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#312 1978 United States Grand Prix

2022-07-31 01:00

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#312 1978 United States Grand Prix

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 S

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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A major problem with the steering arises on Saturday morning so he has to miss the final hour of timed practice. His team-mate Bleekemolen drives one of the older ATS cars, a 1977 Penske modified by March to become an ATS, and scrapes onto the back row of the grid, alongside Merzario in his home-made car. Daly in the leading Ensign is not as far up the grid as one might expect, but he is ahead of his new team-mate Brett Lunger, who is finding the Ensign a very light car to drive after his McLarens. The Surtees team are in their usual place at the back of the grid, Arnoux qualifying fairly comfortably, but Gabbiani being the odd man out. He is not only a second slower than Merzario, but is seven seconds behind pole position, which means he would have been lapped by Andretti every 14 laps. Sunday morning, with a record crowd lining the circuit, Andretti’s day begins badly, an omen of worse to come for the whole of Team Lotus. During the warm-up session in the morning Andretti is negotiating the third-gear left-hand bend out of the Chute when 79/4 breaks the right rear stub-axle and the wheel comes off. The car spins backwards into the guard rail and suffers considerable damage, though Andretti is quite a bit shaken. The Lotus Lads take 79/3 away from Jarier and fit it out with all Andretti’s adjustments and settings in preparation for the race, leaving the Frenchman to drive 79/1 which had arrived that morning, untested and untried. Also in trouble is Hans Stuck, whose Shadow has its engine begin to seize up. His mechanics have to work against the clock to install a fresh Cosworth V8 in readiness for the 2:35 p.m. starting time. They manage it with ten minutes to spare, but Stuck is unable to do a warm-up lap. By the time 25 cars are on the grid with Stuck in the pit lane the temperature has dropped quite considerably, but at least there is no sign of rain.
 
They edge away on their pace-­lap and then Andretti races away though the first few corners, throwing the Lotus 79 around as he tries to acclimatise himself to the handling of the unfamiliar car. He has made some long-shot adjustments and settings to the suspension, shockers, brakes, etc. before he takes it out to the start. Although he leads the field away into the first right-hander when the green light comes on, he knows he has got problems. As he leads the field out onto the back straight two of his problems are right behind him, in the form of the Ferraris of Reutemann and Villeneuve. On that opening lap Andretti is not getting away in true Lotus 79 style and the two Maranello cars are still with him as he completes it. In fourth place is the neat white and green Williams of Alan Jones, followed by Lauda, Jarier, Hunt, Watson, Scheckter, Depailler, Laffite, Jabouille, Rosberg, Tambay, Regazzoni, Pironi, Daly, Bleekemolen, Arnoux, Rahal, Merzario, Lunger, Stommelen and Fittipaldi. The Brazilian has dropped to the back of the field after cooking his clutch on the startline. Already retired is Rebaque who also had clutch trouble as he left the start, while right at the back comes Stuck who has started the race from the pit lane, but returns there after one lap and retires with a failed mechanical fuel pump; a bitter reward for the Shadow mechanics’ lunchtime toil. Into the second lap the Ferraris are closing on the black and gold Lotus and Andretti knows it is only a matter of time before they pass him. He is feeling none too confident about the brakes on the Lotus, the hardness of the pedal pressure is fluctuating and he is not prepared to use maximum braking effort. Sure enough, at the end of the back straight on the third lap Reutemann pulls alongside the Lotus under braking for the Loop and takes the lead round the outside.
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Two corners later Villeneuve follows his team-leader’s move and goes by into second place and from that point onwards the two Ferraris move imperiously away in formation, leaving the frustrated Andretti unable to do anything about it. His borrowed Lotus is not as well balanced as his own car and he is having to take two or three bites at some of the corners, rather than throwing it in a well­-balanced attitude. These three runners have left the rest behind already but Alan Jones is doing a great job of keeping ahead of Lauda, Hunt, Watson, Depailler and the others. Jarier has dropped a couple of places on the second lap after a dust-raising slide at the right-hander after the pits, but is well ahead of the turbo Renault that has Scheckter’s Wolf snapping at its rear wheels. Rosberg has the new ATS up with them, and then there is a gap back to Tambay, Laffite, Pironi, Daly, Regazzoni, Arnoux and the rest. After seven laps Bleekemolen draws into the pits with his older ATS to say that the steering felt peculiar, but nothing can be found wrong and he rejoins the race in last place. Apart from the race being one of the longer ones, at 320 kilometres, the track surface is not proving kind to tyres, especially the left fronts, and after only nine laps Watson relinquishes his seventh place when he stops at the pits to change the left-front tyre on his Brabham. When he rejoins the race he is in 22nd place! Two laps later Jarier is in similar trouble and his stop drops him to 21st position, though he is behind Watson for the Ulsterman has moved up two places when Laffite joins Jarier in the pits also for a change of left-front tyre. Meanwhile the two Ferraris are cruising away into an impressive lead, having a ten seconds advantage over Andretti by lap 15. The Lotus driver is being severely challenged by the Williams and inevitably the Australian goes by the troubled Lotus on lap 21.
 
