The Formula 1 Championship is heading for the grand finale. On Sunday the 14th of August of 1977 they will race in Zeltweg, Austria, on the 28th of August in Zandvoort, Holland, and on the 11th of September in Monza: the Italian Grand Prix will close the european serie. The Canadian, US and Japanese races will be the last ones of the season. Therefore, six races in total to determine the number one of the 1977 season, James Hunt and McLaren’s heir. The situation is still uncertain, but after a long period of crisis Ferrari is back on top of Formula 1, allowing Niki Lauda to win the German Grand Prix. Lauda, who with miracles of intelligence and class managed to remain afloat during tough Sundays, finds himself on the top of the grid with 48 points against Jody Sheckter’s 38 (Wolf) and against Mario Andretti’s 32 (Lotus), Carlos Reutemann’s 31 (Ferrari) and Hunt’s 22 (McLaren). Ten points don’t make a substantial advantage, nevertheless they are still a good springboard for this final sprint. They are twice the advantage because 312-T2 is competitive again and because Zeltweg, Zandvoort and Monza are circuits overall favorable for Ferrari, meaning that they highlight the constructive features of the Modenese cars and, especially, the power of the 12 cylinders boxer engine that for several years, in gradually improved versions, pushes them. Hockenheim’s success with the Lauda-Ferrari combination and Reutemann’s brilliant fourth place have naturally silenced critics and complaints. There is nothing better than facts to suppress any rumor and whisper. There is still one matter left to solve: will the Austrian be at Ferrari or not? Probably yes, not to say surely, if Enzo Ferrari gives him a certain type of technical and moral guarantees: the economical aspect of the deal isn’t the most important one. Lauda and Ferrari come back to Zeltweg after a year of absence. As you may remember, in 1976 Lauda went from one hospital to the other, trying to speed his recovery. Ferrari with a brave decision had decided to suspend its attendance to the World Championship: it was a hard blow for the organizers of the Austrian Grand Prix, who welcomed 50.000 viewers instead of 130.000 like in 1975 and had the proof of Maranello team’s importance in the racing world.
This time instead we will have an increase of interest with the usual arrival of thousands of Italian fans, to the point where Zeltweg is considered the third Italian Grand Prix of the season along with those in Monte-carlo and Monza. The circuit has been improved, especially in terms of safety. The Hella turn, at the end of the box and stands’ straight, turned into a chicane with a reduction of speed from 280 to 120 km/h (this costed 75.000.000 lire); the guardrails have been either reinforced or moved; the starting and finishing line has been expanded. On Friday the 12th of August of 1977, thousands of tents bloom in the meadows of the green valley in which rises Zeltweg race track. A huge campsite, with rides, stands, breweries: a festival for motorsport. 150.000 viewers are expected on Sunday. A feast, but more importantly a deal, a big one that will repay the organizers for the red of last year (they had lost 100.000.000 lire), when Niki Lauda and Ferrari’s absence, after the tragedy in Nurburgring, left the grassy stands of this facility built in the middle of Stria semi-deserted. For Lauda and Ferrari’s fans the party has already started with the first day of practice: confirming the progress that emerged during the last three races of the championship, the pairing Lauda-Ferrari is the fastest. The Austrian makes a lap in 1’39’’32, at an average of 215.39 km/h, surpassing James Hunt, Hans Stuck and Mario Andretti (1'39"54 with McLaren, 1’39’’97 with Brabham-Alfa Romeo and 1’40’’04 with Lotus). Carlos Reutemann does the fifth time (1'40"12), therefore the Maranello team can, albeit cautiously, be rather optimistic for Sunday. Modest performances from the usual protagonists of the Grand Prix, Jody Sheckter and John Watson, who will have to finish the setup of their Wolf and Brabham-Alfa Romeo. For Lauda and Ferrari, who have been working hard to the utmost to fix the very compromised technical situation, it’s been a good day. In the first hour and a half of practice Hunt beat Lauda by a whisker (1'39"69 against 1'39"99), in the last one Niki takes his revenge, a revenge that obviously waits for a confirmation on Saturday. The Austrian, in good shape, marked his remarkable limit in thirty minutes, after having gradually lowered the lap time. Lauda stops, leaves his Ferrari to his mechanics and sits down on a guardrail behind the team timekeepers to control the others’ performances. A bit of suspense, but no one managed to be faster than Niki’s red 312-T2.
"However, I wasn’t very calm, I stopped because I had reached the best possible today: persisting would have been dangerous. My car was good, the problems that afflicted us for a long time are now being solved. This has been a good job".
