Mario Andretti

The 1978 F1 World Cham­pion re­lives the year at Lo­tus, from the mar­que’s tragic and tur­bu­lent last win­ning sea­son to his own spe­cial Esprit

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy GETTY IM­AGES

’The Esprit? That was fun – one of the nice perks of win­ning the For­mula One World Cham­pi­onship!’ Mario Andretti chuck­les as he re­calls tak­ing de­liv­ery of the first Cham­pi­onship Model in Oc­to­ber 1978. ‘It was an at­trac­tive road car – Colin Chap­man was a gen­er­ous man. It wasn’t the first time he’d given me a car ac­tu­ally – even be­fore I drove for him, when he was try­ing to se­cure my ser­vices for 1975, he sent me an Elan, which was great to drive and very un­usual in the US.

‘But that Esprit S2, es­pe­cially af­ter win­ning the cham­pi­onship, I sim­ply loved. I tooled around in it for a cou­ple of years, feel­ing proud rather than self-con­scious of the World Cham­pion de­cals on the doors. It rep­re­sented what we’d achieved as a team that year. And then I gave it to my son Michael as his first car – he used to drive to High School in it! Ev­ery­one at the school was very en­vi­ous of it, but I got a lot of sat­is­fac­tion out of that, see­ing ev­ery­one’s eyes on that unique car. To be hon­est, I love to show off ! Mine was dif­fer­ent to the oth­ers too – it had spe­cial wheels made by Speed­line, wider than usual at the rear so it could wear big­ger, grip­pier tyres.

‘Al­though I only raced for Colin, he knew how much I loved road cars – it’s not just about rac­ing with me, I’m just a car guy, pe­riod – and would al­ways tell me ex­cit­edly about what he was work­ing on. He’d often talk about get­ting me over to Hethel to test out the road cars, maybe do some de­vel­op­ment work with him, but my big­gest prob­lem back then was that I was ac­tive over here in the US in Indycar at the same time I was rac­ing in F1, and I just didn’t have the time to do test­driv­ing. It would have been fun though – and Colin al­ways had a road car stand­ing by for me to use dur­ing the Euro­pean F1 sea­son.

‘And that 1978 cham­pi­onship? It was a tough year. As you can see from any pic­tures of the cars on the grid, the engi­neers back then were open to many more ideas, ex­plor­ing pre­vi­ously un­known as­pects of per­for­mance de­sign. You could do an awful lot to the car and still be within the rules, so we had six-wheeled Tyrrells and Marches, tur­bocharged Re­naults, ground ef­fect on the Lo­tus, but the car we were most con­cerned about was the Brab­ham. We’d strug­gled to keep ahead of their Alfa Romeo flat-12s in 1977, and of course part­way through the sea­son they un­veiled their Chap­ar­ral-style BT46B fan-car.

‘It was a fas­ci­nat­ing time to be an F1 driver, with so many in­cred­i­ble de­signs, and engi­neers constantly look­ing out­side the en­ve­lope. Be­ing a driver dur­ing the off-sea­son was like be­ing an ex­pec­tant fa­ther, wait­ing for a child to be born, but won­der­ing whether it would have three eyes! But it was a good anx­i­ety.

‘The Lo­tus Type 79 wasn’t the su­pe­rior slam-dunk peo­ple think it was, and took a long time to get right. Ground ef­fect was ben­e­fi­cial, but we strug­gled to get the right shape and size for the frontal area of the car. At the start of the sea­son we were still us­ing the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s Type 78, so early suc­cesses were down to Colin Chap­man’s skill in set­ting up the car. He never rested, al­ways look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent, what­ever un­fair ad­van­tage he could find. That’s why ev­ery driver on the grid wanted to work for Colin.

‘I think FISA al­lowed Lo­tus to keep ground ef­fect while it banned nearly ev­ery­thing else be­cause it was fun­da­men­tally sim­ple. It achieved down­force only us­ing aero­dy­namic sur­faces, wings and the struc­ture of the car it­self, with no mov­ing parts, and its ef­fects could be eas­ily lim­ited with a rear dif­fuser.

‘By con­trast, that Brab­ham fan car was dan­ger­ous. I found my­self fol­low­ing it when it was lead­ing the Swedish Grand Prix at An­der­storp, and I don’t think I had enough pro­tec­tive shield­ing to with­stand an en­tire race be­hind one! The way it worked, it sucked ev­ery loose peb­ble and piece of grit off the road sur­face and shot it out of the back. It had a very nega­tive ef­fect on the race and FISA was right to reg­u­late it out of the sport. But all credit to Gor­don Mur­ray – and Jim Hall, who in­vented the tech­nol­ogy – for try­ing. Things like the BT46B kept other driv­ers and teams mo­ti­vated.

‘When we were still us­ing the 1977-sea­son car at the be­gin­ning of the 1978 sea­son, it was still com­pet­i­tive. It was ac­tu­ally the norm in those days to start the sea­son, the South Amer­i­can and African races, with last year’s car, then re­veal the new cars for the Euro­pean sea­son. But that 1977 Type 78 made me anx­ious, be­cause we’d strug­gled to get com­pet­i­tive power from our Cos­worth DFV, and tun­ing it for higher out­put made it un­re­li­able – to win, you need to fin­ish!

‘When we ar­rived at Zolder for the Bel­gian Grand Prix, I knew about a new car that Ron­nie Peter­son and chief en­gi­neer Bob Dance had been de­vel­op­ing – they’d kept me up­dated over the phone – but I’d had rac­ing com­mit­ments in the US and couldn’t make the test at An­der­storp. I was meant to be driv­ing the old 78 at Zolder, but Colin brought this new 79 along as well. I knew it’d be some­thing spe­cial, so I said to Colin “this looks re­ally good!”

