Ferrari, with Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann, will test from Wednesday, August 17, to Friday, August 19, 1977, on the Monza track, ahead of the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, September 11, 1977. Usual but precious routine, which confirms the commitment of technicians and drivers in this Formula 1 World Championship now going towards the grand finale. Only in this way, with everyone's work, is it possible to emerge in the most sophisticated and difficult sector of motorsport and, as happened to the Maranello team, to fix a seriously compromised situation. For two months, from May to June, more or less since the Spanish or the French Grand Prix, Ferrari appeared in crisis: the 312 T2 looked like the shadow of last year's beautiful car, other cars - Lotus, Wolf, Brabham-Alfa Romeo - proved much more competitive. A wave of criticism and controversy had fallen on the Maranello team members, either for too much love or for venting easy grudges. The target number one, of course, is Niki Lauda. In this period, the Scuderia Ferrari was good at not falling apart. They reacted in the only possible way: with work, with grit, with the desire for a payback. And since in Maranello there is a technical school that can make mistakes (only those who do not work never make mistakes) but also has the strength to react and remediate, little by little, not with a single stroke of the rudder but with a series of small manoeuvres, the boat has been straightened and has been put back on the right course. Lauda rightly says that everyone contributed to the cause, that it is not possible to measure his or Reutemann's contribution or that of the individual engineer. Of course, only the Austrian and the Argentinian know how many discussions they have had, how many hours they have spent in Fiorano to try and retry. Slowly, the 312 T2 returned to being competitive: changes to the front suspension and aerodynamics, tweaks in the weight distribution, some lightening and here disappear the phenomena of understeering and oversteering, which had made the car almost undriveable in the 1977 version. The everyday motorist, who follows the Grands Prix, may find the extreme sophistication of a single-seater almost incredible, or not understand why a car first goes well and then goes into crisis or emerges in one circuit and declines in another. But a Grand Prix car is - at least in its highest expressions - a complex that acts on the basis of a very delicate balance, in which tyres play an important role.
Lotus, for example, has a rather long wheelbase and very wide axle track compared to its rivals. Here it shines on the medium-fast tracks (Jarama, Zolder, Anderstorp), while in the very winding ones (Monte-Carlo) the flexibility of the frame puts it in crisis, or in the very fast ones (Hockenheim, Zeltweg), engine apart, the high front section, that is the width of the front, slows it down. The secret of Ferrari in the last few championships was the adaptability to each circuit, which this year seemed to disappear. With two months of hard work and the coming of very fast tracks that allow drivers to take full advantage of the power of the 12-cylindre boxer engine (over 500 hp), the crisis has been overcome. It started to be noticed at Silverstone in mid-July, Hockenheim and Zeltweg confirmed this. Thus, Lauda and Reutemann - very good and a little lucky to take advantage of Andretti or Scheckter's guilty mistakes in the negative period of the Maranello team - are in first and third place in the Driver Standings when there are only five races left at the end of the World Championship. The Austrian Grand Prix may have suggested the idea of a Ferrari helped by the troubles of others. But, apart from the obvious consideration that the failure of the Cosworth of Hunt, Andretti, Nilsson, highlights the exceptional reliability of the engine made in Maranello, two elements are still to be considered: first, in practice, the pole position had been Lauda's; second, when the weather conditions returned to normal, Lauda and Reutemann have made a vigorous progression (see, for example, the overtaking of Scheckter made by Niki Lauda). Ferrari, therefore, is in excellent health, with excellent prospects for these last few races. The newfound competitiveness and reliability allow Lauda and Reutemann to face with greater serenity the final commitments of the World Championship: the Austrian is in the best position, he is the number one candidate for the 1975 title, which would have already been his also last year without the Nürburgring incident. Niki is 15 points ahead of Scheckter, 20 points ahead of Reutemann, 22 points ahead of Andretti and 32 points ahead of Hunt. We should not expect, from now on, exhilarating, desperate runs from Lauda. The former World Champion - he told in Zeltweg - will administer his advantage with the usual coldness, preferring few but sure points to risky wins.