Lauda is always the same, he doesn’t leave any space for emotions or memories, therefore having achieved the best time at home has made the Austrian happy only in terms of positive references on the technical side.
"This is like every other race for me".
He doesn’t seem too worried about his wife Marlene’s hospitalization in a clinic in Salzburg.
"Don’t worry, don’t worry, we are not having a baby. It’s just a check up. Everything is fine".
Both Lauda and Reutemann have had to drive their reserve car. It happened first to Niki for the seizure of the throttle drive shaft, then to the Argentinian for a drop in the engine’s performance (200-300 RPM less than normal, a difference that you feel on the fast turns in Zeltweg). It’s interesting to point out that on the same car the two drivers have done similar lap times: 1'40"0 for Lauda, 1'40"18 for Carlos. The Argentinian driver looked slightly sad. There’s a rumor that at the end of the year he will leave Ferrari and it seems that many drivers have already knocked at the doors in Maranello.
"I don’t know what will be my future in Ferrari. I wait for the commander to decide. Personally, I have little to reproach myself. I only know that I was unlucky in the USA, in South Africa and in Belgium. Today I could have at least ten more points in the World Championship".
Any names? Peterson, Scheckter, Fittipaldi: the usual ones. Ferrari used soft tires on this first day of practice, just like every other team. Therefore, there is again the suspicion that Goodyear only wanted to give such tires to Andretti’s team. The engineer Mauro Forghieri replies:
"Anyway, if we had asked for them, I’m positive that they wouldn’t have arrived".
The American society has had a few concerns about handing out these tires, doubts that come from safety reasons. There is the fear of some pickling due to high speeds and temperatures recorded in Zeltweg. The engineer Roberto Nosetto answers:
"This is a difficult track. There are long turns with transversal and longitudinal slope variations: it is not only a circuit about power, but also about setup and maneuverability. In Hockenheim mattered mainly the horsepower, here roadholding also comes into play. A test bed for the entire car".
There’s a lot of caution at Ferrari. We expect that many drivers will improve their performance tomorrow. Sheckter, for example, Watson (always dealing with a car prepared approximately), Laffite, Hunt himself, who could have achieved better times in the last laps if he hadn’t been slowed down by Watson. Not to mention Andretti, who in the end, when he was doing his utmost, was impeded by the intense traffic on track. On the other hand, everyone is entitled to take part in the official practice. The attempt of organizing pre-qualifying training for the drivers of the non members teams of the Formula 1 constructors association has failed under the pressure of Csai, which obviously worried about Arturo Merzario’s situation in particular. The European season in Formula 1, as already mentioned, is coming to an end, and in the environment of Formula 1 there are various hypotheses about who will win this title. The predictions are unanimous and they all agree on Niki Lauda.
The Austrian champion and his Ferrari are considered the combination with the highest chance of winning, given that Lauda is considered by everyone one of the best drivers and without a doubt the one who provides the most guarantees of high performance. 312-T2, after the last two convincing practice sessions, has returned to be the car to beat: both in terms of performance and reliability. Here are some opinions from the members of the circus. Carlo Chiti, Autodelta director and engine designer for Formula 1:
"The Championship should be Lauda’s because he’s a driver that doesn’t make any mistakes. Moreover, he can count on a car that is amongst the best even when it wasn’t the fastest. Ferrari is without a doubt the most reliable and therefore, it will be amongst the first in the following races".
Hans Stuck, Martini Brabham-Alfa Romeo driver, says:
"Lauda is the best not only as a driver, but also as a man. Many nonsensical things have been said and written about him, it’s true that he has few friends but with them he is an open, polite and friendly person".
Maria Elena Fittipaldi, Emerson Fittipaldi’s wife, says:
"After the accident in Nurburgring and the retirement in Japan, Lauda has received despicable treatment from too many people. With a lot of will and determination he has managed to react and climb back on top. Even just for this reason he deserves to win this title".
A smiling and relaxed Niki Lauda finishes the free practices of the Austrian Grand Prix, in which he achieves the desired pole position, gifting to the Ferrari mechanics a hundred of bottles of White of Stiria won with his exploit.
"Finally they’ll drink some good white wine. Enough of The Lambrusco".
