Coming from Fiorano, where he fine-tuned the Ferrari 312-T3 that he will race on Sunday, May 21, 1978, at Zolder in the Belgian Grand Prix, Carlos Reutemann speeds into Lombardy. The reason for the rapid visit is an interesting debate on the relationship between sports and industry with the theme: The issue of sponsorship. Why interesting? The answer is simple: behind the term sponsor, a fashionable word for many years, hide the financial supporters of sports, not only in motorsports. Almost all sports and even para-sports live off sponsors. Mentioning the name of a company or acronyms that may seem useless and boring to the reader is the right exchange for those who invest capital, time, and effort to gain publicity. After all, not all evils come to harm. The contribution of these new forces that day by day enter the world of sports is significant. Without them, perhaps, nothing at a high competitive level could be achieved, not even a game of bowls. The proof comes - for example - from Inim, a major international real estate company that has sponsored Reutemann. Thanks to the new passion of its leaders, the president, Engineer Alamia, the CEO, Dr. Baristi, and the director, Dr. Rapisarda, Inim, in addition to advertising worldwide, has also introduced different, new discussions. Like the presentation by Dr. Giampaolo Fiobris, president of Demoskopea, explaining how the message of traditional advertising has deteriorated in recent years in favor of more modern forms such as sponsorship. This means that soon other names, other capital, will enter the world of sports. Or like the intervention of a psychologist, Professor Miotto, lecturer at the University of Milan, who provides a valid image of the relationship between a character like Reutemann, who is, after all, an anti-diva, and the general public. What does the Argentine have to appeal to people?
"Carlos Reutemann is a well-organized personality that instills confidence, a role model who battles at the risk of 300 km/h but creates images and situations of calm and tranquility".
Who would have thought? It is obvious, however, that Reutemann's presence ends up diverting the conversation to perhaps less profound but more relevant topics in the world of Formula 1. The good opportunity to take stock of the situation on the eve of the sixth race of the World Championship. Carlos Reutemann says:
"The car is perfectly tuned. We had some work problems due to labor disputes, but everything has been resolved quite well. Now we just have to wait for the qualifying test. We already tested last week at Zolder, setting a time (1'22"7) that sparked some controversy and perplexity from our rivals. Some claim that the timing was not precise. But I can assure you that we made no mistakes.
About the Zolder track, the Argentine expresses this impression:
"The surface has been completely covered with a half-centimeter layer of a strange mixture of asphalt and sand. When cold, it has exceptional grip. But in the race, I'm afraid that this kind of sandpaper will wear out the tires a lot. Moreover, after a few laps, the sand comes off, and there is a risk of sudden exits from the track, as happened in the tests of the past few days. I foresee spectacular events in the race".
Regarding the World Championship, the Ferrari driver has no doubts.
"It will be a tough fight. Personally, I think we'll have to win at least six races to reach the title or achieve a series of impressive placements, as Depailler has already done, whom I consider one of my most dangerous rivals".
As for the past, Carlos briefly comments on the recent Monaco Grand Prix.
"I admit to having had a slow start because I skidded the tires. But now I feel accused from all sides. Watson says I didn't let him pass when I returned to the track in front of him. Lauda claims not to have recognized who had hit him. Well, it's time to end it: if there's anyone playing dirty, it's them. Niki slipped into me by starting early, and the same thing did Depailler, who in a moment went from sixth to second place. Every time a race starts, incredible things happen. The fact is that there should be more controls at the start. Perhaps wires with sensors should be installed on the asphalt to signal who jumps the start. And whoever gets caught should be disqualified".
A Reutemann, all in all, calm as his advertising image wants. The South American does not suffer from the defeat in Monaco. He still shows confidence and is convinced of his abilities. He trusts the car and the technicians at Ferrari. He continues to speak well of the Michelin tires and claims that they perform excellently even in wet conditions, as he had the opportunity to confirm at Zolder. Carlos doesn't say it explicitly, but it seems clear that he is gearing up for a great race in Belgium to show everyone that there are no problems for him. After two races on city circuits (Long Beach and Monte Carlo), the Formula 1 World Championship returns to its natural setting, that is, on a real track, in this case, Zolder, a town located along the highway that connects Liege to Antwerp, in the Flemish region of Belgium, surrounded by hills, forests, and canals. The Autodrome, born in 1973, in competition with that of Nivelles, on the outskirts of Brussels, has ended up permanently hosting the biggest national race. In 1973, Jackie Stewart won, in 1975 - after an edition in Nivelles - Niki Lauda, who repeated the success in the following year, again with Ferrari. In 1977, Gunnar Nilsson won with Lotus. The Zolder circuit is of a medium-fast type, with a long straight broken by a chicane just before the pits. The lap record and the race record belong to Lauda, who two years earlier lapped in 1'25"98, at an average speed of 178.450 km/h, covering the distance of 70 laps at an average speed of 173.980 km/h. Mario Andretti, with Lotus, took the pole position in 1977, lapping in 1'24"64, at an average speed of 181.210 km/h. It was precisely at Zolder that the Italian-American made one of his most serious mistakes due to excessive aggressiveness. Surprised by the lightning start of Watson's Brabham-Alfa, Andretti attempted a daring overtaking at the entrance of another chicane on the circuit, with the result of colliding with his rival and ending up off the track, in the protective nets. But last year, the Lotuses in Zolder were unbeatable, and Nilsson won, as mentioned earlier, while Lauda, author of an intelligent race and a well-timed tire choice, secured a valuable second place.
