This time, Niki Lauda really messed up. He went skiing and injured a finger, tearing the tendon of his right thumb. The incident occurred in Austria, on Mount Arlberg, while the Formula 1 World Champion was taking a ski lift. A wrong move, loss of balance, and the accident were inevitable. Unfortunately, the Brabham-Alfa driver is also unlucky: initially, it seems to be just a bad bruise, but X-rays, while ruling out a fracture, reveal the torn tendon. An injury that typically requires a six-week cast. And, less than a month away, precisely on Sunday, May 7, 1978, the Monaco Grand Prix is scheduled. Most likely, Lauda won't be able to participate in the fifth race of the World Championship. Unless the Austrian performs one of his miraculous quick recoveries. In any case, even if he manages to show up in Monaco in a condition to drive, Niki jeopardizes his good relationship with the Brabham boss, the president of the Constructors' Association, Bernie Ecclestone. The English manager, in fact, had asked Lauda to avoid dangers when he learned that Lauda wanted to go skiing. The driver insisted, and now he finds himself in an unpleasant situation. This is not the first time the Austrian has been involved in random accidents endangering his physical integrity. As you may recall, two years ago, before the Spanish Grand Prix, Lauda overturned with a small tractor while tending to his garden in Salzburg. On that occasion, he got some rib bruises but still managed to start the Jarama race and win. Ecclestone in London expresses deep dissatisfaction with what happened.
"For some time, nothing is going well for us. We break cars and drivers too often. Luck has turned its back on us. The result is that we haven't won a race in years, even though we have competitive cars and what are considered the best drivers on paper".
Bitter considerations from the English manager. Relations with Alfa Romeo, which provides engines and technical consultancy, have become increasingly tense. At Long Beach, after retirements due to failures of both Watson and then Lauda, the two parties began to shift blame. Engineer Chiti said that Watson's Brabham probably broke a half-shaft. The head of the technical team of the English team denied it, saying that the onboard fire extinguisher had burst. The Northern Irish driver, in turn, simply stated that he stopped because the cockpit was filled with smoke. Different versions for a truth hard to discover. While waiting to get back on track, it's a time of reflection for Formula 1 drivers, a time of work for technicians preparing to build new cars, and especially for tire specialists, who this year are again in competition, or rather in direct comparison, given the commitment of two major brands, Michelin and Goodyear. Tires have played a particularly important role in the first four Grand Prix of 1978, and Ferrari, which has bet on the new arrival Michelin, now seems to have an advantage. The American company did not take the Michelin blow well and, for the second time, summoned all the top drivers and their cars for a training test. This time, the chosen circuit was the Spanish Jarama, particularly twisty, full of ups and downs, ideal for testing tires. All the anti-Ferrari drivers are there, from Lauda with the Brabham-Alfa to Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Patrick Tambay, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Jacques Laffite with the new Ligier JS-9.
Alan Jones, Rolf Stommelen, all with the hope that something might change for the better because otherwise, the season looks bleak. Unfortunately, it starts badly, and Monday, April 17, 1978, is lost along with the morning of Tuesday, April 18, 1978, to allow the few people working on the circuit to put up the metal barriers removed to provide escape routes for the motorcyclists who raced the previous Sunday. Now the work continues almost breathlessly, aiming to use the remaining space until Wednesday; from Friday, the circuit is available to another identified tenant on Mr. Santamaria's carnet, the name Ferrari. Peterson sets the best time with 1'18"49, a bit less than Andretti when he took the pole position in the race of the previous season. Behind the unleashed Swede is Andretti (1'19"06), often stopped with various problems in the new Lotus. Then, in order, a good Niki Lauda (several handling problems on the Brabham-Alfa) with a time of 1'19"24, Hunt with a time of 1'19"56, and Scheckter with a time of 1'13"60. The others have higher times, but Laffite has the excuse of the new car, and Fittipaldi tries different setups in preparation for the use on the still unreleased model. Lauda works more than anyone with the usual professional commitment. He doesn't want to give immediate judgments on the tests undergone but easily gets involved in more general discussions.
"I don't think the points acquired so far will decisively influence the outcome of the world championship. Now all the European races come, and so far, it has always happened that our tracks decide who becomes the world champion. Of course, I would be better off with six more points, at least the ones I was about to snatch in Long Beach, but it's useless to cry over a result. There will be others, always that really improves with these tires. So far, we have competed in conditions of absolute inferiority, and if no remedy is applied at least for slow circuits, like Monte-Carlo or here at Jarama, Ferrari has already won before even starting".
Niki insists on his doubtful formula about Goodyear's progress, and this doesn't please the American technicians who adopt a strategy of silence, helped by massive obstruction to the press. Jody Scheckter confirms the impression left by Lauda:
"I don't know if we can bridge the current difference. These people were used to a monopoly, and now they don't know how to support free competition".
It is not difficult to understand that behind the expression are the white-shirted Americans, the Goodyear men who prefer to hide rather than show themselves in public and aim to regain ground against the dominant image of Michelin. Lauda still talks about himself and the car.