Friday’s exploit, because on Saturday neither does Niki improve nor do his rivals- which is even more relevant- in particular James Hunt and Mario Andretti. Hunt, with McLaren, has gained 0.1s compared to the first day of practice, Andretti, with Lotus, 0.3s: 1'39"45 and 1'39"74. The Italian-American surpassed Hans Stuck and Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1'39"97). Carlos Reutemann, with the second Ferrari, stayed in fifth position (1'40"12). As we can see from these lap times, Lauda and his colleagues are seconds away from each other, therefore the race is more uncertain and hard-fought than ever. There’s a balance among the cars and the race is announced to be one of the most challenging of the season for the length (almost 320km) and for the characteristics of the circuit pledging every bit of the car, firstly the engine, gear shift and springs. Moreover, there are two immediate issues. The first one: the need to store in the tanks of the cars a big amount of petrol to cover a track this long. At Ferrari they plan on filling the tank with around 185 liters. If the race is going to be drawn-out and if it’s going to be hot, there will be evaporation and, therefore, abnormal consumption. Someone may run dry before they cross the finish line. Secondly: given the track’s development, the left front tire of every car will undergo a small wear and tear. There is the risk of having to box to change them. At Ferrari, for once, they are rather relaxed about this second issue. The engineer Mauro Forghieri explains:
"We have tried a dozen sets of tires and there hasn't been any inconvenience. Lauda did a test with the tank full of petrol and everything was fine. Obviously, something may happen during the race and the negative consequences would be identical on the practical side".
Hunt’s lap time 1'39"45 is worrying. On Saturday the track is more slippery and, therefore, it’s hard to improve.
The Englishman, who with McLaren recovers quite well, after a dark period comparable to Ferrari’s one, has been really fast and on Sunday he could become Lauda’s biggest rival. No one underestimates Andretti, even if the italian-american struggles a lot before finding the right thrust. The reason is the tires themselves: Mario has had to change four or five sets of tires to find the right combination. It worked in extremis, right in the last lap of practice. The spirits at Lotus are quite tense, also because Gunnar Nilsson, after the inexperienced win in Belgium, doesn’t want to play second fiddle to Andretti. The Swedish fights with Colin Chapman and it seems that he isn’t going to stay in the team. Nevertheless, for Ferrari a crisis is right behind the corner and, no matter how the Austrian Grand Prix is going to end, there’s awareness of the progress made, of the return of 312-T2 in the highest levels of competitiveness. Niki Lauda adds:
"We have done a good job, teamwork. This is thanks to everyone. We modified the front spring and the aerodynamics: it can still improve and this is what gives me hope the most after all. Of course, if I went back to Zolder or Anderstorp, things would be different. Nevertheless, I managed to get points even in our darkest period: it’s all about mentality".
On his relationship with Ferrari, after the rumors in the last Grand Prix, Lauda says:
"Everything is fine. Either way, at the moment I have no interest in thinking about changes in the team, I don’t want to waste time studying contracts or counting how much money I could make in this team or in that team. I need my head to win the championship, because I really want to win it, no matter what. In October, when the season will be over, I will talk about business. As for tomorrow I am calm. My Ferrari hasn’t had any problems, there are only the usual uncertainties of every race. I start with ten points more than Sheckter and this is already positive. Now I am trying to gain as many points as possible. For example, it’s best to come second in Zeltweg behind Andretti or Sheckter or anyone else than to retire for having tried to rush the win".
Niki works like this, coldly and clearly, and the results proved him right in the past. This time even more, Sheckter who considers Lauda the number one rival of the moment, since he’s the closest to him in the Championship standing, isn’t supported by Wolf like on other tracks. The black car of the South African suffers the fast turns in Zeltweg, in the meantime in the race Jody will start in the fourth row. John Watson, even in sixth row with Brabham-Alfa Romeo. The Irish driver has gone off the road in the chicane that closes the stands’ straight, slightly damaging the car. Bad day for Vittorio Brambilla, hero in Zeltweg under the rain two years ago. First, on the reserve car a water pipe has broken down, then on the Surtees for the race the brakes have given out, therefore the driver hit the guardrail in the Borsch turn. (Vittorio was good at spinning to reduce the speed.) saving himself miraculously, while the car entirely fell apart. In the end, once again on the reserve car one bit of the back spring broke. Now the drivers, the fans and the technicians can’t do anything but wait for the race verdict. Lauda, having conquered the third pole position in the Austrian Grand Prix (1974, 1975 and the ones before that), and the second one in this season, he comes on track with his Ferrari as the man to beat. It’s already a good milestone for the driver and the glorious Scuderia Ferrari. On Sunday the 14th of August of 1977, the rain wets the track about an hour before the start, finishing ten minutes from the start, making the circuit wet. This caused a big issue to the teams concerning the choice of tires. Everyone chooses to use the slicks, except for Gunnar Nilsson and Arturo Merzario. At the start of the Austrian Grand Prix Niki Lauda is overtaken by both James Hunt and Mario Andretti. The Italian-American overtakes Hunt as well and, by the end of the first lap, he’s leading. After these three there are Jody Sheckter, Patrick Tambay, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Gunnar Nilsson. In the first laps the cars with wet tires have an advantage. Nilsson in the fourth lap, after a long series of overtakes, is second behind Andretti (who instead puts on on dry tires); Arturo Merzario has a good comeback, starting last he’s sixth by the ninth lap. On the other hand, Lauda, who had opted for slicks, loses several positions and finds himself tenth. Shortly after, both Nilsson and Merzario are forced to box to put on dry tires as well. In the course of the twelfth lap Mario Andretti has to retire due to the breakage of the engine.
