Grand Prix flashback
On this day in 1971, Grand Prix legend Mario Andretti scored his first win in an F1 race.
The Italian-born American, who in his youth had watched Alberto Ascari driving for Ferrari, won on his first appearance for the Scuderia in South Africa.
Andretti was already dominating the US single-seater racing scene when he made his Ferrari at the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami on March 6, 1971. It was his tenth Formula One appearance.
In his biography “A Driving Passion” by Gordon Kirby, Andretti says: “South Africa was the type of race where I was not outstanding, but I was up front. I was ahead of all the other Ferraris.
“I was challenging [Denny] Hulme, but pretty much couldn’t catch him. I don’t think I would have beaten him, but it was a good victory nonetheless.
“It was big to score my first Formula 1 win, and to do it for Ferrari made it very special.”
From Italy to America
Andretti was born in 1940 in Montona, near Trieste, an area of Italy which became Yugoslavian soon after the Second World War. He spent his childhood years in a displaced persons’ camp near Lucca in Tuscany.
Andretti has said that life was good in the forties, but that things soon changed. In his biography, he recalls: “Then Communism arrives. Everyone’s supposed to be equal, right? Well, that much was true. Everyone was equal – we all had nothing!
“That’s how we wound up in the camp, and that’s why we moved to the States. You don’t forget those things, that your mother was always crying and you didn’t know why.”
His first experience of a motor race was seeing the Mille Miglia pass near the family home in 1954. The following year they moved to America and before long Mario and his twin brother Aldo began racing on the dirt oval at Nazareth in Pennsylvania.
He’s said: “You know, you leave your home, lose everything, and go into a refugee camp with a totally uncertain future. Then, all of a sudden, you pursue an opportunity to come to America with so many unknowns, and things start shaping up. In every sense we really experienced the American Dream”.
The break into F1
By the time Mario Andretti made his F1 debut at Watkins Glen, New York, for the 1968 United States Grand Prix, he was already a name to be reckoned with.
He’d demonstrated his versatility as a driver in USAC Championship cars, stock cars, and long-distance sports cars. He won the United States Auto Club championship twice (1965-66), and in 1967 won the Daytona 500 (NASCAR).
In 1966 he drove 14 different cars in 51 races, winning 14 of those races driving four different cars. Few drivers in their entire careers have raced such a wide range of cars – and with so much success.
He had previously taken pole position for the first F1 race he started, driving for Lotus at Watkins Glen in 1968.
Andretti had qualified 0.7 seconds faster than Jackie Stewart, who described the reaction among the F1 fraternity to Auto Week: “I don’t quite know what word to use to describe the feeling of our group. I guess you can say it was a surprise.
“Not that I, personally, was surprised, because I knew bloody well he can drive any kind of race car and do it quite splendidly. It was surprising that he goes onto one of our regular road courses for the first time and wins pole at record speed.”
The Ferrari 312B
In the summer of 1970, Andretti delivered Ferrari’s only sports-car victory of the year at Sebring and was approached by Enzo Ferrari to drive for the team full-time in 1971. He was unable to accept the offer because of his Firestone commitments, but agreed to a handful of F1 and sports car races that didn’t conflict with his USAC races.
Reigning world champion Jochen Rindt had been killed during practice for the 1970 Italian Grand Prix, and the sport had also lost Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage that year.
Denny Hulme and Emerson Fittipaldi were now leading McLaren and Lotus respectively; Stewart had been approached by Ferrari but decided to stay at Tyrrell in a new car designed around him; Chris Amon moved to Matra and was replaced at the factory March team by Ronnie Peterson; and Jo Siffert moved to BRM.
Many pundits were predicting a walkover for Ferrari in 1971. The team’s 12-cylinder engine had taken 12 months to be refined into a reliable and competitive unit, and with thanks to Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni, won four of the last five races in 1970. It was difficult to see how the Cosworth DFV engine could compete.
For the new season, improvements were made to the engine and a new chassis design, heavily influenced by the “wedge” profile of the Lotus 72, was introduced.
Andretti had driven more than a thousand miles testing the new car in Italy at the end of 1970 and was excited by its potential: “That was a perfect car. The 12-cylinder boxer engine had a low centre of gravity that helped its handling. It was well balanced. Even then it was an old-looking car, but it worked.”
