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#303 1978 Belgian Grand Prix

2022-08-09 01:00

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#1978, Fulvio Conti, Giulia Noto,

#303 1978 Belgian Grand Prix

The Belgian Grand Prix seems to have settled down into the smallness and anonymity of the Terlamen-Zolder circuit, just off the Antwerp-Liege autorout

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The Belgian Grand Prix seems to have settled down into the smallness and anonymity of the Terlamen-Zolder circuit, just off the Antwerp-Liege autoroute. What was once the Grand Prix de Belgique on the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the forests of the Ardennes, with lap speeds of 160 m.p.h. or more, is now resigned to being a simple Formula 1 event among three days of practice, saloon-car racing, mini-car racing and all the fun of the fair. As the Zolder circuit, of 4.262 kilometres in length, can only allow 24 starters there has to be some weeding out before the race takes place on Sunday May 21st at 3 p.m. In addition to Mr. Ecclestone’s chosen twenty (or F1CA members), invitations are given to Renault (Jabouille), Frank Williams (Jones), Arrows (Patrese) and Hesketh (Daly), not to take part in the race necessarily, but to be allowed to join in the official practice on Friday and Saturday. The previous week the rest of the hopefuls who want to take part have a qualifying session all to themselves, all running on a regulation type of Goodyear tyre and the result is that Bruno Giacomelli (third works McLaren M26/7), Rolf Stommelen (Arrows), Rene Arnoux (Martini MK23/1) and Keijo Rosberg (Theodore) all qualify to go forward into the official practice days, though not necessarily into the race itself; that depends on official practice times, so there are still four drivers who are not going to take part in the race. Those left behind on the Thursday before race week are Rebaque (Lotus 78), Merzario with his own car, and Lunger (McLaren 964 M26/6). When this initial weeding out has taken place the Belgian organisers try to infiltrate two of their own drivers into the system, these being Patrick Neve and Bernard de Dryver, but Bernard de Obergruppen- fuhrer Ecclestone would have none of it, so the two Belgian hopefuls become spectators. There are times when you wonder if the Belgians are running their own Grand Prix or not.

 

After this initial weeding out the serious business begins, with the regulation two practice sessions on Friday, one and half hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. The paddock seems to be very full of Tyrrell racing cars, for in addition to 008/3 (Depailler) and 008/4 (Pironi) the test car 008/1 is being prepared between test sessions at Anderstorp in Sweden and Paul Ricard in southern France, and 008/2 re-appears all brand new and shiny after a comprehensive rebuild with a reskinned monocoque so that it is actually 008/2-2. The Brabham-Alfa Romeo team are unchanged from Monaco, with Lauda (BT46/4) and Watson (BT46/3) and BT46/5 as the spare, all of them still on normal disc brakes, the special carbon-fibre ones undergoing development work. Team Lotus have finished off their Lotus 79 which appears briefly at Monaco, and it is now Andretti’s foremost car, his earlier car 78/3 standing by as a spare. Peterson is still in 78/2, until such time as another Lotus 79 is completed, when he will take over the Andretti car, the team-leader having the new one. Hunt’s McLaren M26/4 is fitted with new discs to its front brakes, with many more cooling slots in the periphery, and Tambay’s car M26/5 is ready, but the driver is not; his left ankle and foot are suffering badly from skin burns caused by a fire-extinguisher going off in the cockpit of his Formula Two car during the recent race at Pau. McLaren M26/3 is the spare for the team, but with Tambay having to go to England for treatment to his foot, the McLaren team are down to one driver with three cars. This meeting is the debut of Bruno Giacomelli in a number of races this season, with a brand new McLaren M26/7, tailored to fit the plump little Italian, who is a protege of Marlboro. When it is obvious that Tambay is in no state to drive, Giacomelli is upgraded temporarily into number 2 position in the McLaren team. Normally he will run as a full works-supported entry, but separate from the Hunt, Tambay duo.

