#283 1977 South African Grand Prix

2022-07-24 01:00

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#283 1977 South African Grand Prix

The World Championship Formula One scene moves across the southern hemisphere from Brazil to South Africa, for the 78-lap race on the Kyalami circuit,

The World Championship Formula 1 scene moves across the southern hemisphere from Brazil to South Africa, for the 78-lap race on the Kyalami circuit, but it travels via Europe, where the ravages of the Brazilian race are repaired. The South African race runs to a special format of its own, to which few people seem to object, for when you are 5-6.000 miles from base in the heat of late summer in late February and early March, it would be churlish to complain. The race is held on a Saturday, with practice on the preceding Wednesday and Thursday and with Friday a day of rest. A prize-giving garden party is arranged for Sunday lunch-time and everyone can catch the late afternoon plane to London with ease. Altogether the South African GP offers a nice leisurely holiday trip and the circuit itself offers a good race, for it is fast and interesting, with downhill sweeps, fast and slow bends and a power-on climbing hairpin. The long row of pits are in the form of lock-up garages, where everything can be contained and worked on, so that it is not surprising that most teams go out to South Africa early to do some testing. What they test, and what the results are, is not altogether clear, but it seems that first you must practise, to be ready for testing, then you test in readiness for practice, then you practise unofficially in readiness for the official practice, and finally on race morning you do a final test session in readiness for the race. After covering anything up to 300 laps in the weeks before race week, a mere 78 laps for the Grand Prix seems almost pointless, except that 70.000 or 80.000 people have paid to watch and the 78 laps need to be covered non-stop if you are out to win, and all laps have to be fast ones, not just one or two.
This year things go a bit wrong, for on Wednesday morning the skies are grey and overcast and a typical English drizzle is falling. The first timed session is to be at 10 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. and nobody really knows what to do, for they have done no testing or practice in the rain, it has all been in glorious summer sunshine. As can be seen from the accompanying table of practice times not many people go out on the damp track, and those who do are some 20 seconds off the normal sunny pace for the Kyalami circuit. During the lunch break local people suggest that this nasty damp weather has come to stay for a few days, so in the afternoon there is a lot more activity on the track in case it is true, and the starting grid is decided on relatively slow times on a wet track. Even so, neither of the six-wheeled Tyrrells go out, and Lauda and Fittipaldi only use their spare cars. Tom Pryce is impressively faster than anyone else, driving the new Shadow DN8 and it is interesting to reflect that the average time is around 1'33"0 on the wet track is probably a lot faster than many critics of today’s highly-paid super-stars can do themselves on a dry track. Pryce’s average speed was just over 100 m.p.h. for the 2.55-mile lap and personally I would not like to average that speed over that distance in a straight line in pouring rain, let alone round the Kyalami circuit. Thursday morning is still dull and cool, but at least it was dry, and as the 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. practice session is decreed by Goodyear to be for full-tank testing and tyre scrubbing in readiness for the race, the lap times recorded are not counting for starting grid positions. It appears that this untimed session is soon to be dropped from Formula One practice, as very few teams use it for the purposes intended, but carry on in their endless quest for finding the ultimate combination of variables to achieve an ultimate lap time, ready for the final fling in the afternoon.
It looks as though the rain is going to hold off in the afternoon, so the final hour of practice is going to be crucial for grid positions, and with 23 drivers out to record a decent time it is obviously going to be a very crowded 60 minutes. With Wednesday’s times now meaningless, the organisers record the Thursday morning times and publish a list, showing Hunt to be fastest with the new old-type McLaren. From the way most of the drivers are going you would think that the times are counting for grid positions, but in reality they really are practising hard for the final hour, and not messing about. It is informative to watch the cars come down the fast, sweeping, right-hand curve from Crowthorne Corner, change direction at the bottom of the dip into the climbing left-hander and level out onto the short straight that followed, all at 150 m.p.h. or more without easing the foot off the throttle. There are those cars and drivers, like the McLaren and Hunt, or the Ferrari and Lauda, that look smooth and effortless, and those like the six-wheeled Tyrrells of Peterson and Depailler that are equally fast but awfully twitchy and keep the drivers very busy. Scheckter in the Wolf is just lifting the left front wheel as he breasts the rise, and the two works March cars of Stuck and Ribiero look a bit hairy. Of course, some drivers do not come out of the Crowthorne bend as fast as they might have done, so their speed down the hill is not in the top class, and in consequence they can take the swooping, climbing ess on full throttle with ease. A select handful of drivers stand out head and shoulders above the rest and when the list of lap times is published it is this group that was under 1'16"5 for the whole lap. In the pits the team designers or adjusters are fiddling about with front and rear aerofoil settings and rear anti-roll bar settings, to try and arrive at a situation where the ace driver can take that challenging downhill swoop and uphill left-hander absolutely flat out with a feeling of complete confidence in the balance of the car, especially when changing direction from right to left, and at the same time maintain the highest possible speed along the undulating long top straight.
It is all too easy to adjust things to give a great deal of downforce and hence a high cornering power, but to lose out on drag at maximum speed. A maximum of 170 m.p.h. is aimed for on the fastest part of the top straight, but that is no use if the car handles like a jelly through the fast corners. Conversely, a good handling car on the swerves is not much use if it can only pull 160 m.p.h. on the top straight. All this applies only to the select handful of cars and drivers at the top of the list and these are covered by a bare half-a-second on overall lap-times. Round the slow and medium fast corners there is not much to choose between the fastest and the slowest, providing the car is averagely good and the engine has competitive power. With the possibility of 23 cars out at the same time on a mere 2.5 miles of track, the fast driver counts himself lucky if he can reel off a succession of good laps without getting baulked, and there are one or two travelling chicanes that are upsetting the rhythm of the super-stars. If that doesn’t happen then a car in mechanical trouble, such as the old B.R.M. when its engine dies, or the Surtees of Brambilla when it spins harmlessly onto the roughage, or the Shadow of Zorzi when it looks as though it is going to peter out, can cause yellow caution flags to be waved and upset the rhythm of the hard-chargers. All this is going on during the untimed hour and a half on Thursday morning. In the brief hour after lunch, which is the make-or-break for the starting grid line-up, the tension is almost at bursting point. The same group of cars and drivers is heading for the front of the grid, with one or two being left behind through no fault of their own. Both Andretti and Watson have their engines go sick on them in this final crucial hour, the Cosworth DFV in the fortner's Lotus holding together, though smoking badly, just long enough for the USAC star to claim sixth fastest overall. The Ulsterman’s Alfa Romeo engine in his Brabham is not so considerate and he is well back on the grid in the final count.
For some highly technical reason involving condensation, the tyres on Lauda’s Ferrari are 6 p.s.i. higher than they should be and he attributes his position in the second row to this. Hunt’s McLaren is having no problems and he seems to be gauging the speed of his rivals with uncanny judgement, continually matching anything that anyone else did. To the embarrassment of the Ferrari team, the other Italian flat-12-cylinder engine is really singing away splendidly and Carlos Pace is defying everyone, even Hunt, for fastest time of the day. In the morning he tries the BT45B, with the new rear suspension and finds it much nicer and easier to control through the critical change from understeer to oversteer (see Motor Sport for March 1977 for the description of the critical point M and angle o in racing car handling). He uses it in the final hour and ends up with fastest time and pole position according to the first reckoning, but then the McLaren team’s management go into action with a protest and the time-keepers discovered a super-fast lap for Hunt which they didn’t notice and the Brabham-Alfa is demoted a place. However, it is still on the front row of the grid alongside the McLaren and ahead of both Ferraris, which make the regular after-practice telephone call to the Commendatore a somewhat fraught affair for the Maranello team personnel. That hard-trier Depailler is alongside Lauda in the second row, and the local hero Jody Scheckter is in the third row with the new and promising Wolf car. Right at the back is Lunger with his private March, because the engine breaks before he really gets going, then Perkins with the old B.R.M. simply because it will not go any faster, and the Dutch driver Hayje who lacks high speed experience. When the excitement of this furious hour dies down everyone realises how lucky they have been, for the rain is falling again and it starts with a few spins almost as the chequered flag appeared to signal the end of official practice. With Friday devoid of any Formula One activity the teams can set to on their final race preparation without the prospect of having to work all night where anything major is required to be done, like installing a new engine.

