In this exclusive interview we spoke with Mario Andretti, 1978 Formula 1 World Champion who has been able to win in Europe and America. With Mario we talked about different topics: starting from his title winning year to his relationship with Ronnie Peterson, who died at Monza the day he won the title. We also talked about the current state of Formula 1 and IndyCar. Finally, we talked about the beginning of Mario’s career and his 60-year long journey in motorsport. Here you can watch the entire interview (video in Italian).
HIS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP VICTORY IN F1
This September marks the 45th anniversary of your World Championship title win. What memories do you have of that year? What emotions did you feel and is there an anecdote you have never told about that season, if you would like to share one?
That was a year that I had dreamt of since I was a child, when I was in Italy. It was a very sad day though, it was supposed to be the best one of my career and instead I lost my friend, Ronnie Peterson. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. We couldn’t celebrate, but I celebrate this milestone every day, for everything that has happened in the world of motor racing. The first dream for me was Formula 1, it was incredible. I had experiences with Colin Chapman in Lotus, with Ferrari, they were invaluable. To see Ferrari win now is great for us, I am and will be a Ferrari fan forever. With Ferrari winning in Singapore, Carlos did an exceptional thing. Ferrari in my opinion has two drivers capable of becoming world champions, it’s a beautiful thing to see.
The race where you won the title, the Italian Grand Prix, was the one where your teammate Ronnie Peterson died. You called him a friend earlier, I’d like to ask you if you would like to tell us what your relationship was like that season and what it was like working with him?
We were friends but rivals on the track, it was always like that during my career. From a human point of view there was a special relationship between us, we got along well with our families, our wives got along well, the kids too. Losing him as a teammate and friend was difficult. On the track, however, everyone was on his own. I had a better understanding of setups, he always came behind me (to listen). During my career, I wanted to know everything about aerodynamics and suspension. Even Colin Chapman would occasionally ask me why I was doing one thing rather than another but I didn’t explain it to him, it was fine with me. What they gave Ronnie was not always accurate because you have to know everything about the car. From that point of view I felt more secure. I understood it very well, with those cars – with the Lotus 78 and 79 for example – we were born together.
In your opinion, could Peterson have won the title in the following seasons if there had not been the Monza accident?
Of course, a driver capable of winning races is capable of winning a World Championship with the right car and team in the right place. He was worthy of a title, no doubt about it.
WHAT DOES DRIVING AN F1 AT 82 MEANS
You had a very long career and even after your retirement you drove many single-seaters, like the IndyCar two-seater or some old Formula 1 cars. Last year you had the chance to drive a 2013 McLaren: how did you feel about driving a Formula 1 single-seater at the age of 82?
There was a lot of emotion, I was curious but not surprised, I was expecting everything that actually happened. It’s a shame I wasn’t very comfortable in the cockpit, because the seat wasn’t custom-made, the pedals weren’t adjusted as well as they could be, the steering wheel was very close to me. We weren’t equipped for me to be at my best and I couldn’t push like I wanted to. But the car was great, it would have been great for me to be in the car in the best condition given the forces at work. But the fact that Zak Brown gave me this chance is something I appreciate infinitely. And I am ready to try any car if they ask me to. In the end, I am not that much older than last year!
If you were given the chance to try out a newer single-seater, since you have been driving the last single-seater of the V8 generation, which one would you like to try out? It doesn’t have to be an F1 car.
Personally I always have the desire to try the newest car, I’m always curious to drive what’s available now. I’m not a nostalgic person who wants to try a car from 1928 for example, I want the latest model.
Let’s say if Horner were to call you to try the RB19, you’d get on it straight away….
I’d be there in three minutes!
MARIO’S OPINION ON RED BULL
Speaking of Red Bull, I’d like you to tell me what you think of the season Max is having. Apart from Singapore, this year Red Bull, both with Max and Checo, is literally dominating the season.
It’s not a new thing, in motorsport in the past there has been domination by Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams or McLaren. At times they have dominated for seasons, and so it is happening for Red Bull this year. In Singapore they were a bit confused, but they did not lose everything. So far they have deserved what they have done, both team and drivers. Even Checo did what he could do, but Max is one of those who cannot be doubted as a champion. We’ll see how it goes in Japan (the interview was recorded on Wednesday), but they will definitely be there. But it’s great that Ferrari, and McLaren, are also on the verge of being able to annoy Red Bull. They are there, they’re working hard, nobody is stopping. That’s the beauty of our sport. In the Schumacher era you wondered directly who might come second, now Max will have a bit of a headache.
A GREAT FERRARI IN SINGAPORE AND LECLERC MUST STAY
You mentioned Ferrari: I want to ask you for your opinion on the last month of the Rossa, as since the summer break Sainz has had two podiums, Ferrari itself is back to winning ways after more than a year, and I’d like to ask you what you would change at Ferrari to make sure it can stay on top more consistently. This year we have seen results come sporadically.
It’s hard to say from my point of view. We have seen that, as far as strategies are concerned, I thought they’d made mistakes on certain choices, seeing from the outside, I wondered why they had made certain decisions. In Singapore the strategy for Carlos was correct, given how things went. Charles, on the other hand, suffered because he had started on soft tyres and only made one stop. His strategy was wrong, he should have stopped earlier and if you have hard tyres for the rest of the race, you run out of them at the end and you are screwed. It’s a shame it turned out like that for him, if he had started on medium I’m sure he would have had a chance to finish on the podium, maybe at least in second.
