Mario Andretti: "I've always loved the 24 Hours of Le Mans."

Mario Andretti: "I've always loved the 24 Hours of Le Mans."

Formula 1 World Champion (1978), Indianapolis 500 winner (1969), Daytona 500 winner (1967) and 12 Hours of Sebring winner (1970), Mario Andretti spared no effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the only jewel in the Triple Crown to elude him. For the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, the 50th anniversary of his win at the iconic American race, here is a chat with a true motorsport enthusiast.

In the wake of his retirement from the American single-seaters IndyCar Series at the end of 1994, Mario Andretti set out to conquer the last race missing from his outstanding track record: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At 55, he came close to reaching the top step on the podium, finishing second in 1995 with a Courage-Porsche along with Éric Hélary and Bob Wollek. But, despite Andretti's drive and passion, the Triple Crown - as defined upon Graham Hill's 24 Hours victory in 1972 after becoming F1 World Champion in 1962 and 1968 and winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1966 - remains to this day a triumph only achieved by the British driver.

"It wasn't a dream of mine when I started out," smiles Mario Andretti when asked about the Triple Crown. Now he sees things a little differently given his remarkable track record, thinking immediately of three circuits at which he triumphed: the win he snatched in the final hour at Sebring in 1970, which he still considers a high point in his career; his victory at the 1977 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where he had watched his childhood idol Alberto Ascari win in the 1950s; and of course the 1969 Indianapolis 500, the first major win of his career, nine years before his Formula 1 world title.  

But in some ways, the Triple Crown stayed on the path of Andretti's journey: "Let me go back to the beginning. In 1965, I was named Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500. That year, Jim Clark won the race with a Lotus-Ford. During the traditional gala dinner that followed, I went to see Colin Chapman (the founder of Lotus, Ed.) and told him that one day I hoped to race in Formula 1 for him. He said to let him know as soon as I was ready." Andretti made his Formula 1 debut at the 1969 United States Grand Prix, even scoring pole position, and in 1978 still with Lotus, became the second American Formula 1 World Champion after Phil Hill in 1961. In 1966, five years after his conversation with Colin Chapman, he made his first appearance in the 24 Hours of Le with Ford...Lotus' engine partner for his victory at Indianapolis.

When Andretti talks about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, his face lights up: "I've always loved the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When you think of sports prototypes, you think of endurance racing, you think of Le Mans. When I was living in Italy, I followed the 24 Hours, the Mille Miglia, I went to Monza, I remember Olivier Gendebien (first four-time Le Mans winner, Ed.). I remember learning about the catastrophe at the 1955 edition when I was on a boat to the U.S. And I made my first return trip to Europe in 1966 for the 24 Hours. I reunited with friends, family and we were all very proud." In the IndyCar Series paddock, Le Mans is a regular topic of conversation between Andretti and other stars of the discipline, namely French drivers Simon Pagenaud and Sébastien Bourdais who finished second together at the 24 Hours in 2011 with Pedro Lamy.

Today, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance races have become veritable sprints, and Andretti approves: "I can almost say I was born too early (smile, Ed.). In my day, you had to preserve the car, the breaks, the engine. Today, in Formula 1 the number of engines over a season is regulated and if one breaks down, you incur a penalty. In endurance, car reliability has improved so much that you don't have to be as economical, which makes for sensational races. You could say the Indianapolis 500 is an endurance race for single-seaters since a Formula 1 Grand Prix lasts about an hour and a half. We've even had our own version of the Triple Crown with the 500-mile races on the calendar."

Of his nine participations in the 24 Hours, Andretti has shared three with family: his nephew John (1988), his son Michael (1983, 1988 and 1997) and his grandson Marco (2010). Third in 1983 along with his father and Philippe Alliot for his first running of Le Mans, today Michael Andretti is a highly successful team owner, celebrating his 200th this past spring all disciplines considered. He shares with Roger Penske the distinction of being the winningest active team owner at the Indianapolis 500. "Naturally, he's looking for opportunities to compete in endurance racing and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans,"  admits his father, Mario. "Michael is involved in several disciplines, IndyCar and its ladder series, Rallycross, Formula E, Supercar in Australia...he made an offer to buy out the Force India team in Formula 1. I think he has a drive to be as well-rounded as an owner as I was able to be as a driver. If he makes it to Le Mans in the future, I sure hope I'm there, even though I'll be wanting more than anything to get behind the wheel!"


PHOTO (Copyright) - The second half of the 1960s marked Mario Andretti's emergence on the international racing stage in the three races of the Triple Crown: his first two participations in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1966 and 1967), his first F1 pole position and Grand Prix (1968) and his victory at the Indianapolis 500 (1969). He is seen here holding the Indy trophy.