Enthusiasm was running high for the British Grand Prix two or three weeks before the event was due to be held at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent. Renault had visited the circuit with Michelin and Rene Arnoux had knocked some three seconds off the existing lap record, and then on a Goodyear test day Didier Pironi (Ligier) and Alan Jones (Williams) had improved on the Renault time by another incredible two seconds, averaging 130 mph round the tight little circuit. The cornering speeds achieved by the best of this year’s Formula One cars are breath-taking, and the Ligier and the Williams through Clearways Bend and Paddock Hill Bend were worth going a long way to see. Some observers, or rather people in the paddock who talk rather than watch, seemed concerned about these incredible cornering speeds. I would have thought that the only people who need to be concerned are the drivers, but I can’t say I detected any concern from Pironi or Jones. To watch these two drivers from the outside of Clearways was as exciting as the old Woodcote Corner at Silverstone. To listen to some people who wonder why we are bothering to race, we all ought to play tennis or croquet (or even ping-pong). However, to get down to the real business of the British Grand Prix. The British summer is at its height, with grey clouds, cold winds and rain when the Brands Hatch Stadium is invaded by the contractors men to set up our biggest circus and fun-fair, and even some of the regular grass car parks disappear under a sea of marquees and motor homes as the migrant world of Formula 1 entrench themselves for their three-day sojourn in the lee of the new Motorway in the Garden of England. In these changing times there are some changes to be seen in the pit lane, some of them explicable, others not. The sad Shadow team have gone from the scene, to join March, B.R.M., Surtees, Wolf, Tecno, de Tomaso and all the others who have helped to create Formula One history.
The two drivers, Geoff Lees and David Kennedy are out of work, but many of the mechanics have got themselves jobs with other teams. In the Brabham team Ricardo Zunino has been replaced by Hector Rebaque, and presumably money and Mr. Ecclestone have been involved, while the Fittipaldi team are all excited at having a brand new design for their patron. This is the F8, designed from scratch by Harvey Postlethwaite, as distinct from the F7, which was an amalgam of ideas from the old Wolf cars and the old Fittipaldi cars. There were two additions to the regular ranks of the entry in the shape of Mrs Desire Wilson and Rupert Keegan; both were driving 1979 Williams cars operated by RAM Racing under the leadership of John MacDonald with the help of Howden Ganley on the technical side. The two cars were FW07/3 and FW07/2, respectively, and have been up-rated from Aurora Formula One trim to full FISA Formula One conditions with sliding side-skirts and all the other important little details that the Williams factory decided were needed to make the cars competitive. This means there are twenty-seven drivers competing for twenty-four starting grid positions, so the battle for the last row is going to be as competitive as that for the front row. When the initial untimed test-session begins on Friday morning it is cool and cloudy, but at least it is dry, and conditions are good for some fast motoring, provided you could get your tyres hot enough, which the Goodyear runners seem easily able to do, whereas the Michelin-shod cars are not at all happy. The session has hardly begun before the new Fittipaldi car gives trouble, after having performed well in pre-race testing, so most of the morning is spent putting it right.
The Ligiers are in their Paul Ricard configuration as regards the bodywork and the aerodynamic aids and it is not long before it is obvious that Pironi is going to be the man to beat, and that Alan Jones is the man most likely to. The Arrows cars has new nosepieces with small skirts attached to them to form an air channel down the centre of the car, but they are soon removed as they apparently don’t work. Both Ensigns for Lammers are in short-wheelbase form, and Depailler is driving the latest Alfa Romeo with the lower-mounted engine. Brabhams are trying out their Weismann transverse gearbox on their spare car, and Williams have a new spare car for Jones fitted with an improved gear linkage. Villeneuve is in a brand new T5 Ferrari, but not for long as it goes wrong in the engine department and he transfers to the spare car. All down the field the driving is a bit wild and woolly with slides over kerbs, which damage skirts, and spins which damage images, while Pironi has a big excursion onto the grass when a tyre punctures. Weather conditions remain stable for the vital afternoon session between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. when lap times are taken officially, and count for grid positions. With a very unsettled weather forecast everyone is out to give it all they’ve got instantly, just in case the weather changes. The new Fittipaldi is working again, Depailler is quite happy with the low-engine Alfa Romeo, the Brabham team has cured a spot of trouble they’ve had with the Weismann gearbox and Ligier have reset their suspension to use the 15" diameter Goodyear front tyres, mounted on Gotti wheels instead of the usual Dymag wheels. Williams are assembling some new 15" diameter Speedline front wheels for their cars, but Renault and Ferrari are very unhappy, as are Michelin, because they could not record sufficient temperature in their tyres to create the maximum grip.