Saturday is dry but overcast and cool and it looks as though the rain is going to keep away. After a warm-up session in the early morning, the crowd is entertained by various activities, ranging from sky-diving parachutists, through vintage cars to a spectacular display by the only Spitfire aircraft in South Africa. The drivers are paraded around the circuit in open MG sports cars, a mixture from MG TC to MG-A, driven by proud club-members, and then the serious business of the South African GP began. From the pit lane the cars go round the circuit to the starting grid, and line up in rows of two, with Hunt’s McLaren in pole position. Carlos Pace is in the BT45B Brabham-Alfa Romeo, Scheckter is in the No.1 Wolf car, and everyone is ready for the 78-lap race. In orderly fashion Hunt leads the whole field round on a warm-up lap, they draw up to the start line and as the starting signal turns green the sound of 10.000 horsepower being unleashed can be heard far across the open countryside of the Transvaal. Hunt makes a superb start and rockets into the lead, Pace is hesitant and Lauda, Scheckter and Depailler have passed him when the field reaches the first corner. Brambilla hangs on the start line as his clutch fails to bite instantaneously, and Pryce is slow away, being behind the B.R.M. on the opening lap. Hunt leads from Lauda, Scheckter, Depailler, Pace, Mass, Andretti, Peterson, Fittipaldi and Reutemann on the opening lap and clearly the reigning World Champion is not going to wait for anyone. Brambilla and Pryce are already slicing through the tail-enders, and within four laps a small gap has appeared in the crocodile between Depailler and Pace. The poor old B.R.M. is already left behind and by six laps Hunt and Lauda have opened up a small gap from Scheckter and Depailler, who are in turn leaving Pace, Mass and Andretti. On this lap Peterson’s six-wheeled Tyrrell expires with no fuel pressure, and on the run down to Crowthorne Corner at the start of lap 7 Lauda overtakes Hunt and goes into the lead with hardly any effort.