The standing has James Hunt at the top, followed by Jody Scheckter, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Alan Jones, Jochen Mass, Niki Lauda and Patrick Tambay. A lap later Mass is forced to come back into the box because the water light is broken. In a few laps, Jones overtakes both Sheckter and Stuck, taking himself right behind Hunt. Gunnar Nilsson is very competitive too, to the point where he gains back several positions: the Swedish driver overtakes first the two Tyrrell’s, then Tambay and Reutemann, just behind Niki Lauda. During the thirtieth lap Stuck, having been pressured by Lauda and Nilsson, makes a mistake losing two positions. Gunnar Nilsson’s comeback continues with the overtakes on Lauda and Jody Sheckter in the thirty second lap. The Swedish sees his race come to an end since his thruster breaks down in the thirty eighth lap. James Hunt keeps going in first position, followed by Alan Jones, Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Carlos Reutemann. In the course of the fortieth lap, the McLaren English driver stops for the rupture of the engine too. Now Alan Jones is the one leading the race who keeps the position till the end. In the last laps the standing changes for a mistake on Sheckter’s side by messing up an overtake on a lapped car; Jochen Mass is in the points zone after having overtaken Rupert Keegan. For the third consecutive time, after the victories of Vittorio Brambilla in 1975 and John Watson in 1976, the Grand Prix of Austria is won by a driver who hasn’t won much before. In a race that seems like a lottery, with technical values messed up by the time's whims. Niki Lauda takes a big step towards winning the World Championship. The Austrian has conquered a golden second place behind Alan Jones and Shadow - anglo american team in the limelight for the controversy with Franco Ambrosio- a golden second place for how much he has matured, both for the simultaneous retirement of Jody Scheckter, Mario Andretti and James Hunt, all of them racing for the win of the title. Only Carlos Reutemann was safe, Niki’s teammate, and this obviously is another merit for Ferrari. Lauda, after twelve races, is now more than ever at the top of the World Championship standings. He has 54 points and Sheckter 38. His advantage has gone up from 10 to 16 points, while the amount of races left is down to five. It’s not a consistent gap yet, but for Sheckter, unlucky in Austria, a comeback is harder than before: there is still a feeling that the wind is now on Lauda and Ferrari’s side, after a difficult period of half a year.
Even Reutemann takes a big step forward. The Argentinian surpasses Andretti, who still has only 32 points, and gets closer to Sheckter. No other team has two drivers in contention for the title. This has happened to Ferrari more than once, a sign that, even during tough times and dark moments, there is a thread of continuity that arouses wonder. Being at the top in Formula 1 is already difficult, staying for long is exceptional. Lauda and Reutemann had a two-faced race on the Zeltweg circuit: slow, apparently defeatist in the first part, attacking and vigorous in the second one. In reality, Carlos and Lauda have simply accepted the possibilities of their cars, betrayed at the start by the conditions of the track and then again competitive with the improvement of the weather. So, a race, at first, not exciting, but clear and intelligent. No useless risk, no adventure. A tactic (or if you prefer, the ability to adapt to a certain situation) that has been rewarded. The progressive growth of 312-T2 of the Argentinian and the Austrian, the fall of many protagonists, have made possible the reversal of the situation, making the balance positive just like the free practices had predicted in the previous days. Clearly, this tactic has been possible thanks to the perfect car holding. 312-T2 has been even better than its own drivers, on one side proving that in normal conditions, with the maximum efficiency of the tires, its performance is high, on the other side proposing once again its best characteristic: reliability. Lauda and Reutemann didn’t have one small mechanical or tuning problem, at the end their cars were as fresh and valid as at the start (in fact, even more). However, there has been a drop of Cosworth engines: Andretti, Hunt and Gunnar Nilsson, author of a great race, had to retire. The eight cylinder engines made in England have been overstrained by their drivers during the convulsive phases of the Austrian Grand Prix. There is also a preparation problem. These days, Cosworth is on vacation, there’s no review of the thrusters and every team has to settle with what they have. Now the Championship moves to Holland, in Zandvoort, another favorable circuit for Ferrari, bizarre weather permitting. Then, Monza, the Italian Grand Prix: after the issues and the melancholies from last year, will this be a payback day for the men in Ferrari? We will see. Even if the victory has gone to Alan Jones with Shadow, the Italian and Austrian fans, thousands of them have come to support Lauda and Ferrari, at the end are quite satisfied.