It is a tactic that has given him excellent results in the past, so it is right to adopt it again. Niki wants the title, and he wants it with a specific purpose: as a revenge of what happened in 1976 and as the crowning achievement of one of the most beautiful sporting and human endeavours. The character is uncomfortable, aloof, perhaps unpleasant in certain circumstances, but you cannot help but admire his tenacity, willpower, ability to work, skill as a driver and tester. It would be a big mistake if Enzo Ferrari let him go in 1978. Lauda deserves some sacrifice, but Ferrari certainly knows this: at the helm of the boat there is always him and only him. The rest is just idle talk, as Lauda says. The Formula 1 driver market officially opens only on September 1, 1977, but rumours of probable transfers circulate in advance. One in particular, if it turns out to be founded, seems destined to shake the whole Formula 1 environment. The protagonist, as mentioned, is the Austrian Niki Lauda, who could be about to move to Alfa Romeo. Ecclestone, owner of Brabham, would be dealing with the signing of the driver and there is talk of a secret meeting that the two would have had in London. The news is certainly surprising and sensational for at least two reasons. First, because between Lauda and Ferrari there are constraints that go beyond the simple economic factor and that tie the Austrian driver to the Maranello team; second, because it is surprising that just at a decisive moment for the conquest of the world title, which sees Lauda the favourite more than ever, another Italian house dares to steal a driver from a compatriot, albeit a rival. Will the millions of Ecclestone or the moral commitments that Niki has made to Enzo Ferrari be more decisive? Between the two possibilities, someone, more imaginative, chooses a third. Lauda, after winning his second World Championship, could call it quits and abandon racing, following a wish that his wife Marlene would have expressed. A theory that is destined to fall, as Lauda recently talked about his future as a driver that for now is always coloured in red like his Ferrari. Next week there will be more information about this. In Balocco, the new Brabham BT 46 will be presented. On that occasion, Ecclestone could be faster all competitors and announce the extraordinary transfer. Meanwhile, in front of 10.000 people, on Wednesday, August 17, 1977, Ferrari begins in Monza the preparation tests for the Italian Grand Prix. Fans who flocked to see the red 312 T2 are overwhelmed by enthusiasm and enter the track interrupting training.
Niki Lauda was expected to be there, who instead deserts the appointment. Ferrari technicians explain this absence by saying that the Austrian driver could not come due to a stomach ache caused by food poisoning. To carry out the tests, Carlos Reutemann was called, who in the afternoon runs 57 laps, the best of which in 1'42"34 at the average speed of 204.050 km/h. This performance is 0.04 seconds lower compared to the best time achieved by the Argentinian in last year's tests, and 2.21 seconds lower than the time set during the August tests last season, gives the measure of the commitment with which the driver sustains training. Different types of tyres are tested, with soft compound, and some aerodynamic solutions are tried, in order to find the ideal adaptation of the car to the track. Although the day is sultry, the tyres, which usually represent one of the most difficult points in the set-up, do not create big problems and the best compromise is the one with compound 30 at the front and 57 at the rear. It is also known that the 312 T2 reaches the maximum speed of 279.950 km/h before the chicane detachment, after the starting straight. At the end there is only one small inconvenience, the water pump seizure, which is promptly replaced. Testing will continue as scheduled on Thursday, again with Reutemann behind the wheel. There is not much hope to see Lauda in Monza these days. The second day of testing is attended by about 15.000 people, who run to Monza to see the Carlos Reutemann's 312 T2. The tests start at 9:00 a.m. and, after a few installation laps and the necessary adjustments, Reutemann sets the time of 1'41"63, 0.71 seconds lower than his best performance on Wednesday. At the end of the morning, the Maranello team mounts soft tyres (the same used in the Austrian Grand Prix), with a type 20 compound at the front and 23 at the rear. With these covers, the Argentinian driver improves his lap times until reaching the exceptional limit of 1'40"42, at an average speed of 207.979 km/h, a time that represents the new unofficial record of the track, 0.88 seconds lower than the official record of 1'41"30 set last year by Ronnie Peterson. The practice continues in the afternoon and on the 312 T2 two types of differentials (with different conical pairs) and some wings are tested. Reutemann, which in total covers the distance of 100 laps, also makes several stints with full tanks to check the regular behaviour of the tyres. Tomaini, technical manager of the team, says:
"We did a good job and tried different solutions. We still have to test some details of the bodywork that we will try tomorrow morning".
Carlos Reutemann is happy, though visibly fatigued:
"These days of testing are very exhausting, because in a single day you get to make a number of laps that is equivalent to two whole Grands Prix. In addition, the stints are all pushed to the limit, like those of the last hour of qualifying sessions of a race. Today I got a good time, but I think it will be possible to do even better and get below the 1’40"0" time".
Niki Lauda still deserts the practice and someone advances the hypothesis that the Austrian flew to London to meet Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Brabham-Alfa Romeo. Tomaini, however, assures that, according to Ferrari official sources, Lauda is sick at home. Anyway, the staff at his villa in Hof, Austria, report that Lauda has left for a short trip and will be returning on Friday. Before he left, he was in perfect health. A few days earlier, in Zeltweg, Niki Lauda stated that he only wanted to focus on the Formula 1 World Championship at the moment and that he did not want to think about contracts, money, extra-sporting problems.
"I just want to win the title back".
Yet his absence from Ferrari's Monza tests immediately sparked a flurry of speculation, despite a very logical explanation. Lauda was ill, he could not go to Italy. This explanation was officially made by Ferrari, but not everyone believed it. And here are the hypotheses: he flew to London, maybe he is signing with Brabham, he decided to leave Maranello, and so on. Ferrari called it a journalistic affair.
