Lotus 79 Cosworth 1979
Mario Andretti was a rarity, an American who not only captured the Formula One World Championship but enjoyed considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic in a career spanning more than three decades. An immigrant from Italy who arrived in the U.S. at age 15, Andretti was already interested in racing and with his twin brother, Aldo, started competing at local dirt ovals. By the early 1960s he was racing with success in sprint and stock car events, graduating to USAC Champ cars in 1964. At Indianapolis in 1965 (where he finished third in a race memorably won by Jim Clark in a Lotus) Andretti was promised a future Formula One drive by Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman. By the time he memorably won the at the Brickyard for Andy Granatelli in a backup car in 1969, Andretti had already dabbled in F1, making his debut for Lotus at the end of 1968 — qualifying on pole for the season-ending United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Oh, sure, they said: it’s his home track. Actually, he had never driven at the Glen before. (Unfortunately, in the race he DNF’ed as his Lotus more or less fell apart.)
For three years Andretti raced sporadically and inconclusively, for Lotus, Ferrari and March, achieving his first F1 victory in his first race for Ferrari in the 1971 South African Grand Prix. Andretti’s hook-up with Colin Chapman and Team Lotus at Long Beach in 1977 was a godsend to both. The then out-of-luck Andretti eventually got a fabulous car — the ground effects Lotus — with which to win the 1978 championship. The then uncompetitive Chapman, master of 1960s F1, got a driver with the critical eye and gritty determination required to shake out the Lotus organization and its uncharacteristically suspect cars.
Though Andretti found Chapman’s twitchy and unpredictable Lotus 77 frightening to drive, he managed to score a momentous victory in the final race of 1976, the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji — better known for its treacherous weather, Niki Lauda’s withdrawal and James Hunt’s remarkable F1 drivers’ championship. This first win in five years for Lotus inspired Chapman to greater effort on the drawing board and in his pioneering 1977 creation — the Lotus 78 ground effect car that Andretti helped develop — the Italian-American won four races. In 1978, with six victories, five of them in the even more innovative Lotus 79, the ultimate in ground effects which debuted in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zolder, Andretti became World Champion. In an accomplishment reminiscent of the Lotus 49 at Zandvoort 11 years earlier, the 79 took pole and the win its first time out. Andretti kept it up with wins at Spain, France, Germany and Holland. So dominant was Lotus in 1978 that Andretti’s major competition for the title was his teammate, Swedish Ronnie Peterson.
If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.
— Mario Andretti —
Andretti came to Monza in ’78 leading Peterson by 12 points. At the start, James Hunt was punted into Peterson by another car. Peterson’s car in turn hit the Armco heavily and burst into flames. After Hunt leapt from his McLaren and pulled Peterson from the burning Lotus, the race was red-flagged. Mario finished 6th following a restart, capturing the World Championship, but his somber face afterwards shows how hollow the title really was. Niki Lauda, who won the race, did not even collect his trophy. More tragically even, Peterson would unexpectedly die the next morning after surgery on his shattered legs, completely without warning, from a freakish blood clot that caused a brain aneurysm. “Unhappily, motor racing is also this,” said Andretti stoically.
Some may argue that Andretti rode the phenomenal Lotus 79 to his World Championship. But it should be remembered that the 79, like most of Chapman’s cars, existed just this side of the line dividing the unconquerable from the undriveable. Merely setting up a Lotus was often enough to drive strong men to distraction. Andretti joined Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi and Peterson in the select group possessing sufficient skill to bring schizophrenic Lotus machinery to near its full potential. Yet by 1978 Andretti had won his last Grand Prix race. He competed for four more seasons, two with Lotus, one with Alfa Romeo and three races in 1982 with Williams and, once again, Ferrari. At Monza that year, his next to last F1 race, he very authoritatively put his Ferrari on the pole to the delight of the Tifosi, amongst who’s ranks he had once been numbered. Typical Andretti — going out with class.
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Other Mario Andretti Sites
Formula1.com Hall of Fame
Biography by Dennis David
AutoSport—F1’s Greatest Drivers
ESPN F1 Profile
F1 Pulse Profile
Official Andretti site
Mario Andretti Video