With the Grand Prix season stretching from January to October, it is not unusual for the first race of the year to be like the last one of the previous year, especially as regards the cars, but this year the Argentine entry is full of interest. Mostly it is a matter of drivers among the top echelon changing teams, but there are revised cars and even brand new ones in the paddock as the transport aircraft disgorge their loads during the days before the race. Little Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula One Constructors’ Association have been playing the numbers game, so that the Brabham-Alfa Romeos, now sponsored by Parmalat foods in place of Martini drinks, annex numbers 1 and 2. This by reason of World Champion for 1977 Niki Lauda leaving the Ferrari team and joining Brabham, taking his number with him. The McLaren pair are left with numbers 7 and 8 and March Engineering has done a demon deal with Gunther Schmidt of the ATS Wheel concern in Germany, whereby Robin Herd redesigned their Penske cars so that they become March-ATS, and take the March numbers 9 and 10. The amiable Emerson Fittipaldi is given encouragement by moving him up from 28 to number 14, and Hector Rebaque, who bought the first Lotus 78, is given number 25, the old Hesketh number. Among the driver changes the most notable after Lauda’s move to Brabham is Peterson’s move from Tyrrell to Lotus, with young Didier Pironi moving up the ELF-inspired ladder from Formula Two to Formula One and into the Tyrrell team. Another interesting French driver, who made a noticeable impression last year, is Patrick Tambay, who joined the McLaren team at the expense of Jochen Mass. The German becomes number one in the new March-ATS set-up, along with Jean-Pierre Jarier. The Don Nichols Shadow team is all new, with Stuck and Regazzoni in the cars, the swarthy Swiss leaving the Ensign team without any prior warning. This leaves Nunn in a quandary, and for the early races this year he has done a deal with Danny Ongais and Lamberto Leoni, but the future looks a bit gloomy for Ensign.
In the Surtees team Rupert Keegan is driving the car sponsored by Durex last year and driven by just about everyone, while at the end of the list the new Theodore (Ralt) is driven by young Eddie Cheever, the Formula Two runner who lives in Rome but is actually American. With the Argentinian Autodrome available for testing before official practice begins, there is plenty of activity during the week and by Friday an overall atmosphere has developed. The Grand Prix world has largely forgotten what a tyre war is all about. Firestone pulled out at the end of 1974 and, for their last couple of years, didn’t really supply many teams of great consequence. True, they had Hesketh and Watson’s private Brabham, but Goodyear settled in a spell of domination once Firestone finally departed. With that spell of domination comes the praiseworthy attitude of trying, at least, to bring some semblance of standardisation to the tyre front. Fair do’s for all is the motto. All that has changed in Buenos Aires. Michelin have signed with Ferrari and that means war, all-out war. Against the Maranello line-up, Goodyear musters the best it can offer for the best teams in the business. Competition is said to improve the breed, but one can sense plenty of jittery feelings in the Goodyear-shod teams before official practice on Friday. Hunt’s fastest practice time from 1977 takes quite a battering at the hands of Reutemann’s Michelin-shod Ferrari during testing the week before the 1978 Argentinian GP, so Friday’s first official timed practice session is anxiously anticipated. Meanwhile, there are already minor problems cropping up for some people before official practice begins. Divina Galica starts off on the wrong foot by crashing her Hesketh 308E/4 quite badly, tearing off one corner against the guard rail, but happily emerging unscathed, while Didier Pironi spins his brand new Tyrrell 008 into the catch fencing on the fast esses immediately after the pits. They repair it successfully in time for Friday and Pironi looks crestfallen, but Ken Tyrrell is kind to him. Friday morning is cool and windy, untypically Argentinian from most people’s point of view.
