In 1977, the Italian national industry emerged in the sports field: from rallies to tracks, the cars demonstrated the value of Italian technique and work. Ferrari significantly contributed to these achievements, securing the Formula 1 World Championship with Niki Lauda, the most prestigious of all. However, a new World Championship is on the horizon: on Sunday, January 15, 1978, the Grand Prix season will kick off in Argentina. It promises to be an interesting season with many new cars, numerous teams undergoing revolutions, and an atmosphere of challenges and rematches. Enzo Ferrari is gearing up with the usual enthusiasm and tenacity to face this new year of competitive and technical battles. A challenging and tumultuous year has just ended for everyone. What, in his opinion, is the assessment for Ferrari, and what were the most beautiful and ugly moments of 1977?
"The technical and sporting balance of 1977 was flattering. Winning a World Championship remains an important accomplishment from both a human and technical progress perspective. There were beautiful moments, but unfortunately, those that should have been exhilarating turned out to be contradictory, even irritating, due to attempts to blame us for a negative incident".
At the end of one year, and when another is about to begin, resolutions are made. What are Enzo Ferrari's resolutions, if he has any?
"I have no new resolutions. I am terribly monotonous, and my resolutions remain, every year, those of my adolescence".
It is said that Ferrari will focus on a certain Niki Lauda this year. Is that true?
"No, no focus. Anyone stating that shows a lack of understanding that Ferrari has always raced, and will race, solely for technology and sport, facing all opponents with the same determination".
In technical terms, what progress has occurred in Formula 1 in 1977, and what can be expected in 1978?
"As for Ferrari, the greatest technical progress made was the demonstrated indestructibility of its single-seaters. Predictions for 1978? We need to be patient before making forecasts".
The new 312-T3: how would you describe it briefly to someone who is not a specialist?
"The T3 is the latest in the 312 boxer series. It was set up with component criteria, characterized by the complete evolutionary independence of each group to conduct research, almost independently, sector by sector. The engine-gearbox group has been significantly modified; the chassis-suspension system is radically new, with very careful research conducted in the field of aerodynamic interactions. Additionally, the car has been designed to increase the driver's safety in the event of an accident".
What do you expect from Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve?
"As some of his colleagues have written, Reutemann, whose abilities we know, enters 1978 free from moral subordination. I expect him to demonstrate this emancipation, and from Villeneuve, the confirmation of what has been said about him by his admirers".
We will also see a new Ferrari team in action on the race tracks: can you give a quick portrait of this team?
"In the press release of recent days, it was specified that Forghieri is the technical director of the sporting management, Lardi is in charge of organization, Tomaini is responsible for preparations and participations, Degoli is the logistical and administrative secretary, and Piccinini will handle relations with the press at the Grand Prix. I trust that this team will interpret the harmony of the 12 cylinders".
The usual question that all fans ask when a new championship is about to begin: who will be (and why) the strongest opponents for the Maranello team?
"It is not possible to make well-founded predictions. After the first two or three Grand Prix, we will have elements to formulate an evaluative response for both cars and drivers".
Tyrrell has abandoned the six-wheeled car experiment: how are certain Ferrari studies on this and certain new technical initiatives from Maranello going? Will we see them this year or not?
"We have not abandoned the six-wheeled car experiment, but we will have to restart it with the new supplier Michelin. This experiment is part of our technical research for 1978".
Is it worth it, dear Ferrari, at eighty years old, to fight for races with your commitment and still believe enthusiastically in the automobile?
"I was born and lived for the automobile, which I have always considered a conquest of freedom for man. I have tried to wisely administer this conquest and have made it a religion. I don't see why I should give it up today".
The adventure of Ferrari begins: from Tuesday, January 3, 1978, three T2 cars are in Argentina for the first commitment of the season; the red cars have been placed in the storage at the Buenos Aires circuit, waiting to hit the track. Reutemann, burdened with the heavy legacy of Niki Lauda as the lead driver within the Maranello team, can only start training on Monday, January 9, 1978. The Argentine driver still needs to recover from the consequences of a bad adventure that happened on Friday, December 30, 1977, when a boat trip with his wife and daughters on the Rio Paraná almost turned into a tragedy. Fortunately for him, the damage is limited: he suffered only a laceration to his left foot. However, the wound required seven stitches, and the doctor recommended absolute rest for the limb in the coming days. On his car, #11, someone wrote:
"Reutemann, happy new year".
"Reutemann, you are the best".
The words of good wishes and encouragement are likely the work of Ferrari mechanics. Gilles Villeneuve has also received his share of encouragement: on his car, marked with #12, the same unknown hand wrote:
"This is the strongest and most beautiful car in the world, do it justice. Happy new year".
