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#282 1977 Brazilian Grand Prix

2022-07-25 00:00

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#1977,

#282 1977 Brazilian Grand Prix

After two weeks of feverish activity following the Argentine Grand Prix, the second round of the 1977 World Championship series will take place at the

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After two weeks of feverish activity following the Argentine Grand Prix, the second round of the 1977 World Championship series will take place at the sinuous, bumpy 4.946-mile Interlagos track amidst the bustling suburbs of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Although many of the drivers enjoy an easy time relaxing on sun-soaked beaches along the South Atlantic coast, for a lot of mechanics and team owners there are far more serious things to worry about. The McLaren camp, naturally concerned over the rear suspension breakage that sent Hunt off the road in M23/8 while he was leading the Argentine Grand Prix, beefed up the rear and of the World Champion’s car with a new bellhousing and an enlarged replacement for the stud that broke in the rear suspension. The second car driven by Mass has also been modified. For Team Lotus the problem is much larger, because they have to ship back to Hethel their badly damaged Lotus 78/2, the front of which was blown off when the car’s fire extinguisher bottle exploded during practice at Buenos Aires. Tony Southgate in fact left for home on the night before the Argentine Grand Prix, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the damaged chassis finally arrived in London owing to the inevitable surplus of red tape encountered from Britain’s nationalised airline. The car was rushed back to the factory, stripped down and repaired, before being flown out again to South America in time to be rebuilt into an operational machine shortly before official practice begins. It is the sort of marathon that depends upon efficient timing, ceaseless work and a lot of single-mindedness, and as Andretti’s black and gold car stands waiting for the first session to get under way, one can’t help marvelling at the sheer effort put in by racing mechanics in general to get their cars to the starting line.
 
Other minor dramas include the airline’s temporary mislaying of the spare Shadow DN5 and of one of the Surtees TS19s, plus some Tyrrell nose sections go missing; but otherwise all the teams manage to arrive at Interlagos intact. On a light-hearted note, somebody got the paperwork rather muddled in the local airline office with the result that the spare Wolf monocoque is officially documented as a Brabham-Alfa Romeo, the resulting confusion giving Peter Warr quite a headache as he tries at Rio to get the car off the cargo plane mistakenly taking it back to Europe! The Brabham team itself has to rely on one car as BT45/1 has been too badly damaged by Pace during practice for the Argentine Grand Prix to be repaired locally. Designer Gordon Murray flies back to Britain between the races to superintend the development of his new car, only to spend the best part of a week attempting to track down the damaged Brabham; it was eventually located, secure in its crate, at Rome Airport. The marvels of modern transportation. After their promising showing in Argentina, where Watson and Pace both led the race on separate occasions, it is clear that the Brabham-Alfa Romeos will be a serious force to be reckoned with, especially at Pace’s home circuit where he previously triumphed in the 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix at the wheel of a Brabham-Cosworth BT44B. Pace has been training hard with a local football team for several days prior to practice, for although he is used to intense heat the body temperature can rise alarmingly inside the triple-lever flameproof overalls that are de rigueur for the modern Formula One driver. Apart from that, Pace’s heat exhaustion in Argentina was partially due to a virus he picked up, and he is anxious to appear completely fit for this very important race. In the opening timed session, competition between the Brabham, Lotus and McLaren teams proves extremely fierce, but it is Pace who emerged on top, much to the delight of the partisan crowd, lapping in 2'30"57.
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Andretti emphasises that he isn’t to be shaken off by setting a promising 2'30"83 during the second session, which leaves Hunt a close third on 2'31"29, slightly ahead of his on-form team-mate Jochen Mass in the second M23. Hunt is another who wasn’t feeling terribly well prior to the Brazilian race, having contracted a touch of Aztec two-step during his stay in South America. Through the speed trap on the main straight Pace’s Brabham is more than 10 m.p.h. faster than its rivals during that first session, which suggests that Alfa Romeo really has been very busy indeed during the winter. John Watson isn’t able to match Pace’s performance, saying that his BT45 feels too sensitive over the bumps and that he isn’t really satisfied with the engine. Its lack of response is later attributed to a failing cylinder head gasket and the unit is changed in time for the second day. In the Lotus pit Nilsson is sucking through his teeth slightly after his first run round Interlagos, the young Swede getting his 1977 season under way at the second race after being forced to hand his car over to Andretti in Argentina. Nilsson hasn’t been to Interlagos before, but he records a respectable 2'34"37 on the first day of practice as he concentrates on learning the circuit before attempting any adjustment to the car. In the Ferrari camp there is an air of reserved optimism with the arrival of Engineer Forghieri from Maranello, but although Reutemann is to enjoy a largely trouble-free practice, Lauda’s problems seem to multiply as the hours pass. Reutemann’s best on Friday was 2'31"97, the Argentinian not happy with slight understeer problems on the faster corners, while Lauda is in and out of the pits having all manner of adjustments made to the front and rear suspension settings. There are some very animated discussions between Forghieri and Lauda, the Italian insisting that the car should behave in such-and-such a manner on one particular setting while the impassive Austrian quietly insists that, whatever the engineer thinks, the car certainly doesn’t.
 
