When the untimed practice session begins on Friday morning the sun is shining, there is a big crowd as it is May-day holiday and most people have done the sporting thing and comply with the scrutineers’ demands without too much fuss. However, some of the small-minded little men in the circus who will rather be politicians than racing enthusiasts are huddled round little Bernie Ecclestone mumbling and grumbling about something or other and even though their cars are now legal, thanks to their engineers, they will not let their drivers practise. It is some sort of trade-union nonsense, a disease that many small-minded people suffer from. The first two cars out on the track, to the delight of the crowd, are the two brand new Toleman-Hart TG 181 cars, driven by Brian Henton and Derek Warwick, resplendent in red, white and blue and carrying the Italian Candy firm’s advertising. When Ted Toleman makes the decision to go into Formula 1 last year, after the team’s magnificent Formula 2 season he promises two cars for the start of the European season, which then is going to be in Belgium on May 17th. When this new race is put into the calendar there is no wingeing or excuses, the two new cars are ready. After the Tolemans have been round on their own others joined in, Tyrrells, Marches, Renaults, Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and Osellas. It all begin to get under way but the cars of Williams, Brabham, McLaren, Talbot, Fittipaldi and Arrows remain locked away; it is their loss. Due to the stroppy team managers or owners the programme for the day has to be reshuffled and there is an extra test session after lunch and the hour of practice for qualifying times is put back from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are great smiles on the faces of the teams running turbo-charged engines, for a high ambient temperature is one thing the turbo-charged engine doesn’t like, and at 1:00 p.m. it is very warm. Before the crucial hour took place the organisers make it clear that cars will be checked for the six centimetres ground clearance before they leave the pit-lane and as they return to it, and at each end of the pits is a flat pad on which the cars had to stand while they are checked.
In addition to this five observers are placed at crucial points around the circuit and if all five reported seeing a car running with its side pods close or touching the track, it will be thrown out. It does not take long for things to get really going, nor does it take long to see that Ferrari is rapidly getting on top of the turbo-charging problems. The turbo-charged Renaults and Ferraris dominate the whole session, if Arnoux isn’t fastest then Villeneuve is, and vice-versa, and the only Cosworth-powered 3-litre to get among the 1 1/2 -litres is Reutemann’s Williams. The Argentinian is in top form and just destroyes the morale of anyone else in the unblown brigade. Not unexpectedly the Toleman-Harts are having troubles, Warwick having a turbo-charger burn out in the morning, due to mixture control problems, but both drivers are circulating and the basic cars and engines are working well. Ferrari has consumed one engine in the morning, on Pironi’s car, and in the afternoon Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo V12 engine blows up and then the engine in the spare car breaks. The Fittipaldi cars are running on the first supply of the new Avon racing tyres and everyone is very happy with Rosberg up in the first ten. There is some slight confusion when the March team drivers swap numbers, but it is the final move (we hope) in a number muddle that has been going on since the season began. Conditions are perfect for high speed driving and a lot of drivers are going way over the limit and spins and breathless moments are happening all round the circuit, but nobody hit anything. Laffite arrives in the pits with the fibreglass engine cover on the Talbot smouldering nicely, but more ominous is the trail of oil it is leaving. Jabouille is comfortably in the running with the second Talbot-Matra V12 and there are no real surprises among the field of 30 runners; it will have been 32 if De Angelis and Mansell have been there with the Lotus team cars. This, of course, means that six drivers are not going to start the race, as the grid is restricted to 24 cars.
Three drivers are having their first attempt in Formula 1, Michele Alboreto (last year’s F3 Champion) in the second Tyrrell, Swedish driver Slim Borgudd in the second ATS and Derek Warwick in the second Toleman-Hart. Of the three Alboreto is doing very well. When it is all over Arnoux is quickest with 1'35"281 which can be compared with his pole-position time of last September except that the first-gear chicane at the Acqua-Minerale corner has been eased to make it a second-gear “chicane”. So forget what goes before and concentrate on today, for in second place is Villeneuve with the turbo Ferrari and in third place is Prost with the second turbo Renault. Turbo-charged 1 1/2-litres in the first three places, with Reutemann fourth in the Williams-Cosworth V8 and the second turbo-charged Ferrari in fifth place, followed by Jones in the second Williams-Cosworth V8. So maybe it is cool, which helps the turbos, and maybe Ferrari are tweaking the boost pressure up abnormally high to put the engine into sprint form, but the name of the game is winning and each practice session is a competition in itself for anyone who is out to win overall. Those that are not using adjustable hydro-pneumatic devices are using twin-rate spring arrangements where the first spring collapsed under the down-force applied by the bodywork. The first four cars are then checked for weight, which is a minimum of 585 kilogrammes and the Williams weighed 587, the Renaults 615 and 618 and the Ferrari 616. This, coupled to speed trap figures, make people rush off and calculate 550, 600, 650 or even 700 b.h.p. for the turbo-charged 1 1/2-litres which is good, because the whole point of an engine is to develop horsepower. Villeneuve is prepared to concede 570 b.h.p. for his Ferrari engine, if Reutemann will accept 495 b.h.p. for his Cosworth V8. On Saturday morning the sun is still warm and the world is at peace. The sheer weight of policing the rules by the organisers the day before has beaten everyone into submission and they are all getting on with the job properly.
