Andretti will be at the Circuit of the Americas next Sunday to watch the excitedly anticipated race. "When I saw the place in June I had my doubts about this ever going ahead," he tells the Observer. "But I've been amazed at the work that has taken place since. There were big difficulties, because the whole project fell into different hands. But there was a passion and a resolve to perform miracles and make it work.
"And now this can be the fixed home of the US Grand Prix. And I think that fact will see the event not only surviving but thriving in the future. It's a great host city and I think the track, borrowing a bit from Silverstone here, a little of Hockenheim there, will go down great with the drivers."
This is the first US Grand Prix for five years but in 2014 America is expected to host two races, with New Jersey joining the schedule. "Can you imagine New York as the backdrop?" Andretti says. "It could be fantastic. But right now Austin is all we're thinking about."
Andretti left Italy for America when he was a 15-year-old in 1955 – the year his great idol, Alberto Ascari, was killed in a crash in Milan. He went on to become one of the great all-rounders of motorsport, winning the Formula One world championship with Lotus in 1978 after he had won the Indianapolis 500 (1969) and the Daytona 500 (1967). He won his F1 title in Monza but was devastated by the death of his team-mate and friend Ronnie Peterson in the same race.
In 1982, when he was 42, he made an emotional return to Italy to race for Ferrari at Monza in place of the injured Didier Pironi; he put the car on pole and finished third. He had achieved pole on his F1 debut in 1968, at Watkins Glen. A dedicated supporter of the US Grand Prix, he has been frustrated by the failure of the event to take hold in his chosen land. "Look, we tried Long Beach, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis … it looked like Watkins Glen would be our real home and we were there for 19 years. It was extremely successful but we did not reinvest and reconstruct, which was a big mistake."
Andretti does a nice line in black drollery. In his classic book, Grand Prix Greats, Nigel Roebuck recalled talking to the driver about a less than universally loved character in F1. "What makes him tick?" Roebuck said. "God knows," Andretti replied. "A bomb, let's hope."
The old master of America's ovals, now 72, follows F1 and describes this as "one of the best seasons ever".
The McLaren principal Martin Whitmarsh says: "I've always maintained that Formula One's presence in the United States is crucial, so I'm personally pleased and satisfied that we're finally returning after spending far too long away from its shores. On a wider level, the arrival of a state-of-the-art, purpose-built grand prix track is perfect for Formula One, and this is a golden opportunity for the sport to finally put down roots and find a long-term home."
Whitmarsh, like all team principals, is also aware of the importance of making it in America. "This is an invaluable commercial opportunity for the sport, for McLaren and our partners," he says.
His drivers sound up for it, too. Jenson Button says: "On paper, the circuit looks to have a little bit of everything. The plan certainly looks familiar. You can see elements of the Maggots-Becketts complex from Silverstone; there's a reverse of Istanbul Park's Turn Eight, too; and I can even see a bit of the Hockenheim infield.
"Whether those elements will blend together to make a satisfying whole remains to be seen but I think we're in for a fantastic weekend."
We may well be. I am still worried about America's notorious insularity, its difficulty in coming to terms with anything that is not quintessentially American. I was in Denver, Colorado, in 1992. It was the bicentennial of Mozart's death and there was a feature about the composer in the local paper. "Folks," it started, "you may not have heard of Mozart but I'm sure you've all seen the film Amadeus."
There was no irony in the piece. Americans, remember, don't do irony. But then, as the recent presidential election showed, America is a radically altered land – a land changed by young immigrants, such as Mario Andretti. The Observer