Andretti had offers from three teams—Ferrari, the American-owned but English-based Shadow operation, and from Chapman at Lotus. He had driven endurance races for Ferrari and had even won the South African GP for the marque back in 1971, and certainly there was a strong temptation to sign on with the top Italian outfit. "They always treat me well in Italy," he says. "When I win I'm Italian, but when I lose I'm American." Still, Enzo Ferrari is a notoriously difficult man to drive for, as every top driver from Juan Manuel Fangio to Niki Lauda has learned. The Shadow offer had the American identification going for it, but little else. That left Lotus, but like Andretti, Chapman's team seemed to be on a downslide from its preeminent position in the late '60s. It had not held the Grand Prix championship since Emerson Fittipaldi won it in 1972.
"Still, the more I thought about it," Andretti recalled, "the better the Lotus deal looked. I drove for Colin Chapman in my first GP ever, in 1969 at Watkins Glen, and put the car on the pole. Colin is a great constructor and a top-notch team manager. Also he was going to build this new car, the Lotus 79. He's the only guy in the business who has a grasp of the underside of a car as an aerodynamic surface. Nobody had done much about the bottoms of the machines; they were only concerned with the superstructure when it came to aerodynamics. Colin spent a lot of time and effort on this new concept and you can see the results. The Lotus 79 just flat sticks to the road."
But the new car would not be ready for more than a year. Andretti did well enough in the old one. In the rain at Mount Fuji for the Japanese Grand Prix, the last race of the 1976 season, he sloshed home ahead of everyone to nail down sixth place in that year's points championship. "You couldn't see a thing on that track at the start," he recalls. "Fog and rain, rivers as deep as the Delaware across the road. You had to drive by feel, and it felt damned scary."
Last season Andretti won four more GPs—in Long Beach, Spain, France and Italy—and finished third in the point standings. When the 1978 season began, both Andretti and the new car were ready. Actually Mario was ready sooner, because the Lotus 79 didn't make its first official appearance until the Belgian GP toward midseason, but he had been doing extensive testing for most of the year, in close secrecy.
The rest, as they say, is for the record books: victories in Argentina, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Holland; a second place at Long Beach; a fourth in Brazil; the controversial sixth at Monza; a whopping great total of points (64 in all thus far); and the championship.
It's all been paid for, though, in travail, both physical and psychic. Thus far this season Andretti has logged over 250,000 miles and enriched the coffers of various airlines by more than $30,000 in traveling the GP circuit and running seven USAC races for Penske. Even between races Andretti keeps on the go as a limited partner in the brokerage firm of John Muir & Co. as well as franchising himself via Mario Andretti Grand Prix International (four tracks for mini Grand Prix cars) and a fast-food chain called Mario's Italian Way. Dee Ann, whom Mario has known since high school, does not care much for extensive traveling. "She'd rather stay up at the lake," Andretti says, referring to his 630-acre country home in the Poconos. "Anyway, the weather's been lousy this summer in Europe."
As a result of his wife's stay-at-home proclivities, and the overtouted glamour of the GP circuit, gossip writers have speculated long and erroneously about the off-track activities that Andretti's nomadic life-style permits. "They make it sound like Dee Ann and I have some sort of 'European understanding,' that I mess around," he says. Rather, Andretti is a man of impeccable discretion, a paragon of the proud Italian father and husband. Any suggestion that he is a loose-living man completely misses the mark.
There have been dozens of good drivers over the years on the Grand Prix circuit, and a handful of great ones. Where does Andretti fit in the rankings?
Up near the top, thinks Gurney, whose four GP victories marked the previous high total for an American driver. "Mario has a fund of experience that may be second to none," says Gurney. "Among his peers there's always been great respect for his talent, his desire and his commitment to being a champion. His reputation among his fellow drivers isn't one of great virtuosity but rather of great determination. He still has that youthful drive. He runs a car hard—heck, he runs it off the road a lot, and he runs very close to the wall at places like Indy. He still breaks cars, but that's part of the game. He's admired, respected, and he keeps growing. With luck he'll end up one of the best—one of the best five or six drivers ever."
Penske echoes Gurney and then some. "Mario wants to do the job right," he says. "He's got the desire of a guy in his early 20s. The key thing about him is his enthusiasm. An hour or so after a race, even if we've broken and lost, he's talking about the next one and what we should do to get ready for it. Also he has tremendous loyalty. The fact that he stayed with Vel and Parnelli as long as he did, when he could have been elsewhere, speaks for it, as does the fact that he stayed with Lotus this year when, as I heard it, Ferrari made him a great offer."