40 years today: Mario Andretti’s first F1 win

Grand Prix flashback

Posted on

| Written by

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.’

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

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.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

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.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

1971 South African Grand Prix grid

Row 11. Jackie Stewart
2. Chris Amon
3. Clay Regazzoni
Row 24. Mario Andretti
5. Emerson Fittipaldi
Row 36. John Surtees
7. Denny Hulme
8. Jacky Ickx
Row 49. Francois Cevert
10. Pedro Rodriguez
Row 511. Peter Gethin
12. Dave Charlton
13. Ronnie Peterson
Row 614. Reine Wisell
15. Rolf Stommelen
Row 716. Jo Siffert
17. Brian Redman
18. Henri Pescarolo
Row 819. Graham Hill
20. Jackie Pretorius
Row 921. John Love
22. Andrea de Adamich
March-Alfa Romeo
23. Jo Bonnier
Row 1024. Howden Ganley
25. Alex Soler-Roig

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

The race

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

16Mario AndrettiFerrari79
29Jackie StewartTyrrell-Ford7920.9
35Clay RegazzoniFerrari7931.4
43Rene WisellLotus-Ford781 Lap
519Chris AmonMatra781 Lap
611Denny HulmeMcLaren-Ford781 Lap
728Brian RedmanSurtees-Ford781 Lap
84Jacky IckxFerrari781 Lap
914Graham HillBrabham-Ford772 Lap
107Ronnie PetersonMarch-Ford772 Lap
1122Henri PescaroloMarch-Ford772 Lap
1221Rolf StommelenSurtees-Ford772 Lap
138Andrea de AdamichMarch-Alfa Romeo754 Lap
2Emerson FittipaldiLotus-Ford58 Engine
20John SurteesSurtees-Ford56Gearbox
10Francois CevertTyrrell-Ford45Accident
27Howden GanleyBRM42 Physical
16Pedro RodriguezBRM33 Overheating
15Jo SiffertBRM31Overheating
17Dave CharltonBrabham-Ford31Engine
24John LoveMarch-Ford30Differential
25Jackie PretoriusBrabham-Ford22 Engine
12Peter GethinMcLaren-Ford7Fuel Leak
26Alex Soler-RoigMarch-Ford5 Engine
23Jo BonnierMcLaren-Ford5Suspension

Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Grand Prix flashback

Browse all Grand Prix flashbacks

25 comments on “40 years today: Mario Andretti’s first F1 win”

  1. nice.
    And andretti want to go for the 5 mill race at vegas this year. Amazing.
    May be not the fastest driver in history, but sure the one that love racing the most.

  2. Ahhh back in the days when if more than half the grid finished it was a novelty.

    Mario was a great driver though.

    Also the first sub-heading should be “From Italy to America”.

    1. Thanks for the heads up – changed it!

  3. I wasn’t even a concept in those days. But you gotta love those cars! Thanks for the article as it’s always nice to learn these things about the heritage of the sport I love so much!

  4. A real man of records: got pole on his first race; won his first race for Ferrari; took pole again for his first race with Ferrari in 10 years in 1982. He was competitive in every form of motor racing. I’m glad he won the title because he really deserved it.

    1. I think the world “Legend” was actually invented to describe Mario Andretti.

      1. Absolutely it was. Such a driver; able to demonstrate exceptional skills in a wide variety of race cars, not just F1 cars.

        1. That is why I placed him higher than Jackie Stewart in the Champion of Champions! Maybe that was my emotions taking over, but that kind of success in a variety of machines showing different character and having different power levels has never occurred before and probably never will. Guess Andretti should have tried rallying as well!

  5. NetBurst (@)
    6th March 2011, 21:20

    There is something wrong

    8. 9. François Cevert
    9. Pedro Rodriguez

    1. Fixed it, thanks.

  6. Ah Mario Andretti very few drivers of this much caliber.

  7. Great article Cari! I’d never seen or read about that race, or for that matter most of the background info you provided on Mario. Interesting stuff.

  8. Mario was one of the last real drivers – NASCAR, sports cars, endurance, F1 – he did it all and won. And his background – a far cry from the silver-spoon, groomed-from-the-cradle bland non-entities piloting certain cars today.
    People say half-seriously that Mansell could still head out there, but I bet Mario at 70 could still put in a quick lap or two.

  9. Very nice reading Cari. Gives us a great back drop to look forward to this seasons start as well as a backdrop to Mario Andretti eying a go at that $5m IndyCar go.

    Wonderfull racer in all he did.

  10. Mario did not score pole position at his debut. This stat is wrong. In fact he qualified for the race in Monza a month earlier, but was excluded from the race, because both he and Unser raced in a race in Indianapolis the day before the race.

    From GrandPrix.com

    Early qualifying saw Andretti and Unser setting fast times as both wanted to fly back to the United States to race in the Hoosier 100 in Indianapolis the following day. They then intended to fly back across the Atlantic and race in the Grand Prix. The organizers announced that if the two drivers did fly back to the United States and race there they would be banned from competing in the Italian race under a rule which forbade drivers to compete in an other event within 24 hours of the start of the Grand Prix. They flew off back to the US and did not return.

    IMHO participating in qualification makes it count for a Grand Prix. So he qualified for the race in Monza and scored pole position at his second event.

    1. Have tweaked the text to refer to the “first race he started” rather than “debut”.

  11. Great article, it certainly made the train ride this morning far more interesting. Thank you, Cari!

  12. Great article once again Keith! I read every article, every day, though I only feel compelled to comment once in a great while. I’m feeling especially warm…, and a bit smug. Being a proud American, I get sick of the anti- U.S. sentiment expressed by posters here and elsewhere. Haters, You can’t knock Andretti! Read Sir Jackie’s description carefully.Also, I guarantee We (Americans) will have a champion again. Once the U.S. GP is a regular occurrence, it won’t be long till We produce another prodigy.

    1. That’s very nice, thank you, but Cari wrote it :-)

  13. Well then…, thanks very much Cari! ;)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment – it’s appreciated :-)

  14. John Uerkvitz
    7th March 2011, 18:59

    Great article! My Father took me to my first race at Riverside CA in the late 70’s. It was an IROC event and guess who won? Yep, Mario. I was able to see him at Long Beach in 82 driving for Williams and again in Las Vegas when he drove for Ferrari. Check out the DVD Speed Merchants, Mario Andretti narrates his bit of this great 70’s racing documentary.

  15. It was a memorable day for me as I was 16 and passed my exam for a drivers license!
    I heard the news about the race later in the day and was happy for Mario, but crushed as I was a big McLaren fan!
    Remember it to this day.

  16. Mario Andretti, greatest driver of all time!

  17. God Bless Mario Andretti!I would have never gotten interested in racing if it wasn’t for this man.Who else could adapt to so many styles of racing…and do well in all of them?

Comments are closed.