Halfway between Lecce and Gallipoli, at the extreme tip of Puglia, towards the Ionian coast, lies Nardò. Here, among vineyards and olive groves, stands a complex that has no equal in Europe and perhaps in the world, designed and developed by Fiat for testing and validating cars and industrial vehicles. The centerpiece of the facility is a perfectly circular track with a diameter of four kilometers (33 meters wide) and a length of 20,570 meters, built in two concentric lanes with a parabolic profile. Utilizing centrifugal force, it allows vehicles to reach speeds of up to 240 km/h as if they were always traveling in a straight line, without feeling the continuous curvature of the track. This track and all related services, including a series of instruments for measuring every type of vehicle performance, with the ability to immediately process data thanks to electronic intelligence, are rented to any automotive company or related entity interested in conducting research in the field. In the past, Mercedes set endurance records here; currently, Firestone is conducting tests on industrial-use tires, Renault is testing engines, and BMW is developing large-displacement motorcycles. Therefore, it's normal for residents of this area to see vehicles of all kinds entering and leaving the facility. Since Saturday, March 12, 1977, however, even motorsport enthusiasts have been mobilized. Ferrari has indeed arrived in Nardò, testing on Sunday and continuing tests on Monday for the 312 T, the Formula One car driven by Lauda and Reutemann. The main attraction for everyone is Niki Lauda, who arrived in Brindisi with his personal jet and hit the track for a long series of laps, keeping busy both in the morning and afternoon. It was expected that the now-famous six-wheeled Ferrari, or rather, six-tire Ferrari, would be on the track, but that expectation has been disappointed for the time being. Only on Monday will the new prototype begin its activity. Mauro Forghleri explains the reasons for Ferrari's visit to Nardò:
"We have so little time to work between races that we have to take advantage of every free day. We came here, taking advantage of the great possibilities offered by this track, to try to increase the maximum speed of our car without sacrificing grip or traction. We have tried various solutions, modifying the front spoiler and rear wing several times, changing various inclinations. The Pitot tube has been mounted on the car, a kind of antenna with six sensors that we have applied in different points of the 312-T2 to monitor aerodynamic pressure. These are studies that will not have immediate reflections but will be useful for the future".
The data obtained from today's tests will be compared with those obtained, possibly, with the six-tire car, which, judging by the tire diameter (for now, they can only be seen wrapped in paper with "Parmesan cheese" written on it), will make the car much lower and more aerodynamic. On Saturday, March 12, 1977, Lauda undergoes extensive training, stopping almost every lap. In the fastest lap, with the front wing and spoiler almost perfectly horizontal, the Austrian marks a maximum speed of 296.14 km/h. Sante Ghedini says:
"If we wanted to achieve only speed performances, we could travel on this track at 330-350 km/h. But here, we are mainly interested in experimenting with different solutions".
Lauda is in great shape, in a good mood, and, as always, is committed to working at maximum on the car. Not even the news from English sources about the possibility of disqualification of the Ferrari driver in South Africa for not presenting the car for technical inspections on time can disturb him.
"They're all stories. Two minutes after the end of the race, I was at the inspections, even though the car was surrounded by thousands of spectators. We are here to work, not to hear absurd things. Tomorrow I will test again, and then on Monday, I will go to Frankfurt, where I have to undergo a theoretical examination to obtain a commercial jet pilot's license. I lack some required flight hours, and, therefore, most likely, I will go to the United States for the Long Beach Grand Prix with my plane. I will take the North Atlantic route and, with seven stops, I plan to be in California passing through Glasgow, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and the United States. I like flying, just as I like racing in a car".
In the afternoon, Lauda dedicates part of the tests to trying out a new type of helmet that a friend from Ticino, Franco Cartoni, has developed over two years of work. The helmet is equipped with a breathing mask that should prevent damage from smoke and fire in case of a fire and is connected to the automatic system placed in the car. If the temperature exceeds 70°C inside the cockpit and 120°C in the engine area, it immediately activates the extinguisher and draws, with a special canister, oxygen for three minutes, avoiding the driver from breathing harmful gases. Niki Lauda, eight months after the Nürburgring fire and a week after returning to victory. What has changed in the Austrian champion? Probably nothing. Always the same commitment, the same determination. Only on a human level, in relationships with others, has the driver become a bit softer; perhaps it is the better knowledge of the Italian language that has caused this thaw. But it is not excluded that the need to have friends close, to feel less alone, less observed, has dissolved a reserve that made him a little unpleasant, almost arrogant. In a sense, it can be said that there are two Niki Laudas. The driver, serious, precise, meticulous, unapproachable while working, and the man willing to talk about his problems, life, everything, to laugh and relax. Let's start with the first Lauda, the Formula 1 champion, the leader of Ferrari. In these two days spent in Nardò, during the tests of the 312-T2 with four and six tires, there has been an opportunity to observe him closely. In the evening, Niki goes to bed early.
