Mario Andretti's extraordinary legacy at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Mario Andretti's extraordinary legacy at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Motorsport legend Mario Andretti will celebrate his 80th birthday this Friday 28 February. During the course of his extraordinary career, he was crowned a Formula 1 World Champion (1978), won the two American oval circuit classics the Daytona 500 (1967) and Indianapolis 500 (1969) and claimed three victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has always been a passion for Andretti, though his dream of winning the race never came to fruition. Here he shares some memories and inside stories from his eight participations across three decades, from 1966 to 2000.

A passion for Le Mans – Before emigrating to the U.S. with his family, Mario Andretti was already a fan of motorsport in post-WWII Italy, his home country. It's a passion that has never waned, as evidenced by the messages he posts on social media even today: "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 (the major road race from Brescia to Rome and back, Ed.), 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."

ABOVE: In the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and motorsport in general, Mario Andretti's silver helmet with the red crest is as famous as the green helmet of Henri Pescarolo and Jacky Ickx's black with white trim. BELOW: Mario Andretti on the track at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans at the wheel of the Ford Mk II.

His rookie start in the 1966 24 Hours – Two years after earning is American citizenship, and one year after taking the start in his first Indianapolis 500 (with pole position at the 1966 running), Andretti made his first appearance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: "When I arrived there I was very much impressed of course: the magnitude of the event, the atmosphere, everything everyone was always talking about. You could feel that Le Mans was in the category of the classic events like the Indianapolis 500 I had already experienced. I was very happy and grateful to be part of that. I was very happy to be able to have Lucien as a teammate because we had become friends before, since we had competed at the Daytona 24 Hours. I knew he was very experienced and familiar, and he could give me enough information about Le Mans. We spoke Italian together. Coming to Le Mans was also very special for me because as a youngster I used to follow all the motor racing and my idols, so I was very familiar with Le Mans as a racing fan, if you will. For me, coming there with Lucien probably was the best situation because he was very open with me. I asked to team up with Lucien again in 1967 because I felt that we needed a continuation. Our friendship was very strong and I knew Lucian was a very reliable teammate of good experience. He knew how to take care of the car."

""...either with Ferrari or Porsche, you know you can finish the race in a good position.""
Mario Andretti

Ford and Ferrari – For his first participations in the 24 Hours in 1966 and 1967 with Ford, Andretti found himself at the heart of the legendary duel between the American and Italian marques. Though he won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Ford (1967) then Ferrari (1970 and 1972), he never represented Ferrari at Le Mans: "The good thing was, even though it was my first time there, I knew the car very well, the Ford Mk II that I was going to be driving because I was part of the team that was testing and developing it. So even though I had limited experience, I knew the car very well and we were very well-prepared to come there and of perform, especially against Ferrari. It was the idea obviously that stimulated this Ford effort to go and win against Ferrari. Ford did everything that they needed to do to prepare for that. And I think the end result showed very clearly that the mission was well-conducted. To plan the race, there was a very powerful team of very experienced drivers that Ford entered that year. Of course there was a strategy where some were going to be what they call the rabbits and just go, really go hard. And then some were going to be more conservative and make sure they took care of the car mechanically because it's a long race as we know. Ford had a long-term plan, not just to show up and then leave. I knew all the Ferrari drivers, like (Lorenzo, Ed.) Bandini coming to me and saying 'oh my God' (laughs, Ed.). They were very worried about the Ford effort you know. I would have loved to do Le Mans with Ferrari, but the opportunity just wasn't there at the time, there always was a conflict with my open-wheel and single-seater races. I do regret this because either with Ferrari or Porsche, you know you can finish the race in a good position (smile, Ed.)."


ABOVE: In 1983, the Porsche 956 of the Kremer brothers gave Mario Andretti his first podium finish at the 24 Hours.
BELOW: The 962 C shared by Mario, Michael and John Andretti was one of three factory Porsches at the 1988 24 Hours involved in a stunning battle against Jaguar.

A family affair at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – In eight participations, Andretti took the start three times with his son Michael (1983, 1988 and 1997) and once with his nephew John (1988) who passed away on 30 January 2020. His grandson Marco has also competed at the race once, in 2010: "My kids knew that I would try to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans whenever possible. There has always been a problem of coincidence of schedules so I could not compete there until the 1980s. By then, my son Michael was an accomplished racing driver already so I felt it would be very interesting to try to do it together. In 1983, we drove the Kremer Porsche with Philippe Alliot, and we had a great finish in third place. It was a wonderful experience for Michael as well. In 1988, there were three of us in the Porsche team with Michael and my nephew John, who had driven and won the Daytona 24 Hours so he had a good experience. We had an injector issue at 1am. We went from that time to the checkered flag with five cylinders and we finished sixth. Porsche's Mr. Singer kept us on target regarding fuel consumption while the other competitors were very much in deficit. We were in the good situation but we had this engine problem but the experience was positive once again. I feel it as a privilege to be part of a classic event like this and to be one of the teams capable of getting good results. Unfortunately, he had some issues with the Rebellion car, but he loved the event and liked the circuit very much. He did a test at the Paul Ricard before the race and he felt very good with the car immediately. He is really looking forward to going back to Le Mans, and I would love to see him go back."

ABOVE: Mario Andretti in 1995 along with Yves Courage (to his left), the constructor of the prototype powered by Porsche that bore his name.

Just shy of victory in 1995 – Sharing a Courage-Porsche with 1993 24 Hours winner Eric Hélary and Bob Wollek, a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans escaped Andretti by barely a lap in 1995, but he would pursue victory at the race until 2000 when he was 60 years old. After driving a Courage-Porsche in 1995, 1996 and 1997, he took the wheel of one of the highly popular front-engine Panoz prototypes: "I really liked the Courage, it was a very well-balanced car, and very fun to drive. In 1995, yes, I finished second, but no one seemed to notice I was at the wheel of the top ranked prototype. It was a class win, but at least I can say I won something at Le Mans, especially since to me a prototype is the car it takes to win there. The Panoz from 2000, that was kind of strange. I'm still happy I did it, even though it was a pretty odd package with that long front end! But it was another good experience!"

""I would have loved to be part of the development of hybrid technologies for sure!""
Mario Andretti

The joy of technology – Andretti's remarkable reputation is in part due to his technical efforts and expertise. In addition to his contributions to Ford for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he developed Lotus" ground effect technology and helped lead the marque to its first Formula 1 world title in 1978, himself becoming the second (and last to date after Phil Hill in 1961) American World Champion: "I have always enjoyed technology, especially in prototype racing, and I think this is exactly what a prototype means. I think it is desirable to see the leading edge of technology there, this is what creates the ultimate interest. But I must tell you that I'm not really looking forward to electric cars because you need to have some noise (laughs, Ed.)! I cannot even think of what a 'Le Mans in silence' would look like with electric cars! Maybe I'm old-fashioned about that but I think that motor racing is the ultimate test bed on long distance regarding reliability. The manufacturers are involved not necessarily because they love motor racing since the have to answer to a board of directors. But they have to show a usefulness to be able to compete, since there is a sort of pride in it, and you can get the best out of the engineers. This type of leading-edge technology has a place in motor racing. It has always been that way, with the development of aerodynamics, the engines, and everything else. For any manufacturer there is no bigger challenge to resist the type of punishment they receive in a 24-hour race. I would have loved to be part of the development of hybrid technologies for sure!"