Right on the dot of 10:00 a.m. Ecclestone’s two wicked-looking Brabhams lead everybody out onto the circuit to commence the first official Formula One practice session of 1978. Unfortunately, it proves something of an anti-climax, being stopped twice during the hour and a half. The first time for stranded cars to be brought in, and the second time for less official reasons; the onset of pouring rain. Most teams scurry for cover in the pits, leaving Reutemann and Villeneuve to splash imperiously round in their Ferraris, shod with Michelin’s wet weather tyres, much to the vocal approval of the small, bedraggled, crowd of spectators. After that interrupted first practice session, things don’t look too good for the majority of the entry. Reutemann’s Ferrari laps in a best of 1'47"82, almost a full second quicker than the supremely cool Lauda (1'48"70) and the delighted Peterson (1'48"87), who is bubbling over with enthusiasm for the Lotus 78. What’s more, Villeneuve is fourth fastest with 1'48"97 with the second Ferrari, so Michelin has first and fourth, to Goodyear’s second and third, and there is only one Cosworth V8 engine in the first four. Reutemann is quietly satisfied, even though he feels the car is not as good as it has been during testing in Italy. Observers out on the circuit comment on just how stable the Ferraris look, their tyres hardly leaning at all. They put the power down coming out of the corners and are quick on the straights. Second man Lauda tugs off his fireproof balaclava and looks thoughtfully down the pit lane towards his old team, then turns away and directs his attention to more immediate matters, that of sifting through the myriad tyre combinations that Goodyear has available to counter the Michelin challenge. Yes, everybody is to be equal as far as tyres are concerned, except that some teams are more equal than others.
Watson is fifth in that first session with 1'49"08, ahead of Hunt’s McLaren M26 (1'49"19) and Vittorio Brambilla’s Surtees (1'49"91). Unfortunately, after Brambilla records this very encouraging time, he slides off into the guard rail on the fast right flick just before the pits hairpin, when the Hewland gearbox jumps out of gear, damaging the front end of TS19/06 quite comprehensively. He is very apologetic to a noticeably upset John Surtees, when he returns to the pits to continue in the spare car, TS19/02. Reutemann can’t improve on his time during the afternoon session, and Goodyear’s front-line attack steps up in the shape of Mario Andretti and the Lotus 78. During the morning he has been delayed by a persistent misfire and has been slowest of all. The trouble is traced to a faulty O-ring in the injection system and rectified in time for the afternoon session. During the afternoon Reutemann cuts a lap in 1'48"99, but Andretti warms everybody’s hearts with an excellent 1'48"02, to show that there is still plenty of life left in the Lotus 78. It is the fastest time of the afternoon, but not as fast as Reutemann’s morning time, so 12-cylinders and Michelin tyres are still on pole position. Watson does a lap in 1'48"42, but Lauda is stranded out on the circuit when the ignition unit fails on his Alfa Romeo engine in BT45/7C and the World Champion briefly takes over the spare Brabham for the closing few laps. Peterson does a 1'48"93, almost as quick as his morning best, but the five-speed Lotus/Getrag gearbox he’s using on his car is still causing him a lot of selection problems, so they replace it with a Hewland six-speed unit in time for the Saturday practice. Nevertheless, he is bouncing with joy about the handling of the Lotus 78 and confidently predicting winning races again. Behind the revitalized SuperSwede, in sixth place at the end of the day, is young Gilles Villeneuve, seemingly very cautious in his comments about the Ferrari’s behaviour on Michelin tyres, almost as if he cannot believe how well things are going.
Obviously, that bad patch he went through at the end of the 1977 has not daunted him one bit and he is well into the groove in Buenos Aires, driving his Ferrari very positively and forcefully. His best time is 1'48"97 from the morning session, while both the works McLarens are behind the young French-Canadian. Hunt is quite happy with his M26 during the morning, although the onset of rain ruined his chances of juggling around with the most suitable Goodyear tyres. In the afternoon he bemoans the fact that he can’t manage a quicker time on the softer compounds due to too much understeer. Meanwhile Tambay is getting on with the job well; using M26/1 after his own car broke its engine not long after the morning session started. He works his way down to a very respectable 1'49"47 at the wheel of the spare car, while his mechanics install the team’s Cosworth development DFV into M26/3 for Saturday. In the ATS camp there is plenty of optimism on Friday, for the press-on Jarier ends the day with a fine 1'49"77 for ninth quickest overall and is confident he can beat them all. Robin Herd, in charge of the Anglo-German operation, grins indulgently at J.P.’s optimism, but expresses himself quietly satisfied with the first day’s performance. He is comparing the 1978 car’s performance with the 1977 works March cars, which is a bit pointless as the ATS is more a Penske than a 1977 March. Jochen Mass seems similarly confident although he is cursing right at the end of the afternoon session when a wrong adjustment upsets the balance of the car when on its best set of tyres. Nevertheless he does manage a 1'50"06 best over the day, slightly slower than Brambilla but considerably less destructive than the Italian, for Brambles does it again in the afternoon, hurling the spare Surtees, TS19/02, into the catch fencing at the corner which claimed Hunt’s McLaren during last year’s race. He successfully salvages the car from the fencing and continues to practise with a substantial dent in the monocoque.
