Round 11 – GERMANY, Hockenheim, July 30
Andretti – Q1, F1
The endless straights of Hockenheim had hurt the Lotus 78s a year earlier, relegating them to seventh and ninth on the grid. The aero efficiency of the 79 changed all that; despite Andretti not being 100 percent happy with his handling and Peterson suffering a suspension failure when he looked likely to take a second straight pole, the black and gold cars wrapped up the front row. Peterson, with a new more powerful Nicholson-tuned Cosworth, briefly led, but Andretti passed his teammate on lap 5 and the pair of them disappeared into their own race. Ronnie suffered gearbox failure in the closing stages, and Mario ran untroubled to the finish, with no other title contenders in the top six.
Points after 11 rounds – Andretti 54, Peterson 36, Reutemann 31, Lauda 31, Depailler 26, Watson 16
Round 12 – AUSTRIA, Osterreichring, August 13
Andretti – Q2 , R
Beaten to pole by 0.05sec and his teammate, Mario lost out to Reutemann at the start. Light rain had been falling but all cars were on slicks. Impatient to be past the Ferrari driver before Peterson could make a break, Andretti tried an optimistic pass on the outside of a fast right-hander. Reutemann held his line and so the Lotus drifted off onto the grass and into the barriers. Furious at himself, Andretti could only watch as Peterson won ahead of Depailler and Villeneuve.
Points after 12 rounds – Andretti 54, Peterson 45, Depailler 32, Reutemann 31, Lauda 31, Watson 16, Laffite 16
Round 13 – HOLLAND, Zandvoort, August 28
Andretti – Q1, F1
Mario set arguably his finest pole position of the year, 0.6sec clear of Peterson who was, admittedly, troubled by traffic. This was the one race where Ronnie could have feasibly beaten Mario, since his team leader had a broken exhaust and was thus losing some 500rpm. SuperSwede got anxious in his attempts to ride shotgun as Lauda closed in, but when Niki's car picked up strange vibrations, and could threaten them no more, Peterson stopped fretting. Afterward, it transpired that he had run out of rear brakes, too. (That could have made a fascinating battle – a Lotus that couldn't go properly vs. a Lotus that couldn't stop properly…) The Lotus pair crossed the line just a couple of tenths apart.
Points after 13 rounds – Andretti 63, Peterson 51, Lauda 35, Depailler 32, Reutemann 31, Watson 19
Round 14 – ITALY, Monza, September 10
Andretti – Q1, F6
The Lotus duo were separated by just 12 points and there being three races to go, and nine points available for a win, a maximum of 27 points was still on the table. Since both Andretti and Peterson had retired twice, the confusing and frankly unjust rule, whereby drivers could count only their best seven results from each eight-race half of the season, would not come into effect. That meant fans didn't need a degree in math nor a degree of meth to understand he championship permutations. If Mario left Monza with an 18-point lead or greater, he had the title in his pocket, thus a win for Andretti would require Peterson to at least finish on the podium to keep the title alive into the North American rounds. Should Ronnie score no points, then Mario needed only a second-place to become World Champion.
The tension that Andretti had felt following his no-score at Austria had been eased somewhat by victory in Zandvoort, and it wasn't just a case of getting back to the center step of the podium. That race had also shown the depth of Peterson's integrity, for he had strictly adhered to team orders, and not made a passing attempt on his team leader.
In the week leading up to the event, AUTOSPORT magazine had carried an interview with Peterson in which, although he admitted that he'd want equal number one status with Andretti in 1979 or he'd leave for another team, and although he enjoyed having the clear edge on his team leader in Austria, he said he found the discussion of team orders quite unnecessary. “I have not helped Mario to get his points,” said Peterson. “Team orders haven't come into it because the situation has always worked itself out. In the races where I have finished second, I could not have beaten him anyway – it would hardly have made any difference who was number one and who was number two.”
Elsewhere, Ronnie was quoted as saying: “Mario deserves to win the championship this year because he was far ahead of me in the first half of the season,” and certainly he knew that Andretti was one of the cornerstones to the Lotus revival in the past three seasons.
So Andretti had ceased to worry about Peterson's ultimate intentions. They'd hung out together between races, both in Peterson's pad in Berkshire, UK, and at Andretti's estate in Nazareth, Pa., and they were true friends. What concerned Mario was the possibility of screwing up or suffering mechanical issues. As he said, if his car broke down in a race, he could hardly expect Ronnie to dutifully follow him into retirement.