Brabham, Fittipaldi, Osella, Arrows and Tyrrell are still playing with trick hydro-pneumatic suspension, while Williams never do use theirs. The morning test-session goes off all right and on the tyre front Michelin is still supplying most of the teams, if they can afford to pay for the tyres, while Fittipaldi are happy with their Avons and Toleman are content with their Pirellis. Engines are still suffering, for a lap speed approaching 120 m.p.h. doesn’t give them much respite. The Hart engine in Henton’s Toleman shows signs of devouring a piston so the car is withdrawn from the final practice hour as there is insufficient time to change it. Renault starts up the car for Prost and the engine promptly loses its boost-pressure and when he gets into the spare car that lost its pressure as well, so all the French hopes rest on Arnoux. The pace in the afternoon is as hot as the weather and Villeneuve and Arnoux are vying for pole-position, while Reutemamn sits and waits. Then the Argentinian joins in and promptly split the Ferraris, for Pironi has been right behind his team-mate and once Brabhams has got Piquet’s car working to their satisfaction the little Brazilian is up there with them. Renault turbo-charged V6 is followed by Alfa Romeo V12, by Ferrari turbo-charged V6, by Cosworth powered Williams, by Talbot-Matra V12 and feeling its way into this powerful scene the Toleman-Hart turbo-charged 4-cylinder; and there are drivers from all over the world, from Sweden to Chile, from Australia to Northern Ireland. There is nothing dull about Formula 1. And as for driver ability, when you have Villeneuve, Arnoux, Reutemann, Piquet, Pironi, Jones and Andretti up at the front you can guarantee there is going to be some racing. Before this final hour is finished Reutemann decides that he can not beat Villeneuve’s fastest time, and is well satisfied with second place, so he changes out of his overalls into casual clothes and sits on the pit wall smiling benignly at his team-mate who is fast losing his cool.
Alan Jones has problems with his gearbox to start with and while his mechanics feverishly put it right he goes out in the spare car, only to find the handling not to his liking, then he goes out in his own car again and when it is all over he ends up seventh fastest, behind John Watson in the latest McLaren MP4. When a driver starts talking about being held up by the traffic as an excuse, you might as well go and talk to someone else. Villeneuve, Reutemann, Arnoux, Piquet and Pironi all manage pretty well in the same traffic. If your affections lay with turbo-charging, with Ferrari, with Villeneuve, with Williams, with Reutemann, with Arnoux or with Renault you can not help being happy on Saturday evening, at least until it gets dark, for then the thunder and lightning begin and the rain starts. On Sunday morning it is very wet, but by mid-day the rain has stopped though the skies are still gloomy and there seem little chance of the weather improving. During the half-hour warm-up session Prost is in the spare Renault, Watson is in the original MP4 McLaren while the new one is having its engine changed, both Ferraris are in short wheelbase configuration with new engines installed, running on a lower boost pressure as evinced by the waste-gate spring pressure adjusting screw and Fittipaldi has some wet-weather Avon tyres that looked suspiciously like Goodyears! The start is not due until 3:00 p.m. and as that time approaches and cars are made ready the choice of wet or dry tyres is still wide open, for it is not raining and there is just a chance that it might stay dry. As the twenty-four drivers set off on the warm-up lap round to the grid, they leave behind them six disappointed drivers who have not qualified, Stohr (Arrows), Daly (March), Lammers (ATS), Serra (Fittipaldi), Warwick (Toleman) and Henton (Toleman).
