Lotus 79: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

Lotus 79

If ever you were a Lotus fan Goodwood brought it all back. In the paddock, for example, were a pair of Lotus 25s, both ex-Clark, and at the Brooks auction were several items from Jimmy’s career, including a letter to And Ferguson, written shortly before the 1963 British Grand Prix. He won the race, of course, en route to his first World Championship, and the car in the question – chassis ‘R4’ – was one of those at the Festival of Speed.

There, too, was a Lotus 49B, complete with the flimsy high rear wing introduced in mid-1968, and run until Monaco the following year. In ‘stilt wing’ configuration, the 49B will be forever synonymous with Hill and Rindt, and in the auction many of the lots – trophies and other memorabilia – were from the personal collections of Graham and Jochen.

Over the weekend Mario Andretti more than once looked wistfully at the red and gold car, for it was in just such a 49B that he made his Formula One debut at Watkins Glen in 1968, shaking the establishment more than somewhat by beating Jackie Stewart and the rest to pole position.

Andretti was still more emotional, though, at being reunited with the same 79 in which he won the World Championship 20 years ago: “I loved that car; I could really talk to it.” And now? “Well, now it’s like being back with an old girlfriend…”

Mario will always regard the winning of the title as the high point of an extraordinary career, but the great tragedy was that at Monza, where he clinched it, Ronnie Peterson died. I was writing a book with Andretti, and spent a lot of time in the Lotus motorhome over the weekend.

The sense of poignancy that infamous Sunday evening was overwhelming. So far as anyone knew, Ronnie had severe leg injuries, but was in no danger, and would race again. While part of Mario wanted to celebrate the achievement of his life’s ambition, so also his thoughts were with his friend. We drank champagne, but without much relish.

Hours later, Peterson, in the course of an operation to reset his legs, developed blood clots in his lungs, and when next morning Mario went to the Niguarda Hospital in Milan they told him that Ronnie was dead. In the Goodwood auction, Lot 483 was his spare kit a Bell hold-all, containing helmet, overalls, boots, and so on from that 1978 season.

A Lotus driver from 1973-75, Peterson returned to the team for 1978, and at first Andretti didn’t go for the idea at all. “It wasn’t that I had anything against Ronnie I’d always liked him, and thought he was a fantastic race driver but I had my doubts that the arrangement would work out. The man was a number one driver, nothing else, and it seemed ridiculous to me that a guy with his ability and experience should have to accept the restrictions of a number two. At the same time, though, I’d made my position clear to Cohn Chapman.

“When I signed my contract for 1978, it was as number one driver, and I felt it was my due. I felt I’d played my part in bringing Lotus back to the front, and I also thought that 1978 would give me my best shot at the title. I didn’t want anything to screw that up.

“Ronnie signed as number two, and I think in a way it didn’t bother him too much. I guess we were looking for different things from the 1978 season. I’d come close in 77, won more races than anyone else, but Ronnie had just been through two or three bad years, and a lot of people thought he was through as one of the leading lights. He really wanted to prove he still had it. There never was any doubt about that, of course.”

Everyone gasped at the elegant beauty of the Lotus 79 when Andretti began testing it at Paul Ricard late in 1977, but it was not to make its Grand Prix debut until the sixth round of the ’78 World Championship, at Zolder. “Just build me a 78 that’s quick in a straight line,” was how Mario had put it to Chapman, but initially the 79 was unable even to match its predecessor.

“It wasn’t,” Andretti said, “that it didn’t have any downforce as much as the downforce not being in the right place. The car needed a redesign, and until that happened we had to run too much rear wing hence it was slow in the straightaways.”

There was another problem with the early 79, too. Chapman, ever seeking lightness, was keen to have a new gearbox in the 79. Designed in-house, and built by Getrag in Germany, it was indeed smaller and lighter than the customary Hewland, and also permitted faster changes until it began to stiffen up, which it always did.

“I actually raced the car for the first time in the International Trophy at Silverstone,” Mario recalled. “By now the redesign work had been done, and the grip was unbelievable. That was when I fell in love with the 79. ‘Colin,’ I says, `this car is something else again but we can’t compromise it with that gearbox: we have to use a Hewland.'”

Reluctantly Chapman acquiesced, and by the time of the Belgian Grand Prix the car, in more or less definitive form, was ready to race. Andretti put it on pole position, by almost a second, and led all the way, with Peterson following him home in the old 78.

A fortnight later, at Jarama, it was the same story, save that now Ronnie, too, was in a 79. The two black cars made up the front row, and finished 1-2„Andretti ahead by 20 seconds. At Anderstorp Mario retired, but at Paul Ricard normality returned: Andretti first, Peterson second. In their wake the rest looked rather breathless.

The Lotus 79 was one of Cohn Chapman’s quantum leaps; as the 78 had been the first ‘wing’ car, so it was the 79 which introduced ‘ground effect’ to Grands Prix. “The Cosworth never had the horsepower Ferrari did,” Mario. said, “but it didn’t matter. We were pretty good on top speed, and whenever the road turned, Ronnie and I were just citron our own…”

Neither 79 finished at Brands Hatch, but Andretti won again at Hockenheim, and Peterson was never better than at the Österreichring, where he triumphed in appalling conditions after his teammate had crashed. At Zandvoort they finished nose to tail, Mario ahead. With three races to go, he led Ronnie in the World Championship by 12 points, 63 to 51.

At Brands latch, Peterson had out-qualified Andretti for the first time, and it was here that Mario chose to reveal a clause in Peterson’s contract. “It said that if we were running at the front, with no problems, then I was to win. Like I said, I felt that I’d earned that from the work I’d done in previous seasons, and Ronnie accepted that. More important, he gave his word.

“Colin was furious with me for letting that out, but I did it in fairness to Ronnie: I didn’t want people thinking I was passing him because he couldn’t keep me back. We had made this agreement, and it wasn’t something Ronnie or I felt had about.”

It truly wasn’t. By now Peterson had achieved his objective, re-established himself and signed to drive for McLaren in 1978. That being so, another driver suggested at Zandvoort, he should forget about the Lotus agreement, and go all out for the championship.

Ronnie was appalled at that. “I gave my word, and I’ll stand by it,” he said “Apart from anything else, Mario deserves the title this year because he was so far ahead of me in the first half of the season.” Peterson also acknowledged that, without Andretti’s skills as a test driver, the 79 would not have been the car it was.

Thus they went to Monza. “I had no worries about Ronnie,” said Mario. “Even when I knew he would be leaving the team, I trusted him absolutely. In spite of what people had forecast, the friendship between us just got stronger and stronger as time went along. The day after Monza, I had no feelings about being World Champion; Ronnie’s death just put everything else out of my mind…”

At Goodwood, Andretti was back in his 79 for the first time in 20 years, and hammered up the hill, delighting the crowds. “Lot of memories come back with this car,” he murmured. “Probably more than any other from my career. The most beautiful race car of all time? I think so, don’t you?”