Mario Andretti crowned his career with the legendary ground effect racer Lotus 79 and became the second US world champion after Phil Hill. As part of the 2023 Abu Dhabi GP, auction house Bonhams is selling the prestigious title-holder 79/4 chassis.
It wasn't love at first sight. And probably none on the second either. To this day, Mario Andretti resentfully reports on the debut of the Lotus 79 at the sixth round of the World Championship at Zolder in 1978: "I had to pump the whole time to have the braking effect. I still won. Colin Chapman didn't want to hear anything about it. It was on my ear he was deaf. The main thing was that we had the fastest car."
And although the problem - heat from the transmission radiated to the brakes and caused the brake fluid to boil - also accompanied the Type 79 afterwards, Andretti and his colleague Ronnie Peterson could hardly be stopped. At the wheel of the further development, the American then won in Jarama, Le Castellet, Hockenheim and Zandvoort.
Together with the opening success in Buenos Aires, Andretti ended up winning a third of the races in the F1 year 1978. Peterson triumphed in the previous year's car in Kyalami and then with the Type 79 in Spielberg. Combined, the full-throttle duo clinched four one-twos and eleven pole positions throughout the season.
Ground effect miracle with someone else's laurels
The basis for one of the most dominant achievements in Formula 1 history was laid last year with the revolutionary Type 78. However, the ground effect food for thought came from the competition, as Mario Andretti can now admit. "The idea came from my experience with the 1970 March 701. Its sidepods looked like wings."
"During a test at Kyalami, we removed the sidepods to reduce drag. Suddenly the car became light in the front. Which showed us that the sidepods were obviously producing downforce. We had to run with a lot more wings in the front, to compensate for that, which thwarted our plan because we wanted to save on air resistance."
In 1976, the racer from Nazareth, Pennsylvania then shared his experience with the Lotus mechanics. "The sidepods on the March were relatively short. Colin Chapman came up with the suggestion that we build a large sidepod the full length of the wheelbase and seal it to the road to direct air onto the airfoil. The first ground effect car was so not a brilliant idea, but the evolution of an idea that March had many years before."
The racing car, also known as the John Player Special MkIII, has been further improved during testing. In order to bring the edges of the sidepods closer to the asphalt at higher speeds, experiments were carried out with plastic strips and brushes, among other things.At the end of the year there were five victories (four times Andretti and one Gunnar Nilsson), but also numerous failures in the result list. Something was still missing for the final leap to the top of the world.
Bad brakes, unbeatable speed
Accordingly, Team Lotus continued to refine the difficult airflow concept and benefited from advances in wind tunnel technology. In addition to movable aprons, the Chapman crew developed an improved diffuser and screwed on the ground clearance.
Andretti looks back: "The two ducts in the sidepods were consistently scooped out to get a clean flow through the whole car. The rear brakes, for example, were already installed on the inside, but on the Lotus 78 they were still too much in the airflow On the '79 Lotus, Colin mounted the calipers directly to the transmission case." With the consequences already mentioned.
Despite its flaws, the aerodynamically tidier "Black Beauty" finally outgrew the competition. There were two iconic rivals, the Ferrari 312T2/3 and the Brabham BT46B ("fan car"). However, neither of them had what it takes to be permanent challengers.
Despite five wins, the Scuderia was always doomed to be a dust collector, while the BT46B was conceded by the rule makers after its dominant debut win in Anderstorp. Gordon Murray's air extraction trick - or as he argued, engine cooling - was a step too far even for the time.
Peterson's death overshadows the title
Due to a lack of constant opponents, Mario Andretti was then crowned the second US champion after Phil Hill in the third to last race - appropriately with a three-liter Ford-Cosworth DFV-V8. His virtual home game in Monza - Andretti was born in Istria (then still the Kingdom of Italy) - was overshadowed by Ronnie Peterson's tragic accident. The Swede, who was on friendly terms with Andretti, was involved in a pile-up on the approach to the first corner and initially got stuck in his burning wreckage. However, James Hunt, Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depailler were able to free him quickly from the Lotus 78, to which he had to switch after a training accident.
Peterson was then taken to a hospital with numerous broken legs, where the doctors diagnosed a fat embolism caused by the fractures. Kidney failure on Monday resulted in the death of the enduringly revered Swede - including last year's Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson wearing a tribute helmet.
World Champion Andretti later told ESPN about the loss of his friend: "It was so unfair that tragedy should come with what was actually the happiest day of my career. I couldn't celebrate but I knew the trophy was mine forever. And I knew Ronnie would have been happy for me." The family man from Örebro became Vice World Champion posthumously for the second time. His share of the constructors' title is reflected in the slogan 'Mario and Ronnie Train'.
Sale as part of a new F1 cooperation
45 years after the historic events of the second Ground effects season, Andretti's "Black Beauty” is back in the limelight. Auction house Bonhams has announced that it will sell the title-holder chassis 79/4 at the GP Abu Dhabi 2023.
The American Zandvoort won in it and drove in Monza the last necessary points out. The Lotus is the highlight of the first joint event with the new partner F1 Paddock Club. Bonhams gives an estimate of 6.5 to 9.5 million dollars. That would be easy for a place in the Top -Ten list of the most expensive F1 racers of all time
Since Hill's legendary "Sharknose" Ferrari was scrapped by Ferrari, according to the auction house, the Andretti chassis is the only way to own a car designed by a US -American was victoriously piloted to the title. The auction will take place on-site at the F1 season finale and is scheduled to be broadcast by Formula 1 TV.