The second of the two early-season Championship Grand Prix races takes place in Brazil fourteen days after Andretti’s runaway win in Buenos Aires. This time the Brazilian Grand Prix takes place, not at Sao Paulo’s impressive five-mile Interlagos circuit, but at the brand new Circuit Internacional do Rio de Janeiro, a twisting autodromo complex situated some 20 miles or so south of Rio near the town of Jacarepagua. Conditions are insufferably hot for most pale-skinned Europeans for the venue is the only Formula One circuit currently situated in the Tropic proper. As far as the cars are concerned, the field is pretty well the same as that which raced in Argentina although the new Arrows organisation fields a single car for Patrese, their number one ace Nilsson still not fully recovered from a recent operation. The Arrows FA1 come to Brazil completely untested although they do manage to arrange a brief burst along a local airport runway just to make certain that all its systems are working properly prior to official testing for practice on the Thursday before the race. Wolf Racing rebuild their Buenos Aires spare WR1 to full 1977 specification following their disastrously uncompetitive showing in the Argentinian event when Scheckter could only finish ninth in WR4. The team’s spare is thus rebuilt with the old bodywork, wings, short wheelbase and rollover hoop in the hope that they might be able to get some indication as to where their performance has gone since the end of last season. Lotus once again install their Getrag-developed five speed gearbox in Peterson’s 78/2, this now beefed up with revised components following the selector trouble at Buenos Aires, both Ensigns now have nose mounted oil coolers fitted with piping running outside the cockpit, and Pironi’s Tyrrell has been updated to the latest suspension specification which now leaves it the same as Depailler’s sister car.
It would be fair to say that the moment the Formula One teams set eyes on the new Rio circuit the mumbles go round another Lotus circuit, Andretti should be able to walk this one. On the face of it, there is very little wrong with this line of thought because the circuit has plenty of tight, sinuous corners, one following closely on the other, rather like a flat version of Jarama in more ways than one. However, Andretti voices only a subdued degree of interest in the track, pointing out that it hardly gets his adrenalin pumping terribly hard and emphasising that so many corners followed too closely in succession, make it impossible to take the ideal approach into one for fear of messing up the approach to the next. He also points out that there is no time for a quick rest between gear changes because, even on the long back straight, by the time one changes into sixth gear it is time to start braking again for the fast left hander at the end. Practice takes place on Friday and Saturday, both days turning out to be wonderfully sunny, although the gruelling heat poses a problem to drivers and teams. Up and down the pits there are cars sprouting cooling ducts to their brakes, shock absorbers, fuel pumps and drivers the McLaren twins crush ice and cold water carried in little rubber tanks on top of their M26’s gearbox with pipes running forward into the cockpit and under the top layer of their overalls. Aside from the problems involved in running under such sweltering heat, the most interesting aspect of the race is the continuing tyre war between Michelin (who equip Ferrari) and Goodyear (who equip everybody else!). On Friday it looks as though predictions of Lotus 78 supremacy would turn out to be well-founded for Andretti tops the practice lists with a 1'41"14 best using the development Cosworth DFV which he used to win in Argentina.
But juggling tyre compounds and constructions about proves just as crucial as getting a clear run round the tight little circuit and it is Peterson who gets all the variables working finally in his favour on Saturday to snatch pole position in 1'40"45. Andretti doesn’t quite get the balance of his Lotus sorted out as well as his Swedish team-mate but he nevertheless slips in a competitive 1'40"62 best to grab a starting position on the inside of the second row which means that both of Colin Chapman’s cars are well placed for the early laps. Splitting the two Lotus 78s is the hard-trying James Hunt in his McLaren M26, although practice isn’t without its problems for the determined Englishman. Hunt pounds round in a best of 1'40"53, although he stops practising shortly before the end of the final session, absolutely convinced that there is nothing more he can give in the sweltering conditions. A slight lapse of concentration sees his McLaren slide off into the catch fencing at the end of the start/finish straight during Saturday’s practice, but the car suffers only slight damage to its nose fins and James drives it back to the pits without assistance. In fact there is more hubbub surrounding the fact that Hunt returns to the pits without his crash helmet on than the fact he has gone off the road in the first place. On the face of it Goodyear seems to be well in control during practice, but on reflection it is to become obvious that most people haven’t studied the results of the Argentine Grand Prix too. The fact that Reutemann started on a very conservative choice of Michelin in Buenos Aires, far too hard a cover, did not really give a true indication of the French tyre company’s Formula One potential. We should have watched more carefully after Reutemann’s pit stop at Buenos Aires when he came climbing back through the field again to finish seventh.
