The spring of 1976: Lotus was in a rut, but thinking big, and Mario Andretti was suddenly out of a drive. Joining forces, they won the ’78 championship and changed Formula 1.
Two of motorsport’s biggest names found themselves in dire need of one another when their situations became desperate at the 1976 United States Grand Prix West.
Five minutes before the start, strapped in his Parnelli VPJ4B and contemplating a mid-pack dash to the “Bullitt” plunge of Long Beach’s Linden Avenue, Mario Andretti was assailed by noted TV reporter Chris Economaki, who was screeching something about this being the team’s last GP and howdya feel about it?
This was news to Andretti, who’d dreamed of Formula 1 success since his childhood hero worship of Alberto Ascari, Italy’s double world champion of the early 1950s.
Just 15 laps later, with Economaki’s pre-race revelation still sinking in, Andretti’s long-held dream potentially ended in a puff of Cosworth smoke…
By which time Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus, winless since 1974 and apparently incapable of successfully replacing its six-year-old Type 72, had already ended its miserable weekend: one Type 77 had failed to qualify, while the other scraped onto the grid, only to crash when its rear suspension collapsed on the first lap.
Chapman, a fan of Andretti’s since his Rookie of the Year performance at the 1965 Indy 500, had told him to call when he felt ready for F1. When finally they joined forces three years later, Andretti put a Type 49B – “it felt like a toy” – on pole at Watkins Glen for his GP debut. Their mutual admiration was such that it survived a six-year hitch that included Andretti’s wooing of Lotus personnel for the Parnelli project – and the agreement they struck out of necessity in 1976 was the first open-ended contract in Lotus’ history. Andretti, 36, was worried time was running out; Chapman, soon to become 48, was worrying about everything else.
“Theirs was a different relationship from Colin’s with Jim Clark,” says engineer Peter Wright, who was back in the UK at Chapman’s behest, assisting R&D boss Tony Rudd with “reinventing the Grand Prix car.” “A level of maturity had developed in Colin, and Mario matched it. Both were charismatic. They were about as wealthy as each other, too. They were equals.”
Andretti was the big-name signing, but he wasn’t alone: freelance designer Len Terry had been drafted to draught a new front suspension; and Tony Southgate was poached from Shadow as chief engineer. Panic seeped through the organization.
“It was a madhouse,” says Southgate. “Chapman and [team manager] Peter Warr were tearing around like nutters. It wasn’t my scene, but fascinating nevertheless. In contrast, Mario was always very calm.
“Oh, and the car was pretty abysmal …”
Although 77 was already regarded as a stop-gap, renowned team player Andretti and his revitalized crew gradually made it better than had ever seemed possible.
“Mario’s a very optimistic, positive character,” says Nigel Bennett, assistant team manager/race engineer. “His spirit was as important as his technical feedback. And his win in Japan [the 1976 season finale] was vital for morale.”
The form that the replacement Type 78 was showing in testing was another boost.
Wright and Australian designer Ralph Bellamy had tapped into ground effect – much more downforce for a relatively small increase in drag – during numerous sessions at Imperial College London’s wind tunnel. But Chapman, fearful of copyists, delayed the car’s debut until 1977.
Maintaining the suction-producing low-pressure area under the car proved problematic initially, but regular side-skirt updates – each one assessed by Wright on the back of a Renault 4 van! – sealed the deal increasingly tightly.
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