#289 1977 French Grand Prix

2022-07-18 01:00

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#1977, Fulvio Conti, Martina Marastoni,

#289 1977 French Grand Prix

For a change summer seems to be coming to Europe and all is set fair when practice begins, though there is a head wind on the long uphill straight pas


The Ferrari is not only a Formula 1 team but also a car manufacturer integrated into a large automotive group. It is logical, from this perspective, that the sporting problems of the Maranello team concern everyone and generate discussions even among those not involved in the field, the occasional spectators who follow the Grand Prix on TV on Sundays. The point of discussion is one: this year, Niki Lauda's and Carlos Reutemann's Ferraris are not performing well. Other cars are faster and more competitive, like the Lotus or the Brabham with an Alfa Romeo engine. What has happened to the cars with the Prancing Horse emblem? Why don't they perform at least as well as last year, when Lauda, without the Nurburgring drama, would have undoubtedly won another world title? The problem is purely technical, and, apparently, it seems rather simple: the Ferraris, entering corners, exhibit understeer characteristics (drivers have to steer more than usual to follow the correct trajectory), while exiting, they become oversteering, requiring steering corrections, skidding, and slowdowns. Moreover, the drivers have to brake earlier and accelerate with less aggression. All this results in a time loss that varies from circuit to circuit but remains, in any case, significant. It is explained, then, how in the recent Swedish Grand Prix, Andretti could be faster than Lauda and Reutemann by one second. What has caused this incorrect behavior of the 312-T2? In recent months, Ferrari technicians had blamed the tires. As known, only Goodyear operates in Formula 1 (however, Michelin's arrival with Renault is imminent). The American company, for safety reasons, provided all teams with tires with a rigid structure and a harder compound than used in the past.


"These tires don't heat up; the tire doesn't grip the asphalt, there's a lack of grip, resulting in understeer and oversteer phenomena".


But this theory was strongly refuted by facts. In the practice sessions of the Swedish Grand Prix, Goodyear supplied softer tires to Ferrari and other teams, similar to those used in 1976. The use of these tires gave the cars from Maranello an advantage of 0.1s, and for some rival teams, an increase of 1.1s. The inevitable conclusion: the influence of tires on the problems of the Maranello car is irrelevant or almost so. The causes are different. And here we come to the crux of the matter. The optimal performance of a Formula 1 car, a machine with the name of a car but in reality an airplane upside down on four (and six) extremely sophisticated wheels, depends on the equally optimal functioning of various components. Technicians aim for a balance that can easily be disrupted: it is enough for one element not to behave properly or for a modification intended to improve but instead worsen the situation. Now, Ferrari has regressed compared to last year (just observe Lauda's qualifying times), while rivals have progressed. This regression - since tires have a minimal impact - stems from changes made to the 312-T2: suspension geometry, aerodynamic elements (rear wing, front wing), air intakes. Enzo Ferrari says:


"A Formula 1 car is like a cocktail, a mix of many ingredients. Occasionally we replace one in the hope of making the drink more pleasant, but sometimes we make it worse".


The only problem is that it is difficult to identify the wrong ingredient. In this case, various contributing factors, even tiny ones, must mix. Theoretically, the issues should arise from the front suspension geometry, which, paradoxically, works so well that it doesn't make the tires scrub and prevents them from heating up. Criticisms of the transverse gearbox, short wheelbase, and weight distribution are somewhat secondary: the car behaved excellently last year. It would be enough to return to the 1976 standard to allow Lauda and Reutemann to compete on equal terms with rivals. Simultaneously, it is a magical moment for French automobilism. In Sweden, Jacques Laffite and Ligier-Matra won the Grand Prix, and the signs of enthusiasm are clear on the face of the French driver smiling from large posters plastered on walls and shop windows throughout Dijon. On Sunday, July 3, 1977, the French Grand Prix will be held at the Prenois circuit, a few kilometers from the capital of Burgundy, and Laffite seems to be a candidate for a double win. But that's not all; on the horizon appears another car produced by the National Industry, by the Regie Renault, which, after achieving many brilliant results in rallies and the World Sports Car Championship, enters the world of single-seaters, first with Formula 2 and now with Formula 1. On Friday, June 24, 1977, it takes to the track, along with Ferrari, McLaren, Ligier-Matra, Brabham-Alfa Romeo, Wolf, Shadow, and Tyrrell, also the brand-new Renault Elf, considered revolutionary because it mounts a turbocharged 1500cc, six-cylinder engine. 