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Reutemann and Villeneuve are the Mich- elin-shod Ferrari two-some, as usual, using cars 035 and 034, respectively, with 033 as the spare standing by with Reutemann’s number 11 on it. The Surtees Team is running its two new TS20 cars that appear in practice at Monaco, and Scheckter is in the new and functional looking Wolf WR5, with WR1 standing by in case of trouble. Stuck and Regazzoni are in the two Shadows, the former still in DN9/1A but the latter in a completely rebuilt car, following his Monaco accident, this now being DN9/4A-2. The Renault team has their two turbocharged cars, numbers 2 and 3, and Fittipaldi is in his Copersucar sponsored F5A/3, with number 2 as the spare. Jacky Ickx is in the Ensign MN06, with MN08 as the spare and the Ligier team has temporarily abandoned their new car that appears at Monaco and Laffite is using the interim car, JS7/JS9/01 in long-wheelbase form, with JS7/03 in short- wheelbase form as the spare car. Alan Jones has the usual two Williams cars, using 001 as his race car, and 002 as the stand-by. The Arrows team has rebuilt Patrese’s car FA1/3, which he has bent in practice at Monaco, using a new monocoque tub, so this now becomes FA1/3-2; Stommelen is in F1A/2 and the original car FA1/1 is the team spare. Of the rest of the runners Derek Daly has the use of two Hesketh cars, numbers 308E/5 and 308E/4, Arnoux is in the lone Martini MK23/1, Rosberg in the Theodore TR1-2, Jochen Mass is in his usual ATS HS1/2 and Alberto Colombo appears in the ATS HS1/1 in place of Jean-Pierre Jarier who has gone off to do other things. With Tambay on the sick list there is room for another runner, and as first of the pre-practice non-qualifiers Brett Lunger suddenly finds himself with an entry, so there is some frantic rushing about to get his two McLarens to the circuit.

 

The weather is dry but very overcast and dull and the whole circuit has been resurfaced and is looking very smooth. Obviously lap times are going to be better than previously, but nobody bargains for quite such an improvement as Andretti records with the now properly finished-off Lotus 79/2. With very little effort he just disappears from everyone’s reach, the new ground effects Lotus 79 (described in detail elsewhere in this issue) is phenomenal. With almost neutral-steer properties and running very smoothly it leaves everyone behind, even those like Wolf who has nearly caught up the Lotus 78 on technical worth! In the morning session Andretti clocks 1'21"78, the nearest rival being Reutemann in the Michelin-shod Ferrari T3 with 1'22"60, while in the afternoon he improves to 1'21"48. Next best in the afternoon is Scheckter with the Wolf WR5 with 1'22"12, followed by Reutemann who improves to 1 min. 22.35 sec. There is a lot of weeping and moaning about Goodyear tyres not being able to challenge the Michelins, but in fact Andretti is happily running the Lotus 79 on Goodyear tyres, and having no trouble from the Michelin-shod Ferraris. In fact, if the car is right, the engine is right and the driver is right, one begins to wonder if tyres are all that important. They do make a handy excuse for any team that has got something wrong in its system, or cannot juggle all its variables into a workable equation. There is no doubt that Colin Chapman has got his equation of Lotus 79 chassis plus Cosworth engine plus Hewland gearbox plus Andretti’s driving plus Goodyear tyres, absolutely right for the Zolder circuit. On such a short, twisty circuit, the spread of times from fastest to slowest is quite remarkable, from Andretti at 1'21"48 at the end of the day, to Rosberg at 1'28"28. The Ligier is actually slower but has trouble, as does Stuck with his Shadow, an engine failure in the morning preventing him from practising in the afternoon.