While everyone else gets a wake-up call from the doorman (mechanics and technicians at 7:00 a.m. to have time to prepare the car), he doesn't want to be disturbed. He wants to take advantage of all the necessary sleep, the kind that allows him to recover energy. A sudden wake-up could compromise the day on a nervous level. This doesn't mean that Lauda sleeps in late. By 8:00 a.m., he is already ready, after a fairly abundant and varied but not too heavy breakfast. Then, off to the track. A few minutes dedicated to conversation, a couple of amusing remarks with Mercedes, a young and cute Spanish reporter, and then to the Ferrari bus for dressing. Lauda appears dressed to perfection in the racing uniform: fire-resistant suit, hood, gloves, and helmet in hand. A few words with Forghieri, the engineer, and the driver gets into the car. From that moment on, the computer comes into action. Lauda leaves the pits, pushes the Ferrari to 300 km/h on the Nardò track, and returns. For three to four consecutive hours, testing is the only concern. Every two or three laps, he stops, checks all the data, noted in a small book, stands still with hands crossed on the wheel while mechanics work around the car, while engineer Forghieri shouts in English his impressions to the driver and tells him what he is studying; what solution he is adopting on the car. Lauda, in turn, explains his impressions, what problems need to be solved. At the end, after driving almost 450 kilometers very close to 300 km/h, Niki changes and reaches the hotel, not without having first faced the assault of journalists who want to know something about the tests.
"Everything is fine; the work is proceeding perfectly".
Before dinner, the other Lauda can be met. He has changed: a pair of corduroy jeans, a red sweater, a casual-style sports shirt. And the ever-present cap (which he also wears at the table), representing the only modesty, so to speak, of the man towards people, to hide a part of the face marred by fire. On the forehead, cheeks, around the ears, terrible signs of burns are visible, and from time to time, Lauda passes his hand over these scars as if he wants to check if everything is as before. It must hurt, not only psychologically. The skin pulls, it's delicate. Sometimes he massages a wrist, also marked by flames. Another might be hiding, waiting for transplants, treatments to try to return as before. He, however, looks straight in the eyes but doesn't seek pity, he just doesn't want to be observed like a phenomenon. His meal is quite frugal, at most, he allows himself half a glass of wine. The conversation ranges with continuous references to racing. Niki recalls some recent episodes, adventures in Argentina when he risked staying still for a couple of weeks because he didn't have the required visa on his passport, and Ghedini had to work miracles to get him out of trouble. Niki laughs, gestures, switches from English to Italian, to German with extreme ease. When the news arrives that Reutemann will be late in arriving in Maranello because he too is stuck in Buenos Aires for bureaucratic reasons, he doesn't let the opportunity pass:
"I'm always under pressure here. Now I'll say they stopped me at the Austrian border, and I won't go to Fiorano to train".
Then they talk about entertainment, amusements. Lauda doesn't need to be asked; his passion for flying comes out.
"Tomorrow I'm going to Frankfurt to take the theoretical exams to become a jet commander. Most likely, I'll move to Long Beach for the race next week with my jet. I've already studied the route. With seven stops and twenty hours of flight, I should manage. It's going to be quite an adventure. I'll have a lot of fun".
Someone asks him if he's not taking too many risks, and he responds:
"No way, I'm not even looking for risks. I race because I love it, because it's the profession I've chosen. But I don't drive to take risks. Everything is calculated. And even in the airplane, I don't do crazy things. It's just emotions. You feel free in the air, and I am happy".
On Sunday, March 13, 1977, the Ferrari with six tires, driven by Niki Lauda, surpasses 300 km/h on the magical track of Fiat in Nardò. The exceptional speed is achieved after tests conducted this morning with perfectly dry asphalt and a fair wind, after the Austrian pilot completed over twenty laps trying different aerodynamic solutions for the car. To exceed the 300 km/h limit, engineer Mauro Forghieri had the front spoiler and the rear wing adjusted almost parallel to the ground to minimize air resistance. The feat fills the Ferrari team with satisfaction, confirming their direction with these experiments. However, Forghieri mentions that the six-tire car is still in an experimental phase, and much work needs to be done before racing it, assuming a final decision is made. Lauda confirms the engineer's words before boarding his personal jet, which he pilots to Salzburg via Bologna:
"The car is perfect in a straight line. However, we don't know how it behaves in curves. We still need to conduct extensive tests before reaching such a solution. Now we have to prepare for the Long Beach race in two weeks. From Thursday, along with Reutemann, I will train on the Fiorano track to fine-tune the single-seaters".
The driver does not lose sight of the two main objectives: contributing to Ferrari's technical progress and focusing on the World Championship, where he currently stands second alongside Reutemann, behind Scheckter.