"Lauda wanted to come to Monza to test, as had been established in Zeltweg. The days set for him were Wednesday and Thursday, the one for Carlos Reutemann is Friday. Niki said on the telephone that he did not feel well: both he and his chauffeur have an intoxication that mainly affects the lips. Probably, it was caused by bad food. Lauda also spoke with Enzo Ferrari, who recommended him that he rest for a few days".
Lauda, who calls engineer Mauro Forghieri on Friday, will be at Fiorano on Monday, August 22, 1977, together with Carlos Reutemann. The Austrian will test the cars for the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort. Conjectures about a passage from Lauda to Brabham-Alfa (whose patron, Bernie Ecclestone, lives in London: this is the reason of the supposed flight to the British capital) leave Maranello technicians indifferent. From Austria, the news of the driver's concerns for his wife Marlene bounces back. Mrs. Lauda has been hospitalized for a week for an infection in the hip joint: she must take a period of absolute rest so as not to run the risk of the disease becoming chronic. Marlene Lauda confirms to the Viennese newspaper Kurier that her husband - who often went to the clinic to visit her - is not well. In Monza, finally, the Ferrari tests in view of the Italian Grand Prix are concluded. Tests have ended earlier than expected for the breakage of the water pump of the 312 T2. As expected, on Monday, August 22, 1977, Ferrari's preparation for the Formula 1 World Championship continues to be intense. Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann test on the private track of Fiorano the two race cars and the reserve car, which will start on Wednesday for Zandvoort, in view of the Dutch Grand Prix. Reutemann tests his 312 T2 first, then it is Lauda's turn. The leader of the World Championship drivers' standings arrives in Fiorano around 2:00 p.m., coming from Bologna, where he landed with his jet. Lauda stays on track until 4:30 p.m., then departs for Bologna-Salzburg. He will re-join the Maranello team on Thursday in Zandvoort. Reutemann, on the other hand, remains in Fiorano, and will continue the tests. It is not known whether Lauda met Enzo Ferrari or not. The manufacturer from Modena is not in the factory: for a few days he has been forced to stay at home, in Modena, with a little fever. On the day of Lauda and Reutemann, Ferrari issues a brief statement.
"We tested the three cars for the Netherlands. Normal routine work. Very friendly atmosphere".
Lauda appears in shape. The Austrian driver reiterates that he has had a slight intoxication and that he is more interested in the World Championship and the title these days, rather than in market affairs. Will he stay at Ferrari or not? It is a doubt that it will probably be resolved for the Italian Grand Prix. In the meantime, Brabham has created a new Formula 1 model that is likely to take part in the last few Grands Prix of the season. The first version of the car will be submitted in the coming days by John Watson to preliminary testing. The new model, called the BT46, features numerous advanced technical solutions. The South African designer, Gordon Murray, has taken into account the experience gathered in the aeronautical field, for the use of particular materials, and in the aerospace field, with regard to the revolutionary engine cooling system already used for space capsules. The temperature of the water and oil is reduced during the passage through a cooling system comprising two heat exchangers for the water and two for the oil. The complex, designed in close collaboration with Marston Excelsior, includes a series of high-resistance aluminium alloy heat exchangers located on the sides of the bodywork, of which they are an integral part. The new car is also equipped with a special braking system used for the first time in the automotive field, made in close collaboration with the technicians of Dunlop Ltd, who for the development of this project have made use of the experience gained in the aeronautical field. The brakes of the BT46 have many points of contact with those used by the famous supersonic Concorde aircraft. The brake disc features a steel core coated with carbon fibre surfaces. The latter material has also been used for pads. Murray committed to designing in order to make the BT46 one of the safest single-seaters. For this reason, the cross-section of the monocoque extends upwards, beyond the roll-bar, to protect the driver. The front wing, the support that holds it and the front of the body constitute a monolithic independent structure with sections filled with polystyrene. The fact that the BT46 is one of the single-seaters built using the most sophisticated techniques, is confirmed by the presence of futuristic accessories never used before for a racing car. To reduce the duration of pit stops for changing tyres, the car is equipped with an automatic compressed air lift: it is lifted from the ground by three jacks that protrude from the platform.