The Ferrari team has got their aerodynamic adjustments just right and the 312T2 is much faster than the M23 Mclaren on top speed, and is equally stable round the corners, so there is little that Hunt can do about it. Almost insolently, Lauda drives away from Hunt and the others and looks impressively steady and unflurried. Behind Hunt is Scheckter driving a bit on the ragged edge to keep ahead of Depailler, while Pace is confidently keeping Mass, Andretti and Reutemann at bay, and Watson is desperately trying to get by the second Ferrari. The mid-field is being led by the yellow Fittipaldi car and Brambilla and Pryce have caught up with this group. Right at the back, excluding the B.R.M. which seems to be in a different race, are Hayje, Zorzi and Lunger, having a splendid, if inconsequential, scrap for the penultimate position. At 15 laps Lauda laps the B.R.M. and then catches up with the tail-enders and this seems to upset the rhythm and pace of the race, Hunt not nipping by as quickly as expected so that Scheckter seizes the opportunity and elbows his way past into second place and Hunt now has Depailler’s Tyrrell large in his mirrors. Reutemann slips past Andretti, and then Watson did likewise and Brambilla now has this group in sight, having overtaken Fittipaldi. Behind the Brazilian was Stuck, then Pryce, Laffitte and Nilsson, with Regazzoni behind them all and not looking his usual competitive self. Zorzi’s Shadow is sounding flat and has been lapped by the leaders; as he goes by the pits to start his twenty-second lap the engine dies when a fuel pipe comes adrift and he draws off the track on the left and jumps out as the leaking petrol catches fire. At that moment the track looks clear so two marshals run across from the pits with fire extinguishers. In fact the track is not clear, for Stuck, Pryce, Laffite and Nilsson are well on their way along the top straight, but momentarily out of sight in the dip before the pits. The first marshal gets across the track safely but the second one is narrowly missed by Stuck and is then dead in line with Pryce’s Shadow.


There is no possibility of the Welshman swerving and he hits the marshal, killing him instantly, while the extinguisher he is carrying catches Pryce on the head at 160 m.p.h. impact that must surely have killed him instantly. Still on full throttle the Shadow careers over the brow and down the hill to Crowthorne Corner, weaving off to the right and out of control. Laffite in the Ligier draws alongside as they go down the hill, puzzled that the Shadow is going off onto the hard shoulder on the right, not knowing what happened. As the Ligier brakes and turns into the right-hand bend the wayward Shadow comes off the hard shoulder and cannons into the French car, sending it off into the catch fences, and then crashes head-on into the safety wall. Poor Tom Pryce is beyond help, and Laffite is very lucky to escape with minor bruises. This bizarre and unhappy accident slows the pace of the race, and Scheckter, Hunt and Depailler close up on Lauda. As the leader passes the scene of the accident part of the wrecked Shadow catches under the left side of the Ferrari and punctures the water system. The leak is small but steady, and all that Lauda knows is that the engine temperature is rising and that there is a scraping vibration on right-hand bends as the Ferrari rolls. For ten laps he plays it cool, with Scheckter uncomfortably close, and then he simply drives away from the opposition again, keeping a wary eye on the water temperature and the sagging oil pressure as the engine gets hotter and hotter. By half distance the race as such is really over, for Lauda and the Ferrari are uncatchable and as only he knows about the rising temperature and sagging oil pressure, the result outwardly seems a foregone conclusion. The wily Austrian shows no signs of concern and his followers give up all hope of beating him; equally, few of them really know what caused the accident and the wreckage of the Shadow and the Ligier, which they can see all too clearly. Lauda is lapping the slower cars with ease, but his pursuers keep getting held up, and there is a distinct lack of inspired traffic driving among the other fast drivers.


