The United States Grand Prix, held at Watkins Glen, is one of the newer events on the calendar, starting in 1961 after trial events were held on the Sebring airfield and at Riverside in California. Now in its eighteenth year at Watkins Glen the United States race is well established, though it does not seem to have developed the character of a classic event. The circuit lies in the hills above the small township of Watkins Glen in a very scenic part of the United States, north-west of New York and not far from the Canadian border. Held in the autumn the weather can be bitterly cold and it can even snow and threaten to cancel the meeting. It can rain to the extent that practice has to be cancelled, while the race itself can provide an end of season tenseness, with Championship results in the balance, or it can have an almost soporific, relaxed feel about it when the outcome seems irrelevant. Watkins Glen is a quiet provincial town for most of the year, but it comes to life with a vengeance at the beginning of October when the Grand Prix takes place. This year, with Mario Andretti already the 1978 World Champion, the Americans see the event as more than a Grand Prix, it is an event at which to salute their World Champion, for though Andretti was born in Italy, he is considered by everyone to be a true-blue American and he himself goes along with that, living in Nazareth (Pennsylvania), not very far south of Watkins Glen. Although the weather is mild and bright the Formula 1 Circus brings its own cloud along in the form of a protest from a rather nebulous body who call themselves the Formula One Drivers Safety Committee. Such drivers as Fittipaldi, Lauda, Andretti and Hunt are involved and they request the organisers to refuse the entry of Riccardo Patrese, suggesting that if he is allowed to take part they will withdraw. This follows the disastrous Monza accident which took the life of Ronnie Peterson, and is the culmination of growing unrest about Patrese’s driving, which has been under the surface all season.
This apparent boycott of the young Italian is far from being unanimous amongst the drivers in the pit lane, but stems from the upper echelons only. Whatever the rights and wrongs are in the whole affair, which is discussed in detail elsewhere in this issue, there is seldom smoke without fire, and the result is that the Arrows team’s number one entry is withdrawn. There are a number of changes amongst the teams, notably, of course, in Team Lotus. Colin Chapman insists that Peterson’s racing number 6 should not be used by anyone else, and is all for entering only Andretti, but the Ecclestone rules do not allow for sentiment, and a second entry has to be made. This had to be offered to the young Brazilian Nelson Piquet, but Ecclestone has already got him contracted, so the second Lotus 79 is offered to Jean-Pierre Jarier and he is given the racing number 55. The ATS cars are in the hands of Michael Bleekemolen and Rosberg, while the Surtees team has two new faces in it. Keegan’s place is taken by the little Frenchman Rene Arnoux, while Brambilla’s place is taken by Beppe Gabbiani. Brambilla is recovering slowly from his head injuries, received in the Monza accident when his Surtees struck the wayward Lotus of Peterson. The Wolf team has a second entry in the form of Bobby Rahal, an American who has been driving a Walter Wolf-sponsored Formula Three car this season. Ensign has a second entry in the hands of Brett Unger, who has forsaken his B&S Fabrications-prepared McLarens for this event. A last-minute entry is made for Piquet to drive a Brabham-Alfa Romeo, but the Brazilian does not appear, so only one of the 27 drivers is going to be left out of the race, the grid accepting 26 cars. There has been a lot of snow at Watkins Glen last winter with the result that the track surface has deteriorated considerably in certain areas, notably into the uphill chicane and this immediately draws comments from the drivers that it is bumpier than ever, when they try it out on the Thursday before official practice begins.
The Ferrari team feels forced to disconnect their fore-and-aft anti-roll bar coupling system and even Villeneuve views super-fast laps as being a bit dodgy, though not as much as driving a Can-Am car on the circuit, as he did earlier this season. The young French-Canadian is agreeably surprised with the way the Michelin-shod Ferrari cops with the bumpy circuit and from the word go of official practice he and Reutemann are well among the pacesetters; Reutemann actually makes the fastest practice lap on Friday afternoon with a lap in 1'39"179 with Villeneuve not far behind with 1'39"820. Villeneuve is delayed on Friday with a broken exhaust, and on Saturday morning in the unturned session his gearbox breaks. Neither he nor Reutemann improve on Saturday afternoon but their Friday times net them second and fourth places overall. They are split by Alan Jones in the Williams, who is on great form in spite of a lurid crash on Friday afternoon in FW06/002 when a front stub axle broke; something that has happened before, but this time attributed to incorrect heat-treatment (or more accurately due to bad quality control or inspection somewhere along the line). In the spare car on Saturday afternoon Jones puts in a splendid lap at 1'39"742 to take third place on the grid, in row two alongside Villeneuve. All these times and efforts are excellent but not within sight of the man on pole position. This, of course, is Mario Andretti. The Lotus 79 seems glued to the track and there could hardly have been a more triumphant home-coming for the new World Champion than the way he dominates practice. He is fastest on Friday morning with a time of 1'38"925 but in the afternoon he is troubled with unequal diameter rear tyres, which raises quite a big problem with the Lotus 79, running as it does with an almost solid rear axle. With the more normal 15% slip in the differential it is not too critical if one tyre grows more than the other when heated up, but with a very low percentage limited-slip it can upset the whole handling of the car.
