#281 1977 Argentine Grand Prix

2022-07-26 01:00

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#281 1977 Argentine Grand Prix

Although Argentina is mere, thousands of miles away from the recognised European “home” of Formula One Grand Prix circuit racing, it has organised qua

Although Argentina is mere, thousands of miles away from the recognised European home of Formula One Grand Prix circuit racing, it has organised qualifying rounds in the World Championship intermittently ever since 1953, although there was a gap of 12 years between Bruce McLaren’s victory in a Cooper-Climax in 1960 and Jackie Stewart’s win with a Tyrrell-Cosworth five years ago. Similarly it has a reputation for producing noteworthy drivers, particularly five times World Champion Juan-Manuel Fangio, twice British Grand Prix winner Froilan Gonzales and - more recently - current hero Carlos Reutemann who has won several Grands Prix for Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team and is now Lauda’s team-mate in the Ferrari Formula One line-up. The Argentine Grand Prix has always taken place in the Autodromo Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, but this spaciously laid out autodromo (built by President Peron in the late 1940s) has a great number of circuit combinations and it is only since 1974 that the 5.968-kilometre Circuit number 15 has been used for the race. From 1953 to 1960 the 3.912-kilometre Circuit number 2 was employed and in 1972 and 73 the 3.345-kilometre Circuit number 9 was utilised for the Argentine Grand Prix. So you can see that a whole complex of tracks run in all directions round the infield area, so much so that one feels a trifle inhibited even strolling across part of the complex that isn’t in use just in case some rabbit has got confused and wandered up the wrong turning - and that has happened before now. Last year’s Argentine Grand Prix never took place owing to a mixture of legal wrangling between the organisers and constructors, galloping inflation of the Argentine peso and the fact that President Isabel Peron’s regime was crumbling precariously with the result that the military authorities did not want the added complication of a major sporting gathering as they were worried that some demented soul would start throwing bombs about the place.


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.

