Tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of Mario Andretti becoming Formula 1 World Champion, America's last. David Malsher looks at the build-up to that title-winning year.
It's not only in hindsight that this story amazes, as it goes from hopeless beginnings to title glory in under three years; it was genuinely amazing to chart at the time. And it owes at least as much to the determination, self-belief and vision of Mario Gabriele Andretti as it does to the technical genius and drive to succeed of Lotus founder Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman.
From 1968, when he entered two races for Lotus (setting pole position in the second!) through to the end of 1972, Andretti had entered just 21 World Championship grands prix, winning the '71 South African GP for Ferrari, his first F1 race for Il Cavallino Rampante. His big contracts were still in USAC, but having achieved three Indy car titles and the '69 Indy 500, Andretti then went through a relatively barren period with the so-called “superteam” of Vel's Parnelli Jones from '72-'74. The cars were sometimes quick, frequently unreliable, and a victory at Trenton in April '73 was the sole highlight. The bank statements looked considerably healthier than the results sheets, and for someone with a racer's soul like Mario, that wasn't enough.
And so he persuaded Jones and team co-owner Vel Miletich to enter Formula 1 in 1975. The Maurice Phillippe-penned VPJ4 was reasonably quick at times, as it owed much in shape and concept to the Lotus 72 that Phillippe had a considerable hand in designing years earlier. But in the intervening period, the game had moved on considerably, and consequently, the Ferraris and McLarens were out of reach at most races. Certainly, the results weren't coming swiftly enough for Parnelli to retain his primary sponsor, Viceroy cigarettes. Thus the '63 Indy 500 winner entered '76 in a financial quandary, determined not to squander his own money on what, so far, had proved a mid-grid project. Just as in his driving days, Mr. Jones was not prepared to be in any racing category just to make up the numbers….
And so VPJ went MIA in Brazil, while Andretti, never one to sit on his thumbs, took up an offer to drive for Lotus as a one-off. Now, Lotus too, had been in the doldrums of late. The magnificent Lotus 72, which had won the drivers' title for Jochen Rindt in 1970 and Emerson Fittipaldi in '72, and won the Constructors' Championship in '70, '72 and '73, had required the in-cockpit acrobatics of Ronnie Peterson to win three races in '74. A year later, it virtually needed a walker to get to the grid, but with its supposed replacement, the Lotus 76, having proved a disaster, the six-year-old design would have to do. In 1975, Peterson ended up scoring precisely one more point than Andretti, 6-5.
That “one-off” race at Brazil in '76 was an inauspicious false start for an Andretti-Peterson-Lotus partnership that would bear such fruit two years later. Ronnie managed to run into his teammate in the early laps, sending both of the new Lotus 77s into retirement, whereupon the disenchanted Swede up and left for the March team, while Andretti returned to Parnelli for rounds two and three. On the grid at Long Beach, however, he discovered that would be the last F1 race for VPJ. Angry, disappointed but not altogether surprised, Mario was in a miserable mood the next morning, when he wound up having breakfast in the same room, and then at the same table, as Chapman.
At the age of 36, Andretti had no time to lose in F1 terms. In fact, he knew it was pretty much now or never. While he loved Indy car racing and loved sprint cars, too, it was Alberto Ascari racing at Monza in the early 1950s that had sparked his love of racing, and Formula 1 was an itch he just hadn't been able to scratch. Chapman, meanwhile, had to get his sponsors back to Victory Lane and was as hungry as ever to make the next big technical leap. Peterson had been a hopeless test driver, and his replacement Gunnar Nilsson was an unknown quantity in that area. What Lotus needed was a technically savvy but also fast and determined driver who was in F1 for all the right reasons; someone who could take whatever Chapman and his designers came up with and hone it and refine it into a winner.
A deal was done. Finally, more than a decade after Jimmy Clark had let Chapman know how highly he rated this Andretti guy, the super-rookie at Indy in '65 when Jimmy won, team owner and driver had finally got their act together. It would prove to be a meeting of minds.
The Lotus 77 of 1976 was called the “fully adjustable” car, which theoretically could be tailored perfectly for every type of track on the Formula 1 schedule. But initially it seemed mediocre (at best) on all of them, and certainly still no match for a Ferrari or McLaren. A podium finish for Nilsson in Spain was encouraging, a front-row start for Andretti in Sweden was rather more than that, but then the engine blew at half-distance. However, at both Zandvoort and Mosport, Mario started in the top six and finished third.
By the time the teams arrived at Mount Fuji for the season finale, all the racing world seemed interested in was the battle between the Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and that's understandable. But it did mean that Andretti's pole position and then brilliant and intelligent drive to victory in the rain were somewhat overshadowed, and remain so to this day. Remarkably, Andretti's second grand prix victory had come more than five and a half years after his first, but now it opened the floodgates.