Cleared of the snow that fell during the first week of the new year, on Monday 8 January 1979 the Fiorano track once again hosts the tests of the Ferrari 312-T3 with advanced driving position. This car, which is the experimental and laboratory model currently used by the Maranello car manufacturer, is fitted with an electro-hydraulic gearbox. This is a technical innovation, perhaps the most interesting of 1979, which should allow drivers to operate the gearbox without taking their hands off the steering wheel. Around thirty laps are carried out by the head of the test department, Giorgio Errico. In fact, testing requires tests that give a particular result for the technicians who designed this accessory. From Monday, therefore, Jody Scheckter will be on track, but he will be doing a different kind of work. The South African will dedicate himself to the tuning of the two cars that will leave for South America on Saturday. Gilles Villeneuve will directly join the team in Argentina. While the rumoured meeting of the Formula 1 Manufacturers' Association, which seemed to be scheduled this week in Maranello, will not take place.
The tyre issue has long been known to play a decisive role in Formula 1 racing. But even before the start of the new world championship, a furious battle is underway between many teams, especially the British ones, following a decision taken by Goodyear just two weeks before the Argentinean Grand Prix, a decision that risks profoundly altering the balance that existed in this sector in the past. For financial and organisational reasons, Goodyear (which before the agreement last season between Michelin and Ferrari and Renault had for several years had a monopoly on the supply of tyres to Formula 1 teams) announced a few months ago that in 1979 it would supply tyres of the fastest type only to nine official teams, namely Lotus, Brabham, McLaren, Tyrrell, Williams, Wolf, Arrows, Copersucar and Ligier. Now, on the contrary, Goodyear has surprisingly changed its mind, it seems, after having decided to favour - during the 1979 season - only Andretti (Lotus), Lauda (Brabham), Hunt (Wolf) and Fittipaldi (Copersucar), the most recent four World Champions.
In addition, the American company will grant additional superfast tyres to the five fastest drivers after the first day of official practice, for each race of the world championship. There are those who suspect that this new decision is the result of a manoeuvre between Bernie Ecclestone (Brabham) and Colin Chapman (Lotus). It is clear that the two would benefit most from the new situation, as Wolf and Copersucar have less chance of success with their current cars anyway. According to other sources, Goodyear USA has seriously embarrassed the European subsidiary of Wolverhampton, whose sporting director Lauritzen is responsible for supplying tyres to Formula 1 teams, by imposing this restrictive policy on it for economic reasons. The decision aroused great discontent among the British teams, in particular at McLaren and even more so at the Williams of Jones and Regazzoni. And indeed, Frank Williams confesses:
"I had warned Goodyear several months ago about the burden it would bear by undertaking to officially supply nine official teams with superfast tyres; however, I was given all the necessary assurances, following which I was able to conclude a sponsorship contract for a two-car team with the Saudi Arabian airlines. Since there is a clause in the contract about preferential tyres, I now risk losing the sponsor and my team".
Ligier had also received more financial support from Gitanes to line up a second car in the upcoming World Championship, having originally been included on Goodyear's preferred list. It seems, however, that the American company has promised to review the situation by the end of the week. While waiting for the new World Championship to start, on Sunday, 14 January 1979, Edda Vittoni, wife of engineer Giancarlo Bussi, the Ferrari technician who was kidnapped on 4 October 1978 in a villa on the coast of Cagliari where he was spending a few days' holiday, and of whom nothing more has been heard despite the payment of a ransom of 80,000,000 lire, decided to return to Modena, where she lives. The decision was taken by the woman after having waited in vain for news of her husband. The following morning, Edda Vittoni sent a message to the bandits who had kidnapped her husband, which was published in the Cagliari daily L'Unione Sarda.
"I warn my husband's kidnappers that I have waited until today, with trepidation and anguish, for news from them. This long and painful wait has compromised my state of health, so I am forced to return to the mainland. Moreover, I cannot allow this whole horrible affair to destroy and compromise the life and future of my children. What torments me is that I can't understand why you are so furious against us, that we don't know you, that we haven't done anything wrong to you, that we are economically modest people and we can't satisfy your demands, that you have an honest, deeply good man in your hands, who will never harm you even if you have done so much to him".
Edda Vittoni then turns to her husband and says:
"May God be with you, my Giancarlo, and ease your suffering".
Then, addressing the outlaws again, the woman adds:
"I promise you publicly that whatever happens, outside of our will, we will forget everything, as long as my husband can return among us. But if this is not possible, I humbly ask you for an act of mercy towards us: that is, tell me, good or bad, the truth about my husband's fate. If my husband is well, you can send a letter from him to the same address as the person who received the answers to the questions you asked, because, as I told you, we are all retiring to the continent. I beg you, do not let me leave with this tremendous uncertainty, let me know the truth".
On Sunday 21st January 1979 the Formula 1 World Championship started again in Argentina. After a season that saw Lotus 79 dominating with Andretti, the technical notions brought by Chapman inspired more or less all the Formula 1 constructors. The aerodynamic lines and the consistency of the advantages offered in terms of road holding, that is to say speed in bends, by the so-called ground effect convinced the designers to apply the same concepts on the new cars. The Tyrrell, for example, is a conforming copy of the Lotus (a curious indiscretion leaked at the pits of the Argentine Grand Prix from an unofficial but rather reliable source. According to a rumour the new Tyrrell would have been built directly from the drawings of Lotus. This is not, however, a case of international espionage. It would have been Colin Chapman himself who sold the designs to Ken Tyrrell, in a contract that included the hiring of Jean-Pierre Jarier by the latter in place of Depailler. Chapman would have made the deal sure that the new Lotus 80s, which will make their debut at Kyalami, will have nothing to fear from the copies of his old cars. In this respect, however, Andretti says that the 80 will not be as unprecedented as could be expected). Brabham even forced Alfa Romeo to prepare a new engine (V-engine and no longer boxer) in order to take advantage of these principles, which were made operational by the CSI's decision to allow miniskirts (those side straps that close off the underside of the car).
It was Lotus' superiority that convinced the various teams to speed up their work and to present - almost all of them - new single-seaters already in Argentina to gain experience and make up for the disadvantage, which, however, should remain, at least in this first part of the championship. After the departure of Reutemann, Ferrari faces 1979 with a young driver in the launching phase, Gilles Villeneuve, and another one, Jody Scheckter, who pursues the title with extreme determination. An attacking team, so to speak. The old 312-T3 was replaced from South Africa by the new T4, presented at Maranello on Monday 14 January 1979. How will it go? Hopefully well, the confidence is there. Meanwhile, Enzo Ferrari tells the press:
"So, what do you think of this umpteenth copy of the Lotus?"
Enzo Ferrari smiles as the latest addition to the Maranello marque is unveiled in the civic centre of the small town on the road to Abetone. Outside is snow, ice and polar cold, inside is the warmth of dreams and hopes that are renewed with every Formula 1 World Championship. The car is called the 312-T4, an acronym in which 3 stands for three litres of displacement, 12 for 12 cylinders, T for transverse gearbox and 4 for the fourth model in this series. Its characteristics had already been anticipated in December, but it's one thing to see a drawing and read a brief note, quite another to observe a precious and sophisticated single-seater of this type in real life. It is clear that the 312-T4 is inspired by the aerodynamic concepts developed last year by Lotus, but it is equally clear that it is still a Ferrari, with its own precise identity and particular technical characteristics. Ferrari's is a simple joke, like this one, in response to those who remarked that the new car was ugly:
"Well, we just hope it goes well".
The most striking elements are the aerodynamics (compact bodywork, with no exits or air intakes: the flow is channelled to the side panels), in which the rear wing is not dispensed with; the advanced driving position; the new design of the suspensions, which are interconnected; the extreme accuracy of every detail. And other things are hidden, such as the new engine structure (up from 500 to 515 hp) and the transverse gearbox, or not yet applied, such as an electro-oleodynamic device that makes it possible to eliminate the classic gear lever. With two buttons on the steering wheel and thanks to an electronic control unit connected to a pump, in the near future Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve will be able to change gears very quickly (just 0.4 seconds to go through the five speed range) at the touch of a finger. Mauro Forghieri, designer of the new Ferrari, explains:
"Lotus has an 8-cylinder Cosworth engine and a certain gearbox, we use a 12-cylinder boxer and a transverse gearbox, we have our own experience and certain requirements to meet. We have our own experience and certain requirements to meet. We therefore arrived at exploiting the so-called ground effect through other ways and above all through studies carried out in the wind tunnel, in agreement with the Pininfarina specialists. This is an example with an aerodynamic solution, good for slow circuits, but there are at least five or six others for other types of tracks. It will be the drivers and the road tests that will tell us if we have worked well”.
