There are few rags-to-riches stories in Formula I racing, a sport where money counts for everything, but Mario Andretti's victory in Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix West through the streets of Long Beach, Calif. could qualify as one. Andretti, America's favorite Pennsylvanian-Italian racing driver, doggedly hung in the wake of Jody Scheckter for 76 of 80 laps, then squeezed into the lead as the handling of Scheckter's Wolf-Cosworth deteriorated as a result of a slow-leaking front tire. On the next lap the Ferrari of Niki Lauda powered past Scheckter into second, but Mario beat Lauda to the flag by less than a second. Scheckter finished third, after leading the three nose-to-tail-to-nose-to-tail racers for virtually the entire 162 miles.
It was the third Grand Prix win of Andretti's career, and he said it was even more satisfying than his 1969 Indy 500 victory. It was also a triumph of spirit over bucks. "This is one of the happiest moments of my career," said Andretti on the victory podium. And he really meant it.
Lauda and Andretti had qualified on the front row, with Scheckter, driving a car owned by Walter Wolf, a Canadian oilman with a million-dollar racing budget, right behind. But on the standing start Scheckter popped through a gap into the lead going into the first turn. Then as the rest of the field swarmed into the turn there was a tangle similar to last year's. The big loser was world champion James Hunt, who had qualified only eighth fastest. Hunt ran over the wheel of John Watson's Brabham-Alfa, which sent his McLaren flying. When it landed, the car stalled. Hunt lost a lap getting restarted and eventually finished seventh for no points. Watson's wheel was knocked out of balance by the impact, and after running fourth for a while, he retired. "James came down inside of me and ran over my right front tire and flew up in the air," said Watson. " Watson just ran right into me," said Hunt. "There was nowhere I could go."
Another car involved in the tangle, the Surtees of Vittorio Brambilla, ended up facing downhill with its wheels crimped against the wall. Brambilla walked away from the car, but someone, presumably a course worker, attempted to move it, and it promptly coasted away from him down the hill. The man tried to stop the rolling car by hanging onto its wing, but it dragged him across the course and crashed into the opposite wall, where-upon the panicked pursuer ran back across the track. He made it, but at the last Grand Prix, in South Africa, a course worker had done a similar thing and was hit and killed by Welsh driver Tom Pryce. Pryce was also killed.
Unscathed, the three leaders ran like a train all afternoon. Then, with 18 laps remaining, Scheckter saw a hole appearing in his tire, an ominous dark streak on the spinning rubber. "I was going to come in," he said, "but it didn't seem to be getting any worse. At the very end, however, my car was unbalanced during braking, and I couldn't stay with it. That's when Mario and Niki got me." Immediately after the race all Scheckter could muster was a dejected mumble. "Had a puncture, had a puncture," he said as he softly pounded his fist on the wing of his Wolf. "Jody drove a superb race throughout," said Andretti. "He never made any mistakes. I didn't really think I was going to get him."
Andretti had been both the crowd's and the gamblers' favorite. Because of his popularity and his rotten luck in recent years, he might even have been the sentimental favorite among the drivers and crews. When Mario signed with Lotus for last season some people suggested that he had found a fitting home: an over-the-hill driver on an over-the-hill team. Those seers are eating crow this year; Andretti's stylish driving and spirit have inspired a comeback for the Lotus team and its manager, Colin Chapman. "With Colin alongside me, I feel like I'm on top of the world," says Andretti. Now after a year of hard work, Lotus has caught up. The team is still a long way from dominating Formula I as it once did, but the car is once again competitive.
The 1977 Lotus-Cosworth is a black pearl among its more utilitarian-looking peers. It is shaped like an airfoil and lacquered black—British racing black, you might say—with gold pinstripes. It is so sleek it looks as if one could pick it up between thumb and forefinger and sail it across a pub into a dart board.
The members of the John Player Team Lotus look almost as sharp as their car: they dress in black trousers, black shirts and black belts with gold JPTL buckles. And Chapman wears a black Greek fisherman's hat, which he threw on the track as Andretti took the checkered flag. During one practice session the silver-haired Chapman stood alone on the plywood victory podium, stopwatch in hand, one black boot perched on the lattice railing, as if he owned the winner's stand—or, at least, was staking an early claim to it.
Andretti had been the fastest in each of the Friday and Saturday practice sessions, and he had seemed certain to get the pole. But Lauda stole it on the very last practice lap. (In Formula I, grid positions are determined by practice times.) Lauda had been in the 1:22-1:23 range for the 12-turn 2.02-mile course all day, but toward the very end of the afternoon he mysteriously slowed to 1:25-1:26. Then, with less than two minutes of practice remaining, he ticked off a 1:21.6 to beat Andretti's best by .2 second. Lauda had been deliberately slowing to give the cars ahead of him a long lead so he would encounter no traffic on his final lap. He wanted a clear shot at the pole. It was a strategy that typifies Lauda's intellectual approach to driving. "A Jackie Stewart move," said one observer.
Lauda's last-lap heist of the pole was not the day's only surprise. The headline in the Saturday morning Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram—GRAND PRIX ALMOST SPUTTERS TO HALT—had dropped a few jaws as well, especially those of the promoters. The newspaper story zeroed in on organizational difficulties: that the Long Beach Grand Prix Association had fallen some $150,000 short of the contracted payment to the Formula I Constructors Association; that some spectators had sneaked to dangerous vantage spots during Friday's practice, which caused the K&K Insurance Co. to balk; that practice had been delayed because of a walkout by union laborers. The story went on to point out that the problems were solved that same day, which only made the headlines appear silly and sensational.