"I'm in good condition. The right hand works; I don't use it to greet, and for driving, I had a rigid support made so it doesn't strain. It was a stupid accident, a fall at two kilometers per hour, but there is always someone who loves me and mounts everything like whipped cream. I already drive well now, let alone in Monte-Carlo. No, the problem is with those black discs, and if they solve it, it will be fun because now the car is really good. In Long Beach, on the Shoreline Drive, they timed me faster than the Ferraris, and the handling in the corners was good despite the tires. Sometimes I think my yogurt is even better than Ferrari's. Moreover, this is not even necessary: it just needs to be equal, and then Lauda takes care of it".
Around Niki, fellow drivers laugh amusedly at the banter. Only Scheckter mumbles as he walks away:
"He plays, but it's true, it's true that he is the strongest...".
After a wait of almost a month, Thursday, May 4, 1978, at 8:30 a.m., the Monaco Grand Prix, the fourth act of the Formula 1 World Championship, officially begins. A dense day, with pre-qualifications for nine drivers not belonging to Bernie Ecclestone's Constructors' Association, followed by the first official practices from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. A test awaited by all because, unlike other circuits, no one has been able to try along the streets of Monte Carlo and fine-tune the cars. The race, therefore, once again presents many unknowns. The first question - as mentioned - will be answered after the selections in which Patrese, Stommelen, Merzario, Daly, Rebaque, Ongais, Lunger, Arnoux, and Rosberg are involved, the nine drivers who do not have the protection of Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA. In the United States, it was Patrese and Ongais who qualified, but each timed training is an unknown. It's enough for the car to have problems, break an accelerator wire, and with only an hour available, the race can be considered finished. Lauda argues that actually pre-qualifications are an advantage for those who manage to pass the round since they have the opportunity to better know the track. But only two will have this advantage, while seven will have to go home. The drivers who will then take part in the official qualifications will be 24, while those admitted to the Grand Prix will be 22, the maximum allowed by the Monaco circuit. After the training, Friday will be a rest day, and then Saturday, the competitors will have another hour, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., to seek a position on the starting grid.
As for the novelties, several are announced, although everything needs to be verified. Certainly, the new Ligier-Matra for Jacques Laffite will be present. A new version of Tyrrell for Pironi and Depailler will appear, while Keegan will have the unreleased Surtees, leaving the old car to Brambilla. The debut of Arnoux is highly anticipated. The European Formula 2 champion will drive the Martini MK 23, built by the French specialist of Ligurian origin. All cars, however, will have modifications suggested by the circuit, with shorter gearbox ratios and aerodynamics tailored for the Monaco circuit. Patrese's Arrows should appear without the large side wings. Unfortunately, there are also new things for fans who want to see training and the race. Ticket prices have increased: 40 francs to see the Friday practices, 100 francs for Saturday for the stands (unnumbered seats 40 francs), and prices ranging from 70 francs to 240 francs for the Sunday Grand Prix. Unfortunately, Gunnar Nilsson, suffering from stomach cancer for some time, is hospitalized again when doctors find another tumor, this time in the head. Gunnar Nilsson, 29 years old, winner of several Grand Prix and considered a potentially great champion, was supposed to race this year with Arrows. However, he couldn't participate in any race due to illness. The Swedish champion has completely lost his hair and weighs only 40 kilograms. He is often completely absent to the world around him, but when he regains consciousness, he expresses a desire to live at all costs to be able to return to Formula 1. Doctors do not definitively pronounce on his chances. They only state that until now, Nilsson has been able to continue living thanks to limitless willpower, which, as has happened in other cases, could also lead to recovery. Says one of the doctors, although he gives the champion few chances of returning to a normal life:
"If there's a person in the world who can beat cancer, it's Gunnar Nilsson".
As mentioned, on Thursday, May 4, 1978, many teams presented new or renewed cars with the obvious intention of improving their competitiveness and effectively challenging Ferrari, now considered the car to beat. Wolf, Ligier-Matra, Surtees, and even Lotus did so, but the result, for now, remains unchanged: the 312-T3 seems unreachable. Credit goes to its qualities, the perfect synergy with Michelin tires, and the vigorous action of Carlos Reutemann. The Argentine driver clocks in at 1'28"34, at an average speed of 134.969 km/h. A record-breaking performance, an exceptional feat. Reutemann opens a gap of 0.5s to Lauda and his Brabham-Alfa, and 0.76s to Mario Andretti and the Lotus (the old model, as the Italo-American is uncertain whether to use the new one, which he has tested, because he doesn't yet consider it perfectly reliable). These are significant differences on this circuit of just 3312 meters. And the performance of the Argentine is reinforced by that of Gilles Villeneuve. The young Canadian, who had never raced in Monte Carlo, sets the fourth-best time, placing ahead of experienced drivers like Hunt, Depailler, Peterson, Watson, and Scheckter. While Reutemann and Lauda, the best among drivers using Goodyear tires, are also involved in minor accidents, colliding at the chicane, Villeneuve, for once, records no incidents. The balance, therefore, seems favorable to Ferrari and Michelin. The team arrived in Monte Carlo with many interesting modifications to the 312-T3, changes related to aerodynamics, one of the two aspects (the other being tires) on which Formula 1 designers focus their efforts today. The profile of the sidepods, the shape of the nose, the lines of the bodywork, and the rear wing (now with two curious appendages similar to little pockets) are new. They constitute the most concrete evidence of the work and progress of the Maranello team, which, for these developments, could take advantage of the wind tunnels of Fiat and Pininfarina. Essential progress because no one sleeps in the circus. The new Wolf, Ligier-Matra, Surtees, and Lotus attest to that. In these cars (like in the modified T3), particularly in the Ligier and Wolf, there is a tendency toward squared shapes, machines very close in appearance to the sports cars seen in the early 1970s. Everyone is trying, in simple terms, to create a depression in the lower part of their single-seaters, which should be sucked down towards the ground to have greater grip. The principle of those curious vehicles called hovercraft, but the opposite. Technical progress is linked to that of tires; Michelin is winning its war with Goodyear, which has also mobilized. The American company, whose radials are not yet ready, brought some special tire sets for the Lotus and Brabham, but in doing so, it created strong discontent in other teams. Those of Ligier, for example, threatened to withdraw. Just words, for now. Finally, it's worth noting two incidents that demonstrate how elastic the regulations are in Formula 1. In the first part of the practice, the A.C. of Monaco allows Jackie Stewart to take to the track with a Tyrrell on which a camera has been mounted.