And it must be said that the times achieved by the official driver, Jabouille, are more than encouraging, even if not entirely indicative, and it is still unknown whether the leaders of the French state-owned brand will decide to risk participating in a race that seems very challenging with a car whose reliability they still need to verify. If Laffite laps the Prenois circuit in 1'12"5 and is the fastest of all, Jabouille so far sets the second time with 1'12"9. Not to mention that Renault, in these two days on the track, has not paid much attention to lap times but above all to the tuning of the car's engine. Moreover, the French company, proud to have created a car entirely in-house, uses Michelin tires, which seem to yield exceptional results. It seems that even the special ones for setting lap times have not been used so far, which should allow Jabouille to go below the time achieved on Friday afternoon. Everyone is watching this yellow, whistling car with great interest, and especially in the Ferrari team, it is emphasized that Renault can be considered a dangerous outsider. The men of the Maranello team, of course, are not in Dijon to monitor their rivals but to try to remedy the problem shown by the 312-T2 in recent races. Engineer Mauro Forghieri, with technician Tornami, chief mechanic Cuoghi, and a team of specialists, has brought a new car to test for Lauda and Reutemann. Niki works like a madman, completing several laps of the track to fine-tune the car, and laps in 1'13"0 on more than one occasion. Mauro Forghieri says:


"On the base chassis of the T2, we have mounted a new body, modified in lateral aerodynamic shape. It's an evolution suggested by the data provided by the recent races. Of course, we came to Dijon to fine-tune suspensions, wings, and spoilers as well. The results seem to be fairly positive, although it is still too early to be optimistic or pessimistic. So far, we have run on used tires and an engine that has already covered a thousand kilometers overall. Tonight, the mechanics will install a new engine, and testing will continue on Saturday and Sunday with Reutemann, who absolutely does not know this track".


Niki, right after finishing his work, returns home. He will return to Dijon the following week for official testing. Before getting into Sante Ghedini's car, the Austrian driver says:


"We worked hard. At this moment, I cannot know what the situation is. The car is better, but we have to wait until next week to see. It's too early to judge, just as it is difficult to talk about the World Championship at this point: all solutions are possible, I just want to clarify that there is nothing true in what has been written about me lately. The move to Brabham and all the other stories are unfounded. In my mind, there is only Ferrari, and I am trying, with the help of the technicians, to bring the car back to competitive levels. In eight days, we will see if there are results".


As if wanting to gather around the drivers and technicians of the Maranello team, working on the track that will host the ninth race of the Formula 1 World Championship, on Saturday, June 25, 1977, the Ferrari Club of France gathers its members in Dijon. On the Prenois circuit, 97 cars of all eras, born in the Maranello factory, perform in a festival for billionaire gentleman drivers under the watchful eye of the team led by engineer Mauro Forghieri. But the attention of the mechanics and Carlos Reutemann (remaining alone after Niki Lauda returns home on Friday night) is quite scarce. The former, perhaps because they are tired, the latter concerned with solving the problems that still plague the Ferrari. It may seem strange, but these free practice sessions have an undefined meaning. They can be useful if weather conditions (it has been cold these days) repeat during the race, and especially allow the driver to train, especially if he is unfamiliar with the circuit. But saying that the results obtained will give a big advantage at the time of official training is still far off. Comparisons are missing. If Laffite, with the Ligier-Matra, laps in 1'12"5 and Ferrari, on Saturday morning, laps in 1'12"7, it does not mean that there will be this margin of gap when it comes to securing starting positions. On Friday, the Frenchman had a new engine, but it is not certain that he pushed it to the maximum. Reutemann uses used tires and a regenerated engine. Moreover, other direct rivals are missing. Lotus, McLaren, Wolf, and Tyrrell are at Silverstone, apparently invited by Goodyear for tire tests concerning compounds. All this creates confusion, insecurity. 


