Native son Mario Andretti triumphantly celebrated his automotive homecoming by winning the Formula One Italian Grand Prix with his black-and-gold Lotus in record time today.
Andretti finished 17 seconds in front of Ferrari's Niki Lauda, whose second place virtually clinched the world championship. It would be the second title in three years for the 28-year-old Austrian.
Andretti needed slightly less than 1 1/2 hours - 1:27:50.30 - to cover the 186.9 mile course of the Monza Autodrome, where he used to watch races as a teen-ager.
"A win is a win, don't get me wrong," said the Nazareth, Pa., resident who was born near Trieste (in northern Italy) 37 years ago and lived in Italy until he was 15. "But this one is a little more special. Monza has always had a special charm for me.
"This track really seems to love to have a lot of rubber laid down on it," the victor added." Everyone puts his heart right out on the hood."
Andretti's heart - and the power of his eight-cylinder JPS Lotus - was clearly bigger today as the Italo-American enjoyed his fourth grand prix victory in 14 races this season.
"It all worked, for one," said Colin Chapman. Lotus team manager, as he slipped champagne in the victor's trailer.
Andretti, starting from the second row of the grid, passed South African Jody Scheckter on the parabolic curve during the 10th lap and never relinquished the lead over the remaining 42 circuits of the race.
Scheckter, Lauda's nearest rival for the title, blew his engine early in the 24th lap and dropped out of the race.
Australian Alan Jones, in a Shadow, finished third in 1:28:13.93, followed by Germany's Jochen Mass in a McLaren. Ensign driver Clay regazzoni came in fifth and Tyrrell's Ronnie Peterson finished sixth in a race that had 15 of the 24 starters drop out before the finish.
The tricky first oldcame coming out of the grandstand straightaway claimed its share of drivers, including Britain's James Hunt, who started the race in the pole position and skidded off during the 27th lap, and Ferrari driver Carlos Reutemann.
Scheckter, starting from the outside position on the second row, grabbed the lead on the first lap by overtaking Hunt, the pole winner. Andretti, meanwhile, beat Reutemann, who had started in the first row, into the first chicane and held third.
It stayed that way for the first nine laps, but Andretti, who had been gaining ground on Scheckter, finally passed him on the curve leading to the grandstand straightway and was never headed.
During the 11th lap, Hunt skidded off the track at the first chicane, and the two Ferraris of Reutemann and Lauda moved into third and fourth places, giving chase to the leaders. Hunt dropped to eighth after returning to the track.
Andretti continued to widen his lead over Scheckter, and by the time the South African's motor died on the 24th lap, the Ferraris were more than 10 seconds off Andretti's pace. They never got closer.
Sckeckter's retirment killed all but the mathematical chances of catching Lauda for thus season's Formula One driving championship.
With three races remaining - including the Easter U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen Oct. 2 - the 28-year-old Ferrari driver sits top the rankings with 69 points, followed by Scheckter with 42, Andretti with 41 and Reutemann with 35.
Scheckter would have to win the last three Grand Prix outings while Lauda at the same time would have to finish below sixth place, in which case Scheckter would win the title on the basis of more first-place finishes.
Although admitting before the race that he had "realistically" given up on pionship this year. Andretti's victory here may improve his chances to driver. Andretti's victory here may improve his chances to drive a Ferrari a Ferrari next year.
Andretti, Scheckter and Tyree driver Ronnie Peterson are reportedly among those being considered by Enzo Ferrari to replace Lauda, who will leave the Italian engineer's stables at the end of this year.