The return of the circus to a real track, although not without some flaws (the road surface, which tends to disintegrate, has always raised issues), will be a sigh of relief for many drivers, especially for Carlos Reutemann. The Argentine, after risking a collision with Watson at the start of the United States Grand Prix West, was hit by Lauda in Monte Carlo. Reutemann has paid dearly for a serious but not irreparable mistake. Probably, on a circuit with a wider track and some space on the sides, nothing would have happened, and the Ferrari driver would have had time and opportunity to recover from his not-so-brilliant start. It is clear that for the Argentine and the Ferrari-Michelin duo, the Belgian Grand Prix appears as an opportunity for an immediate revenge and a reaffirmation of the values emerged in the previous championship races. An opportunity with delicate implications as well, because Reutemann must now have a good race, both to dispel controversies and doubts and because there are no shortage of competitive rivals: Patrick Depalller with the reborn Tyrrell, Lauda and Watson with the Brabham-Alfa Romeo, Andrew and Ronnie Peterson with the Lotuses. And there is also the danger, with all the new cars seen in Monte Carlo, that some old opponent returns to the competition, like Jody Scheckter with the Wolf, or that some other emerges. Can we already consider James Hunt and McLaren as finished? Now, after five races, Depailler leads the World Championship with 23 points, against the 18 of Reutemann and Andretti, the 16 of Lauda, and the 14 of Peterson. The Frenchman has more useful results than anyone, a sign of a high performance continuity of both man and machine. And the world title is won more thanks to placements and overall behavior in the season than brilliant but isolated victories. The Lauda-Andretti case of last year is significant. Therefore, Reutemann will have to try to have a good race, aiming for victory but also and above all to obtain a useful score, evidently as high as possible. It may be reasoning in the Lauda style, but in these years, the results have ended up proving the Austrian right. And Gilles Villeneuve? One can only hope that, at least this time, he manages to finish a race.
"I was in the middle of a fast curve. I had just glanced at the mirrors: I had no one behind. Suddenly, I heard a thunder-like noise, and I found myself next to Mario's Lotus. He, calm, passed me. There, it sounded like a gunshot. And he was gone".
The story and images are by Alberto Colombo, Italian, Formula 2 driver, making his debut at Zolder in Formula 1 with ATS, which belonged to Jean-Pierre Jarier. The mentioned Mario is, of course, Andretti. Colombo is a rookie, but even veterans are impressed, on Friday, May 19, 1978, by the performances of the Italian-American driver, defined by everyone as somewhat unattainable. Andretti laps in 1'21"48, at an average speed of 188.306 km/h, leaving behind Jody Seheckter and the Wolf (1'22"12), Carlos Reutemann and the Ferrari (1'22"35), and Niki Lauda and the Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1'22"62). To better evaluate the feat of the Lotus driver, it is necessary to remember that Andretti himself had taken the pole position, as mentioned, lapping in 1'24"64. It is true that many drivers improve this limit (and the fact depends on the new asphalt laid on the circuit, which offers greater grip to the single-seaters), but no one manages to push to the limits of Andretti. It is the confirmation of the adaptability of Lotuses to the characteristics of the Zolder track, a flat layout, with two chicanes and some very fast curves. Wide tracks, elongated wheelbase, well-designed aerodynamics, excellent chassis: the mix offers optimal performance here, and in circuits like those of Jarama (Spain) and Anderstorp (Sweden). It should be noted that this trend has been preserved with the transition from the old model to the new, marked by the 79 code, seen for the first time in Monte Carlo but not used by Andretti for the race. Mario Andretti says:
"An easy-to-drive, well-balanced, safe machine. Certainly, on paper, I know I have excellent chances of winning, but the results of the tests and the outcome of the race are not always the same. Look at last year: after one kilometer into the Grand Prix, I collided with Watson and wasted a fabulous opportunity".
The Italo-American is preparing to break another record, befitting a man born under the sign of speed. Most likely, Andretti, right after finishing the last training sessions, will fly to the United States to participate in the qualifications for the Indy 500 (scheduled for Sunday, May 28, 1978). From Indianapolis, he will return on Sunday in time for the race in Zolder.
"The Gould Company, an electronics equipment firm that sponsors me in the United States, has chartered a Concorde to take me from Brussels to Detroit and a regular plane from Detroit to Indianapolis. The same system for the return to Belgium. I believe the Gould operation costs something like a hundred thousand dollars, but they can afford it".
