By Alan Baldwin
MONZA Italy (Reuters) - Even at the age of 74, Mario Andretti is still living new experiences and setting firsts at Monza.
The great American, still the only man to win the Formula One title, Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, marked his return to the Italian track by walking a lap of it for the first time on Thursday.
If the 1978 world champion was surprised not to have done it before, he at least had a good excuse.
"I never really took the time to walk (as a racer) because I was always sort of busy. I was keeping the candle lit at both ends," he told Reuters in an interview ahead of Sunday's Italian Grand Prix.
Monza, the venerable cathedral of Italian motorsport and temple to all things Ferrari, holds special significance to the Italian-born driver as the place where he was first bitten by the motor racing bug.
While the walk with NBC television triggered memories, they were ones that needed little prompting. Monza, like Indianapolis, is part of who he is.
It was here that as a 14-year-old refugee, from what is now Croatia but was Italian Istria when he was born there during World War Two, Andretti first saw Formula One cars in action when he attended the 1954 Italian Grand Prix.
In 1968 he drove a Formula One car for the first time at Monza and in 1978 won the championship there for Lotus in a race marred by the death of popular team mate and friend Ronnie Peterson.
His stunning pole position for Ferrari at Monza in 1982, as a late stand-in for the seriously injured French driver Didier Pironi, remains the last by an American F1 driver.
"Coming back here, Monza...this was a catalyst for my career, for putting me in that direction," mused Andretti, who was also busy handing out black stetson hats to drivers to promote next month's U.S. Grand Prix in Austin.
"So do I love this place? Yes. How meaningful is it? Very, in every way. Because I had success here and unfortunately with the Ronnie situation...," Andretti paused.
"It should have been the happiest day of my life, of my career. But I couldn’t celebrate."
Peterson, the 'SuperSwede' who won 10 grands prix and was posthumously runner-up in the 1978 championship, had been involved in a pile-up at the start and suffered severe leg injuries. He died in hospital overnight from an embolism.
The memories of 1954 are far happier for Andretti, even if his life was precarious at the time.
"That’s when the mould was cast, I think," he said. "Alberto Ascari was my idol and watching him fight with Fangio and Moss. Just seeing that was something that stays with you. It was such a stimulant for me.
"I was still in a refugee camp then, in Lucca. I had no idea what the future would hold. A year later we emigrated to the States."
It was also in that period of his life that the young Andretti saw a film that would prove a major influence.
Starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, it was a tale of dirt-track midget racing and had been entitled 'To Please a Lady' for American audiences. But in Italy, it was simply 'Indianapolis'.
"'Indianapolis?,' I said.‘What is that, Naples?’. I didn’t know what that was, but I saw the film. It was a different type of racing but still single seaters. Not as exciting as F1 but racing," recalled the 1969 Indy 500 winner.
"When we went to America we didn’t know what to expect but we found out quick enough that there was racing there and we started working on that."
In 1968, Andretti had been set to make his debut with Lotus at Monza but was stymied by Ferrari who invoked a clause in the rules to prevent him racing after he had taken part in qualifying on Friday.
"Because of my commitments, I had to go back and race Saturday in a dirt race at Indianapolis and then come back here," said Andretti, as if such a schedule was literally all in a day's work.
"They (race officials) had promised me they would waive the (24 hour) rule (which prohibited two races in a 24 hour period). But we got protested by Ferrari.
"I don’t know why but when I tested here, the first time ever in a Formula One car, I was quicker than (Ferrari's New Zealander Chris) Amon at testing two weeks before and I was quicker than they were when I left on Friday."
There were no protests when Andretti, returned in 1982 for the penultimate grand prix of his career.
He was on the pace immediately, even if there was still no time to be wasted on walking the track like modern Formula One drivers are wont to do.
"I had got familiar with the car a week earlier in Fiorano and that was important because I had never driven a turbo-charged Formula One car up to that point," he said.
"At Fiorano we had set a track record so I felt comfortable. And Monza I knew the track, so when I arrived here I felt like I was OK. And it worked out. I didn’t leave much on the table."
Andretti said he was finding the current Formula One season fascinating to watch, despite some fears about with the new V6 hybrid turbo power units and energy recovery systems that replaced the old V8s.
"I think it’s been entertaining beyond whatever I thought it would be. I feared the worst with the dramatic rule change that they made," he added.
"The season has been saved. Williams coming to the front, you’ve got Ricciardo. Valtteri Bottas. Two real revelations. That’s good stuff. Entertaining? Absolutely. Do you look forward to every race? You’re damned right."
The American, who won 12 races in his career, said he was rooting for Lewis Hamilton over the Briton's Mercedes team mate and championship leader Nico Rosberg but was also a big fan of Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.
"I root for Lewis because he’s had the worse luck, mechanically. Not of his own doing. And he’s still fought hard," he said.
"And when the chips are really down, he’s quicker I think. I think either one deserves it, no question. Nico has shown to be worthy of a championship.
And Ricciardo? "I tell you what, he’s not going away...he's for real. What a revelation, what a find. I tell you what, that kid is fun to watch. His overtakes and everything are so textbook. And he’s got balls. He wants to win."
Ferrari, a team as close to Andretti's heart as any Italian's, are off the pace at present but the American was sure they would turn it around and give Fernando Alonso the success he deserved.
"Ferrari is going to win, probably sooner than we think," he declared. "They cannot afford not to be at the front and they know it. They will find a way, they always do.
"I’d like to see Fernando stay there and get the rewards that he deserves because he’s suffering now."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)