in the U.S., too. The week after his victory in Spain, Andretti recorded the first 200-mph lap in the history of Indianapolis Speedway, and this Sunday he will be one of the favorites in the 61st running of the 500.
Whether or not he wins the championship, or his second Indy, this year, Andretti's life should be emceed by Ralph Edwards someday. He was born in Italy in 1940, spent his first few years watching the world go through a war, then lived in a refugee camp in Lucca with his family for seven years before emigrating with them to America-the-land-of-opportunity in 1955. He got off the boat holding his father's left hand. Gigi Andretti's right hand was stuffed into his pocket clutching all of the family's worldly possessions: $125. The elder Andretti went to work in a steel mill in eastern Pennsylvania (where Mario still lives) and watched, first with horror, then with pride, as his oldest child grew up to be one of the world's best race drivers.
Andretti has the most varied career record of any driver. He has won at Indy (1969) and on dirt tracks (he was 1974 USAC Dirt Track Champion); he has won in sports cars (the 12 Hours of Sebring), in stock cars (the Daytona 500) and in Formula I cars (his four GP victories equal Dan Gurney's American record). "Mario is the best all-round driver I've ever had," says Roger Penske, who owns the car Andretti will be driving at Indy. "He's a racer's racer—completely dedicated, single-minded and passionately competitive."
Penske is the most publicity-conscious team owner in racing, so he appreciates Andretti for his attitude and image, as well as for his talent. One morning last week in Monte Carlo, the contrast between Andretti and the current world champion, James Hunt, was obvious as they ate breakfast at adjacent tables in a hotel dining room. Andretti, wearing a brown, patterned sport shirt and tailored slacks, shared his table with a succession of reporters, giving thoughtful answers to tired questions. Hunt, wearing a pair of cutoff jeans, a T shirt and no shoes, shared his table with a blonde.
That afternoon Hunt played backgammon by the pool with another blonde, while Andretti drove downtown to talk business with his crew. In the garages another contrast was evident, this time with 1975 World Champion Niki Lauda. A crowd of spectators had formed around Andretti and Lauda as they spoke. When the conversation ended, Lauda pushed through the wall of people and left; Andretti patiently and willingly signed autographs. After he made his way into his red Lotus Elite to leave, Mario looked through the windshield at the throng of fans. He said, "Sometimes the attention is a pain in the neck, but you've got to put it into perspective: if I weren't where I am, they wouldn't be there, but if they weren't there, I wouldn't be where I am."
"If Mario wins the world championship, it will do a lot of good for Formula I racing," says Chris Pook, the organizer of the Long Beach Grand Prix. "Most drivers seem to get championitis when they win it. Lauda became rude and icy; Hunt turned into an adolescent prima donna. I'm absolutely certain Mario won't change. He's been around long enough to know how to accept winning and its consequences with class."
Andretti's two victories this year mark a comeback for Lotus, a team which once dominated Formula I. Lotus earned manufacturers' championships six times between 1963 and 1973. But its prestige sank in 1974 and 1975 as the interest of its leader, Colin Chapman, waned to the point of depressing the entire team. Andretti signed with Lotus last season, with one condition: that Chapman would again be an active boss.
Says Andretti, "I am snobbish about who prepares my cars, and I have faith in Colin. He's the inspiration of the team, there's no doubt about that. But if I can take credit for one thing, it's getting him to love racing again. He hadn't been to a test session in seven years, but he hasn't missed one since I joined the team."
"The first time I saw Mario drive was at Indianapolis in 1965, the year we won with Jimmy Clark," Chapman recalls. "He was just a rookie then, and he had never driven a Formula I car, but I told him that whenever he was ready to try, just call me. I knew then that he could be a winner in Grand Prix racing."
Says another member of the team, "Chapman and Jimmy Clark had unspoken communication, like brothers. After Clark was killed, Colin never seemed to reach that level of communication with any other driver, but he has with Mario. He has the same look in his eye when he talks to Mario that he had with Clark."
The look in Andretti's eye at Monte Carlo last week was one of ambivalence. He liked the ambience, but he wasn't so sure about the circuit. "This is a very special race," he said. "It's the most colorful Grand Prix in the world, and it's really classy here, but if I don't do well, I'm going to hate the damn joint."
The principality of Monaco is built into a hillside, wedged between the sea and rocky cliffs. Its 2.037-mile Grand Prix circuit winds through the city streets between apartment buildings and hotels. The circuit is similar to Long Beach's, only hillier, narrower, twistier, slower—and far more difficult. At one point the cars have to speed through a sweeping turn inside a 130-yard tunnel.
"It's like nowhere else in the world," said Andretti. "It's extremely demanding, physically, because there's nowhere on the course to rest, and mentally, because 100% concentration is required all the time. Jackie Stewart told me he used to practice deep breathing at certain spots around the circuit. Maybe I should try that. Right now I think I just hold my breath all the way around.
"The margin of error is non-existent, and I mean non-existent. You can't just dip in with your eyes closed and figure, well, if I slide off the shoulder a little bit, I'll just collect some grass. Uh, uh. You'll collect something a lot harder than that. Still, you can't afford to leave a one-foot margin in the turns. If you give away that much road, you're not going fast enough. But touch those curbs, and it will throw you a mile. One mistake, and your suspension is hanging out there."
Saturday's final qualifying session was disastrous for Andretti. The left-front steering arm on his black and gold Lotus fractured, sending him bouncing off a guard rail, caroming across the track and bouncing off the guard rail on the other side of the street. There was no serious damage to car or driver, but enough harm was done to prevent Andretti from making any more quick laps. As a result, he was only 10th fastest, which put him on the fifth row for the start, and at Monte Carlo a poor grid position is all but fatal.
"Passing is almost impossible," said Andretti. "If there's a car in front of you and it's even a little bit slower, it can hold you back forever."
Andretti wasn't held back forever in the race, but nearly so. Starting on the grid beside Mario was Hunt's teammate, Jochen Mass, in the second McLaren. Andretti beat Mass at the start, but on the ninth lap Mass was able to get back in front when they came up on Ronnie Peterson, who was pulling out of the race with the front brakes locked on his Tyrrell. Andretti was blocked by Peterson, but Mass was able to slip by cleanly. "I just chose the wrong way around Peterson," admitted Andretti. "I made a mistake."
It was a costly mistake. Mass was slightly slower than Andretti, but Andretti could not repass him, although he hounded him for the remainder of the race. Mass finished fourth, Andretti fifth.
"I never got a clean chance at him," said Mario. "He probably held me up by half a second a lap. I could see the front-runners getting away, but I couldn't do anything about it."
The front-runners who got away to finish 1-2-3 were Jody Scheckter, Lauda and Carlos Reutemann, who now lead Andretti in the standings with 32, 25 and 23 points to Mario's 22. But the season is not even half over.
"I'm always optimistic," said Andretti. "In this business you have to be. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but you never get anywhere unless you're willing to fight to the end."
And after waiting all those years for a solid shot at the world championship, if there is one thing Andretti is willing to do, it's fight to the finish.