1978 Austrian Grand Prix race report

ROnnie Peterson (Lotus) passes the finish line to win the 1978 Austrian Grand Prix.

Ronnie Peterson took his second win of 1978 for Lotus

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A strange affair

Knittelfeld, August 13th

It never ceases to amaze that the Grand Prix at the Osterreichring has become so established in such a relatively short space of time, the first GP being held in 1970. Apart from a healthy enthusiasm among the organisers and public alike, the whole concept of the Osterreichring Was right from the word go, when its form was laid out on the mountainous hillside of the Zeltweg-Knittelfeld valley. Even people who enjoy the street racing and glamour of Monte Carlo or long Reach have to admit to the charm and pleasant atmosphere that surrounds the Austrian circuit, with its Nürburgring character and countryside. In no way could you describe the Österreichring as an autodrome.

On the Thursday afternoon before this year’s Grand Prix all seemed settled in the Paddock; all the team transporters were parked and unloaded, the tyre companies were in full swing mounting tyres, the hospitality buses and coaches were ready to open next morning and there were 31 drivers ready to contest the 26 positions on the starting grid. There was to be no pre-practice sort out of the “rabbits”, all were welcome for the Austrian curcuit was considered big enough to take everyone. Then, at 5 p.m. on Thursday it was announced that Ertl, Rebaque, Lunger, Arnoux, Rosberg, Stommelen and Merzario had to present themselves at 8 a.m. on Friday morning, ready to do three-quarters of an hour practice, from which the fastest seven out of the eight would be permitted to take part in the official practice due to start at 10 a.m. All that effort and activity to eliminate one driver seemed to be very pointless, they might just as well have drawn lots.

On Friday morning the eight thrashed round and Rolf Stommelen was the one to be left out, through no fault of his own. He was driving a brand new car built by the Arrows team to a design that was considered not to infringe any design features of the Shadow cars, and thus keep the English Law Courts happy, following the legal ‘punch-up’ Shadow v Arrows in which Arrows lost. The Oliver/Rees/Southgate consortium had actually designed and built a new car before the Law Courts decision was made, and it had been on test at Zandvoort. This car was to be driven by Patrese and the second one, which was brand new, was for Stommelen. During the early morning “rabbit-pie” session it sprung a fuel leak and stranded Stommelen out on the circuit, destroying all hopes of him getting into the “magnificent seven”; they should have drawn lots.


After some film making play, during which Lauda circulated with a camera on his Brabham-Alfa Romeo, the serious business of practice began. You hardly had to be clairvoyant to imagine how the Lotus 79 would perform on the high-speed, undulating Österreichring, with its fast corners and 135 m.p.h. lap speed. Equally, the turbocharged Renault was going to need watching for there are no slow corners on the Austrian circuit, and high-speed acceleration is all important. Andretti’s Lotus 79/3 had improved lower wishbones, front and rear of the same elliptical-section tubing, but of better construction, while Peterson’s Lotus 79/2, still retained the round-section ones; and this was to prove technically significant if we are to believe everything we are told, but more of that later. The early morning “rabbits” had been lapping around 1 min. 41 sec. so any self-respecting Formula One driver just had to get 1 min. 40 sec. for a start.

Reutemann’s Ferrari (036) had its alternator fail before practice began so he had started in the spare Ferrari (035) while his own was repaired, and Villeneuve was in his usual car (034); all three cars had the same exhaust layout, of two pipes over and two pipes under. The Michelin tyres seemed to be working well on the high-speed corners, and both drivers were quite competitive. Two of the Brabham-Alfa Romeos were fitted with side radiators at the forward end of the monocoque sides, and they were neatly faired in and looking very permanent. These were BT46/6 (Lauda) which also had the carbon-fibre brakes, and BT46/6 (Watson) which was on normal disc brakes. The spare car (BT46/3) had the old type of front-mounted water radiators. Both drivers were soon in the sub-1 min. 40 sec. class, but a long way off the fastest time, which was set up by Peterson in 1 min. 37.71 sec. Once again there were mixed feelings in the Lotus camp, for while Andretti was sorting out tyres, roll bar and aerodynamic settings, Peterson was going indecently fast without any drama. Andretti was fast, but not fast enough to catch the Swede! Renault had modified one of their cars (RS01/02) to a new inter-cooler layout, with a water radiator incorporated in the cooler, this radiator being piped into the main engine cooling system. It reduced the temperature of the ingoing air and gave better torque characteristics rather than more power. The second car, 03, did not have this modification. The car with the new layout ran remarkably well and very reliably throughout the morning and was well up among the fast runners.