Ferrari has additional trouble for Scheckter’s engine breaks and before he could use the spare car the seat and pedals and steering wheel have to be altered from the settings of the morning when Villeneuve has used it. Piquet has a slight accident at Druids Hairpin, when he spins, and bends the right hand steering arm and suspension, but takes a shortcut into the pits through the backdoor and takes over the spare car with the Weismann gearbox. The pace is pretty fast all down the field, and fast and slow (relatively) drivers are having spins or excursions onto the grass. It is still Pironi who is the man to beat, him and Jones being outstanding on Clearways Bend ( or Clark Curve in the modern Brands Hatch idiom). The existing lap record was held by Nelson Piquet in a Brabham-Alfa Romeo in 1'17"46, set up in the Race of Champions in 1979, while the fastest lap ever made at Brands Hatch was 1'16"80, which Ronnie Peterson recorded in 1978 to claim pole-position on the grid for the Grand Prix that year. Two years later and the pole-position time of 1978 is not even considered as good average, while the existing lap record is no criterion at all. Even the times recorded in the Goodyear tyre test session are no longer looking so impressive. It is still a clear-cut battle between Ligier and Williams, both drivers of both teams being in a group of their own, with times in the 1'11"0 bracket, with Pironi fastest of all in 1'11"004. Even the tail-enders are trying hard and are around the existing lap record, but it is not good enough to qualify for the grid, such is the progress in Formula One when everyone is trying hard. The McLaren team’s fortunes are beginning to look up, with Prost in fifth place at the end of the day, the M29C having improved rear suspension with a more rigid layout, but the performance is put into perspective when you realise that Prost’s time of 1'12"759 is one and three-quarter seconds off the time of Pironi. The new Fittipaldi is plagued by fuel system troubles and never completes a decent lap.
Saturday morning’s test-session is held under dark and ominous skies, but the rain holds off, though it is little consolation to Ferrari and Renault for their Michelin tyres just are not equal to the Goodyears in the cold climate. The Ferraris are looking terrible around the fast comers, wobbling about and looking totally unbalanced, whereas the Ligiers and Williams are looking beautifully stable, in spite of being much faster through the corners. At least the Ferraris sound nice. During Friday’s practice some of the tougher elements among the foreign drivers were getting a bit rough with Desire Wilson when they came up to pass her, feeling that a woman’s place is in the home (or in Club racing) not in World Championship class Formula One. On Saturday morning the Ligier drivers are feeling the same about the Irish! Derek Daly is going well by Tyrrell standards, but he is in the way as far as Laffite and Pironi are concerned, and he ignores (or doesn’t see) the blue flags and just will not let them by. Laffite becomes very excited and frustrated, while the cold, ruthless Pironi stands it for a short time and then knocks the Tyrrell off onto the grass and out of the way! It is very tough at the top these days, which is why we get some good racing when the rubbish gets out of the way. In mid-field Marc Surer is pedalling the newer ATS round very effectively, at least as well, if not better than Jan Lammers had done, whereas Lammers is getting nowhere with the red, white and blue Ensign. At one point the ATS catches and passes the Ensign as if it is standing still, which must be very frustrating for the little Dutch driver. Had he been in the second ATS he could have been going as quickly. For up-and-coming drivers these sorts of things are bad, but they are far worse for top drivers, and Scheckter and Villeneuve are suffering the indignity of being passed by drivers with far less talent.
Scheckter spins off into the barriers in his own car after Stirling’s Bend and runs back to the pits to climb once more into the spare car. The new Fittipaldi is behaving itself now, its suspension and fuel feed problems overcome, but Rosberg is looking like a non-qualifier, which he will continue to do until he relaxes a bit and gets some smoothness into his driving. Scheckter’s morning ends at rock bottom when the spare Ferrari develops engine trouble, and he is next to last, only Depailler being slower because his engine would not run cleanly. The final all or nothing hour is from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and the weather is still grey but dry. In despair Michelin are cutting circumferential grooves in the tyres for Renault and Ferrari to try and make the rubber work a bit and raise the temperature, but it seems a forlorn hope. The Ferrari mechanics are still slaving away when the timed session begins, finishing off the two race-cars for Scheckter and Villeneuve. In the Ligier and Williams pits all is under control and Jones begins practice in the new T-car, while Pironi and Laffite are brimful of confidence. Patrick Depailler is being forced to use the spare Alfa Romeo as the engine in his own car would not respond to attention, and Surer is in the earlier of the two ATS cars. All is going well and the pace is really hotting up when Arnoux loses control of his Renault leaving the Druids hairpin and crashes heavily at the foot of the hill. The red flag comes out at the start/finish line and qualifying stops while the Frenchman is released from the bent car, fortunately with only superficial damage to a hand and some nasty bruises. The wrecked Renault RE24 is removed on a breakdown lorry and the spare Renault’s cockpit is re-arranged to fit the tough little Frenchman who is all set to carry on.
