#311 1978 Italian Grand Prix

2022-08-01 19:11

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#1978, Fulvio Conti,

#311 1978 Italian Grand Prix

Practice begins on Friday morning under warm and sunny skies and 28 contestants are ready to qualify for the 24 places on the starting grid. To suppor

Practice begins on Friday morning under warm and sunny skies and 28 contestants are ready to qualify for the 24 places on the starting grid. To support the idea that nobody in the Formula One world can get it right there are the usual anomalies created by the constructors’ union. The ATS team lost the services of Jochen Mass, who is in hospital in Northampton following a bad accident at Silverstone while testing the new D1 ATS, which appeared briefly at Zandvoort previously. A mechanical failure turned the car sharp left into the barriers at the end of Hangar Straight and Mass suffered severe leg injuries. His place at Monza is taken by the inexperienced Dutchman Michael Bleekemolen, while the second car is driven by Harald Ertl, who failed to qualify in the pre-practice qualifying held the previous Sunday, in the second works Ensign. There are changes in the Surtees team as Rupert Keegan still has his arm in a sling, following his accident in the warm-up session at Zandvoort. His place is taken by Carlo Franchi, who races in Italy under the name Gimax. By all accounts he is little more than a Club driver and certainly not a works Formula 1 driver. Left out of the practice by reason of the previous Sunday session of selection are Rosberg (Wolf) and Colombo (Merzario). The list of acceptable is headed by Rebaque (Lotus 78), with Piquet and Lunger behind in the B & S McLarens. In spite of the size of the Monza pits the Formula 1 scene overflew and in the past the lesser lights had to make-do on the grass verge at the start of the pit lane. This year the big-name teams are made to leave their spare cars by the grass verge so that there is room for everyone to have the use of a pit, or part of one. It never ceases to amaze to see the surplus cars at a Grand Prix, there always being enough to put on a respectable non-championship race, but such is the affluence in Formula 1 today that some of the smallest teams have complete spare cars standing by.
The days of Monza being the debut for new designs intended for the following season are long gone, so there is little that is new, apart from rebuilt or replaced cars following the accidents at Zandvoort. The spare Brabham (BT46/6) is using an engine running on SPICA injection once more, Pironi’s wreckage from the Dutch GP is beyond redemption and he’s using the original Tyrrell 008/1, which is really the test-car, while Andretti’s Lotus 79/4 has been fitted with a cable control from a knob on the right of the scuttle, to the brake balance bar down by the pedals, in order to alter the balance of the brakes between front and rear. Tyrrells used this idea for ages! This means that Andretti now has eight things to play with in the cockpit, three pedals, a steering wheel, gear-lever, rear roll-bar control, front roll-bar control and brake-balance control. Never a dull moment in the number one Lotus 79. Rcutemann’s Ferrari (036) has megaphone ended exhaust pipes, while Villeneuve’s car (034) and the spare car (035) have the normal straight tail-pipes. Fittipaldi is happily in his number one car, though the team is  expecting great things from their Seventy-nine beater which Ralph Bellamy is designing and building in Sao Paulo. Both the Renault cars are using the water-cooled inter-cooler layout this time, the system having proved its worth, while piston-ring problems are hopefully overcome and big things are anticipated by the team. The Shadow team are still juggling with rear aerofoils, but the end-plate mounting looks to be the best bet, and the cars of Stuck and Regazzoni are both using this layout, though the spare retains the old central-pillar style of mounting. Team Surtees are back to two cars, after TS20/02 was severely damaged at Zandvoort, while Wolf has WR5 and WR6 present, but Scheckter has no intention of using WR5 as it do not feel as nice as WR6. The Ensign team built up MN07 as their first car, with Ertl’s MN06 as the spare, as MN08 has been bent at Zandvoort in the first lap collision.
The number two Williams car, that crashed heavily at Zandvoort, has been rebuilt and is the team spare, Jones concentrating on FW06/001, and the Arrows team has completed a third car in their hew series and this replaces the A1/1 crashed by Patrese at Zandvoort. The day that one or other of the Lotus team do not set the pace in practice something is going wrong. This time it is Andretti who is well away, with everything going right for him. In no time at all, he is in a class of his own, with seemingly good times by other drivers being a second or more slower. Before Peterson can really get up with his team-mate, his Cosworth V8 engine goes bang and he coasts into the pit lane and that is that. Derek Daly comes in with smoke pouring from the right-front wheel, due to a brake calliper pipe failure, and he continues in the spare Ensign. Rebaque has to change from his Lotus 78/4 to his new spare (78/2) when a wheel bearing seizes up, and Villeneuve is using the spare Ferrari, after his own brakes its engine and goes quicker than Reutemann, but neither of them are in the Lotus class. In the Brabham pit everything is going wrong, Lauda’s engine blows up very early on so that he has to use the Spare car, and Watson skates over a kerb and cracks the sump on his car (again!). Rebaque spins off at one of the chicanes and fills his car with gravel, and altogether the first practice session is a bit disorderly and there is a lot of work to do during the lunch break. It’s still warm and dry in the afternoon for the hour of practice, though not everyone is ready, Lauda’s car is still being worked on and having a new engine installed, and Peterson’s Lotus 79 is not finished. Lauda begins practice with the spare Brabham, changing to his own car when it’s ready, but Peterson has to stick with the Lotus 78 as his car is not finished. The spare Lotus 79 is the original prototype on which the bulkhead structure over the cockpit was very small, and Peterson couldn’t get into the cockpit. Subsequent cars have a redesigned structure giving more room.
