Good night, Mario?

A Lotus celebration in Norwich led to a few beers and trouble with the boss… Bob Dance talks to Rob Widdows

Bob Dance is a man who has been central to the Lotus Grand Prix team story. He was there throughout the halcyon days of Lotus and has a thousand tales to tell. He chooses to talk about 1978 World Champion Mario Andretti, a man he liked, a driver he admired.

“This is not a story about a race,” says Bob, “but it says a lot about Mario, and even more about how things have changed over the last 30 years.” He is right. Just imagine this…

“Well, it was 1978, Mario was World Champion, and we’d been asked to run the car in the streets of Norwich for a civic parade in honour of what we’d achieved in Formula 1 that year. Mario was well up for this, as ever, and we duly took the cars to County Hall on a cold and frosty Saturday morning. Of course we didn’t have all the sophisticated heaters they have these days and we had problems starting the cars. In cold conditions the metering units on the Cosworth DFV were prone to seizure. When this happens the quill-shaft drive twists, and you lose the accuracy of the fuel injection. Of course this happened on the ‘star’ car, Mario’s championship-winning 79, and it had to be towed. But Mario jumped in a 78 and gave it a run round the ring road, past the shopping centre and into a park. There was a big crowd and they all loved it – talking to Mario, Colin Chapman, and seeing the cars.”

From here on things went a little awry, much to the consternation of ‘the Guvnor’.

“The lads decided they wanted a night out on the town, and of course they invited Mario and his wife Dee-Anne. He told me I’d have to pick him up from Colin’s home at East Carlton Manor. Well, you didn’t just turn up at Chapman’s house, you know, it wasn’t the done thing. Anyway, Colin reluctantly agreed to let us take Mario out for a few beers, but he told me very firmly that his World Champion driver had to be up early the next day to do the London-Brighton veteran car run with him. ‘So use your loaf Bob, look after him, and get him back early,’” he said.

Yup, you’ve probably guessed it. This was 1978, the end of a long and turbulent year.

“Yes, it had been a difficult year,” says Bob. “But the lads wanted to celebrate with Mario so off we went to Captain America’s, a burger bar in Norwich. After a few drinks and a bite to eat, the mechanics decided it was far too early to go home, so on we went to Tudor Hall, a nightclub we knew in the city. Of course we were welcomed with open arms. They loved seeing Mario, and found us a table. It was a good night, lots of drinks for the lads, and then suddenly it was past three o’clock in the morning, and Mario had to be up and ready for the Brighton run with Chapman at six o’clock… Well, the mechanics were used to a few late nights and getting to the track on time the next morning. But this was not for Mario. I told him: ‘Make sure you’re up in time.’ He looked at me and said: ‘Bob, I’m not gonna make it,’ and disappeared happily into the Post House hotel. I thought ‘you’d better make it, or I’m in big trouble with the Guvnor.’”

Fast-forward to the following Monday morning. “I was in the race shop at Ketteringham Hall and one of the lads said to me: ‘Hey, have you heard? Mario never made the London-Brighton run.’ So now I was in real trouble. I saw the old man and he looked a bit frosty. He said to me: ‘What the hell did you do to Mario on Saturday night?’ I told him, and he looked at me and said: ‘Well, he didn’t turn up for the run. I had to get the pilot out of bed, get the plane out from Hethel, and fly down to Gatwick to meet the cars halfway through their run.’

“I apologised of course and told him we always turned up on time at the races, but you just cannot rely on the drivers, and Chapman accepted my apology!

“I’ve ribbed Mario about this for years – everybody thought he was so perfect.”

As World Champions go, Andretti was kind of perfect. Great driver, great man.

Bob Dance joined Lotus in 1960, becoming chief mechanic for the F1 team. In 1969 he went to March before moving on to Brabham, where he stayed until the end of ’76. Colin Chapman lured him back to Lotus in 1977 and there he stayed until ’94. Bob still works for Clive Chapman at Classic Team Lotus, just down the road from his home in Norfolk.