The fact that tires are at the center of every problem is undeniable. Here, in Dijon, the pit lane notes an important fact: last year there were three cars that were at the top: Ferrari, McLaren, and Tyrrell. Now all three teams are in trouble. Tyrrell is even said to be willing to change the car, to go back, moving (but this will eventually happen at the beginning of next season) from the six-wheeler to a traditional car. As for Ferrari, it is working hard to return to the top. The tests in these days, which will continue on Sunday morning, have served to study the car and its behavior. With practical advice from Lauda first, and Reutemann later, Forghieri tries dozens of solutions. Apart from the change that occurred in the aerodynamics of the body in its lateral parts, various measures are adopted that concern the entire setup of the 312-T2. One must have spent the whole day in the pits to realize the work done. Reutemann stops every four laps, and with each stop, a modification is made. Adjustments are made to the springs, more or less stiff, to the tires, which are wider or narrower, to the rear suspensions, to the front ones; the length of the arms and angles are changed, larger or smaller wings are mounted. On Sunday night, a new differential should also be installed. In short, experiments are being carried out; then, on Sunday evening, in Maranello, the results will be assessed. Carlos Reutemann is reasonably satisfied with the work done but is convinced that the car can still improve. Forghieri is convinced that tires will always count in Dijon.


"Given the circuit configuration, the left front tire works more than the others. Whoever manages to achieve the best performance in the setup will have significant advantages. However, it is necessary to wait for the official trials to understand what might happen. At the moment, we are in the dark".


The only one testing, besides Reutemann, is Hans Stuck. His Brabham-Alfa consistently proves to have something more in terms of pure speed compared to Ferrari, but in lap times, it remains on the same line, perhaps even behind. The adjustment of the gearbox ratios will also be crucial. Since the circuit is very fast (exceeding 280 km/h on the pit straight), it would be necessary to adapt long gears, which, however, do not suit the mixed part of the track, where precision driving is essential. It will be a matter of choices, provided Mario Andretti doesn't arrive with the Lotus and leave everyone a couple of seconds behind, repeating the questions that arose in Zolder and Sweden. The Prenois circuit is ready for its days of glory. The French Grand Prix, scheduled for Sunday, July 3, 1977, is a crucial event for this year's Formula 1 World Championship. A verification of values is planned; it wants to see if Ferrari is truly in crisis. So far, the world of Grand Prix has been quite shaken: various winners, surprises, triumphs, and disappointments. At this moment, everyone is betting on the name of Lotus and Andretti, but there are also dangerous outsiders capable of overturning all predictions. One of them is Jacques Laffite, who won the Swedish Grand Prix with Ligier-Matra. Laffite, in Dijon, is well-known because he has raced some of his best races there. A driver who is on the rise despite not being very young. The Frenchman (born in Paris on November 21, 1943) is already 34 years old and has reached success quite late. National Formula 3 champion in 1973, European Formula 2 champion in 1975, he debuted in Formula 1 in 1974 (German Grand Prix) but had to retire due to mechanical problems. Last year he achieved a second place, two thirds, and two fourths. 


Not bad for a driver and a car that initially weren't given much chance. Ligier is also a fairly artisanal car. Built by Guy Ligier, a mechanic who has always been passionate about things. His first car was brought to the race by the Frenchman himself and had a Maserati engine. Later, Ligier managed to reach Formula 1, and in 1976, he achieved his goal. With the support of the Matra engine factory (which mainly builds electronic components and missiles), he created the first model, the JS-5, a traditional single-seater that proved very competitive from the first races. The displacement is 2993 cc, the power is 515 HP at 12.000 RPM, and the engine is one of the few with 12 cylinders. Laffite and the Ligier-Matra are favorites both for their knowledge of the track and for their good form. But in Dijon, everyone is especially looking forward to the official trials that will push all the drivers to the limit to secure a good position on the starting grid. Above all, they expect to see what Andretti will do, whether he will manage to go below the time of 1'12"5 that Laffite himself set as the best in free practice on this track. As for Ferrari, absolutely nothing is known for now. We have to wait for Lauda and Reutemann to hit the track to see the results of the trials. On Friday, July 1, 1977, changes the scenario, but the protagonists remain the same. 


After the first day of trials for the French Grand Prix, the best times bear the signature of John Watson, with the Brabham-Alfa Romeo, and Mario Andretti, with the Lotus. The Anglo-Italian car likes the long pit straight (1100 meters), where it reaches almost 290 km/h, while the Italian-American's car gains in the mixed part. The undeniable qualities of the car built by Colin Chapman are confirmed by the result of Gunnar Nilsson, a surprise winner in Zolder. The Swede, who for now is not yet considered a top driver in the paddock, sets the third time, leaving behind James Hunt, who continues to test the new McLaren M 26, Jacques Laffite, Carlos Rautemann, Jody Scheckter, and Niki Lauda. For Ferrari, provisional positions with the sixth time for the Argentine and the eighth for the Austrian. An hour and a half of official timed practice in the morning and an hour in the early afternoon provide more precise indications than the free practice of the week before the Grand Prix. Meanwhile, there is another demonstration of how weather conditions can influence such sophisticated cars. A week before, Laffite, with the Ligier-Matra, had set the best time at 1'12"5: on Friday, the Frenchman records a time about 0.7s slower, and the same happens to the Ferraris. There is no doubt that the intensive work done by the technicians and drivers of the Maranello team has produced some results. A slight improvement in the 312-T2 can be noticed, at least compared to what happened in Sweden. Lauda, who is more focused on fine-tuning the car than checking the stopwatch, at the end of the trials, laconic as always, says:


"In Anderstorp, I was fifteenth, here I am eighth, a sign that the car has returned to being slightly more competitive. Tomorrow we'll see if we can do something more".


After a long conversation with the drivers and Mauro Forghieri, engineer Roberto Nosetto takes stock of the situation.


"We realized that cars with the new narrower aerodynamics are particularly sensitive to weight loads on the spoiler and wing. Coming to Dijon last week gave us undoubted advantages, like not having to think about gearbox ratios anymore. Now it's a matter, as always, of finding the right balance in the distribution of loads and the consequent adjustment of suspension settings. We are on the right track, anyway".


The heavy criticisms that rained down on Ferrari in recent weeks have shaken the Maranello team a bit.


"After all, Lauda is second and Reutemann third in the World Championship standings, and Ferrari is first in the Constructors' World Championship. If we go too fast, it's said that Lauda kills the World Championship, that the rules should be changed. If we have setbacks, we are immediately finished. The best answer we can give is the results. One thing can be clarified: if Commendatore Ferrari had thought that the 312-T2 is no longer competitive, there would already be another one ready. In Maranello, we always work, and evolution is continuous".


The last official trials on Saturday (an hour of time between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) after the free morning practices will determine the starting lineup. Andretti, although he set the second time, is not very satisfied. He says the car is not as good as in Sweden, that he hoped to gain more in the curves. Certainly, the Trieste-born driver will try to force the situation to his advantage. Stuck, with the second Brabham-Alfa, will also want to make an improvement: the German had trouble because the engine, already used in free practice, started to overheat. With a new engine, Stuck hopes to get closer to his teammate, John Watson, who once again was the best. The situation of Riccardo Patrese seems promising. The young Italian driver is in thirteenth place, despite having had handling problems. Not very brilliant were Brambilla and Merzario (but it's not their fault). Both had trouble with the fuel pump. Dramatic is the position of the former World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, who is in twenty-fifth place. The admitted to the race will be twenty-two, so the Brazilian will have to work hard to qualify, but it seems that his new Copersucar is not very competitive, like the previous one. 


On Saturday, July 2, 1977, there are no more doubts: Mario Andretti will start for the fourth time in pole position, and the combination of the Italian-American driver and the Lotus is the best in Formula 1 at the moment. On a day when only two or three drivers manage to improve the time they set on Friday, Andretti spectacularly surpasses Watson. The number one of Brabham-Alfa is forced to give way to two other rivals, a rampant James Hunt and the usual Gunnar Nilsson, who, having a perfect car, inserts himself into the second row. For Ferrari, Carlos Reutemann retains the sixth position, while Niki Lauda, overtaken by Jochen Mass, drops to the ninth position and will have to line up in the fifth row. Andretti's exploit, clocking in at 1'12"21, cuts short any discussion about the race. The Trieste-born driver will start as the favorite to seek a victory he has been chasing for several races, having come close on more than one occasion, only to see it slip away due to an incident (the collision with Watson in Belgium) and the well-known fuel supply issues in Sweden.


"I have a fantastic car, and the problems I had yesterday have been overcome. I hope this time it's the right one because we can't continue like this. The only thing that scares me is the start. We are so close that anything can happen, even though the first turn after the pit straight is wide and allows for overtaking. Among my opponents, I fear most the Ferrari drivers because they have proven to be the most consistent in the races held so far".


