On Thursday morning the official test session is delayed while a few of the cars play games with cameras strapped to a Renault and an Ensign, to fake-up some close dicing and overtaking. When the serious business has begun Jones has been seen to be in his Williams he has steered into third place in Brazil, saving his brand new car for the timed session while Regazzoni was giving the second of the Unipart-sponsored Ensigns (MN12) a shake-down run as it was only completed the day before. Although time doesn't not count for the starting grid, the fact that Nelson Piquet has been fastest has caused a few eyes to be turned onto the Brabham pits. In the afternoon, official timed practice is held for one hour, the morning hour and a half being deemed sufficient for getting things sorted out, though many teams are far from being organised. With a fairly cool atmosphere and not suffering from the lower air pressure at the 5.500 foot altitude of Kyalami, the Renault team soon set a fantastic pace. Both Jabouille and Arnoux are down to 1'10"0 bracket while everyone else is scratching to get into the 1'12"0 bracket. However, the Renault team are not without trouble, for they are using some new rear wheels and Arnoux has one come loose, due to faulty manufacture. Fortunately he senses something is wrong almost at once and stops to investigate, and then drives slowly back to the pits. In this all-too-brief hour for qualifying with the possibility of there being 27 cars on the track, it is important to get into a rhythm both in driving and making small adjustments. Hopefully the big adjustments are made in the morning test session. Depailler’s Alfa Romeo has broken and stopped just after Sunset Corner, safely out of harm’s way, but nonetheless practice has been stopped while breakdown truck has towed it back to the paddock.
The aerodynamic fashion for the Kyalami circuit is to run without front nose fins and with the smallest possible rear aerofoil, all in the interests of maximum speed, relying on the down-force from the under-car air for cornering, but striking a nice balance between speed and cornering is not easy. While most teams are trying the effect of no front fins, even Renault with their surplus of power trying the idea, Alfa Romeo are using front fins on their normally bare nose-cone. After practice Renault have been very happy, saying they would have been very unhappy if we were not happy, as the turbo-charged 1½-litre V6 engine could maintain its sea-level 515 b.h.p., whereas the normally aspirated 3-litre engines that relied on the 14.7 p.s.i. of atmospheric pressure at sea-level have had to make do with the 12.8 psi. available at Kyalami and even the best Cosworth V8 has been down to something like 435 b.h.p. While all the 3-litre brigade has been prepared for the Renaults to be fast, they have not expected them to be nearly two seconds faster than the best 3-litre. Although the timed hour has been continually interrupted and much of the rhythm has been lost, it has been little consolation. Friday morning has been alas warmer and this has given the rest some encouragement, for the turbo-charged engine’s efficiency has dropped off rapidly with a rise in ambient temperature. The Renault’s inter-cooler system has to work overtime anyway, without the added handicap of high ambient temperature. When it has become known that the French team has recorded their times on tyres that will do the race, there has been further gloom. Although Michelin has had qualifying tyres available, Renault have not used them preferring to set the pace on a type of tyre that will last the race, as the Goodyear runners are having to do.
It looks as though the French tyre firm will soon be joining Goodyear in the elimination of the freak qualifying tyre, regardless of any complicated rules dreamed up by FISA. With Prost in the pits with his arm in a sling, the McLaren hopes rest on Watson and the team has repaired M29/1B so that the Ulsterman has two cars at his disposal. There is no question of Surer being in the pits, nor of the latest ATS being repaired, but Lammers has been brought in with the spare ATS in a forlorn hope of qualifying. The team withdrew their second entry before practice started, but the young Dutch boy turned up anyway. You can always tell when a team is getting desperate, for they try something unconventional that was never written down in their test-schedule, and often the move is inspired by a sneak look at what someone else is doing. When Scheckter sets off minus the front aerofoil on his T5 Ferrari, and remember that it is a very large full-width affair, it is clear that the team has lost their way. The South African has done one lap and come straight in, not even bothering to try a flat-out run past the pits. Later on Andretti has gone out in his Lotus 81 without the rear aerofoil, but not for long! This sort of thing has pleased and amused people like Patrick Head of Williams and Gordon Murray of Brabham, for they can confidently forget any possibility of Lotus or Ferrari suddenly challenging them. The existing challenge from Ligier is much more important, even though the French team’s manager is getting a bit cocky. Nelson Piquet is really happy with the Brabham BT49, even though it could not match the Renaults for sheer speed, but Alan Jones is not so happy with the Williams, for while the car has seemed to be generating the required aerodynamic down-force, the centre of pressure has been too far forward, which makes for a skittish back-end and oversteer.