Among the tail-enders Rosberg was in trouble with a locking left-front brake on the Wolf WR3, so went out in WR4 while it was investigated and found to be caused by a hub bearing breaking up, so the whole assembly was changed. Bob Sparshott’s B & S Fabrications team had expanded into running a two-car team, with Brett Lunger still in the McLaren M26 and the young Brazilian Formula Three star Nelson Piquet in their M23 McLaren. He was settling in nicely and unkind people were saying that the sight of another Brazilian driver, and in a McLaren to boot, was making Emerson Fittipaldi wake up. True or not, Fittipaldi was showing some of the firm that his fans have been waiting a long time to see and the Copersucar Fittipaldi was going very well. Derek Daly was back in the number one works Ensign, and Harald Ertl was in the second car. In spite of all their legal problems the Arrows team had done a monumental amount of work in producing two brand new cars, completely redesigned so as not to infringe any Shadow design features, but still following the “wing car” concept. As the beginnings towards cleaning up the air-flow through the rear suspension a complex system of tubular wishbones, struts and links-operated coil spring/damper units mounted above the gearbox with a clever link system operating a longitudinal torsion bar in a torsion tube; the left-hand suspension was coupled to the torsion bar and the right-hand suspension to the torsion tube. The cockpit monocoque was so slim that the gearlever and operating rod were outside on the right, covered by the fibre-glass cockpit surround. Like a “Sharrows” the front suspension was still hung on the ends of the steering rack casting, but there were different supporting struts. Patrese spent Friday morning learning about the new car, designated the A1, as he had not sat in it before, Stommelen having done the Zandvoort test driving, and it was this first car, A1/1, that the young Italian was using. Local driver Hans Binder was endeavouring to take part in his home Grand Prix and was driving the second ATS car, but it went wrong and he had to switch to the spare car, which upset his rhythm. His famous compatriot, Niki Lauda, was not at all happy in the side-radiator Brabham, and tried the spare car (BT46/3) with front radiators, and his team-mate Watson was equally ill at ease.

By the end of the morning Lotus were fastest (Peterson in 79/2) but Reutemann, was second fastest (Ferrari T-car 035) so there were heavy discussions between Andretti and Chapman and Lauda and Gordon Murray. The Ligier team were very happy at being fourth fastest, Laffite driving the newer version of the JS9 and Fittipaldi was radiant with his fifth fastest position. During the lunch-break (for those who have no work to do) the two Brabham-Alfa Komeos were converted back to front-mounted radiators and Chapman and Andretti evolved a remarkable theory to account for Peterson’s better times. Andretti felt that his car, 79/3, was not as well balanced as it should be and that the fault lay in the aerodynamics under the car. The only obvious difference between 79/3 and 79/2 was that 79/3 (Andretti’s car) had the latest elliptical-section lower front wishbones and 79/2 (Peterson’s car) had the earlier round-section wishbones. The theory was evolved that the turbulence caused by the wishbones was markedly different, one from the other, and that the apparently better streamlined ones were in fact doing something odd to the air-flow through the side-pod vemuri. Without question air passing over an aerodynamic surface does strange things, and the Lotus 79, like its forerunner the Lotus 78, uses vortex generators to start the air spinning in the desired direction. In any lesser team the number one driver would have tried the number two car and if it had felt better he would have taken it. In Team Lotus it’s a bit different, so for the afternoon practice the wishbones on Andretti’s car were changed into a temporary round-section by taping on split plastic hose pipe! This was claimed to be the answer to Andretti’s worries, and he put in times virtually the equal of Peterson’s morning times. The Swede had little chance to encourage or refute the theory as his Nicholson-built Cosworth engine destroyed itself completely when a connecting rod broke, which was the end of practice for Peterson.

Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) at the 1978 Austrian Grand Prix, Österreichring

Peterson put his Lotus on pole in a dominant weekend

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Another engine which destroyed itself, before the driver got under way, was the Cosworth in Hunt’s McLaren, and while he was being strapped into the spare car by the mechanics the team management were at the pit wall waiting for him to finish the lap! The difference with the irabhams with their front radiators compared to the side radiators was so inconclusive that Murray was all for leaving them at the front and Orgetting the whole “scientific approach”. Then when something broke in the transmission on Lauda’s car and he abandoned it out on the circuit and appeared on foot through the back of the pits to take the spare car on (BT46/3), poor Murray nearly despaired. While all this was going on the Renault was going faster and faster and had got up to third fastest overall, behind the two Lotus cars. In addition it went through a speed trap in front of the pits at 162 m.p.h., faster than anyone, which made a few eyebrows rise; for the pits straight is approached by the fast downhill Rindt Curve, where handling is pretty vital. More than satisfied with the whole situation Renault let Jabouille go out in the spare car just to check it. The Brabham troubles were not over for the engine in the spare car broke just before the end of practice.

On the afternoon times Andrew was the Fastest with I min 37.76 sec. bui Peterson was still on pole position with his morning time of 1 min 37.7; sec. As the Renault in third place had a time of 1 min. 38.32 sec., and the next best was Reutemann (back in his number one car, 036) with 1 min. 38.50 sec. the Lotus situation was looking pretty normal. Anyone with a time in the 1 min. 19 sec. bracket had cause for despair, and among those were Hunt, Watson, Lauda and Jones.

Saturday morning saw the skies looking grey and ominous and there was more than a hint of rain as the 1 1/2 hours of untimed testing took place. Andretti’s Lotus had been fitted with round-section lower front wishbones (yes, really!). Peterson’s had a new engine, the Brabhams all had new Alfa Romeo engines and unrest in the McLaren camp was temporarily alleviated by Hunt and Tumbay swapping cars. In Team Surtees the unrest was aggravated by swapping drivers, for Brian Henton was put into Keegan’s car as a temporary try-out as the Southend driver was getting left behind, even by the “rabbits”. As if to keep the Surtees pot boiling Brambilla crashed.

As the final hour of practice approached there was no air of expectancy, for nobody was convinced they could catch the Lotuses and added to the gloom was the speed of the turbocharged Renault. I lowever, more important was impending rain from over t he mountains, for the cloud base was ominously low. A projected parachute drop to amuse the crowd was cancelled because of the low cloud, and at ten minutes past t p.m. the last hour of practice began. Barely had the cars left the pits than parachutists appeared through the clouds, dropping towards the circuit! Somebody had not told them their stunt had been cancelled. Practice was stopped instantly.

Eventually the all-important hour got under way at 1 .22 p.m. and Lauda was first away, while Hunt waned In the pits for the traffic to clear, and Peterson was forced to wait as his gearbox internals were being inspected. Stuck changed over to the spare Shadow, the Tyrrells were trying full-length undertrays., Keegan was back in his Surtees, but Piquet was missing as his McLaren was still having its engine changed, the morning having shown the previous one to have lost power. After only ten minutes, practice stopped once again, this time involuntarily, as rain began to fall, which precluded any fast times being made. The circuit was not wet enough to learn anything on rain-tyres so everyone sat around and waited. Tambay, Stuck and Regazzoni went out for some exploratory laps and then Andretti and others joined in. By 2 p.m. the activity had fizzled out and then real rain came down and everything was awash. After a short pause Reutemann went out on Michelin’s best rain tyres and lapped pretty impressively, and some of the Goodyear runners began to wonder if perhaps the Argentinian was gaining experience that would stand him in good stead.

Peterson, Jones, Andretti and Hunt joined in, to see how bad the conditions were, and also Jabouille in the Michelin-shod Renault, and then the hour was finished. Although Lauda had been fastest before the rain came, it was not significant and Patrese, Rosberg, Daly, Regazzoni and Binder were the only ones to improve on their Friday times before the rain.

After practice Tambay’s McLaren, Rosberg’s Wolf and Stuck’s Shadow were picked at random and measured and weighed by the scrutineers to check for legality. All was well.


Ronnie Peterson (Lotus, left) Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell, right) at the 1978 Austrian Grand Prix, Österreichring.