The dashboard is replaced by an electronic indicator, located in the centre of the steering wheel, which provides information on the engine temperatures and pressures transmitted by appliances mounted on the engine. Finally, there will be no need to receive reports from the pits on the times set during practice while running: an electronic device, also mounted at the wheel, automatically displays the time set in the last lap. The Motor Racing scene in Holland is simple and straight-forward compared with some countries, there is but one circuit, the Grand Prix always takes place there and it doesn’t change too much, so everyone turns up at the seaside resort of Zandvoort in a fairly happy frame of mind. Taking a lead from the British GP the Dutch organizers seeds out the rabbits from the entry and give them a private test session on the Tuesday before the event, to sort out four to go forward into the official Grand Prix practice. There are nine entries list for rabbits day and they include Brett Unger and Merzario, which seems odd as they normally qualify well up among the big boys and Merzario is particularly incense and refuses to take part on Tuesday. Brandishing the rule book of the FIA and with legal advice he got the special session makes null and void after it has happen, so that the four who have qualify on Tuesday is wasting their time. These are Lunger (McLaren M23/14), Binder (Penske PC4/01), Henton (Boro 001 nee Ensign MN04) and Pilette (BRM P207/02). Three drivers are due to be left out, these being Ashley (Hesketh 308E/3), Villota (McLaren M23/6) and local lad Michael Bleekemolen (March 761/8) but with the canceling of the result Ashley and the Dutchman appear on Friday while Villota goes off to another event. The Swiss driver Loris Kessel should have taken part with an old Williams car, but spent his time chasing John MacDonald of the RAM Racing team for some legal and ﬁnancial matters leave over from last season, and eventually successfully got MacDonald apprehend by the Dutch police. On Friday the serious business begins and it doesn’t take long for Team Lotus to show that the Zandvoort circuit really suits the Lotus 78 and Mario Andretti. All the variables are ﬁnely tune and in beautiful synchronization and in a demonstration of smooth, ﬂowing driving Andretti is in a class of his own. During the morning practice session he set a new standard with 1'18"85, the only driver to get into the 1'18"0 bracket, and the only one to even look like getting there.
Hunt is driving hard, as always, but is nearly a second slower, with 1'19"7 and Reutemann has his Ferrari going well at 1'19"74, everyone else is over 1'20"0. In the afternoon it’s Andretti all the way again, slightly slower at 1'19"07, but still in a class of his own and there is a bit of a ﬂutter about the place when Gunnar Nilsson ends up second fastest, at 1'19"98, no-one else getting below 1'20"0, though Hunt is next fastest with 1'20"13. At the end of the day the order is Andretti, Hunt, Reutemann and Nilsson with all the rest of the usual front-runners like Lauda, Laffite, Scheckter, Watson and Peterson wondering what they can do about the two Lotus cars. Others who are running strongly are Jones (Shadow DN8/4A), Regazzoni (Ensign MN06), Tambay (Ensign MN08), Stuck (Brabham BT45/3B) and Depailler (Tyrrell P34/7). There aren’t too many problems with the cars. Lauda changes to a spare car, starting out with 031 and after a few laps switching to 030 and, staying with it for the following day. For the ﬁrst time the McLaren team are able to be without an M23 car, or any obsolete spares, having completed a third M26, which Mass is driving, with the rebuilt original car as the team spare, Hunt driving his usual M26/2. Watson is happy with his usual car, Brabham BT45/5B but tries spare car, 1B brieﬂy and though there are photographs available of the interesting new Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46, with its triangular-section monocoque and surface water and oil radiators, there isn’t sign of the new car, it being at the Alfa Romeo test-track in Italy. March has built a new car for Ian Scheckter, called a 771, but not radically different from an up-rate 761 and brother Scheckter was fairly happy with the Wolf WR2, not using the spare car WR1. Laffite is driving the latest Ligier, JS7/03, in long-wheelbase form with the cast alloy spacer between engine and gearbox, and with wide-track front suspension members, while the spare car JS7/02 was in standard short and narrow form, but the new car is going so well that the spare isn’t uses. The Shadow team has uprated DN8/5A to the same speciﬁcation as the Austrian winning car, with front-mounted oil radiator and slim fairings around the side water-radiators. The disagreement with their Italian sponsor has be settle so Patrese was back in the car, but he can’t match the pace of Also Jones. The Renault is back on the scene, after solving their turbo-charger installation problems, mounting it all a bit higher, using a very exhaust tail pipe, and a redesign inlet manifold.
Jabouille’s progress is stop when a stone goes into the air intake and plays havoc with the turbine blades, and later it swallows part of its inlet manifold, which do the valves of the V6 engine no good, so the army of mechanics were kept pretty busy. The Dutch drivers Hayje and Bleekemolen are driving the two March 761 cars ﬁnance by F&S Properties and the cars are modiﬁed by Howden Ganley and his Tiga ﬁrm. The front track is widen, the wheelbase lengthen, the oil coolers are mount at the front, with new nose cowlings, and the rear anti-roll bar mountings are improve. They still only go as fast as the drivers can drive them. The Dutch HB Alarm System team of the Hoogenboom brothers produce their Ensign from last year, which they rename Boro, now painted black and make a deal with Brian Henton to drive it in place of his March 761. The weather stays ﬁne during the Friday practice, but rain storms are around and the skies are decidedly unsettled. At the circuit of Zandvoort, near the beach of Amsterdam, the star of Mario Andretti and Lotus has returned to shine. The Italo-American, on this first day of practice for the Dutch Grand Prix, was the fastest, with a large gap from the other drivers. It seems to be like the days of Spain and Belgium, where Andretti gave the impression that he could easily dominate the Formula 1 World Championship. Subsequently, however, a bit for bad luck, a bit for his and his team's mistakes, a bit for the collapse of the Cosworth engines, Mario wasted numerous occasions while Lauda did not miss a shot thanks to a tenacious and intelligent driving and Ferrari's reliability, also returned to remarkable levels of competitiveness in the last few races. And so, at the top of the standings, five races before the end of the season, there is now Lauda and not Andretti, whose Lotus is considered by Formula 1 technicians as the best single-seater of the 1977 World Championship. The Austrian has 54 points against Jody Scheckter (38), Carlos Reutemann (34) and the Italo-American (32). Andretti lapped in 1’18"85, at the average speed of 192.945 km/h, gaining on all the opponents in the mixed part of the Zandvoort circuit, where his car runs balanced, safe, without bad reactions. A conspicuous advantage, given that in the long straight of the stands of the box Lotus - penalized by the considerable width of the front section, in other words the nose - touches only 273 km/h against 278 km/h of Scheckter's Wolf, or 280 km/h of Lauda and Reutemann's Ferrari and Watson and Stuck's Brabham-Alfa Romeo. Niki Lauda explains:
"Andretti has set an exceptional lap. I used two cars, so I ended up preparing both of them in half and neither of them perfectly. Too much understeer. Now we have changed the wing and modified the suspension adjustment, the situation should improve".