It is an untypically fraught scene for the Austrian to be involved in, and it comes to a head when Lauda insists on changing to softer rear springs, does one lap, and then insists that harder springs are re-fitted because the softer ones fail to make any difference. Lauda can manage no better than 2'32"37 by the end of Friday’s two timed sessions, leaving the circuit displeased but determined to get to the bottom of the problem on Saturday. The world of motor racing always seems to turn up a little bit of irony at every race. In Buenos Aires the irony was to see both the Brabham-Alfa Romeos qualifying faster than Carlos Reutemann (the man who had left Ecclestone’s team because he didn’t consider the cars to be competitive). In Brazil it is the sight of Clay Regazzoni, the man who was dismissed by Ferrari to make room for Reutemann, ending the first day’s practice with Nunn’s Ensign faster than either of the Italian cars. Regazzoni is in fine form, bringing a smile to all the Walsall faces in Nunn’s pit with an excellent best of 2'31"69. He is to lose this advantage to Reutemann on Saturday, but the Ensign’s engine is far from freshly rebuilt, and everyone in the little British team feels very encouraged and happy with the rugged Swiss driver’s performance. Argentine Grand Prix winner Jody Scheckter finds his Wolf WR1 very hard work at Interlagos, twitching and weaving over the bumps in a very tiring fashion as well as suffering from a slight electrical misfire on the first day. Nevertheless, his best effort of 2'32"81 makes him fractionally faster than Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian twice World Champion whose Copersucar-sponsored Formula One cars are built in a small factory just outside the gates of the Interlagos circuit. It is exactly one year since the Copersucar FD04 has appeared for the first time, and E.F. doesn’t exactly radiate confidence about the car on this occasion, the driver admitting that whilst his car might be reliable it feels just about the same as it did 12 months ago.
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He fails to improve on 2'32"94, although a delaminated tyre hampers his attempts to record a really quick time in the early stages of the second session. Ingo Hoffman drives the team’s second car again (this will not be a regular arrangement during 1977), but an experiment with a locally made ignition system which refuses to work at all over 7.000 r.p.m. wastes most of Friday for the second Copersucar entry. After their disappointing showing in the Argentine, Ken Tyrrell and Derek Gardner are hoping for better things with the sleek Tyrrell P34s at Interlagos. Sadly, their fortunes don’t seem to be any better for a change of country. Although both Peterson and Depailler are extremely fast in a straight line, both drivers suffer from such vicious terminal understeer that they are having to throw their machines virtually sideways on the entrance to the corners to ensure that they get round the bends at all. Peterson, in particular, is cornering in a series of spectacular full-lock slides that we haven’t seen since his Lotus 72 days, but he can’t better 2'33"29. Depailler is fractionally faster on 2'32"99, but he is similarly pessimistic about the car’s twitchy ride over the bumpy surface. In the Shadow team Pryce is working just as hard as the Tyrrell drivers to record a 2'34"32, which is a good deal quicker (as it should be) than his sponsored team-mate Remo Zorzi, who at least has some experience of the circuit after driving Frank Williams’ old FW04 in last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Pressing on as enthusiastically as ever, Vittorio Brambilla knocks one of his Surtees TS19’s front water radiators off on a high kerb after managing a 2'33"19 lap; but John Surtees is facing bigger problems with the inexperienced Binder, who starts practising the team’s spare TS19/01 after airlines delay the arrival of TS19/02 from Buenos Aires. The Austrian driver loses control on the very fast fourth gear Curva Jo Sol, crashing heavily into the barrier on the exit of the corner and writing off his car in the process.
 