Is it sincerity or diplomacy? The Italian-American does not mention James Hunt, who, all things considered, emerges as the most dangerous rival. Hunt is closest to the performance of the Lotus driver because he has a fighter's temperament. Underestimating him is a mistake, especially since one must not forget that in the French Grand Prix of last year (a race that, however, took place in Le Castellet), the Englishman began his incredible climb to a world title that seemed already in Lauda's hands. The blond James now has the new McLaren M26, a car that will certainly become more competitive from race to race but already seems to have made significant progress. Another element to keep an eye on is Jody Scheckter, even though the South African does not seem to be going through a particularly brilliant period of form. His starts, when he is capable of surprising everyone, are not new, however. Scheckter will start behind Reutemann and Laffite (moved to the other row), alongside Jochen Mass, ahead of Alan Jones and Niki Lauda. The two Ferrari drivers, considering the lap times in qualifying (Carlos's best is 1'13"36, Niki's is 1'13"52), will not have the opportunity to stand out immediately, although the 312-T2s have often shown to perform very well with a full tank of fuel. The Argentine and the Austrian did not lap very regularly. In search of the best balance, they stopped many times at the pits, changing tires, checking spoilers, setup, suspension hardness, and wing inclination. At the end of the only hour they had available, they failed to achieve faster times than those they had set on Friday. However, in the Maranello team, there is some confidence in the possibility of achieving a good result. Engineer Roberto Nosetto says:


"We are not afraid of this race because we are confident in the reliability of our cars. After all, the worst result for Ferrari this year has been a third place. It's very hot, and our engines hold up well, while for the tires, we always have trouble getting them up to temperature...".


In the afternoon trials, Ferrari technicians noted that their cars achieved a speed 13 km/h higher than Andretti's at the fastest point on the circuit, at the end of the straight. Saturday evening and Sunday morning, they will fine-tune the cars to make the most of this advantage. About this race, it must be said that the organizers took quite a risk. On Sunday, they will fill the circuit with 100.000 spectators, but on Saturday, for a couple of hours, they feared they might not be able to present their automotive show. The drivers contested the circuit, threatening not to take to the track if changes were not made to a series of dangerously placed guardrails, inserted into the ground precariously, and if additional protections were not added to certain sections deemed difficult. Everything was resolved with a couple of hours' delay in the start of the trials, which began immediately after the pilots' requests were accommodated. On Sunday, July 3, 1977, the race is due to start at 2:00 p.m., for 80 laps of the little autodrome, which is packed full of spectators, both the paying kind and those who came through the back doors and across the fields.


The inevitable Renault-sponsored races fill in the spare time but there is no sign of the Formula One Renault turbo-charged car, though it has been out on test in the circuit the previous week. The 22 cars chosen from the list after practice set off on a warm-up lap, round to the grid, the two reserves having prepared themselves needlessly as all the qualifiers are ready to go. On the front row are Andretti and Hunt, the Lotus 78 using a Nicholson-McLaren Cosworth DFV engine and the McLaren M26 using a Cosworth Development engine direct from the Northampton factory. In the next row are Nilsson and Watson, the Lotus number two doing a great job of backing up the team leader. The Ulsterman in the Alfa-Romeo (Brabham) is well to the fore as usual, as is Laffite in row three with the Ligier-Matra V12, and alongside the Frenchman is Reutemann in the first of the Ferraris. Any of those six are potential winners and with five makes of car amongst them, four makes of engine and five nationalities, Formula One certainly provides variety. Andretti leads the field round on the controlled warm-up lap, they pause on the grid, the green light shines and the Grand Prix of France is on. Very uncharacteristically, Andretti provokes uncontrollable wheelspin on his Lotus and slithered about trying to regain some grip. Hunt makes a splendid start and is gone, while the rest area bit puts off by the smoke from Andrettis tyres. Hunt does not wait for anyone, and he is followed by Watson, Laffite and Andretti. Round the back of the circuit Jochen Mass does the traditional McLaren high-flying act, off Reutemanns Ferrari and while the other twenty-one cars go on their way Hermann-the-German has to limp round to the pits with a bent steering link. It is straightened with a shrewd blow and the M23 re-joins the race in last place and a whole lap down on the leader, which is still Hunt in the M26. Andretti gets past Laffite on lap 2 and by the end of the next lap the first three cars have opened out a gap from the rest of the field. Hunts lead is clearly a tenuous one, brought about by the lightning start and by lap 5 Watson has stormed past the McLaren putting the red Alfa Romeo (Brabham) in the lead, while Andretti is not finding it too easy to pass the McLaren, for the reigning World Champion is having a good go. 