When qualifying re-starts after 20 minutes the pace gets really fierce, but it is still the two Ligier drivers and the two Williams drivers who are setting the pace, all in the 1'11"0, but Nelson Piquet is hot on their heels with his Brabham BT49/8. He joins this select group with 1'11"634 and he is really trying, eventually trying too hard and having a monumental spin as he leaves Clearways Corner, which takes him right along the grass verge as far as the pits, but no damage is done. Not long after this de Angelis loses control over the hump on the same comer and spins into the barriers with a sickening thud which bends the Lotus 81/3 quite badly. He leaves it there and walks to the pits. In the Alfa Romeo camp Giacomelli is going well but Depailler is having a terrible time as the engine in the spare car is refusing to run decently. As a last gasp Giacomelli is called in and the Frenchman goes off in 179/02 to make his best time of the afternoon, but not as good as his Friday time. Scheckter is back in the spare Ferrari, but little good it does him, and right at the end of the delayed hour Keegan gets in a muddle passing Mrs Wilson and crashes heavily into the barriers at Westfield Corner, damaging FW07/2 pretty extensively, but escaping unhurt, and just to round off the day Villeneuve spins his Ferrari so quickly that he gathers it up and is gone before the marshal can wave the yellow flag, and the Brands Hatch marshals are amongst the quickest. When the dust has settled a remarkable starting grid is sorted out from the two days of testing and timing. On pole position with a time of 1'11"004 is the ruffled, but determined Didier Pironi in the blue and white Ligier.
In second place, but nearly half-a-second down, is Jacques Laffite in the second Ligier, and then comes Jones and Reutemann in the Williams cars and Piquet in his Brabham, so close to each other that second places of decimals, or hundredths of a second separate them, all five drivers in the select 1'11"0 and all of them more than five-and-a-half seconds faster than the existing lap record, and a little over five seconds faster than the previous best lap ever recorded at Brands Hatch. While some people are throwing their hands up in dismay and apprehension. The Alfa Romeos are looking pretty good, and Prost has raised McLaren’s hopes, while the Tyrrell drivers actually bring a smile to the wood-merchant’s hatchet features with their tenth and eleventh places. The Renault team are no higher than they expected to be on the twisty and tight little Kentish circuit, but the Ferrari team are in despair, with World Champion Scheckter next to last and Villeneuve not very far ahead. Lotus are a little happier, with Andretti in ninth place, from where he can at least see the front of the grid, unlike the Arrows team who are right down the back. Hector Rebaque has got quietly on with the job, and qualified comfortably, as has Keegan, but Mrs Wilson is very depressed at being last, finding that real Formula One racing is a bit different from Aurora racing which is called Formula 1. Unipart has another great social gastronomic orgy for their customers and clients with only a non-starter to celebrate and Fittipaldi just scrapes in near the back of the grid with his new car. When you realise that Desire Wilson has been the slowest of the entire entry, and her best time of 1'16"315 has been faster than Ronnie Peterson’s pole-position winning time of 1978 and faster than Nelson Piquet’s existing lap record set up in 1979, it makes you hold your head and say whew.
Although rain is forecast for Sunday it is hoped that it will hold off until the late afternoon, but just in case, one or two teams brush up on their wheel-changing drill at the end of the morning warm-up period. The only unfortunate occurrence is that Cheever stops with engine trouble on the Osella and his team hurries to prepare their second car. For the rest all is as near in order as it is ever going to be. Arnoux is in the T-Renault, de Angelis is in the T-Lotus and Keegan has taken over Mrs Wilson’s car. There has been a lot of work going on through Saturday evening. Alan Jones has decided to race his regular car, number 7, though the new one is all warmed-up and ready to go should he change his mind. During the interval between the end of the warm-up period and the preliminaries for the race most people have lunch, but the mechanics are all busy with final preparations, filling the fuel tanks, checking everything, mounting the correct wheels and tyres, preparing the spare ones, arranging tools and equipment for any emergency and all the hundred and one other things necessary before a race. Meanwhile the drivers all dutifully go to the official driver briefing as called for in FISA regulations, which is held in a coach at the end of the pits. They are then expected to climb into the passenger seats of a parade of MG cars for a lap of the circuit, and then find time for a sandwich and a glass of milk and prepare themselves for the 3 pm start, so it is not surprising that many of them opt out of the parade. The whole time-schedule is much too tight. In good time all 24 cars leave the pit lane and are driven round to the grid and then Pironi leads them away on a pretty fast line-astern parade lap to the start.