Depailler (right) and Peterson battle for the lead down to the first turn

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On Sunday morning the weather was warm and dry and things looked quite encouraging during the 30-minute untimed warm-up period. Andretti was still using round-section front wishbones, totally convinced of the improved aerodynamics! Hunt was still using Tambay’s car and was mentally satisfied, though Tambay in Hunt’s car was not so sure. Jones was checking out the spare Williams car (002), and the Brabhams were still using front-mounted radiators. Pironi had discarded the full-length under-tray from his Tyrrell, uncertain of the effects on the balance of the car, but Depailler was quite happy with his. Stuck was driving the spare Shadow and Brambilla had an accident.

The race was due to start at 2 p.m. to run over 54 laps of the circuit and prior to this Lauda’s left-hand radiator was being soldered in the pit lane, to stop a leak, Keegan’s Surtees TS20/02 was being got ready for Brambilla for the Southend driver had not qualified. The ATS team had packed up as neither driver had qualified and Merzario was first reserve and still living in hopes. By the time the cars started to leave the pits to drive round to the grid, a steady drizzle of rain was falling, but not enough to wet the track so everyone was on “slick” dry-weather tyres, but it all seemed rather optimistic.

Once again the two efficient-looking black Lotus cars occupied the front row of the grid, looking totally dominant, but the turbocharged Renault and Reutemann’s Ferrari just behind them made the situation interesting. From row three, behind he Renault, Jacques Laffite had no intention of being baulked by any slowness on pick-up by the yellow car, and as the 26 runners finished their pace-lap and paused on the grid for the green light to come on, the Ligier was already inching its way up alongside the Renault on the outside. It was a good start and everyone got off well, with Reutemann imposing his Ferrari between the two Lotus cars, with Peterson leading. Depailler had made another of his meteoric starts and was well up with the leaders. Caught napping by Reutemann in the opening manoeuvres Andretti tried to go round the outside of the Ferrari and spun off into the barriers! Obviously having become flustered, like he has in previous races when things did not go to plan. He could so easily have bided his time before dealing with the Ferrari. Scheckter and Depailler rocketed past but already Peterson was gone into the distance. His lead at the end of the first lap was incredible and made you wonder what everyone else was doing. Looking serene and safe Peterson ended the opening lap with no one near enough to challenge him, but behind in a roaring nose-to-tail mob came Scheckter, Depailler, Reutemann, Hunt, Laffite, Pironi, Watson, Jabouille and the rest, with Tambay all on his own right at the back.

The track was a lot more slippery than most people realised and on the fourth lap Scheckter slid off and crashed into Andretti’s abandoned Lotus, doing neither of the cars any good. This left Depailler in second place followed by Watson, Jabouille, Hunt and Laffite, for Reutemann had had a “moment” and dropped back down the field. On the far side of the circuit a heavy rainstorm was approaching and conditions on “slick” tyres were impossible as rain swept across the valley. Even before the rain at the start finish area great rooster-tails of spray could be seen billowing out behind the cars as they descended the hillside from the top straight. At the end of lap 6 Villeneuve headed for the pits for rain tyres, having executed a monumental spin, and next lap Jabouille lost control of the Renault, managed to gather it all up and also stopped for rain tyres, while Fittipaldi was into the pits and Pironi spun off and knocked the nose cone off his Tyrrell. Peterson finished lap 7 in full control of the situation and when the last car had gone through the officials decided to stop the race and the red and black flags were held out, meaning “Race to stop and restart at a later time.” After the decision had been made Peterson spun off onto the grass and got stuck, so it was Depailler who arrived first at the red and black flags, and as the rain poured down the Austrian GP came to a grinding halt.

It was clearly stated that the Grand Prix would now be considered a two-part race, the first part having run for seven laps and the starting grid for the 47-lap second part would be in the order in which the competitors completed lap 7. That was, Peterson, Depailler, Watson, Lafitte, Pironi, Lauda, Hunt, Regazzoni etc. Only those cars that arrived back at the pits under their own power would be allowed to start in the second part and there would be no changing to spare cars, though repairs and resetting of suspension and brakes for rain conditions would be allowed, and naturally everyone fitted knobbly rain tyres.