On race day, the T2 cars will have to fear, in addition to competing vehicles, an invisible but equally insidious enemy: the heat. Due to the astronomical position of the southern hemisphere, the temperature in Argentina is quite high during this time. For example, on Tuesday, the thermometer reads 30 °C, and it is expected to remain at similar levels in the coming days. On the technical front, the race presents, above all, the interesting challenge between Reutemann and Lauda and the closely linked duel between Ferrari and Brabham-Alfa Romeo, which, with the hiring of the Austrian, hopes to dethrone the Maranello team from the top. Another point of interest is the participation of the thirty-one-year-old Englishwoman Divina Galica driving a Hesketh. Hesketh, along with Ferrari and Copersucar (Emerson Fittipaldi's team), has been among the first to position themselves for the start of hostilities. On Thursday, January 12, 1978, under a blazing sun and strong winds, the Formula 1 World Championship begins. The first free practice sessions for the Grand Prix, scheduled for Sunday, January 15, 1978, take place on the track of the municipal circuit in the Argentine capital, already crowded with numerous fans. Almost all the drivers who will be protagonists in the race take to the circuit, and the timers immediately appear to gather the first data of the season. The fastest is Mario Andretti with the Lotus: the Italian-American completes the almost six-kilometer track in 1'48"12, improving the unofficial record set two days earlier by Carlos Reutemann with a time of 1'48"25. Nevertheless, the Ferrari driver was still among the fastest, clocking the second-best time (1'48"31). Following Reutemann are Niki Lauda with Brabham (1'49"08), James Hunt with McLaren (1'49"88), Ronnie Peterson with the second Lotus (1'50"19), Gilles Villeneuve with the second Ferrari (1'50"20), Jacques Laffite with Ligier Matra (1'50"26), and Emerson Fittipaldi with the new Copersucar (1'51"05). These times are indicative, and everyone is focused on fine-tuning their cars to solve the numerous problems revealed by the new or updated vehicles, creating an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. Drivers and technicians spend a long time in the pits, stopping at various stands to see the new cars and check the progress made by others. However, the fact that Andretti set the fastest time is already interesting as it positions the Lotus driver ahead of his rivals. The driver of Triestine origin does not hide his satisfaction with the Lotus, which has proven once again to be very stable and agile. In both tight and fast corners, the black car prepared by Colin Chapman demonstrates perfect efficiency, allowing Andretti to achieve his fastest lap almost immediately.
In the Ferrari team, still dealing with tests on Michelin tires, there is a certain optimism as Reutemann, who obviously knows the circuit well, although he had to work hard to fine-tune the 312-T2's setup, has always been very fast. Gilles Villeneuve, on whom many eyes were focused, also performed quite well. However, it is better to wait for the official qualifying sessions before making predictions. Meanwhile, drivers declare themselves very satisfied with the circuit and the safety measures adopted. The Autodromo municipal circuit in Buenos Aires is renowned for being among the most spectacular and protected. The track is 5698.20 meters long and must be covered 53 times to complete 316.314 kilometers. The race will start at 3:00 p.m., but before that, another race reserved for Formula 4 Argentine cars will take place. The motorsport celebration will begin at 10:30 a.m., when the twenty-four qualifiers for the Grand Prix can hit the track for half an hour of free practice. On Friday, January 12, 1978, Ferrari immediately takes center stage thanks to Carlos Reutemann in the first official practice day of the Argentine Grand Prix. The Argentine driver, confirming the good times from previous days, sets the exceptional time of 1'47"84 just twenty minutes into the first training session, establishing a new track record. The other protagonist of the day is the weather. After many days of clear skies and scorching sun, on Friday morning, threatening dark clouds unleash heavy downpours on the circuit, forcing the drivers to seek shelter in the boxes. After passing through rigorous checks by soldiers and officers, everyone entered the circuit at 10:00 a.m., with perfect punctuality. The twenty-eight registered drivers included Didier Pironi and Divina Galica, the only female representative in the race, whose mechanics managed to repair their cars after the incidents on Thursday. As applause for Reutemann's record time fades away, the first setback occurs with Vittorio Brambilla crashing off the track. At Surtees, while tackling the S behind the boxes at about 150 km/h, the fourth gear disengages due to a gearbox defect, and Vittorio can do nothing to avoid a violent impact against the guardrail. The driver emerges unscathed from the accident, but the car sustains serious damage to the front. It is a real shame as the Italian driver had an excellent sixth time until then and could undoubtedly have improved. The tests are suspended to recover Brambilla's car and repair the damaged barriers.
After the resumption, after about half an hour, the weather plays its first trick, and heavy rain floods the track in a matter of moments. The Ferrari team takes advantage to test the sculpted Michelin tires. Reutemann's car undergoes tests with different types, while Villeneuve completes several laps with tires of the same type. At the end of the first practice session, Reutemann is followed by his former teammate, Niki Lauda, 0.86s behind, then Gilles Villeneuve, 1.16s behind, and in fourth place is the other Brabham driver, John Watson. The second session starts with the track still wet in some areas, and times do not improve. But as minutes pass, the track returns to good conditions, and Andretti and Watson take advantage to move to second and third place, respectively, with two excellent laps. Watson precedes Lauda. Towards the end, an unleashed Andretti tries to improve, but the Lotus engine loses power, and the Italian-American is forced to give up. The sky releases a new downpour, and everyone quickly concludes the tests. Carlos Reutemann says:
"It's a pleasant surprise to be with my Ferrari ahead of everyone in the first official outing. The car responds perfectly and has given me no issues. Credit for all this also goes to Michelin, which is excellent".
