On the eve of the 2014 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix we remember Andretti’s famous 1977 triumph at Long Beach, a race which proved beyond doubt the value of pushing all the way to the chequered flag…
By 1977 Mario Andretti could lay claim to having won the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, as well as two world championship Grands Prix and a host of other titles. But the one thing the ‘Racer’s Racer’ hadn’t done was score a Formula One victory on home soil. Nor, for that matter, had any other American, despite the best efforts of the likes of Dan Gurney, Peter Revson and Mark Donahue.
Several Americans had, of course, won the Indy 500 during the 11 years that the race had been a round of the Formula One world championship, but the event was never run using F1-spec machinery and existed instead as something of an anomaly - a highly-specialised oval race on an otherwise road course-dominated Eurocentric calendar.
But by 1976 the US had not one, but two world championship races to its name - the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and the awkwardly titled United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach. Conceived as ‘The Monaco of the West’ because of its proximity to the Californian city’s port area, the Long Beach track shared with its European cousin a bumpy street track lined with concrete barriers, but little of the glamour. Still, organisers staged the race with great enthusiasm and, despite some logistical difficulties, the inaugural event in 1976 had proved a success, even though Andretti, the only American in the field, retired after 15 laps.
But a move from Parnelli to Lotus ahead of the ‘77 season meant Andretti entered the following year’s race in much better shape, and it was the Pennsylvania native who set the pace on the first day of practice. The American’s sleek black and gold machine looked perfectly at home around Long Beach’s tight bends, but equally promising was the pace shown by Jody Scheckter in the similarly hued Wolf WR1. However, in the end both men would be eclipsed by Niki Lauda, who took his Ferrari 312 T2 to pole position in the dying minutes of Saturday’s session.
Sunday’s race would be dominated by the same three drivers, though in the end Lauda’s pole counted for nothing when he found that the badly positioned starting gantry made it impossible for him to comfortably watch both the lights and his rev counter. As the Austrian made a poor getaway, Scheckter rocketed from third to first whilst Andretti held the outside line into the first corner and found both Lauda and Ferrari team mate Carlos Reutemann go up the inside. The Argentinian, however, overcooked it, running straight on down the escape road as Lauda and Andretti took avoiding action and slotted in behind Scheckter.
Further back there was chaos as James Hunt’s McLaren was tagged by John Watson’s Brabham and became airborne, while Vittorio Brambilla’s Surtees reared up in the air after making contact with Jochen Mass’s McLaren.
The kerfuffle allowed the front three to escape, and by the end of the first lap Scheckter led from Andretti, the American having squeezed his way past Lauda. And that’s how things would stay for the majority of the race, although the action was far from processional.
Lap after lap, Scheckter flamboyantly led the high-speed, three-car train with Andretti and Lauda pinned to his tail but never close enough to try a move. On lap 33 of 80 Lauda made a failed attempt to pass Andretti at the hairpin, badly flat-spotting a front tyre and picking up vibrations that would thwart his progress later in the race.
Around half distance Scheckter made the most of traffic to open up a small advantage, but Andretti and Lauda weren’t giving up and after negotiating the slower cars they eased back onto the South African’s tail. As the race went on it seemed the only things that could stop Scheckter claiming his and Wolf’s second win of the season were mechanical misfortune or driver error - and in the end it was the former.
With about 15 laps to go, and less than two seconds covering the first three, Scheckter began to look a little more ragged in his defence and as he raced past the pits he was seen frantically pointing to his front-right tyre. To his disbelief, the Wolf star realised that it was deflating, not to the point that he would have to stop, but enough to throw him right off his stride.
Scheckter pressed on, but Andretti, cheered on by 65,000 partisan fans, smelt blood and with four laps to go he threw his Lotus up the inside into the hairpin. Scheckter tried to fight back, but the home favourite wasn’t to be denied, and neither was Lauda who slipped past the ailing South African a lap later.
Had his tyres not been damaged from his earlier lock up, Lauda might have been able to take advantage of the backmarkers that slowed Andretti on the last lap, but as it was the Lotus driver swept home for an undeniably popular victory.
Scheckter might have dominated the race, but it was hard to begrudge Andretti his victory. The Italian-born racer had been relentless in his pursuit, and when a chink appeared in his rival’s armour he pounced decisively, becoming the first (and still only) American to win a world championship Formula One race on US soil in the process.
“Winning any race is a highlight,” Andretti told Formula1.com recently, “but there’s something special about winning your home race, and obviously I won my other home race at Monza too!”