An incredible fact, as the Scotsman is now retired and should no longer be qualified to drive a single-seater among colleagues engaged in a Grand Prix. Then the duration of the training has been extended by about ten minutes. No one communicated this to Ferrari, so Reutemann and Villeneuve stopped at the pits based on the planned program, disassembling the wheels. When they realized that the practice was still ongoing, it was too late to get back on the track. The inconvenience was not significant, but it remains serious in its gravity. Certainly, knowing who one has to fight against now, one should always be very alert. Faces reddened by heat and fatigue, suits wrinkled as if they had passed through a mixed bath of water and oil. The Monaco circuit has already tested its protagonists severely. With the tension of driving that must be precise to the millimeter, requiring incredible concentration for every meter of the 3312 meters that must be completed in each lap. The slightest mistake means a broken suspension, a tired engine, a damaged gearbox. Technicians and mechanics had to work hard for continuous adjustments, for tire replacements. And Friday morning, the work begins early again to prepare for the last practice session scheduled for Saturday. No one is singing victory yet; no one is satisfied with the results achieved. Not even at Ferrari, which, boasting Reutemann with the best time and Villeneuve with the fourth, does not dare to make overly optimistic predictions. The Argentine driver says:
"One thing is the practice, another is the race. Many small problems need to be resolved. The car is good, just a bit of oversteer, but we have to wait to see what the others will do. Yesterday, I hit an oil strip, ended up on the wooden protections of the chicane, broke a suspension, and had to start over on another car. They say I am advantaged by Michelin tires. It may be true, but last year Ferrari won the World Championship with Goodyears. The final proof is still missing".
The Argentine does not reveal much until asked who the favorite is. Then he responds with what he considers a joke:
"Well, but don't spread it around".
Even Gilles Villeneuve does not give too much weight to his good performance.
"I'm learning; I absolutely didn't know the track even though I've been living in Monte Carlo for a few months now... I have to admit that driving on this circuit is very difficult, very tiring. More difficult than at Long Beach. I'm sure I can improve tomorrow. Do you want to know where overtaking is possible? Well, I believe there's no point where it's possible".
For Mauro Forghieri, the technical head of the Maranello team, the balance of the first day is positive but not final.
"Compared to the fastest times of last year, we have improved with Carlos by 1.2s. The others by 0.5s. These are more or less the average progress values recorded in all races since the beginning of the season. We hope to lower it a bit more in the last practice session".
They say at Brabham-Alfa that Lauda worked miracles to stay close to Reutemann. The Austrian does not give judgments.
"Maybe the tires determine the gap, but it's not easy to prove. I can't complain; the car handles well, it's agile. However, yesterday I hit a curb at the chicane and broke a shock absorber".
A rather laconic speech, as usual. More willing to talk is Mario Andretti, who has no secrets.
"I like the new Lotus 79 that I tried in the second part of the practice more than the old one. Like all new cars, however, it has various setup problems. I hope to be able to use it in the race already, but I'm not sure yet. I can assure you, however, that I won't race for a placement even though at this point it's also convenient for me to pay attention to the points of the World Championship; I'll try to go as fast as possible, and if it's true that it's not possible to go ahead of Reutemann, I'll fight so that no one else is ahead of me".
