The enthusiasm and passion is expected but oh, what a joy it is to share in the manifest pleasure of Formula One that still courses through Mario Andretti. He may be 82 but there is youthful ebullience radiating from the revered American driver before Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix.
After he had some heartbreaking personal losses in recent years, F1 at least really feels like it is coming home for the world champion who fell in love with the sport as a teenager. In the past four years Andretti has endured the deaths of some of his closest loved ones but has refused to be cowed.
“My home is much quieter,” he says with a thoughtful honesty that brings a lump to the throat. “No question, there was a degree of loneliness. You try to keep your chin up but it never goes away. You have never prepared for that, it’s there forever. A loss is a loss, your life changes in so many ways. ”
Yet his presence still lights up any event, fizzing with the same exuberance F1 is now enjoying in the country that for so long since Andretti’s heyday looked all but lost to the sport. He couldn’t be happier at F1’s American resurgence in the nation that took him in as a child and then took him to their heart. He believes the race in Miami, F1’s first here, is a tipping point.
“It will be awesome,” he says with the zeal of a true fan. “There is something beautiful about it. It is going to be long term, I can guarantee that. F1 is back to stay in the US. ”
F1 is enjoying a new dawn in the Florida sunshine this weekend, the first of two races in the United States this year. With three scheduled for 2023, the sport is riding a wave of popularity not seen since the 60s and 70s and Andretti is revealing in it. “If you are a race fan and for those of us for whom motor racing is our life, you see something gaining this level of interest and it doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.
Andretti’s opinion rightly still carries weight. He won the F1 championship with Lotus in 1978 but his career was long and successful across so many disciplines. He remains the only driver to have won the F1 title, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. He was named US driver of the year in three separate decades: 1967, 1978 and 1984.
An ambition to compete in F1 had gripped him since, aged 14, he watched Alberto Ascari at Monza in 1954. The family had been displaced by the war into a refugee camp and his father was determined to take them to America. He did so in 1955 and Andretti still remembers arriving beneath the Statue of Liberty on his sister Anna Maria’s birthday aboard the liner Count Biancamano.
The poor family that fetched up in the small town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, started from scratch and Andretti lived out the American dream. Going racing initially behind his father’s back, Andretti excelled. He raced when F1 in the US was hugely popular, with thousands packing out Watkins Glen and the US often hosting two races a year.
His abilities were manifold, a talent able to combine natural speed and touch with a mechanical insight and intuition. He was also fiercely determined, an attribute that has served him well of late. Over the past few years Andretti has faced as great a challenge as any he overcame on track. In 2018 his beloved wife, Dee Ann, and his sister died within months of one another. Then in late 2020, as the pandemic struck, his nephew John died of colon cancer and at the end of the year his twin brother Aldo died of complications from contracting Covid.
It was a devastating period. He and Aldo had shared the racing dream since they were kids, their early exploits so formative he described Aldo as “his partner in crime”. Andretti still lives in Nazareth and, typically of the driver who showed no fear on track, he does not shy away from discussing his loss, even as he concedes he still finds his feelings hard to put into words.
Yet as Andretti found himself alone, the pandemic robbing him of company and of the sport which gave him so much pleasure, he found solace in what racing had already taught him. Not least when his teammate Ronnie Peterson died after an accident in the same race at which Andretti would go on to clinch his championship in 1978 at Monza, just as he silently promised himself he would try to do when watching Ascari all those years before.
“Nothing equalled to me the closeness of my loss that I have had but I lost some of my closest friends in the sport,” he says. “Individuals that I had dinner with the night before and in the next race they were gone. It hurts deeply, everyone takes something away from your life, loss that can never be replaced.
“When I lost Ronnie, I couldn’t celebrate what should have been the happiest day of my career. You go through life and experience these things and then sometimes that helps you. You have a choice to just give up on your life or keep living it. ”
He has very much kept living. As the shadow of Covid began to fade, F1 discovered a new-found popularity in the US. Andretti could not have been more eager to go back to the track and an invigorated F1 was the tonic. “F1 always had a special place, an aura,” he says. “It was different because of the international aspect and the chance to measure up against the best in the world. As an ambitious driver that was what I wanted. How I would do, a tremendous challenge. ”
The aura had been lost by the 80s, however, the sport lacking a permanent home in the US. So what went wrong? “There was no stability,” says Andretti. “To be successful you have to have stability, fans want to look forward to an event.”
After an underwhelming run at Indianapolis, the revival of the US GP at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas provided that stability, there has been the success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series and Andretti cites last season’s thrilling battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. “F1 is enjoying a great period,” he says “As fans are we not enjoying that? Absolutely I am, F1 is in a good place right now. ”
For F1 this weekend is vindication of the efforts it has made to break America of late. To encourage a new, younger audience, to bring the sport back to potentially the biggest fan base in the world. Yet for Andretti after all recent sadness it is a celebration too. Those teenage dreams, so hard to beat. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better or anything more from my career,” he concludes with that infectious passion. “And I am loving it now, purely loving it.”