On successive laps three of the tail-enders retire, Jarier with the ATS-Penske going off the road and blaming the brakes, Purley doing likewise with his Lec and Patrese with his Cosworth V8 blown up. The young Italian has cooked his clutch at the start and dropped to the back of the field and then it has gone solid and he tried to change gear without the clutch and lack of experience of this sort of thing had caused the engine to cry enough. While Andretti is trying to get past Hunt, the leader is pulling out quite a long gap over them, the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine seems to be singing really well and Watson is looking very confident. Laffite is in fourth place leading Nilsson, Jody Scheckter, Lauda, Brambilla, Jones, Reutemann, Depailler, Peterson, Regazzoni, Stuck, and Merzario all more or less evenly spaced out. Bringing up the rear are Ian Scheckter, Fittipaldi and Keegan, with Mass all on his own and a lap behind, but gaining on the tail-enders. It is not until lap 17 that Andretti gets past Hunt, by which time Watson is nearly five seconds ahead. Lauda has taken sixth place from Scheckters Wolf and a spin has put Brambilla way down the field, while Reutemann is snaking up for time lost on the opening lap when Mass runs over him. At 20 laps Watson has almost six seconds lead over the Lotus, but now rid of Hunt, the Lotus driver settles down to nibbling away at those six seconds. The column of cars behind these three is resolving itself into interesting groups, with Laffite, Nilsson and Lauda in very close company, then Scheckter and Jones, with Reutemann gaining on them, followed by Regazzoni in the Ensign and the two Tyrrells, there being nothing to choose between the two blue and white six-wheelers. Peterson is very dissatisfied with his position and stops to have the left front tyres changed and Brambilla also stops to change a front tyre. This is on lap 21 and Depailler is also thinking of stopping to try some different front tyres, but he never gets the chance, for at the end of the pits straight Stuck runs into the Tyrrell, bending its front suspension and damaging the Alfa Romeos rear aerofoil side- plate. While Depailler sits fuming in the dirt, the unruly Stuck carries on. Undoubtedly the best of the private-owners, and making the works Marches look a bit silly, Merzarios run comes to an abrupt end with a broken gearbox. Stuck loses time at the pits having his damaged aerofoil trimmed and re-joins the race a lap behind the general run of the field. Andretti is gaining on Watson, but only by fractions, and whereas the gap has been nearly six seconds it is now nearer five seconds. Hunt is still a secure third, Laffite is a precarious fourth, with Nilsson and Lauda hounding him, Scheckter and Jones are running seventh and eight, but Reutemann is catching them, as is Regazzoni in tenth place. 


A long gap ensues before Ian Scheckter and Fittipaldi arrive, having a nice scrap together, but soon to be lapped by the leader. Keegan is already a lap down and Mass is gaining on him steadily, though they had Stuck and Peterson between them, while Brambilla is running last. At half distance there is no change of position among those on the same lap as the leader, though Andretti has now got the gap below five seconds rather than above five seconds. As they begin to lap the not-so-slow mid-field runners, Andretti closes up visibly on Watson and at 50 laps the gap is down to a bare three-and-a-half seconds. The race between Ian Scheckter and Fittipaldi at the back of the field gets too close at one point and the works March gets its nose run over, necessitating a stop for repairs, while the great scrap between Lafitte, Nilsson and Lauda now becomes fouled up by Stuck; he is about to be lapped by this trio and instead of letting them go by he stays in the way and makes a complete nuisance of himself. This goes on for lap after lap, the Brabham-Alfa driver ignoring all the rules of the game and it is not until lap 66 that the situation resolves itself, and then in a most unfortunate way. During the struggle to make the German get out of the way, Nilsson gets in front of Laffite, but still the Brabham-Alla baulked them. Finally Stuck lost control and spun, Nilsson shot by on one side, Laffite on the other and the Brabham-Alfa roll back right into the path of the Ligier and there is nothing Laffite can do. He hits the red car and damages the Ligiers nose cowling. Thankfully Stuck cannot not restart as the cable operating the air-bottle starter is broken, so he is safely out of the way. Laffite limps back to the pits to have a new nose cone fitted, but has now lost all hope of a decent position. Meanwhile much has been happening elsewhere for Reutemann has passed Jones and Scheckter and Regazzoni is closing on them. On lap 61 the Shadow breaks a drive-shaft and Jones limps to the pits to retire after a very spirited drive. At the front of the race it is a different story altogether for Andretti is right on the tail of Watsons Alfa Romeo, and looking for an opportunity to pass, but on the tight little circuit there is no opportunity. The Lotus is almost touching the Alfa Romeo gearbox as they start the straight, but a sizeable gap has opened up by the end of it, the Alfa Romeo being faster at the top end than the Lotus. While they are this close they come up behind Regazzoni who is equally close to Scheckter and looking for a chance to go by. 