Andretti's ticket price, a solo traveler on the world's fastest plane (three and a half hours from Brussels to Detroit), sets another record. Of course, the feat is made possible by the time difference between Belgium and the United States (seven hours) and the fact that the trials in Indianapolis take place from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. local time, while those in Zolder conclude in the early afternoon. There remains one doubt, related to the availability of the Concorde for the return: Air France was not yet 100% certain of having one available for this unique charter. Mario Andretti continues:
"It won't be a vacation weekend, but the game is worth the candle. I value both Indianapolis, where I already won in 1969, and the Belgian Grand Prix. However, what matters most to me is to win the Formula 1 World Championship. Now, the important thing is not to make mistakes and to gather points, and winning would be even better".
A super Andretti, against whom everyone had to play defensively. Seheckter performs well (not for nothing does the new Wolf imitate the constructive style of the Lotus), pushing their limits, Reutemann and Lauda.
It is difficult for the Argentine and the Austrian to significantly improve their times and get closer to the Italo-American. Reutemann says:
"I can't do more than this; at most, I can shave off two or three tenths, but it's difficult, very difficult".
Lauda expresses a similar sentiment. Work is being done diligently at Ferrari, along with Michelin technicians, attempting to find the best balance for the cars of Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve, who sets the fifth time, clocking 1'23"05. The French specialists try numerous sets of tires, while the Maranello team works on aerodynamics and suspensions. But the Lotus remains distant. There's even speculation that Andretti used special qualifying tires, but Mario and the Goodyear team deny it. Establishing who tells the truth is always challenging in the world of Formula 1, but in the case of tires, defended by the utmost secrecy for the Michelin vs. the American company war, it is impossible. At most, the causes of certain incidents are clarified, as Michelin does regarding Villeneuve's crash in Monte-Carlo. Monsieur Blanchet explains:
"The tire was perfect. Perhaps Gilles hit a curb, and the wheel was damaged, or maybe he got distracted for a moment, and the car got away from him".
Riccardo Patrese, with the Arrows, achieves the eighth-best time after facing some fuel issues but protests:
"The Goodyear people don't provide our team with the best tires, and we always have to perform miracles".
For Vittorio Brambilla, at the wheel of the new Surtees, only the eighteenth time, and for Bruno Giacomelli, with the McLaren, the twenty-first. The latter, replacing the injured Patrick Tambay in a Formula 2 race in Pau, is somewhat disappointed.
"The car feels like a truck, my right hand is dislocated and sore from a steering hit I took in Pau, and the McLaren mechanics haven't even sorted out the pedals. The accelerator and brake touch each other; I ended up spinning. It's possible that I won't race tomorrow".
Finally, Colombo. He is twenty-fifth, but he is content. Even though his engine breaks down, he smiles.
"A beautiful experience".
Formula 1 and Grand Prix are a dream come true for him. For now, it's enough to be happy. On Saturday, May 20, 1978, Mario Andretti definitively secures the pole position, while others, Carlos Reutemann, Niki Lauda, and Gilles Villeneuve, follow from a distance. The Italo-American driver manages to improve even more, setting a time of 1'20"90 (at an average speed of 189.656 km/h), confirming the perfect adaptability of the Lotus 79 to the Zolder track. The new car, designed by Colin Chapman and his team of designers, appears superior here in terms of aerodynamics, and in the mixed sections of this circuit, it is unbeatable, meaning it is the fastest. The Italo-American driver gives up flying to Indianapolis to participate in the qualifications for the Indy 500, choosing to stay in Zolder to focus on the Belgian Grand Prix.
"Air France couldn't charter the Concorde for my return. The feat became impossible or almost impossible; there was a risk of not being here on time. Now, this year, I aim to win the Formula 1 World Championship and cannot afford the luxury of not participating in a race".
The Lotus driver is calm, knowing that he has, at least in theory, a certain advantage over those from Ferrari and Brabham.
"If everything goes well, I can pull away from everyone. But I have to start with a good start and then hope the car has no problems, that the tires don't play any nasty tricks. In short, winning is not easy for anyone".
Reutemann, Lauda, and Villeneuve also make progress. The Argentine goes from 1'22"35 to 1'21"69, the Austrian from 1'22"65 to 1'21"70, and the Canadian from 1'23"05 to 1'21"77. Three men separated by 0.08 seconds, a trifle, a few centimeters. Improvements that result from great personal effort and small changes made to the cars after the indications emerged in the first day of training. There is also, as always, the contribution of tires: Lauda (but not Andretti because those for Mario were not well balanced) uses a special set of tires, with compounds that would not last for the duration of the race. Michelin vehemently denies that Reutemann and Villeneuve had qualifying tires and claims that the two drivers from the Maranello team will be able to compete in the Belgian Grand Prix with the same tires used in practice, which would give them a good advantage. However, some doubt is expressed on this: the sequence of Reutemann and Villeneuve's times, certain maneuvers during tire changes in the pit, lead to thinking the opposite. In any case, the Argentine driver appears very confident.
"I really can't complain; my Ferrari behaves excellently under race conditions. I was sure I could improve Thursday's time, but I ended up doing even better. We narrowed the front track of the car, modifying the suspensions and wheel rims, and the result was favorable. The T3 is more precise in corners and allows reaching higher limits. We'll see. I think there will be a good challenge; I just hope not to be rear-ended in the first lap. What happened in Monte-Carlo still hurts".
