Today marks the 35th anniversary of Mario Andretti becoming Formula 1 World Champion. In part 1, we looked at the first two seasons of the Andretti-Lotus combo. Now, David Malsher chronicles that title-winning year, and seeks to clarify some misconceptions.
The Lotus 79 first tested in winter of 1977 in the hands of Ronnie Peterson. Its creators – Colin Chapman, Geoff Aldridge, Martin Ogilvie, Tony Rudd and Peter Wright – were rightly proud of their new baby, but discovered that so great was its suction effect, it needed strengthening. It produced an estimated 30 percent more downforce than the 78!
The older car had always looked a little untidy at the rear, its sidepods, bodywork and floor ending almost simultaneously, ahead of the rear wheels. The 79, by contrast, stretched the shaped underbody back to between the rear wheels, and the sidepods now tucked in Coke-bottle style between those big wide crossplies, as part of far more all-enveloping rear bodywork. This, naturally, moved the center of pressure backward, making the car far more balanced, and therefore able to run a smaller rear wing than its predecessor. At a stroke, the 78's main flaw had been fixed.
The result was visually stunning, and the Lotus 79 was quickly dubbed “Black Beauty” by the media. Given its far lower profile behind the cockpit, it was always going to look years ahead of its rivals which still reflected the shapes borne from the tall airbox era. But the car would prove that its aesthetic appeal was matched by its effectiveness as a racecar.
Not yet though. The monocoque still needed to be stiffened, and Chapman had also got sidetracked trying to replace the Hewland 5-speed gearbox with the smaller Lotus/Getrag sequential system. With the 1978 season starting in the middle of January, the old 78 would suffice, and this wasn't envisaged as a problem, given that several other teams – including their likely championship opponents – would adopt a similar policy of running their 1977 cars in the early rounds.
Mario Andretti, meanwhile, the guy who had scored four wins and seven poles the previous year, was fired up and ready to go. He'd been reassured by Chapman that Peterson would be his number two, with all that entails, but Andretti had no intention of having his teammate run ahead of him for 99 percent of a race, and then move aside on the last lap. Mario had too much pride for that nonsense, didn't want anyone thinking he was a less than deserving winner. Yes, he reasoned, there would be days when Ronnie's freestyle artistry would prevail but, race in and race out, Mario was determined to be Lotus's main man in terms of pace as well as priority.
If, in retrospect, people are puzzled why Peterson meekly accepted the No. 2 role, especially given that he entered the season with eight career F1 wins to Andretti's five, it's important that they see it from SuperSwede's perspective. After just one win in three seasons, Ronnie was no longer perceived as the rising star he'd once appeared to be when he took four wins and finished third in the 1973 championship. Instead, he was seen as mercurial, a guy who was the quickest but only when in the right mood, and that mood had seldom taken him in the previous three years. Now all he needed was something fast (unlike his Lotus 72 of 1975), something reliable (unlike his March 761 in '76) and something with no more wheels than necessary (unlike his Tyrrell P34 of '77). Being a No. 2 in the best car was better than being No. 1 in mediocre machinery. It was as simple as that.
Andretti would come to realize that Peterson was a man of integrity, a man of his word, and they would become firm friends. But that didn't lessen his desire to mash the Swede. And neither of them were arrogant enough to expect everything their own way. Strong opposition was expected from Ferrari (as ever), whose Michelin radials were as much of an unknown quantity as their driver lineup, the moody but superquick Carlos Reutemann and the highly promising rookie Gilles Villeneuve. And Brabham would surely be a consistent force because (a) it usually was, (b) designer Gordon Murray was sure to draw up something innovative and fast around that Alfa-Romeo flat-12 engine, and (c) because its drivers were the fast and canny Niki Lauda and the fast but unlucky and occasionally outpsyched John Watson. Preseason, other teams that seemed likely to threaten for wins were McLaren (James Hunt and rookie Patrick Tambay), Tyrrell (Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi), Wolf (Jody Scheckter) and Ligier ( Jacques Laffite).
Some of those predictions would prove inaccurate, but the expectation that Lotus would be the strongest force was spot on. So how was the championship won?
Round 1 – ARGENTINA, Buenos Aires, January 15
Andretti – Q1, F1
Not quite as easy as it sounds…Oh, who are we kidding? Mario ran and hid from the opposition, leading every lap. The Ferrari challenge looked strong, with the old 312T2 having been transformed by the switch to Michelin, but the poor choice of a harder compound sent front-row starter Reutemann scurrying to the pits for softer tires, by which time he was outside the points. Brabham looked strong, Lauda taking over from Watson in second place when the Irishman's engine blew. An understeering Peterson qualified third, but was never a contender for a podium finish on race day, coming home fifth.
Points after 1 round – Andretti 9, Lauda 6, Depailler 4, Hunt 3, Peterson 2, Tambay 1
Round 2 – BRAZIL, Interlagos, January 29
Andretti – Q3, F4
Reutemann chose the right compound, and from fourth on the grid disappeared into a race of his own. Polesitter Peterson was pleased to outqualify Andretti (who was held up by traffic as he embarked on his final flyer) but again troubled by understeer was passed by his teammate on lap 7, and faded until being run into by Villeneuve. Andretti looked set fair for second, until struck by gear selection issues, which allowed through Emerson Fittipaldi's unusually swift Copersucar and Lauda's Brabham.
Points after 2 rounds – Andretti 12, Lauda 10, Reutemann 9, Fittipaldi 6, Depailler 4, Hunt 3
Round 3 – SOUTH AFRICA, Kyalami, March 05
Andretti – Q2, F7
For Mario, practice and qualifying were troubled by mechanical ailments which forced him to switch to the less than perfect spare car, which he nonetheless put on the front row alongside Lauda. Ronnie would start 12th, after wasting his Friday (as usual) trying to use the Lotus gearbox and then discovering he, too, had handling issues.
In the race, Andretti led but when he found his car to be using its left-front tire too fast he cut the pace and dropped as far as fifth. Nonetheless, he and Peterson looked set for a Lotus 2-3 finish when, four laps from the end, Mario ran out of fuel and had to pit. Peterson hunted down leader Depailler and barged through to win when the Tyrrell driver, too, had a fuel-starvation moment.
Worth noting is that at this race, Brabham and Ferrari introduced their definitive 1978 cars, the BT46 and 312T3, respectively. Lotus would give its 79s their race debut at the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone a couple weeks later. In monsoon conditions, both cars crashed.
Points after 3 rounds – Andretti 12, Peterson 11, Lauda 10, Depailler 10, Reutemann 9, Fittipaldi 6