Ian Scheckter loses the nose section of his March 761B as he dodges through the wreckage but Binder emerges from the shattered car with nothing injured but his pride. Incidentally, neither of the two works of Marches are particularly quick, local lad Ribeiro recording 2'36"70, 0.16 sec. quicker than Scheckter. During the final timed session that counts for grid positions on Saturday morning, Hunt really excels himself with a tremendous and well-worked-out 2'30"11 to ensure that pole position is well beyond doubt. Reutemann joins him on the front row with 2'30"18, the Ferrari’s revised rear wing helping matters enormously. Andretti clings on to the inside of the second row with a good 2'30"35, a time achieved despite his Lotus having to run with several gallons of dead fuel in its tanks owing to a pick-up problem, while Mass backs up the World Champion magnificently with a 2'30"36 best. Pace fails to improve, so his best Friday time of 2'30"57 leaves him in fifth place but Depailler lifts Tyrrell spirits with his car softer springs than before and moves up to sixth place with 2'30"69, the last contestant to break the 2'31"0 barrier. Watson and Peterson share the fourth row ahead of Regazzoni-his Ensign’s engine smoking a little-Nilsson, Brambilla and Pryce. Down in 13th position on the grid is a disgruntled Lauda, his regular car springing a fuel leak into the cockpit during that crucial final session in which he was hoping to make up all the leeway he lost messing about yesterday. There is nothing left for Lauda but to switch to the muletta and he has to rely on his 2'32"37 time from the first session for his grid position. Further down than expected, Jacques Laffite has a miserable two days with the Ligier-Matra JS7, one engine blowing up during pre-practice testing and another during the first timed session. The team then has to chase to Sao Paulo’s international airport to collect another fresh V12 which has been sent from France.
 
