This year the last-mentioned aspect of the race hasn’t changed even though the Automovil Club Argentina has concluded the agreement with the Formula One Constructors for this year’s race to take place. Throughout the winter there has been plenty of protracted squabbling between the Constructors, the CSI and an organisation called World Championship Racing which was supposed to be representing the bargaining interests of several organisers including the Argentinians. The details have been hashed and dished so frequently in so many places that we do not propose to go into them again except to observe that there was so much confusion that it was difficult to see who was doing what, and with which, and so to speak. Fortunately somebody fired up some racing engines on the Thursday prior to the Argentine Grand Prix and when you’ve got two Ferrari flat-12s, two Alfa Romeo flat-12s, a Matra V12 and sixteen Cosworth V8s all screaming and burbling away it does tend to drown the bickering. Official practice for the race takes place on the Friday and Saturday following Thursday’s unofficial, untimed warm-up session. In terms of local popularity there is no doubt that Reutemann tops the polls but there are those who seem to think that his installation in a Ferrari 312T2 will result in some magical transformation and he will completely dominate both practice and the race. Unfortunately things start badly for the Argentinian driver for he spins his new Ferrari 312T2-029 through several layers of catch fencing at the fast fourth gear right-left esses immediately following the pits during the untimed session on Thursday. The Ferrari only suffers minor bodywork damage and is repaired in time for the serious business on Friday, but it quickly becomes obvious that either Ferrari has gone backwards or simply become rather complacent over the winter and that their rivals have caught up with them.
On Sunday the scorching Argentine heat seems even greater with temperatures soaring to well over the 110 degrees, so it is easy to understand why the race is scheduled to start at four o’clock in the afternoon (before the Constructors intervened to change things, the ACA had planned the start for half-past five!). Led by Watson and Hunt the 20-car grid cruises steadily round their parade lap, returning to halt briefly on the grid before being signalled off by the legendary Fangio, 20 years after the old master has triumphed in front of his home crowd at the wheel of a Maserati 250F. The whole grid moves forward together but it is Watson who makes the best getaway once they begin to string out along the straight and the Ulsterman slips his Brabham BT45 into the lead as they stream through the first fourth-gear kink. Further back Depailler’s Tyrrell has made a very slow getaway and Laffite finds himself taking to the grass in order to avoid a couple of cars in front of him, the French car picking up generous amounts of debris in its radiator ducting. At the end of the first lap the order is Watson comfortably from Hunt, Lauda, Andretti, Mass, Reutemann, Pryce, J. Scheckter, Pace, Depailler, Peterson (who inadvertently flicked off his ignition and went down the pit lane before he realised his error!), Brambilla, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi, I. Scheckter, Binder, Zorzi, Hoffman and the Ligier-Matra which is already misfiring badly. For the first few laps Watson maintains his lead at about 2.5 sec. with Hunt playing a waiting game and sitting comfortably a couple of lengths in front of Lauda. Andretti is keeping up constant pressure on the Ferrari while Pace is driving with great spirit and determination in the second Brabham-Alfa Romeo. Almost unnoticed Zorzi’s Shadow retires with a mixture of gearbox and engine trouble while Laffite finally called into the pits for the first time on lap eight to sort out an annoying bout of sparking plug trouble. He briefly returns to the race before stopping again two laps later and by the time Laffite resumes racing for the second time the French car is a solid last.
Watson is already feeling hot and flustered because no cockpit ventilation has been provided in either Brabham BT45 and the Ulsterman isn’t very comfortable in his make-shift seat which hasn’t been specially tailored for him. He begins to slow a fraction and Hunt slices past into the lead on lap 11, moving away from his pursuers with disarming confidence and never looking as though he is having to try very hard. He later admits that he was amazed at the speed with which he pulled away from the rest of the field, frankly feeling that he had plenty in hand. Andretti moves in to challenge Watson while Lauda drops away first behind Mass and then behind Pace, his Ferrari’s engine sputtering and coughing, obviously very sick indeed. On lap 20 Lauda decides that things have got bad enough for the whole car to be vibrating badly so the Austrian pulls into the pits to see if there is anything that can be done. A quick examination reveals the fuel metering unit to be at fault and, as no repair can be completed quickly, Lauda climbs out of the car and retires. Further back down the field both the Tyrrell six-wheelers are having an absolutely diabolical time, Peterson calling it a day with his erratic-handling machine after a wild spin on one of the circuit’s fastest corners after 28 laps while Depailler doesn’t last much longer, finally stopping after spinning off and finding that his P34’s engine will not fire up again. As Hunt continues to pull away from the rest of the field Andretti slowly closes in on Watson until the Lotus is sitting right on the tail of the Brabham and at the end of lap 18 as they brake for the hairpin before the pits, Watson just slips past Alex Ribeiro’s March which is being lapped, but the Brazilian immediately cuts back into line as the Brabham goes past, running his car’s right rear wheel over the left front spoiler on the Lotus nose section. Andretti is absolutely furious about this, but there is nothing he can do because the bent spoiler affects the car’s stability on fast corners and he is forced to slacken his pace slightly.
