The Lotus 78, used by Lotus throughout the 1977 season, was the first F1 car to harness ground effect, and Mario's staggering ability to exploit its benefits, and make up for the fact that it was slow in a straight line, took him to four victories and seven pole positions. In truth, it should have resulted in the World Championship, too. Yes, there was a slice of luck in two of Andretti's wins – Jody Scheckter suffered a puncture while leading in the closing stages at Long Beach (ABOVE), allowing Mario and Lauda to slip through, while John Watson's engine coughed low on fuel on the last lap at Dijon, so that the closely following Lotus thrust past. But the six points gained by good fortune at those two races (F1 points in those days went 9-6-4-3-2-1 to the top six finishers) were more than negated by the eight lost while dominating in Sweden; a faulty fuel-metering unit caused the engine to run too rich, and a necessary last-minute splash-and-dash dropped Mario from first to sixth. The driver was almost speechless with frustration afterward. It still riles him to this day, in fact.
Mario, it must be said, was not error-free that year. His first-lap collision with Watson at Zolder looked very expensive when you note that his less-talented teammate, Nilsson, won easily; and there was another missed chance when Andretti tried to make up too many places time on lap 1 at Fuji, after a slow getaway from pole, but his mistakes were greatly outnumbered by his reliability issues. Austria, Holland and Canada saw certain wins lost to blown Cosworths, and the same affliction robbed Lotus No. 5 of fourth at Silverstone and fifth in Germany.
An ignition failure while holding third in Brazil also added to his woes. That was a cluster of 36 points lost right there, in just six grands prix…and Andretti lost the title to Lauda by 25.
Development Cosworths may have added up to 10 horsepower – and, the Lotus 78 needed that, given its poor straightline speed – but in terms of results, those Cossies cost way more than they added. Henceforth, Mario decided to drive to a self-imposed rev limit the following year, some 600rpm lower than the one suggested by the engine manufacturer. Surely all he needed was an improved finishing rate; he already knew that Lotus had something special planned for the following year, a car that improved on the qualities of the 78, but addressed its issues.
What Mario hadn't counted on for 1978 was the return of Peterson to replace Nilsson at Lotus, and it's no secret the American wasn't impressed at the thought of two number one drivers robbing points off each other, even if they had a car advantage. Lauda had proven the value of consistency and reliability in 1977, and won the season-long war against the often faster combos of Andretti/Lotus, Hunt/McLaren and Scheckter/Wolf. If next year turned into a close fight again, was Andretti to have his results further diluted by having a quick teammate sometimes finishing ahead of him? After all his hard work to try and drag Lotus to the summit once more, to miss out on the view from the top would tick him off royally.
Mario felt he had cause to worry because he knew the potential pace of Peterson, with whom he'd been part-time teammate in Ferrari sports cars back in 1972. Although Ronnie was currently looking unfit and had been driving bored over the past three seasons – his final one with the venerable Lotus 72, his year back at underfunded March and then a year trying to figure out the Tyrrell P34 – few doubted he'd still got it. A fired up SuperSwede was still regarded as F1's fastest guy over a qualifying lap. Maybe Hunt could match him when he was angry, or Carlos Reutemann when he was happy, but Peterson just needed to be bothered…and a Lotus team in the ascendancy was likely to encourage him to dig deep into his natural talent once more.
Yet Andretti certainly didn't need to doubt himself. Although turning 38 in February of '78, he was only in his third full season of Formula 1 so had never had a chance to go stale. His hunger to emulate his first hero, Ascari, drove him on, session after session and race after race. There aren't many drivers of whom you can confidently say they put as much effort into their driving irrespective of whether they were in a one-car or two-car team, irrespective of whether they were partnered with a champ or a chump, but Andretti was one of them. When he stepped out of a car, you knew he'd given his all.
So if he had indeed plateaued qualifying pace-wise, that plateau was high, very high, up there with Scheckter and Lauda, while in terms of race pace, Mario was in the very top strata. Where he stood alone was race day combativeness: in today's terms, think Fernando Alonso-style aggression combined with a Lewis Hamilton-like sense of opportunism. Andretti's efforts to hit the front ASAP sometimes turned “Oh crap!”, but more often than not, his determination to be racing while the others were “settling in” paid off. (The new hotshot replacing Lauda at Ferrari, Gilles Villeneuve, would follow this same policy.)
What Mario also had in his favor was an ability to set the car up so that it did the work. This, of course, he'd learned through all his seasons in Indy car racing as well as his sports car experience, but it had been rare in F1 since Jackie Stewart had retired. Aside from Andretti, only Lauda was known for great technical understanding. These two knew “how to sort a car,” an increasingly vital quality for racecar drivers as racecars became increasingly sophisticated. And, as we were to discover, the Lotus 79 was the most sophisticated of the lot.
• Part 2 follows tomorrow