It’s easy to dismiss his progress as just what one would expect; he seemed simply to be pulling past a bunch of mid-field runners which a self-respecting Ferrari should have made short work of in any case. But that wasn’t quite the case; in Brazil, Michelin becomes a little more daring in their use of tyres and their decisions are to pay off admirably. Reutemann finally qualifies fourth on 1'40"73, despite a quick spin, while the McLaren and Ferrari number one drivers are backed up admirably by their team-mates Tambay and Villeneuve respectively. These two comparative newcomers to the Grand Prix scene both do a superb job, the Frenchman qualifying his M26 with a 1'40"94 best after a very confident performance while Villeneuve is a mere fraction behind on 1'40"97. The fourth row provides something of a major surprise with Emerson Fittipaldi doing a grand job on the best Goodyear tyres available with a 1'41"5 best which might even be faster if his Fittipaldi 125/2A would not break a driveshaft constant velocity joint during the final hour’s practice. Emerson Fittipaldi is thus forced to switch briefly to his spare F5/1A while his mechanics change the offending shaft, resuming in his race car shortly before the end of the session. Alan Jones sits quietly alongside the Brazilian car at the wheel of Frank Williams’ neat Head-designed FW06 which manages a best time of 1'41"87 despite being troubled with a broken stub axle on Friday and gear selection difficulties on Saturday. But where is World Champion Niki Lauda and Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabhams in all this excitement? The unfortunate answer is that the flat-12 Alfa Romeo engined cars are well out of the running during practice, Lauda coming in early on Friday to complain that the balance of the car is so awful round the tight little circuit that it is virtually undriveable. Deep discussions between Gordon Murray and the two drivers follow, after which it is decided to fit Lauda’s car with one of the original BT45B nose sections in place of the full-width unit which had been fitted at the start of the year.
Thus armed, Lauda goes out and improves his time by over a second. But it still only puts him on the fifth row of the grid on 1'42"08, fractionally slower than Hans Stuck in the faster of the two Shadow DN8s. For Watson, the picture is even more depressing. Not only is the Ulsterman suffering from a miserable head cold, but there is only one of the old nose sections available in Rio. Thus Lauda generously loans his car to his team-mate ten minutes from the end of the final session, enabling Watson to set his fastest lap, a lowly 1'43"75, almost as the chequered flag comes out to mark the end of practice. A replacement nose section is flown out from Britain for Watson’s car, but it doesn’t arrive until a couple of hours before the race (even after the race morning warm up) so there is nothing for the team to do but fit the nose to Watson’s car, adjust it to the same settings as on Lauda’s machine and simply hope for the best. Others to disappoint somewhat include Depailler in the faster of the two Tyrrells on 1'42"10 and Scheckter in Wolf WR1 (1'42"11), the South African’s fortunes failing to improve unduly with adoption of last year’s chassis configuration. Lunger does a really excellent job in his private McLaren, exuding a confidence that we’ve seldom seen before from this serious-minded American, and his 1'42"65 best beat the rather confused Laffite who tries both his Ligier-Matra JS7s before managing a 1'42"71 lap. Then comes Regazzoni’s Shadow DN8 (1'42"80) ahead of Jarier (again fastest ATS runner) and Leoni who’s got quite brave in his Ensign MN08. Patrese’s brief trip along a local airport hasn’t cured the Arrows’ fuel system problems, so the team struggles against them all through Friday, but the Italian driver eventually qualifies respectably on 1'43"19 after a bunch of other problems, including a spin and some chassis problems that needs the fabricating attentions of Lunger’s team operator Bob Sparshott.