Rebuque’s Lotus 78 was towed back by the marshals, apparently undamaged, but could not join the restart, though Peterson and Reutemann drove their cars back, having been extricated from the grass verges. Patrese’s Arrows was towed in, with the nose cone damaged, and should have been wheeled away along with Rebaque’s Lotus, but in the confusion the Arrows management sneaked the car into the pit lane and started repairing it, even though it was all obviously illegal, but Oliver, Rees and Southgate seem to thrive on such situations. The restart was timed for 3 p.m. giving everyone adequate time to prepare their ears for a really wet track. At twenty minutes to 3 p.m. the pit road was to be opened to allow cars to set off on a warm-up lap, and ten minutes later it was to shut and anyone left behind would be out of the second part of the Austrian GP. It was all quite clear, but there was some discussion as to whether Peterson and Reutemann had received outside assistance driving the first part of the race, even though they had driven their cars back to the pits. With Peterson on pole position and Reutemann in last position, having spun off on lap 5, it was a delicate situation, but was resolved by allowing them both to restart, though Reutemann would be considered to be two laps behind at the start of the second race. There should have been 21 cars lined up in pairs for the second part, Andretti, Scheckter, Rebaque and Piquet being irrevocably out, and technically out, but there were 22 cars on new grid due to the Arrows team’s shady tactics. In pairs, the order was Peterson, Depailler, Watson, Laffite, Pironi, Lauda, Hunt, Regazzoni, Daly, Jones, Rosberg, Villeneuve, Brambilla, Jabouille, Stuck, Tambay, Arnoux, Lunger, Ertl, and Reutemann on own at the back. Jack Oliver inserted his car in ahead of Ertl and officialdom didn’t as they had larger problems at stake.

By the time it was all sorted out it was 3.15 p.m. and though the heavy rain had stopped it was still very wet. The 21 cars plus the one illegal one, did their pace lapsand drew up on the to await the green light, whereupon stalled his Alfa Romeo engine and raised his in despair. The light went green, Depailler, Laffite and those on the left went with spinning tyres, while those on the right dodged around the stationary missing it by mere inches. Hunt was commited go by on the right, between the Brabham and guardrail and made it by an unbelievably small amount, and all looked to be all right until tail-enders arrived and PatreSe tangled with in avoiding the Brabham. The golden spun into the air, and crashed down pointing wrong way and the Ensign was punted into barriers. Watson was push-started and away leaving the bent Arrows and Ensign behind, just retribution for the Arrows, hut unfortunate for the Ensign.

Ronnie Peterson leads the pack at the 1978 Austrian Grand Prix, Österreichring

Peterson leads the gaggle

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Meanwhile the opening laps of the wet second part was a repeat of the dry first part, for Peterson had so much lead at the end of the lap that once again you wondered what everyone else was doing: Pounding along behind were Depailler, Lauda, Laffite, Daly, Villeneuve, Pironi, Stuck, Fittipaldi, Brambilla, Reutemann (having passed eight cars on the opening lap), Regazzoni, Arnoux, Rosberg, Jabouille, Lunger and Tambay. A long way back came the hapless Watson and finally Hunt limped into the pits with the right rear suspension all bent, having come off second best in an altercation with Daly’s Ensign. Alan Jones never did appear as he had gone off the road-and bent the Williams. The start line wreckage had been rapidly cleared before Peterson ended his first lap, the Ensign being quickly towed away and the Arrows being pushed away on to the grass verge for Jack Oliver and his cohorts to survey and (hopefully) ruminate upon.

With everyone on “wet” tyres the race was on, if you could call the pursuit of the lone lotus a race. Peterson cruised away with ease and the interest behind was the sight of Lauda passing Depailler and taking second place, and Reutemann storming through the field into fourth place, the knobbly Michelin tyres obviously doing a good job. After six laps the track was drying visibly and Tambay made a pit stop for “slick” tyres and this was the start of a spate of tyre-changing. One or two drivers like Peterson, Lauda and Reutemann were taking unusual lines through the corners in order to splash through wet portions of the track, rather than follow the correct line which was drying out. In this way they made the best use of their “wet” tyres for as long as possible, but the skies were indicating no more rain, so tyre change stops were inevitable for everyone. While some of the lesser lights came in for tyre changes soon after Tambay, it was not until the end of lap 11 that Peterson was seen heading his Lotus down the pit lane and as he stopped Reutemann went by into the lead, as Lauda was also heading for the pits. The Ferrari driver was really flying on his “wet weather” Michelins, though of course, he had a two-lap deficit as far as the overall picture was concerned. Peterson rejoined the race in sixth place, and Lauda in eighth place, and they moved up a place instantly as Depailler stopped for “dry weather” tyres. They then moved up two places as Fittipaldi and Pironi Stopped for a tyre change but the Tyrrell driver did not complete his next lap, going off the road on the Rindt Curve, before the pits. All these stops had allowed Villeneuve to move up front fifth place to second place, so the Ferraris were now in first and second, but still on “wet weather” tyres, as was Jabouille in the Renault in fourth place between Peterson and Lauda.