The race in Monaco is rightfully considered a second Italian Grand Prix, as during the race days, the Principality is mainly invaded by Italians. French becomes a secondary language, and true Ferrari fans, not the snobs and mega-rich who see the race as a social event, fill Monte Carlo noisily, enduring exorbitant prices and endless inconveniences to secure a spot on the circuit. Today should be a day of enjoyment, two hours of suspense, as the Monaco Grand Prix promises a family duel. On one side is Carlos Reutemann, who secures pole position with the 312-T3, and on the other are John Watson and Niki Lauda with the Brabham-Alfa, and Mario Andretti with the Lotus. A nice mix of cars, engines, and individuals directly or indirectly linked to Italy. On Saturday, May 6, 1978, during the final practice session, no one manages to improve the record time set by Reutemann on Thursday. Not even the Argentine, either because it would be absurd to take unnecessary risks or because the track conditions were different. Carlos and the Maranello team technicians kept an eye on the situation, monitoring the performance of their opponents and experimenting with new tire and aerodynamic solutions on the car. Lauda also followed a similar strategy, aware that he had reached the limit with his Brabham-Alfa Romeo. The Austrian completed very few laps, confident that he could stay in the front row with a time of 1’28"84, achieved on the first day of practice. However, Niki was outpaced by his teammate Watson by 0.01s, a minimal difference that cost Lauda the spot next to Reutemann, crucial on this concrete and steel circuit. It's worth noting that Watson, who succeeded in the feat in the last five minutes of practice, took a bold approach and had previously damaged a suspension by hitting a guardrail at the Casino corner. The Brabham-Alfa delivered an impressive performance tainted by continuous misunderstandings and controversies within the team between the British and Italian components. Carlo Chiti, the chief engineer at Autodelta, the supplier of the 12-cylinder boxer engines, repeated well-known things about the Alfa Romeo car that would soon make its first laps at the Balocco private track and the possibility of participating in the F1 Grand Prix in 1979 with this car.
This was enough to trigger the anger of Bernie Ecclestone, the Brabham boss, and irritate Lauda, who wanted everyone to work only for Brabham-Alfa (and, naturally, for him). Even Andretti, like Reutemann and Lauda, stuck with the times set on Thursday. The Italian-American had broken the gearbox of his Lotus and drove Peterson's car (the new model 79 would not be used on Sunday), only to return to his car, which suddenly experienced understeer problems. He had to settle for his previous time. Watson, Depailler, Hunt, and Peterson improved their times. The Frenchman, the Englishman, and the Swede - praised by Gustav of Sweden - surpassed Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian recorded a time of 1’29"74, insufficient to counter the attacks of his rivals. Unfortunately, Villeneuve made a mistake in this treacherous trap-like circuit and was immediately punished: he hit the chicanes' wooden protections, damaging the front suspension of his Ferrari. Back at the pits, he had to wait about twenty minutes while the mechanics prepared his reserve car. Time lost for the purposes of the tests, and later, with a not perfectly tuned single-seater, Gilles did what he could. There is no need to be scandalized this time. The Monte Carlo circuit hides pitfalls for everyone, even for the most experienced drivers. It happened to Lauda, Reutemann, Watson, and Patrese. The Italian, in fact, had damaged his Arrows twice, on Thursday and Saturday, so his position on the starting grid is modest (seventh row), with little room for hope. Better, however, than Vittorio Brambilla, who failed to qualify due to a broken clutch support. The part was not available in Monte Carlo, and when it arrived from England, it was already too late. The chapter on malfunctions is rich in examples: gearboxes (Lotus and Wolf), suspensions (Tyrrell), brakes (ATS) have failed several times in these test days. It is likely that the phenomenon will repeat itself in the race, confirming that the Monte Carlo circuit is one of the toughest and most demanding - for both men and machines - in the entire World Championship.
This fact, the possibility of mistakes by the drivers, the tire game, the uncertainty of the weather (Michelin has not used wet tires much, and the French technicians do not know how theirs will behave in the challenge with Goodyear) make the Monaco Grand Prix, as always, exciting. However, it is reasonable to have a lot of confidence in the Reutemann-Ferrari-Michelin trio, not forgetting that this, although prestigious, is just one race in a long and challenging championship. Of course, if the Argentine wins, he will take a significant step towards the title. Carlos Reutemann finally smiles. Starting first means having excellent chances of success on this circuit where overtaking is difficult. The Argentine is not even too concerned about the dangerous approach of some rivals like Watson, Depailler, and Hunt. The Ferrari driver justifies the fact that he did not go below his previous limit very simply:
"The track seemed less clean than two days ago, and therefore less easy. Probably the change in weather also influenced the car's performance: sunny and hot on Thursday, cloudy and humid in the last practice session. Besides, there wasn't much to do. I had driven at the limit of my and the car's capabilities the other day. If someone else has improved, it means they hadn't pushed to the maximum before or managed to tune their machine better".
Everyone at Ferrari is still very satisfied with Reutemann's result. The Maranello team technicians tested all possible solutions for the T3 in both the morning and afternoon free practices. Different setups and tires were checked multiple times. Engineer Mauro Forghieri states:
"We have two solutions ready depending on the weather conditions at the time of the race. We will see again in the last free practice. It seemed to us that even small and seemingly insignificant variations in atmospheric pressure and humidity could lead to different adjustments of the car. If it rains, it will be a gamble, I'm sorry for Villeneuve who, having touched and damaged a suspension, had to continue testing with the adapted reserve car. For the Canadian, it is always about gaining experience, and even in the race, he will have the opportunity to learn a lot: Gilles Villeneuve has assured us that he does not have major problems. The incident he was involved in, he explained with a few words: I was trying to push to the limit and hit the wooden protections of the chicane, damaging the suspension. I don't feel like making predictions for the race. We'll see".
Niki Lauda has nothing to reproach himself for:
"I stopped before the end of practice because it was not possible to achieve a better result. The car is good, and I will race to score points. I hoped to start at least in the front row, but Watson surpassed me by one hundredth of a second. Still, better my teammate than someone else".