Pironi gets his hands on some decent Goodyears to manage 1'43"55, ahead of Mass, troubled by his uncomfortably handling ATS, the miserable Watson and Rebaque’s Lotus 78, which would be much farther up the grid but for a major engine failure on Saturday. Right at the back are Ongais in the Ensign and Keegan’s lone Surtees, Brambilla amazingly fails to qualify after being somewhat detuned after all those accidents in Buenos Aires. Others who do not qualify for a start include Merzario, unfortunately, plus Cheever and Galica, both of whom try very hard. There are more problems lurking for several people on race morning. For a start Lunger has to race his spare M23/11 after M23/14 suffers major problems in its DFV metering unit; secondly, Fittipaldi takes over F5/1A less than a quarter of an hour before the race begins owing to air starter difficulties on F5/2A, and Mass takes over Jarier’s car (he is number one!) when his own develops a fuel leak. But the disappointed Frenchman is not the only one to non-start; Leoni’s Ensign breaks a driveshaft on the warming-up lap, so he is relegated to the side-lines as well. As the starting signal is given, Peterson piles on too much power and his pole-position Lotus 78 sits for a split second with its rear wheels spinning. Hunt is marginally quicker off the mark, but Reutemann makes an absolutely stupendous getaway from the outside of the second row, the Argentinian’s Ferrari being alongside the front row cars before they get to the end of the pit wall. Into the first corner it’s Reutemann just ahead with Peterson forcing round the inside into second place and Hunt hard on his heels. By the time the field strings out onto the long back straight, Reutemann is already visibly pulling away from Peterson’s Lotus. Into the long left-hander off that straight and the Ferrari pulls out a couple more lengths with consummate ease, Hunt almost tripping over Peterson in his efforts to get through to second place.
On the second lap Hunt tears past the Swede’s Lotus at the end of the straight, but the race is all over even by this early stage. Driving as if he was on rails, Reutemann finishes his second lap just over six seconds ahead of the McLaren. Down at the back of the field there is plenty of drama as Patrese tangles with Watson as the Brabham/Alfa Romeo tries to slip past the Arrows on lap three, both cars spinning and dropping to the tail of the field. Watson immediately stops at the pits to change a deflated front tyre, a trip onto the dust as he enters the pit lane showering car and driver with dirt that has to be washed off before the unfortunate driver can continue. Already the retirements are coming, Keegan crashing his Surtees without injury on lap five and Depailler spinning off onto the dust three laps later. The Tyrrell driver drives quietly back to the pits where close examination reveals the brake master cylinder to be damaged, so Depailler is out. Within a few laps Peterson drops back behind Andretti, his front right tyre badly blistered, while Hunt only lasts seven laps in second place before he is obliged to stop for fresh front tyres, resuming back in 10th position. Villeneuve by this time is steadily moving into the running, but Fittipaldi is going ever faster and the Brazilian quickly moves from fifth to third place, passing not only the French Canadian’s Ferrari but also Peterson’s slowing Lotus. As Emerson Fittipaldi moves away to consolidate a strong third place behind Andretti, it is left for Peterson to fend off increasingly persistent challenges from Villeneuve. This comes to spectacular head half way round lap 15 when Villeneuve pokes his Ferrari’s nose inside the Lotus as they come off the back straight, but there isn’t quite enough room for him to get past and both cars collide, spinning onto the grass. The two drivers quickly gather themselves up and limp back to the pits for a general inspection and tyre change, Villeneuve successfully rejoining the race.