Alan Jones is in trouble with the new Williams FW06, reckoning that its handling is fine but that the oil is overheating and the engine does not rev properly. The overheating problem is quickly cured, but the engine’s reluctance to go much over 10.000 r.p.m. is frustrating. By the end of the day a close examination of the fuel injection system seems to have pinpointed the trouble, but it returns the following day. The engine is finally changed the night before the race after Jones qualifies 14th. Jacques Laffite is 13th with the Ligier-Matra at the end of Friday, with 1'50"16, while a dejected Jody Scheckter can do no better than 1'50"38 in the new Wolf WR4. The team manages to balance the car a little better as the day wears on, but the Wolf garage is not one of the happiest in which to be by the end of the day. In the Shadow camp Regazzoni is having his first run at the wheel of the DN8, finding it much heavier to handle than the nimble Ensign he drove last year, but the Swiss manages 1'50"45. Extra oil-coolers are fitted to both Shadows’ flanks for Friday practice, but Stuck wastes a lot of the second session arguing with marshals on the infield loop onto which he spins after doing a lap in 1'51"16 in DN8/4A. He simply sits in the car waiting for some aid which, in the best manyana tradition, never comes. Eventually the lanky German leaps from his car and goes striding over to one of the break-down trucks. Berating the driver, Stuck slams his fist down on the bonnet, which seems to galvanise everybody into some sort of action. Fortunately, the Shadow is moved some way down the grass, because if it wasn’t, it would have been T-boned by Villeneuve’s spinning Ferrari a short while afterwards. Emerson Fittipaldi splits the two Shadows on Friday with a lap in 1'50"82 in his revised Copersucar-sponsored car, while Keegan’s first outing in a works Surtees is rewarded with a promising 1'51"42, two-tenths faster than the lurid, but amazingly spectacular, Arturo Merzario in his new home-brewed special.
Merzario does not seem unduly bothered about the niceties of special tyres or qualifying rubber. He just goes all-out from start to finish; a rather alarming, if heart-warming sight. Morris Nunn’s Ensign duo of Ongais (1'51"71) and Leoni (1'51"01) follow Merzario, Leoni’s only drama coming when he breaks the gear-lever off in his hand! But Nunn is sadly regretting the loss of Regazzoni to a richer team. Then comes the always-trying Brett Lunger, followed by the two new Tyrrells. Depailler and Pironi in the four-wheeled Maurice Phillippe designed 008 cars are completely out of the running after a whole host of minor troubles prevents either of them getting in any serious lappery at all. Depailler’s main problem is with the fuel system and a faulty HT lead, while Pironi’s apparently continual misfire is eventually traced right near the end of the day to a broken sparking-plug lead. It is a truly dismal time for the two Tyrrell drivers, and they only have three other cars below them on the practice lists on Friday night. These are the Formula 1 novice Hector Rebaque in his newly acquired Lotus 78/1, young Eddie Cheever making his Formula 1 debut in Teddy Yip’s Theodore TR1, which broke its engine, and Davina Galica who is quite simply way out of her depth in this company with the spare Hesketh 308E/3. Saturday’s final hour of practice is to be the big opportunity for the Goodyear runners to come back hard against Reutemann’s Michelin-shod Ferrari, which is holding pole position. With most people scratching to break 1'50"0 in the final session, it is left to Andretti to rocket round in the only two clear laps he got all afternoon, to snatch pole position from Reutemann with a time of 1'47"75. This despite a headwind down the back straight that costs anything up to 500 r.p.m. in top gear. Chapman is doubly delighted for not only does Andretti get pole position for the Lotus 78, but Peterson sets the second quickest time of the afternoon, and third overall, in spite of a badly blistering rear tyre and some diabolical baulking on the part of the slower runners. His time is 1'48"30.