The sentiment is echoed by Gilles Villeneuve, satisfied with the car even though he dropped to sixth place at the end of the day. It is worth noting that during the second session, the Canadian was used by Ferrari and Michelin for tire tests as track conditions had changed, and the team preferred to try different types of tires. However, the World Champion, Niki Lauda, is upset as he couldn't improve his performance in the end due to a fuel pump failure. Lauda had to walk back to the pits, leaving the car along the track.
"The crowded track didn't allow me to do better, and then that simple breakdown stopped me".
When asked about the performance of the Ferrari, Lauda responds:
"I followed Villeneuve for a while, and I saw that the Ferrari with Michelin tires has a lot of grip. Villeneuve drives like all the other drivers".
For Brabham-Alfa Romeo, it remains a positive day, as acknowledged by engineer Carlo Chiti.
"Lauda will certainly improve tomorrow; we are happy with Watson's performance. The Ferrari's exploit is mostly attributed to the French tires, which, in my opinion, allow gaining more than a second compared to the Goodyear. Brambilla, in the last hour, drove with the reserve car and couldn't improve due to another spin after the finish line".
El Chico Villeneuve, as affectionately named by Argentine fans, is one of the most observed figures in the Formula 1 Circus, alongside Carlos Reutemann, the local idol. Despite being the teammate of the local hero, Villeneuve is already famous in Argentina. He is constantly approached by a large group of sports enthusiasts outside the Sheraton Hotel seeking his autograph. When in the car, hidden under the orange and blue helmet, the Canadian transforms into a great driver, like others taming the cars with over 500 HP. In the pits, Villeneuve is available for customary interviews, understanding it's part of the job. A new season begins. What role do you think you can play?
"It will undoubtedly be a challenging season, and I hope it's very spectacular. It's hard to say now what role I can play. My goal is to perform well as the second driver of a very strong team".
After doubts following the free practice, where he had a good time, Villeneuve is now more confident.
"Yesterday was a special day, a general test, and only a few had driven. This morning, however, things went better, especially for me, and I am very satisfied. The starting grid will be decided in the upcoming practice sessions, and it's still wide open".
His debut, considered hasty by many, was quite traumatic. Doesn't he think it would have been better to start here in Argentina after completing all the tests in recent months?
"The decision to race in Canada and Japan was good because you can learn the secrets of a car better in a race than in practice. The Canadian circuit of Mosport has always been tough for Maranello's cars, while in Japan, it went as it went. Now, I feel much more connected to the car and am starting to feel comfortable".
The enthusiasm of the 30.000 fans cheering for Carlos Reutemann in this second day of the Argentine Grand Prix practice fades when the speaker announces that Mario Andretti has done better, even if only by 0.09s. The day of Saturday, January 14, 1978, is sunny, with a very hot sun mitigated by a sometimes strong wind that disturbs the drivers on the straight opposite the pits. It seems favorable for Reutemann and Ferrari because the changed road conditions prevented anyone, in the first hour and a half of non-timed practices, from getting close to the time set by the number one driver of the Maranello team. Instead, with one of the typical exploits from the past season, Andretti, a few minutes before the end, invents a fantastic lap, setting the exceptional time of 1'47"75, a new unofficial track record. The loss of the pole position, however, did not create concerns for the Italian team, which worked throughout the day (perhaps sure of not being beaten) with the race in mind, extensively testing various tire types and seeking the best setup for the 312-T2. Andretti, visibly happy with his achievement, comments on his performance:
"Today went better for me. I didn't have the engine troubles that hindered me yesterday, the car was very fast, and it held well in corners. I think the mixed part of the circuit allowed me to gain compared to others. Anyway, tomorrow the race is wide open".
Some in the pits suggest that Goodyear provided the Italo-American driver with special tires to allow him to surpass the Ferraris, which now use Michelin. It is known that Andretti used soft compound tires, marked with the code 58 at the front and 59 at the rear, in the laps where he set the best time. These are soft compound tires usually used in cold Grand Prix, like those in Canada or Japan. For the race, however, Lotus, like many other teams, will have to use harder tires, type 48 at the front and 49 at the rear, to avoid the risk of seeing the tires shredded after a few laps. From this perspective, things should go better for Ferrari in the race because Michelin brought hard compounds to South America, anticipating hot weather. Carlos Reutemann says:
"We worked to prepare for the race without getting carried away by the desire to chase pole position. The rather tricky wind bothered me a lot on the straight, so I was losing about 500 meters. Tomorrow's race will be tough, and there's also the uncertainty of whether our tires will last for all 53 laps of the competition. Only tomorrow evening can we say if this first outing was positive".
