Technology vs. the Driver: What we have lost

It was the last minute of final qualifying. A black-and-gold, wedge-shaped Lotus 72 darted into sight. I picked out the helmet: blue-and-yellow, Ronnie Peterson.

His chassis was brand new, and had been giving him trouble throughout practice. This would be his final chance of a decent starting position. In obvious desperation, he came hurtling into the tight left-hander pressing every pedal at once. With the tail already out, he bounced his inside front wheel off the apex curb; that knocked the back end out even further, and the car wiped sideways across to the outside and slid both back wheels up on the sloping exit curbing - it was at that kind of angle.

But Ronnie's right foot was already pushing a dent in the bulkhead and he never lifted. With the poor Cosworth screaming at redline, both fat rear Goodyears broke loose and plumed off layers of blue smoke three inches deep. Then the long, black dart rebounded crazily headfirst to the middle of the track. It was still canted way sideways, front wheel cocked all the way over, rear wheels painting two jetblack streaks of molten rubber.

Years of railbirding told me that Ronnie Peterson had lost that car. Even if he managed, somehow, to catch the wild slide before it became a hopeless spin, at the very least there would be a series of unruly, time-wasting fishtails.

Nope. Not one. Exactly as the 72 reached the center of the road, it snapped precisely back into alignment with it - and stayed there. There was not so much as a hint of twitch the other way. Running straight and true, leaving nothing behind but noise, SuperSwede cannoned on toward the stopwatches.

For me, that moment before the first Grand Prix of 1973, the Argentine at Buenos Aires, set the tone and tint for the entire year. It was ... my first full Formula One season, the first when I'd been able to attend more than one or two of these events that, to me at that time in my life, crowned the majestic summit of motorsport. And here at the very first one my own wide eyes had witnessed the driver then reckoned to be F1's fastest literally lifting a resistant race car by sheer force of skill from the nowhere half of the pack to fifth on the grid, a scant half-second short of pole.

[In] that magic year ... the formula itself showcased its drivers. Grand Prix cars seemed to have stabilized at a level of unusual quality. In 1973 they were good racing instruments, powerful enough and difficult enough to drive to present a visible challenge, closely matched enough to create frequent close racing, generally reliable enough to allow that close racing to continue for most of a race distance and inexpensive enough to allow a great variety and number of teams to participate.

- Pete Lyons, from the May 3, 1993 issue of AutoWeek