Saturday, 1 October 2011

1978 South African Grand Prix - Kyalami

March 4, 1978

Colin Chapman was a legendary innovator. As founder and team manager of Team Lotus he is most remembered for his many clever designs and for his enormously successful Grand Prix team. Chapman introduced the monocoque form of construction into modern single-seater racing, he brought Ford into Grand Prix racing and along the way laid the ground plan for the venerable Cosworth DFV engine, brought sponsorship into the Grand Prix world, and he very quickly forced the pace of aerodynamics development once the use of wings were introduced to Grand Prix racing.

Perhaps Chapman's greatest legacy was to harness airflow beneath a car to increase its roadholding. In 1977 he introduced the Lotus 78 which was the forerunner of a new breed of grand prix car. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson dominated the 1978 season in the black and gold cars as everyone learned a new expression: "ground effect".

Ground effect involved smoothing the under-car surfaces and attacehd "skirts" to the sides in order to give the underside the profile of a saucer. This shape had the effect of creating a vacuum between the car and the road surface, the effect increasing with the speed of the car. The vacuum "sucked" the car down onto the road, enabling it to corner at speeds that hitherto would have been inconceivable. 

Colin Chapman

Many doubted Chapman's wisdom in pairing Andretti and Peterson in 1978. Mario had an close and trusting relationship with Colin and he and contractually made the American the team's number one driver. Ronnie, however, was widely regarded as the fastest driver in the world in the mid-seventies, his seat-of-the-pants driving style and astonishing car control won him an army of fans. He was at the very least equal in ability and talent to Andretti, but Chapman probably knew better than the track-side cynics that Ronnie would honour the agreement that Mario was to be world champion that season.

It is likely that Peterson accepted the role of number two because he had not won for over a year. During his first stint with Lotus winning seemed to come easy. In 1973 he won four Grands Prix and added another three in 1974. A dreadful 1975 saw him leave Lotus for March in 1976, where he took a further win before being tempted to join Tyrrell in 1977. However, the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 turned out to be a disaster and by now the critics questioned whether he would ever win again. But a switch back tot he resurgent Lotus team for 1978 gave him back all of his enthusiasm and he was ready to prove the critics wrong.

In truth, however, this was not a race which Peterson looked likely to win. It was a race which should have produced a victory for team-mate Mario Andretti, for a young Riccardo Patrese (Arrowa-Ford) or for Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford). 

Andretti started from the front the front row and streaked away into the distance. But at quarter distance Andretti noticed that his front left tyre was starting to blister. If he carried on pushing at this speed, he would lose the race. But if he backed off to conserve it, then the chances were he would be able to pick up the pace again.

So he let Jody Scheckter (Wolf-Ford), who was being closely pursued by Patrese, through. The young Italian pushed Scheckter so hard that the performance of the Wolf's rear tyres went off and, after a spirited wheel-to-wheel battle, Patrese forged ahead. 

Patrese & Scheckter - wheel-to-wheel for the lead.
This was only the second race for the new Arrows team, and Riccardo built up a sizeable lead with Depailler moving up to second as Scheckter faded. Then, with just 15 laps to go, Patrese's engine blew. That left Depailler in the lead, but with Andretti, John Watson (Brabham-Alfa Romeo) and Peterson not far behind. This, in fact, had been a remarkable drive by Peterson, for he had been relegated to the sixth row of the grid by gearbox problems. But, once into the race, he picked his way through to the top six with aplomb.

Watson was next to go when he spun on oil, and that left Andretti, his car working perfectly again, catching Depailler for the lead, with Peterson closing up to both. Then Andretti's engine started to stutter. He was out of fuel, and livid because, to keep the weight of the car down, the Lotus team manager, Colin Chapman had taken out some fuel on the grid.

"What made me so mad was that Colin had three gallons of gas taken out of my car on the grid!" Andretti recalled later. "I didn't really argue with him because the guy was nearly always right. Colin, I says to him, if I run out of fuel, I'll take it out on your hide. Trust me he says ..." Apparently, even legends get it wrong sometimes and Andretti had to pit for a splash of fuel.

The day was not lost for Lotus, however, for Depailler's car was now trailing smoke. But Ronnie made no real inroads into the Tyrrell's lead until, with just five laps to go , the fates decided that the next helping of bad luck was to go to the Frenchman, and the Tyrrell began to stutter - it too was having trouble picking up the last drops of fuel.

1978 South African GP - Depailler tries desperately to hold on for his first win.
Peterson took up the chase. As they went into the last lap Ronnie was gaining, the Lotus virtually on the Tyrrell's gearbox as they came out of Crowthorne. This victory was going to be important to someone. After five years in Formula One Depailler had still to win his first Grand Prix. And Peterson was keen to show the sceptics that he was the man of old.

Round the last lap they went, sometimes side-by-side they ran, each driver's desperation to win plain to see as twice they banged wheels. But Ronnie was very determined to get by, and Patrick's car was hobbled. At the Esses, the last but one corner, the blue and white Tyrrell slid sideways slightly and the gleaming black Lotus slipped ahead. From 12th place on the grid, the great Swede won by half a second.

1978 South African GP - Peterson relentlessly pursues Depailler.
With an absolutely brilliant drive Peterson emphatically answered the critics who questioned his ability. Together, he and Andretti, dominated the 1978 season and, as well as scoring two more superb wins, Ronnie often sat just behind Andretti's exhausts, his integrity refusing to allow himself to break his contract and pass the American.

His performance that season was enough to win him an offer to be McLaren's number one driver in 1979, but after an accident at the start of the Italian Grand Prix left him with serious leg injuries, a bone marrow embolism entered his bloodstream, and Peterson died the following morning, depriving Formula One of one of its most electrifying talents.

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