Regular readers of Nigel Roebuck’s “Fifth Column” in Autosport will know he has a couple of all-time favourite drivers. If Mario Andretti isn’t number one, he’s surely a close second to Gilles Villeneuve.
But a professional closeness and admiration for someone can be a mixed blessing when it comes to writing a biography of them. Getting plenty of illuminating first-hand access to the subject is a boon – but the trade-off is that the end result may be a little on the uncritical side.
And as it turns out, that’s a reasonable description of “Mario Andretti World Champion”.
It’s not unusual to see biographies of top drivers rushed out as soon as they get a championship or even a race win to their name (unless, apparently, the driver is Fernando Alonso).
Nigel Roebuck’s biography of Mario Andretti is just such a book, now the best part of two decades old, and thus missing large portions of his career following the championship – his departure from F1, occasional returns, and continued success on the American scene.
That much is to be expected. What disappointed me about the book is how skewed it is towards F1 in general, and his 1979 championship season in particular, which occupies about half the book. About his sprint car, NASCAR and USAC exploits there is, not very little, but not quite enough either.
The book focuses quite tightly on Andretti’s Lotus years and is copiously illustrated. Best of all Roebuck, a friend of Andretti’s has used reams of first-hand material from Andretti and illuminates his opinions on more or less everything from Communism to the increasingly complexity of Grand Prix cars.
Really apart from the missing sections of detail there’s not a lot wrong with it at all. The account of the tragedy at Monza where Ronnie Peterson was killed is quite vividly a product of its time – the blame rested more or less entirely at Patrese’s feet with little account given by Andretti of the unsafe circuit or the poor medical provisions.
It’s pieces like this that make even 18 year-old books so valuable. Picking up something like this costs only a few quid online, and it’s wholly worthwhile.
Hamlyn Publishing Group