What do you think of Charles? This year he hasn’t won yet, at the moment in the standings he is behind Carlos and next year his contract will expire. He hasn’t signed yet, in Italy there is talk of a possible renewal coming up. If you were in Leclerc’s place, what would you do: would you stay in Red or go elsewhere?
I would stay with Ferrari, the Rossa can only go up. The Scuderia is capable of coming back, they are already in the fight. He’s a high value driver for any team, but it’s important that – wherever he goes – he’s the first driver. There is only one first driver, he can do it but I don’t see a more capable team than Ferrari where he can go that has a seat available. I am convinced he will be delighted to stay at Maranello. I think he has already confirmed himself as someone capable of winning with the right car, it’s great to see the Rossa with Carlos too; he took two consecutive poles and the win at Singapore, where he was under constant pressure and did nothing wrong.
SHOULD VERSTAPPEN TRY TO CHASE THE TRIPLE CROWN?
I want to talk again about Max and I’d like to ask you if you would advise him to attempt the chase for the Triple Crown and to ask if, in your opinion, he might be able to succeed at Indy and Le Mans?
Absolutely, it’s all about motivation. If he had the desire to do that, he would be capable of achieving those results. A driver capable of doing what we have seen so far is complete, it’s all in his head and his ambition. It’s a private thing, it was also true for me when I tried other things. Why did I do it? Because I was curious to see not only if I could race in other disciplines, but if I could win. I specialized in single-seaters, but the satisfaction I got with the stocks, with the sports cars, in any category, was great and unexpected. With the right team everything is possible, you have to have a good team and make the most of what you have.
F1 AND UNITED STATES
The last few years have revitalized the F1 World Championship, especially in the United States where the championship has always enjoyed fluctuating popularity. Do you think this is the time for F1 to reach the level of following that other series like NASCAR or IndyCar have?
This year we will have three F1 races in the USA which is something that has never happened, it all remains to be seen. We need to be careful and not bring too many races here, in the USA there’s Indy, NASCAR, there’s IMSA. I don’t think we need to have more than three races here. Let’s enjoy the interest there is about F1 at the moment because it’s unprecedented. Will I go to Las Vegas? Of course!
INDYCAR, PENSKE AND PALOU: “HE’S A CHAMPION”
If F1 is enjoying great growth, IndyCar is also enjoying a good moment. How do you assess the work done by Penske so far to grow the championship?
Having Penske at the helm of both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series is a great thing, he has a great passion for motorsport and I think it is only right that he has that responsibility.
Palou rightfully won the championship, where do you think he made the difference compared to his rivals? Do you think he can repeat himself in ’24?
He is special, he has a talent to envy. In my opinion he can win in any category, he is very good. He is someone who has been strong on all types of circuits and anyone who can do that is a special talent. You put him in the car and he finds a way to get to the front straight away.
Would you take Palou to Formula 1 or would you keep him in IndyCar?
I hope he stays in IndyCar, if I had a team in Formula 1 I would love to have him.
We’ve also seen that several drivers, who have raced in F1 or have not found an opportunity in F1, come from Europe to America to race in IndyCar. In the past Alonso has tried to win the Indy500. You, as Andretti Global, had Grosjean on your team this year and in 2024 you will have Ericsson, two former F1 drivers. Would you recommend the IndyCar experience to other drivers – as an opportunity for redemption or professional growth – and who would you like to see race in the USA?
Talent is talent, take it anywhere in the world and you can see it right away. If you take a talented driver out of Formula One and bring him to the USA, it would be seen immediately. Historically it has always been like that. It doesn’t matter where you race, if you have talent you can be able to win anywhere.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST: WHAT MARIO LEARNED FROM THE BEGINNING OF HIS CAREER
I would like to take a step back in time with you after talking about Formula 1 and current IndyCar. A few years ago I read the chapter dedicated to you in the book that Will Buxton published in 2019, My Greatest Defeat. You said that your career started in the late 1950s, without your father knowing about it because he was against you having a racing career and that was the same for your brother Aldo. What was the greatest lesson you had in those early years of your career?
For me everything came from the desire to overcome any obstacle and we had many, nothing was ever easy. I had an incredible passion and the will to go forward, if there was a wall in front of me I would break through it at all costs. The mentality was to never give up, for me that was the secret to going forward from the beginning. Even today you have to fight for the important things. That’s life.
How does it feel to you today to think back on the journey you have faced (and faced with your family) over these 60 years and, when you started this long journey, did you ever think that you would one day be able to achieve all this?
It was impossible for me to think that I would be so lucky to find myself here. If I look back, I was lucky not to have had any accidents that could have killed me. I have raced over 900 races in my life and only missed two due to injury. This is luck from heaven. I have only ever lived for racing, between my brother Aldo’s family and mine we have eight drivers and not all of them have had the luck that Michael and I had. Some have paid dearly for it, like my brother. In general, though, it was good for us.
I recently saw a post of yours on social media where you exchanged one of your helmets for one of Juan Manuel Fangio’s: who was Fangio for you and where do you place him among the greats of world motorsport?
I must admit that I followed the motorsport route because of Ascari. Ascari himself, Fangio, Moss, Castellotti were my heroes. The esteem I had for them was enormous, they were my idols. I was very pleased to exchange the helmets, I appreciated it so much because it takes me back to the beginning.
If there was another helmet to swap with a motorsport legend, who would you swap it with?
Ascari. He’s the only one I miss now.