Regarding collisions, Jochen Mass, in an attempt to avoid Bruno Giacomelli's McLaren during a somewhat confusing overtaking maneuver, ends up in the grass along the track in the fast section between the two chicanes of the circuit. The German is unharmed, but his ATS is damaged, and yellow danger flags are waved. Reutemann slows down, as per regulations, and Derek Daly, in an old Hesketh, collides with the right rear wheel of the Ferrari, breaking a wheel rim. All this happens at a speed of about 200 km/h. Daly (who doesn't qualify for the Grand Prix) stops with a broken suspension, while Carlos returns slowly to the pit. Pre-race talks from Lauda, Ferrari, or Brabham-Alfa Romeo are always the same. The Austrian, in his telegraphic style, states:
"Andretti is very fast, but you can never tell, all good, I just have a bit of understeer. The Ferraris? We'll see. At the moment, it's important to gather points for the World Championship".
In short, the usual words. Villeneuve, who has never raced at Zolder, performs very well. The Canadian easily adapts to the characteristics of the tracks he faces with Ferrari.
"Don't ask me anything; I don't make predictions for the race. As far as I'm concerned, I only say one thing: this time I want to finish the race".
Jody Scheckter, with the new Wolf, cannot improve his Friday performance, mainly because Goodyear doesn't provide him with qualifying tires (the American company, in the war with Michelin, focuses especially on Lotus and Brabham). Patrick Depailler, victorious in Monaco, is far back in the starting lineup; his Tyrrell is simply not suitable for Zolder. Alan Jones, during free practice, goes off the track with his Williams, suffering a severe bruise to an arm. But he will race.
The number of Italian drivers competing in Formula 1 is continuously increasing. In addition to Vittorio Brambilla and Riccardo Patrese, Zolder sees the debuts of Bruno Giacomelli and Alberto Colombo, promoted to the top formula thanks to their results in Formula 2. Patrese, who sets the eighth overall time, is the best among the Italians. The Arrows driver fully exploits the aerodynamic qualities of his car and places himself among the top contenders.
"The car is good and fast, although I struggle a bit to place it in the turns. Now, the city circuits are over, where I got two good placements, and I have the chance to repeat the South African race. It's not said that this won't happen already in Zolder".
After the failure to qualify in Monaco, there was a split between Brambilla and Surtees, and they were on the verge of parting ways. Surtees claimed that the driver showed little commitment, while Brambilla stated that it was the car causing the problems. The English constructor, however, after personally testing his single-seater, had to acknowledge his faults. Encouraged by the improvement of the car, Vittorio proves to be the same as always, and the twelfth time obtained speaks in his favor.
"I could have done better, but due to the gearbox selector breaking, I had to stay still for twenty minutes in the pit".
Giacomelli will also be at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix. However, the Italian driver is not in perfect physical condition. Already suffering from his right hand due to the hit he took in Pau, in the victorious Formula 2 race, at the end of the first day of tests in Belgium, Bruno slips coming out of his brand-new McLaren and twists his right ankle. The foot immediately swells, and Giacomelli, to be able to perform the last decisive round of tests, has a novocaine injection. Giacomelli provides another demonstration of character on this occasion, but he is forced to settle for the twenty-first time, also because the gearbox ratios are not right. Alberto Colombo, on the other hand, fails to qualify. The driver from Varedo is nevertheless satisfied with this first experience in Formula 1 and will undoubtedly do better on the next occasion. The ATS executives, seeing what he can do, have decided to use him in the future as well and will surely entrust him with a car in the next Italian Grand Prix. In the meantime, the tire war between Goodyear and Michelin, one of the dominant factors in the World Championship, offers points of interest at every race. At Zolder, the American company issues a statement specifying its tire supply policy to various teams. A policy forced upon it following the arrival of the opposing company on the Grand Prix scene. At the beginning of the season, when Goodyear learned of Michelin's decision to supply not only Jabouille's Renault Turbo but also the Ferraris of Reutemann and Villeneuve, it wanted to limit its commitment to three or four cars to concentrate efforts and effectively counter the French company. However, this would have put Formula 1 in crisis, as it had been practically supplied entirely by Goodyear for several years, and most teams would have had to give up participating in the World Championship. To avoid jeopardizing the continuation of the season, Goodyear executives decided to continue their global activities. At this point, however, since it became practically impossible to provide every team with all tire combinations, the American company selected drivers based on their performance to offer a chosen group the best material to beat cars with Michelin tires (in practice, the Ferraris, as the only Renault is not competitive). At Zolder, Goodyear gathers the managers of various teams to take stock of the situation. Trevor Hoskins, director of external relations, declares:
"Our company will continue to provide, in all possible combinations, the best tires to eight drivers: Andretti, Depailler, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Lauda, Peterson, Scheckter, and Watson. All others will have identical tires. However, beyond the eight mentioned drivers, Goodyear will provide the same level of assistance to the two drivers who prove to be the fastest after the first day of practice. These drivers, starting from the second day of training, will have access to good tires. Immediate help is also expected after the first set of training, to those who clearly emerge in the first session".