According to the prearranged plans, Scheckter would test the new 312 on Monday 22 January 1979, immediately on his return from the Argentine Grand Prix, which is opening the championship on Sunday 21 January 1979. The South African (defined as a fighting man by Enzo Ferrari, who did not hold any press conference so as not to fall - as he says with a sigh - into the usual polemics) defines the car as very beautiful. He can't, of course, add anything else, because it's an unknown to him too. The race debut could take place in South Africa, in March, but more probably it would be at Long Beach, on 8 April 1979. Scheckter and Villeneuve will have two old models in Argentina, one of which slightly updated with the so-called miniskirts. But the real anti-Lotus weapon is here, still at Maranello, a new red monster of plastic and metal that continues the Ferran tradition in Formula 1.
On the other hand, Enzo Ferrari does not give up. His pace is a little hesitant, but his voice is always imperious and his eye clear. His banter is sharp. He says that he no longer wants controversy, that he is tired, but he continues to write down the highlights of the day in his diary and to read a bundle of newspapers with attentive curiosity, whether he is working in Modena or in his studio in Maranello, where three lit candles frame the photo of a young man taken from life all too soon. Enzo Ferrari did not give up. In a few weeks' time, on 18 February 1979, he will be 81 years old, but his love for the car, understood as an expression of freedom, and for racing will not fade, nor will age dampen his taste for competition and confrontation.
On Monday 15 January 1979, in Maranello, Ferrari presented the new car for the Formula 1 World Championship that is about to start, the 312-T4. Ferrari is happy, calm, he speaks of hope and confidence, and above all he’s keen to show that no one sleeps at Ferrari, that its technical school, despite the inevitable ups and downs when operating in such a difficult world as racing, remains at the highest level. This has been the case for thirty years, since the start of the World Championship, the first season of which dates back to 1950. No one in Maranello, perhaps not even Ferrari, knows how many Formula 1 single-seaters have left the small red-brick factory on the Abetone road: forty or fifty? Many have given the manufacturer the joy of success, some have disappointed.
Machines of all displacements, with front and then rear-mounted engines, of very different shapes and settings, that have accompanied the history of Grand Prix evolution. The unique charm of Ferrari and of this old gentleman who directs the great sporting adventure (the industrial part of the factory, that of the powerful and refined GTs, has long been entrusted to men from Fiat, the Turin-based partner) lies precisely in this continuity of action. The cars from Maranello have raced against cars that no one remembers anymore, they have won and lost with Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, Vanwall, Cooper, Maserati, B.R.M.
Lotus was taking its first steps and Ferrari was already great, not only in Formula 1 but also in other areas of competition. An extraordinary phenomenon, a life lived trying to surpass new goals. Not an easy life, marked by exciting but also terrible moments. Ferrari chose a path and followed it with exemplary consistency. He was a driving force, an agitator of ideas, a sort of devil's advocate for his technicians. He certainly still is today, even though drivers like Lauda and Reutemann have complained in recent years about his isolation.
"I would only need a tenth of a second more to win".
To win the 1979 world championship with Scheckter or Villeneuve, of course. The old gentleman looks to the future. He is more tired and lonely than he used to be, but he doesn't give up. Perhaps he could not do otherwise. The roar of the engines gives the first farewell to Formula 1 for 1979. After a holiday period that is getting thinner and thinner, and after having toured the length and breadth of all the circuits available for the tuning of old and new cars, the Formula 1 Circus suddenly finds itself facing another season of races. On Thursday 18th January 1979, on the circuit of the Municipal Autodrome the first free practice of the Argentine Grand Prix took place, which on Sunday kicked off the new World Championship with the classic Temporada. A championship that someone has already defined as one of the unknowns.
And it has to be said that, even though Lotus is the clear favourite after last year's performance, there are so many new developments and so many unanswered questions that it is impossible to make predictions with any hope of getting them right. Suffice it to say that for the first time in the history of the world championship all the teams participating in the championship have changed drivers. Lotus took Reutemann, Tyrrell changed Depailler with Jarier, Brabham engaged young Piquet in place of Watson who went to McLaren to replace Hunt, who finished with Wolf. The place, in the team of the Canadian billionaire, was left free by Scheckter who ended up with Ferrari. Finally, Arrows put Mass alongside Patrese, leaving Stommelen at home and Ats signed a contract for Stuck.
The race will be run on Sunday, January 21, 1979, at 2:30 pm, with twenty-four competitors at the start, under the new regulations. To say that there is a lot of interest around the start of the 1979 World Championship would be too little. Buenos Aires welcomes the protagonists of world motor racing with apparent coldness: in the first days of the week before the Grand Prix, only a few hundred onlookers and a few autograph hunters circulate in the immense halls of the Sheraton Hotel, where the race headquarters are located. But for Sunday it is already expected to be sold out, even if the tickets for the best seats have reached prices beyond imagination, even taking into account the galloping inflation that plagues Argentina. A seat in the most spectacular stand will cost 120.000 pesos, or over 100.000 lire.
However, it must be acknowledged that the frenzy is not only affecting Argentine fans. On the streets of the city, in the midst of intense but very fast traffic, everyone seems to have put themselves in the drivers' shoes and no one seems to be resisting the temptation of thrilling overtaking. The police's warnings seem to have no effect, and not even a serious road accident a few days before the Grand Prix, in which some 30 people died in a head-on collision between two buses, seems to have helped them to be more careful.
Enthusiasm is sky-high for Carlos Reutemann, the local idol, who, with his move to Lotus, has excited spirits and provoked world dreams. Reutemann himself has his work cut out for him, calming down the fans, declaring in the newspapers, on the radio and on television that just because he is in a winning team does not mean he already has the title in his hands, that the road is long and difficult. There will be too many novelties from the start of the season to be able to make predictions, even if obviously Lotus is the car to beat and everyone will try to attack Mario Andretti, the World Champion in the 1978 season. The Argentineans, in the speeches that are made in these days of eve, anticipate what could be the decisions of Colin, Chapman, patron of the English team.
"In Buenos Aires Reutemann will win and then, maybe in Sao Paulo, it will be Andretti's turn".
A naive prediction, also because it doesn't take into account the other drivers and cars. While Andretti and Reutemann will race with the old Lotus model 79, waiting for the 80 model that should make its debut, like many other completely new cars, at Kyalami, in South Africa, there are some teams that immediately present their novelties. The most fierce seems to be Wolf, ready to debut the WR7, a car that has impressed engineer Mauro Forghieri.
"The feedback from the track is still missing, but it seems to me to be a very well designed and balanced car that could provide big surprises".
Apart from the car, Wolf can count on a James Hunt who is really determined to have a great championship. The Englishman plays a decisive card this year. If he had to disappoint as he did in the past season with McLaren, it could be the end for him and it could be difficult in the future to find engagements in competitive teams. For this reason Hunt has prepared himself very carefully. While his colleagues are sunbathing and chatting by the pool at the Sheraton, James is training: every morning he does a long jogging session in the parks surrounding the hotel, along the Rio de La Piata. The British driver looks thin, taut, as he has never been seen in recent times. Of course, among the expected teams there is also Ferrari, with Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter. Forghieri brings three cars to Buenos Aires, two slightly modified 312-T3s and one of those tested at Le Castellet, with a more advanced driver's seat. The latter will serve as a mock-up and will be tested by both drivers. It will be decided after the tests whether to use it in the race and who will eventually drive it. Lotus, which had some problems with the heat last season, brings to Argentina the old cars with larger radiators, and new type brakes, more powerful. Andretti smiles: he knows everyone will attack him, but he doesn't seem particularly worried.
"I like the fight, also because it gives more value to the driver's performance. As far as I'm concerned and from what I've seen, it seems that I'll have some problems with the McLaren and above all with Watson, who went very fast in the December tests, on the Buenos Aires circuit".
As if that wasn't enough, several teams that, until last year, raced with only one driver, were reinforced. And it wasn't a question of second level teams: Renault put Arnoux beside Jabouille, Ligier that abandoned the Matra engine with 12 cylinders for the Cosworth, asked Depailler to give Laffite a hand, while Williams doubled its possibilities by putting Clay Regazzoni together with Alan Jones. Only the individual teams remained practically unchanged: Fittipaldi continued to run alone with his Copersucar. Merzario with the car he built with his own hands and the Mexican billionaire Rebaque with a last model Lotus bought with dollars.
Generally, in past years it was necessary to wait for the South African Grand Prix to see the new cars, and it must be said that many teams have confirmed this tradition, such as Ferrari and probably Lotus too. But there are many teams that have preferred not to waste time. As many as four new cars will make their debut on Sunday, while many others will have substantial modifications. The race baptism is foreseen for the Brabham BT 48 entrusted to Lauda, for the McLaren M 28 entrusted to Watson and Tambay, for the Tyrrell of Pironi and Jarier, for the Ligier of Laffite and Depailler. Without counting the important innovations presented by Ferrari, Ats, Shadow, Arrows, Ensign and Merzario, while waiting for the new cars that will arrive later. However, it is unquestionable that we have entered a new era for Formula 1, and this thanks to Colin Chapman and his Lotus with ground effect, the so-called wing car, due to the effect of the adoption of air caissons that cause a greater adherence to the ground like the Venturi tube. And in this regard, it must be acknowledged that the English manufacturer was not at all fazed by being copied in his idea.