To have improved the oversteer by increasing the angle of the rear aerofoil would have lost speed on the straight, which isn’t enough anyway, so a fine line between speed and balance has been sought. The previous day some improvements have been made to the new car, which Jones has been intended to race, and reluctantly Reutemann has tried it; reluctantly because he doesn’t like driving other people’s cars. His lap times have improved so the modifications have been done to his car and he has been then faster than Jones, when he thought he had reached his limit. Experiments are still going on in some teams with and without front nose fins, and some really small ones are appearing on some cars, but Alfa Romeo stick to their large swept-forward ones while all about them is a sea of indecision. The Arrows team has arrived with a long shapely tail out behind the gearbox on their A3 cars but soon experimented with no tail at all and then settled for a short stumpy tail. All to do with centres-of-pressure and aerodynamic stability and balance. Just before the morning test-session ended Villeneuve returned to the pits on the pillion of a motorcycle, his Ferrari engine having blown up. The final hour of qualifying is nice and warm for the spectators but much too warm for the engines, but even so the Renaults are still the fastest by a long way, with Arnoux quicker than Jabouille this time. They are much slower than the previous afternoon, but they can afford to be, for the 3-litre opposition makes no dramatic improvements, while many of them are a lot slower. Villeneuve is using the spare Ferrari, and just when Scheckter feels he is making a bit of progress, his engine blows up, so both Ferrari drivers are down on the fifth now of the grid. Having the Renaults and all those Cosworth powered cars in front is one thing, but having an Alfa Romeo in front of them is something else.
It is the courageous Patrick Depailler who gets his V12 Alfa Romeo in front of the Ferraris, alongside Alan Jones on the fourth row. The tenacious little Frenchman (shades of Jean Behra) is getting more fit, following his long spell in hospital, but is still far from 100%. His will-power and determination are an example to many totally fit drivers. The swarthy little Piquet is all on his own with his Brabham BT49, fastest of the 3-litre cars, but he has the two Ligiers right behind him and then the two Williams drivers As expected Kennedy (Shadow) and Lammers (ATS) are the two non-qualifiers, with Lees outpaced in the other Shadow but in the race thanks to the withdrawal of Prost and Surer. Once again the Renaults has dominated practice running on race-quality tyres, so no-one can complain about unfairness; the gripping was turned on to the turbo-charger, but only by the also rans, for teams like Ligier, Williams and Brabham were conscious of the fact that the Renaults were going to be handicapped on wiggly circuits like Long Beach, Monaco and Brands Hatch, and when they were the Renault team did not gripe about unfairness. Among the more intelligent thinkers (and there are not too many of them in Formula One), there is a sneaking feeling that perhaps the turbo-charged engines are not going to be as handicapped on slow corners as in the past, for they are performing pretty well on Kyalami’s slow corners. Another disquieting thought is that the Renault chassis gives away nothing to anyone, and if watched closely it holds the road and corners far better than a lot of the opposition.
A careful analysis makes you wonder if perhaps their advantage is not simply engine power at altitude. Never having seen the drivers of the turbo-charged Renaults in competitive 3-litre cars it is difficult to assess their ability, but Jabouille’s quiet smoothness is such an integral part of the turbo-charged scene that it is deceptive. Arnoux’s flair and dash are obvious as is his ‘feel’ for the turbo-charged engine, which calls for a different driving technique to a Cosworth V8, or Ferrari 12-cylinder. Race day is Saturday, as always, and not Sunday as a lot of 1980 calendars make out, and the South African sun comes out strongly to start the morning. This encourage the Renault opposition, but their hopes are soon dashed when clouds begins to appear and the temperature drops. The half-hour warm-up session does not take place until noon, the morning being occupied by a happy Historic Racing Car Handicap and a demonstration in which a vast collection of assorted old cars have driven for fun by their proud owners, from single-seater Cooper-Climax to MG Magnette Saloons, all mixed in together in an inconsequential five lap race with a massed start. To get race-week underway there has been a National race meeting at the circuit the previous Saturday and all the winners are now allowed to do a parade lap in front of the Grand Prix crowd. After the Formula One warm-up session a huge collection of MG cars, from a J2 to the latest B take the drivers round on a parade lap, Jody Scheckter experiencing the exhilaration of being a passenger in the 1933 J2 Midget of negligible performance! This parade also shows the strong support that MG has in South Africa, though whether it will continue for a Japanese MG is doubtful.
