28 February 2018

Mario Andretti – racing driver

American champion was born and grew up in Italy

Mario Andretti raced as an American but was born in Montona, then part of Italy
Mario Andretti raced as an American but
was born in Montona, then part of Italy
Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula One World Championship driving as an American, was born on this day in 1940 in Montona, about 35km (22 miles) south of Trieste in what was then Istria in the Kingdom of Italy.

Andretti’s career was notable for his versatility. He is the only driver in motor racing history to have won an Indianapolis 500, a Daytona 500 and an F1 world title, and one of only two to have won races in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship. He is the last American to have won an F1 Grand Prix.

He clinched the 1978 F1 title at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the 14th of the 16 rounds, having led the standings by 12 points going into the race.  He crossed the line first and even though he was demoted to sixth place – the result of a one-minute penalty for going too soon at a restart – it was enough to mean he could not be caught.

His celebrations were muted, however, after his close friend, the Swedish driver Ronnie Petersen, died from complications to injuries he suffered in a crash on the first lap.

Andretti’s early years in Italy were fraught with difficulties. He and his twin brother, Aldo, were brought up by their father Gigi,  a farm manager, and their mother Rina in a loving family but at the end of the Second World War their lives were turned upside down when the allies ceded Istria to Yugoslavia and they found themselves living in a Communist country.

Mario Andretti with Lotus boss Colin Chapman (left) during the 1978 Formula One championship-winning season
Mario Andretti with Lotus boss Colin Chapman (left) during
the 1978 Formula One championship-winning season
They stayed there until 1948, hoping somehow the old order would be restored, but eventually joined the Italian exodus from the region, moving first to a dispersement camp in Udine, and then to Lucca in Tuscany, where they would live in a crowded refugee camp, sharing a single room with several other families, for the next seven years.

In 1955, the family decided to emigrate to the United States, leaving all of their possessions behind and settling in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

The twins were already enthusiastic about cars.  As five-year-olds in their home village, they had raced each other down the steep streets in hand-made wooden cars.  Later, while they were living in Lucca, they watched a section of the Mille Miglia endurance race and Mario became captivated by Alberto Ascari, the two-times F1 World Champion, who won the race.

In Nazareth they went to work in an uncle’s garage and quickly learned about cars.  Their first experience of competition in America was on a dirt track near their home, where they took part in stockcar races unbeknown to their parents, in a car they had borrowed from their uncle’s workshop.

Although Aldo was unlucky that an injury hampered his progress, Mario quickly showed his talent, winning 20 races in his first two seasons.

The Lotus 79 car in which Andretti won the 1978 title
The Lotus 79 car in which Andretti won the 1978 title
He knew racing was the career he wanted to follow and quickly worked his way through the ranks before making his Indy Car debut in 1964, the year he became an American citizen.  He won his first Indy Car race in 1965 and, amazingly, became United States Auto Club champion at the first attempt, finishing in the top four in 12 races. At 25, he was the youngest champion in the history of the event.

He defended the title successfully in 1966, winning eight races, and claimed further Indy Car championships in 1969 and 1984.

Andretti’s Formula One debut came in 1968, three years after he had met Colin Chapman, the British owner of the Lotus team, and outlined his ambitions.  Chapman had told him to get in touch once he thought he was ready and, true to his word, gave the Italian-American an opportunity.

It took him three years to achieve a first F1 win, in the South African GP in 1971, driving for Ferrari, and another five years to clinch his second, in the Japanese GP in 1976, having returned to Chapman’s garage for John Player Team Lotus.

Mario Andretti today
Mario Andretti today
Everything clicked in 1977, when he was third in the standings after four race wins, and in 1978, driving the so-called “ground effects” Lotus he had helped develop, when he took the drivers’ title.

Andretti continued to race competitively until he was 54.  By the time he decided enough was enough, his list of honours, in addition to his four Indy Car titles, his wins at the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and 1967 Daytona 500 events and his F1 title, included three 12 Hours of Sebring victories, a USAC dirt track title and an International Race of Champions victory.

In all, he competed in 879 races, of which he won 111. He is the only driver to have won Indy Car races in four decades.

In retirement, Andretti has pursued a number of business interests, including a winery, worked as an ambassador for a number of companies and made frequent television appearances.  Both his sons, Michael and Jeff, became drivers, Michael repeating his father’s success by becoming Indy Car champion in 1991. His grandson, Marco – Michael’s son – is also a racing driver.

Motovun, formerly Montona, sits on top of a hill in Istria, the area of Croatia that was in Italy when Andretti was born
Motovun, formerly Montona, sits on top of a hill in Istria,
the area of Croatia that was in Italy when Andretti was born
Travel tip:

Montona – now known as Motovun and part of Croatia – was an idyllic hilltop village as Mario and his brother, Aldo, were growing up, surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside.  The summit could be reached by climbing a 1,052-step staircase, said to be the longest staircase in the world, and anyone with the stamina to complete the climb would be rewarded with stunning views over the vineyards of the Quieto river valley. The main square is named after Andrea Antico, a Renaissance music printer who invented the first wooden types for printing music scores.

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro in Lucca
Piazza dell'Anfiteatro in Lucca
Travel tip:

Lucca, where the Andrettis lived until they were granted visas to emigrate to the United States, is situated in western Tuscany, just 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, and 80km (50 miles) from Florence. Its majestic Renaissance walls are still intact, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.  The city has many charming cobbled streets and a number of beautiful squares, plus a wealth of churches, museums and galleries and a notable musical tradition, being the home of composers Alfredo Catalani, Luigi Boccherini and the opera giant, Giacomo Puccini.

More reading: 

Riccardo Patrese, the first F1 driver to compete in 250 Grands Prix

Michele Alboreto, the last Italian to challenge for the F1 drivers' title

A crash kills Alberto Ascari, twice F1 world champion

Also on this day:

1915: The birth of jam and juice maker Karl Zuegg

1942: The birth of goalkeeper Dino Zoff, the oldest player to win a World Cup

Selected reading:

The Golden Age of Formula One, by Rainer W Schlegelmilch

Driven: The Men Who Made Formula One, by Kevin Eason

(Picture credits: Top picture of Andreotti by Gillfoto; Andretti with Chapman by Suyk, Koen; Andretti today by Jonathan Mauer; Piazza in Lucca by Robespierre; via Wikimedia Commons)

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