James Hunt, with McLaren (another car that adapts quite well to Zandvoort), got the second fastest time in 1'19"70, Reutemann is third in 1'19"74. A gap of almost one second. Lauda ended the day in seventh place (1'20"26) and Scheckter in fourteenth (1'20"88). They are 1.5-2 seconds behind. It will be trouble if the Austrian and the South African tomorrow fail to make a leap forward, perfecting the setup of their cars. Mario Andretti says at the end of the practice:
"I was sure I could behave quite well in Zandvoort. This has always been a favourable circuit for Lotus. We also made some improvements compared to the last few races by changing the geometry of the steering wheel, the front suspensions and the inside of the car, but these last details are top secret. My car is now easier to drive, but you will see that Lauda and Scheckter will not stop at today's times".
Ferrari had an intense day. Reutemann was quicker than Lauda in adapting his 312 T2 to the features of the track. The Austrian - whose most refined driving requires absolute precision in the preparation of the car - has not found the right balance between the mixed part of Zandvoort and the fast one, with inevitable problems of set-up and grip. Lauda used both the race car and the reserve car, trying various aerodynamic solutions (for example, sides of different design) and two engine adjustments: with very high maximum torque at low speeds and with maximum torque pushed more upwards. And this was the solution chosen, since the first was too penalizing in terms of speed, 273 km/h against 280 km/h. Engineer Roberto Nosetto comments:
"Now we expect Lauda to improve his position; Carlos has managed to fine-tune his car in a satisfactory way, so there is good hope that Niki will imitate him. It is clear that here, as on all mixed circuits, the set-up problems increase for us and that everything becomes more difficult, while the success of Andretti and Lotus cannot be a surprise".
In the second part of the practice, Reutemann accused a drop in engine performance, so much so that he had to suspend training a quarter of an hour in advance. Reutemann explains:
"There must have been a broken valve".
If Andretti's success finds confirmation in Nilsson's fourth fastest time, with the other Lotus, if Scheckter and Watson have set-up problems similar to those of Lauda, the one who really finds himself in a humiliating situation is Jabouille's Renault Turbo, returned to racing after the unhappy start in Silverstone. The French driver got the thirty-second time out of thirty-four riders on track (1'23"89): the car is not ready and Jabouille does not know Zandvoort. In addition, a rock broke the compressor during training, forcing the car to a long stop in the garage. Also, the situation of the Italian drivers is not good. Riccardo Patrese, again behind the wheel of his Shadow, turned in 1'21"12 (sixteenth fastest time), Vittorio Brambilla, with his Surtees, in 1'22"38 (twenty-seventh fastest) and Arturo Merzario with his March in 1'22'82 (twenty-eighth fastest). Brambilla broke a suspension in the first minutes of practice and the reserve car provided to him did not prove competitive: Merzario had problems with the exhausts and was also the protagonist of a collision with Henton's Ensign. Brambilla and Merzario are not currently among those qualified for the Grand Prix. They will have to try to reach the goal on Saturday, in the last hour of practice valid for the starting grid. It would be a real drama if it rains. On Saturday morning during the untime test-session many drivers try their spare cars, if brieﬂy, just in case they are need, and then everyone is set for the last hour of practice, to decide their fate or their ﬁnances, as far as the starting grid is concerne. Of the 34 drivers out on the track, only the fastest 26 are going to be allow to start, so there is some pretty desperate scrabbling among the tail-enders. Once more Andretti demoralize everyone, with a lap in 1'18"65, and what is worse is that he can run laps at around 1'19"0 while cooling off, or waiting for the traffic to thin out; most of his rivals are struggling to get into the 1'19"0 bracket, given a clear run. Team mate Nilsson is in all sorts of trouble, the Cosworth development engine in 78/2 is playing up with a defective fuel pump, so he goes out in the spare car, 78/4 and has got down to a healthy 1'19"57 when a link in the rear roll-bar mechanism broke, so he switches back into his ﬁrst car.