He qualified fourth for the season opener in South Africa, immediately behind team mate Regazzoni and ahead of Ickx in the third Ferrari.
1971 South African Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Jackie Stewart
|2. Chris Amon
|3. Clay Regazzoni
|Row 2||4. Mario Andretti
|5. Emerson Fittipaldi
|Row 3||6. John Surtees
|7. Denny Hulme
|8. Jacky Ickx
|Row 4||9. François Cevert
|9. Pedro Rodriguez
|Row 5||11. Peter Gethin
|12. Dave Charlton
|13. Ronnie Peterson
|Row 6||14. Reine Wisell
|15. Rolf Stommelen
|Row 7||16. Jo Siffert
|17. Brian Redman
|18. Henri Pescarolo
|Row 8||19. Graham Hill
|20. Jackie Pretorius
|Row 9||21. John Love
|22. Andrea de Adamich
|23. Jo Bonnier
|Row 10||24. Howden Ganley
|25. Alex Soler-Roig
On the morning of the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami Hulme was very confident, even though he was back on the third row with Surtees and Ickx. Stewart and Amon both made poor starts from the front row and Hulme was able to make ground early, to be in the lead after 16 laps. The race seemed to be in his pocket.
Andretti struggled at the start, almost running into Stewart and Amon who were directly ahead of him on the grid. He braked hard, and was seventh by the end of the opening lap.
He steadily worked his way toward the front and by the race’s final stages was up to second place, closing in on leader Hulme. He was a little more than two seconds behind with four laps to go when a bolt fell out of Hulme’s McLaren M19.
Hulme described what happened next in Maurice Hamilton’s biography of Ken Tyrrell: “The Ferrari’s fuel load had dropped and Mario was going quicker – he took fastest lap of the race just a few laps from the finish – but with the new suspension my car had been the same throughout the race, never altering from full tanks to empty tanks.
“I knew I was going to have trouble with Mario before the end of the race, but I was determined to make the McLaren as wide as possible to keep the red car behind me.
“Then going round Barbecue Corner, the McLaren started to wander a wee bit. [As] I went down into Sunset Corner and braked, the car swerved across the road. I knew I was in big trouble. Mario had caught me, and as I was gathering up the McLaren he went whistling by into the lead.
“When Mario came by to lap me just before the finish, he slowed alongside, looked across and gave me a little wave. He’s like that. A brave, tough little guy with a big heart.
“When you’re Italian-born, it’s a big deal to be winning your first Grand Prix in a factory Ferrari, 20 seconds ahead of Jackie Stewart. It must have all seemed pretty good to Mario just then.”
1971 South African Grand Prix result
|4||3||Rene Wisell||Lotus-Ford||78||1 Lap|
|5||19||Chris Amon||Matra||78||1 Lap|
|6||11||Denny Hulme||McLaren-Ford||78||1 Lap|
|7||28||Brian Redman||Surtees-Ford||78||1 Lap|
|8||4||Jacky Ickx||Ferrari||78||1 Lap|
|9||14||Graham Hill||Brabham-Ford||77||2 Lap|
|10||7||Ronnie Peterson||March-Ford||77||2 Lap|
|11||22||Henri Pescarolo||March-Ford||77||2 Lap|
|12||21||Rolf Stommelen||Surtees-Ford||77||2 Lap|
|13||8||Andrea de Adamich||March-Alfa Romeo||75||4 Lap|
|12||Peter Gethin||McLaren-Ford||7||Fuel Leak|
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Grand Prix flashback
- 25 years ago today: Senna’s first win for McLaren
- Today in 1993: Senna’s last great race at Donington
- Today in 1953: Peron’s Grand Prix ends in carnage
- 20 years ago today: Mansell finally wins the title
- Today in 1987: Mansell defeats Piquet at Silverstone
- Today in 1962: The Clark-Lotus era begins at Spa
- Today in 1982: Start line crash in Canada kills Paletti
- On this day in 1982: Gilles Villeneuve killed at Zolder
- 30 years ago today: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari
- 20 years ago today: Schumacher’s first podium and Mexico’s last race
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