The driver who helped develop F1 more than most

In today’s day and age, teams develop their cars through computer systems and algorithms, but back in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was by trial and error and experimentation.

Teams relied on drivers much more back then than in today’s world, and in Mario Andretti’s case, he helped develop a design that was so powerful it was banned.

After a number of years racing in Formula 1 part-time, Andretti secured a full-time seat with Lotus for the 1976 season, working with Colin Chapman, and the partnership between the pair was a match made in heaven.

Reflecting on his time working with Chapman, Andretti said: “I loved working with Colin in every way, I think our relationship was excellent. I think he respected my feedback and I think as an engineer/driver relationship we got on quite well.” 

“He knew that once I got the car on the sweet spot I used to make very very small changes and adjustments and I used to like that because every time we would go out we would gain and it was really satisfying on both ends and that’s how we learned to trust each other’s input.

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“What was interesting about Colin was that he would just throw ideas [at me] which was just helpful to keep my thinking relevant and so like I said, I think we had a very special relationship.”

It was this relationship that helped Andretti and Lotus win 11 Grand Prix together, and they secured the 1978 world championship, after Andretti had been instrumental in helping the team learn about ground-effect, which the 79-year-old says they found “by accident”.

 “Some suggestion that I made, having had experience with the March cars early on in the early 70’s, specifically, if you remember one of the Robin Herd’s designs was with the sidepods like a wing shape.

“I was testing in South Africa with [Andy] Granatelli and I asked him ‘why don’t we remove those[sidepods]?’ because I was thinking they provided some frontal area and as soon as we removed them, all of a sudden I started flying the front end.

“I needed a lot more front wing to balance the rear wing and all of a sudden, ‘oh oh,’ now I’m realising the sidepods are giving me some downforce and that’s what I relayed to Colin from 1976 to 1977 when we were conversing about which direction to go with the new car.

“I said, ‘well as a driver I’m looking for free downforce’ and nobody laughed. They put a huge wing shape on each side of the car, the pods, between the wheelbase. 

“There was a plate to direct the air and so we felt immediately that that was very useful, but we needed to plug the bottom so the air would be directed more and that’s when the skirts come in. We were learning along the way.”

Recounting a specific breakthrough the team had with ground-effect, the 1978 world champion commented: “We were in Germany and all of a sudden at the end of the straight – I think it was at Bosch curve – where in the middle of the corner I felt a tremendous amount of added grip.

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“We were closing the gap to the road on the left side, and so Colin sent [chief mechanic] Bob Dance to town to buy some plastic strips and we put some plastic strips on to close that on both sides.

“Of course, the plastic strips would wear out in two laps and then you’d lose it and so that’s why for several races we used bristles.

“Removable skirts were [then] designed into the car and the process was very satisfying, very interesting because we were learning every time out. 

“The feedback and everything that I was giving was something that we were reacting to and on and on. It was a very interesting time to say the least.”

With Lotus proving how dominant it could be with the effective use of ground-effect, it wasn’t long before other teams started copying and refining their designs, and eventually the cars got so fast that, in the interests of safety, they were banned.

“I think there was a time as it was being perfected, I think yes, it [had] gone beyond [the limit], and then it needed to be regulated because the cars were obviously very very quick through the corners but with less driver input.

“You had to reduce the downforce to put the onus back on the drivers.

“In the early 80’s you could see that they started eliminating tunnels, they went to flat bottoms, things that had to be done because with the knowledge you have, even today, you can make the cars so the driver just steers it, you know, not even drive it, but that was a natural progression.

“But you’re right, we got to the point there was so much downforce that they needed to regulate [it], take some of that away, and they did.”

Ground-effect was banned for the start of the 1983 season, and since then, teams have been forced to focus on getting downforce from the body of the car, but this will all change from 2021, as Formula 1 reverts back to ground-effect rules once again.

Andretti isn’t overly surprised that Formula 1 is reverting back to ground-effect in order to improve overtaking, saying that it is a “forever search from the technical side to have a compromise, to keep things as competitive as possible” and that it is not just limited to Formula 1, but he is glad the onus is being put back on the drivers to get results, rather than relying on electrical gadgets.

