The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Fresh From Florida celebrates its 60th running this year, with Sebring International Raceway's tooth-loosening concrete runways hosting the opening round of the new-for-2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
This week, as we count down to that milestone race on March 14-17, we're taking a look back with one of its greatest champions, three-time winner Mario Andretti.
“Steve McQueen was getting all the credit…”
Andretti turned 72 last Tuesday, Feb. 28, a number with a nice round symmetry – his 1972 win, his third and final triumph at Sebring, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Two years earlier, in the '70 race, Andretti scored his second – and unquestionably his most dramatic – victory in the No. 21 Ferrari 512S originally entered for the Italian pairing of Ignazio Giunti and Nino Vaccarella. It wasn't the car Andretti had started the race in, but his final, no-holds-barred stint in it would go down in Sebring lore.
Andretti began the day on pole in the spyder-bodied No. 19 512S (RIGHT), co-driven by Arturo Merzario, ahead of a Porsche 917 shared by Brian Redman and Jo Siffert. An exciting back-and-forth tussle between the two cars defined the first 100 laps until, as attrition began to take its toll on the field, the Redman/Siffert Porsche was one of the cars beaten into submission by the bumps and retired eight hours in with suspension problems.
Its main opposition gone, the Andretti/Merzario Ferrari built up a massive 13-lap lead – until also meeting its demise, courtesy of a broken transmission after 227 laps.
With the leader out, the coupe-bodied Giunti/Vaccarella 512S ran second, behind Siffert, who had jumped into the 917 of Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen. Also moving into the picture was the Porsche 908 driven by Hollywood star Steve McQueen (suffering from a broken left foot after a motorcycle accident) and soon-to-be-F1-regular Peter Revson. The 908 wasn't the fastest car in the place by any means, having started only 15th, but it ran like clockwork while more potent machines began to fall by the wayside.
With 55 minutes remaining, Ferrari technical wizard and team manager Mauro Forghieri decided to throw Andretti into the No. 21 car (LEFT, photo © Louis Galanos) and see what he could do. Bringing the 512S in promoted the McQueen/Revson 908 up to second, so now at least Andretti had something tangible to chase after. But after driving the spyder all week, not the coupe, Andretti found himself in an unfamiliar car, set up for different-sized drivers, when pressed into action.
“Well, I did have reservations about it because Nino Vaccarella was taller than I am,” Andretti recalls. “Ignazio Giunti was a little bit closer, but I knew I wouldn't fit. Plus, I had been in the spyder and this was the coupe. I didn't really want to do it, but Mauro Forghieri said he wanted me to do it. Vaccarella's pace hadn't really been great.”