In the second row, behind Andretti and Reutemann, will start Peterson with the Lotus and Watson with the Brabham. The Swede, displaying the usual determination, managed, in the last decisive hour of practice, to improve his time and has high hopes for the race. The Northern Irish driver will start in the second row, thanks to the time set on Friday. Several problems erupted during the last day of practice: a loss of engine power in the first session of the day and four blistered tires in the last hour. Tires were also a headache for Niki Lauda. The Austrian couldn't improve on Friday due to the tires blistering. James Hunt, who might have improved his position, is struggling due to engine issues. In the first session, after setting the fastest lap, his engine explodes with a lot of smoke, and Hunt is forced to stop along the track.
In the crucial hour, the new Cosworth engine mounted on his McLaren experiences a power loss, and there's nothing James can do. It's an unfortunate day for Italian drivers. Vittorio Brambilla has another off-track excursion after just one lap, again due to a faulty gearbox. The car doesn't suffer serious damage, but the Italian driver loses the entire first practice session while waiting for his team to find the cause of so many troubles. In the second session, he also faces tire problems, and the time is not recorded. Arturo Merzario, on the other hand, experiences a moment of great fear of being excluded from the starters due to a bad off-track incident. An error leads him to collide violently with a stack of tires placed to protect a marshal's post. The car is seriously damaged in the front and cannot be repaired in time to allow him to participate in the last series of practice. Around Reutemann and Ferrari, there's anticipation, hope, and the passionate embrace of Argentine auto fans. Carlos knows it; now that in practice, he has confirmed his worth (and the value of the car and tires), he suffers the length of this vigil, wishing the start was in half an hour and not on Sunday. He can't take a step without being asked for an autograph, a prediction. He seems almost uncomfortable in an environment that is his own, but it can be well understood. On Sunday, he will play at home; Argentine newspapers have been filled with articles about him for months. His mishap on the Rio Paraná, the incident, albeit minor, to his foot, the burst tire in the tests on January 10, and finally, the feat in official practice-all have made headlines. Now the fans see him and want him as the favorite, not accepting any debates. Carlos, does this situation weigh on you, this growing anticipation around you?
"Not much, because it falls into the logic. After all, whether you cheer or not, all us drivers know that at a certain point, only winning matters. If you win, nothing else matters. It doesn't matter if you're tall or thin, handsome or ugly, if you made mistakes, if you prepared well or poorly. Only the result matters in our environment, a ruthless and clear law. At the moment of the start, all emotional pushes are forgotten—him, the car, the track, and the opponents. I think I'll do well; I would be disappointed if it were otherwise. Ferrari has no problems whatsoever; the new tires have reacted very well to the tests done in these months. They are suitable for the heat, and it will certainly be hot tomorrow, at least enough".
After a Friday covered with occasional rain, Buenos Aires woke up under a strong sun, but during the day, the weather changed again thanks to a fresh breeze coming from the sea. Carlos looks at the sky and murmurs:
"The wind mitigates the temperature a lot, but it's possible that everything changes again before tomorrow. Last year was a real inferno. We all ended up exhausted. It's midsummer, after all".
In 1977, Reutemann finished third behind Andretti and Pace. Third place tomorrow is not enough for him, he is sure. Now the situation has changed; he is the leader of Ferrari, Lauda is on another side, and Villeneuve still has to mature. At 36, Carlos Reutemann enters the heart of his career. Is it the right age?
"There's no right age, although experience counts. I've been racing for almost fifteen years now; the times of the three victories in the Argentine championship with the Fiat 1500 are far behind. If I think that back then, I was just one of many young people full of hopes...".
Indeed, he has seen his dreams come true. Debut in Formula 1 in 1972 with Brabham (seventh in the Brazilian Grand Prix), then the switch in 1976 to Ferrari after Niki Lauda's accident. So far, he has competed in 85 Grand Prix, winning five, one of which with Ferrari. An interview was conducted a few days before in his house in Santa Fe, before the turmoil in Buenos Aires erupted. He outlined his ideal program to reach the World Champion title.
"We have to reach seventy points; it would be excellent to win two or three races at the beginning, then be able to play on placements. Initial victories have a significant psychological impact. On yourself, but especially on the opponents".
Not only Ferrari but also the athlete Carlos Reutemann has prepared meticulously. He is fit, lean:
"Nowadays, physical training matters a lot. I trained in Santa Fe for an hour and a half every morning under the guidance of a specialist. Jogging, gymnastics, serious work. It's not so much about weight; I don't have problems with that, but for reflexes, for the heart. I feel good, I know I haven't neglected anything".
He is a bit tense; his serious attitude, seemingly detached from the grand circus, contrasts with Hunt's perpetual cheerfulness, a boyish face adorned with unbelievable colorful shirts. Carlos distracts himself talking about football.
"I like it, even though I'm forced to follow it mainly on TV and in the newspapers. I have many friends among Argentine players; I respect Menotti, an excellent coach".
