During this time Mario was bringing his oval set-up skills to F1, playing with tyre stagger and corner weights. “In those days,” Mario says, “they never cross-weighted the car, but Chapman said, ‘Go ahead.’ He didn’t understand it and I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want him to have that knowledge. First of all, I didn’t even know how to explain it, and as an engineer he couldn’t even suggest it because I had to go strictly by feel.”
Mario’s theory is that most road courses have predominantly right-hand corners, or left-handers if, like Imola in Italy, the track is run counter-clockwise. The greater number of corners in any direction provided the basis for his chassis set-up.
“I was throwing away one or two corners at some of the tracks by really concentrating on the main corners. That’s where ‘stagger’ truly worked for me. If the track favored right-hand corners, I would make a bigger left rear, but then the car would be very unbalanced too. I didn’t want the car to be cross-weighted because that would have been counterproductive, and also too oversteery, because if you put a bigger left rear on you cross-weight to the right front, so you’re creating an oversteer situation. Plus, you have a ton of cross-weight so the car would be pivoting.
“So instead, what I was doing was I was making the car turn naturally with the stagger, but I was cross-weighting it the other way. To maintain level weight I would go one up on the right, one down on the left. I used to call a quarter-turn one increment. So I would go two down, two up. That would be half a turn. Four would be one full turn.”
Mario says he invented the importance of measuring tyres in Formula 1. “I remember one time we were at Paul Ricard testing in winter and we had the tapes out,” Mario says. “We were next to Tyrrell and he asked, ‘What’s all this tyre measuring?’ We said, ‘Oh, we just want to see how big they are. We’re just seeing what works with the gear ratios.’ ‘The Weiner’ (Teddy Mayer) from McLaren asked us what we were doing and we’d say, ‘Oh, we’re just playing with diffs.'”
Chapman couldn’t make logical engineering sense out of Mario’s procedures, but based on the results he allowed his driver to do what he wanted. “Colin used to say, ‘Yeah, OK.’ I’d come in, make two or three adjustments, and go out and set a time. And he would be shaking his head. ‘What did you do?’ he’d ask. And I’d say, ‘It works.’ I had that up my sleeve.”
In the next year or two however, those subtleties vanished in a rush of downforce. “All that disappeared once real downforce arrived,” Mario laments. “It became immaterial. It didn’t matter. A little later radial tyres came in, so you couldn’t play with the stagger at all. It took a lot of the feel I had for the chassis out of the equation, to my disappointment. Quite honestly, by then I felt I couldn’t contribute anymore.”
Another seat-of-the-pants technique Mario used in those days remained useful through the end of his career. “I used to do another tweak to the steering, by adjusting the length of the tie-rod. That still works in some critical situations. I did it one time at Monza and went from third to first on the grid. There are times when you really want the car to do something from left to right, and it works. I’ve never been able to make sense of it as to why because I’m not an engineer. I even explained it to Colin, and he just couldn’t make it out.
“I would change the length of the two steering arms. It’s not a matter of playing with the toe. I would keep the toe the same. What it does is increase your Ackerman [steering geometry] from one side versus the other in certain corners. That’s how you get the car to behave and lead you into the corner. But it’s totally by feel. I used that to my last days on the road courses. At some of the street courses where you rely more on the mechanical aspects than the aerodynamics, it really used to come into play.”
Peter Wright says the only rival designer who understood what Team Lotus were doing in 1977 and ’78 was Harvey Postlethwaite at Wolf. “He put a plate, a box sliding in a box on the side, and once we saw he got away with that we knew that was the only way to do skirts. That’s what we put on the 79 for 1978.”
Wright says much of the design of the Lotus 79 was sacrificed to aerodynamics. “The 79 was designed to be a ground-effect car from day one, and an awful lot of it was compromised to that end. We got the aerodynamics a whole heap better. It wasn’t a very nice car. The structure of the car was a bit flakey, but it had something that other people didn’t have.”
Still, the Lotus 79 pioneered the modern racing car designed around the ground-effect concept and a single, central fuel tank. “That was a very good feature which has been there ever since,” Wright says about the central fuel tank.
The 79’s weakest links were its exhaust system and inboard brakes. “It had a terrible exhaust system and because it was in the sidepod it used to overheat and fall off before the end of the race,” Wright says. “Many times there was a horrible-sounding 79. It also had another major fault, which was magnesium brake calipers, which used to leak gas and put air into the brake circuit. The cars used to finish the race with half a dozen of the exhaust pipes hanging off and no brakes, but it didn’t matter too much.”
Former Firestone tyre engineer Nigel Bennett was a race engineer for Team Lotus in those days. Bennett went on to design championship-winning CART champ cars for Lola and Penske. “The 78 was pretty dirty and horrible aerodynamically,” Bennett remarks. “The 79 was still pretty dirty and crude around the rear suspension. I don’t think we really realised how neat all that ought to be.
“The 79 was actually pretty underdeveloped. It was so superior aerodynamically but it never had very good brakes. Chapman really never let me develop the car, actually. It was my job to do that and he just said, ‘No, don’t worry about that.’