The only other competitor to break 1'49"0 in the final session of practice is James Hunt, pulling up to sixth place on the grid with 1'48"72, despite acute understeer in the slow corners and awful oversteer in the fast ones; all the wrong way round to the most desirable conditions. Neither Brabham driver improves on his Friday times and Watson is obliged to use the spare car, BT45/6C, in the final hour, as the engine in his own car turns rough during the morning’s untimed practice. He still holds on to fourth place on the grid, alongside Peterson, leaving his team-mate in row three with Hunt; two World Champions side-by-side. Villeneuve and Laflite share the fourth row, but Depailler makes spectacular progress once the new Tyrrell o08 is running properly. He rockets up to join Tambay’s McLaren M26 on the fifth row with a fine 1'49"69, absolutely delighted with his new mount and in particular with the brakes. Completing a mid-grid French quartet is Jean-Pierre Jarier in the faster of the two ATS entries (1'49"77), J.P. not in the least ruffled by the unsettling experience of a front-tyre deflation whilst approaching the long loop at the far end of the circuit in sixth gear. Jones is still in trouble with the fuel system on the Williams, so an engine change is planned before the race, and a dejected Jody Scheckter uses his spare car, WR1, in the final hour, after WR4 runs into problems with its gear selectors. He can not make any impression at all on the quickest runners, but manages his best practice time in the last few moments. The only others to improve in the final hour are Leoni and Pironi, plus Rebaque, who does not qualify anyway. The Mexican joining Cheever and Divina Galica in the non-starters’ department. A spate of engine problems means that Fittipaldi, Stuck and Laffite all have to use their spare cars during the final hour, while an oil leak on Brambilla’s Surtees ruins another Edenbridge DFV. Lunger tries his spare McLaren, M23/11, when M23/14 breaks a bolt in the rear suspension.
The Autodrome is packed from an early hour on Sunday, with delirious chanting front the fans for their beloved Carlos Reutemann ringing out across the Parc Almirante Brown until the cars finally come out and line up on the grid with just under half an hour to go before the off. Argentina may well have a very liberal military regime in charge at the moment, but the race at Buenos Aires emphasises that it definitely is a military regime. The practice sessions and the race run on time, with military precision, but the way in which armed troops keep moving people along, who have a perfect right to be where they are is frightening. The locals are clearly used to this, which makes it appear rather less menacing, but armed troops have no place at a race track. This is not going to be Reutemann’s day, even though he is starting the race from the front row of the grid, alongside Andretti’s Lotus 78. It is his fourth attempt to win his own Grand Prix and is destined to be just as abortive as his previous three. As the green-light signal flashes, Andretti makes a superb start, the Lotus surging away into the first right-hander with Peterson trying to make it a Lotus 1-2 by squeezing inside Reutemann’s Ferrari at the first corner, but just failing to get through. Even as they strung out along the back straight it is clear that a Ferrari 312T2, even on Michelin tyres, is no match for an on-form Andretti and the Lotus already begins to edge away from its pursuers. At the end of the opening lap it is Andretti (Lotus), Reutemann (Ferrari), Peterson (Lotus), Lauda (Brabham), Watson (Brabham), Laffite (Ligier), Hunt (McLaren), Depailler (Tyrrell), Tambay (McLaren), Scheckter (Wolf), Villeneuve (Ferrari), Jones (Williams), Brambilla (Surtees), Regazzoni (Shadow), Jarier (ATS), Stuck (Shadow), Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi), Mass (ATS), Keegan (Surtees), Merzario (Merzario), Pironi (Tyrrell), Lunger (McLaren), Leoni (Ensign) and Ongais (Ensign), who leave on the line at the start of the race.
For a couple of laps Reutemann does his best to keep Andretti in sight, but rather than make any ground on the amazing Lotus he soon finds his hands full with a stern Brabham-Alfa attack. First it is Watson who steals the show with an audacious burst pass his World Champion team-mate on the third lap, and then begins nibbling away at the Ferrari. By now the enthusiastic crowds have fallen strangely silent and an audible groan can be heard from the main grandstands as Watson slips his Brabham inside the Ferrari at the end of the tong back straight, mid-way round lap six. It is a fine performance by the Ulsterman, but that is as far as he is destined to go. All there is in front of him is an empty track, for the remarkable Andretti is long gone, being an incredible seven seconds in the lead even by this early stage in the race. By the end of the seventh lap the order is Andretti, Watson, Reutemann, Peterson, Lauda, the fast-rising Depailler going really well with the new Tyrrell in its debut race, then Laffite and Hunt. There is a slight gap back to Scheckter, Villeneuve and Tambay having their own private dice, Brambilla and Regazzoni (watch it!), Fittipaldi, Mass, Jarier, Jones, Stuck, Pironi and Merzario. The skinny Italian’s new car is smoking badly and sounding rough prior to breaking its differential before 10 laps are completed. Regazzoni pulls into the pits on lap 10 to change a blistered front tyre, while Depailler uses the Tyrrell’s fine brakes to good effect to slice past Peterson, to take fifth place, the Swede having been passed by Lauda. Reutemann is obviously in dire trouble with his tyres, with only a dozen laps completed. Depailler is pressing hard and moves through to fourth place on lap 12. Five laps later and Reutemann drops another couple of places as Hunt, who finds a way round Peterson, goes past the Ferrari and the Swede follows him through.