"The race for the title is still long and open to any solution. Anyway, I feel perfectly fine, and the car has become competitive again, as demonstrated at Interlagos and Kyalami. The important thing is to always be technologically updated, at the forefront of meaningful progress".
The six-tire 312-T2 looks impressive. Compared to the traditional version, the car is significantly lower in its maximum height, reduced by about ten centimeters, while the ground clearance remains the same to avoid touching the asphalt. To achieve this setup, the entire rear suspension assembly with shorter suspension arms had to be reworked. Each of the two rear tires is mounted on a special rim with two parallel and perfectly identical seats. Currently, the major issues concern the production of the tires. For now, Ferrari has installed on the rear what is usually used on the front, coupling them. The compound used for these tires is more suitable for braking than for traction and stability. Therefore, collaboration between Ferrari and tire manufacturers will be necessary. Tires, their construction, and composition have already assumed crucial importance in motor racing, to the point that some say Formula 1 cars are wheels traveling with a machine and a driver on top.
Without going to this paradox, it must be acknowledged that in a six-tire car, the importance of this accessory will increase even more. Forghieri even goes so far as to say that to race with six tires, it will be necessary to change almost the entire 312-T2. The bodywork may need revision to be lower and lighter (in one of the tests, a rear piece was cut by technicians), transmission components, suspensions, and many other details will need to be reconsidered. It is not excluded that the track width may also need to be changed, reduced. This would result in a more compact, narrower single-seater with undeniable aerodynamic and grip advantages. However, everything is still in the hands of the designers, while Lauda's task will be to test every solution and transform hypotheses into reality with his judgments and the results obtained in practice. A week later, exactly on Saturday, March 19, 1977, Enzo Ferrari decides to step down from the presidency of SEFAC Ferrari, a company of which he holds an equal share with Fiat. The decision is communicated through a letter sent to Fiat and Lancia members of the board of directors (Giovanni Sguazzini, CEO, Nicola Tufarelli, Sergio Pininfarina, and Luca Montezemolo).
"Dear friends and colleagues, I want to inform you that with the extraordinary assembly on March 5, I consider my term as president of the company completed, and I ask you to take the necessary steps. The professional illness that recurred in January, which kept me absent for almost a month, and my turning 80 on February 20, suggest a due resignation. Those who gave life to Ferrari and want its continuity, development, and affirmation feel this duty today. I will remain an adviser; every day I have left, you will see me in Maranello available to anyone I can be useful to. It is undeniable that the new, now defined programs, require an effort that I cannot continue as in the past, and it is for these reasons that I ask you to accept my resignation as president. Thanks from the heart to all. Enzo Ferrari".
The text of the letter is made public by Ferrari following rumors that had sparked a flurry of hypotheses and more or less fanciful interpretations. The reality is very simple and anchored to the inexorable laws of age and the resulting ailments. As he points out, Enzo Ferrari is almost 80 years old (born in Modena on February 20, 1898; his father had a metal carpentry workshop) and has recently recovered from a severe form of pneumonia that troubled him in the past. The factory, born with a courageous gesture in the dark years of World War II, is in a phase of relaunch despite the challenging moment for the automobile. Last year, Ferrari's turnover was 24.000.000.000 lire, and the goal is to increase it to 34.000.000.000 lire. In 1976, the production was 1430 cars (all refined class GT cars), with the sale of 1650, including the remaining cars in the warehouses. It has been decided to increase the quantity of units destined for foreign markets and decrease it for Italy (from 44% to 30%). Investments of 2.000.000.000 lire are planned for the automotive sector and 4.000.000.000 lire for the construction of cabins for tractors, a new activity for the company's 1200 employees. These are challenging programs that Ferrari could not and would not, by remaining in the presidency, evade. Programs that, in the end, would have limited the time to be devoted to that other activity that has always been the reason for being and living for the Modena constructor: racing. It should be clarified that Enzo Ferrari does not leave his Scuderia at all, whose management - by a tacit agreement with Fiat, which entered Ferrari in 1969 - has always remained in his hands. Ferrari will continue to use his experience and youthful enthusiasm for Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann, Formula 1 single-seaters, and Grand Prix races, with all the problems and terrible joys that arise day by day. Whether he does it as president or as an adviser perhaps matters little to the thousand fans of the Maranello team. Ferrari's decision has matured in recent months. However, on March 5, 1977, it was not communicated to the board of directors, which met to ratify the merger of Carrozzeria Scaglietti with Ferrari. It was communicated later; the letter is very recent, and for the same counselors, it was a surprise. There is no evidence that messages have been exchanged between the young man from 1898 and the Turin partners in recent days. On another note, on Wednesday, March 23, 1977, it is announced that the German Formula 1 Grand Prix will not take place on the famous Nurburgring circuit, where Niki Lauda nearly lost his life last year. The track has been rejected for its danger. The verdict is pronounced precisely by Niki Lauda and Brabham-Alfa driver John Watson. The two, after a survey on behalf of the Drivers' Association, declare that the track is too dangerous.