A few seconds after the Ferrari, Peterson dashes back into the fray, only to slide to a halt two corners later when the left rear suspension breaks, the result of his driving the car back to the pits on a flat tyre. As Reutemann consolidates his lead and Andretti keeps ahead of Fittipaldi, Stuck moves his Shadow into fourth place ahead of Lauda. Scheckter bangs into Tambay’s rear wheel, dislodging a valve from one of the Wolf’s front tyres which forces him first to stop and then to retire with a bent steering arm, while Lauda has a nasty moment when a wheel balance weight from Stuck’s Shadow flies past his head and embeds itself into the rear wing of the Brabham-Alfa Romeo. A dangerous business this motor racing. With 25 laps completed the order is Reutemann, Andretti, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Tambay, Regazzoni, Pironi, Laffite, Patrese and Hunt. Stuck’s good run comes to an end with fuel pump failure and Hunt is now attacking Patrese in his efforts to climb back through the field. Unfortunately the Arrows driver is no more helpful towards Hunt than he has been to Watson, with the result that the McLaren driver becomes frustrated and spins off into retirement on his 26th lap. Soon after this incident Patrese stops to change the Arrows’ now badly worn front tyres, dropping back to the tail of the field. That isn’t the end of the Italian driver’s incident-packed race because, half a dozen laps from the finish, the fuel pick-up problem recurs and he is forced to stop for his car’s tanks to be replenished, eventually finishing tenth. Under pressure from Regazzoni, Tambay spins off, exhausted in the fierce Brazilian heat, on lap 35. The Frenchman briefly resumes before spinning again and this time retires from the fray for good. Lap 36 and it is Villeneuve’s turn to go, his Ferrari spinning into the catch-fencing on the same corner as he hit Peterson’s Lotus.
All these dramas leave Reutemann blissfully unaffected. His Ferrari is not missing a single beat and he calmly drives on towards victory never looking in the least flustered by either the heat nor the treacherously slippery track surface which has been aggravated by the wind blowing a line sandy blanket onto its surface during the course of the day. When the chequered flag comes out, Reutemann is fractionally under 50 sec. ahead of his nearest challenger. But it is not Andretti who takes second place: it’s Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian driver taking his home brewed car past the Lotus 78 five laps from the finish when Andretti finds that he is in dire gear-selection difficulties. Before the finish he drops back behind Lauda into fourth place as well, so the canny Brabham-Alfa driver is rewarded for pacing himself quite gently in the opening stages of the race. Fifth place falls to Regazzoni ahead of young Pironi’s Tyrrell, the French novice performing quite well despite suffering from a cracked exhaust and taking time off for a spin which bends a steering arm. Mass finishes seventh in the lone ATS, its engine popping and burbling after the mixture control jams on full rich, Watson is eighth, Laffite ninth (after a change of tyres on his Ligier) and Patrese tenth. Finally Jones is still running at the finish, very slowly owing to the fact that a wheel bearing overheats and plays havoc with the front brakes as a result. Nevertheless, the fastest Goodyear lap of the race is established by the Australian before he makes his first of two pits stops. But Reutemann’s victory is totally uncompromising and a very effective indication of how much work has been done by Michelin’s tyre development department. There are some very worried-looking faces in the paddock after the race that Sunday’ afternoon in Brazil because, as one shrewd observer remarks.
Rumours currently abound that the new Alfa Romeo Formula 1 car is nearing completion and will be tested with Pirelli radials. No driver has been mentioned, but it is likely to be Vittorio Brambilla, the 40 year old Italian who failed to qualify his Surtees TS09 in Brazil. Seen spectating at Rio is Brazilian Driver Ingo Hoffman, who drove a handful of races in the old Copersucar in 1976/77. Hoffman hopes to be in a position to have some more Formula One outings later this season now that the Fittipaldi team seems to be getting more competitive. Jean-Pierre Jarier is feeling rather indignant after Mass snatches his car from him just before the start, this being the prerogative of the ATS team’s number one driver. Jarier practised faster than Mass in both Argentina and Brazil. New cars expected in South Africa for the Kyalami race on March 4 include the long-awaited Shadow DN9, the Lotus 78, a second Arrows FA1 and the surface cooling Brabham BT46. The Elf Tyrrell team are feeling very happy with young Pironi’s performance after the race, feeling that he has used his head and handled the 008 very sensibly indeed to finish sixth. Not bad for a youngster who hadn’t driven that car prior to his arrival in Buenos Aires. Once again Divina Galica fails to qualify her Hesketh, adding a badly blown-up engine to the chassis damage she inflicted to 308E/4 in Buenos Aires. Although there are some concerned faces in the Goodyear camp, the American tyre firm are confident they will be able to match Michelin at Kyalami in the South African Grand Prix. In that race we should see the turbocharged Renault V6 back in action again with Jabouille at the wheel. Villeneuve and Peterson seem inexorably drawn towards each other on the race track. They last collided in Japan when the French-Canadian driver drove over the back of the Swede’s six-wheeler.