Their hero, Niki Lauda, with today’s second place in terms of Championship is a complete success, confirms his leading position and now the long-awaited title is closer than ever. Big euphoria, at the end of the race, in the Shadow team that is tight around a shocked Alan Jones, still in disbelief for the unexpected affirmation:
"I’m beyond happy and I can’t believe I’ve just won, I don’t know what to say because I’m so excited; anyway, the whole team needed this success after having gone through dark times".
Happy faces in Ferrari too for the great positions achieved by both drivers. The engineer Nosettto, team responsible, comments on it:
"Niki and Carlos had a good start, but at first we had some problems with cold tires that prejudiced the tire condition; then, as we went on, when the surface dried out, the tuning of our cars emerged and our drivers went up one position after the other. Today’s result satisfies us for the Championship because it allows Niki to take a further step forward and increase the gap with Sheckter. Regarding the race without the first laps with a wet track, we would have definitely achieved more and this leaves us with a bittersweet feeling".
As soon as Lauda hops off the car, with his usual coldness, he worries about getting back the bag with the helmet he had left in the box:
"At the start, with cold tires, we had a light understeer; then, when the track dried out, the car became perfect like during practice and I didn’t have any problem. Second place today is precious because it allows me to have a bigger gap with Sheckter, but it’s too soon to talk about titles. Japan is still far away".
Meanwhile Carlos Reutemann says:
"Maybe I could have gotten third place if I hadn’t been blocked by Stuck, who slowed me down. On the straight during the final lap Hands braked hard and forced me to brake as well, I lost around fifty meters. An outrageous behavior for a professional. The start was the toughest part because the track was still wet. It would have been best if we had waited another fifteen to twenty minutes before starting, so everything would have been okay".
Engineer Forghieri is happy with his drivers’ performances:
"Lauda started with his usual prudence because he had dry tires on. It was best to start with a wet one, but almost every driver had put on slicks so we adapted. In the first half of the race, mainly because of the tires, some values were subverted, but when the track was finally dry, our cars emerged and completely confirmed their reliability".
Fuming and with a tense face, Sheckter comes back by foot from the Rindt turn. A few minutes earlier he had gone off track and lost a brilliant place. The South African driver walks towards Patrick Neve’s box, guilty, according to Sheckter, of having taken him out, and he expresses his disapproval to Frank Williams. Walter Wolf is furious as well, the austrian-canadian billionaire, Sheckter’s patron.
"Neve is an idiot who drives like he’s the only one on track. He has taken away from Jody the chance to reach a sure third place and annexed points for the standings in the championship that today, more than ever, would have been important".
From his point of view, the young Belgian has justified the event:
"I didn’t see anything, I didn’t see neither Sheckter nor any blue flag from the stewards that alerted me of the overtake. Therefore, I don’t know why Jody is upset with me".
On this positive day for Lauda, Hunt and Andretti, two of the most dangerous rivals for the Austrian champion, have accused a setback. James Hunt speaks:
"Today the engine broke down, but I won’t give up. I will fight till the end to try and win the title".
Mario Andretti bitterly states:
"This was an unlucky Grand Prix for me, because after the first laps I had a good gap and I thought I could do it. The engine broke and there goes any hope. About the championship I am still in the running because there are five more races to go and anything can happen".
Not much luck for the Italian drivers too. Vittorio Brambilla says:
"In the first lap, during the chicane behind the box, a car in front of me spun and to avoid it I went on the grass. I got stuck and I couldn’t get out; so, I had to push the car onto the track. Then, I hopped in and kept going. After one lap, I saw that the car didn’t have any damage, so I pitted to fix the seatbelts. In the end I had to let the others pass because the rear bar broke and the stability was precarious".
In the meantime, the chaos of rumors continues in the Formula 1 circus, concerning the transition of one driver from one team to another. The first rumors are about Ferrari: the Maranello team is supposedly interested in the young Patrick Tambay, author of great performances in the last races. In this regard, it seems that Tambay will pay Maranello a visit to negotiate with Ferrari executives.