"We won't race here".
Lauda says firmly after examining the twenty-two kilometers of the track with Watson for about two hours. Lauda specifies that the Nurburgring does not meet all the safety requirements demanded by the drivers. For its part, the German Automobile Club (AvD) - which sponsors the German Grand Prix - accepts Lauda and his companions' decision, deciding to move the race to Hockenheim, as already happened in 1970.
"At least for this year, the Nürburgring is out of the Formula 1 races. The circuit will only host Formula 2 and 3 races, as well as those reserved for sports cars".
The Hockenheim solution doesn't appeal much to the organizers. While the Nürburgring, given the track's length, can comfortably accommodate over 500.000 spectators, the Hockenheim circuit can barely handle 100.000, with obvious repercussions on revenue. In recent years, the organizers have spent, on multiple occasions, over 2.5 million dollars to make the Nürburgring track safer by cutting down trees, erecting safety barriers, protective nets, and widening and straightening the most dangerous curves. Nevertheless, the fact remains that drivers face 173 curves in about seven minutes at an average speed of 200 km/h. Instead, for the fourth act of the World Championship, the Formula 1 circus flies overseas again. The destination is Long Beach, California, a coastal city with 400.000 inhabitants, south of Los Angeles, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It's a challenging trip that tests the physical endurance of drivers, mechanics, and all involved because the nine-hour time difference between Europe and California doesn't easily adjust in a few days. Consequently, one finds oneself wide awake when it's deep into the night and vice versa, falling asleep at 4:00 p.m. In Long Beach, preparations are underway for the second edition of the United States Grand Prix West, desired by a group of enthusiasts, including former driver Dan Gurney, to introduce the most famous drivers and cars in the world to the California audience. They believed that the Grand Prix held annually at Watkins Glen was insufficient for such a vast country. Despite having other facilities in California, such as Riverside and Ontario, the organizing group decided to hold this second American Grand Prix on a Monaco-style, i.e., city, circuit. For this reason, some of Long Beach's wide streets have been transformed into a circuit in recent days. Like last year, the race track was obtained by adopting the same interesting solutions as the previous edition. Instead of traditional guardrails, the track was outlined by placing trapezoidal-shaped concrete blocks, each 3.70 meters long, 55 centimeters wide, 87 centimeters high, and weighing 3500 kilograms, with large cranes.
These blocks, connected to each other by hooks, form a continuous wall on which, in the event of a collision, the car slides away and does not risk getting wedged, as can dangerously happen with metal barriers. To cover the track, which has a length of 3251 meters, 1800 of these blocks were needed. A metal net, 2.30 meters high, supported by steel tubes and longitudinally traversed by three cables fixed to buttresses, was laid over them. Inside the curves, where it is unlikely that the car will crash, rigid guardrails fixed to large oil drums (about 1600) joined together and filled with sand were used to weigh them down. Another effective measure from last year was to place barriers made of old tires (about 25,000) tied together and stacked up to a meter high on the outside of the curves, leaving space. In the most challenging curves, two to four rows of these tires were set up. Moreover, at points where the most dangerous decelerations occur, blind escape routes were created, requiring a U-turn to return to the race track. This maneuver is not always easy and quick with single-seaters. Meanwhile, in the large arena, a huge sports complex serving as pits, mechanics are finishing the assembly of the single-seaters. Everything is ready in Long Beach, nicknamed Bidon Beach due to the oil drums placed on the track, to give life to this fourth round of the World Championship. Unfortunately, Carlos Pace, the 32-year-old Brazilian ace of Brabham-Alfa Romeo, will not participate in this race. He fell victim to an airplane accident on Friday, March 18, 1977. With him, the pilot of the aircraft and another passenger also perished. The tragedy, reminiscent of the one in which Graham Hill and Tony Brise, along with some Embassy team mechanics, perished in 1975, occurred near São Paulo. According to some sources, the single-engine Cessna on which Pace was traveling exploded in flight as it headed towards a farm 1000 km southwest of São Paulo. The plane crashed near Mariporan.
Pace's body was found about fifty meters from the wreckage. It was mutilated and unrecognizable, to the extent that identification could only be made through fingerprint verification. On Friday, April 1, 1977, Italo-American Mario Andretti, driving for Lotus, was the fastest in the first day of official practice for the United States Grand Prix West. The practice began with over two hours and thirty minutes of delay because the track setup was not yet complete, due to a sudden strike by assembly teams overnight for economic demands. Andretti immediately shows comfort on this challenging track, and even though his car is one of the longest, he manages to navigate it through the trickiest sections with his usual skill.