The 78 lap race is due to start at 2:15 p.m. and when the cars set off from the pits to go round the circuit to form up on the grid, all 24 are present and correct. Villeneuve and Rosberg sneak in an extra lap, and then the long 1x1 grid is formed with Piquet, Laffite, Pironi, Jones and Villeneuve wondering if they can jump the two Renault’s when the starting signal is given, and have a moment of glory by leading for part of the first lap. Jones is in the latest Williams FW07, Villeneuve is in the spare Ferrari, Jarier and Daly are giving the new Tyrrell design its debut race, Regazzoni is in the first of the 1980 Ensigns, and Watson is in the M29B McLaren that Prost has crashed on Thursday afternoon. Unlike British commentators the South African one does not get over-excited at the count-down for the start of the pace-lap and he sends the field on its way without making people think the race has started. The Lotus of de Angelis proves difficult to start and the rest has long gone before he gets away. As the 23 cars arrive on the grid the young Italian is still charging along trying to catch up, but he is too late and has to take the start from the back of the grid. When the green light comes on Alan Jones makes a searing getaway, passing his team-mate and Laffite and is alongside the Renaults as their turbo-chargers take hold. Then it is all over, the two French cars power away into the lead and head the very frustrated field into the first corner and down the steep hill of Barbecue Bend. In beautiful formation the two Renaults lead the opening lap with contemptuous ease, Jabouille leading Arnoux in strict team order. They are followed by Jones, Laffite, Reutemann, Piquet, Villeneuve, Scheckter, Pironi, Jarier, and the rest, with de Angelis trying hard to make up for his handicap. On lap two de Angelis is so busy passing a group of cars up the hill to Leeukop hairpin that he arrives going too fast on the wrong line and there is nowhere to go. He locks-up the brakes and spins off into the dirt, and out of the race.
Make haste slowly, young man. It does not need many laps to see that the Renaults are pacing themselves on the speed of their followers, thus easing the strain on the turbo-charged engines, their tyres, brakes, fuel consumption and so on. They could easily have pulled away at a second, or two seconds, a lap thus opening up a big gap, but they didn’t. Jones and Laffite are appearing to be keeping up with them, but what is happening is that the Renaults are waiting for the Williams and Ligier. Waiting, but not to be caught. This you could tell by the exhaust notes of the Renaults, never giving an indication of being hard on or hard off, always smooth and gentle, and the attitude of pitch and squat is negligible, indicating no desperate measures on brakes or accelerator. The followers present a very different picture, all harsh and angry, with the drivers doing all they know to maintain the pace. The way the two Renaults cruise through some of the corners is almost insolent, Arnoux keeping station directly behind Jabouille in a beautiful example of team-driving; he is never too close, never alongside, never too far back, but just right, leaving all the pace-making and line to Jabouille like a number two driver should. On lap eight Laffite scratches his way past Jones to take third place and we has French drivers and French cars first, second and third. Reutemann does not maintain the pace of the two hard men in front of him, but settles back in a comfortable fifth place ahead of Scheckter, Piquet, Jarier and Pironi, while further back Daly leads Giacomelli, Patrese and Mass. Then come Fittipaldi, Zunino and Andretti, followed by Regazzoni, Depailler, Rosberg, Villeneuve (after an excursion off the track on lap three dropped him to the back), Watson, Cheever and Lees. On the next lap the scene at the back has changed, for Cheever has crashed the Osella at Crowthorne, and Villeneuve and Depailler have disappeared into the pits. The Ferrari driver has started on different tyres to Scheckter and they have been hopeless, so he now stops for a different set. Depailler’s fuel mixture is all up the spout and he stops to have it adjusted, but it only makes the misfiring worse.
On lap 11 Patrese crashes at Crowthorne Corner, like Cheever, both drivers being caught out by erratic brakes, and the next one to go is Scheckter when his Ferrari engine goes on to 11-cylinders, due to a broken valve spring or something similar. Up at the front the two Renaults are still droning round at their ease, leaving Laffite to set the pace and he is driving his heart out but cannot know just how easily the Renaults are staying ahead. The Ligier is superior to the Williams on handling and Jones is losing contact with the blue and white car, but nevertheless holding on to fourth place. Derek Daly stops briefly at the end of lap 18 to say that his gear-change is playing up, but he is sent back into the race and told to make the best he can. This drops him from ninth place down to 18th place, last of the non-stop runners with only Villeneuve and Depailler behind him. The Ferrari is still not handling very well so Villeneuve can do little to improve his position, while all the fiddling with the Alfa’s injection system only makes things worse, and Depailler is in and out of the pits on nearly every lap. Andretti is having a miserable drive down among the tail enders, the Lotus losing out on speed on the straight, and then an exhaust manifold pipe splits, which doesn’t help matters, and Regazzoni passes him with the Ensign. At the back of the field Rosberg and Watson are having a jolly little dice among themselves. Villleneuve despaires of his Ferrari’s handling and makes another stop for yet a different set of tyres and as he accelerates away from the pits something breaks inside the transmission (not a drive-shaft as the race-information office states) and the Ferrari stops instantly with no drive to the wheels. On lap 35 Alan Jones grounds to a halt with a broken gearbox, the oil having leaked out from a split in the cooling system. This lets Reutemann up into fourth place, but no challenge to Laffite. Still the two Renaults drone round in formation.