“Nobody ever has the ultimate solution, it’s just a matter of keep trying. Keep trying and trying to see, because the fanbase today, I think they are more demanding than ever.

“They want to see a lot of action and we see that because we only have a lot of action during the wet races because that is always the great so called equaliser,

“In 2019 the wet races provided really memorable events and so they’re trying to see if we can try and get some of that on the dry as well, so it is a forever battle which is fair enough.

“It’s not only Formula 1, in Indycars and even NASCAR are going try that and try this, more downforce, less downforce and all that, so nobody has yet the ultimate answer which is fine, just keep trying, it’s part of the evolution of our sport.

“The other part is the technology is such that the big battle is to be able to regulate the cars and not use some of the technology that is available. Put it more in the human hands. Not only the drivers but also the crews, like for instance, the front wings and so forth, you have to do them manually.

“It would be easy to put a system in where you could do it from the steering wheel, but it’s best if the driver doesn’t have the balance, to fight with it and stay with it until they can come in and mechanics can adjust it.

“There is so much going on, so many things, so many factors but that’s what keeps this sport interesting.

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“The big job is always to keep as much of the human element as possible, put so much onus on the drivers. That’s why you don’t have traction control, you don’t have power brakes, a lot of things that the driver needs to be able to deal with, with their foot and their senses rather than having something electronically work for them.”

Despite not having raced in Formula 1 since 1982, Andretti is the last American driver to have won in the series, and there hasn’t been a full-time American driver since Scott Speed last raced at the 2007 European Grand Prix after 28 race starts.

Andretti would love to see that record come to an end, and believes that having a second Grand Prix in America could help, with Formula 1 currently looking at holding a race in Miami, although a few political hurdles would need to be resolved in order for that to happen.

“I think America has a lot to offer from the fan side and the commercial side as well.” Andretti said when asked about his thoughts on the Miami Grand Prix.

“We need an American driver in Formula 1. I think it would be good for Formula 1 and certainly good for America to be represented on that stage, so the more presence we would have here, the more you could justify the effort.

“There’s one or two Indycar young lads that I think have that desire to be in Formula 1 and I think there’s a few things that need to be dealt with.

“One lad in particular that I know is Colton Herta who had actually spent a couple of years when he was just a teenager in Europe, so you know he’s got that flavour, but he’s really very very good and he has that burning desire to be in Formula 1.

“I think right now, to get the superlicence he has to win a championship in Indycar, and I think that’s unfair because in minor classes in Europe, all you have to do is finish top three, so I think politically we’ll have to adjust that a little bit.

“If he finishes in the top three, which I think he will, for sure this year, I think he should be able to get a superlicence and we’ll have to go into bat for something like that.”

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You only need to listen to Andretti for a minute to realise how much love and passion he still has for motorsport and he is so dedicated to seeing an American driver in Formula 1, that he is willing to help as much as possible to make it happen, but he believes it would only be successful if they could work with a top team, just like the opportunity he got when he made his debut with Lotus.

“I think I would be such a proponent to help an American driver to enter there [Formula 1], and enter there with a competitive team because otherwise you have no chance.

“I look back on myself and my ventures in Formula 1, and you’ll say ‘ok, well different times’, and yeah, ok, different times, but the reason I was able to win and to be  a protagonist [was] because I was with the top team, and that’s where, if you have a talent here, you give them an opportunity to be with a top team, that’s the other part. So, we have work to do.

“I know how much I would like to see it and if there’s anything I can do to help someone in that direction, encourage them and so forth, I’ll do that, because no-one loves our sport like I do, I’ll challenge anyone.

“It’s been too long since an American has been a protagonist in Formula 1 and I think now is the time to get that back and get some of that going.”

Whatever the outcome is with an American driver in the future, you can guarantee Andretti will never pass up the opportunity to help make it happen, such is the way with the driver who has shaped Formula 1 in a way no other driver has.