"We've solved the problems that plagued us in the first three Grand Prix, problems caused by the low-compression engines supplied by Cosworth. Now, with the engines in order, the car performs better and handles well even in tight curves".
The second-best performance of the day comes from Jacques Laffite. The Ligier driver shows the determination of his best days and, in the last session, manages to get within 0.23s of Andretti.
"With the old-type engine, the car works well and doesn't have any major flaws. After adjusting the shock absorbers, I immediately set a very fast time. This makes me hopeful for the race".
John Watson's performance with the Martini Brabham Alfa Romeo is also excellent, marking the third fastest time of the day.
"The engine wasn't the best because it was the one used by Pace in South Africa, so it was worn out. Still, I'm happy with this performance because with the fresh engine they'll install tonight, I should gain more precious tenths tomorrow".
Hans Stuck, the new driver for the Anglo-Italian team replacing the unfortunate Carlos Pace, is euphoric. The German driver, despite never having driven cars with twelve-cylinder engines, immediately proves comfortable with the new car, and the fourteenth best time is more than satisfactory considering he had less practice than others. In the first session, he was stranded along the track without fuel, and in the second, he had to stop at the pits for over half an hour to replace an oil tube. It's also a positive day for Ferrari, which marks the fourth and sixth times, respectively, with Reutemann and Lauda. The Maranello team drivers have driven extensively without problems, except for a torsion bar break reported by Lauda in the first session, searching for the right gear ratios and the best setup. The Argentine driver says:
"It's a tricky circuit, where it's difficult to set a lap time. Instead, you have to find the right rhythm and drive consistently. The race will be tough because eighty laps here are a lot. To achieve a positive result, you'll need to wisely manage efforts and save the car a bit, which is particularly stressed on this track".
Niki Lauda is also satisfied with the achieved time, which puts him close to the very top.
"The road surface is very undulating, and my 312-T2 tends to dance. There are no other problems, and I am confident of improving tomorrow, although my goal is to achieve a useful result on Sunday".
Among Ferrari drivers, the World Champion, James Hunt, inserts himself with a good lap in the last minutes. Jody Scheckter's performance with the Wolf is also valid: the South African has achieved the seventh overall time after recording the best performance in the first session. Also noteworthy is Brambilla (eighth time), who is driving for the first time with the six-speed gearbox.
"I have to get used to this new modification a bit, and tomorrow I will even try the old type, five-speed, to see if it's possible to gain something more. My Surtees is good and behaves excellently on this track, which is not the best. Anyway, in the race, I think I can finish in the top six and gain some points".
The other Italian, Renzo Zorzi (eighteenth time), also has no problems, as he drives a lot to learn the trajectories since it is his first time racing on this circuit. The return of Frenchman Jean Pierre Jarier to Formula 1 is also positive, driving the renewed Penske. The French driver marks the eleventh best time. On Saturday, March 2, 1977, the two Ferrari drivers improve their performances in the last hour of training valid for the starting lineup compared to Friday. Lauda achieves the pole position with an exciting exploit, and Reutemann records a time of 1'22"260, managing to maintain the fourth position despite the attacks from Laffite and Watson. Lauda, confirming to be in great shape, has an impressive progression: the Austrian driver starts with a time of 1'21"96, then pushes to 1'21"630, setting the new unofficial record for the Long Beach track.
"I must admit that obtaining this pole position was very challenging. I had to drive beyond my limits, something that would be better avoided".
Needless to say, Lauda's performance and his 312-T2 are greeted with joy in the Maranello team's pit. Roberto Nosetto explains:
"On Friday, Niki didn't have the right gears for this circuit, especially the fifth gear, so the engine couldn't reach the right number of revolutions. And the engine itself wasn't the most brilliant".
Niki Lauda adds:
"Securing the pole position in Long Beach is as important as in Monaco. The track is full of curves, and one opens immediately after the starting straight. Overtaking is difficult, so starting at the front and making a good initial sprint is crucial here. You saw how it went last year. Regazzoni managed to take the lead and could complete a race without problems".
A small controversy erupts between Lauda and Regazzoni from a distance. In recent days, the Swiss driver had criticized the former teammate's decision regarding the exclusion of the Nürburgring circuit from the calendar, and Niki Lauda coldly reveals:
"Clay talks a lot, but when we have safety meetings, he's nowhere to be found and finds every excuse not to intervene. Too easy to protest afterward".
The outcome of the trials supports the Austrian regarding Ferrari's most dangerous opponents. Andretti will start alongside him, and Scheckter from the second row. Lotus has made significant progress in these last races, and only various issues have prevented the Italian-American's car from turning its high-performance into positive results. The reigning World Champion, James Hunt, remained in the shadows during the United States Grand Prix West practice sessions, marking only the eighth time with McLaren. Some say the Englishman lacks the determination and willpower of last year and that he gets distracted in too many ways. Others argue that the blame lies with the car, now outdated. In any case, a few hours before the race, the predictions are for an interesting and spectacular Grand Prix. The selection should be strict: curves, counter-curves, jumps challenge engines, suspensions, gearboxes, and brakes. And, of course, the drivers.