Lunger’s McLaren M26 breaks its gearbox in the morning and was still being repaired in the pit-lane when afternoon practice begins, but Rebaque’s Lotus 78/4 is repaired and he is back in it. Daly is still driving the spare Ensign and Jabouille is trying both Renault cars again. The turbocharged 1.5-litre French car is proving to be miles an hour faster than anyone else along the main straight, consistently registering a passing speed that is 5 or 6 m.p.h. faster through the Frank Williams Team’s electronic speed trap. This shown up in the morning lap times when Jabouille was third fastest, behind the two Lotus cars, and in the afternoon, though the increase in ambient temperature slows most people, the Renault is still among the top runners. In the Italian 12-cylinder battle the Ferraris are well on top over the Brabham-Alfa Romeos, but not up at the front as they woul like to be. Villeneuve is still faster than Reutemann and is back in his own car 034) and looking very confident and determined. In the chess-game of drivers changing teams he is to stay at Ferrari, with Scheckter next year, and is setting a pace that is going to make the South African sweat a bit. Reutemann is said to be joining Lotus as Peterson is moving to McLaren and Hunt is going to Wolf, all of which make practice seem a bit academic, apart from those who are remaining faithful to their 1978 teams. Peterson is two seconds off Andretti’s pace in the afternoon with the Lotus 78, but there is no incentive to try too hard in an obsolete car. However Rebaque tries too hard in his Lotus 78/4 which is repaired and has another off at a chicane and creases the front end, so it goes back to the earlier car. As usual Laffite in the Ligier-Matra V12 is having a needle match with Jones in the Williams-Cosworth V8 for the best non-favoured Goodyear-shod car, and the Australian is winning by a hairs-breadth.
Another personal needle match is going on between the four young newcomers, Daly, Piquet, Giacomelli and Patrese, with little to choose between them to start with, but finally Patrese eases ahead with a good time of 1'39"831, though it is two seconds off the pace of the leader, and well behind Jones and Laffite. Conditions remain stable for the untimed practice session on Saturday morning, though trouble is rife. Reutemann is in the spare Ferrari but is disgruntled as he does not like it compared to his usual car (036), and the management wants him to race it. Andretti tries the spare Lotus 79 briefly, and Jones is out in the spare Williams. Peterson is in trouble with overheating rear brakes on his Lotus 79 and then suffers clutch slip as the main gearbox oil seal leaks and lets oil seep along the primary shaft. Lauda’s Brabham breaks another Alfa Romeo engine and a new one is installed in a fantastically quick time, while Regazzoni’s Shadow breaks its engine as did Tambay’s McLaren. Laffite is trying the spare Ligier when its Matra V12 breaks and altogether there is a scene of mechanical chaos after what is  supposed to be a period for setting-up the cars for handling on full petrol tanks and race worthy tyres. Another hard lunch break follows for the mechanics, Brabhams’ are working feverishly on Lauda’s car (BT46/7), Lotus are flat-out on Peterson’s car (79/2), Shadow are in the same state with Regazzoni’s car (DN9/4A-3)) while McLaren covered over Tambay’s car (M26/3) and is fitting him into M26/1. The final hour sees Lauda start off with the spare Brabham, now running on normal Lucas fuel-injection, until his own car is finished. Peterson has to sit around and wait for his car to be finished, but Regazzoni is out in the spare Shadow. Reutemann starts off in the spare Ferrari (035) but very soon abandons it with no fuel pressure and is back into his own car. Villeneuve is really getting on with the job and being most impressive on his first visit to Monza.
Stuck is in trouble with an internal water-leak in the Cosworth engine in his Shadow and the ATS team are shuffling about with their cars, putting Ertl into the spare one, but all to no avail as they are not fast enough. There is so much mechanical trouble and complication going on that actual laps times are almost overlooked, but it is no surprise to see Andretti way out ahead with a new standard of 1'37"520. Jabouille is worrying a lot of people with a time of 1'37"930, which puts him into the Super-Ace category, and then there is a big flurry as Villeneuve joins them in the elite 1'37"0 bracket with a time of 1'37"866, which gives him second fastest overall and puts him on the front row of the grid alongside Andretti. Nobody else gets within sight of these two and the Renault, and though Peterson’s car is finished before time runs out he can not improve on his Friday morning time. Lauda and Watson make their best times in this last session, but neither of them are in the running for the front of the grid. As always, Jones and Laffite are getting on with the job without too much fuss and with help from Goodyear they are both well up with the major teams. Alan Jones is actually sixth fastest overall, a mere whisker behind Peterson and on the third row of the grid, all done without the aid of a Cosworth Development engine or a super-sophisticated aerodynamic ground-effects car, or an army of technicians, just a good, straight-forward, practical car and team and a hard-nut driver. A lot of people can  learn a lot from the 1978 Frank Williams team, but they won’t. As practice wound down, many teams are relieved as things are not going, at all, as planned and everyone is glad that the mechanical disasters are now over. The grid line-up is looking good with Lotus and Ferrari in the front row and Renault and Brabham in the second row. Cosworth V8 and Ferrari-flat 1-2 in the front row, and Renault turbo-charged V6 and Alfa-Romeo flat 2 in the second row, all four make having close association with serious motor manufacturers rather than special-builders. Perhaps Formula One is really an engineering exercise for motor manufacturers and not entertainment by drivers after all.