"I'm pleased that everyone has recognised that my idea was a good one. I am only sorry that they have worked so hard for nothing, because they don't know what innovations I will introduce from March with my Lotus 80. I can assure them that from that date all the new cars will look old, and there will be a new race to make new ones".
A heavy blow, this, for the various constructors who thought they had caught up with Chapman and his Lotuses. If the English manufacturer can keep his promises, it will be difficult to keep up. What he has invented that is new is, for the moment, unknown. But it is certain that if he thinks he can effectively replace his wingcar with another revolutionary machine, something is in the pipeline. After so many words, the drivers reach technicians and mechanics on the Municipal track for the first free practice, made in the afternoon of Thursday 18 January 1979, waiting for the timed and official training on Friday morning. Even the stars of Formula 1 begin to taste the hardness of the work, carried out at 30°C in the shade with a heat that fortunately isn't suffocating, thanks to the presence of the wind. It is a complicated, laborious, even rather boring contact, for the fine-tuning of many small details that could prove decisive in the race. Obviously, the drivers who have to work with new cars are very busy. Like Niki Lauda, who continues to justify his decision to choose the brand new Brahbam BT 48 with these words:
"The old car runs on average two seconds behind the Lotus. It's useless to insist on that car, better to gain experience on the new one, trying to bring it to a competitive level as soon as possible. Don't ask me about the results right away, then, because if they come it will be by chance, I'm working on it for the future".
On the other hand, Jody Scheckter doesn't seem to have any problems, even though he will have to deal with a new car for him in the race. The South African seems calm, very relaxed and in perfect physical shape. Jody, since his passage to Ferrari, has changed his attitude; before he was grumpy and rude, now he is kind and affable. This probably does not mean that he has changed his temperament, but rather confirms that Scheckter is an intelligent man who has understood the situation and has adapted, as a true professional must. Jody, dressed in a checked shirt and Bermuda shorts, submits with a smile to a series of interviews, responding with wit. First he surrenders himself to Argentine television, then he gives the Italian journalists an open interview, answering with the utmost sincerity. Taking stock of these first months at Ferrari, what are your first impressions?
"I have already said how Ferrari has impressed me. The power, the technical possibilities, the seriousness of this team have no equal in Formula 1. But that's not what impressed me the most. The most incredible thing is the following that Ferrari has all over the world and obviously in Italy. Everything you do, everything you say, becomes important. Whereas before I raced for myself and a little bit also for Mr Wolf, now I have to admit that I feel that I am followed by a whole country. It's a big responsibility, but also a huge incentive".
What do you think of the car you currently have at your disposal?
"I am very satisfied with the 312-T3. We worked hard on it over the winter, bringing many improvements. But I must also say that I feel the need to have the new T4 at my disposal as soon as possible to keep up with the others and I hope it will be even more competitive".
A prediction for the championship?
"It seems obvious to say Lotus. But I also see Watson doing very well with the new McLaren. As for Lauda and Brabham, I think they will come out later. Ferrari will also have a good chance. Let's not forget that I have a teammate called Villeneuve, a guy who doesn't go slow. For the world title, however, I am convinced that we will have to reckon with Andretti. In the Lotus he is the number one and Reutemann will have to adapt to do as poor Peterson did last year".
Will the fact of having passed from a team where he was the only driver to another where he has to share everything with a teammate give Scheckter problems?
"There will be advantages and disadvantages. As far as testing is concerned, it will be very useful to be in two. We can make comparisons, we can give each other advice. In the race, of course, it will be harder because the mechanics will have to split up and each of us drivers will be thinking about himself".
Do you have any particular problems adapting to the Ferrari?
"No. The only problem is the tyres. On some tracks the Michelin tyres will undoubtedly have a great chance, on others we'll see. Let's hope they don't let us down, because the French technicians have said they have worked hard. For me this is very important. I didn't switch from Wolf to Ferrari on a whim. I was looking for a team to aim for the world title and I hope I have found it".
The 1979 World Championship tour will kick off in mid-January, with the familiar sights of Autódromo Municipal Ciudad de Buenos Aires in Argentina greeted the field, with no changes to the circuit. Indeed, with no changes to the venue all of the interest is in the entry list, with a myriad of changes since the end of the 1978 campaign. There are old faces in new teams, new faces in old teams, and a smattering of new equipment, all designed to beat the formidable duo of Lotus and Mario Andretti. Indeed, Team Lotus are one of the few teams not to bring a new car to the opening round, with Colin Chapman waiting for the European season to debut the new Type 80. As such, the team brings arguably the star of 1978 with them, a trio of Type 79s, whose ground effect concept have allowed the Norfolk squad to dominate the previous season. What is new for the opening round, however, is their driver line-up, with Carlos Reutemann partnering defending World Champion Andretti after the sad demise of Ronnie Peterson in Italy five months earlier. Also gone is their infamous black-gold livery, heralding the end of their John Player Special deal with the Imperial Tobacco Company, replaced by their traditional green-gold colours with sponsorship from Martini.
Reutemann's ex-employers Ferrari also sport a new line-up, with the Argentine replaced by old hand Jody Scheckter, while young Canadian ace Gilles Villeneuve retains his seat. Like Lotus the Scuderia also arrives with their 1978 cars, albeit with new side-skirts designed to seal the gap between the bottom of the car and the circuit. Their new car, the 312T4 is still in development, with their F12 causing issues with their experiments with ground effect by protruding into the airflow under the car. Elsewhere Wolf has decided to hire James Hunt to replace Scheckter, with the Brit also taking sponsorship from Texaco with him as he transferred his colours to the Canadian team. The Brit has a brand new car to play with, the WR7 which sported a new honeycomb monocoque structure, and a custom gearbox casing that dictated the bodywork at the back of the car. Yet, despite a promising test, barring an off into the gravel at Silverstone, and ample funding, Wolf continues to field just a single car, despite the fact that Derek Bell has been the first man to test car.
With Hunt and Texaco leaving McLaren were forced to find a new sponsor and new star driver, with Patrick Tambay retained as number two. However, rather than promote European Formula Two Champion Bruno Giacomelli, the British squad managed to grab John Watson to the team, the Ulsterman having grown frustrated at Brabham. Watson is duly handed their brand new M28, sporting a honeycomb monocoque and overhauled suspension, while Tambay is handed the original M28 testbed. Watson's exit prompted Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone to look elsewhere for a replacement, and duly recruited rising Brazilian star Nelson Piquet towards the end of the 1978 season. Piquet will partner two-time Champion Niki Lauda in the team, with the Austrian ace getting two of the team's new BT48s to race, while Piquet is handed the last of their BT46As. The new BT48 sportes a new aerofoil, as well as a new Alfa Romeo V12 engine, replacing the old Flat-12 that, as Ferrari has found, played havoc with airflow underneath the car.
Elsewhere, Tyrrell arrives with a new car and new driver pairing, although both have elements of Lotus in the appearance. On the driver front, Lotus stand-in Jean-Pierre Jarier has signed as lead driver, hoping his two cameos for the Norfolk squad will lead to greater things, with the veteran Frenchman partnered by Didier Pironi, getting a second season in Formula 1. On the car front the team's pair of new 009s looks like a revised version of the Lotus 79, albeit with minor alterations to the bodywork and a different suspension setup. Williams, meanwhile, has expanded to become a two-car entry during the winter, with Frank Williams keep to expand on their successful 1978 campaign. In to partner the impressive Alan Jones will be veteran Swiss racer Clay Regazzoni, with Williams also investing heavily to build three new FW06s over the winter. Their new-for-1979 design, the FW07 is still in development, although the team are confident that their FW06s are still up to the task of beating the ground effect contingent.
Regazzoni's former employers Shadow, meanwhile, has only been able to build an interim car for the new season, despite gaining a bundle of parts from Arrows after their infamous legal battle. The new DN9Bs has wider front tracks, revised bodywork around the front end and revised suspension, while also getting a new pair of drivers. Indeed, Don Nicholas has been forced into finding two new pilots during the winter, ultimately settling for Formula 3 Champion Jan Lammers, and American racer Danny Ongais. However, an accident for Ongais in a USAC race shortly before the season forced the Don to think again, with another F3 racer in the form of Elio de Angelis duly hired to make his debut. Completing the British based section of the entry would be Ensign and Arrows, both of whom have familiar drivers and largely similar equipment. Ensign in particular are unchanged with Morris Nunn simply lacking the funds to replace either Derek Daly or their N177 car, despite the fact that he has designs for a new car ready to enter manufacture. Arrows, meanwhile, retain the services of promising Italian racer Riccardo Patrese, who’s to be partnered by Jochen Mass at the behest of their sponsors. They have also made a lot of minor renovations to their A1 design, which are officially dubbed as A1Bs in Argentina.