Chapman had brought three Lotus 79s and a 78 to Monza. As No. 1 driver, Mario's spare was a 79 while Ronnie had the 78 as his backup. He was obliged to switch to the older model on Friday as the engine broke in his primary car, and in qualifying on Saturday, now back in his 79, a balky gearbox and (again) rear brake issues, restricted Peterson to fifth on the grid. Meanwhile, Andretti had a relatively trouble-free run to pole, joined on the front row by Villeneuve's Ferrari. Peterson then also had a shunt in the Sunday morning warm-up, obliging him to race with the 78.
At the start, there was chaos on the run to the first chicane where the Monza track funneled the 26 cars, with too many drivers trying to occupy the same piece of pavement at the same time. The jostling pack spat out Lotus No. 6 and it struck the barriers with a great impact and a blinding flash. Ronnie was taken to hospital with severe leg injuries and the track was cleared.
After a long delay, the race was restarted, but Andretti and Villeneuve were judged to have jumped the green lights, and though the Lotus and Ferrari crossed the finish line first and second respectively, they had a minute added on to their race time, which relegated them to sixth and seventh and handed Brabham a 1-2 finish for Lauda and Watson.
Frustrated by this and gutted by what had happened to Peterson, Andretti was in no mood to celebrate winning the title that meant more to him than any other. Finally when word came from the hospital that Peterson, though likely to have to convalesce for considerable time out of racing for a long time, would be OK, Mario felt able to smile a little and look back on the season as a job well done. His joy was short-lived.
Early next morning, Emerson Fittipaldi called Mario to inform him that Ronnie had taken a turn for the worse. Mario and wife Dee Ann rushed to Niguarda Hospital, where a mutual friend told them that SuperSwede had died. Bone marrow had gotten into his bloodstream, resulting in a pulmonary embolism. Quizzed for his thoughts, Mario told reporters, “Unhappily, racing is also this.” As when Billy Foster was killed in 1967 and Lucien Bianchi in '69, Andretti had lost a colleague who he hadn't just gotten along with, who he hadn't just respected for his talents, but who he had regarded as a true friend.
Points after 14 rounds – Andretti 64, Peterson 51, Lauda 44, Reutemann 35, Depailler 32, Watson 19, Laffite 19
There would be no more points for Andretti in '78. The graffiti painted on the track at Watkins Glen
, the next race, implored him to win the race for Ronnie, but brought him no luck. He took pole by a full second but after a stub axle failure caused him to crash in Sunday morning warm-up, he took over temporary teammate Jean-Pierre Jarier's car for the race. This machine had a major oversteer issue and eventually its engine blew.
And in Canada, at the new circuit in Montreal, he just could not get his car to work, even if Peterson's sub, Jean-Pierre Jarier could, taking pole position and leading for much of the way. Andretti made progress from ninth on the grid, then collided with Watson and eventually struggled home 10th.
Two weeks later, a fourth racing friend died. Gunnar Nilsson, his Lotus teammate through 1976 and '77, lost his battle with cancer. In all but ultimate achievement, it had been a pretty rancid end to the season for the new World Champion.
So, what to make of Andretti's World Championship? Well, it seems perplexing that he still doesn't get his due. He had a car advantage, yes, but he had been key to developing that advantage. And it took until the 10th round of the season for the guy who so many regarded as the fastest driver in Formula 1 to gain an edge, to fathom the complexities of the Lotus 79, learn how to exploit it.
Much is made, too, of the occasions when Peterson used hard race tires rather than soft tires to get within a few tenths of Mario in qualifying, or eclipse him on rare occasions. But the truth is that Ronnie's exuberant style would cook the softer compounds all too rapidly, sometimes before the end of his single flying lap, so spending more time on track with the harder tires was just his arguably advantageous way of going about his Saturday afternoon business. Andretti sought the same goal but came from a different angle, turned his car in at shallower angles, and made the softer rubber work. Both in qualifying and on race day, his neater style kept his tires alive longer.
And what allowed him to adopt that neater style was his painstaking work on tire stagger and crossweighting, specifically tailoring his car for a given track, lessons learned from his many years racing Indy cars. Like Alain Prost and Jenson Button after him, and Jimmy Clark and Jackie Stewart before him, Mario was of the firm belief that making the car do the work was vital to putting less strain on the tires and driver, leaving capacity within both to produce that extra something should it be required at any point during the race. Yet when it wasn't feasible to have the car at this pitch, Andretti still knew how to carry it (see Monaco) and do so at least as well as Peterson, the king of improvisation, the guy renowned for being able to drive around a car's defects.
It seems absurd to have to defend Mario Andretti, but sweeping generalizations about car advantages and misguided perceptions regarding team orders ignored the reality then and obscure the truth now. So, happy 35th anniversary to Mario Andretti, a thoroughly deserving World Champion.