Riccardo Patrese, on the other hand, is rather perplexed:
"I couldn't work well. Unfortunately, in two days, I destroyed two cars. After four laps, in the Casino ascent, in a very fast section, when I tried to brake, the car went off, and I hit the guardrail. I had to take Stommelen's car (he has two fractured ribs and probably won't race), and I couldn't adapt it".
It seems that, following the protests of recent days, Goodyear has delivered "special" tires to Patrese's team and others (Ligier for Laffite), the best that the American company has available, previously reserved only for Brabham and Lotus. This does not change the fact that many are convinced that Reutemann's pole position is the result of both the skill of the Argentine driver and the competitiveness of the Ferrari, as well as the quality of the French radial tires. This belief is confirmed by the fact that almost all the major teams have asked Michelin to be able to use or at least try the tires from the Clermont-Ferrand company.
This news is expressed by Michelin's technical manager, Engineer Pierre Dupasquier:
"Many managers, even the most important ones, have come to ask for our tires. For now, although the recognition pleased us, we had to respond negatively. We do not have the equipment or personnel to assist too many teams. And then we have commitments, even moral ones, with Ferrari and Renault, which were the first to trust us. When Enzo Ferrari decided to change, after only two hours of testing at Fiorano, he took risks. It seems right to reciprocate by continuing to work closely. We are only at the beginning: with experience, our product can still improve".
On Sunday morning is grey and gloomy, but dry, and the temperature is far from the normal Cote d’Azur. A final test-session of 30 minutes is allowed at mid-morning, in which Mass and Regazzoni are allowed to take part, just in case any of the selected 20 run into trouble. Watson has settled to use the spare Brabham, Andretti is to race the Lotus 78, Scheckter is to use the old WR1, as the new car is still destroying its gearbox, Jabouille is settled to use the spare Renault and Keegan to use the spare Surtees though Laffite is happy to race the new Ligier. Depailler and Hunt are using Cosworth development engines, Andretti and Tambay are using Nicholson-prepared Cosworth engines, and Scheckter, Peterson and Pironi are using standard Cosworth engines. After the Prince and Princess of Monaco have made a tour of the circuit in a drophead Mercedes-Benz all is ready for the race, due to start at 3:30 p.m. and run for 75 laps, one less than last year. From the pits the 20 starters drive round the circuit to line up at the start in virtual single-file, the two rows being staggered, Reutemann’s Ferrari on the right, Watson’s Brabham on the left, Lauda’s Brabham on the right and so on, down to Fittipaldi all alone at the back. Another warm-up lap is permitted, going off in grid order, followed by the strange looking Porsche Safari Rally car being used as course-car, and then the serious business is ready to start. All those involved have been in Monte-Carlo at least since Wednesday, waiting for this moment. As the starting signal is given, from his lone position at the front Reutemann muffles his start and is swamped as the jostling mob accelerate towards the Ste. Devote chicane. Depailler makes a terrific start from fifth place and as Lauda, Reutemann and Hunt indulges in some pushing and shoving, banging wheels and the Armco barriers, the Frenchman is away in behind Watson.
The Ulsterman leads away from the melee, with the Tyrrell behind him, then come Reutemann and Lauda, but the Ferrari is already slowing with a damaged left rear tyre losing pressure. Hunt is in similar trouble with a right font tyre and a crumpled nose as well, and before the race is really under way two of the top runners are limping round to the pits for help. On the opening lap the order becomes Watson, Depailler, Lauda, Andretti, Scheckter, Jones, Peterson, Villeneuve, Tambay, Pironi, Ickx, Patrese and the rest. Reutemann has a new wheel and tyre fitted and screams out of the pits just as Watson is finishing his second lap, and the Ferrari roars away ahead of the Brabham, but virtually a whole lap behind. The situation soon levels out, with Watson and Depaillerin first and second position. Behind them is Lauda, content to sit a few lengths back and let the two drivers slog it out while he surveys the situation. Within four laps these three have broken away from the rest, who are being led by Andretti though he has Scheckter, Jones, Peterson and Villeneuve in close line astern behind him. Tambay is already on his own and then come Pironi, Ickx and Patrese in a tight duelling trio, followed by the yellow Renault and the yellow Fittipaldi, while the suffering Stommelen brings up the rear bravely. Stuck and Keegan have fallen over each other at the back of the field and Laffite has lost contact due to gearbox failure. Depailler is pushing Watson hard, with little hope of getting by, but determined to make the Brabham driver make a mistake or over-stress his brakes, engine or gearbox, but even so he is keeping a wary eye on his mirrors to see what Lauda is up to. The wily Austrian sits back just out of harm’s way, not straining himself or putting undue stress on his car, but in complete control of the situation. Behind this fascinating situation the nose-to-tail quintet are still hard at it, though the Williams FW06/001 is beginning to blow out oil from a leak in the cast-alloy oil tank that joins the engine to the gearbox. This is getting onto the rear brakes, making smoke and giving Alan Jones a bad time under braking.