Into the French contingent and Renault have expanded their efforts for the 1979 season, signalling their intent to battle for race victories. Indeed, while the French manufacturer is stuck with their original RS01 design for the start of the season, their new RS10, with twin turbochargers, has show a lot of promise in testing. In terms of drivers Jean-Pierre Jabouille finally gets someone to partner him, with the emerging French talent known as René Arnoux joining the team. Likewise, private constructors Ligier have expanded to a two car effort for 1979, bringing in Patrick Depailler from Tyrrell to partner Jacques Laffite. The team also arrives with two new cars, their ground effect based JS11s, notably sporting Ford Cosworth V8s rather than the Matra V12s the team has previously used as the engine manufacturer pulled out of Formula 1. Indeed, the new Ligiers have almost nothing to do with their predecessors, with Ligier's designers even discovering a different method to create the "ground effect" concept, resulting in a car that looks nothing like the Lotus 79.
Elsewhere ATS are back to compete, albeit with just the one entry in a heavily Lotus-inspired car, the D1. They have also hired a new driver in the form of Hans-Joachim Stuck, who has grown frustrated at Shadow and their lack of development. Completing the field will be Arturo Merzario, using his eponymous car from 1979, Emerson Fittipaldi in his brother's F5A, their new F6 yet to be finished, and Héctor Rebaque in his privately entered Lotus. Of these, Rebaque appears with the most reason to be happy, for he has managed to obtain the original Lotus 79 from the Norfolk squad, albeit under the condition that the factory team could use it if they lost use of their spare car. Unfortunately the winter has also seen the loss of two popular figures in Formula 1, one in the form of a team, the other in the form of a driver. The team proved to be Surtees, which has finally succumbed to the severe lack of money that has plagued the team since the mid-1970s. The driver, meanwhile, would be the promising Swedish talent Gunnar Nilsson, who died of cancer shortly after the end of the 1978 season, having been forced to curtail his racing career earlier that year.
However, it’s Patrick Depalller at the wheel of the new Ligier, powered by the eight-cylinder Ford engine, the fastest in the three-hour free practice of the Argentine Grand Prix. The new French car shows that it’s already perfectly tuned: the time set by Depailler (1:45:87) is clearly lower than the track record held by Andretti, in 1:47:75. The World Champion, however, confirming his chances, is second with a time of 1'46"4. Carlos Reutemann's performance is also quite good, with the second Lotus obtaining the fourth time with 1'46"53. The best of the Ferrari is Villeneuve, sixth, with a time of 1'46"89. Many problems instead for the Brabham Alfa. Lauda is not even able to run three girls in a row because of fuel problems. Brabham's technicians will have to work hard to put Lauda in a position to try to qualify without problems, as promised by the car equipped with the new Alfa Romeo 12-cylinder 60 degree V engine, which looks beautiful and certainly the most advanced of the cars present.
Many difficulties for Arturo Merzario, whose modified car complains of serious overheating problems. Bad luck continues to haunt the driver from Como. After a day of hard work, two of his mechanics, having returned to the hotel, will have the unpleasant surprise of finding their room completely burgled by thieves who have not even left them a handkerchief to cry. These episodes are very disturbing. All that remains is to wish poor Arturo that the track will be more favourable to him and give him the satisfaction of being able to compete. On the contrary, no particular problem seems to emerge for Ferrari, which has two updated T-3s and a modified one. Engineer Forghieri has not yet decided which model to entrust to Villeneuve and which to Scheckter. We will have to wait for Friday's practice, when Goodyear will supply Andretti, Depailler, Lauda and Watson with the special qualifying tyres. Only then, looking at the gap margins (or even the advantage) it will be possible to take a final decision. Gilles and Jody, however, seem to be able to face a good race. Also Riccardo Patrese seems to be in good shape and he gets the tenth time. His Arrows, however, has several problems to solve, such as the cornering grip and also the driver from Padova is waiting for a new car to be tuned.
Patrick Depailler therefore made his patron Guy Ligier happy, a man who believes in racing and who has put all of himself into it, obtaining the best time in free practice at the Argentine Grand Prix. The success of the french team is completed by the third place of Jacques Laffite with the same car, and then again by the fifth place of Jean Pierre Jarier at the wheel of the new Tyrrell. That doesn't mean that Andretti and Reutemann, respectively credited with the second and fourth time with their Lotus, should tremble for Sunday's race. But if we consider that the Ligier JS11 is a completely new car, this first result can be considered surprising as the rookie cars usually pay for the novitiate with small or big problems at their first outings. From this first training session another rather important fact emerges. It's always the older drivers who hold sway, as experience counts for a lot when you have to improvise. Depailler is 34, Andretti 38, Làffite 35, Reutemann 36, Jarier 32. To get to a young driver, we have to reach the sixth position of Gilles Villeneuve, who is only 27 years old. All the other young drivers were left behind and only in the official time trials on Friday and Saturday will they be able to try to recover places.
Another consideration to be made, before going into the details, is that concerning the enormous progress that Formula 1 makes year after year without missing a beat. The record of the municipal autodrome of the Argentine capital, held by Mario Andretti at the wheel of the Lotus and set last year with 1:47:75 has already been widely beaten. At least ten cars have gone under this time and Depailler even arrived at 1'45"97; while certainly we can still do better in the last tests. Only the new Brabham-Alfa BT 48 of Niki Lauda is missing. The Austrian's test is, as said, practically an ordeal. Niki stops in the middle of the track with one of the two available cars and then, with the other one, he doesn't manage to run three consecutive laps without showing any problem.
If on Thursday it could be assumed that the Lotus cars could only be slower because they are not yet completely ready, on Friday it becomes evident how the copies are more competitive than the British cars. At least, these are the indications given by the first official practice of the Argentine Grand Prix, raced on Friday 19th January 1979 under the burning sun of South American summer. Even if the gaps are minimal and considering that the situation could evolve and change in the last qualifying sessions, it must be recognized that many teams have worked well this winter and the results are surprising. Particularly surprising is the new Ligier that, in the hands of Patrick Depailler, obtains the best overall time. A time that literally and officially cancelled the track record held by Andretti, who last year had run with the Lotus 78 in 1:47:75. The French driver goes down to 1:45:24, bringing the average on the lap to over 203 km/h on a track that hasn't changed one single metre. However, there are many drivers who clearly exceed the old record, and this proves that the progress of Formula One single-seaters is not only theoretical. Together with Ligier the Tyrrel 009 driven by Jean Pierre Jarier stands out, which is considered as the closest car to Lotus, and Ferrari cars are equally competitive, even if Scheckter and Villeneuve have to use the old 312-T3 up to the South African Grand Prix.
However, the question of values is still very difficult at the moment. Up to now Goodyear has not yet supplied the famous time tyres, i. those only suitable for qualifying. The surprising fact, as far as the Ligier is concerned, derives from the speed with which this car was made. Having abandoned the 12-cylinder Matra engine at the end of last season, Guy Ligier, a French owner of a mechanical industry, built the new one in record time, adopting the eight-cylinder Ford Cosworth on a very beautiful single-seater with a simple and compact line that obviously uses the wing-car type ground effect system imposed by Colin Chapman. Ligier has also the astuteness to call two very good French drivers to his team, creating in the team a healthy rivalry that started immediately bearing fruit since the first laps run. In front of a public already estimated at several tens of thousands of people, Depailler and Laffite put on a show, imitated by Scheckter in the Ferrari who is among the fastest, by Reutemann supported by a great cheer, by Watson, Pironi, Andretti and Fittipaldi.
On the other hand, many other drivers have big problems. First of all Niki Lauda who manages to complete only six laps, beaten only by Merzario (four laps, then stopped due to an ignition failure). The Austrian tests the new Brabham Alfa in the version with wing. Partially solved the problems with the petrol supply of the previous day, Niki admits that he can't stay on the road, with great difficulties in driving. The technicians of the English team try different solutions, not least the one of trying to raise the skirts. Unfortunately it’s a completely new car and if they didn't manage to find a solution as soon as possible Lauda risked not to qualify. Difficulties at the beginning also for Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian (like Scheckter) opts for the old car, leaving aside the modified mule. Shortly before the beginning of the tests the technicians change the distributor of the injection, forcing Gilles to lose almost an hour of time before going on track.