After some dickering about on the grid the scene ends up with only three cars gambling on starting on dry-weather tyres, Rosberg, Tambay, and Surer, and the rest are wondering how long their treaded tyres would last if it does not rain. Villeneuve leads them away on the parade lap to the accompanying shouts and applause of the very partisan crowd. They all arrive safely back on the grid, except that Prost is already in trouble, his gearbox having broken first gear. As the back-markers come to a stop the red light comes on and almost instantaneously turns to green in one of the quickest starts we have ever seen. Everyone gets away, the two turbo Ferraris going straight into the lead, with the two Williams right behind them, Jones having made a meteoric start from the fourth row. It is joy day for Italy as Villeneuve and Pironi lead the race, but already others are in trouble for Guerra (Osella) has been shuffled off the track and in the crash has injured himself in the leg, while poor Prost is right at the back of the field with his gearbox making horrid noises. Some people has given the turbo Ferraris a life of five laps in the lead, others have exaggerated as far as 12 laps in the damp conditions. At five laps the order is Villeneuve, Pironi and it is the same at twelve laps, the two squat Ferraris looking to be in complete control, which is more than can be said of some of the other competitors. Alan Jones hits his team mate up the tail and while Reutemann continues unhurt the World Champion has to stop at the pits for a new nose cone and while he is in, the car is changed on to slick tyres as the track is drying out quite fast. Watson tries to drive through on the inside of Arnoux’s Renault, on the left-hander by the pits, and seems to forget about the vast aerofoil stuck out the front of the MP4 and it gets wiped off on the Renault’s left rear wheel, which makes the Ulsterman return to the pits on the next lap for a new nose and aerofoil.
Prost retires with a wrecked gearbox and Laffite retires with bent front suspension when he also savaged Arnoux’s Renault, as Watson has done, and come off second best. Poor Arnoux is now handicapped by a bent wheel and a broken exhaust pipe but decides to carry on. Reutemann is limited on how hard he is prepared to drive by a worrying vibration which may, or may not, have been emanating from tyres moving on the rims, so Patrese is able to pass him and take third place on lap 6. The Italian crowd can not ask for more, a Ferrari in the lead, a Ferrari in second place and an Italian driver in third place. In the opening laps Villeneuve is finding his car tricky to drive as the power characteristics of his new engine gives all the power rather suddenly at the top end of the r.p.m. range. There is no lack of power, it is merely a bit sudden and this makes it difficult to drive smoothly so Villeneuve is conscious of giving his rear tyres a hard time. When he comes up to lap Jones and Tambay, the Williams driver having rejoined the race in 19th position, Villeneuve merely pulls out and runs round the outside of them on the long left-hander after the pits. There is no shortage of power in the Ferrari. From his pit signals he can see that Patrese is gaining on both him and Pironi and as the track is now nearly totally dry he assumes that the Arrows A3 is not consuming its rear Michelin wets so quickly as the Ferraris are. From what he can see of the sky it looks as though it is going to continue drying up so at the end of lap 15 he dives into the pits for dry-weather Michelins, leaving Pironi to hold the Fort, which he does admirably. The stop is not one of the Ferrari team’s best efforts and Villeneuve rejoins the race in 13th place and covers one lap to find the rain has started again, so immediately shot back into the pits for another set of wet Michelins and rejoins the race again almost a lap behind Pironi. Meanwhile Jones, Tambay, Watson and Surer all stop to change over to wet Michelins.
While all this has been going on it can not be missed that Nelson Piquet and the Brabham are looking very smooth and very confident. Piquet has not made the best of starts and is ninth on the opening lap, slightly hemmed in by some mid-field runners, but he soon gets clear of them and joins the leaders in fifth place by lap seven and then passes Reutemann to take fourth place, and with Villeneuve stopping at the pits Piquet is hoisted up into third place, not too far behind Patrese. Six laps are all he needs to catch and pass the Arrows A3 and take second place and now Pironi is not so happy in the lead. Being followed by Patrese in an Arrows A3 is one thing, to be followed by Piquet in a Brabham is something else altogether. No doubt Pironi wishes his team-mate is up there to help him, but the little French-Canadlian is down in 12th place, but going like a ding-bat as always. The rain is stopping but the track is not drying so it is a question of how long wet-weather Michelins are going to last. Rosberg never gets a chance to try the Avon wets as his Cosworth V8 blows up on lap 15. We are now at half-distance, which was lap 30 and a turbo-charged Ferrari is still in the lead, and the second one is lapping faster than anyone else in the race. Anyone with the future at heart must have been very concerned. The Alfa Romeo fans are totally depressed for neither Andretti nor Giacomelli have been in the picture from the very start; Andretti has retired with gearbox trouble and now Giacomelli ran into Cheever, while the Tyrrell driver is trying to overtake and both cars are damaged and put out of the race. At the back of the field Tyrrell’s new-boy Alboreto is doing quite nicely in his first Grand Prix and is holding off Gabbiani’s Osella until lap 32 when they literally fell over each other. At the front Pironi is more than aware that Piquet has him all lined up in his sights, but he can not do anything about it as his rear tyres are wearing badly and limiting his performance.
