Monday, October 8, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Forty Years Later - Mario's Season

Craig Lowndes' final Bathurst 1000 as a full-time driver saw him become the third driver with at least seven victories in The Great Race and his co-driver Steven Richards picked up his fifth Bathurst 1000 victory as well. The World Drivers' Championship is becoming a foregone conclusion. NASCAR is making a good case that not only could it get away with getting rid of the first stage of races but now the first two stages. The World Rally Championship fight is getting more interesting. MotoGP made its maiden trip to Thailand. I forgot about the World Touring Car Cup races in China. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Forty Years Later - Mario's Season
Last week, I wrote about the two USAC races that took place in the United Kingdom during the 1978 season. Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Brands Hatch race, today is the 40th anniversary of the final round of the 1978 Formula One season, Mario Andretti's world championship season.

We touched a bit on Andretti's success at the end of August when August 27th marked the 40th anniversary of Andretti's final grand prix victory and to date the last time an American driver has won a Formula One event but 1978 was not just Formula One for Andretti.

Andretti's season began in Argentina on January 15th for the opening round of the Formula One season. Lotus had kept the Lotus 78 chassis in competition. Andretti had won four races in that car the year before and Gunnar Nilsson had won the Belgian Grand Prix while Lotus finished second in the constructors' championship to Ferrari. Andretti had closed the 1977 with two consecutive pole positions but picked up zero points from the two outings. This time he took the victory from pole position and led all 53 laps in the process. He followed it up with a fourth in Brazil and a seventh-place finish in South Africa.

The next Formula One round was Long Beach but the week prior to that Andretti contested the second round of the USAC Championship Car season at Ontario. While being a full-time Formula One driver since 1975, Andretti had been a frequent USAC competitor. He drove for Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing in both series in 1975 and since 1976 he raced for Team Penske in IndyCar while joining Lotus during the season after Jones' team folded after the third round of the season.

Andretti's relationship as part-time Penske driver would continue through the 1980 season. He had made ten starts with Penske between 1976 and 1977 but had not won an IndyCar race for the team. He finished second the year before at Pocono and third in the 1976 season finale at Phoenix but had not broken through.

He started second on an all-Penske front row at Ontario with Tom Sneva but retired after 35 laps due to an engine failure. The following week Andretti would finish second at Long Beach but with Carlos Reutemann winning the race, his second of the season, and tying Andretti on points, the Argentine inherited the championship lead.

With no Formula One race between Long Beach on April 2nd and Monaco on May 7th, Andretti ran the Texas World and Trenton races on April 15th and 23rd. He started second again in Texas but finished two laps down in fifth. At Trenton, a third place spot on the grid turned into another retirement, this time after 92 of 134 laps after a valve problem. At Monaco, Andretti was the final finisher, six laps down in 11th and race winner Patrick Depaillier took the championship lead while Andretti dropped to third in the championship.

Three days later, Andretti was running laps faster than the track record in Indianapolis 500 practice. He topped Fast Friday practice at 203.482 MPH but two days of rain washed out Andretti's hope of qualifying on pole position. The Belgian Grand Prix was scheduled for the following Sunday and Andretti would not be able to qualify his car. Mike Hiss was hired and qualified eighth on Saturday May 20th. Earlier that day Andretti took pole position in the debut weekend for the Lotus 79. The innovative ground effect car dominated the race with Andretti leading all 70 laps and Ronnie Peterson drove from seventh to second in a Lotus 1-2 finish. The victory put Andretti back in the lead of the World Drivers' Championship.

At Indianapolis, Andretti was forced to start 33rd after getting back in his car and made his way to 13th before mechanical issues started to hamper his day early. He lost eight laps to repair a spark plug wire and ended the race 15 laps down in 12th.

Seven days later, Andretti won the Spanish Grand Prix, his second consecutive victory from pole position and he picked up fastest lap. If it weren't for an incredible start from James Hunt, who went from fourth to first and led the first five laps, Andretti would have been looking at a perfect race. Peterson made it another Lotus 1-2 and Lotus extended its lead to 20 points over Tyrrell in the Constructors' Championship.

Lotus faced its toughest opponent in the next outing in Peterson's homeland of Sweden. Brabham rolled out the BT46B, otherwise known as the "fan car." While the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine was too wide to allow Brabham to design a car that could match the venturi tunnels that gave the Lotus 79 its ground effect advantage, designer Gordon Murray attached a fan to the rear of the car that was operated by the engine. The radiator sucked air into the engine, which was then blown out from the fan at the rear, increasing downforce levels tremendously. Brabham's answer to the ground effect Lotus cars proved a formidable test.

While Andretti took pole position, John Watson and Niki Lauda started second and third with Peterson in fourth. Andretti led from the start but Lauda stuck to the back of the American and the two drivers pulled away from the field. Andretti led the first 38 laps before running wide in a corner and allowing the Austrian through. Eight laps later Andretti lost an engine and Lauda went on to take the victory by over 34 seconds to Ricardo Patrese with Peterson coming in third at home.

Eight days later Andretti was competing in his home race at Pocono and he started sixth and led a lap but retired due to a broken gearbox after 72 laps.

Brabham voluntarily withdrew the fan car before the French Grand Prix on July 2nd but Watson still took pole position from Andretti. Brabham's advantage would not last through the first lap as Andretti would win another race while leading all the laps and Peterson made it another Lotus 1-2.