Also Riccardo Patrese is not able to test for a long time, because his Arrows has some set-up problems, forcing Riccardo to stay quite far from the best times. Excellent performance instead of the young Roman Elio De Angelis, established immediately in the middle of the ranking with the possibility to improve further. The torrid heat of early afternoon didn't allow many improvements, in spite of Goodyear finally supplying its famous qualifying tyres for the nine priority teams, that is Lotus, Brabham, McLaren, Arrows, Ligier, Tyrrell, Wolf, Copersucar and Williams. In the second round of time trials only Ligier and Ferrari tries more frequently, while almost all the other teams, including Lotus, make several pit-stops for tuning. Laffite manages to recover some positions, passing to the third place behind Depailler and Jarier. In short, a real trio of French aces at the top of the classification, ahead of Scheckter. Also Andretti improves, but he always remaines in the sixth position. At the moment, if something doesn't change, Merzario and Lauda, who has the last absolute time, would not qualify.
By now all Formula 1 car manufacturers have adapted to the concept proposed by Chapman with his Lotus model 79, according to which it is not the airflow that passes over the car that counts, but rather that which passes underneath. The clear proof of this can be seen in the mobile side panels that touch the ground (the miniskirts), whose function is precisely to channel the air under the car, rather than letting it escape laterally. What happens underneath a racing car designed in this way is easy to say, and responds to a precise law of physics: the air that enters under the front of the car must necessarily exit to the rear. The only problem is that the rear exit area is much larger than the area where the air entered, creating the Venturi effect, i.e. a depression in the whole area between the bottom of the car and the road. Ultimately, the car is sucked into the road with a force of around 200-250 kilos at speeds between 150 and 200 km/h. This additional force greatly helps to increase grip, making even better use of today's wide tyres.
Enthusiasts know that the same effect was and is achieved with ailerons, and will wonder what the difference is: the difference is twofold, namely less drag and therefore less wasted power and better use of the downforce obtained. The lower drag is due to the fact that using the bodywork as an aerodynamic means makes it possible to reduce the use of the ailerons. The latter, then, increase their effect with speed, so that they become too braking at top speeds, when the car is on the straight and doesn't need them. Of course, the ground effect that can be achieved varies with the design of the car and the type of engine: a V-engine leaves more free space on the flanks, while a horizontal-cylinder (or boxer) engine leads to somewhat more complicated solutions, as on the Ferrari 312 T-4, where the outgoing air has to be channelled partly under and partly over the engine. The latter was modified externally to better suit these aerodynamic requirements. The advantage of the mini-skirts is especially noticeable on fast mixed circuits, as most of the circuits are. From the very first race in Buenos Aires it will be possible to see who has managed to achieve the best balance between aerodynamics, tyres and available power. All it takes is a tiny difference and you gain or lose a few tenths of a second a lap, which in today's racing is a huge gap.
On Saturday, in the final hour of practice between 1:00am and 2:00pm, if the heatwave continues, the chances of improvement will be slim for everyone. And it will be a tragedy for Niki Lauda, who got the worst time, twenty-sixth out of twenty-six competitors in the new Brabham-Alfa. On Friday the Austrian was able to try for very few laps: solved, at least partially, the problem of the petrol supply, an even more serious one is proposed. The miniskirts of his car turn out to be inefficient. The material with which they are built appears too light and bends on bends, with the result of cancelling the ground effect to the detriment of the car stability. Brabham's technicians use the BT 48 model with the wing but even this does not solve the problem. During the night the British mechanics will work hard to replace them, but only on Saturday will the result be seen. Certainly, if Lauda didn't manage to qualify, it would be a great setback for the Austrian, twice World Champion, who has to give way to his young team mate Piquet, who's running with an old car, and to youngsters like Elio De Angelis from Rome, who is really good and sets the thirteenth time, doing better than his team mate Lammers who's only twentieth.
After the first, official practice day, Formula 1 reveals what could be the dominant motifs of the whole season. The attack on Lotus cars seems to be more decided and massive than we could have thought, even if, for the moment, the gap between the best drivers is minimal and in race anything could happen. Especially if you take into account that the race will be run from 2:30 am to 4:00 pm on Sunday 21 January 1979, in the hottest hours of the day with big problems for engines and tyres. The record time achieved by Patrick Depailler with the new Ligier, as well as the positions of Jarier and Laffite, can hardly be undermined by Andretti, Reutemann and Scheckter who are the most immediate pursuers. The trio of French drivers, apart from their cars, have demonstrated their determination and desire to win, justified by the disappointments of past years. Mario Andretti, reigning World Champion, is rather worried about the exploits of his rivals.
"I thought they would try to put me in difficulty straight away, but I didn't think the attack would be so massive and heavy. You have to recognise that Ligier and Tyrrell have worked very well. The first one has built an original car, very balanced, apparently easy to drive that exploited very well the qualities of the eight-cylinder Ford engine. As far as Tyrrell is concerned, on the contrary, I must admit that if it has copied Lotus it has done it in the best way, with intelligence. Its team has very good mechanics, perhaps more precise than those of Lotus, and I think it was a good idea to make new cars a bit longer than ours. So, for the moment, I will try to defend myself, waiting for the Lotus '80, which will always be an unknown. In any case, I am convinced that it will not be a monotonous championship".
If they are rather surprised at Lotus, they hide it well. On the other hand, there is a certain satisfaction at Ferrari. Jody Scheckter's fourth time at the wheel of the old 312-T3 is considered more than positive. The South African confirms his skills as a combative driver, even if his driving is still not very clean.
"I still have to get used to the 12-cylinder engine, which has a different behaviour from that of the Wolf. On the whole, however, I'm quite happy with myself and the car".
Unfortunately Gilles Villeneuve doesn't have the chance to match his teammate. In the most favourable moment of the tests, in the morning, when the temperature is acceptable, the Canadian is forced to stay at the pits while the mechanics replaced the fuel system of his car, which had suddenly broken down.
"I am convinced that if I had had the chance to qualify with the others I could have achieved something more than the tenth time".
The Formula 1 World Championship started on Sunday 21st January 1979 in the torrid Municipal Autodrome of Buenos Aires under the sign of the French drivers and of the new cars of the Lotus type, that is equipped with the by now famous ground effect and miniskirts. The starting grid sees Jacques Laffite and Patrick Depailler in the first two places, both with the surprising Ligier JS 11, followed by the idol of the house, Carlos Reutemann, Jean-Pierre Jarier with the Tyrrell 009 and Jody Scheckter with the Ferrari. It will certainly be a race full of suspense for the heated rivalry that has already exploded among the candidates for the victory and for all those unknown factors determined by the debut of new cars and by the unfavourable environmental conditions. The heat is close to 40°C in the middle hours of the day, when the race will take place. The tyre choices will certainly play an important role, but this is now a normal fact. Equally important will be the drivers' conduct of the race, with a better chance for those who know how to intelligently control the brakes and engine of their cars. The confirmation, received in the last hour of official practice, that Lotus cars seem to have reached the level of competitiveness, even if the competition is still lacking, was overshadowed by the situation created in Brabham-Alfa.
On Saturday 20 January 1979, in fact, Niki Lauda risks exclusion and manages to qualify only in the last moments, in a rather daring way, inserting himself among the drivers present in the farthest rows of the starting grid. The Austrian experiences one of the most humiliating days of his career, playing a leading role in episodes that make him look ridiculous. For the decisive day of testing, the Municipal Circuit presents an exceptional public backdrop. At least 60,000 people attend qualifying. All the teams prepare with the utmost care for the last timed practice sessions. When the twenty-six registered drivers set off for the decisive hour, the atmosphere in the pits, apart from the temperature, is very heated. These are troubled trials, full of episodes, small dramas, satisfactions for a few, disappointments for many. In the morning it was thought that Goodyear would have given a hand to the home driver, that is to say to Reutemann. This impression is confirmed by the Argentinean champion's time in free practice, which is not valid for the grid. Carlos drops to 1'44"7, a result that would have been much better than the official one set by Depailler (who had been the fastest) the previous day. But it's unfortunate that this time could no longer be done when it counted. The heat, the track a bit dirty, the work the Lotus mechanics have to do to repair Andretti's car, stopped because of the breakage of the suspension connection, make things difficult for the champion team. However, Reutemann is happy with this result:
"I didn't hope to go so well with the Lotus right away, the race is open and I will be there for the win".
Lauda's desperate attempt to qualify is however the main topic of the day. The Austrian, abandons the new BT 48, commandeered the old BT 46 of the astonished Nelson Plquet and tries to set a valid time for qualifying. After a few laps he comes back to the pits to mount the fastest tyres, but just when he has the chance to improve himself he's left stranded along the track because of the breakage of the oil pump crankcase, a fact that substantially changes the course of practice for everybody. While Lauda reaches the pits on foot, Laffite, on the track made slippery by the Brabham's oil trail, incredibly manages to get the best overall time. The Frenchman sets a time of 1'44"20, a result that left his teammate Depailler one second behind. At the same time Jarier, who tries to imitate Laffite by taking advantage of the free track (many cars have returned to the pits), is the protagonist of a frightening accident, travelling at about 250 km/h.