‘Colin replied, “Yes, but this is just a test car. We know what we have with the 78.” I asked him for a prac­tice drive in it all the same, and he re­luc­tantly agreed. Im­me­di­ately, I was post­ing the quick­est times of the day. I went back to Colin and told him I wanted to drive it in the Grand Prix. He said, “no, it’s not ready.”

So then I went to Bob and his team of me­chan­ics and asked if it could be made race­wor­thy in time for qual­i­fy­ing. Bob said, “We can pre­pare it by to­mor­row.” I went out, took pole po­si­tion and won im­me­di­ately. That at­ti­tude was typ­i­cal of Colin. He’d push peo­ple into ex­press­ing them­selves in or­der to get the best out of them. Deep down, he wanted to win just like the rest of us.

‘But when we were ahead, as we were fairly early on in 1978, I was al­ways a bit con­cerned about Colin’s ex­per­i­men­tal­ism – tin­ker­ing with the DFV is what cost us the 1977 cham­pi­onship, af­ter all. We had is­sues with the rear brakes too – they were in­board, so we could keep the ground-ef­fect dif­fuser ex­its clear, and Colin had Hew­land cast half the calipers into the gear­box hous­ing. This would boil the brakes, and on any track that in­volved a full tank of fuel at the start, we had to pump the brakes on the straights to avoid any hard brak­ing near the cor­ners.

‘Mid­way through 1978, Colin came up with this clutch­less se­quen­tial-man­ual gear­box; I told him, “I’m lead­ing. If you must, put it on Ron­nie’s car. If I’m win­ning, let’s try to keep win­ning.” In the end he dropped the idea af­ter one race.’

Andretti’s voice wa­vers a lit­tle when­ever he men­tions the late Ron­nie Peter­son. ‘We were very close friends, more like brothers,’ he re­calls. ‘I’d known him since my early days in F1, when we were rac­ing for dif­fer­ent teams – I was with Fer­rari and he was at March at the time. We had a very sim­i­lar sense of hu­mour, and our

fam­i­lies would go to each oth­ers’ houses – his to the US, mine to Swe­den – for sum­mer hol­i­days. He was re­spon­si­ble for the clos­est, most mem­o­rable race I had that sea­son.

‘It was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zand­voort. One of my ex­hausts broke, bend­ing the rear dif­fuser, caus­ing me to lose the down­force from my right-hand side­pod. It made for a real grip deficit on the flat right-han­der at Bos Uit, com­ing on to the main straight, which was the best over­tak­ing op­por­tu­nity on the track. Ron­nie was right on my tail, and fought so hard all the way through the race, threat­en­ing to come past me com­ing into Tarzan for lap af­ter lap. I had to re­sort to chop­ping him up pretty badly in or­der to stop him over­tak­ing, which was dif­fi­cult to do to a friend, and which made what hap­pened at Monza two weeks later feel so much worse.’

Andretti still refers to that race as ‘the Ital­ian Grand Prix dis­as­ter’. A seven-car pile-up on the packed grid snapped Peter­son’s Lo­tus in two. James Hunt, Pa­trick De­pailler and Clay Regaz­zoni hero­ically pulled Peter­son, his legs shat­tered, from the blaz­ing wreck­age, and he was air­lifted to hos­pi­tal. Andretti took pole for the restart, his mind now on his friend as well as the ti­tle he was set to clinch.

‘Usu­ally, the red lights stay on for ten sec­onds be­fore the green light comes on,’ states Andretti, still no­tably irked by what hap­pened next. ‘With the red lights still on, Gilles Vil­leneuve, who was in sec­ond place along­side me on the grid, just took off. He was at the Ret­ti­filo chi­cane be­fore I de­cided to set off, fig­ur­ing there must be some­thing wrong with the lights. It took the whole race to hunt him down, be­fore I fi­nally over­took him com­ing into As­cari a few laps from the end.

‘And of course they pe­nalised both of us. I was go­ing to protest, but af­ter what had hap­pened to Ron­nie I just didn’t have the en­ergy. By the time we got to Monza the only per­son who could math­e­mat­i­cally have beaten me was Ron­nie. We should have cel­e­brated that day, but loss over­came joy.’

Peter­son died in hos­pi­tal the next day, from complications re­lated to his leg surgery.

Andretti re­flects upon an­other lost friend too, one whose death four years later, he feels, is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for Team Lo­tus’ fall from F1 grace. ‘Colin Chap­man was the ul­ti­mate mo­ti­va­tor, who would arm him­self with the best tech­nol­ogy and peo­ple,’ he says. ‘He was the cat­a­lyst that cre­ated all those great cars, the driv­ing force that made ev­ery­thing hap­pen. Just to hear him rea­son­ing de­ci­sions – out loud – was a spe­cial thing to wit­ness. He was all about ex­celling, win­ning, and never be­ing com­pla­cent. With­out Colin, Team Lo­tus lost all that.’

‘Just to hear Chap­man rea­son­ing his de­ci­sions – out loud – was a spe­cial thing to wit­ness. He was never com­pla­cent’

Cadil­lac, Fer­rari and Lo­tus in the Andretti garage

Main im­age: Andretti com­pletes his move on Vil­leneuve at the fate­ful 1978 Ital­ian GP at Monza. Left, top to bot­tom: tak­ing the Type 79 to a maiden vic­tory at Zolder; an in­tense con­ver­sa­tion with Chap­man at Watkins Glen; his last race in the Type 78 at Monaco

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