In total, therefore, ten (eight fixed and two per race) Goodyear-favored drivers. In any pre-qualifying tests, the Akron-based company will provide all drivers with identical tires.
"We ask the race stewards to ensure that no driver uses tires other than those we provide, even if they are Goodyear".
Now all that's left is to wait for the race. It is the only way, perhaps the most sincere, to take stock of the situation. After a morning of fair-ground distractions the time approaches for what is to be the Belgian Grand Prix. A thirty-minute warm-up session in the morning has produced a small fuel leak on Patrese’s Arrows, and a split rubber gaiter on the left-hand drive-shaft on Fittipaldi’s car, both of which are soon corrected. The injured Jones and Giacomelli are ready to race, the tough Australian opining that the pain goes away once you start racing. At the ready, in case of last-minute panics, are Ferrari 035 for Reutemann, as he has decided he wants to race the spare car, with narrow front track, Villeneuve’s has been modified likewise during practice, the new and unused Tyrrell for Depailler, the short-wheelbase Ligier JS7 for Laffite and the unused Lotus 78/3 for Andretti. As it turns out none of them are needed. The 70-lap race is due to start at 3:00 p.m. and at 2:35 p.m. Fittipaldi leads the cars out of the pits to drive a lap round to the warm-up grid. Eventually all 24 cars arrive on the grid and by 2:45 p.m. they are lined up correctly in pairs. At one minute to 3:00 p.m. Andretti on the left of the road and Reutemann on the right, lead the procession of 24 cars round a full lap of warm-up and everyone pulls up on the starting grid proper. The red light is still glowing as Reutemann’s Ferrari begins to creep over the starting line; then the green light comes on, the black and gold Lotus 79 surges forward with rear wheels spinning, and is gone. Reutemann’s Ferrari hangs slightly as he snatches second gear early, to avoid spinning his Michelin tyres, but from all accounts second gear is not there and he quickly takes third, but initial momentum is lost and cars are passing the Ferrari on all sides. Before the bulk of the field are halfway past the pits there is a bumping. Scheckter thinks he would jump Lauda’s Brabham on the outside by putting his left-side wheels on the grass, Hunt is following Villeneuve around Reutemann on the right of the grid, and Patrese is making a demon start from his good grid position.
On the left of the grid Scheckter clips Lauda’s Brabham and flicks the 12-cylinder car into the barriers, while on the right Patrese punts Hunt’s McLaren up the back and sends it veering left across the path of the rest of the grid. In the ensuing melee Fittipaldi is forced to brake to avoid the wayward McLaren and gets hit up the back by Ickx with the Ensign, and Pironi’s Tyrrell rides up the wheels of the Martini and flies in the air. When the excitement subsides a very angry Lauda is climbing out of his bent Brabham, a despairing Hunt is wondering what he has done wrong and Fittipaldi is looking blacker than usual, his car out of the race. On the warm-up lap Jabouille has collided with Watson, the Ulsterman’s rear aerofoil being knocked askew, and now Pironi’s Tyrrell and Ickx’s Ensign are not the best adjusted cars on the track. Andretti is long gone away from all the unruliness, with Villeneuve in second place, followed by Scheckter, Peterson and Patrese nose-to-tail. At the end of lap 2 it is all over, Andretti is so far in front it is ridiculous and all he has to do is to play the game at his own pace, which he proceeded to do. He pulls out a comfortable lead over Villeneuve and then lets the young Ferrari driver sets the pace of the race, knowing he can pull out a second or more a lap whenever he wants to. It is pure Chapman and Team Lotus magic, the Lotus 79 never looking strained, Mario Andretti virtually coasting along comfortably out of reach of the Ferrari, with little or no strain on the Cosworth development engine, the Hewland gearbox or the Lotus chassis. After being engulfed at the start Reutemann shakes himself free of unnecessary opposition and settles into seventh place behind Watson’s Brabham, with a gallant Jochen Mass keeping up with them in his team-mate’s ATS. Peterson is indicating that Scheckter is in his way, but the Wolf driver has blinkers on and isn’t impressed. Ickx has called at the pits for a new nose cowling and framework to replace that bent on the back of Fittipaldi’s car, and the Renault has its usual gaggle of frustrated Cosworth-powered cars behind it, among them Jones and Depailler. As Scheckter starts lap 8 a determined Peterson forces his way by on the first corner and is gone, and a moment later Alan Jones is in the pits with the Williams to have another pair of front wheels and tyres fitted as he can’t really control the front end on the existing ones.