The Wolf is not running properly, still having fuel feed trouble and on the lap that the leaders go by the Wolf gives a hiccough and the Ensign nudges it up the backside. Scheckter ends up off the road with a flat rear tyre, Regazzoni is lapped by the leaders but now holds seventh place, and Watson and Andretti now have a clear road ahead of them. With ten laps to go Andretti can see no hope of getting by Watson, for the Ulsterman is driving splendidly and showing no sign of making a mistake, no matter how hard Andretti pushes him. Both cars are running perfectly, and with four laps to go they are behind Reutemann, who is running in a lonely sixth place. Into the closing laps Watson is completely confident and though Andretti has resigned himself to being second he has not given up and is still hard up behind the Brabham-Alfa. On the last lap they go into the new loop on the back of the circuit. Round the hairpin there is no change, but up the sharp rise the Alfa Romeo engine hesitates. Instantly the Lotus is alongside as they go into the left hand bend. Side-by-side, with their wheels almost touching they take the left-hander, the Alfa Romeo engine coughs again and the Lotus is in front and romps towards the finishing line and the chequered flag to the surprise and consternation of all those in the pits. The Brabham finishes in second place and on the slowing down lap it coasts to a stop. The fuel tanks are bone dry. A very unhappy John Watson hitches a lift back to the pits on the side of Laudas Ferrari, to second-place laurels. Well done, Mario Andretti. A combination of skill and a bit of luck restored to the Italian-American driver what misfortune had taken from him in Sweden. However, in equal measure, in contrast, a penalty was imposed on John Watson and the Brabham-Alfa, deprived on the last lap of a victory that seemed within reach, so much so that Bernie Ecclestone's team members had already taken to the track to celebrate the first win of the partnership between the English car and the Italian engine. Andretti's overtaking, carried out with exceptional clarity in the downhill turn of the Bretella, where the Prenois circuit was extended precisely to host Formula 1 races, was the culminating moment of a two-way race that kept the huge crowd (at least 100.000 spectators) who had come to Dijon with the not-so-secret hope of seeing Laffite and the Ligier-Matra win on the edge of their seats, practically for 80 laps. With this third victory, Andretti joins Jody Scheckter in second place in the Drivers' World Championship standings and becomes a candidate for the world title.


However, Niki Lauda takes the lead with the fifth place obtained in the French Grand Prix, earning the two points needed to surpass the South African. Ferrari, with Lauda's placement and Carlos Reutemann's sixth position, achieves its worst result of the season. Beyond the mathematics and dry numbers, there is always the reliability of the car and drivers, and the possibility that things will improve in the upcoming races. There is, therefore, much joy inside the black Lotus truck. Colin Chapman smiles contentedly: he drinks a lemon juice instead of champagne but does not hide his joy.


"It's all thanks to Andretti, not the car, but we have reached our sixty-second victory in a Formula 1 Grand Prix".


On the other side of the caravan, Mario Andretti faces the second challenge of the day: the assault of journalists. American journalists, because the driver born in Trieste has US citizenship, Italian journalists because they consider him somewhat their own, German and Austrian journalists because they see him as Niki Lauda's main rival for the world title. Andretti is not too tired and gladly answers the questions.


"The fact of being third at the start hindered me considerably; it was an impressive effort. I was always in the turbulence created in the air by the cars ahead of me. My Lotus couldn't travel well in this way. When I could get close to Watson, I knew I could make it. I overtook him on the outside downhill in the new corner of the variant. I saw that he hesitated, and I got under him. Otherwise, there would have been no chance; his Brabham, powered by an excellent engine, always left me behind uphill and even in a straight line, he pulled away".


When asked if he feels uncomfortable about taking this victory away from a half-Italian car, Andretti responds:


"I would love to see Alfa Romeo win, but not in front of me. I love all things Italian, but I can't throw away so much effort. Winning a race like this is a great satisfaction for me. I'm not saying it's like winning the world title, but I have to admit that I've taken a big step forward".


Lotus's joy contrasts with the disappointment of Brabham-Alfa. There are stunned faces. It must be said that even at the last moment in the stand of the Italo-English team, it was not exactly clear who had won. The assertion was so sure that some mechanics hugged Ecclestone and then went on the track raising their arms. Engineer Carlo Chiti, rather lost, asks who got first place, and the answer for him is bitter: Andretti crossed the finish line first.