On lap 13 he overshoots the Ste. Devote chicane, running wide and letting Peterson and Villeneuve by before he can gather it all up. Ickx is also in brake trouble with the Ensign MN06, and disappears into the pits after 15 laps, leaving the two new-boys, Pironi and Patrese, to play together. In spite of the oil on his rear brakes Jones is gaining on the quartet he has left, and they are still hammering away hard. All this while Reutemann is staying ahead of the leaders, looking for all the world as if he is leading the race comfortably. As one-third distance approaches there is no let-up between Watson and Depailler and no signs of failing or mistakes, so Lauda thinks it about time he has a closer look at the situation. With absurd ease he zooms up behind the battling duo, virtually looking over Depailler’s shoulder to see how his team-mate is getting on at the front. As they are beginning to lap the tail of the field Lauda is keen to be close to the leaders, to avoid being bulked by a slower car. If Watson and Depailler are going to nip through a gap he is making sure he has go through with them. Before half distance the Williams FW06 runs out of oil and as the pressure sags Jones switches of and parks in the Casino Square before too much damage is done. Although at the back of the field, Reutemann is leading on the road and is well ahead of Watson, so he comes up behind the tail of the field first. Stommelen has moved neatly out of the way, as has Fittipaldi, but then Reutemann gets stuck behind Jabouille in the Renault, and just can not get by. This means that Watson, Depailler and Lauda move closer, roaring past Fittipaldi up the hill from Ste. Devote as though the Brazilian has stopped. This is just before half distance, and they are now behind Reutemann who is still being held up by the Renault. Watson’s brakes are beginning to fade, on lap 38 he goes straight-on at the chicane into the harbour front, allowing Depailler and Lauda to go by, re-joining the circuit by the link road down in third place. On the next lap Reutemann finally gets by the obstructive Renault, and Depailler and Lauda are then quickly by, and on lap 43 the Argentinean lifts off and lets the Tyrrell and Brabham through. On Lap 45 the unexpected happens, Lauda feels a rear tyre begin to lose its pressure and instantly shoots into the pits, without wasting time to think about it. The air-jacks lift the car, both rear wheels are changed, and leaving enormous black lines Lauda goes down the pit lane. On the same lap Andretti comes into the pits for the pipe to the fuel pressure gauge has broken and petrol is spraying around the cockpit.
The leak is stopped and there is another impressive pair of black tyre marks down the pit lane and Andretti is back in the race. All this changes the situation completely. Depailler now has a comfortable lead, with no pressure in front or behind him, Watson is in a chastened second place, Scheckter is third, with Peterson and Villeneuve still pressing him hard. Lauda is sixth, just ahead of Pironi and Patrese, who are followed at some distance by Tambay. The young McLaren driver has executed an impressive spin in the middle of the Casino Square, which has made his eyeballs press on his vizor and lost him a lot of time. Reutemann is a lap behind, as is Andretti. The Ensign brakes have been bled and Ickx tries again, but to no avail, and then a drive-shaft brakes; this is replaced and he tries once more, but still the brakes are playing up so reluctantly the car is withdrawn. Stommelen has to give up through sheer pain and fatigue, and Hunt’s unhappy drive at the back of the field ends when the rear roll-bar brakes. After the leaders have gone by Fittipaldi resumes his race with the Renault, but it is not long before Lauda is coming up to lap them again. On lap 56 Peterson’s gearbox brakes and he is out, leaving Scheckter safely in third place, for Villeneuve is no longer close enough to cause any trouble. However, once past the two yellow cars, and with his new tyres warm up nicely, Lauda begins to pile on the steam. In no time at all he as up behind Villeneuve’s Ferrari, and as they go up the hill to the Casino on lap 63 the nose of the Brabham is right under the rear aerofoil of the Ferrari. Down the hill to the Mirabeau hairpin Lauda dodges from side to side, but Villeneuve refuses to be ruffled. Round the old station hairpin they are almost touching, and down onto the seafront the Brabham is really pressing hard. Into the tunnel they go and out the other end the Ferrari comes clanging along the guardrail, its left-front wheel and suspension fold up over the nose, and the left- rear wheel torn of. As the battered Ferrari slithers to a stop Lauda goes by, now in fourth place. What has happened in the tunnel is not too clear, but Villeneuve thinks his left-front tyre is punctured, which has made him run out wide and hit the barrier. As Lauda has poured on the steam the Wolf pit has warned Scheckter, who also puts on a spurt and closes on Watson. Depailler is safely away in the lead, hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong, for his first victory is definitely in sight.
