Mario Andretti, motor racing’s Mr Versatile turns 79 today.
His longevity and ability to turn his hand to any form of motor sport have taken him to the Formula One World Championship, four Indycar titles and have made him the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, The Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship.
But you’d be forgiven for not knowing that he had an, albeit short, Williams F1 career.
Born in 1940 in Istria – now Croatia – Mario Andretti along with his parents and twin brother Aldo moved to Pisa as refugees in 1948 after Istria was annexed by Yugoslavia in the fallout following WWII.
While in Pisa he’d watch as the Mille Miglia passed through the town each spring which would be what inspired him into a career in motorsport.
Andretti’s first experience of racing was in a newly established Italian Formula Junior when he was thirteen years old.
He an his family left Italy for the United States in 1955 where, as a teenager, he began racing stock cars until in 1964, now a naturalised citizen of the US, he started competing in USAC events, winning his first race in 1967.
A bucketload of wins and three USAC championships followed until Andretti, now considered a top stock car driver got his first opportunity to race in Formula 1 when Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus gave him a car for the 1968 USGP at Watkins Glen where he immediately showed his class by taking pole, and leading a field containing Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham before clutch failure robbed him of what looked like a win on his debut.
Andretti won the 1969 Indy 500 before joining F1 part-time with March. He moved to Ferrari for the 1971 Formula 1 season, winning first time out at the South African Grand Prix.
A spell with Indycar legend Parnelli Jones’ doomed F1 team followed before Andretti re-signed for Lotus, as full-time driver in 1976.
Four wins in 1977 took him to third place in the World Championship, with more to come the following year when Andretti and the Lotus 79 swept all before them to win to-date the last F1 World Championship for an American driver.
Sadly, the Lotus 80 was a disappointment and neither Andretti Nor Lotus would achieve the successes they enjoyed in 1979.
After leaving Lotus at the end of 1980 he endured a tough season with Alfa Romeo in 1981, before a one-off drive for Williams in the 1982 Long Beach Grand Prix driving a Williams FW08 following the surprise retirement of Williams’ full-time driver Carlos Reutemann, Andretti saying “I had nothing else to do, so I accepted.”
He retired from the race whilst in ninth, having set a fastest lap that bettered that of his team-mate and 1982 World Champion Rosberg, and rounded off the 1982 season with a two-off drive (is that an expression?) with Ferrari at the Italian and Las Vegas Grands Prix replacing the injured Didier Pironi who’d been seriously injured in practice at Hockenheim.
They would prove to be Andretti’s F1 swansong and after a pole-position and a third place finish in Italy and a DNF in the US he returned to Indycars in the US where he competed for another 12 years before retiring for good.
Happy Birthday Mario!