“We never put springs on those cars that were anything like stiff enough,” Bennett adds. “We used to run them with 500-525lb springs. I remember going to Brands Hatch with the 79 and ran 550s and Mario said, ‘Don’t ever put anything that stiff on that car again.’ The following year when we really started working it out we were running 2000lb springs! We were really nosing around in the dark really. We were running the cars very high and with soft suspension deflection and making it doubly difficult job for the skirts to follow the ground.”
The first 79 didn’t appear in public until the Monaco GP. Through that race, Team Lotus ran the previous year’s 78 with Mario winning the season-opener in Argentina and Ronnie Peterson taking the South African GP. Mario practiced but didn’t race the first 79 at Monaco. The new car was debuted in the Belgian GP at Zolder two weeks later and Mario qualified on pole and ran away with the race while Peterson finished second in a 78.
A second 79 was ready for Peterson at the next race in Spain where Mario and Ronnie scored the first of three 1-2 sweeps with the new car, the others coming in France and Holland. At the British GP at Brands Hatch in July, Peterson outqualified Mario for only the second time that year, the first time both men had driven 79s. In the race, Mario beat Peterson off the line but neither made the finish as Mario’s car blew an engine and Peterson developed a fuel leak.
“At Brands, midway through the season,” Nigel Roebuck recalls, “Mario just flat couldn’t go as quick as Ronnie in qualifying and that was the end of it. There was no limit on qualifying tyres in those days and Mario used eleven sets, or something ridiculous, and I think Ronnie was actually on race tyres. Ronnie would just throw it ’round and do a number of laps on a single run whereas Mario was going out on a new set, one quick lap, in and change tyres, time after time. I remember he said at the time. ‘Well there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just not as quick as Ronnie.'”
Nor does Mario say anything different today. “There was no mystery about qualifying at Brands,” Mario remarks. “Ronnie was simply quicker than me and that’s all there was about it. Jesus Christ! It was no dishonour to be slower than Ronnie Peterson.
Mario also decided that weekend to tell the press that there was an agreement between Peterson and him that the rapid Swede was not allowed to beat him, mechanical failure aside. “Chapman was very pissed off that Mario told us about the agreement,” Roebuck says, “But Mario felt it wasn’t fair to Ronnie that people should think he was getting blown off when he wasn’t. I always thought that said an immense amount for Mario and also an immense amount for Ronnie because he never mentioned it or moaned about it.”
Adds Mario: “The news about that got out because I chose to let it out. I didn’t want anything to be artificial by people thinking I was passing Ronnie because he couldn’t keep me back.”
Roebuck says the agreement for Peterson to defend rather than attempt to defeat Mario was as difficult for Mario to accept as it was for Peterson. “I think it took a certain length of time for Mario to trust and accept Ronnie, but Ronnie gave his word,” Roebuck says. “Chapman told Ronnie that 1978 was Mario’s year, that he’d earned it. Mario said he had to think of it in his own terms and how difficult it would have been for him, if not impossible, to accept that he was not to win unless something went wrong with the other guy.
“What I remember most clearly was that if you look at the results, the first half of the year Ronnie rarely got near Mario. As much as anything that was because Ronnie was an absolutely useless test driver and Mario was brilliant. The car was pretty good out of the box, but it got better and better almost entirely because of Mario.”
By this stage of the 1978 season, Mario and Peterson had become close friends. “I think by then,” Roebuck observes, “Mario was probably closer to him than he was with any other driver, certainly in Formula 1. They were exceptionally close friends.”
In the middle of the summer Peterson visited the Andrettis at Open Woods, the family retreat in northeastern Pennsylvania. Peterson was on his way to Watkins Glen for the six-hour race where he was sharing a BMW 320i with David Hobbs.
“Michael and I decided we were going to tire Ronnie out so bad before we sent him to the Glen,” Mario grins. “He was bruised all the way up his chest to his chin. First of all he flipped Michael’s 250 motocross bike. Michael had a tear in his eye because it was brand new. Then we were out on the tennis court and he sprained an ankle. Then we got him on water skis and he took a couple of big dives so he couldn’t even move. We were laughing. We said, ‘Mission accomplished. Now we can send him racing.’ We had so much fun with Ronnie. He was a good guy.”
Pino Allievi is Italy’s top racing writer. Allievi has worked for 30 years for La Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy’s daily sports newspaper, and he says Peterson quickly developed immense respect for Mario. “I think Ronnie understood a lot from Mario,” Allievi says. “Personally, I don’t consider Ronnie one of the cleverest men I’ve known, but I think Ronnie understood a lot from Mario and had a lot of respect for Mario.
“So he was not upset that he had to slow down to protect Mario, but he was in some ways proud to do that job for Mario because he knew the value of Mario. I think Ronnie learned a lot on the human side as well as the racing side from Mario.”
Mario says Peterson accepted their agreement without question. “It seemed to me that a guy of Ronnie’s ability and experience should have to accept the restrictions of a number two. If both cars were running at the front with no problems then I was to win. I felt I’d played my part in bringing the team back and I also felt 1978 would give me my best shot at the title. Ronnie accepted that when he signed his contract. In fact, more important, he gave me his word, and his word meant something.”
Part three of this feature will be posted tomorrow