At the exit of the grandstands' straight, his Tyrrell flies out of the track ending up in the protection nets, where it is seriously damaged. Jarier gets out of the car unharmed, but he returns to the pits pale in face, holding the rear wing of his car that, coming off, caused the accident. For Ferrari, a discreet start: Scheckter, at his official debut with the T-3, gets the fifth time, while Villeneuve, due to several small problems, will start from the fifth row with the tenth result. However, every team has its troubles: Scheckter himself broke an engine at the end of practice, in the decisive minutes, imitated by Merzario, Arnoux, De Angelis and Tambay, whose car caught fire in the pits.
During the morning warm-up Riccardo Patrese, after a few laps during which he tries to fine-tune his Arrows, finds himself in the wake of Piquet's Brabham BT 46. At the braking of the big and very fast curve, at the end of the starting straight, Patrese's car hits the Brazilian's sideways. While the Brabham is not seriously damaged, the Arrows have the worst of it, so much so that the violent blow causes the bodywork to bend. A rather banal accident, which on another occasion would not have has serious consequences. On the contrary, with the car irreparable in such a short time, Patrese can't start the race, as he doesn't have a training mule at his disposal. As you may remember, last year the Italian driver had been charged and disqualified by the drivers' safety commission for his alleged improprieties in the race. The memory of this fact, the psychosis artificially created against the Paduan, immediately set a new jury in motion. It is not even enough for Patrese, with great honesty, to admit his responsibility.
"I was following Piquet very closely and didn't realise, misjudging the braking, that I was running into him. I apologised to him".
Piquet himself accepts the explanation and considers the incident closed. However, the incident did not go unnoticed: the Argentinean stewards call the two drivers to report and, in the presence of the CSI president, Balestre, a sort of trial is set up (closely followed by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley), during which Piquet is forced to accuse the Italian. After a meeting of a few minutes, while the two rather surprised drivers comment on the incident, the stewards decide not to take disciplinary action against the Arrows driver, considering the incident closed with a lecture. Balestre, asked about it, declares:
"Nothing has happened, there is no new Patrese case".
The fact, however, provokes new unfavourable comments towards the driver from Padova. For all speaks Emerson Fittipaldi who has already been one of the most determined accusers of Riccardo at Watkins Glen for the events of Monza.
"It is not the case to make a fuss, but Patrese would do better to listen and follow the advice we gave him last year. The accident was trivial and could have happened to anyone. But not in free practice, where you think about checking the car and not looking for a qualifying time. Honestly, given his impetuousness, you can't be too relaxed when he's behind you, as I would have been at the start if he hadn't ruined the car".
Raceday proves to be marginally cooler than practice, although there are still some concerns about cooling across the field. There are, however, a few more immediate issues after the warm-up, where a brake failure for Riccardo Patrese sends the Italian's Arrows screaming into the back of Nelson Piquet, damaging. Fortunately both escape uninjured, although while Piquet has enough spares to fix his Brabham-Alfa Romeo, Patrese is left on the sidelines. The Italian's spot should gone to Hans-Joachim Stuck, although his spectacular accident in practice means that René Arnoux inherited the final spot on the grid in the second Renault.
Untroubled by all of this, however, there are the two Ligiers, which line-up side-by-side on the front row to take the start after the trouble-free formation lap. They duly ace the start to sprint clear off the line as the lights flash to green, with pole sitter Jacques Laffite just edging teammate Patrick Depailler into the first corner. Jean-Pierre Jarier leads the anti-Ligier resistance from third in the Tyrrell, although all of the attention is placed on the mob behind. Indeed, with a herd of twenty-four Formula One cars squeezing into the right-left flick at pit-out as a bunch, it's inevitable that there are some contact. Ultimately, the victims are Jody Scheckter and John Watson, with a brush of wheels sending the South African's Ferrari spinning across the circuit. He's duly T-boned by Didier Pironi, Patrick Tambay and Nelson Piquet, while Watson is sent skating off into the catch fencing.
The dust settles to reveal several twisted hulks of Formula 1 cars, although remarkably no fatalities. Indeed, the worst of the injuries sustained are to Piquet, with the Brazilian having to be pulled out of his car by the marshals after his collision with Scheckter broke a bone in his foot. Scheckter himself escapes with only minor injuries and bruises, while fellow retirees Arturo Merzario, Pironi and Tambay escape without harm. Out front, meanwhile, Laffite led Depailler and Jarier around the opening tour without issue, the top three Frenchman already building a gap over fourth placed Carlos Reutemann. They duly charge through the scene of the first lap incident without much delay, just as the officials decid to halt the race. They cruise around to rejoin the grid for the restart, held an hour after the original race start.
There are several changes to the field during that hour, with Scheckter told he's not to race due to a badly bruised hand. Watson is able to rejoin the field, the remains of Tambay's car having used to fix the Ulsterman's car, while Mario Andretti swaps to the spare Lotus. The order itself is reset to the original post-qualifying order, with empty spaces left for those left on the sidelines. At the second restart it's Depailler who makes the better getaway, the #25 Ligier sprinting away at the head of the pack as the car #26 of Laffite bogs down. Indeed, the Frenchman's sluggish start allows both Jarier and Watson to leap ahead, leaving Laffite to just fend off a fast starting Andretti. The rest of the field manages to make it through the first corner flick without issue, meaning the race is finally underway.
Comes the end of the second opening lap and it's still Depailler leading from Jarier, Watson and Laffite, although Watson is soon to pounce on the wayward Tyrrell for second. Indeed, Jarier has not been entirely happy with the car after his off during Saturday, and so there's little surprise when Laffite cruises past later on the second lap. The top three duly ease clear of the #4 car over the following laps, which will soon fall to a charging Reutemann once the Argentine passes new teammate Andretti. Back with the leaders and Laffite is sizing up his second move of the race, with Watson unable to keep Depailler under pressure ahead. On lap five the inevitable move happens, with Laffite sending his Ligier scything inside the McLaren on the brakes at the hairpin on lap five. The Frenchman duly sprints clear of the Ulsterman and onto the back of his teammate, just as Depailler hits some heat related fuel issues and hence gifted the lead to Laffite.
Regardless, the two Ligiers are still among the quickest cars on circuit, with Reutemann the only man able to match their pace. Yet, the Argentine racer still has to get ahead of Watson, who proves far more resistant to the Lotus than he has been to the Ligier. Indeed, it will take two laps of failed attempts before Reutemann senda his Lotus skating past the McLaren on lap 16, sending the home crowd into ecstasy. However, the prolonged fight means that Reutemann has dropped even further behind the two Ligiers, which are still lapping quickly nose-to-tail despite Depailler's audible issues. Elsewhere there are a myriad of issues either delaying or causing drivers to retire, with the retroactively promoted Arnoux out early with another engine failure. The sister Renault of Jean-Pierre Jabouille lasts a few more laps before his engine also expires, while Jarier also succumbed to his engine issues in the Ford Cosworth engined Tyrrell. Niki Lauda is also in strife, spending a lot of time in the pits before ultimately retiring after eight laps.
Indeed, those incidents, and more besides, mean that the race becomes rather tepid, for Reutemann could not close on the two Ligiers, while there are gaps between every car in the field. Indeed, for a long while the only source of entertainment will be Gilles Villeneuve, who has dropped from seventh to the back after losing faith in his Michelin tyres. He duly goes charging back up the order in the sole surviving Ferrari, only for an engine failure to end his race prematurely in the closing stages. Out front, meanwhile, Laffite will gradually move clear of Depailler, whose fuel vapourisation issues are beginning to have a greater impact as the race wore on. Yet, Reutemann is only able to chip into his advantage, and will only get ahead of the #25 Ligier when Depailler dives into the pits with seven laps to go. The Frenchman is only in for a few moments, however, charging in and out of his pitbox to get a top-up of water, but rejoins behind Andretti in fifth.
With that the race is run, barring a late move by Depailler on Andretti as the American's pace deteriorates with breaking bodywork. Indeed, the #1 Lotus just kept out of reach of Emerson Fittipaldi on the final tour, with the Brazilian ace falling a few lengths shy of the Lotus. They are chased across the line by the debuting Elio de Angelis, while Jochen Mass comes crabbing across the line with a last lap suspension failure. Out front, meanwhile, Laffite is left untroubled by Reutemann to win at a canter, the Frenchman crossing the line a quarter of a minute clear of the Argentine. They will share the podium with Watson, who has had a quiet enough race having been passed by Reutemann, while Depailler is too far adrift to challenge in fourth. Those four are also the only drivers still on the lead lap, with eleven drivers making it to the chequered flag at the season opener.
The Formula 1 World Championship got off to a roaring start with the Argentine Grand Prix. A dramatic accident immediately after the start, a stop for over an hour to clear the track (nine drivers involved, all of them safe, fortunately), another start in which for various reasons five drivers did not take part, among them Jody Scheckter, then a very tight race, full of retirements and twists and turns, under a torrid heat and in front of an exceptional public. All the cheering was for Carlos Reutemann, cheered on by his fans. However, Carlos did not win. The first victory of the season went to Jacques Laffite. A very important victory for Ligier, confirming the surprising progress made by the French car, similar to the Lotus but with its own balance.