Of far less importance is the fact that four drivers are eliminated from the grid, these being Rebaque (Lotus 78), Ertl CATS), Bleekemolen CATS) and Gimax (Surtees). Sunday is a nice warm day but the crowds seem slow in filling the Autodromo, little interest being showed in Alfa-Sud and Renault 5 saloon-car racing. The Grand Prix is due to start at 3:30 p.m. and there is a 30-minute test-session in the morning. In case anyone has last minute trouble, Rebaque is out with them, as first reserve, but the ATS team packed up and gone home. All seems to be going well until Peterson has an accident at the second chicane and goes through the catch fences and crumples the front of his Lotus 79. The cause is said to be brake trouble, but Piquet who is behind him reckons there is plenty of smoke coming off locked-up tyres. There is nothing for it but to hurriedly race-prepare Lotus 78/3 for the Swede to use. Well before the starting time the cars begin to leave the pit road, some, like Villeneuve’s Ferrari and Andretti’s Lotus to the vociferous cheers of the crowds, others to loud clapping, and some in relative silence, apart from their own exhaust noise. As the rest of the cars assemble on the grid Reutemann and Peterson dive into the pits for minor aerodynamic adjustments and then go round again to take their places on the 24 car grid, lined up in pairs. A fraction before 3.30 Andretti and Villeneuve lead the field away on the pace-lap, the lotus running straight and true, while Villeneuve and others go down the back straight in a series of zig-zags to put cornering loads on the tyres and raise the temperature of the rubber. At the end of the pace lap Tambay peels off from his position on the tenth row and goes into the pits to have his gear-change mechanism looked at.