At the end of 16 laps Reutemann was heading down the pit lane and Villeneuve took over the lead, followed by Peterson, but Reutemann was back on the track in third place, ahead of Jabouille’s Renault. But not for long as he spun. the road and out tif the race on lap 18 and the Renault stopping for a tyre change let Lauda into third place. A fair way back came Depailler, with Stuck hard behind, and then Derek Daly doing an excellent iob in the Ensign, ahead of Fittipaldi. Reutemann now reappeared having got back on the track again, but he had received outside help and was soon black-flagged and disqualified. here was only Villeneuve out on the track on “wet” tyres, and still leading the race, though Peterson was closing and at the end of 21 laps the little French-Canadian relinquished the lead as he stopped for a tyre change, and Peterson went by. In trying to catch the Lotus Lauda had tried too hard and spun off into a barrier, and though he got back to the pits still in third place the rear suspension was too badly bent to continue. This left Peterson way out on his own, driving tidily and smoothly, with no great strain, but needing to exercise considerable caution for the track was still very treacherous in places. Villeneuve rejoined the race in second place, ahead of Stuck, who had got his Shadow past Depailler’s Tyrrell, but the Frenchman wasn’t giving up. As the two battled away together they gradually closed up on Villeneuve’s Ferrari, and for three laps there was a very good three-cornered dice going on with second place at stake. The Renault retired at the pits with gearbox trouble, and Daly was in a firm fourth place and lapping some of the tail-enders, among them Longer in his M26 McLaren, who got stuck in behind the Ensign and had quite a go. Depailler got the better of the three-cornered fight and then Stuck spun Off the road onto the wet grass, where he stayed, so the race order was now Peterson way out ahead, Depailler second, Villeneuve third, Daly fourth, Fittipaldi fifth all on the same lap) and a lap down were Brambilla, actually staying on the road, Tambay, Laffite, Watson, Longer and Arnoux, with Kosberg another _lap behind, struggling along with a seized up clutch mechanism, and Regazzoni, who had made two tyre changes, the first set not being to his liking.

At 30 laps there was no change, though Peterson lapped Fittipaldi the next time round, and then Daly had .a spin on the tricky surface and could only continue after being pushed back on the track by the marshals, which naturally meant the black-flag and exclusion. It was an ignominious end to a very spirited drive. Tambay also spun off but did not restart and with nearly 50 seconds lead Peterson could cruise home to.a well-earned victory, even though Depailler and Laffite were recording fastest laps between them. Just before the end of the 47 laps Peterson set a new fastest lap for the race in 1 min. 43.12 sec., at over 128 m.p.h. and cantered home comfortably ahead of the Tyrrell and the Ferrari. Laffite very nearly caught Brambilla at the finish, trying for fifth place, but as it turned out his fourth place in the seven-lap race, combined with sixth in the forty-seven-lap race, netted him an overall fifth ahead of Brambilla who had been a long way back when the first race was stopped.

Ronnie Peterson celebrates on the podium after winning the 1978 Austrian Grand Prix, Österreichring.

Peterson celebrates on the podium

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After what had looked like becoming a total shambles the Austrian organisers recovered the situation well, and though there were one or two grumbles from various dissatisfied contestants, the overall opinion was one of satisfaction under the circumstances. Team Lotus were happy, as usual, though Andretti was a bit chagrined about throwing away a certain victory. Peterson may be designated number two in the team, but he is certainly very capable of stepping into his leader’s Shoes when the occasion arises, Such as it did on the first lap of the Austrian GP. — D.S.J.