The very first timed session sees Patrick Depailler comfortably quickest in the aerodynamically revamped Tyrrell P34, the popular little Frenchman recording a best lap of 1'49"63 which is comfortably faster than the official lap record established two years ago: James Hunt (Hesketh 308) in 1'50"91. All the off-season testing seems to be paying off for the Tyrrell team, but World Champion James Hunt was only 0.4 sec. behind him in his trusty six-speed McLaren M23 and the British driver puts in a spurt during the second session to lap in 1'48"68, a time which stands as fastest for the remaining day and a half of practice and assured Hunt of pole position for the race. Both the works McLarens have been totally rebuilt for Hunt and his team-mate Jochen Mass, identical in specification to the last time they were used in October’s Japanese Grand Prix. Spurred on by his team-mate, and maintaining the revitalised form he demonstrated in the last three races of 1976, Mass isn’t far behind the World Champion and finishes Friday fourth fastest on 1'49"731. Whilst it is no surprise to see Depailler up with the McLarens, there is a surprise in store from Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team who now has John Watson driving for them alongside Carlos Pace. Watson is thrown out of work when Roger Penske has a tiff with his banking sponsors and stalks out of Formula One, but Ecclestone quickly snaps him up and he fully justifies his new employer’s confidence by lapping in 1'49"22 on the first day. That means he is third fastest overall and the Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT45 is running as smoothly and sweetly as could be hoped for all day. Watson is highly impressed with the engine’s wide power band and low speed torque and as it is the first time he drives it one must assume that the modifications to this flat-12 engine have made a worthwhile improvement. Even though the cockpit doesn’t quite fit him, Watson plugs on gamely throughout Saturday and, in only four laps of the final session, records a splendid 1'49"6 best to join Hunt’s McLaren on the front row of the grid.
With Watson setting the pace in the Brabham camp, Pace is getting more and more frustrated with a multitude of mechanical problems. Although the Brazilian manages the fourth fastest time (1'50"60) his BT45/5 promptly splits a water hose which means that he has to switch to the team spare (BT45/1) for the second session. Unfortunately Pace slides off the road during that second session, damaging the older car beyond immediate repair which obliges him to stop practising for the day. A fresh engine is installed on Friday night, but still the car has trouble with its cooling system and the final straw comes when Pace rolls to a halt in BT45/5 on the first lap of Saturday’s final hour-long session with the car boiling again. He strides angrily back to the pits where Ecclestone calls Watson to hand over BT45/3 to his team-mate and in four laps Pace records his best time of 1'49"97 in sheer bad temper which is good enough for sixth place on the grid. With all this going on Reutemann must be wondering what on earth he left the Brabham team for because neither Ferrari is exactly shining brightly. Both drivers are complaining that their 312T2s don't have sufficient traction and are consequently using so much rear wing angle that they are not particularly quick in a straight line. Lauda wrestles gamely with his car to such an extent that he half-spins on Friday (unusual for the calculating Austrian) but he can still only manage 1'49"97 on the first day, considerably quicker than Reutemann (1'50"85). Lauda admits that he is very confused and implies that there have been very little real development carried out on the cars while he was away during the winter having another corrective skin graft operation carried out on his face. Elsewhere along the pit front there are several other teams with varying problems. Ronnie Peterson’s efforts with his Tyrrell P34 are hampered by the fact that he is suffering from a bad attack of influenza and his car sheared two front stub axles in quick succession which means that he doesn’t get much opportunity to practice.
His best turns out to be 1'52"25 by the end of the first day which he subsequently improves to 1'51"34 on the second day although he is never happy with his car’s handling. In the Lotus camp there are a multitude of problems with Nilsson’s car consuming an engine during untimed testing and Andretti’s beset with misfiring throughout Friday’s two sessions. Right at the end of the second session the rugged American driver gets everything straight and working, reeling off a confident 1'50"13 lap to take sixth position in the practice lists for that day. But no sooner has he crossed the timing line than a sudden explosion tears the front of his new Lotus to shreds as the steel fire extinguisher bottle mounted just behind the car’s oil cooler disintegrates like a hand grenade. Hot oil spurts all over Andretti’s helmet (and into his face when he lifted the vizor) as he fumbles down through the gears to stop the car, the clutch and brake pedals falling limply about in the footwell as their fluid cylinders have been ripped out by the blast. The American successfully brings the car to a standstill but the whole front bulkhead has been destroyed and closer examination reveals that the monocoque will have to return to England to be rebuilt. Accordingly Andretti takes over Nilsson’s car for Saturday’s two sessions, but fails to equal his Friday best, while the Swede resigns himself to the role of spectator. Lauda puts in a supreme effort in Saturday’s final session to lift himself up onto the second row of the grid with a best of 1'49"73 but Reutemann continues to be inhibited by his Ferrari’s difficult handling and can only record 1'50"02, which means that he starts from seventh place on the grid, proving that Ferraris don’t provide instant miracles. There must be a touch of irony in this whole situation for Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone because the Argentinian has left his team because he was disappointed with the Alfa-engined BT45’s performance and now he is behind both of them on the grid.
So often in racing it pays to stick with one project because it may eventually pay off whereas changing ships in mid-stream seldom reaps any dividends. In the Shadow team Tom Pryce works steadily and unspectacularly with the sole DN5, hanging onto the bunch just behind the leaders with a best of 1'50"65 while the second of Don Nichols’ cars is entrusted to the young Italian Renzo Zorzi as the result of a sponsorship arrangement with wealthy Italian Franco Ambrosio. Zorzi drives Pryce’s old Shadow DN5/5B in the first three timed sessions but everything goes wrong with it and he turns to the former Jarier DN5/4B for the final session in which he records his best time of 1'54"19, well off the pace. Other new faces in new places include Clay Regazzoni, the moustachioed Swiss seemingly enjoying his first helping of Cosworth DFV power in the apparently incongruous, down-to-earth surroundings of Morris Nunn’s Team Ensign. Nunn is an uncomplicated and straightforward individual who goes racing because he loves it and one senses that Regazzoni’s hard driving style is just what Nunn wants in his team. Despite changing rear suspensions a couple of times Regazzoni winds up recording a best of 1'50"97 which puts him fractionally behind Walter Wolf’s new challenger driven by Jody Scheckter. The South African driver has plenty of problems during practice with the new Wolf which demonstrates a reluctance to pick up its fuel on right-hand corners, resulting in an intermittent misfire at high revs. The engine is changed on Friday night but the Wolf still declines to rev much over 10.000 r.p.m. on Saturday but Scheckter nevertheless records a 1'50"76 best which places him ahead of Regazzoni on the grid. Hoping for an upsurge in his team’s fortunes after recruiting Vittorio Brambilla to drive his number one TS19, John Surtees is very impressed with the Italian’s press-on approach to racing but handling problems means that Brambilla fails to improve on 1'51"03, fractionally quicker than the tardy Peterson.
The second Surtees entry is for Austrian Hans Binder who sets his best time in the spare TS19/01 during the second session after engine trouble with his allotted TS19/02. Disappointingly slow, Jacques Laffite misses out virtually all Saturday’s practice when the Ligier-Matra JS7 begins to blow out ominous clouds of smoke and the disappointed French mechanics push it back to its garage in the paddock for an engine change. Sticking patriotically to the Copersucar-financed family team operated by elder brother Wilson, Emerson FittipaIdi laps in 1'51"53 with the extensively revised FD4/3 machine despite being troubled with electrical problems, a gearbox oil leak and sticking rear brakes. The former World Champion feels that there is still plenty of work to do on the car yet while his team-mate Ingo Hoffman is simply glad to be there for his second crack at Formula One although he looks a trifle lost in the maelstrom of Grand Prix practice. Finally, there are the works March 761Bs which are driven by sponsored drivers Alex Ribeiro and South African Ian Scheckter, elder brother of the Wolf driver. Ribeiro has graduated from the Formula 2 world and has had a preliminary taste of Cosworth power when he drove the ex-Guy Edwards Hesketh 308 in last year’s United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Ian Scheckter has experience of Formula One in South Africa and drove a couple of races for Frank Williams back in 1975. But neither March newcomer looks at home with their lot at Buenos Aires, inexperience on the circuit and an expensive penchant for bouncing their DFV’s off the rev-limiter contributing to their lowly grid positions. One entry that fails to materialise is the B.R.M. P207 which has been entered for Larry Perkins to drive and indeed Perkins is in Buenos Aires waiting for his car’s arrival. Unfortunately when the B.R.M. arrives at Gatwick to be loaded into its waiting Boeing 707 it is found that the crate into which it is packed won’t fit into the aircraft’s cargo hold; despite the fact that British Caledonian has supplied the dimensions to Bourne beforehand.

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.


Mariachiara Sica


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