Peter Wind­sor on Mario An­dretti’s de­but pole

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - @F1rac­ing _mag face­ f1rac­ing­mag PETER WIND­SOR

They were one man down. Trevor Sea­man, a tough wrench who’d served in the armed forces be­fore join­ing bat­tle at Team Lo­tus, felt woozy even in Canada. Now, af­ter the drive down through the Fin­ger Lakes district to Watkins Glen, he was out of it. Con­fined by the lo­cal doc­tor to bed and to com­plete rest, Trevor could only stare at the ceil­ing of the sparse mo­tel room over the days that fol­lowed, try­ing not to think about the work­load the other five boys would face…

Munch­ing a ba­con sand­wich in Watkins Glen’s Ken­dall Tech Cen­tre, star­ing at three Lo­tus 49Bs – the race cars for Gra­ham Hill and Jackie Oliver, plus a spare – Bob Dance, Gold Leaf Team Lo­tus chief me­chanic, won­dered if he could take much more. They’d lost Jim Clark ear­lier that year; they were fight­ing hard to win Gra­ham the cham­pi­onship; ev­ery­one was scared of the high wings that had be­come the F1 norm; and ev­ery­thing, as ever, was on the limit.

Ahead of him: three engine changes plus new up­per and lower engine mount­ings, new drive­shafts on all three cars… and the usual stuff

in be­tween. The drive­shafts alone were a mas­sive job, and he was prob­a­bly go­ing to have to do those him­self, leav­ing Bob (Sparshott), Ed­die (Den­nis) and Dale (Por­te­ous) to fo­cus on the other work…

It was three days be­fore prac­tice – and well af­ter the engine swaps had been com­pleted – that Colin Chap­man flew in from Eng­land with the news that would for­ever change the rac­ing world: Mario An­dretti would be rac­ing a third 49B at the Glen. Oh yes. And there would be a change of plan re­gard­ing the en­gines: Mario would race with the team’s sec­ond-best Cos­worth DFV. Gra­ham, as the cham­pi­onship con­tender, would have the sin­gle fresh engine but Oliver’s Cos­worth would have to go to Mario.

Stunned by the last-minute in­crease in work­load, but de­lighted to be see­ing Mario again, Bob sat the boys down to pre­pare for an­other all- nighter. And still there were the CV drive­shafts to fin­ish… clean­ing, mea­sur­ing, re-fit­ting…

For Mario, this was ret­ri­bu­tion for mem­o­ries of a Monza that still ran­kled. He’d tested a 49B at the Au­to­dromo in the week be­fore the race and been quick­est over­all – quicker than Hill and quicker than the Fer­raris of Chris Amon and Derek Bell. And, al­though he’d been com­mit­ted to the Hoosier 100 USAC dirt race at In­di­ana State Fair­grounds the week­end of the Ital­ian GP, he had man­aged ev­ery­thing to per­fec­tion. The Monza or­gan­is­ers had no prob­lem with him fly­ing back to the US af­ter first prac­tice – and the time change had worked in his favour. The plan was to be back at Monza by Sun­day, ready to start his first GP.

It had all worked per­fectly. He’d qual­i­fied top ten on the first day at Monza and he’d slept soundly on the flight back to Chicago. By the time he flew into Indy he was ready to race. He qual­i­fied on the pole, rel­ish­ing the feel of the big, front-en­gined Offy sprinter af­ter the light­ness and agility of the 49B – and he fin­ished sec­ond in a fran­tic, dirt-spray­ing fi­nal to AJ Foyt. Then came the news from Colin Chap­man: the Ital­ian GP or­ga­niz­ers, led by clerk of the course Giuseppe Bac­cia­galuppi, were now re­fus­ing to al­low Mario to start at Monza. Prob­a­bly Fer­rari were be­hind it. Prob­a­bly he had been too quick in test­ing….