Andretti spent the summer focused on the Formula One season and he altered victories and retirements for seven races from Spain in June to the Dutch Grand Prix in August. The good news is Andretti never lost championship momentum because no other driver could gain it. He lost an engine at Brands Hatch but Peterson was already out of the race. Andretti won at Hockenheim while Peterson, Reutemann and Lauda all retired. Peterson halved Andretti's championship lead when the Swede won in Austria after Andretti and Reutemann got together on lap one.

Andretti responded in the next race at Zandvoort, taking the victory with Peterson in his shadow for the entire race. His championship lead was 12 points with three races to go. Lotus had a hand on the Constructors' Championship and one of its two drivers was going to take the World Drivers' crown.

The next race was at Monza. We know the story. Peterson would died after a crash at the start. Andretti finished first on the road but a one-minute penalty for jumping the start dropped him to sixth. The championship was his either way.

Six days later, Andretti was back on the North American continent, the site of the final five races of his 1978 season. First, it was Michigan for a 150-mile IndyCar race. His fourth place starting position was for nothing with his engine expiring before he could complete a lap. A week later Andretti was back at Trenton. He started third but Danny Ongais dominated from the start only for the Hawaiian to spin out of the lead. This gave Andretti the lead for the final 25 laps and he would take the victory. It was Andretti's only victory driving for Team Penske.

Fresh off the victory at Trenton, Andretti went to Watkins Glen for the United States Grand Prix. The champion-elect started on pole position but Reutemann took the lead on lap three, Andretti lost an engine on lap 27 and the Argentine won his fourth race of the season. The season finale in Canada was a dead rubber for Andretti. His teammate Jean-Pierre Jarier won pole position while Andretti qualified ninth, his worst starting position of the season. Gilles Villeneuve took his first grand prix victory in his home province while Andretti came home a lap down in tenth.

While the likes of Lauda, Reutemann and Watson called it a year in Montreal, Andretti was back on track three weeks later for the USAC finale in Phoenix. He started fifth and finished two laps down in seventh.

Andretti's 1978 season spanned 287 days. He started 24 races in 15 different countries and seven different states. He won seven races and eight pole positions. He started in the top five 21 times. He led a total of 520 laps over 14 races. He did retire from eight races.

Ironically, while looking back at Andretti's world championship season 40 years later, we are in the midst of the something that comes as close to what Andretti did in 1978. Fernando Alonso will not win the World Drivers' Championship. Alonso likely will not finish on a Formula One podium this year but the McLaren driver has paired his 2018 Formula One campaign with a full-time ride with Toyota in the World Endurance Championship. The Spaniard is in the middle of five consecutive weekends racing. He contested the Russian and Japanese Grand Prix the last two weekends and now he will head to Fuji for the WEC round before the United States and Mexico rounds back-to-back to close out October.

Alonso won at Spa-Francorchamps and the 24 Hours of Le Mans and was disqualified after finishing first at Silverstone but he and co-drivers Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima still lead the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. His Formula One season has not been nearly as successful. With four races to go, Alonso is ninth in the championship with 50 points. His best finish was fifth in the season opener in Australia.

When 2018 comes to an end Alonso will have contested 27 races; 21 in Formula One, five in the WEC and he ran the 24 Hours of Daytona. He will have run in 21 countries. There will still be three races left in the 2018-19 WEC season and while the championship is far from guaranteed for the Spaniard, he will likely stay in the fight through the finale at Le Mans in June 2019.

The seasons such as Andretti's 1978 and Alonso's 2018 are rare. It is hard to get many drivers to run a one-off in another series let alone be a regular competitor in two high-class series. Both seasons represent the wet dream of schedules for race fans. We want to see the best filling off weekends at another racetrack in another part of the world in an entirely different car.

Times have changed and when Formula One drivers are off they become tourists and spend time in the scenic American spots of New York, Las Angeles, Las Vegas or Miami. They aren't hopping into an IndyCar at Mid-Ohio or Pocono or finding a seat in Petit Le Mans. None of them are running a DTM one-off at Brands Hatch. When winter takes over the Northern Hemisphere, drivers are not flooding Australia and New Zealand and running the best tracks those two countries have to offer.

Maybe come 2048 we will be watching another driver follow in the footsteps of Andretti and Alonso and spend the year trekking the world driving a handful of cars and living out the dreams of millions.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Craig Lowndes and Steven Richards but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Japanese Grand Prix, his fourth consecutive victory, the 71st victory of his career and his 50th with Mercedes. He leads Sebastian Vettel by 67 points with 100 points left on the table.

Marc Márquez won the Thailand Grand Prix, his second consecutive victory and seventh victory of the season. Francesco Bagnaia won the Moto2 race, his seventh victory of the season and it extended his championship lead. Fabio Di Giannantonio won the Moto3 race, his second victory of the season.

Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup race from Dover, his second victory of the season. Christopher Bell won the Grand National Series race, his sixth victory of the season.

Sébastien Ogier won Wales Rally GB, his fourth victory of the season and his fifth Wales Rally GB victory, the most all-time.

Gautier Paulin, Dylan Ferrandis and Jordi Tixier won Motocross des Nations for France from Red Bud, Michigan. It is France's fifth consecutive Motocross des Nations victory

Jean-Karl Vernay, Mehdi Bennani and Gordon Shedden split the World Touring Car Cup races from Wuhan. It was their third, first and first victories of the season respectively.

Coming Up This Weekend
Petit Le Mans closes out the IMSA season.
Hockenheim closes out the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season.
Fuji hosts the controversial date change of the FIA World Endurance Championship season.
NASCAR is back at Talladega.
World Superbike has its penultimate round of the season at a new venue in Argentina.
Autopolis is the penultimate round of the Super GT season.