The red light comes on, revs rise, clutches bit and then the green light shines and the field surges towards Paddock Bend with Pironi in the lead with Laffite on his left. Pironi’s start is superb but Jones is not as good and as he tries to take the inside line Laffite moves over on him and they sit it out in good clean competition with the Williams right on the inside edge, until the Australian has to give in and the second Ligier follows the first down the hill and up to Druids Hairpin. Pironi powers away, confident that Laffite will be doing his best to make things difficult for the opposition. By the end of the opening lap Pironi has already pulled out a measurable lead, and it is quite obvious that Jones can do no more than hold on to Laffite, while Nelson Piquet is right with them. Reutemann is leading the rest and Fittipaldi is bringing up the rear. By the end of practice and qualifying it seemed that we were in for an exciting battle between the two Ligiers and the two Williams, with a Brabham in amongst them for good measure, but it needs only a handful of laps to show that this is not going to happen. Pironi is running away into the distance, Jones and Piquet can only just stay with Laffite and Reutemann is in a different race. For an exciting moment it looks as though Watson is overtaking Jabouille’s Renault, but then the French car coasts to a stop with a seized engine. Laffite is pulling away from Jones and Piquet and by 10 laps it is all over, or seems to be, with the two blue and white French cars with their French drivers out-speeding everyone and looking fast, safe and steady. In third place comes the Williams of Alan Jones, with Piquet’s Brabham in his wake, then comes Reutemann on his own, followed by the two Alfa Romeos in the order Depailler, Giacomelli. In eighth place comes Daly (Tyrrell) on his own and team-mate Jarier is in tenth place, just behind Andretti’s Lotus.
The two McLaren’s are next and then there is a long gap before Villeneuve’s Ferrari and the second Lotus appear. Keegan, Surer and Rebaque are having a nice dice of little consequence and Arnoux is doing the best he can under the handicap of bruised ribs. Bringing up the rear are Patrese, Scheckter, Mass and Fitipaldi as Cheever goes into the pits to try different front tyres. Elio de Angelis is unhappy with the feel of the spare Lotus and stops at the pits as did Prost when he finds he can not pass Watson, and he changes front tyres. Then when Giacomelli realise Daly is closing on him, he too stops to change tyres. On lap 17 it looks as though Pironi is in trouble, for Laffite is closing on him and on lap 18 he is quite close. On lap 19 Laffite goes by into the lead as Pironi slows drastically with a soft front tyre and by the time he reaches the pit lane Jones, Piquet and Reutemann have gone by. There has been some confusion in the Ligier pit and they subsequently changed all four tyres, but not in one smooth operation, so that by the time Pironi rejoined the race he was down in last place, two laps behind his leading team-mate. From a dominant 1-2 the Ligier team had gone to 1-21; but it immediately becomes 1-20 as Villeneuve pulls into the pits with a sticking side-skirt and ignition trouble on his Ferrari. While all this is going on Cheever veeres off onto the centre grass patch of Clearways as the right-rear suspension rocker-arm broke and the rear wheels took charge of the directional stability. Everything is falling apart now, for Depailler drops out of the running to change front tyres, Villeneuve is back in again, and Mass has broken his steering wheel. Depailler’s Alfa Romeo breaks its engine and Laffite is well on to lapping the mid-field runners.