Regazzoni is on Ensign MN07, with the Intention of keeping it for the race, and Lauda is in Ferrari 312T2/030 also with the intention of racing it, and Scheckter is still in Wolf WR2. The entry is dividing itself up into interesting groups, according to lap times, with Andretti (Lotus 78/3) alone in the 1'18"0 group. Then come the valiant ones in the 1'19"0 group, and these are Laffite (Ligier JS7/03), Hunt (McLaren M26/2), Lauda (Ferrari 030), Nilsson (Lotus 78/4), Reutemann (Ferrari 029), Peterson (Tyrrell P34/6), Watson (Brabham BT45/5B) and Regazzoni (Ensign MN07). The surprise of that lot is Laffite at the head in the Ligier, the Dutch circuit suiting the French car and the driver making the most of it, as always. The gray mid-portion of the ﬁeld is in the 1'20"0. The group and the surprise here is to ﬁnd Jabouille and the Renault at the head of it. Those who disapprove of anything so radical as the turbo-charged V6 on its Michelin tyres, are suggesting that it is only so high up the list because the turbo-charge is screw up to a short-life maximum and Michelin has produce some special short-life sticky tyres. Even if all this is true, which it isn’t, it will all be quite legal, even though it contravene the unwritten rules of the Ecclestone Club. A best lap of 1'20"13 by Jabouille on Renault's second race appearance, and the Frenchman’s third Formula One appearance is progress for this interesting new entry upon the scene. An inverted-surprise is to ﬁnd Jody Scheckter down in this gray area with the Wolf. Inevitably there are some incidents, with some thirty cars lapping the circuit, and while Jarier is having a spin on his own in the second of the ATS team’s Penske cars, Brambilla has an accident in avoiding him and bent the steering of his Surtees. He got back to the pits and continue practice in the spare car. Right at the end of practice and almost unnotice, Watson goes spinning in his Brabham when a rear radius rod pulls out of its mounting, but no damage is done. When all the lap times are sort out there aren’t too many surprises, though a lot of people are so busy eyeing Hunt and Lauda that they have overlook Laffite in second place with the Ligier, albeit more than half-a-second down on the ﬂying Andretti. There are eight non-qualiﬁers, among these being Merzario, who is plague with an engine misﬁre on his March, as well as some drive-shaft trouble. Schuppan fails to qualify the second works Surtees car and the B.R.M.-by-Stanley will be the slowest but for the brief appearance of the Dutchman Bleekemolen.
"Everyone tells me that tomorrow I will win easily, but I have my doubts. This year I've already lost a lot of races that I thought I'd win eyes closed: a trivial accident, a cheap failure, and you stop along the track like a fool. What does it mean, then, to be in pole position? Anyway, I'll sleep easy tonight. I worked well. I have no illusions about the world championship title, anyway. The situation for me is compromised. I will fight to the end, but I don't know if it will be enough. We'll talk about it after this race and after Monza".
Mario Andretti is a calm and serene man, who hates roaring statements even when he could push himself to some bolder statement. The Italo-American not only was still the fastest in Zandvoort but with his Lotus he also managed to improve himself, beating's Friday best lap: from 1'18"85 to 1'18"65. His opponents also did better performances today, but no one was able to fill the large gaps received by the Italo-American on the first day of practice. Jacques Laffite, with the Ligier Matra, going down from 1'20"15 to 1'19"27, took away from James Hunt the second place available in the first row of the starting line-up. The Englishman, with the McLaren, gained 0.2 seconds (1'19"50 against 1'19"70), insufficient to resist Laffite’s feat. With Hunt here is Niki Lauda, who went from 1'20"26 with Ferrari to 1'19"54. The Austrian overtook Nilsson, Reutemann and Jones, committing to the fullest in the final minutes of practice. But the most notable improvement was that of Jean-Pierre Jabouille's Renault Turbo, which from 1'23"89 (thirty-second fastest) went down to 1'20"15: he is only in fifth row; however, this progress is significant and leads the French technicians to more rosy predictions. Andretti's gap ranges from the half second inflicted on Laffite to the almost one from Lauda, so as to remain among the first of the starting grid. And it should also be noted that the Italo-American completed a lot of laps around 1'19"0, while Laffite did his performance with a set of new tyres and only once. Lauda, to place himself in the second row, had to use all the resources of his class and his experience. Even for Hunt, whose McLaren offers Zandvoort a decent performance, it was an isolated success. Is Andretti the favourite? In theory yes, but as in Spain (where he won big) or as in Belgium (where, instead, a collision with Watson blocked him after five hundred meters of running)? In any case, in circuits where grip matters a lot, and this is the case of the Dutch track, Lotus, for its constructive characteristics (chassis, wide axle tracks, aerodynamics), stands out.