Lo­tus didn’t need the com­pli­ca­tion of hav­ing to run a third car at Watkins Glen, thou­sands of miles from home, and a man down af­ter a chas­sis-break­ing Cana­dian GP… but then noth­ing was ever easy at Lo­tus. The up­side, for ev­ery­one, was that Mario was in some ways an­other Jimmy: he was a su­perquick, class act. They knew that from Monza – and they knew that Mario could drive any­thing, any­where, like Jimmy. He’d won the 1967 Day­tona 500 NASCAR clas­sic. He’d been Rookie of the Year at Indy in 1965, the year Jimmy had won.

No mat­ter that he’d never driven at Watkins Glen be­fore. Mario would han­dle it.

Prac­tice be­gan in the rain. Gra­ham shrugged off his dark blue Speed­well/hill rally jacket and tried a new “closed-face” Bell vi­sor. Mario, in red Fire­stone jacket, re­mained calm and re­laxed. Chris Econo­maki and the Amer­i­can press fol­lowed him at po­lite dis­tance. They watched as he tip-toed the high-wing 49B through the sweep­ers, be­tween the light blue Armco bar­ri­ers, squeez­ing on the power and jink­ing the rear as rooster tails of spray de­fined his progress.

Al­though the rain stopped on Satur­day, clouds still gath­ered at Team Lo­tus. Early

in the morn­ing, Jackie Oliver walked away from the sec­ond huge ac­ci­dent of his sea­son. A rear wing had failed in France; at the Glen, a rear wheel broke, tear­ing his 49B apart against the guardrail. The Lo­tus com­pound, in­side the Tech Cen­tre, be­came a scene of hor­ri­fied chaos:

Colin Chap­man (black-eyed): “Why was Jackie run­ning the old Mel­mags? We flew in the new wheels spe­cially last night!”

Bob Dance (red-eyed): “Why didn’t any­one tell us about it? We were flat out! They ob­vi­ously just got put in a cor­ner…”

Ev­ery­one – Chap­man, chief de­signer Mau­rice Phillippe, Gra­ham, Mario – then set to work on the wheels, bolt­ing to­gether the new ones, rush­ing them over to Fire­stone and in be­tween times fetch­ing the tea. Gra­ham and Mario kept the ship afloat, fir­ing wise­cracks and one-lin­ers, bring­ing a smile even to the face of Colin Chap­man.

Un­til, fi­nally, they were ready. A dry track, a golden af­ter­noon. Au­tumn in New York.

Gra­ham ran new Fire­stones; Mario be­gan with used ones. They thought he wanted to put in more laps on a cir­cuit still new to him. They thought he would later switch to fresh rub­ber.

Mario had an­other plan. In tyre test­ing that year, in the USAC Hawk on road cour­ses, he’d un­locked the power of the slick. You could run the tyres un­til the tread be­gan to go away and then – only for a lap or two – there’d be a sweet spot around which the grip would be im­mense.

He never men­tioned this to Colin or to Mau­rice – and he didn’t talk about it with other driv­ers, or even with Fire­stone. He knew about it, though. He could feel it just as surely as he could feel the down­force of a high rear wing. And he was go­ing to ap­ply it at the Glen.

He tied up his face mask. He strapped on his Bell Mag­num. He pulled on his skin-tight leather gloves, spit­ting on the palms. He climbed into the 49B be­fore set­tling back as Ed­die tight­ened the belts. And then he was off.

He put in the laps. One. Two. Three. Four. Jackie Ste­wart had pole in the Tyrrell Ma­tra… but now Mario was clos­ing on the pow­er­ful Honda of John Sur­tees. Maybe he’d get a tow down the back straight. The Fire­stones were by now well-worn – across the line…

1m 4.2sec!

Mario An­dretti had taken pole for his first F1 race on a cir­cuit he’d never seen be­fore. It was Oc­to­ber 5, 1968.

It was fifty years ago.


A smil­ing An­dretti af­ter claim­ing an amaz­ing pole on his F1 de­but at a cir­cuit he’d never driven on be­fore

An­dretti with Lo­tus boss Chap­man (right). His Gold Leaf 49B was a third en­try, es­pe­cially for this race

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