As he laps Surer, who is in ninth place, he runs wide at Clearways and gets on the loose stuff with his left wheels, and shakes his fist at the young Swiss as he comes back on to the track. This is at the end of lap 27. Two laps later his left tyre is showing signs of deflating and he is getting into some wild slides on right-hand bends. By the time he is on lap 31 he knows he has trouble, but it is too late and the tyre splits circumferentially near its outer edge and the Ligier slides off into the run-off area at Hawthorn Corner and is out of the race. A smiling Alan Jones inherits the lead and from a position of total dominance the Ligier team has disappeared, except that Pironi has other ideas and is already up to twelfth place and going faster than anyone on the track. He catches and passes Depailler, before he retires, Mass before his pit-stop, Fittipaldi, Arnoux, Patrese, Scheckter and Keegan and is now after Prost. When Scheckter is lapped by Daly, who is running in a good fourth place by now, he goes into the pits to change tyres. Arnoux is in the pits for a long time while a plug on a rear caliper which is leaking fluid is replaced. By half distance, which is 38 laps, any hope of excitement has gone and it is just a case of watching Jones do a good master-driver’s job of work in a car that is going superbly; a real credit to the Williams team's preparation. Piguet is a distant second and Reutemann a distant third. Daly, Andretti and Jarier follow, in that order, all on the same lap as Jones, but not for long, and already laps were Watson, Giacomelli, Surer and Rebaque while Pironi is charging up through the field as is Prost, albeit at a slightly diminished rate to that of the Ligier driver. Tailing along still are Patrese, Fittipaldi, Scheckter, Keegan, Mass and Arnoux, and then Villeneuve disappeared from the end of the field when his Ferrari engine broke.
Apart from admiring Jones’ smooth driving and the stability of the Williams the only interest lies in Pironi’s progress. He has no hope of regaining the lead but he can still pick up plenty of places and between lap 38 and lap 48 he catches and passes Surer, Rebaque, Giacomelli and Watson, which put him into seventh place, but he hasn’t finished. While Andretti is fumbling with a recalcitrant gearchange Jarier passes the Lotus, then Pironi passes it and then Andretti retires at the pits. Jarier is easy meat for Pironi, which moves him up to fifth place and then he comes up behind Daly, no doubt remembering what happened in practice. This time Daly is more than justified in not giving way, as fourth place is at stake and he knew it. Knowing is being hounded by Pironi he can be excused for getting in the way when Alan Jones lapped him but by lap 62 Pironi had the Tyrrell in his sights. Before he can deal with it the left rear tyre on the Ligier fails and Pironi swerves onto the grass on the inside of Westfields Corner, at the far side of circuit, and his race was run as he came to rest with the tyre a tangled mess around the rim. While some drivers will charge up from last place with passion and excitement, driving right on the ragged edge of disaster and playing it right up to the line, as for example Arnoux and Villeneuve have done in the past, Pironi’s progress is cold, hard, ruthless, unemotional and a bit spooky. He leaves the lap record at 1'12"368 (125.690 mph) having done more than a dozen laps consecutively in the 1'12"0 bracket, while everyone else is in the 1'13"0 bracket, and yet no sense of achievement is apparent. In the past people said Niki Lauda was a machine not a human being; they should look at Didier Pironi, a driver of the computer age. As the television cameras watch him climb out of the cockpit and remove his helmet and balaclava there is no sign of emotion, satisfaction, frustration, anger or disappointment - it was just Didier Pironi, driver of the Ligier racing car.
It is now really all over, Prost has caught and passed his team-mate, who then went into the pits to change tyres, Surer’s spirited drive comes to an end when his engine blows up in mid-corner and he spins off onto the grass at South Bank and the burly Alan Jones has won another very satisfying race for the Frank Williams team and their Saudi Arabian sponsors and for Leyland Vehicles. The ubiquitous Ford-sponsored Cosworth DFV engine has done it again, as has Mike Hewland’s gearbox, Goodyear tyres, and Ferodo, Lockheed, Koni, Champion, Speedline, Mobil, and all the other branches of engineering that Patrick Head co-ordinates so successfully around his FW07 design, not forgetting all the fabricators, fitters, machinist, welders, riveters and mechanics who build and prepare the cars. Nelson Piguet follows him home, slowing towards the end as his tyres wore down and Reutemann is third, everyone else being a lap or more behind. Thankful for small mercies the Tyrrell team netted fourth and fifth, which is a change from gathering up wrecked cars afterwards, and Prost is sixth with a drive after his pit stop that shows his true potential. Rebaque does well to finish non-stop in seventh place in liis first drive in a works car. The courageous Arnoux is last and too far back to be officially classified as a finisher. Practice has flattered to deceive. What has augered to be a fantastic battle between the Ligiers and Williams has fallen flat, but nevertheless it has been a popular victory and the huge crowd has given Alan Jones the reception he deserve; not only for winning the British Grand Prix but for all the other races he has won which few of the British spectators have been fortunate enough to witness. Now they have seen him in action they really showed their appreciation.