Poor Watson, who is safely in second place, except that Scheckter is gaining, overshoots the Ste. Devote corner, and while the marshals push him back the Wolf goes by, starting lap 65 with ten to go. As Watson rejoins the race he has his team-leader in his mirrors, and the Austrian is well wound up. At the end of that lap Lauda slices by Watson with his steely eyes on the tail of the Wolf. With only five laps to go Reutemann has moved out of Scheckter’s way, and then moves out of Lauda’s way, and the Wolf driver is sweating. With three laps to go Lauda records a fantastic new lap record in 1'28"65, faster than he has gone in practice, and then second gear strips on the Wolf as Scheckter storms out of the Rascasse hairpin and past the pits. Lauda is by into second place, but with no hope of seeing Depailler. It should have been an Italian-style Grand Prix, and instead, in Monte Carlo, a Frenchman won. Patrick Depailler, 34 years old, the number one driver for Tyrrell, emerged victorious. Depailler outpaced the great Niki Lauda, who had to pit due to a puncture and staged an impressive comeback. It was a tough day for Ferrari, with Carlos Reutemann colliding with Lauda at the start and being forced out of the race in just a hundred meters (eighth place meant nothing for the Argentine). Gilles Villeneuve was also involved in a scary incident, likely caused by a sudden tire deflation. The day was challenging for Lotus as well, with Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson retiring due to various issues. Despite the setbacks, the most loyal Ferrari fans, who had previously booed the traitor Lauda, found themselves applauding the World Champion in the end. The unpredictability of the Monaco Grand Prix, with its chaotic start and the demanding circuit, often renders pre-race strategies and calculations insignificant. For Reutemann and Ferrari fans hoping for another victory after Brazil and the United States West, there was frustration. However, even the most faithful supporters, who had jeered Lauda before the race, had to applaud the World Champion at the end. Perhaps they wouldn't have done so if they had known that Reutemann was deprived of the chance to compete for victory by the Austrian. But that's the roulette of the Monaco Grand Prix, a race that traps drivers at the start and then forces them to navigate a terrifying circuit of concrete and steel for 75 laps. It's a game where pre-race efforts and calculations might count for little or nothing. In a moment, all hopes can be dashed, and participants may be eliminated due to a cruel twist of fate.
Afterward, there's no point in complaining. If you choose to participate, you must accept the joys and sorrows with equanimity. Reutemann's misfortune, though unfortunate, should also be considered in the context of the rules that all drivers must adhere to. In the chaotic, dangerous start at Monte Carlo, anyone can make a mistake, even someone like Lauda. It would be absurd to think of any specific anti-Reutemann (or anti-Ferrari) animosity from the Austrian; no one is crazy enough to risk a collision at the start. Reutemann, sent back to the pits to replace a damaged wheel after the collision, essentially left Villeneuve as the sole defender of Ferrari. The Canadian had a cautious but unremarkable race, considering it was his debut in Monte Carlo, ending prematurely with a heart-stopping flight at the harbor chicane. Due to his impetuosity, bad luck, or other reasons, young Gilles couldn't achieve much, and the count of Ferraris damaged by him was lost. In summary, the Ferrari vs. Brabham Alfa challenge tilted strongly in favor of the Anglo-Italian team on this day. Watson and Lauda were protagonists in the Monaco Grand Prix, especially the World Champion, who managed to reach and surpass Villeneuve, Watson, and Scheckter. It's challenging to say if Lauda could have beaten Depailler without the puncture, but certainly, the Frenchman would have faced a more formidable challenge in the final laps. Among the Brabham-Alfa drivers, in a generally positive Grand Prix for the team's excellent overall performance, there was a tinge of bitterness for the victory that slipped away once again. Watson and Lauda had given the impression of finally delivering a reassuring win to Bernie Ecclestone's team, but the clean sweep, once again, was postponed. The triumph went to Depailler and Tyrrell. For Patrick, it was his first victory in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and for the British team, it marked a return to the winner's circle after a long hiatus (the last win was in the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix, courtesy of Jody Scheckter). The effort to make the six-wheeled car competitive cost time and money for Ken Tyrrell but yielded no results. With a traditional four-wheeled car, the situation quickly changed. In a few races, the new 008 proved to be competitive, progressively rising to this victory. Now, Depailler leads the World Championship with 23 points, against Reutemann and Andretti with 18 each, and Lauda with 16. It's the first time in Formula 1 history that a French driver leads the standings. The title challenge remains wide open, and Reutemann and Ferrari still have all their chances. Escorted by three large police officers twice his size, Patrick Depailler faces the wave of French fans celebrating his victory.
In moments, he is engulfed in an affectionate embrace from fans who want to get close to the small and likable protagonist of the Monaco Grand Prix. Born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1944, and having started racing in 1966 after a few seasons as a motorcyclist, Depailler is the first Frenchman since Jean-Pierre Beltoise in 1972 (B.R.M.) to inscribe his name in the annals of the Monaco Grand Prix. In the team van, with his usual cordiality, the Tyrrell driver recounts his first Formula 1 victory.
"Finally. I've waited for this victory for so long that it almost doesn't seem real. Now I'm happy to have waited because success has come here in Monte Carlo. It was an unexpectedly easy victory. At the start, I slipped into a gap that had opened on the left, and I practically found a clear path. For many laps, I followed Watson without being able to pass him because his Brabham-Alfa Romeo was much faster than my Tyrrell, especially in acceleration. However, he demanded too much from his tires, and at a certain point, I saw that I could overtake him. Watson eliminated himself from the race, going straight at the chicane, and for the rest of the race, I had no problems".
Was there a moment when you found yourself in difficulty?
"Only once at Mirabeau, I got scared because Watson braked too hard, and I almost hit him. With the nine points gained in Monte Carlo, I have taken the lead in the Formula 1 World Championship".
What are your ambitions?
"It's too early to talk about the championship. I want at least a week of relaxation to fully savor this victory, then we'll see. However, I can also nurture some hope because my car is excellent and easily adapts to every track. On the Monte Carlo track, it responded fully, was well-balanced, and effective. The setup didn't change much from the beginning to the end of the race, allowing me to have excellent braking. Only towards the end did I feel some vibrations, due to the suspensions, so I was very careful to conserve the tires".
