This has been a vintage year in Formula I auto racing, with suspense building steadily through the season, as it should, unlike those years in which one driver pounces on the lead and runs it out of sight. When the competitors gathered in Zandvoort last week for the Dutch Grand Prix, the old champ, a couple of old lions and a hungry teammate were tuning up once more for a tear at the current leader, America's Mario Andretti, who might well have been out of sight himself but for his endearing habit of breaking a car here, crashing one there.
Andretti, originally of Trieste, now of Nazareth, Pa. and of Indy and Daytona and Watkins Glen and you name it, is the consummate American racer in any four-wheeled category. He came to the dunes of Holland with a nine-point lead and only four races to go. It also helped a bit that he had (under hand and foot) a vehicle that former world champion Jackie Stewart calls "overwhelmingly superior to any car in Grand Prix history," the Lotus 79, built by the estimable Colin Chapman.
Even before Zandvoort, Mario's 54 points—won through five victories, a second place and a fourth—seemed to give him something of a lock on the title. But anything goes in this demanding sport, and it can go the worst in years when someone apparently has a lock.
Four drivers could still be considered challengers to Andretti as the Dutch Grand Prix approached. Argentina's Carlos Reutemann, the top man for Ferrari, had won three Grand Prix—in Brazil, England and at Long Beach. Added to a third place in Belgium, that gave him 31 points to Mario's 54. Niki Lauda, the defending champion who jumped from Ferrari to Brabham for this year's racing, had the same total with a multitude of high finishes but only a single win, in Sweden. Patrick Depailler, the efficient Frenchman who replaced Jackie Stewart on Team Tyrrell after the Scot's retirement, had won in Monaco and had piled up points in five other races to reach Holland with 32.
Far and away the strongest threat to Andretti, however, came from his own teammate, Ronnie Peterson of Sweden. Peterson had a total of 45 points, and two Grand Prix victories accounted for 18 of them. Hoo boy, look out, the smart money said. Peterson, the dough-faced but devastating Swede, has long been rated as the quickest driver on the G.P. circuit when he is in top form. Now 34 years old, he has competed for many marques through 109 races, winning 10 of them. Andretti, who is 38, has won 11, but, by contrast, he came to Grand Prix racing only recently from the oval courses of the U.S.
With four races to go—in Holland, Italy, at Watkins Glen and the Canadian at Montreal—Mario would only have to slip up slightly for Peterson to edge him out. Indeed, any of the three other contenders could also win if the Lotus cars went sour. After the nine points for a win, the next five places are scored six, four, three, two, one.
But in Holland the first concern for all was qualifying. Zandvoort, on the North Sea coast of Amsterdam, is one of the most changeable courses on the circuit. Stiff and variable winds whip in from the sea, blowing sand onto the narrow, hilly course under the dunes. Winter and summer alternate almost by the hour. The road is a difficult one on which to pass, so winning the pole is an important consideration. Andretti knew he had to win it or play catch-up behind Peterson.
Running a brand-new Lotus 79 (he had lost his earlier model two weeks before at Zeltweg in Austria in what he admitted was a reckless dash for the lead on the first lap), he went out on the first day of qualifying and in the late afternoon achieved the quickest time of the lot by a scant hundredth of a second. "The wind changed three times yesterday," he said. "On this track, what you really need is a magical switch to change your gear ratios every lap. If you're set up wrong in top gear, a mere 400 revs can cost you 40 miles an hour on the straight."
The final day of qualifying saw the Lotus team work its own magic, sans switches. Andretti turned a "banzai lap" at 124 mph, with Peterson close behind. Since Peterson is contractually the No. 2 driver on the team, it put Andretti in excellent position for a win.
And win he did. Sunday broke cold and windy, and rain had fallen in nearby Amsterdam. Jackie Stewart, wearing a trenchcoat and looking like a sawed-off James Bond in need of a haircut, eyed the skies. "There'll be no rain," Stewart said. "The wind is oot o' the west now." Jackie ought to know and, as it turned out, he was right.
It was particularly right for Andretti, whose hard-charging style is not suited to driving in the wet. Half an hour after Stewart's weather forecast, the skies were as bright as a Dutchman's britches. When the green flag waved, Andretti leaped into the lead. Peterson stayed dutifully on his tail wing—to the chagrin of those cynics who had predicted that he would go for the big money, never mind the team. Then came the mishap that allowed the Lotuses to roar more securely ahead. Didier Pironi, driving a Tyrrell, tangled with a lesser machine on the first lap. The wreckage sat in the middle of the track for three more laps while Andretti and Peterson were saving their hardware and cementing their lead.
Reutemann threatened them in the early going; unfortunately, his tires began to overcook, his handling deteriorated and he dropped back out of contention. But Lauda was now coming on in the new Brabham. Andretti had built a solid lead, running it to more than eight seconds at the quarter point, when Lauda began to run. He closed to within nearly one second, inching closer and closer to Peterson's tail pipes. But it was not to be: the car was not up to the driver. Lauda finished third, still a distant contender for the title.
Depailler had tangled with another car on the 13th lap and was now definitely out of the championship race. Andretti's only remaining threat was, again, Peterson. But Ronnie played the game, guarding Andretti to the end—even darting into the righthand lane at the checkered flag to prevent any sudden spurt from a vengeful member of the rear guard.
As the two Lotuses blurred past Chapman, he hurled his corduroy cap into the air and grinned, then laughed openly. But Mario stayed calm. "Everything ran well," he said.
And what of his now well-advanced chances to become the 1978 world driving champion—the first from America since Phil Hill in 1961?
"Three more to go," he said.