A prediction for the football World Cup?
"Argentina or Italy, I hope".
And for the World Cup starting on Sunday?
"This time, I'm counting on the alliance between Italy and Argentina. It should work".
The Autodrome is packed from an early hour on Sunday, with delirious chanting from the fans for their beloved Carlos Reutemann ringing out across the Parc Almirante Brown until the cars finally come out and line up on the grid with just under half an hour to go before the off. As the green-light signal flashes, Andretti makes a superb start, the Lotus surging away into the first right-hander with Peterson trying to make it a Lotus 1-2 by squeezing inside Reutemann’s Ferrari at the first corner, but just failing to get through. Even as they string out along the back straight, it is clear that a Ferrari 312T2, even on Michelin tires, is no match for an on-form Andretti, and the Lotus already begins to edge away from its pursuers. At the end of the opening lap, it is Andretti, Reutemann, Peterson, Lauda, Watson, Laffite, Hunt, Depailler, Tambay, Scheckter, Villeneuve, Jones, Brambilla, Regazzoni, Jarier, Stuck, Fittipaldi, Mass, Keegan, Merzario, Pironi, Lunger, Leoni, and Ongais who leave on the line at the start of the race. For a couple of laps, Reutemann does his best to keep Andretti in sight, but rather than make any ground on the amazing Lotus, he soon finds his hands full with a stern Brabham-Alfa attack. First, it is Watson who steals the show with an audacious burst pass his World Champion teammate on the third lap, and then begins nibbling away at the Ferrari. By now, the enthusiastic crowds have fallen strangely silent, and an audible groan can be heard from the main grandstands as Watson slips his Brabham inside the Ferrari at the end of the long back straight, midway around lap six. It is a fine performance by the Ulsterman, but that is as far as he is destined to go. All there is in front of him is an empty track, for the remarkable Andretti is long gone, being an incredible seven seconds in the lead even by this early stage in the race. By the end of the seventh lap, the order is Andretti, Watson, Reutemann, Peterson, Lauda, the fast-rising Depailler going really well with the new Tyrrell in its debut race, then Laffite and Hunt. There is a slight gap back to Scheckter, Villeneuve, and Tambay having their own private dice, Brambilla and Regazzoni, Fittipaldi, Mass, Jarier, Jones, Stuck, Pironi, and Merzario. The Italian’s new car is smoking badly and sounding rough prior to breaking its differential before 10 laps are completed. Regazzoni pulls into the pits on lap 10 to change a blistered front tire, while Depailler uses the Tyrrell’s fine brakes to good effect to slice past Peterson, to take fifth place, the Swede having been passed by Lauda. Reutemann is obviously in dire trouble with his tires, with only a dozen laps completed. Depailler is pressing hard and moves through to fourth place on lap 12.
Five laps later, and Reutemann drops another couple of places as Hunt, who finds a way round Peterson, goes past the Ferrari, and the Swede follows him through. Now Reutemann is left facing a challenge from Laffite and the Ligier-Matra. For another ten laps, the wiry little Frenchman tries everything he knows to find a way past the Argentinian’s Ferrari, but to no avail. Even scrapping away for seventh place, Reutemann seems determined to keep his end up in front of his home crowd. But lap 27 almost spells the end of his chances. Increasingly anxious to find a way round the Ferrari, Laffite goes for a gap that momentarily opens as they brake hard for the right-hand hairpin at the end of the back straight. It doesn’t quite work, and the Ligier goes tumbling over the Ferrari’s right rear wheel in the process. Both cars emerge from the corner unscathed, the Ligier now in front, but Reutemann does only one more lap before coming into the pits to change all four tires on lap 28. He resumes with different compound tires. Out in front, Andretti knows nothing of his rival’s tribulations. By lap 30, things are looking good for Mr. Ecclestone’s Parmalat-sponsored Brabham-Alfa Romeo team, for Watson and Lauda are running strongly in second and third places, although the World Champion has to keep a wary eye on his mirrors because Depailler is closing in and spoiling for a fight. Then with 14 laps to go, Lauda suddenly nips past Watson, not due to finding some extra speed, it is Watson’s wretched luck again. The Ulsterman slows right up as his Alfa’s water temperature starts to rise, and on lap 41, while holding fourth place, he finally retires, a leak in the cooling system having drained away the car’s water. It is yet another entry in the long catalogue of disappointments experienced by Watson over the past two years. From that point onwards, the race runs uneventfully, with Andretti coming home a brilliant victor, leading from start to finish and running the race at his own pace. The Lotus 78 was just perfect with no problems of any kind. Lauda cements his new relationship with the Brabham team with a fine second place, albeit at Watson’s expense. Over the last half-dozen laps, Depailler tries everything he can to dislodge the World Champion, but Lauda has everything well under control to keep the upper hand over the tenacious Frenchman right to the end of the race. Nevertheless, Elf Team Tyrrell has every reason to be very pleased with the debut of their new car, especially after such a troubled time in practice.