Riccardo Patrese, the only Italian in the race, secured an honorable sixth place.
"It's a placement that allows me to grab another point for the World Championship standings, which is particularly valuable to spare my team from pre-qualifying tests next year. The car was difficult to handle in corners, and that's why I couldn't manage to overtake Pironi. At the start, I found the road blocked by Jabouille's Renault, which was practically stopped".
It was a negative outcome for Lotus drivers, who had occupied positions behind the top three for more than half the race. Mario Andretti says:
"It was an unlucky day, full of problems that forced me to stop at the pits four times. The first stop had to be made because the fuel gauge had broken, and the fuel had soaked my suit. I had to have water poured over me to alleviate the burns. Then, the same defect that had cost me the race last year in Sweden reappeared. The fuel injection pump regulator loosened once again, the mixture became too rich, and the engine stalled".
His teammate, Ronnie Peterson, was also having a good race.
"No use, because the second gear broke, and then even the fifth gear didn't engage regularly".
Niki Lauda apologizes to Carlos Reutemann. It was indeed the Austrian who rear-ended the Argentine just after the start, forcing him to pit to change a tire and excluding him from the fight. Initially, Reutemann didn't exactly see who had hit him, and only later, when he was at the Ferrari stand, did he learn the truth. Initially, the Ferrari driver thought Watson was the culprit.
"In the confusion, I only noticed that a red car was too close to me. I hadn't had a very fast start, but I could defend myself well. However, 200 meters after St. Devote's turn, I realized something was wrong: I looked and noticed the left rear tire completely off the rim. I stopped at the pits and resumed the race, a lap down. I fought, but I have to admit that psychologically I was already drained".
At the end of the race, Reutemann, after analyzing the incident and putting together the pieces of the puzzle, believed he had identified Watson as the one responsible for his elimination. So he went to the Brabham driver and accused him.
"This is the second time you've hit me... try to be more careful, because we're not in a bumper car".
Watson looks at him in amazement and then replies that he knows nothing about it.
"I didn't touch anyone".
When Reutemann reaches the stand, he notices Watson making his way through the crowd. The Brabham driver arrives, breathless, with his helmet still in his hand, and climbs onto the Ferrari van with the Argentine. It is at that moment that the incident is explained.
"It was Lauda who touched you. He confirmed it himself; he says he touched someone at the start, but he didn't know it was you. He apologizes; the collision was not intentional".
Niki Lauda, surrounded by a crowd of fans, receives applause from the entire Brabham-Alfa Romeo team. Then, escaping the admirers, he quickly retreats to Bernie Ecclestone's luxurious yacht for a shower. When he reappears in public, he expresses his version of events.
"There was a big mess at the start, and I found myself on top of Reutemann. It's not my habit to do these things, and I think everyone will believe me when I say it was completely unintentional. Later, I carried on with my race. Unfortunately, I had the misfortune of getting a puncture at a crucial moment. However, I must acknowledge that changing both rear wheels benefited me, and I could easily make a comeback. The mechanics were excellent, and the pit stop was short. So, I was able to recover. The car was performing very well".
If the Austrian's car had no problems, the same cannot be said for Watson's Brabham. The Northern Irish driver claims to have had brake issues. Someone present at the chicane when the talented John went straight, losing the lead to Depailler (who was closely followed by Lauda), is convinced that Watson went too long into the turn and went off due to the mistake made. However, the driver insists that he couldn't brake.
"The brake pedal went all the way down and didn't come back up. That's why I went off. I had been having problems for a few laps because the car wasn't stopping properly".
This version is confirmed by Depailler, who states that he noticed Watson's car wasn't braking well.
Launched at 220 km/h, not even Gilles Villeneuve could brake before crashing into the barriers. The Canadian once again took a significant risk, and when he returns to the Ferrari stand, he appears quite shocked.
"Everything happened in an instant. Inside the tunnel, while I was almost at full speed in fifth gear. I felt the car tilt to one side, and from that moment, I completely lost control. I zig-zagged almost to the chicane where I took the final blows. A real scare, but I don't think I'm at fault. I think the left front tire deflated".
For Ferrari technicians, it will be challenging to verify these claims, although everyone is willing to accept them with confidence. The 312 T3 is brought back by a semi-destroyed tow truck on the left side. The front wheel and suspension are completely bent on the hood, and the rear is sharply severed. When this is also brought to the Maranello team, the destroyed wheel is clearly visible.
"However, for a few laps, the car was no longer perfect. When the incident happened, Lauda had just passed me quite easily at the Portier corner. I hadn't even tried to resist because it would have been useless and stupid. I'm very sorry I couldn't finish the race as I was finishing in fifth place, a result that wouldn't have been bad since I was racing on this circuit for the first time".
Ferrari doesn't make a big fuss, even though Engineer Forghieri looks very serious. After securing pole position and hoping for a victory within Reutemann's possibilities, the Maranello team has to settle for Carlos's eighth place.
"It's not our fault if in every race, they put us out of the running with an accident. Unfortunately, in car races, certain incidents are normal, and no one does anything to prevent them".