This effort of getting Frank Williams’ car up into third place is doubly rewarded on the next lap for Villeneuve’s Ferrari goes bang just beyond the pits and comes to rest with an evil-looking mixture of oil and water pouring out of the exhaust pipes. Reutemann now has over half a minute lead from Jones, who is followed at a distance by Lauda, Hunt, Jabouille and Scheckter, but as a race the event is virtually over. Behind Scheckter comes Tambay leading Fittipaldi, who has carved his way up through the back-markers in an impressive fashion, just as Jarier is doing since his pit-stop, using the Lotus 79 to the full. In the pits Stommelen is having the brakes on his Arrows bled, as he has overheated them, and Regazzoni has stopped for a tyre change. Rosberg’s run is cut short when the gear­linkage on the ATS fails and strands him out on the circuit. At 26 laps Hunt drops out from his well­-earned fifth place in order to change the front tyres on his McLaren and then a great sigh of disappointment goes up from the crowd as Jabouille appears in fourth place with the Renault. Andretti has already been passed by Lauda, and now the Renault is in front, but worse than that the Lotus is coasting silently into the pits with smoke rising from the back. The engine has blown up and it is all over for the local hero. Hardly has the smoke disappeared then Lauda’s Alfa Romeo engine blows up and he joins Watson on the retirement list, for the Ulsterman has suffered the same fate only three laps before. It is a bad day for Bernie’s Boys. From that point on the only real interest lies in the progress of Jarier and Fittipaldi, who are still moving up through the field. At the 35 laps point Reutemann is cruising along, conserving his tyres and not straining his engine, well ahead of Alan Jones, who is followed by Jabouille, Scheckter, Tambay, Jarier, Fittipaldi, and Pironi.
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The Tyrrell driver is fighting hard to keep Daly and Arnoux at bay. Then comes Hunt, making up ground after his pit-stop, and Rahal who is fighting understeer on the Wolf WR5 and is blistering the palms of his hands in the process. Depailler’s Tyrrell is long gone by this stage, with drive-shaft trouble on lap 24. Jarier’s progress back up the field is not interrupted by Tambay, who is no problem to the Lotus driver, but then the Lotus 79 is up behind Scheckter’s Wolf and for a while there is quite a good scrap. Scheckter is busily engaged in trying to get past the Renault, so Jarier has to find his own way by both of them if he can. The Wolf goes by on lap 41 sounding a bit rough, but has lost none of its performance, as the noise is due to a split exhaust manifold. Out in front Reutemann is beginning to ease off, having the situation well in hand, and he lets his advantage drop from over 35 seconds to around 25 seconds, the Argentinian coming up to lap Hunt’s McLaren but taking his time about doing so. In fact, he follows Hunt for seven laps before finally getting by at the end of the back straight. By 50 laps the jostling trio of Jabouille, Scheckter and Jarier is getting quite interesting but the Renault’s brakes are fading and eventually when the three cars sorts themselves out Jarier is third, Scheckter fourth and Jabouille fifth, the Renault dropping from third to fifth in about 300 yards. Alan Jones is very happy in second place, knowing he can do nothing about the leading Ferrari and the Williams is going really well. It is calculated that if Jarier can continue his pace with the Lotus 79 he might just catch the Williams by the end of the race, which is over 59 laps, but getting by would be another matter. However, this is not to be for suddenly the Lotus coughs and slows and with only three laps left to run the black and gold car coasts to a stop; it has run right out of petrol and the heart-broken Jarier is out of the race.
 
His performance has put him right back into the Formula 1 drivers’ market and has gone a long way towards restoring a somewhat tarnished reputation, but whether it is the Lotus 79 that is flattering-to-deceive is, of course, a possibility. All this drama is of little interest to the triumphant Reutemann, who finishes the race a comfortable 20 seconds ahead of the worthy Alan Jones. It is the Argentinian’s fourth victory for the Scuderia Ferrari and as he crosses the finishing line he waves to his team in what might be described as a derisory manner, in view of the fact that they have replaced him for next season by Jody Scheckter. However, Colin Chapman is noting his new man’s victory with interest, for Reutemann is due to drive the second Lotus works car in 1979. The well-earned second place by Jones for the Frank Williams’ team is just reward for a lot of very good efforts during the season, and Frank’s face is one huge grin after it is all over and Jones is looking really contented. Scheckter finishes in third place with the Wolfs right-hand exhaust pipe dangling over the drive-shaft, no doubt wondering what next year will bring when he leads the race-winning Ferrari team. Jabouille scrapes home into fourth place, three seconds ahead of the charging Fittipaldi who would have caught the French car had there been one more lap for the Renault spluttered out of fuel after the finish. Tambay was also running short of petrol on the last lap, but stutters home into sixth place ahead of Hunt, while Derek Daly is pleased to finish eighth and Arnoux brings a smile to the Surtees camp by finishing a trouble­free run. The remainder straggled home to end a race that is a bit of an anti-climax to what it looks like being, but Michelin are happy to have now won both United States Grand Prix events, this one very close to the home of Goodyear.
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Monica Bessi


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