Earlier, he has lapped Tambay in the Theodore and the Frenchman has nipped in behind and gets a tow from his compatriot’s red car. When Tambay sees Piquet getting closer in his mirrors he gets really close to the back of the Ferrari and seats there for three of four laps until he feels that Piquet is ready to pounce on the Ferrari. Then as they leave the right-hander by the pits Tambay pulls out alongside the Ferrari, as if he is going to try and overtake, leaving the place clear for Piquet to slot into, and then pulls the Theodore back in behind the Brabham, thus maintaining his tow. It is a delightfully intelligent and calculated manoeuvre so typical of the character of Patrick Tambay. Two laps later when Patrese’s Arrows appears in the Theodore’s mirrors the Frenchman gives way in a similar clean-cut and clear move. Reutemann is still in fourth place and a fair way back in fifth place comes Hector Rebaque doing a neat and tidy job in the number two Brabham. Behind him is Andrea de Cesaris in Watson’s old M29F McLaren having an excellent drive, after mixing-it with the two Alfa Romeos he gets away from them and also gets past the ailing Renault of Arnoux. Behind them all Villeneuve is gaining ground rapidly, setting the fastest race lap on lap 46, just after he moves up into seventh place. As the Ferrari at the back of those who are all on the same lap is gaining ground, the Ferrari at the front is losing it and Piquet gies by into the lead on lap 47 and two laps later Patrese relegates Pironi to third place. It was clear that the Cosworth powered cars are easier to drive on balding rear Michelin wet-weather tyres, than the turbo-charged Ferrari, and of course, Villeneuve has the advantage of a new set of tyres at his second stop. It has not rained any more but the track has not really dried out. As poor Pironi is forced down to fourth place by Reutemann, Villeneuve moves up to, sixth place, ahead of de Cesaris and starts to aim for Rebaque’s fifth place. As Alan Jones says in 1979 that guy never gives up.
At this point Watson is also going very quickly, relative to the conditions, and records the second fastest race lap, but he is two laps down on the leaders. Before Villeneuve can do anything about Rebaque the Ferrari’s clutch started to slip, so that is that, and anyway the young Mexican is not waiting to be caught and as they starts the last lap he slips neatly past the ailing Pironi to take a well-earned fourth place. The immaculate and unruffled Nelson Piquet has driven yet another wise, intelligent and smooth race in a style that is fast becoming his trade-mark. You can not argue about Patrese’s second place and the performance of his Arrows, even if you have wanted to, while Reutemann’s third place scores his 14th successive finish in World Championship races, everyone of them in an honourable position. Villeneuve is the hero of the meeting as far as the Italian public are concerned, even though the clutch slip drops him back to seventh place and he has to be pushed in at the end of the slowing down lap. An unhappy Alan Jones finishes down at the back, his mistake and two tyre stops putting him out of reach of the racers. A neat and tidy drive is that of Marc Surer in the Ensign, who has started on slicks, stops to change tyres and keeps going nicely into ninth place, only one lap down on the winner, while the Swedish driver Borgudd must have been pleased to qualify and finish at his first attempt at Formula 1. Two Ferraris at the start, two at the finish, pole-position, fastest race lap and in the lead for 46 of the 60 laps will indicate that the Scuderia Ferrari are on their way back to the top. A Ferrari is still a Ferrari no matter what shape it is or what sort of noise it makes, and it is red. After all the businessmen’s quarrelling during the previous three days once they let the racers get on with the job all is well with the world for we have a good bunch of lads up at the front. Once the race starts everything is fine, so what we want is more racing and less practice. The best way of stopping an argument or a union-meeting is to start up a Cosworth DFV engine. We should do it more often.