One by one the struggling mob of tail-enders are getting by the Renault, and the thought occurs that if a private-team has perpetrated the turbocharged car, Obergruppenfuhrer Ecclestone would have banned it long ago. Once Peterson has gone Scheckter heads for the pits to have a loose h.t. lead fixed, but is soon back again to have the front tyres changed, these two stops, at 10 laps and 14 laps, dropping him right out of the picture. There isn’t too much competitive racing taking place at the front of the field, Andretti precedes Villeneuve, who is doing a first class job holding second place, while Peterson is a comfortable third. Patrese in fourth place is having to keep an eye on his mirrors as a rather dispirited Reutemann is beginning to think he ought to have fourth place. Watson stops to have some different tyres fitted to his Brabham, hopefully to make it feel better, and Jones is back in the pits at 15 laps for another change of front tyres, this time to a different compound altogether. Ickx also stops to try some different tyres, and the Renault stops with brake trouble. Watson has a big spin on the right-hand bend leading into the back straight and bounces over the kerb and smashes the bottom of the Alfa Romeo engine, limping back to the pits to retire. In mid-field Mass has been going well, thanks to a good grid position and a good start, but now his gearbox is breaking up and he gradually drops back. Having been the first of the back-markers to get by the Renault, Brambilla is holding a good sixth place, but Depailler and Laffite are closing up on him pretty rapidly. In the early stages of the race Stuck has ran into the back of his team-mate, but while the Swiss continues unaware that the thump has broken a gearbox oil pipe, the German has to stop for repairs to the nose cowling. While the front half of the race seems serene and confident, the back half is untidy and ragged. Brambilla stops to change front tyres, Stommelen goes off the road, and Scheckter stops for a change of front tyres. Patrese spoils the scene at the front when he comes into the pits with the rear suspension cross-member broken, and that is that, which lets a relieved Reutemann move up into fourth place. Depailler and Laffite have been pounding along well, making up for time lost early in the race, but now the Tyrrell begins to have gearbox trouble and Depailler slows, leaving the Ligier-Matra to go on its way in fifth place.
At half-distance, which is 35 laps of the 4.262-kilometre circuit, there are only eight cars on the same lap, with Andretti going as slow as Villeneuve, rather than disappearing into the distance, followed by Peterson, Reutemann, Laffite, Depailler, Regazzoni and Pironi. A lap down come Giacomelli, Arnoux and Lunger in very close company and actually swopping places. They are followed a long way back by a miserable Mass, with fewer and fewer gears in the Hewland box on his ATS, Stuck, Jones, Brambilla, Ickx and Jabouille in the Renault with dodgy brakes, and a dejected Scheckter. Another five laps see Regazzoni’s Shadow disappear when the final drive runs out of oil, and as this is happening Villeneuve is in trouble. Just as the little French-Canadian driver brakes for the first left-hand corner past the pits his left-front tyre burst, and though he swoops about a bit he keeps control and has to limp round the whole of lap 40 with the tyre disintegrating. By the time he gets to the pits the wheel is locked solid and skating along on the mangled tyre and he is down in fourth place, Peterson and Reutemann having passed him while he is limping along. The nose aerofoil is a bit tattered, but he soon sets off again with a new wheel and tyre fitted, but is well down in sixth place, and is actually lapped by Andretti as he leaves the pits. There are now only four cars on the same lap, Andretti’s Lotus 79, Peterson’s Lotus 78, Reutemann’s Ferrari, and Laffite’s Ligier- Matra. It is Lotus joy day, with the new Type 79 leading the now obsolete Type 78, and Goodyear are beginning to wonder why they have been getting in a flap, while the Michelin men are wondering where they have gone wrong. With no need to hurry Andretti lets Villeneuve go by and gets back on the same lap, while Depailler is going slower and slower as his gearbox brakes up, finally giving up at the pits after 51 laps. Among the back-markers Giacomelli gets the better of Arnoux and Lunger and pulls away from them, though later he spins and they both go by. Gathering himself up the little Italian catches and passes Arnoux, but fails to catch Lunger. All is now set for a triumphant Lotus 1-2, but at the end of lap 56 there is consternation as Peterson comes hurtling down the pit lane with his left-front tyre completely wears out. New front wheels and tyres are on in record time and the Swede leaves the pit lane at about 100 km/h, in spite of a red warning, and nearly collects the Ensign as he rejoins the race in fourth position, behind the Ligier and in front of Villeneuve. If one can have seen Peterson’s face behind his visor, the well-known glazed over look is on it and his progress back up towards the front is vintage Peterson at his best.