For example, in the mixed section that opens after the straight of the grandstands and pits, Andretti takes 0.3-0.4 seconds less than all the others. For Ferrari, and in particular for Lauda, the set-up problems that emerged on Friday continued throughout Saturday. Niki took almost the entire first hour and a half of unofficial tests for the starting line-up trying to fine-tune his 312 T2 for the race, then had to resign himself to getting into the reserve car (which is then the one with which he won in South Africa and which was replaced by the current car in Dijon). This car offered better behaviour and it is with it that the Austrian ran in the decisive sixty minutes of practice and that he will race on Sunday.
"I don't think I wasted any time at all. I simply tried to understand why two cars that should be identical behaved differently. I think it's silly to change cars at every race, I have one and I have to try to fine-tune it in the best way. There was something wrong and I want to find out what it is about in the tests that we will do in Monza and Fiorano before the Italian Grand Prix. Maybe some elements of the rear suspension. I don't know, my 312 T2 wasn't on the track. Of course, at some point I had to give up. We had to get a good time, though. And so, I drove the reserve car. The situation is better, but there is nothing to be excited about. To run in 1'19"54 I forgot the set-up problems, the understeering. I pushed like crazy, but the underlying problems remain. On tracks with poor grip, such as this one, the tyre-car combination is not ideal. We should be provided with other types of tyres. For Lotus, which has a lot of downforce, it is a very favourable situation. Tomorrow, therefore, we should have no illusions. Andretti has already won. If he drives with his brain, nobody sees him anymore, I'll watch what others do, who knows if Laffite or Hunt, who have nothing to lose, can't give some trouble to Mario. For me, at this moment, it is important to finish and get some points. Of course, I would prefer Hunt or Laffite or whoever you want rather than Andretti".
Lauda does not consider Jody Scheckter too much, at least in Zandvoort. In fact, the South African's Wolf does not run very well at this circuit due to similar problems to those of Ferrari. Scheckter will start tomorrow in eighth row: his 1'20"24 gives him little hope. On the rumours of the last few weeks, according to which Lauda would have given up the private tests of Monza not because he was sick but to fly to Bernie Ecclestone in London, owner of Brabham-Alfa Romeo, in order to sign the transfer from Ferrari to the Anglo-Italian team, Lauda himself says:
"All chatter. I was really sick".
Reutemann, who was also busy to the fullest, had a small problem with a tyre. The front right tyre of the Argentinian's Ferrari was worn out abnormally in the last few minutes of the tests: a piece of tread went off and Carlos risked a lot. Subsequently, the problem of finding a replacement tyre arose, so much so that the number of pieces supplied by Goodyear to the Maranello team is limited. The eve of the Dutch Grand Prix also marks another stage in the war between Mr. Franco Ambrosio and Shadow. The name of the Italian businessman, who had been removed from Zeltweg, reappeared during the morning, shortly before the start of official tests, on the cars of the Anglo-American team. Here is the background of the story. Ambrosio makes his debut in the world of Formula 1 by helping Renzo Zorzi financially and sponsoring the Shadow team. On the eve of the Monaco Grand Prix, after the Italian driver had not obtained positive results, the executives of the Shadow force Ambrosio to replace Zorzi with another more valid driver. The choice falls on the young Riccardo Patrese, who agrees to drive the car in exchange for a certain fee that is paid by Ambrosio. The agreement between the Italian businessman and Don Nicholson (head of the Anglo-American team) provided for the payment of the last agreed fee for the sponsorship for mid-August but, depending on the greater expense incurred by Ambrosio to hire Patrese, the payment deadline is postponed to the end of the season. Regardless of the new commitments made, the executives of Shadow on the eve of the Austrian Grand Prix invite the Italian businessman to pay the remainder Recalling the agreements established with the signing of Patrese, Ambrosio refuses the advance payment and for this reason his name is cancelled by the cars of the team and Patrese is replaced by Merzario. At this point Mr. Ambrosio passes the practice to his lawyers who sue, both in England and in America, the Shadow executives. This brings us to the first day of practice in Zandvoort, where Patrese is called again to drive the Shadow, but without Ambrosio's name. On the same day, in America, the first lawsuit that sides with Ambrosio has ended.
"The engine left me".
Someone asks him about the collision with Hunt's McLaren. The Italian-American bursts out:
"James is a fool. He went wide, he drove on one of my wheels and made me fly. I was outside and he had to leave me at least the space to put the wheels on the asphalt and not push me on the grass. Lauda is much smarter: he knows how to drive and how others do. His behaviour is always rational and correct. Hunt wanted to throw me off the track. He's a moron with a champion crown on his head, he has no brain".
"You're a fool, you just looked for the incident".
Hunt's burning answer:
"You don't know what you're saying, how could you think you could overtake me there? You risk too much, be careful".
The two continue with mutual accusations and a picturesque series of insults until Andretti, full of anger, leaves the track and takes refuge in his garage. Hunt's final comment:
"He can win some Grand Prix, but he will never become World Champion".