Sunday’s race promises to be a really first-class contest although there are those who recall the opening stages of the first Formula One race to be held at Long Beach with a degree of apprehension. The short sprint down from the start line leads into a very tight and tricky right-hand corner which immediately drops away downhill and then into another tight no-degree left-hander. Last year it was Reutemann (Brabham BT45) and Brambilla (March 760) who failed to make it round the first corner; who will it be this year? Quite clearly, Jody Scheckter reasons, the way to make sure you’re not involved in a first corner accident is to be the first man round that corner. When the starter’s signal is given the black and gold Wolf is away, rocketing up the inside of Lauda’s Ferrari with its right rear wheel almost grazing the pit wall as he does so. But to the amazement of everybody watching at that first corner, Reutemann tries to follow the South African through and leaves his braking impossibly late as he attempts to slip in behind Scheckter. Lauda immediately lifts off when he sees what was going to happen, as does Andretti. Reutemann’s Ferrari, its front wheels locked hard on, slides up the inside of his team-mate and straight across the corner, down the escape route. Lauda and Andretti nip round behind the Argentinian’s car and, as Laffite follows them round to take fourth place, chaos erupts as Hunt’s McLaren suddenly becomes airborne over the right front wheel of John Watson’s Brabham BT45B. The World Champion’s car crashes back onto the ground and shudders to a halt alongside Reutemann in the escape road while Peterson also joins them as he hasn’t got much in the way of option, being where he is on the left-hand side of the grid. Watson just gets round, but instantly another kerfuffle is breaking out as Brambilla gets the left front wheel of his Surtees hooked inside the right rear wheel of Mass’ McLaren. The Surtees rears up into the air, fracturing its water radiators and showering hot coolant everywhere, before slamming to a standstill as Mass goes on his way. A foolish track official subsequently tries to move the damaged Surtees only to have it run away across the track and hit the guard rail halfway down the hill. Both Reutemann and Hunt resume the race at the back of the field, the Argentinian only lasting until mid-way round the fifth lap when he collides with Lunger’s March, which he is trying to pass, and promptly trails round to retire with suspension damage. Lunger is obliged to abandon his car out on the circuit with a broken upright.
Andretti slips past Lauda before the field completes the opening lap, but it is Scheckter’s Wolf that bursts into view past the pits in the lead with the Lotus and Ferrari hard in pursuit. They have already opened a slight lead over Laffite’s blaring Ligier, Watson, Fittipaldi, Jarier, Jones, Depailler, Nilsson, Regazzoni, Binder, Heston, Stuck, Zorzi, Lunges, Ribiero and Peterson. Right at the back are the two works McLarens after their first corner mix-ups plus Reutemann in the Ferrari. By lap three Watson has found a way round Laffite’s Ligier, the Brabham-Alfa pulling away slightly from the French car despite the impact with Hunt’s McLaren sparking off what is to result in a slow puncture and, in the meantime, an aggravating degree of understeer. For a couple more laps it seems as though Watson might actually makes some ground on the leaders, but their advantage soon stabilises and then gradually grows. This is motor racing with no let-up. Scheckter is driving extremely confidently, hurling his Wolf round with a dash of opposite lock that lets his two immediate pursuers know full-well that he isn’t to be trifled with on this particular day. Andretti watches, cool and confident, from a few yards behind, while Lauda simply hangs on grimly, having flat-spotted one of his Ferrari’s front tyres under harsh braking in the opening stages of the race. Watson holds onto his fourth place until lap 15 when he finally concedes to Laffite and pulls into the pits in order that the deflated front tyre be changed. He resumes back in 15th place and begins pulling back through the field until his gearbox refuses to engage first and second gears. Then he drops away again, finally retiring from the race after he stops in front of the pits with a dead engine and mechanics who have gone to coax the car back into life are rightly deemed to be outside assistance, so Watson is black-flagged. Aside from the high-speed deadlock that seems to have set in at the front of the field, where none of the leading trio was gaining or giving anything significant, there is plenty of activity further down the overall order. Behind the plucky Laffite, Depailler is hanging onto fifth place with his twitchy Tyrrell, anxious not to let Fittipaldi get too close with his Copersucar, while the Brazilian has Jones close behind in the Shadow and then a good scrap between Nilsson and Jarier. Peterson was forced into the pits to change a flat-spotted front tyre on his Tyrrell P34, and while his subsequent progress is certainly spectacular to watch it doesn’t exactly get him anywhere.
