Andretti’s Somber Title
Monza — 10 Sept. 1978
There are so many sad, unlucky and poignant moments in Mario Andretti’s motor racing career it is difficult to catalog them all — thrice snakebit while leading at Indianapolis, for instance. Mario had grown up in Italy in the shade of the Parco di Monza — enraptured by his hero, two-time F1 titleist Alberto Ascari — and as a boy dreamed of racing in Formula One. He was tagged by Lotus to drive in the 1968 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, capturing pole position but retiring on lap 32 with a broken clutch. Not until 1975 did Andretti move full-time to Formula One. It was three years later (1978), driving the astounding Lotus 79 “wing car” — the first and best example of ground effects in F1, a car that rendered all other machines uncompetitive in just 12 months — that Andretti achieved his greatest success, winning six races and finishing four 1-2s with likable and talented teammate Ronnie Peterson.
The Italian Grand Prix at Monza would be the clincher. Andretti took pole position alongside Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari), with Jean-Pierre Jabouille (Renault) in third place, Niki Lauda in 4th and Peterson in 5th. But the race starter was overenthusiastic, turning on the red lights before all the cars had lined up, and several cars in the middle of the field got a jump on those at the front. In a massive pile up, Peterson’s Lotus was rammed from behind. Peterson went into the barriers hard on the right hand side and his car caught fire; after James Hunt leapt from his McLaren and pulled Peterson from the burning Lotus, the Finn was airlifted away, although it took 20 minutes before medical help was dispatched to the scene. Mario finished 6th in the red-flaged race following a restart, capturing the World Championship, but his somber face afterwards shows how hollow the title really was. Niki Lauda, who won the race, did not even collect his trophy. More tragically even, Peterson would unexpectedly die the next morning after surgery on his shattered legs, completely without warning, from a freakish blood clot that caused a brain aneurysm. “Unhappily, motor racing is also this,” said Andretti stoically.
From the Six Most Poignant Moments | Top Sixes collection.