Almost unnoticed Scheckter spins off at the chicane before the pits and ends his race in the sand. In a matter of seven laps Peterson storms up to, past, and away from the Ligier, as if it isn’t there, and up to, past, and away from Reutemann’s Ferrari in like manner. It is Peterson magic, which, as in South Africa, belies any idea that the Swede is past his prime. He just needs a little incentive to rev. him up. On lap 57 he is fourth and on lap 67 he is back in second place, having caught and overtaken Laffite’s Ligier and Reutemann’s Ferrari, just like that. It is Super-Swede at his best. For the last three laps it is a triumphant Lotus 1-2, but the excitement isn’t over. Brambilla’s Surtees has expired at the pits in a cloud of smoke when a piston brakes, Jones is struggling along with a broken exhaust manifold pipe, Mass is limping along with very few operative gears in his Hewland gearbox, and Laffite is inspired by Peterson and thought he ought to take third place off Reutemann, but the dreaded yellow peril is between them, in the shape of the Renault, and it seems completely incapable of getting out of the way. As they start the last lap Laffite gets by the Renault and closes on Reutemann’s Ferrari down the straight behind the pits. On the approach to the chicane the Ligier is ahead, but on the wrong side of the road. As they turn into the lefthander the two cars touch and spin, the Ligier going backwards off the road with bent suspension, the Ferrari gathering itself up and continuing. With the left side of the car damages and marks by the Ligier’s rear wheel, Reutemann finishes an unhappy third, with Villeneuve in fourth place. Laffite would have been the only other driver to complete the 70 laps, as it is he is in the sand at 69 laps, so he is given fifth place, ahead of all the also-rans. Two sleek cars, adorned with gold embellishments, the Lotuses of Andretti and Peterson, tackle the final lap. With calmness and measured gestures, Colin Chapman puts down the lap-counting tablet, removes his headset, while his eyes check the stopwatch, marking the last seconds before the arrival of his cars. Then, the now-traditional tossing of the cap, repeated also for Peterson, celebrates the victory of his single-seaters.
"I am naturally happy; Mario and Ronnie were superb. From the new car, we couldn't expect more. Mario had no trouble controlling the race, but just in case, Peterson was ready to take over the lead".
Amid the siege of journalists, Mario Andretti confides:
"I had no problems; I could even slow down to conserve the tires. The car performed splendidly, and considering this is a prototype, we can expect the new one, likely in Spain, to be even more reliable. The championship now becomes more interesting, especially for me, because I believe I can step onto the podium several more times".
For the Indy 500, what chances do you think you have?
"My car is qualified in the last row, so I'll start behind everyone. Of course, it would have been better to start in pole position, but even so, especially if the car holds up, I have a chance to aim for victory".
Mr. Chapman, what principles inspired the design of the new car?
"It was a natural development of the model 78. We tried to lower the car's center of gravity further and distribute the weights better to improve road holding".
What goals did you want to achieve with the new model?
"Only one, to be faster than any other car".
Was the 79 born based on wind tunnel tests or by processing data collected with electronic devices placed on the car?
"Many things were studied in the wind tunnel, but we also relied on data collected with the test car, on which we placed an electronic system to understand not only the aerodynamic behavior but also the stresses and forces that the various parts of the car undergo on the track. The 79 model was born by merging all this data".
How much does a designer's creativity impact, compared to electronic measurements, in designing a new car today?
"There are many components to building an efficient single-seater. Still, we could summarize them mainly in good design, an excellent data collection system, and above all, the technical expertise and experience that a good designer must have. None is more important than the others, but all must blend harmoniously so that the car on the track meets expectations. The designer still has ample creative possibilities because the choice and processing of data depend on him".
How many Lotus models have you designed from the beginning of your activity until now?
"Exactly 79 because the number of my cars indicates the progressive design number".
How many people work in your company?
"For Formula 1, fifteen, while in the factory, to build touring cars, there are 450. Additionally, in the motorboat sector, another 150 people are employed".
What has more value in Formula 1 today: the chassis, the engine, the tires, or the organization?
"With the level of competitiveness reached today in Formula 1, everything is important, and nothing can be left to chance if you aspire to victory. Currently, though, tires are the ones playing the determining role. The battle between Michelin and Goodyear for supremacy in this sector is significant, and I must say that the French tires are very good".
There is increasing talk of reducing fuel consumption. Do you think it would be possible to build a Formula 1 car that roughly resembles the cars we all use every day?
"Impossible, absolutely impossible. You cannot make a Formula 1 car with an engine that resembles commercial vehicles. This can be done with sports cars, with prototypes, but not with Formula 1".
How do you judge Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson?
"Mario is a great professional. He is a fast, skilled driver and an excellent tester. In a race, he can assess the possibilities of his vehicle at every moment, which is very important to achieve, in some cases, a valuable placement rather than pursuing an impossible victory. I like Ronnie's composure in facing situations and the tenacity he shows every time he is in a comeback phase. He is a great fighter because he goes all out until the last meter".
What is the secret of Lotus's success in Formula 1?
"The most important thing is to bring the right people into the team, make them work in the right way, and ensure that each one is satisfied with what they do".
Do you think it's fair for some drivers to be forced to undergo pre-qualification tests?
"In all sports, such as tennis, the best are invited and start as top seeds, while others have to qualify to enter the final round. The same thing now happens in Formula 1, and I think it's a valid system".
The cool Ronnie Peterson doesn't even flinch at the second position. To journalists who want to know if it's true that he started with the red light after changing tires, he responds:
"Actually, I didn't notice anything. If you tell me they called me to the race direction for this reason, I'll go check it now".
All in all, a positive balance for Ferrari, especially considering the troubles that slowed down its drivers. Reutemann, starting in the front row, had an imperfect start because the second gear didn't engage.
"I shifted the lever, but the gear didn't engage. So, I had to pass through the gears while Andretti pulled away".
What happened with Laffite?
"In tackling the chicane behind the pits, I was alongside Laffite on the inside. We practically faced the curve side by side, then there was a big dust-up. I still had two wheels on the track and managed to pass, while Jacques got stuck in the sand".