With a best of 1'39"662 Andretti has to give way to Reutemann in the afternoon, but on Saturday it all comes right and he takes pole position with a time of 1'38"114, more than a whole second faster than the leading Ferrari, which is alongside him on the front row. Andretti is really pleased with the Lotus 79, reckoning it to be better than it had been all season, and that is quite something. Some of the Lotus magic rubs off on Jean-Pierre Jarier, the rather abrupt young Frenchman being determined to salvage some of his reputation with these two outings as stand in at the wheel of the second Lotus 79. Jarier, whose reputation was forged originally with some superb performances at the wheel of a Shadow DN5, has had a hard time in the past year or two with a succession of disappointments. Fully realising that he is having something of a lucky break owing to sad and unfortunate circumstances, Jean-Pierre Jarier approaches the whole business with a degree of humility. There is a lot of experimenting going on in the Lotus camp with different brake components, the purpose being to track down the problem that has afflicted Peterson’s last runs at the wheel of his 79. Jarier’s car starts practice with Girling master cylinders, but these are snatched away for Andretti’s use, leaving Jarier with the earlier pattern Lockheed units. A soft pedal feel after two or three laps is eventually traced to a small hydraulic leak. By Saturday both cars are fitted with the latest Girling master cylinders as standard. In spite of these problems Jarier is consistently fast and ends up on the fourth row of the grid, with a time of 1'40"034, alongside John Watson in the latest Brabham-Alfa Romeo. The Frenchman is delighted with the Lotus for it is everything that everyone has told him it would be and he reckons it to be the best racing car he has ever driven. Had 79/3 not split an exhaust pipe at the end of the final hour he might well have got down into the elite 1'39"0 class. As it was, the split lost him 500 r.p.m. off maximum and scorched the fibre-glass bodywork, but no damage was done.
The Brabham-Alfa Romeo team are much fancied on the fast Watkins Glen circuit, but they do not shine as expected. The philosophical Lauda has done his best but it is only good enough for the third row of the grid, alongside James Hunt. The McLaren driver is bubbling with enthusiasm for the M26, as it seems to be going better than it has done all season, though whether this is just end of term excitement we shall never know. Tambay is as depressed as Hunt is jubilant, the Frenchman being unable to get in the groove. He tries the spare car and finds no improvement, so resigns himself to the fact that the fault lies with himself. He is driving an M26/7 normally raced by Giacomelli, while his usual car M26/3 is the team's spare. Watson has a brand new Brabham, number 8 in the BT 46 series, which feels very good, but just is not fast enough and he comes closer than anyone to breaking into the elite class of sub-1 min. 40 sec. laps with a time of 1'40"0 on Friday afternoon. In the Renault camp Jabouille begins the weekend with high hopes for the French turbo V6. He starts off at the wheel of RS01/02 in the first session of practice and records 1'40"959 before switching to RS01/03 for a comparison. In the afternoon he improves to 1'40"136 but then in the final hour on Saturday everything goes wrong. Driving 02, for a start the anti-roll bar at the front breaks, and then Jabouille has a spin at the bumpy right-hander after the pits due to the brake pedal going soft. The nose-section and oil cooler are damaged as a result. The brake problem is traced to an hydraulic leak, but by then it is too late to stop his slide from sixth overall to ninth overall. At least the Renault team has some consolation in knowing they were first of the regular Frogs, and only a fraction behind Jarier’s guest performance in the Lotus 79. Jacques Laffite has been having a miserable time with the Ligier-Matra V12, the French engine manufacturer ending their Formula one activities on a sad note with two engine failures during Saturday practice.
The engine breaks in the newer of the two JS9 cars during the untimed practice, and Laffite takes over the spare car JS9/01 but that blows up as well. Some really hard work by the Ligier mechanics gets JS9/02 ready for the final hour, but Laffite fails to improve on his Friday time. The Wolf team seems to be coping pretty well with their two-car team, as a tryout for next year, though Scheckter’s grid position in row six is not very exciting, especially when looked at relative to the performance of Alan Jones and the Frank Williams car. Scheckter is driving the rebuilt WR6, now using a completely new monocoque, hence the numbering WR6-2, while Rahal is driving WR5, which Scheckter doesn’t like anyway. Rahal is getting to grips with the Wolf with a very smooth and restrained style and is well in among the regular back-markers, justifying his debut in Formula One. He makes his best lap in the final hour, with the aid of a set of special Goodyear tyres, but right at the end of practice the Wolfs ignition unit fails and leaves him stranded out on the circuit. The Tyrrell team performs as well as has become expected of them, both Depailler and Pironi being among the less-impressive mid-field runners. Emerson Fittipaldi is not as impressive as he has been in recent races, nothing being especially wrong, but he can not seem to get everything swinging along in unison. His best time of 1'41"007 sees him in row seven on the grid, alongside Hans Stuck in the Shadow who has been plagued by trouble. First he suffers a gearbox oil leak, which means changing the complete unit, and then on the second day the oil tank splits. Team-mate Regazzoni is as off-form as Tambay, and the two of them are side-by-side in row nine. The ATS team has completed a second car to the new D1 design, the first being destroyed in the testing accident at Silverstone which put Jochen Mass into hospital. This car is so new it has never been run before arriving at the circuit, but Rosberg does his best with it.