Fourth place falls to the hard-charging Hunt, while Peterson takes a lucky fifth three laps from the finish when Laffite’s efforts are cruelly rewarded with a blown-up Matra V12 engine. Sixth place thus goes to Patrick Tambay, in his first race for McLaren, having got the better of Villeneuve after their earlier dice. The unhappy Reutemann comes back to seventh place after his unfortunate pit stop, vocally willed on his way by his supporters. Villeneuve is eighth, Fittipaldi ninth, and a totally disappointed Scheckter tenth, ahead of the two ATS machines. Concerned that his Shadow might not have enough fuel for the final lap, Regazzoni stops just before the finishing line and drives across once the chequered flag is out. Unfortunately, the flag is first waved at Peterson, in error for Andretti, but everybody is reading their pit signals and goes on racing for another lap, so the result is not affected. Pironi finishes a Grand Prix at his first attempt, while Lunger, Stuck, and Brambilla are still running at the end, the Shadow down on power and the Surtees with a seized shock absorber which causes a few harmless trips onto the grass. With overwhelming superiority, Mario Andretti triumphed in the Argentine Grand Prix, the first race of the Formula 1 World Championship. The Italo-American driver, with a perfect start, took the lead, and after a few laps, he already had a comfortable advantage, making the rest of the race a monologue until the end. Behind him, Niki Lauda secured second place, showcasing a splendid race with the Brabham-Alfa Romeo, fiercely contested from start to finish. The Anglo-Italian cars were the only serious competitors for Andretti. Watson, for more than half the race, futilely chased the rival, forcing him to maintain a very high pace. Unfortunately, the Northern Irish driver fell victim to a malfunction, a coolant loss from the radiators due to a faulty cap tightening that occurred during the morning free practice. To address the issue, the Brabham mechanics devised two solutions, one for Watson and the other for Lauda. While the modification for Lauda proved successful, Watson faced disappointment. A pleasant surprise came from Tyrrell, as Patrick Depailler secured a brilliant third place. The French driver, initially doubtful about his car's potential after two days of practice, found himself in an excellent position during the race, with a car that performed like clockwork. The race for the Ferrari drivers was eventful. Reutemann, overtaken at the start by Andretti, held the second position for several laps but eventually yielded to the determined Watson. Reutemann, struggling with tires, tried to fend off attacks from Lauda and Peterson, but they both overtook him on lap 15.
He then engaged in a duel with Laffite, who relentlessly pressured him. However, on lap 26, the two collided at the chicane braking point after the Frenchman had just overtaken him. Reutemann's front wheel hit Laffite's rear wheel, forcing the Argentine to return to the pits to check for any damage. During this stop, the Ferrari technicians took the opportunity to replace all four tires with a different type, which ultimately proved to be better. Was it due to the tires that Reutemann couldn't keep up with the faster ones? Ferrari's press officer, Marco Piccinini, denies this but explains that the tires used during the pit stop were significantly better. The Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve, in his first race with the team, finished in eighth place. His race was prudent, with the goal of reaching the end. He struggled with the Frenchman Tambay for many laps, but towards the end, perhaps due to the same tire problems as Reutemann, he had to let the Frenchman pass and was also overtaken by his teammate in a strong comeback. The Italian drivers had bad luck. Vittorio Brambilla was in a good position, but the left rear suspension locked up, forcing him to let opponents pass. Merzario, in his first race with his own-built car, stopped after a few laps with a locked differential. Leoni, whose goal was to finish the race, could not achieve this satisfaction because his engine exploded on lap 28, forcing him to retire. Visibly happy, escorted by heavily armed police officers, Mario Andretti is guided to the honor podium. He stands between Niki Lauda and Patrick Depailler, and everyone calls him the first winner of the season.
"I am very happy because I hope these are the first nine points toward winning the world title. It was a race that was too easy; the car performed wonderfully for all 53 laps of the race, and I had no problems. If it always goes like this, I'd knock everyone out".
Niki Lauda is also satisfied:
"This second place for me has the same meaning as a victory last year with Ferrari. Achieving such a positive result in the first race with this new car is undoubtedly a good omen. When the race settled, I tried to push the pace to try to catch Andretti, but I saw that it was impossible, so I settled for my position".
Certainly not joy, but neither disappointment at the end of the race in the Ferrari camp. Villeneuve's steady performance and Reutemann's comeback are considered signs of good omen for the future, a future that is near: in two weeks, the Brazilian Grand Prix will take place in Rio. Reutemann really had an unlucky day. The Argentine driver gets out of the car visibly upset, with signs of fatigue on his face, not even understanding well what happened at the end. He simply says:
"I saw a checkered flag waving, and I thought the race was over".
This episode needs clarification, and Juan Manuel Fangio, the race director, does it directly.
"A gust of wind inflated the checkered flag. I saw Reutemann slow down; evidently, he considered the race over. A truly unfortunate incident, for which I apologized to the Italian team".