He gets back as far as 12th place behind Stuck where he stays until a disconnected fuel line stops him out on the circuit near the end of the race. At around the half-distance point Scheckter gets a couple of lucky breaks whilst lapping slower cars but Andretti and Lauda are not giving up under any circumstances and within a couple of laps they are back on Wolf’s tail again. Jones retires his Shadow from sixth place on lap 4, the gearbox having broken in just the same fashion as his team-mate Renzo Zorzi’s some 13 laps earlier. In addition, Mass stops his McLaren after he has completed 39 laps in order to investigate a disturbing vibration from somewhere in the transmission. It was by no means clear whether the problem had been bought about by Mass first corner collision with Brambilla, but the decision is taken to retire the car all the same. While all this is going on, Stuck is having a terrible time in the second Brabham BT45B, several trips up the escape road at the end of the start/finish straight testifying to the problem he is still having with the brakes on BT45B/1. With 53 laps completed he finally calls it a day and retires from the race, the problems apparently too difficult to solve in the pits. As the laps go by it is increasingly clear that only a mechanical failure or an unexpected driving lapse will rob Scheckter of victory; and the latter isn’t very likely because he has dealt with both Andretti and Lauda from the word go and shows every indication of maintaining the pace. But with slightly less than 20 laps still to go, Scheckter alone is becoming increasingly aware of a major problem. Slowly at first, but quite perceptibly he feels the Wolf getting less and less stable under very heavy braking. To his disbelief, he realises that the right front tyre is slowly deflating. Gradually the problem gets worse, but he simply grits his teeth and presses on as hard as ever, hoping that the offending rubber will survive the 80 laps out. Sadly, there is no way it will. To the accompaniment of shrieks from the enormously partisan crowd, Andretti presses harder and harder before finally slipping inside the Wolf at the end of the long back straight mid-way round his 77th lap. Scheckter tries everything he knows to fend him off, but there is no denying the determined American driver. At this point Scheckter’s resistance collapses as the Wolf’s front tyre deflates even more; there is no fending off Lauda and the Ferrari quickly goes through to challenge Andretti for the lead. But with the crowd willing him on Andretti isn’t about to let a Ferrari stand between him and victory as the first American ever to win a World Championship qualifying race on his home soil.
Although Binder and Henton hold up the leading Lotus on the last lap, Andretti remains well in control of the situation to come home a confident and popular winner by less than a second from the hard-trying Lauda. Scheckter creep home a dejected and disappointed third while Depailler receives an added bonus with four laps to go, inheriting fourth place after a complete electrical failure stops the Ligier Matra out on the circuit. Fittipaldi finishes a satisfied fifth ahead of an equally happy Jarier who’s proven that perhaps the Shadow DN5 isn’t all that it was cracked up to be last year after all. James Hunt drives unobtrusively and steadily after that first lap incident, coping well with bent front suspension, to finish seventh in his McLaren while Nilsson was handicapped by a slow puncture in the closing stages of the race. The Formula 1 in the United States is not very popular, but after this West Grand Prix on the picturesque city circuit of Long Beach, Americans will probably change their minds. The race was thrilling and ended with the victory of a local hero, the Italian-American Mario Andretti, who has had a U.S. passport for many years and chose to leave the lucrative U.S. races for the world of Grand Prix. Andretti, driving for Lotus, narrowly surpassed Jody Scheckter. The South African had led the competition for 77 laps but had to give way to the Italo-American and Niki Lauda in the final laps as the right front tire of his Wolf was gradually deflating. A bitter disappointment for Scheckter and the Wolf team, a dramatic turn of events that concluded a Grand Prix full of suspense. Scheckter, Andretti, and Lauda had taken the lead from the start, giving the race a relentless pace. The trio had pulled away from the rest of the pack, engaging in a cat-and-mouse game of overtaking lapped cars, sometimes closing in on each other, sometimes pulling away. In any case, Jody's Wolf seemed faster on the long straight along the Long Beach lagoon, while Mario's Lotus and Niki's Ferrari were quicker in the mixed section of the circuit. The three drivers had a private race, also aided by the chaotic start of the Grand Prix. Many competitors collided more or less lightly in the first two hundred meters of the race during the starting melee. Vittorio Brambilla wrecked his Surtees against a guardrail, Hunt collided with McLaren (after being rear-ended) with Reutemann's Ferrari and Watson's Brabham-Alfa. As a result, all of them retired after a few laps due to damage suffered in the collision.