As a result Andretti soon begins to fall back and is quickly passed by Mass and then Pace although he quickly makes up one of these places on lap 29 when Mass spins his overheating M23 at the hairpin. With the temperature gauge virtually off the dial Mass abandons his car on the infield and walks sadly back to the pits. On lap 24 Pryce’s Shadow comes slowly into the pits its gearbox stuck in neutral, so his mechanics begin dismantling the unit in an effort to find the trouble, while Reutemann spins his Ferrari on the infield loop section and immediately swings into the pit lane where his mechanics change a badly blistered front tyre and despatch him back into the fray in eleventh place. Pryce loses 17 laps having a fresh selector fitted, but the Welshman re-enters the race nevertheless and is still circulating when the winner eventually receives the chequered flag. Mass’ retirement means that the two Brabham BT45s are now running in second and third places because Andretti has dropped to fourth ahead of Jody Scheckter in the steadily driven Wolf. But there doesn’t seem any chance of anybody doing much about Hunt, the McLaren driver heading into his 32nd lap looking as confident as ever. At the end of the long start/finish straight the World Champion swings through the fourth gear Esses but while his McLaren successfully negotiates the right-hand part of the corner it unexpectedly slides straight on rather than negotiating the left-hand exit onto the straight. Hunt’s M23 mows down several layers of catch fencing before coming to rest and its driver leaps hurriedly out, unable to explain the cause of the incident. Subsequent examination of the rear suspension reveals that a bolt broke and permitted the right rear suspension to collapse, throwing the McLaren out of control and sending it off the circuit. This unexpected drama leaves the two Brabham-Alfa Romeos leading the race in 1-2 formation, a satisfying sight for any racing team but particularly gratifying for Ecclestone’s lads who have worked so hard in the face of so much adverse criticism to make these flat-12-cylinder cars competitive.
But it is at this point that the realisation dawns that Scheckter and the new Wolf are in with a very strong chance. Up to now their progress has been steady and consistent but as the pit boards reveal Scheckter to be closing on the cars in front of him, so Scheckter drives harder. Although Pace grabs the lead on lap 35 it is because Watson is slowing, his car handling strangely and the gears becoming difficult to select. Three laps later Scheckter moves past Andretti and soon afterwards inherits second place when Watson pulls to a halt on lap 42 with the gearbox literally falling off the back of the Alfa Romeo engine after the securing bolts break. At the rate Scheckter is closing on the obviously ailing Pace it is clearly just a mathematical equation as to when the new Wolf will take the lead. Utterly exhausted in the searing heat and feeling sick in the stomach, Pace is no match for the now hard-driving Scheckter and Walter Wolf’s blue and gold machine rushes past the Brazilian with only six laps of the race left. At this point Pace slows alarmingly and drops over 40 secs. on the winning Wolf between laps 48 and 53, just hanging on long enough to scrape home ahead of Reutemann’s Ferrari which is being cheered to the echo of thousands of delighted Argentinians. Reutemann really drives well after his pit stop even though it must be admitted that his climb back from 13th place was aided by a number of retirements and that, on past form at least, a healthy Ferrari should be more than a match for the Fittipaldi car even if E. F. is driving it. But that is all lost on the crowd as Reutemann speeds past the yellow Brazilian car with two laps to go and almost adds another Brazilian to his bag by closing dramatically on Pace during that frantic final lap. Behind Fittipaidi in fifth place comes Mario Andretti although his Lotus chews up a rear wheel bearing and he is stationary at the hairpin before the pits with only 51 laps completed when Scheckter takes the chequered flag.
Regazzoni finishes sixth, taking it easy over the last few laps after a pit stop to examine a badly worn rear wheel bearing which is allowing one of the rear wheels to flap about rather alarmingly while Brambilla’s Surtees TS19, which has been stuttering round with fuel-feed trouble, moves slowly across the line to complete 48 laps after waiting just before the flag for the winner to arrive. Neither of the unimpressive Marches finish, Ribeiro stopping with a broken gear lever and Ian Scheckter retiring when a battery lead breaks off. For Jody Scheckter and Walter Wolf it is a joyous, albeit rather lucky, first-time victory. Their main asset proves to be consistency and stamina in the stifling hot conditions under which the Argentine Grand Prix is run, but they are very conscious that one swallow doesn’t make a summer and they have plenty of development work still to do. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging start to the year; many teams currently in Formula One have been racing for several years and still haven’t even scored a lucky Grand Prix victory.