He is unaware how lucky this is going to be for him. As the black and gold Lotus and the red and white Ferrari stop at the starting-line the starter put the red light on, long before the rest of the field has got into their right places or the back half of the field has even arrived at the grid. Far too soon the green light comes on, Villeneuve makes a superb getaway, while Andretti is caught off balance and Lauda is alongside the Lotus as they get under way. Peterson makes a hesitant start in the Lotus 78 and is engulfed by those behind him, but the back of the field is catching up fast as they were on the move when the green light showed . As the middle of the pack surges into the short straight leading to the first chicane there is a puff of white smoke, as of a magnesium wheel is graundched, a McLaren seems to be out of control, then a sheet of flame and all hell breaks loose. While the leaders are round the back of the circuit the red flag is out on the start-finish line and the race stops. Villeneuve, Andretti, Lauda and others come slowly up the straight from the Curve Parabolica amid a sea of waving yellow flags and stop beyond the finishing line near the scene of the accident. From all accounts Patrese is on the righthand side of the pack trying to overtake Hunt, as they funnel into the road circuit, and the Arrows hit the McLaren, which bounces across the road into Peterson’s Lotus which in turn spins across the road, into the right-hand guardrail and is struck by Brambilla’s Surtees that is trying to avoid the melee down the righthand side. Also involved are Reutemann, Pironi, Regazzoni, Depailler, Daly, Stuck, and Lunger, who are all close behind, while Giacomelli, Merzario and Piquet scrape past. Hunt and Regazzoni dive into the flames of the burning Lotus 78 and haul the injured Peterson out, while the fire is soon under control by the fire-marshals.

Peterson is taken to the Milan hospital by helicopter with severely broken legs, and slight burns, while Brambilla is taken by ambulance suffering severe head injuries. Everyone returns to the pits somewhat shaken and it is announced that the race would be restart once the track is clear, and drivers are allowed to use spare cars where available. The grid is going to form up as before, with spaces left for any non-starters. One by one the wrecks are brought back to the paddock, the Lotus 78/3 totally destroyed, Hunt’s McLaren M26/5 with the front and rear wiped off, Brambilla’s Suttees TS20/01 with the front written off, Depailler’s Tyrrell 008/3-2 with the rear end demolished, Regazzoni’s Shadow DN9/4A-3 battered from all directions; Lunger’s McLaren M26/6 with the right front corner torn off, Daly’s Ensign MN07 with the back end written off, Pironi’s Tyrrell 008/1 also with the rear end smashed and Reutemann’s Ferrari (036) with an enormous tyre mark on its right side and generally knocked about. Stuck’s Shadow is wheeled back unharmed, but the lanky German has struck on the head by a flying wheel and is suffering from slight concussion and is advised not to attempt to take part in the restart. It is nearly 5 p.m. before all the mess is cleared up and the track is clean. Nineteen cars leave the pit lane to drive round the circuit to line up on the grid, ready for a restart at 5.15 p.m., but only 18 return. Going through the second part of the Lesmo corners at around 130 m.p.h. Scheckter finds his Wolf WR6 do not respond to the steering and he strikes the guard-rail on the left, an enormous blow and cannon across to the other side of the track with the left-side of the car totally demolished. He is unhurt and gets an ambulance to return him to the pits, where his team has got WR5 out on the grid ready for him.


As the rest of the field arrive on the grid some of the drivers, who saw the accident, got out of their cars and rushed across to race control to get the second start delayed as the Armco barriers are leaning over perilously where the Wolf has struck them. There is much confusion as to why there is another delay and officials and drivers go off to look at the damage and repairs are starting. Very little information is forthcoming and the crowds begin to whistle and shout, not knowing why there is another hold-up. Time is passing and the sun is going down and there is a feeling that the 49th Italian GP is not happening. At 5:50 p.m. it is announced that the race will take place and the distance will be shortened from 52 laps to 40 laps, in accordance with FIA regulations which allow a race to count for full Championship points and money if run more than three-quarters of the total distance. It was shortly after 6 p.m. when the 19 cars go off on their pace lap, led by Andretti and Villeneuve once more. They are lined up in original grid order, with a gap behind Jabouille’s Renault where the unfortunate Peterson should be; Scheckter is in Wolf WR5, with Reutemann behind him in Ferrari (035); in the next row there’s a gap where Pironi should be, as Depailler took the spare Tyrrell 008/5; Regazzoni is in the spare Shadow DN9/1A, Daly is in the spare Ensign MN06, with a gap alongside him where Stuck should be, and at the back on the left there’s gaps where Lunger and Brambilla should be. It was nearly 6:15 p.m. before the cars are lined up on the grid, this time the starter holding them until everyone is stationary and in place, and then waiting a long time before switching on the red light. On the front row Villeneuve and Andretti are getting distinctly twitchy and begin to creep forward. Long before the green light appears Villeneuve lets in his clutch and is gone, with Andretti in hot pursuit, while the rest of the field waits for the green light, which appears the moment the front pair is gone.


