His roller-coaster Sebring 12-Hours victory 50 years ago this month assured a special place in Ferrari history for Mario Andretti. Now a venerable 80 years young, the racing icon shows his memories are as razor sharp as his driving reflexes once were
Founded in 1952 on the site of a former US Air Force base for B17 bombers, Florida's famed Sebring Raceway has seen many great races. And there is no richer chapter in its history than the one written by Mario Andretti for Ferrari in the 1970 12-Hours endurance race. That year's driver line-up dripped with glamour, including Dan Gurney, Jacky Ickx, Brian Redman, Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Peter Gregg, and Hollywood star Steve McQueen. The three-car Ferrari team had something to prove after John Wyer’s Gulf-Porsche team scored a 1-2 win at the 24 Hours of Daytona a few weeks earlier.
Andretti, who set pole in the Ferrari 512 S, says, “We were feeling good, the car felt right, and (co-driver Arturo) Merzario and I were dominating the race before the gearbox failed.” His memory as sharp as his driving reflexes once were, he recalls: “We led for something like 179 out of 248 laps, and when we dropped out we were way, way in the lead.”
Back in the pits he had to watch the lead pass to the Rodriguez/Siffert Porsche 917K, ahead of Peter Revson and McQueen in the Porsche 908. When Rodriguez-Siffert themselves then had to pit with a front hub failure, Revson-McQueen looked set for a prestigious win. But then, with just 30 minutes left of the day-long race, engineer Mauro Forghieri – then-director of the Scuderia’s racing department – threw Andretti back in the race at the wheel of the non-Spyder 512 S variant that had been driven throughout by Ignazio Giunti and Nino Vaccarella.
Andretti recalls that he had been already trudging across to the adjacent airport to fly back to Pennsylvania when Forghieri ran after him. “Vaccarella was much taller than me, so right away I notice that I’m not really fitting in his car,” recalls Andretti. “But at that point, pure desire drives you. I became possessed.” Andretti drove with gay abandon around the flat, 5.2-mile track, the red 512 S handling beautifully. “It was the first time in the race that I took Turn One flat out, no lifting,” he smiles.
Previously a lap down, he now found himself ahead of the white Porsche. But then came another twist of fate. Forghieri had warned Andretti that the Ferrari might be low on fuel, and sure enough the light flickered on. “In those days, that light comes on and you pit, right away, no questions. So I did,” Andretti says. A few tense seconds passed as the anxious racer waited for a few precious litres of fuel to be rapidly pumped into his tank.
Then out he went again, chasing Revson down one more time. “I knew what I had to do,” he insists. “On one corner before the long straightway I dove in hard and went off into the nearby (airport) runway, but I got by Peter (Revson). Then he just gave up. I think about three laps later the race was over.”
When the victorious Andretti arrived back in the pits pandemonium erupted. “You’ve never seen so many people so happy,” he says. “The bottom line is, it’s always satisfying to win.” That triumph was the prelude for further Ferrari victories for Andretti, including in his Ferrari F1 debut in South Africa in 1971. Fate would cruelly contrive to deny him a permanent place in the Scuderia's team.
But that dramatic 1970 Sebring victory made Andretti an indelibile part of Ferrari history, as evidenced at last year's celebration of the Scuderia's ninetieth anniversary, when a sea of ecstatic fans in Milan's Piazza Duomo chanted: “Mario! Mario!”
The original version of this article was published in issue 46 of The Official Ferrari Magazine. To read the full version subscribe to the magazine
All photographic and video content of the above article was created prior to the Covid-19 emergency and related Government decrees