As they lap the back markers Arnoux takes no chances, biding his time to overtake and then shooting back into position behind Jabouille with no strain at all, indicating just how effortless their domination is. Laffite is always there in third place looking for a ray of hope, but none comes . Even when Arnoux drops a fair way back, waiting to lap Regazzoni, there is no hope for the Ligier driver, for at the same time he is having to wait to lap Daly. The complete rear aerofoil breaks off Giacomelli’s Alfa on lap 39 and he stops at the pits to have a new assembly bolted on, dropping from 12th to 16th and last place. Jean-Pierre Jarier has been driving a good race with the new Tyrrell, holding fifth place, but on lap 56 he is forced into the pits to change the rear tyre and the Tyrrell team takes the opportunity to change both rears and the left-front while he was in. This spurs on Piquet and Pironi who have been following Jarier, but the Brabham is wearing out its left-front tyre so the Brazilian is having trouble fending off the Ligier driver. Down at the back of the field Rosberg and Watson are still having a ding-dong, and when they are being lapped by the ding-dong of Piquet and Pironi the scene gets quite animated. It is a perfectly fair free-for-all with no-one needing to give way and on Iap 59 as they all scrabble into the Leeukop hairpin Rosberg’s Fittipaldi ends up in the catch fences and breaks the steering connection on the left front wheel. Piquet and Pironi are away, leaving Watson on his own. As Jabouille starts lap 62 his right-front tyre burst, due to picking up a nail or similar sharp object off the track and he has a very busy time bringing it all to rest at the foot of the hill. His task is not made any easier by having one rear shock-absorber out of action, it having broken its mounting quite early in the race. As in Brazil, René Arnoux now inherits the lead, while the saddened Jabouille walks back to the pits after yet another certain victory has been snatched from his grasp. This means that the Piquet/Pironi battle is now for fourth place, and the Ligier driver does an audacious bit of overtaking braking for the Leeukop hairpin, but Piquet is not giving up and scrabbles back in front.
Reutemann’s third place is in jeopardy for his car is feeling odd and he is convinced the left-front tyre is failing, so he stops on lap 64 to have it changed. It later transpired that the right-rear tyre was losing pressure and the right-hand side skirt was wearing away. This stop lets Piquet into third place and Pironi fourth, but the Frenchman is still trying to get by the Brabham again. Through all the troubles and retirements Jochen Mass has driven steadily and consistently and is now in fifth place, with Reutemann behind him after his stop. Once more Pironi makes a concerted attack on the Brabham and forces his way by, now into third place, and this time Piquet has to give how best for he can see his left-front tyre is completely worn out and he can hardly restrain the Brabham on right-hand bends, so he settles for fourth place with only eight laps left to run. With six to go Reutemann snatches back fifth place and with Jacques Laffite still driving his heart out in second place, René Arnoux chalkes up his second victory with the turbo-charged 1½-litre Renault. As Reutemann has overtaken Mass, the Alfa Romeo of Giacomelli grounds to a halt after the esses, and at the end of the race Depailler does one more lap in his misfiring Alfa and picks his young team-mate up to return him to the pits. But for the puncture suffered by Jabouille the race would have been a total annihilation by the Renault team; as it was it ended in a total annihilation by the French, with French cars and French drivers first, second and third. It can all be traced back to General de Gaulle, when he sanctioned the initial government backing of the Matra team, which encouraged the state-owned ELF Petrol and oil company to put an enormous effort into building up French drivers and teams. Matra were followed by Ligier and Renault (and Talbot are in the offing) and there never has been a shortage of French drivers in Formula One. Arnoux, Laffite and Pironi have all benefited from ELF support in their formative years and now with the Renault-ELF team and the Ligier-Gitanes-ELF team they are reaping the benefit and paying back to France some of their benefits.