The problem with the French-built engines surrounds the valve clearance in the cylinder heads, and Ligier is left with just the single unit for both the final timed session and the race. Laffite gets down to 2'32"43 in the final session which is better than both the Scheckters, both the Copersucars, Zorzi, Binder, Ribiero and Perkins in the B.R.M., all of whom have been practising intensely ever since the track opened. Mention of Perkins brings us to the subject of the B.R.M. P207, that new car from Bourne which has been designed by Len Terry. Barely ready to move, let alone race, the BRM predictably overheats madly in the Brazilian heat and minor problems with certain aspects of its fuel system cann’t detract from the fact that the whole team was in a state of total unreadiness. Perkins can only manage 2'42"22. with the B.R.M. and, since we saw him qualify 12th out of 24 at Watkins Glen in a Brabham BT45, we feel we know what conclusion it would be accurate to draw. Some people never learn; or perhaps they don’t want to. During the untimed session at the end of Saturday afternoon Andretti is the centre of attention once more when his Lotus bursts into flames whilst negotiating an infield hairpin, the result of a leak somewhere deep in the engine’s fuel system. The American leaps out hurriedly with only a few superficial burns on his overalls while the car coasts to a halt on the grass, and marshals quickly extinguish the blaze. Andretti thumbs a lift back to the pits on the side of his mate’s car, Nilsson looking a little bit apprehensive when he sees the other Lotus going up in flames because he thinks he might be relegated to the role of spectator again. Fortunately the industrious Lotus mechanics work through the night and rebuild the car so that the “Racer’s racer” doesn’t have to impose on his team-mate for the second successive race.
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At a couple of minutes to twelve o’clock (untypically punctual by South American standards!), the 22-car field moves slowly up from the dummy grid to await the starting light. At mid-day precisely, the starting light blinks green and the Brazilian Grand Prix is on with Pace jumping the start from the third grid and rocketing up the inside of Hunt as they go into the first corner. Reutemann chops across from the outside and just leads the Brabham-Alfa out onto the long downhill straight, but Pace has the bit between his teeth and doesn’t have any intention of being shown the way round Interlagos by an Argentinian. At the bottom of the hill, on the entrance to the slightly banked double left-hander which is to cause to many people so much trouble later in the race, Pace pulls out and slices into the lead to the accompaniment of ecstatic cheers from the crowd, leading the Ferrari up into the infield loop and out onto the start/finish straight to complete the first lap. Third is Hunt ahead of Mass, Andretti and Regazzoni, while there is already a gap opening back to Depailler, Laffite, Jody Scheckter, Peterson, Brambilla, Pryce, Fittipaldi, Watson, Lauda, Ian Scheckter, Nilsson (heading for the pits to change a rear tyre damaged after a slight nudge), Binder, Ribiero, Hoffman and Zorzi. Totally unnoticed by most of the spectators, the B.R.M. crawls into the pits to retire with all its water blown out after just a single lap. Although Pace is very much in command during the opening stages, Hunt is in fine form and slipps into second place on the third lap, but he isn’t able to do much about the Italian-engined car in the lead. Hunt later will remark that he was amazed by the speed at which Pace got away from him along the straights, but he isn’t giving up worrying the Brazilian as hard as he knows. Just behind Reutemann, Mass is striving might and main to fend off Andretti while the cheeky Regazzoni simply hangs onto the back of this little elite group and watches the action, quite able to keep up with them in the car that Mo built.

 

Brambilla is already in the pits having a water radiator repaired after humping over yet another kerb, lan Scheckter has stopped with gearbox trouble on the second lap (the oil filter mounting broke, severed an oil line and starved the box of its lubricant) and Nilsson is back in the fray driving as hard as he can from the rear end of the field. A small grass fire suddenly starts on the edge of the circuit on the outside of the corner before the pits, causing the leaders to moderate their speed for a couple of laps, but that is soon extinguished. By the end of the sixth lap the first half dozen are still in close contact, but lap seven spells disaster for Pace as he rounds the double left-hander at the bottom of the hill after the pits. The circuit surface at this point has only recently been relaid and, as the race wears on, adhesion was minimal if drivers allow their cars to deviate too much from the prescribed line. Pace allows the red Brabham to run a fraction too wide as he leads the field into this comer and suddenly Hunt is presented with the sight of the red Brabham sliding down the circuit almost broadside right in front of him. Hunt pulls the McLaren into the corner as tightly as he can, slipping past Pace on the inside, but his right rear wheel runs over the Brabham’s left front water radiator, smashing the cowling and cascading water all over the place. Pace then regains control, but the whole nose section flies off a few hundred yards later and, bitterly disappointed, the Brazilian is obliged to stop at the pits at the end of that lap. Thus the order at the end of lap seven is Hunt from Reutemann, Mass and Andretti with the German driver trying as hard as he can to keep the determined American behind him. On lap 11 Jody Scheckter pulls to a standstill with a seizing engine in his blue Wolf, then two laps later Mass loses control in front of Andretti at that comer, finds himself unable to retrieve the situation on the slippery surface and slides headlong into the catch fencing.