"It's certainly not engine problems. I heard the car making a strange noise when it went down the straight on the last lap. I wouldn't want it to have run out of fuel".


The doubt is immediately clarified when Watson arrives:


"At 800 meters from the finish, the car ran out completely. I crossed the finish line in neutral. But even before, I had trouble, and this caused Andretti to overtake. Unfortunately, the lack of fuel betrayed me".


The technicians immediately rushed to see in the car whether it was indeed a too stingy refueling or a fault in the fuel pump. Taking measurements, the Brabham technicians realized that there was barely a liter of fuel left in the tank, insufficient to be picked up by the pump. A failure, therefore, determined by greed in wanting to load the car with weight. The calculations had been made for 39 gallons of fuel, equivalent to 180 liters of gasoline. Evidently, the heat, the day, the very tight race, caused higher consumption. 


There is tranquility in the Ferrari truck. Carlos Reutemann explains his troubles, while Lauda talks with Forghieri and Nosetto about the race and the future. Niki does not smile. He has gained two points, but that's not enough; the car has proven to be not very competitive, so much so that in the end, the Austrian risked being lapped. Engineer Roberto Nosetto says:


"The balance is not completely unfavorable. Lauda is at the top of the driver's standings, and we are in the constructor's standings. The car continues to have problems, but we don't lose heart. We will try to make it better for the next races".


The first part of the Formula 1 World Championship has concluded after nine races. At the top of the standings, we find Niki Lauda with 33 points, one more than Jody Scheckter and Mario Andretti, 5 more than Carlos Reutemann. Then, the void, or almost. It is a (partial) conclusion that places a driver from Mannello's team at the top of Formula 1 and another in fourth place. But it is a somewhat deceptive result, more the result of circumstances than of real Ferrari superiority. On the contrary, even in Dijon, the Maranello team has shown that it has not found the right path. Lauda and Reutemann, with pride and competence, have fought against currently stronger rivals. Once again, they have limited the damage. Too little. There is some sign of improvement compared to previous tests. Luckily, at least all the effort that Ferrari drivers and technicians are putting in is not going to waste. Of course, it is now time for the problems to be solved: after the incredible misadventures of Zolder and Anderstorp, Andretti obtained a well-deserved victory in Dijon. And now he closely follows Lauda. A duel with a predictable outcome if the situation does not change. Andretti is driving the most competitive single-seater this year. Moreover, he is supported by an efficient team. He has improved a lot: attentive, reflective, daring at the right moment. The overtaking of John Watson on the last lap of the French Grand Prix was a masterpiece of preparation (for several laps, Mario had been following the rival in the mixed section of the Dijon track) and execution. Exceptional. A bit of Andretti's skill, a bit of Watson's mistake, who widened too much in the corner, and the Brabham-Alfa Romeo failed, once again, to win. On the other hand, the victory narrowly missed and the second place conquered by John Watson have once again brought the 12-cylinder Alfa Romeo engine, which equips the Brabham, into the spotlight. 


Many wonder when the Italian manufacturer will return to the world of Formula 1 with a car of its own. An answer that could fuel hopes for another Italian Formula 1 is given by the same engineer Carlo Chiti, director of Autodelta. Chiti clearly states that the work on preparing the car is much more advanced than one might think. The single-seater could even race by June of next year. It should be remembered that the terms of the current agreement between Brabham and Alfa Romeo are as follows: the contract, expiring at the end of the 1977 season, includes an option for the use of Alfa Romeo engines by the English team also for 1978. Bernie Ecclestone, Brabham's manager, insists on having an exclusive contract for the next two years. The point of disagreement between Alfa Romeo's and Brabham's officials seems to originate from the desire, on the part of the Milanese manufacturer, to grant exclusive use of the engines for another year but also to reserve the possibility of participating in some races of the next season with its own single-seater. The above supports the thesis that Alfa Romeo in Formula 1 is very close. In the meantime, there remains the problem of consumption. The Brabham-Alfa must always load more fuel than other cars. In Dijon, 180 liters were not enough to cover 304 kilometers, which means a consumption of 1.63 liters per kilometer. To overcome this inconvenience, Autodelta has asked a couple of specialized manufacturers to create a new type of injection to reduce the need for gasoline. If this system were to be completed soon (let's not forget that Brabham also has a new chassis ready), it is not excluded that the Anglo-Italian car could become the car to beat in the upcoming races.


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