While Andretti celebrated a home victory, the best move came from Lauda, who, with a second-place finish, joined Scheckter at the top of the Formula 1 championship standings after four races. Niki and the South African had 19 points against 13 for Reutemann and 11 for the Italo-American. A satisfying outcome for the Austrian, whom some had prematurely written off after the dramatic incident at the Nürburgring and the retirement at Fuji in the Japanese Grand Prix. Although pleased to be back at the top of the World Championship, Lauda protested against Andretti for overtaking Scheckter under yellow flag conditions (in these cases, drivers are supposed to maintain their positions). Mario Andretti's victory left a bitter taste for the Ferrari team. Engineer Nosetto said:
"For us, it was not a completely positive race, as, without taking anything away from Andretti and Scheckter, who had a great race, we could have collected more, especially after Saturday's qualifying where we showed we could aspire to success. Unfortunately, Reutemann made a mistake right at the first turn and had to retire. Niki, on the other hand, had a bad start and found himself in third position with two opponents determined not to give anything away. Then, in the final stages of the race, Niki tried to overtake Andretti, but his momentum was stopped by the yellow flags waved by the marshals".
The incident occurred on the last lap when, at the braking point at the end of the long straight, Lauda was playing his last card against Andretti. The race marshals had displayed yellow flags to signal the danger posed by Laffite's car stopped on the edge of the track beyond the turn. Andretti and Lauda, following in the wake of Henton's car, which they had already lapped, approached rapidly. While Lauda momentarily slowed down because he saw the yellow flags, Andretti decisively passed the English driver and was immediately followed by the Ferrari driver.
"When Niki returned to the pits, he explained the situation, saying that he had waited, to overtake Henton, until he had passed the danger zone. So, we went to the race stewards with the intention of filing a complaint. The stewards confirmed that Andretti had overtaken Henton under yellow flags, and the same had been done by Lauda. Therefore, in the case of a complaint, they would have disqualified both drivers. With these premises, we decided to withdraw the complaint because the victory would have gone to Scheckter, who would have gained another nine points in the World Championship standings. Unfortunately, we were unable to view the television footage, and therefore, we could not prove what our driver claimed".
Lauda, quite tense, commented on the final result, saying:
"Second place is better than nothing. At the start, I didn't see the traffic light well and had a poor start. Then, I had to struggle a lot to keep the car because, on the fourth lap, in a braking maneuver with Andretti, I braked violently, and the tires were damaged. From that moment, my Ferrari started to vibrate so much that I feared I would have to stop, but fortunately, I made it to the end".
When asked about the incident on the last lap, Mario Andretti responded:
"I didn't see any yellow flags. Anyway, this victory makes me happy because it comes at a special moment in my life and is very important for my career, as now Formula 1 is the program I care about the most. With this success of mine, I think I can fit very well into the title fight. The European races will be decisive".
Jody Scheckter, the other major protagonist of the race, returned to the pit shaking his head. After getting out of the car, the South African looked at the deflated right front tire and, after kicking it, said:
"This was not supposed to happen. They certainly wouldn't have overtaken me".
Carlos Reutemann was also disappointed:
"I messed up everything; I overshot the first braking point and had to go straight. So, I restarted, but I touched Ribeiro and damaged the front suspension. It was a real shame because I was counting on achieving a positive result".
Like last year, Vittorio Brambilla was involved in the first-turn incident and had to retire.
"For me, Long Beach is a cursed circuit. I started cautiously because I didn't want to risk compromising the race immediately, and when I saw the accident, I slowed down to leave some space in front of me. However, Regazzoni slipped into that space, and even though I braked again, I couldn't avoid hitting him".
But what damage had his car suffered?
"Minor, as I had only broken a piece of the nose and the water radiator. So, I stopped after the turn, putting the car out of the trajectory, but, incredibly, a marshal took out the gear, and the Surtees slid down the descent, smashing against the wall. It couldn't have gone worse than that".
On the other hand, Patrick Depailler is happy:
"It's a placement I didn't expect, especially after the practices in which the Tyrrell had several problems. In the race, however, everything went well, and I could have a regular race".
The Long Beach Grand Prix is demanding with all the twists and turns of the circuit, the ups and downs, bumps, and curbs: only drivers in brilliant conditions can finish at full pace, like Niki Lauda and the Andretti-Scheckter duo in races of this kind. The reigning World Champion, James Hunt, seems to be in crisis. The Englishman, who also appears a bit unlucky, did not score points at Long Beach. His gap from the leaders of the championship is growing. While the season is still long and many things can happen, James must once again play the role of the pursuer. The Martini Brabham-Alfa Romeo remains at zero points, as has happened many times before. At the beginning of the season, the Anglo-Italian cars seemed close to sensational victories, but for one reason or another, they did not keep their promises. There are already rumors in the Formula 1 circus that the marriage between Bernie Ecclestone's team and the Milanese company is about to end. The divorce would be imminent: next year, Alfa would pass its engines to other teams, or even better, build a car of its own. The championship is now on hiatus for a month. Hostilities will resume on Sunday, May 8, 1977, with the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama (Madrid). Ferrari is still at the top with the resurgent Lauda, but the pairs of Andretti-Lotus and Scheckter-Wolf promise a vigorous challenge.