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The fencing promptly falls down across the track, collected Regazzoni’s Ensign - which has also run slightly wide - and spins the Swiss’ car round in its own length before wrapping it up in chicken wire so that it is completely trapped. Hardly has Regazzoni stopped when Depailler arrives on the scene, spinning wildly, but the Frenchman keeps his Tyrrell away from the fence and is able to restart after losing several places. Peterson, by contrast, simply doesn’t seem to see the pile-up and, to the amazement of the following Tom Pryce, simply ploughs straight off into the catch fencing. Brambilla is already there (having spun off a lap before Mass) while Watson and Lauda just avoid sliding off to join them. It was just like black ice, remarks an amazed Lauda after the race is over. This wholesale decimation rather splits up the field, Hunt now a few seconds ahead of Reutemann with Andretti right behind. Pryce’s Shadow has moved into fourth place ahead of Laffite with 15 laps completed, but the French car lasts there only six laps before making a pit stop to change cracked sparking plugs (a repeat of the problem that dogged Laffite in Argentina) and that means that Lauda and Watson inherit the two remaining positions in the top half-dozen. At the front of the field Hunt is clearly in problems as his McLaren has been adjusted to develop slightly too much understeer as the race wears on. Gradually Reutemann closes in on the McLaren as it wears its front tyres down and, despite trying extremely hard to fend him off, Hunt is forced to concede the lead on lap 23. Immediately Hunt takes the decision to stop for two fresh front tyres, rocketing back into the race in fifth place and quickly re-passing Lauda and Watson. Two laps ago, Andretti’s strong challenge evaporated when a small electrical short circuit in the wires behind the Lotus’ instrument panel caused him to stop out on the circuit, leaving Reutemann with a tremendous lead over Pryce with Hunt catching up fast in third place.

 

Even Pryce isn’t without his problems, for his Shadow’s oil temperature is soaring, so the Welshman eases his pace slightly, hoping that the engine will last. Unfortunately, just over six laps from the end of the 40-lap race the engine goes ragged and Pryce has to stop, so Hunt is back in second place behind Reutemann’s reliable Ferrari. Depailler is further delayed after his spin with a deflated rear tyre and damaged water radiator (both of which had to be replaced) and the Frenchman caps Ken Tyrrell’s day by crashing very heavily into the remains of Mass’ McLaren, writing off both cars and braising his knees quite painfully. Watson, who never features in the high places at all, finds his Brabham BT45 understeering far too violently, and joins the happy throng in the catch fencing on lap 30. When he arrives and climbs out of his car he finds that Laffite has slammed the Ligier-Matra into Brambilla’s Surtees and three laps later comes the crowning stupidity when Pace (many laps behind the leaders) slides off into this Formula One graveyard as well. In all this excitement hardly anybody notices Hans Binder sliding off further round the circuit after a front brake of his Surtees TS19 locks on. As the seven drivers in amongst the catch fencing dust themselves down, the closing lap order of the Brazilian Grand Prix must leave rather than a trifle embarrassed. Reutemann, driving as smoothly as clockwork, reels off the final miles to a comfortable and convincing victory over Hunt by over 10 sec. while Lauda, who carefully avoided the pitfalls and snares other people found so attractive, ends up a solid and lonely third. Despite making a pit stop to change a deflated tyre, Fittipaldi brings the Copersucar home fourth (one lap down on Reutemann), while Nilsson survives to fifth (despite a second stop to take on fuel) and Zorzi is sixth simply by dint of plodding on. Hoffman is seventh and last, another who kept his car going—and on the track. A race which started with tremendous promise has ended as the survival of the three fittest with several “walking wounded” smiling along behind. Reutemann hasn’t been the fastest man on the track, but he’s gone fastest for the longest with as little trouble as possible, which is surely what Grand Prix racing should be all about.

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