So the race was practically concluded on lap 52 to the satisfaction of all, since everyone had secured their points. Carlos's official seventh place was thus saved. In the Ferrari camp, the pit stop Reutemann made on lap 26 is explained by the press officer, Marco Piccinini:
"Reutemann collided with Laffite at the chicane. He touched with the right front tire, slowed down, and stopped at the pits, as is logical when you have to check the car's alignment to avoid risks. We took advantage of the situation to change the tires, to put on a complete set, slightly different, with characteristics that will be suitable for even higher heat, which we will presumably encounter in Brazil. The fact that Carlos did very well in the end, gaining positions, running around 1'50"0-1'51"0 per lap, comforts us in this respect, as does Villeneuve's steady performance, who was excellent. No tire problems, therefore, a day that we consider overall good, despite not scoring points".
So how is Ferrari doing? Why couldn't they materialize the dominance they had shown during practice in the race? The question is directed to the technical director, Mauro Forghieri:
"Yesterday was our first Grand Prix in collaboration with Michelin, and it is clear that the French company in Formula 1 needs experience. We look at Michelin with great sympathy because it has entered a very challenging field, where Goodyear boasts immense experience, and it has accepted Ferrari as a team that can provide significant technical input. However, our team is scrutinized by everyone, and any failures could play against Michelin's inclusion. For us, the race's balance is quite positive, although we failed to turn the good things obtained in practice into a useful result. We lacked that experience with tires that we will only have in a few Grand Prix. The changed track conditions compared to the practice days made us choose tires that would give us a certain guarantee of durability for the entire race. Unfortunately, with these tires, we didn't know exactly how the car would respond because before that, we had never had the opportunity to test in such environmental conditions".
When Reutemann stopped to check the car after the slight collision with Laffite, you replaced all four tires. Why?
"Just to continue that discussion about the experience we need to gain in collaboration with Michelin. When Reutemann entered the pits, his race was already compromised, and so, in agreement with the French technicians, we replaced his tires with another set of a different construction, which turned out to be better on the racing line, allowing the Argentine to make a good comeback".
How do you judge Villeneuve's race?
"Our second driver performed well, drove wisely, fought for many laps, and was confidently ahead of almost all the other second drivers from rival teams. I think Villeneuve's performance is the most reassuring aspect that we take from the Argentine Grand Prix. For a driver in his third race with Ferrari, what the Canadian managed to do is quite impressive. Overall, we deserved more, but perhaps it's better this way to avoid the risk of feeling complacent after the first outing. The slight disappointment will serve as motivation to work with even greater commitment".
Tires have been the weak point for the Ferrari team at the beginning of this season. Let's hear from Engineer Dupasquler, the technical manager of Michelin, why you didn't immediately put on Reutemann's car the tires that turned out to be better in the end.
"It's simple. It required experience, and we, in terms of Formula 1 experience, are at zero. The results obtained, both in terms of lap times and durability, in practice could not be good for the race because the weather conditions were too different. The initial choice was made based on a certain safety margin for the distance, while for the set mounted after the pit stop, I was afraid that Reutemann wouldn't be able to complete the race without running out of tread if he had used it from the beginning. Brazil will still be a problem because, in addition to the lack of direct experience, there will also be no references from Ferrari as the track is new for everyone".
Except for Andretti, whose Lotus performed well throughout the race, and Depailler's Tyrrell, a pleasant surprise for a debutant car, all others complained about more or less serious problems. Even the Brabham-Alfa Romeos, the only ones attempting to chase the black Lotus of Andretti, missed the good opportunity to place their other car due to a fairly banal failure, one of those that already last year cost Watson results within reach. Watson, for much of the race, was the only serious opponent for Andretti.
"I tried to catch Mario, but there was nothing to be done, I couldn't get closer. The car is difficult to set up, so there's always something wrong".
To be on par with Lotus, what do you lack?
"Definitely a new car".
Lauda, even though he finished second, had to work hard to resist Depailler's attacks. He also finds the Brabham quite difficult, and his second-place finish is also due to the retirement of his teammate Watson, who had overtaken and distanced him in the early stages of the race. Mario Andretti, first in the Carrera that opened the Formula 1 World Championship, is also the first driver to leave Buenos Aires. For many others, the day after the Grand Prix is a day of relaxation: a long afternoon nap by the pool, under the splendid sun, or a trip on the Rio Paraná. Andretti leaves in the night with the large silver cup almost taller than him in hand:
"I have to return to the United States; I have some business to take care of and want to spend some time with my family. See you next Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro".
