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
’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