For Laffite it is the second success in Formula 1 since 1976. He had won the Swedish Grand Prix in 1977, and in 1978 he took two third places in Spain and Germany. Having started his career as Jabouille's mechanic, Laffite began racing in touring cars in 1966. He was born in Paris in November 1943 and is a very likeable, intelligent and quick to respond young man. Needless to say, Jacques Laffite is delighted with his victory. The Frenchman merely avoids jumping for joy, but his eyes speak for him. When he finally manages to open his mouth, overwhelmed by the crowd of admirers, he declares:
"I dedicate this victory to my mechanics. They worked wonderfully to set up a car that proved perfect from start to finish. I waited a little while to attack, letting Depailler let off steam. Then, when I saw that the others were closing in, I pushed hard, took the lead and had no trouble maintaining it".
His race was all on the attack, a head to head duel with his team mate Depailler, who, however, had to give in at a distance. Behind Laffite there was an unrestrained Reutemann, but not supported by his Lotus as he would have wished, and then a very regular Watson, who with his McLaren had triggered the carambole, crashing into the Farrari driven by Scheckter. The second place satisfied Carlos Reutemann, even if the Argentine doesn't hide that a victory would have been his greatest aspiration.
"I worked hard for this second place. The car was not perfectly tuned and towards the end I also realised that I was running out of fuel. Probably, I couldn't have done another lap. Still, I am satisfied because I think I amused the fans with the comeback I made".
Mario Andretti has to be content with fifth place. For the World Champion it's a rather anonymous race, as his Lotus doesn't live up to expectations.
"Actually I made a bit of a mistake. I gave too little load to the front wing and the car had no grip even on the straights. Twenty-three laps from the end, then, the left box of the Lotus broke. If everything had gone well, if the car had been perfect, given how things went, I think I could have been the only one to attack Laffite".
The very young Elio De Angelis honours his debut in the Grand Prix with a seventh place. It could not have gone better than this: he is Roman, only twenty years old and has a great future ahead of him. At the end of the race he's happy, even if he complains about the initial part of his race.
"Of course I am happy, but if I had taken a few more risks at the start, maybe overtaking Fittipaldi, a sixth place would not have escaped me. The car went quite well but still lacks grip. I hope to fine tune it better for the next race".
For Ferrari it's not a good day. The Maranello team, after losing a car even before the real start, had to live on Villeneuve's performance. The Canadian tried his best, but, slowed down first by a pit-stop to change the tyres, he was forced to retire at the forty-eighth passage for transmission troubles: he was anyway classified twelfth. Excellent the test of Elio De Angelis, who made a very good race, full of wisdom and ability, and placed seventh at his debut in Formula 1, with the Shadow. De Angelis is the only Italian driver left in the race, as Patrese had not been able to start because his car broke down during the morning's practice and Merzario has been ousted by an accident. The race, which took place in a very high temperature, 60°C in the sun and about 40°C in the shade, had as absolute protagonists the two Ligier cars driven by Laffite and Depailler, that this year mounted the eight-cylinder Cosworth.
At the second start Depailler took the lead, followed by Jarier, Watson and Laffite. Jarier immediately lost ground and was overtaken by the Irishman. But both could do nothing in the face of Laffite's overbearing return. On the sixth lap Laffite moved into second position ahead of Watson. Reutemann and Andretti. After Jarier disappeared from the scene because of the engine failure, the race continued on the wave of Reutemann's pursuit. But Laffite's Ligier proved too strong. The Parisian overtook his team-mate Depailler on lap 25 and flew towards the victory, overtaking one after the other until he lapped almost all his rivals. Depailler kept in his teammate's wake for a long time, but also due to a slight failure of his engine, he finally had to give way to the unbridled Reutemann. That's all for the chronicle of the first places. Having said that De Angelis, who drove an excellent race, and Andretti, who always remained in the middle positions, we still have to talk about Lauda. The Austrian started in last position, with his new Brabham-Alfa, and stopped almost immediately. On the seventh lap, the Brabham-Alfa BT 48 came into the pits and stopped. The problem was still the usual one: the petrol supply. As for the Alfa engine, however, the test was quite positive.
But, as said, the Formula 1 season started badly: first start, few hundred meters, and immediately an incredible carambola involved many cars. The accident, fortunately, had no serious consequences, but it brought to mind the tragic one at Monza. And it was only because of the good fortune and safety offered by the Buenos Aires track, with its wide, unobstructed spaces on either side of the carriageway, that we are not here to recount dramas. Nine damaged cars, a few dents and a broken ankle were among the drivers involved. The rescue services were rather slow and clumsy, but since the incredible banging and banging of the single-seaters launched at full speed did not cause any fires, it was finally possible, after a suspension of about an hour and a half, to resume racing. The crowd had invaded the track in the area of the accident. Everything happened in an instant, shortly after the start. The twenty-four cars (with Arnoux's Renault in place of Patrese's Arrows) launched themselves along the pit straight with the usual noise. When it came to taking the first bend, the Esse del Cervo, Laffite (Ligier), Depailler (Ligier), Jarier (Tyrrell) and Reutemann (Lotus) who were leading the platoon passed well in order.
Jody Scheckter, who was on the right in the Ferrari, made his trajectory, but was hit by Watson's McLaren, which suddenly narrowed from the left and cut the track. From that moment on there was almost no understanding. While most of the spectators were screaming, looking towards the scene of the accident, Scheckter's Ferrari started to spin in the middle of the track. The South African tried hard to keep it on the road, but there was nothing he could do, having lost a wheel in the first collision. The drivers following Scheckter found themselves in front of the South African driver's car, which offered now the sides, now the nose, now the tail. The first to hit it was Pironi (Tyrrell), then it was the turn of Andretti (Lotus), Tambay (McLaren), Piquet (Brabham), Merzario (Merzario), Lauda (Brabham) and Arnoux (Renault) to get involved in the terrible general carom. Tyres flew through the air, noses were torn off and there was a lot of dust. Those who were lucky or better, managed to pass, like Villeneuve, who with a great turn remained on the track with his Ferrari, moving into fifth position. All in vain, of course, because immediately the red flag was shown indicating the suspension of the race. These are the versions of the protagonists. Watson exonerated himself (but most of the drivers claim that the initial mistake was his), saying that he felt a bump at the rear of his McLaren.
"The bump moved me off the right trajectory and I ended up crashing into Scheckter's Ferrari".
The South African, massaging a sore wrist, gave this explanation:
"Watson came straight into me and I lost control of the car as I was on three wheels. I had a terrible time. Some people flew over me, others hit me again. I don't know how I managed to save myself. This means that the Ferrari is very strong".
As a precaution, Scheckter was taken to the infirmary for a check-up, and then the doctors forbade him to drive on the track again. The South African left the circuit to go to the airport and catch his plane: on Monday he will test the new 312-T4 at Fiorano. Andretti noticed the collision, tried to pass on the outside but failed.
"Jody came at me backwards, cutting me off and hit me on the rear wheel".
In a later stage of the incident Nelson Piquet arrived in the tangle of cars and got caught in the middle. The Brazilian's Brabham was hit by Merzario. The driver from Como, with his usual promptness, jumped out of the cockpit and extracted Piquet from the single-seater. The South American was taken to the infirmary and then to hospital in Buenos Aires. At first it was rumoured that Piquet had suffered serious injuries, but then it became known that he got off with a sprained finger and a fractured left ankle. Merzario, in an effort to help his colleague, suffered a bruised shoulder. The race then restarted with only nineteen cars. Scheckter (who would have wanted to restart with the forklift truck) was sidelined because of the pain in his wrist and a presumable emotional state, Tambay had to give up his car to team leader Watson, Pironi and Merzario didn't have a spare car and Piquet was injured. But whose fault is this accident?
Large, clear photographs published in local newspapers rather heavily accuse Irishman John Watson of the accident. In the pictures taken by a photographer from Clarin, you can see that Watson's McLaren, on the outside of the bend, squeezes Scheckter's Ferrari and hits it hard, almost sideways in front of the South African's car. In the sequence you can also see how the 312 T-3 immediately lost its left rear wheel, which is why after the collision Jody was no longer able to control the crazy car and was the indirect cause of the incredible carambole that then involved Piquet, Pironi, Merzario, Tambay, Andretti and, to a lesser extent, Arnoux. Before leaving for Italy, Scheckter declares that he was literally run over by Watson who, passing wide, was trying to make up lost ground on the South African's Ferrari. The latter had managed to get into fourth position behind Laffite, Jarier and Depailler, holding the inside of the corner. The Irishman, however, gives his own version of the facts, defending himself against the accusations.
"In order to get into that position Scheckter had brutally slipped into the middle and touched me, displacing me. The first bump was caused by his Ferrari and I was knocked sideways by the blow".
