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Mario Andretti was finally rewarded for his patient development work at Lotus with a car in which he could dominate the World Championship. He and Ronnie Peterson scored a victory apiece in the old Lotus 78, before the 79 was introduced.
This second-generation "wing car" represented the significant advantage for which all teams strive. Andretti won another five races while Peterson added the wet Austrian Grand Prix. Peterson had been happy to re-sign with Lotus as their second driver after a disastrous year at Tyrrell. Andretti secured a deserved Championship victory, while Peterson had restored his reputation and signed to lead the McLaren team in 1979.
However, the year of celebration for Lotus turned sour at the start of the Italian GP. Peterson’s back-up Lotus 78 was involved in a multiple-car accident at the start. Although his injuries were originally not believed to be life threatening, Peterson died a day later after complications set in while doctors operated on his injured legs. The fastest driver of his generation, he would never be World Champion.
Andretti’s previous team-mate, Gunnar Nilsson, had left Lotus to join the new Arrows team. Sadly, his year developed into an unsuccessful fight against cancer and he never raced again. He died shortly after Peterson in a devastating double blow for Swedish motor racing.
Arrows still made an impression, however, with Riccardo Patrese leading their second-ever race and finishing second in Sweden. The Italian was unjustly accused of causing the Monza accident and missed the United States GP when other drivers refused to race with him. The London High Court also banned the original Arrows FA1 mid-season after ruling that it infringed the copyright of Shadow Cars, from whom key members of Arrows had defected.
Having switched to Michelin tyres, Ferrari was the closest challenger to Lotus. Carlos Reutemann finished third in the championship while Villeneuve inherited a popular home win in Canada when Jean-Pierre Jarier, Peterson’s replacement at Lotus, retired from the lead.
Niki Lauda joined Brabham-Alfa Romeo and won two controversial races. In Sweden he drove the infamous "fan-car” which used a huge fan to generate downforce. Although the team claimed it was for cooling, the governing body believed it to be a movable aerodynamic device and thus illegal. The "fan-car" was banned after Sweden but the result still stood. Lauda’s second win came in the gloom at Monza, where he inherited victory after both Andretti and Villeneuve were penalised for jumping the start.
Tyrrell’s Patrick Depailler had lost the South African GP to Peterson on the last lap, but he finally won his first GP after John Watson retired from the lead at Monaco. Emerson Fittipaldi finished second at home in Brazil, delivering the best result yet for his family team. Frank Williams and Patrick Head formed Williams Grand Prix Engineering and Alan Jones’ second-place at Watkins Glen showed the new team’s improvement.