Andretti gets back in front of Watson’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo, and Nilsson in the second Lotus has to stop at the pits due to a punctured tyre, caused by some of the debris from the accident. Regazzoni looks as if he would like to pass Stuck’s March, but can find no way by and as it would only elevate him from thirteenth place to twelfth place, it does not seem worth any heroics. Andretti badly wants to get past Reutemann’s Ferrari, as the Argentinian is not going fast enough, and after dodging about behind the Ferrari the Lotus eventually rams it up the back as they come out of the Leeukop hairpin, which confuses Reutemann and, as well as Andretti going past, Watson and Brambilla go by as well. It does not do the Lotus driver any good, as the blow cracks a front upright and bends a steering arm, which puts it out of the race. Lauda is now so far in front that he can really nurse the Ferrari along, and the high running temperature is making the engine use oil dramatically, the low oil level running even hotter and the oil pressure sinking so low that the warning light is now glowing ominously. Behind him Scheckter, Hunt and Depailler are still more or less nose-to-tail and they take all day to lap Ribiero and Binder, which helps the sick Ferrari enormously, for Lauda has nipped them with ease. In fourth place Pace is being troubled more and more by terminal understeer, due to the front tyres wearing down, and Mass gets past him for a short time, only to have the determined Brazilian retrieve his lost position. Watson is not far behind them with the second Brabham-Alfa, then comes Brambilla followed by a very unhappy Reutemann who is going to have to explain his position behind two Alfa Romeos and an Italian driver whom Enzo Ferrari does not consider worth while talking to. Regazzoni has finally got past Stuck, whose March is now pouring out smoke from an oil leak, and its race is run, for after some laps the smoke stops and then the engine stops. No smoke, no oil, no oil, no engine, it is as simple as that. With 15 laps still to run the race seems to have been going on for a lifetime, yet in reality it is less than 1.30 hours.


Lauda is lapping as unruffled as ever, but nobody realises just how he is nursing the car along with all his fingers crossed. Scheckter is holding down a very firm second place, but Hunt has the ever forceful Depailler worrying at his tail. Pace loses his fifth place when he has to stop at the pits for a change of front tyre, and Mass, Watson and the others all move up a place. Going down the hill to Crowthorne Corner at the start of lap 66, Depailler sees his opportunity, for Hunt has finally lapped Lunger’s March, so using the combined slip-stream of the two cars the Tyrrell driver wafts his way up alongside the McLaren. Hunt has no intention of giving way to the tenacious Frenchman, who is going to have to use the hard shoulder or else drop in behind. Depailler does what everyone expected, he uses the hard shoulder and elbowed his way past in a hectic tyre-rubbing contest with the McLaren, coming out of the corner mildly out of control, but ahead nonetheless. That is it as far as the excitement is concerned and as Lauda heads towards the chequered flag he switches off the engine and coasts the last few hundred yards, rather than risk an engine seizure at the last moment. To the astonished spectators it looks as though he has run out of petrol, but he soon explains that he has run out of water and burnt up most of his oil. There is only a third of the water content left in the system and of the original 10 litres of oil a mere 1.5 litres can be drained off afterwards, yet throughout the Ferrari engine hasn’t missed a beat or sounded the least bit off song. Scheckter brings the Wolf car home into a very worthy second place, ahead of the ever enthusiastic Depailler’s Tyrrell and a somewhat subdued Hunt’s McLaren, the rest of the 15 finishers coming along behind, with the old B.R.M. bringing up the rear on about 10 cylinders. As word goes round among the drivers about the unfortunate accident and the death of Tom Pryce and the fire-marshal, the end-of-race victory celebrations subside under an air of sadness. As everyone begins to go home the skies darken and the rain returns, and a young colleague sums it all up when he remarks: "The weather reflects the mood of the meeting".


Mariachiara Sica


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