Gilles Villeneuve comments, smiling:
"Finally, I finished a race and gathered some points. Too bad for that tire that punctured right in front of the pits and forced me to complete a whole lap at reduced speed. Without this inconvenience, I would have certainly finished at least second. At the start, I saw that Carlos was in trouble, so I threw myself to the outside to pass him. Fortunately, I found the right gap".
A black day, however, for the Brabham-Alfa Romeo drivers, who almost immediately exited the scene. Niki Lauda was involved in the spectacular incident that happened at the start and could only cover a few meters. Having exited the car, the Austrian conferred with James Hunt (another of the drivers involved in the pile-up) to try to reconstruct the incident.
"I don't know what to say. Scheckter started like a grasshopper and flew over me".
For many laps, Riccardo Patrese made Italian fans dream because he was repeating the excellent performance of Kyalami. Unfortunately, the breakage of the engine support cross forced him to retire.
"This is real misfortune because right at the start, I was bumped, with Hunt flying over me, and I feared I would have to abandon immediately. Then, when I was already anticipating a good placement, I felt a strong vibration and understood that the time had come to retire. Certainly, I could have finished ahead of Reutemann because Carlos couldn't pass me since he was losing a lot of ground in some parts of the circuit".
Brambilla was also forced to retire due to the engine failure. Until then, his race had been beautiful and hard-fought, bringing him up to the sixth position.
"I saw the oil pressure drop to zero, so I preferred to stop to avoid destroying my Cosworth. It was the right race, the one to score points, but even before the engine failed, the race had been compromised by a previous pit stop to replace a flat tire".
Despite a sore wrist and a swollen ankle, Bruno Giacomelli managed to complete the race.
"It was real suffering because the pain became sharper with each lap. At every pass, I was about to give up, but then I thought, let's try another lap. I could have finished in fifth place, but in the last laps, I spun because, while looking at the instruments, I widened the trajectory and found myself stopped. The engine struggled to start, and I lost precious positions".
Mario Andretti is now leading the Formula 1 World Championship. The Italian-American won the Belgian Grand Prix with Lotus ahead of his teammate Ronnie Peterson. A result that confirms the superiority of Colin Chapman's cars on the Zolder track and appears justified. Andretti's performance was impeccable, albeit helped by two key incidents: the chaos that occurred at the start of the race and the pit stop to change a punctured tire for Gilles Villeneuve, finally having an excellent race behind the wheel of the Ferrari. It was hoped that at Zolder, a real circuit after the city ones of Long Beach and Monte Carlo, there wouldn't be confusing starts. However, there was a near-tragedy, with a series of collisions more suitable for bumper cars than a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Collisions, flying cars, smoke, pieces of plastic, and sheet metal on the track: a spectacle that sends shivers, considering the approximately 200 liters of fuel stored in each single-seater's tanks. With a bit of luck and thanks to the undeniable safety improvements made to Formula 1 cars in recent years, nothing serious happened, except for the anger of seeing every hope dashed in an instant, even before completing a single lap. It happened to Niki Lauda, James Hunt, and Emerson Fittipaldi. What happened at Zolder is part of the Grand Prix game. It is doubly regrettable, however, that Carlos Reutemann was at the origin of this dramatic start. The Argentine, like in Monte Carlo, started too slowly, seemingly due to an unsuccessful gear change, causing chaos for those following him. In the confusion, Jody Scheckter inserted himself, contributing with a too-spirited start to worsen the situation. Reutemann did not pay as harshly as in the Principality for this unfortunate start (he finished third), but he lost any chance of challenging Andretti.
The Italian-American ended up being threatened only by Villeneuve, but the Canadian's pit stop gave him a definitive free pass. It would have been interesting otherwise to observe the behavior of Andretti's Lotus and, above all, the tires of the English car. Villeneuve finally concluded a race happily with Ferrari and secured his first championship points with a fourth-place finish. The young Canadian undoubtedly has talent, but he must learn to manage himself, contain his impetuosity, and the eagerness to achieve great results immediately. In Belgium, he succeeded, so to speak, in restraining himself and was rewarded. A difficult day for Brabham-Alfa Romeo, first with Lauda retiring at the start and then with Watson, halted due to an off-track excursion. The World Champion had planned to secure some points at Zolder, considering Andretti unreachable. A miscalculation, but certainly not his fault. The fact is that things are getting complicated for the Austrian, now forced to chase four drivers since Andretti leads the standings with 27 points, compared to Depailler's 23, Reutemann's 22, and Peterson's 20. Lauda is at 16 points. It is evident that Andretti's position is excellent both mathematically and in terms of his car's competitiveness. Andretti also has many chances to increase his lead: the upcoming races in Spain and Sweden take place on circuits that enhance the characteristics of the Lotus. So, Andretti seems poised to play the role of the hare in the Formula 1 World Championship, while his pursuers all appear, for one reason or another, a bit in difficulty. Ferrari remains Lotus's strongest rival, with excellent cards to play, but Reutemann needs to decide to start well.