Now Reutemann is left facing a challenge from Laffite and the Ligier-Matra. For another ten laps the wiry little Frenchman tries everything he knows to find a way past the Argentinian’s Ferrari, but to no avail. Even scrapping away for seventh place Reutemann seems determined to keep his end up in front of his home crowd. But lap 27 almost spells the end of his chances. Increasingly anxious to find a way round the Ferrari, Laffite goes for a gap that momentarily opens as they brake hard for the right-hand hairpin at the end of the back straight. It doesn’t quite work and the Ligier goes tumbling over the Ferrari’s right rear wheel in the process. Both cars emerge from the corner unscathed, the Ligier now in front, but Reutemann does only one more lap before coming into the pits to change all four tyres on lap 28. He resumes with different compound tyres, in a near-hopeless 15th place and the crowd is heart-broken for their hero. Out in front Andretti knows nothing of his rival’s tribulations. His progress is startling even to those accustomed to the winning potential of Cohn Chapman’s Supercar. And all this on a circuit with long, long straights. Even at his 1977 peak we have never seen this sort of domination from Andretti; it is all quite stunning and executed in that smooth, unruffled style which the Italian-born American ace culrivates to go along with the philosophy of the Lotus 78 design. By lap 30 things are looking good for Mr. Ecclestone’s Parmalat-sponsored Brabham-Alfa Romeo team, for Watson and Lauda are running strongly in second and third places, although the World Champion has to keep a wary eye on his mirrors because Depailler is closing in and spoiling for a fight. Then with 14 laps to go, Lauda suddenly nips past Watson, not due to finding some extra speed, it is Watson’s wretched luck again. The Ulsterman slows right up as his Alfa’s water temperature starts to rise, and on lap 41, while holding fourth place, he finally retires, a leak in the cooling system having drained away the car’s water.
It is yet another entry in the long catalogue of disappointments experienced by Watson over the past two years. From that point onwards the race runs uneventfully, with Andretti coming home a brilliant victor, leading from start to finish and running the race at his own pace. The Lotus 78 was just perfect with no problems of any kind. Lauda cements his new relationship with the Brabham team with a fine second place, albeit at Watson’s expense. Over the last half-dozen laps Depailler tries everything he can to dislodge the World Champion, but Lauda has everything well under control to keep the upper hand over the tenacious Frenchman right to the end of the race. Nevertheless, ELF Team Tyrrell has every reason to be very pleased with the debut of their new car, especially after such a troubled time in practice. Fourth place falls to the hard charging Hunt, while Peterson takes a lucky fifth three laps from the finish when Laffite’s efforts are cruelly rewarded with a blown-up Matra V12 engine. Sixth place thus goes to Patrick Tambay, in his first race for McLaren, having got the better of Villeneuve after their earlier dice. The unhappy Reutemann comes back to seventh place after his unfortunate pit stop, vocally willed on his way by his supporters. Villeneuve is eighth, Fittipaldi ninth, and a totally disappointed Scheckter tenth, ahead of the two ATS machines. Concerned that his Shadow might not have enough fuel for the final lap Regazzoni stops just before the finishing line and drives across once the chequered flag is out. Unfortunately, the flag is first waved at Peterson, in error for Andretti, but everybody is reading their pit signals and goes on racing for another lap, so the result is not affected. There are some red faces amongst the race administration over this, for the man who is waving the flag is none other than Juan-Manuel Fangio. Pironi finishes a Grand Prix at his first attempt, while Lunger, Stuck and Brambilla are still running at the end, the Shadow down on power and the Surtees with a seized shock absorber which causes a few harmless trips onto the grass.
In terms of mechanical reliability the race turns out to be far better than most people expected, although both Ensigns succumb to engine trouble and the Williams eventually stop with fuel vaporising problems. The Cosworth DFV scores another victory, as do the Goodyear tyres, but there appears to be some writing on the wall, though if truth be told there has been writing on the wall for years now, it’s just a matter of reading it correctly.