The race ends with Lauda's victory and the enthusiasm infects the whole Ferrari team. Niki gets out of the car surrounded in a flash by dozens and dozens of fans, and with the usual proverbial calmness says:
"Everything is normal, everything is under control. I ran smart while the others made too many mistakes. In the first laps I was cautious because I didn't want to risk ruining the tyres. Then, after Andretti disappeared too, everything was easier and only in the final I had some perplexities because there was a bit of confusion between the rev counter of my box and the official one, which was wrong. The title is closer, but Scheckter also took a few points. Monza is very important: it will be a particularly difficult race, everyone wants to see Ferrari win, but I think above all about the title".
Niki only finds time to smile when his wife Marlene reaches him in the Ferrari van and kisses him on his cheek. Meanwhile, Carlos Reutemann, shaking his head, says:
"I heard a huge bang behind, then Nilsson apologized, but it was too late".
Engineer Forghieri, technical manager of the Italian team, adds:
"No miracle. In practice we had problems with Niki's car and we had not been able to find out why. Then Niki had managed to fix the reserve car and solve many problems. Today he has been helped not so much by luck as by the idiocy of others".
There is a festive atmosphere also in the Ligier-Matra team for the excellent second place obtained by Laffite.
"I'm happy, even if I'm still bitter, because if I could have my car and not the reserve car, I would certainly have overtaken Lauda".
With the usual distance, Jody Scheckter comments on his performance:
"It went well. The car had a bit of oversteer, however I gained some more points and I can still hope for the title".
"I had a good race, but I would have preferred to do worse and score more points".
Vittorio Brambilla is bitter and disappointed as well. The driver from Monza had climbed several positions with good progression, and right when he was preparing to get a significant placement, he spun badly and had to retire.
"I had let Lauda and Laffite pass, and I was chasing them. Perhaps as a result of the slipstream my car lightened, and when I reached the fast corner before the finish straight, I touched a curb and I violently lost the car. I tried to control it, but everything was useless".
Niki Lauda and Ferrari are now one step away from winning that world title that they won in 1975 or lost last year because of the drama of the Nürburgring. The Austrian achieve a very valuable success in the Netherlands, beating Jacques Laffite's Ligier-Matra and Jody Scheckter's Wolf. A miracle? No, but the umpteenth proof that practice and racing are two separate things. In competitions, you also need a bit of brains when it comes to the drivers and a bit of reliability for the cars. Lauda and Ferrari, at least from this point of view, constitute the best possible duo, the winning combination. Mario Andretti and James Hunt, with Lotus and McLaren, looked more competitive at Zandvoort than Lauda and the 312 T2, but they squandered every chance with a senseless start. Lauda this year has also dwelled on the mistakes of others, or, as on this occasion, on the macroscopic nonsense of his rivals. The Austrian can be a difficult character, a detached man, but you have to be in bad faith not to recognize his great talent, a great sensitivity as a tester and a remarkable intelligence. At Zandvoort, on a difficult and challenging circuit, Niki let out the most combative, indeed excessively combative drivers and then made his move. Maybe Laffite could have defended better if he had not had to give up his Ligier for the reserve car, but this is a theory. Needless to say, Ferrari has confirmed that it is reliable and has an engine with much horsepower. Laffite admits:
"It was impossible to fight it on the straight".
Carlos Reutemann's 312 T2 stopped, but because it was hit by Gunnar Nilsson, Andretti's teammate, too nervous even today. Reutemann made a brilliant comeback after a long pit stop, but sixth place is not enough: the third place was safe, the second (overtaking Laffite) is not impossible. But in racing, as in life, it is not enough to be good and serious, it is necessary to have a bit of luck. And this is what in 1977, all in all, the Argentinian lacked. Lauda is now more than ever ahead of the World Championship. Niki has 63 points and another race is over. There are only four races left at the end of the World Championship: Italy, the United States, Canada and Japan. The Austrian has a 21-point lead over Scheckter, who is by now the only rival in the title challenge. In theory, already in Monza, in fifteen days, the Austrian driver could conquer the crown of king of the steering wheel: another win and a retirement or a modest placement of the South African (a fifth or a sixth place) and the game would finally be done. Either way, in Italy or in the United States, this is the championship of revenge for Lauda and Ferrari. Rumours of a divorce between the Austrian champion and Maranello's team, however, are growing. In Formula 1, it is still claimed that Lauda will move to Brabham-Alfa Romeo. For Ferrari it would be a serious loss, because Niki is an excellent test driver, with particular competence in tyres. And it is known how important tyres are in Grand Prix racing today. Now the next stage is Monza, the Italian Grand Prix. On Tuesday 30 and Wednesday 31 August 1977, Ferrari will carry out a series of tests at the Monza racetrack, complementing those carried out last week by Reutemann. This time, however, there will also be Lauda, who will then go to Maranello, to define with Enzo Ferrari the renewal of his contract or lack thereof for the next season.