Once again, the story becomes complex and no one wants to take responsibility. In any case, the accident at the start brings the dramatic problem of motor racing back into the limelight. Is it possible to find a regulation to avoid these very dangerous collective collisions? The various associations, the manufacturers' and drivers' associations, as well as the International Sports Commission, discuss this problem at length. But in reality, nothing concrete is being done. There has been talk of finding new systems to give the go-ahead, of increasing the distance between cars, of banning overtaking at the first corner or until the end of the first lap, as was done in Monte-Carlo. At the moment, however, the only solution that could be implemented in the short term would be the middle one, i.e. to widen the space on the starting grid. Many drivers prefer to keep quiet and entrench themselves behind a no comment. Others appeal to the Safety Commission. But how can one believe in such a body that tries a Patrese and then lets things slide when the protagonists of the accidents are the same members of the commission? One driver who is not afraid to speak out, even though he was fortunately not involved in the colossal collision, is Clay Regazzoni, a driver who is no saint when it comes to fairness but who has plenty of experience.
"The truth is that these cars are going faster and faster, passing through the corners as well as the straights. A few years ago the acceleration at the start was much lower and the group, with a few cars more competitive than the others, would break up immediately. Now it's 200km/h, one on top of the other, almost all with the same performance. So what happens? Some drivers have to take their foot off the accelerator to let others pass. Often someone is trying to be clever and accidents happen".
And that's not the only problem. The advent of wing-cars, wings and spoilers has brought other difficulties. These cars, launched at high speed, are attached to the ground thanks to the ground effect. But all it takes is the slightest bump, the loss of an aerodynamic detail, to make them take off. And then they become like spinning tops, with no control, no possibility for the driver to correct his trajectory, to try to avoid obstacles.
"Mario Andretti, who won a World Championship because of his skill, but also because of the miniskirts on the Lotus, would never say that these devices are deadly. But this is the reality. It will be necessary to think about it, to try to turn back the clock with new regulations, otherwise let's get ready to have an accident at least every race. The Grand Prix will take the place of bullfights".
A speech that seems more than logical. You don't want to go against the evolution of cars. But you can't go in the wrong direction and then start chasing ghosts when something serious happens. Immediately after the accident, Colin Chapman went to see what had happened. When he realised there were no casualties he rode his motorbike back down the track, holding his thumb up to the audience as if to say: it's OK. This time it's true, but the teddy bear he put on his Lotus to remember Ronnie Peterson doesn't seem to be enough to forget and live for the day, hoping that the cars will withstand the shocks and not catch fire. Changing the subject:
"Last year whoever won the Argentine Grand Prix, won the World Championship, this time it won't be like that...".
The speaker is Mario Andretti and his speech is very clear. It means that the Italian-American considers the success of Ligier and Jacques Laffite an isolated episode. And that the world title will once again be his. Andretti has no doubts about this and a lot of strength comes from the fact that Mario believes a lot in the Lotus 80, which should make its debut in the Spanish Grand Prix but which many think they will see on the track earlier, probably starting from Kyalami, in March, in the South African Grand Prix.
"It is an exceptional car, with many innovative solutions. All we have to do is fine-tune it and we won't have any problems, we'll be the strongest again. Even if at the moment I have to admit that the Ligiers are running fantastically".
Andretti welcomed his fifth place finish on the Argentinean circuit with philosophy and doesn't even seem to mind the place of honour taken by his team-mate Reutemann, who momentarily overtook him in the world classification. It was already known that Carlos would try everything to win in front of his home crowd. More than 100.000 people came to see him and Carlos put on a show with a car that was not perfectly tuned, as the Lotus 79s were no longer developed in view of the advent of Colin Chapman's new car. But he couldn't do anything against a very fast Ligier, driven in a masterly way by a Laffite convinced of his own means. The French car showed - as it had already done in free practice and timed practice - that it had made enormous progress in terms of road-holding, acceleration, power and braking. All the components needed to be a winning car.
Therefore, the dominant reason of this beginning of the championship is this: Ligier versus Lotus, with all the others following, with the exception of McLaren that kept the pace of the outriders, and Tyrrell that was rather unlucky for the accident that eliminated Pironi in the first start and for Jarier's premature exit from the scene, who burnt out the engine. Big problems instead for Ferrari and Brabham-Alfa. Engineer Forighieri will have to work hard with his drivers to fine tune the car waiting for the T4, which will be tested during the week by the South African either at Le Castellet or at Vallelunga, if Fiorano and Imola will be closed for bad weather. However, the difficulty of the tyres remains, on which unfortunately one cannot always rely.
Even more difficult is the situation of Lauda, who finds himself with a new car full of troubles. It was known that the new BT 48 would have had to pay the novitiate, but nobody could have imagined that the difficulties would have been so numerous and difficult to solve. Niki will also have to work hard to bring the car up to a competitive level. For this reason the Austrian will stay in Buenos Aires until Wednesday 24 January 1979, spending all the available hours of each day at the circuit. Less than twenty-four hours after the near tragedy on the Buenos Aires track, Jody Scheckter arrives in the early afternoon of Monday 22 January 1979 at Fiumicino airport, in the company of Ferrari's technical director, engineer Mauro Forghieri. The South African appears calm and serene. The driver recounts the details of the accident, but does not add any new elements to what was already known.
"I can only say for sure that I was touched by Watson, who in turn claimed to have also received a blow from behind. Then there was a lot of confusion".
Does Jody think there was a share of blame in Watson's driving?
"I honestly don't know. I was on the right line, so if you're talking about responsibility, that's something I have nothing to do with".
Were you scared?
"No, it all happened quickly, perhaps I didn't have the time. Rather, I still regret not being able to take part in the race, as I did nothing wrong".
The driver also appears a little sorry for the decision taken by the Argentinean doctor who did not allow him to resume the race, due to the blow he received to his left wrist. Scheckter adds, casually holding up a 24-hour briefcase with his injured hand:
"It was a very minor accident; I think I could have continued".
There has been talk, however, of a slight state of confusion that perhaps advised caution on the part of the doctor. But engineer Forghieri responded to this, adding a witty quip:
"Nothing is true, Jody is always confused. He's been laughing and joking the whole trip. He's in excellent health. But if his wrist is bothering him at all, he will be seen by a doctor tomorrow".
Scheckter listens amused, with a light-hearted air, to the news about his physical condition. Slightly tanned, well shaved, with well combed curls and a serene smile on his lips, the Ferrari driver certainly doesn't give the impression of a man still afraid of the bad adventure. Forghieri and Scheckter cleverly dodge the question about possible analogies with the accident at Monza.
"It's a comparison that doesn't hold up, but I would add that the wide open spaces of the Argentinean circuit make it easier to get to safety, as has been demonstrated".
Scheckter was among the drivers who made violent accusations against Patrese. What is his attitude after what happened in Buenos Aires? The reply is dry and polemical:
"Patrese was criticised for a series of actions that had nothing in common with the safety of the Monza circuit".
But Forghieri intervenes:
"I don't think that the hunt for responsibility is useless. Rather, we need to find ways to ensure that events like the one on Sunday don't happen again, with four cars seriously involved, which could have caused even irreparable damage to the drivers. We at Ferrari are also sorry for the work spent many days around a car that was only able to make a run of two hundred metres. What we had hoped for in monetary terms was also not achieved. We went straight back to Italy, according to an already established schedule. We have a lot of work to do on the 312-T4, which we will test at Fiorano if no atmospheric complications arise. Scheckter's and Villenueve's cars will be dismantled and thoroughly checked. We will see if it is necessary to send new parts. I don't exclude that at Interlagos, Scheckter may race with his refurbished car".
In fact, on Tuesday 23 January 1979, it rains heavily in Emilia, and Jody Scheckter is unable to test the new Ferrari 312-T4 on the Maranello track on his return from Argentina after the first Grand Prix of the Formula 1 World Championship. The South African driver takes advantage of the bad weather to have his left wrist, injured in the collision with Irishman Watson, examined by orthopaedists at the Modena hospital. For the Ferrari driver any fracture is excluded, as only a contusion to the wrist is recorded, which with applications of ointment will be healed in no more than two or three days. Scheckter will stay in Modena for testing throughout the week.
In particular, on Wednesday 24 January 1979, taking advantage of overcast but rain-free weather, Jody Scheckter takes to the track for the first time to test the new Ferrari 312-T4. The South African driver, still slightly sore on his left wrist, drives very cautiously, taking care above all to master the characteristics of the new car. Given the preliminary nature of this test, the times are not known. On Monday 29 January 1979, the car leaves for South America for the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paolo. In the meantime, the remaining competitors will take a fortnight's rest before the second test, scheduled for 4 February 1979 in Sao Paolo, while the mechanics will have time to put right the many problems that have been experienced by the new cars and to fine tune the old ones.