Mario Andretti – Fifty Years on from Sebring victory

Sebring 12 Hour, Sebring, FL, 1967. Bruce McLaren (left) and Mario Andretti (right) pose with the race winning Ford Mark IV. CD#0054-3221-2125-15.

On 16th March 1967, Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti took the #1 Ford GT40 Mk IV to the overall victory of the 12 Hours of Sebring. It was an astonishing achievement for the team and car as it was the Ford GT40 Mk IV’s debut race. Andretti had been heavily involved in the development of the GT40 Mk IV and was happily please with the progress of development of the car and the race team. It was only fitting that he be one of the drivers to take it to its first win.

Fifty years after the incredible achievement, Andretti still closely follows the progress of team Ford Chip Ganassi Racing and is a close personal friend of team owner Chip Ganassi.

Reliving that amazing day with the current team, Andretti recalled that there was limited testing for the Ford GT40 Mk IV. However, this seemed to not matter as the car appeared to be competitive from its first few laps round the track.

We had very good mechanical knowledge,” Andretti credited to the competitiveness of the car. “They had used much of the chassis of the Mk II, with some mods, but with a new aerodynamic shape it proved to be quite good.

“With Bruce McLaren, we just pulled it off. It was a hard-fought race.  The Chaparral was the favorite, but we were competitive. [The Ford GT40 Mk IV] was actually very important from the standpoint of Ford’s effort for the Le Mans 24.”

Ford had been unhappy with their performance at the Daytona 24 Hours earlier that same year and so tasked Phil Remington with the job of designing a quicker car. The turnaround for the new car was not a long period of time at all. Andretti explained that

“Ford felt they needed to come up with a different model car, a little slicker and quicker in a straight line, especially for Le Mans.” Not only did the new Ford GT40 Mk IV win the 12 Hours of Sebring on its debut race, but it also went on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in that same year.

Speaking about his feelings towards the car, Andretti was confident in stating that he found nothing on the car that he did not like. “When you win, you fall in love with a car.” He said. “It was a very, very good car.

“The cars proved to be winners and that’s what it’s all about. We did a lot of work and we were well-prepared and those cars were the envy of Ferrari, Porsche, and all the other manufacturers. I honestly think they were all slightly intimidated.”

Andretti could only find one fault about the Ford GT40 Mk IV, and it was completely unrelated to the performance or pace of the car. “It was a windy day and somehow some paper debris got caught in the air intake of the cockpit. It was a closed cockpit so Bruce and I both suffered the excessive heat. We were really beat up, but looking back at it now, it probably makes for a better story.”

Andretti is one of the lucky few drivers to have race in the cockpit with legendary Bruce McLaren. He looks back on his relationship with the Kiwi racing driver fondly, claiming their relationship was “really, really good.” Described as a “very technical driver,” Andretti said that: “It was easy to be friends with him. On the racing side, I had a real interest in developing my skills in road racing because I was eyeballing F1 at that time. 

“[Bruce] taught me a lot and I observed him a lot.  It was real peachy for me to be his teammate. It was a very enjoyable experience all the way around. He was great to be around and I enjoyed spending time with him.

The development of the GT40 was labeled as “intense”. Andretti was heavily involved in the development of the Mk II and the Mk IV GT40s. His input into the development of the car was part of the reason it was able to be so successful in 1967.

“Ford left no stone unturned,” Andretti explained. Once they committed, they were all in.  They did a great deal of testing, including some 24-hour-consecutive running in Daytona. That’s really fun, when a company makes that kind of commitment. And that’s why they won. And that’s what I loved about it.”

Turning his attention to the current-day racing Fords, Andretti was clear in his dedication to following and supporting his old team. He spoke fondly of team owner Chip Ganassi, stating that Ganassi was an excellent appointment by Ford as the leader of the new-era campaign. “So far he is making everybody proud.

“That’s no surprise since Chip has been successful so many times before in everything he’s Championed. That’s true-blue Chip.”

With the fifty year gap between the victorious GT40s and the current Ford GT, it was nice to discover that Andretti can see a connection between the car he was so invested in and the one that takes to the race track this year.  “It looked to me like they tried to maintain some of the nostalgia of something that was successful. 

“Even with the naked eye, aerodynamically, it looks very vicious. I loved it 50 years ago and I love it now. Ford have done a helluva job.”

The Chip Ganassi Ford GTs will take to the track this weekend to try and replicate the success that Andretti and McLaren managed to achieve fifty years ago. It would be an incredible thing for both Ford and the racing community if they could repeat their amazing success fifty years on from such an impressive endurance racing year for Ford.

It is clear that even fifty years on, the Ford GT still holds a special place in Andretti’s heart. He is still as in love and as involved in the Ford racing legacy as he ever was, and would happily take the chance to climb aboard the Ford GT again; the car that so much of his career with Ford helped shape the success of.

“Yes, I accept the invitation [to drive the new Ford GT]. When and where?”