Everyone except Fittipaldi gets away, the yellow Brazilian car being left behind with a seized clutch withdrawal mechanism. By the time Fittipaldi jerks away everyone is gone. The roar of the crowd tells who is first out of the Curva Parabolica, but the Lotus is alongside as the two cars cross the line to end lap 1. Side-by-side they go into the first chicane but the young French-Canadian sits it out with Andretti and holds the lead away into the second lap. In third place is Jabouille with the Renault, followed by Lauda, Reutemann, Jones, Patrese, Daly, Laffite, Scheckter, Watson, Tambay, Regazzoni, Giacomelli, Piquet, Depailler, Hunt, Merzario and Fittipaldi. Some of the drivers who are in their spare cars are not showing much enthusiasm for trying too hard, and who can blame them, and anyway it is a two-car race, as it was obvious since the end of practice. Villeneuve’s Ferrari continues to lead Andretti’s Lotus, much to the joy of the crowd, and it doesn’t look as though the Lotus driver could do much about it. They are pulling away upfront the Renault, which itself is pulling away from Lauda and the rest. At the end of four laps Regazzoni goes into the pits to have the brakes looked at on the spare Shadow, and on lap 6 the Renault drops out at the pits with a broken engine. After a very slow opening lap during which there seemed something odd about his car, John Watson gets going properly and moves rapidly up the field from his lowly eleventh place. At eight laps Andretti makes a pass at the leading Ferrari as they brake at the end of the back straight, but didn’t follow through and dead-lock seems to have set in, and if anything the Ferrari is pulling away. Already a long way behind, Lauda is holding third place after the demise of the Renault, but Reutemann is closing up on him.


Watson has got by Daly, Laffite, Patrese and Jones and now is in fifth place, leaving Jones, Patrese and Laffite to have a close battle for sixth place. Right at the back Fittipaldi is going great guns and climbing through the tail enders in a very spirited fashion. There is still only one second between the Ferrari and the lotus at the head of the field when it is announced that they both have got penalised one minute for jumping the start, so officially Lauda is leading the race! But nobody really cares, it is all too silly. The Ferrari team still gives Villeneuve pit signals telling him he is leading, yet they signal to Reutemann that he is second. Knowing that Andretti and Lauda are between himself and his young team-mate, the Argentinian justifiably thinks his pit staff is going mad. Andretti begins to feel trouble starting in his rear brakes and eases back quite a lot so that the leading Ferrari got more than five seconds ahead. Almost unnoticed Hunt drops out with a dead engine in his McLaren when the ignition distributor breaks, and Regazzoni rejoins the race, such as it was. Watson begins to dose on Reutemann with a view to taking fourth place on the road, but second on paper, while Alan Jones gives the best to Patrese and Laffite as his left front tyre begins to lose pressure through a leaky valve. Patrese’s joy do not last long, for the engine in the Golden Arrows brakes and then Jones stops for a tyre change, changing the left rear as well while he is in the pits. With ten laps to go the Ferraris begins to slow as their Michelin tyres fades sooner than the rival Goodyears, and as Villeneuve drops back into Andretti’s clutches, so Reutemann drops back into Watson’s Clutches. It’s just a matter of time before Andretti passes the leading Ferrari and in near dusk he completes the go laps to finish nearly three seconds ahead of Villeneuve in a race that most people is glad to see over. With their one-minute penalty the first two cars are relegated back to sixth and seventh overall, and Lauda is acclaimed the winner, but few people believe it or care anyway.

The enthusiasm of the public when it’s all over is almost non-existent, and the ones that stayed only want Villeneuve and Andretti to appear on the winner’s rostrum. The Italian crowd are not even enthusiastic about the victory of the Alfa Romeo engine, even if they realise it, and nobody notice that Brabhams had officially scored a 1-2 finish. Darkness falls before everything is cleared up, the news front the Milan Hospital is that Peterson has to have a foot operated on that evening, with a chance that he might lose it, and the Italian GP fizzles out into the darkness and gloom, a day best forgotten about.


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