His performance has raised enthusiasm but also some doubts. Are he and his Lotus very strong, or is it a lack of truly valid opponents? Even the technicians are divided on the subject in the comments the day after. Some say that the old Lotus is currently the best of all, while others argue that if Watson hadn't been stopped by a trivial fault, the Italian-American wouldn't have had such an easy victory. The impression that Andretti didn't have to exert himself is confirmed by Lauda's sotto voce grumbling about his Alfa-Brabham ("If there are no obstacles, in two or three races, I'll have a new car") and the obvious discussions about the tires used by Carlos Reutemann in the first part of the competition. Obviously, Andretti doesn't share this opinion:
"It was my Lotus that performed strongly. It's a proven car that no longer has problems. We are preparing a new one, but I won't let go of this one until I'm absolutely sure of the performance of the other. Never leave the certain for the uncertain. The race never presented any difficulties. After the start, I could let the engine breathe. This was when Niki Lauda became second. I let him get a little closer to control him, and I always maintained a reassuring advantage".
Andretti practically won the race in the first two laps, and he has something to explain about it:
"Between the end of the 1977 World Championship and the race in Argentina, I had only one desire, to show that the belief of many, that Andretti is someone who doesn't know how to start, was just a myth. It's true, in the Japanese Grand Prix, I messed up in this regard, but it's not that I'm not good at starts. And there's another little secret: in practice, I studied the long curve at the end of the straight, we had slightly adjusted the setup so that we could tackle this curve, at least initially, at the maximum speed. I pushed everything in the first two laps, and that was enough for me to break away at the front. After that, obviously, I didn't take any more risks".
Said by him, while he smooths his rebellious curls and opens his face to a broad smile, everything seems to have been really easy. And the tires, a significant problem for every team?
"Well, you always need a bit of luck here. The conditions in practice were not the same as in the race. We had different compounds to choose from, logically. We put on the right ones and off we went. We even mounted three different tires. In this, I must admit that good luck was on our side. Let's hope it lasts in the upcoming Grand Prix".
The impression, however, is that it's not just luck, as the driver says. Tires aren't randomly chosen. Also, credit, naturally. The road to the championship is still very long, but the victory in Buenos Aires allows Andretti to dream at least:
"I have won many races, many important titles in my career, but never a Formula 1 championship. It's a goal that risks becoming an obsession for me. The start was promising; scoring points immediately is important, but now the most challenging part comes. Certainly, I see a very open championship this year. The most dangerous opponents, from Brabham-Alfa to Ferrari, seem to be dealing with various problems. I have the advantage, as I said, of having a super-proven car, and that's not a small advantage. The proof will come soon, in fifteen days in Rio".
After the arrival, while Colin Chapman tossed his hat in triumph, Mario Andretti seemed like a young boy; he didn't even appear tired from the effort and the heat. Now he perhaps begins to feel the weight of responsibility: in Brazil, he will be the man to beat on a new circuit, eagerly awaited by everyone to see and try. The joy of Andretti is contrasted by the disappointed comments of others, although well masked, and above all softened by the belief that there is still room for every revenge. Only the Argentinians, fans and journalists, were disappointed. They wanted Reutemann and Ferrari to be first at the finish line, and furthermore, there's a small shadow on the outcome of the race due to Fangio's mistake, a national glory. The past few days had left some illusions, but the heat arrived promptly with the start of the Argentine Grand Prix. Feeling fatigue only as spectators doesn't even allow us to imagine what the stress must be like for those on the track, for the mechanics themselves, for the technicians under tension from morning to the end of the race. On Scheckter's Wolf and other cars, plastic containers have been installed to allow the drivers to withstand the heat by sucking sugared water through a straw. What happened to poor Pace last year suggested this precaution: the Brazilian driver, who later died in a plane crash, was leading when literally dehydrated, he had to slow down, finishing only third. Today, a breeze from the sea has allegedly lightened the temperature compared to twelve months ago; imagine what it must have been like. Around the drivers, a world of shirtless people, thirsty, the usual group of beautiful girls, perhaps essential to bring some smiles back to the tense atmosphere of the Grand Prix.
But even the Grand Prix on the feminine side has its stresses: real, serious ones, from wives, girlfriends, and friends who are at the pits suffering, to the very particular stress of women chasing you to offer you a sticker or an ice cream. Occasionally, police and military tried to make some space in the narrow space inside the pits. Mechanics forced to work between fences, in the sun, one on top of the other. Close by, by the ironic fate or malicious choice of the Argentine organizers, Ferrari and Brabham, for the frenzied photographers, Cuoghi, the mechanic who followed Niki Lauda in his transfer from one team to another, at a certain point reached out and asked for a bolt. But it wouldn't screw in; it was from Ferrari. Things that happen in the tension before the start. Communicating from one side to the other of the various zones of the circuit is certainly more difficult: fencing, walkways, voyeuristic girls, the gate you could pass with the card ten minutes ago suddenly finds itself blocked. Throughout the day, we had the mirage of the silhouette of a nice restaurant near the track. We saw it very well, twenty meters away from the windows of the shack called the press center, but we couldn't reach it at all. Doors locked, only one exit with little chance of returning. At some point, the increasing heat gives courage. You cross a barrier, head decisively toward a shaded area, a kind of little hill full of trees from which you can still see the circuit. Dazzled by the sun, you don't realize that it's forbidden. A military man emerges from the darkness and blocks your way. He's the one in the shade. Patience.