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A remarkable feature of the first day of practice is the reliability factor, for only the spare Renault, the spare Ensign and the spare McLaren are used. The French team brake the V6 engine in RS01/03 in the morning, the Ensign team have a water leak into a sparking plug recess in the engine of MN06 (before Ickx is happy with the spare car MN08 all the springs and shock-absorbers has to be transferred from MN06!) and the engine in Hunt’s McLaren M26/4 goes sick in the afternoon so that he does the last 30 minutes of practice in M26/3. The Wolf team are so content with their new car WR5 and the way it is going that they almost forget where they have left WR1, which is standing by as a spare. After the two practice sessions the overall scene is much as it usually is, with all the usual front runners at the front, the mid-field runners in a jumble in the middle and the hopefuls still at the back. Gilles Villeneuve we now expect to be near the front, and he usually, is while Riccardo Patrese is very well up with the Tony Southgate-designed Arrows car, a sure sign that the Shadow breakaway group have got themselves organised. As always, just behind the front runners is Alan Jones with the Saudia Airlines- sponsored Williams car, the team having worked their way on to the organisers’ invite- list and on to Goodyear’s favoured list by hard work rather than influence. On Saturday morning the weather is very dull and grey with rain showers not far from the circuit, but happily they keep away from Zolder. The 11/2 hours of practice are for full-tank testing and tyre choices to be made before the final fling for an all-too-short one hour timed session in the afternoon. It is usually the final hour that decides the grid formation and decides who the unlucky ones will be who will not start the race, in spite of all their efforts. Saturday morning is also used by most teams to check that their spare cars are in good order and to check and crosscheck fuel consumption figures, especially if you are like Team Lotus who have cut the tank capacity of the Type 79 to almost dodgy limits.

 

Reutemann tries the spare Ferrari, number 033, and decides he prefers it to the one he has been using, Lauda tries the spare Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46/5 but is quite happy with his original car, and Jones tries the spare Williams 002 to see if it is all right and finds it isn’t. Tyre vibrations cause brake-pad knock-off and as he brakes for the chicane behind the pits the pedal goes to the floor, a second jab on the pedal retrieves the brakes, but it is too late, he is too deep into the ess-bend and going too fast. He straight-lines the chicane and nearly gets away with it, but goes through the catch-fences. That is all right, except that a fence pole crashes into the cockpit and deals him a severe blow on the upper part of his right arm. The car is a bit knocked about, but fortunately is not intended for the race. The McLaren team are wondering what they have done wrong, for at one point it looks as though they are down to one driver and four cars! As the little dumpy Giacomelli is getting out of his car he stumbles and twists his ankle, which adds to a wrist damaged in the Pau Formula 2 race, and the fact that he is a bit uncomfortable in his McLaren’s cockpit, leave the team with a bronzed and fit James Hunt surrounds by four healthy McLaren cars. Bandages and will-power get Giacomelli into the scene again, as they do for Alan Jones who is soon ready to have a go in Williams 001 in the afternoon. For the final hour conditions are grey but fine and Andretti simply annihilates any signs of opposition from 12-cylinder cars, Michelin- tyred cars, drivers who say they are better than he is, teams who claim more power, cleverer designers, and all the rest. Without using super-trick qualifying Goodyear tyres he whistles round in 1'21"2, a quarter of a second better than his best Friday time, and then goes round in 1'20"9 after a bit of juggling with paired tyres, matching and balancing the feel of the front to the rear and leaves to the right, which is all done by sensitivity, providing everything else on the car is right, and everything appeares to be extremely right with the Lotus 79. Andretti’s main remark, amid the smiles, seems to be that Colin Chapman’s done it again. 

 

The next best, for what it is worth, is Reutemann with the Ferrari 033, with 1'21"69, closely followed by Lauda with the Alfa Romeo powered Brabham with 1'21"70 and Villeneuve with 1'21"77. After that anything over 1'22"0 seems pathetic, though in fact there has been some good driving taking place and some hard trying by some of the drivers. With only one opportunity to qualify Lunger just scrapes onto the back of the grid with his McLaren M26/6, pushing out Daly (Hesketh), Rosberg (Theodore), Keegan (Surtees) and Colombo (ATS). It is fortunate for the ATS team that Colombo fails to qualify, for just before the end of practice Mass and Giacomelli misunderstand each other in an overtaking manoeuvre, and the German driver crashes his ATS badly. He is able to take his team-mate’s car for the race. The yellow flags for this incident cause Reutemann to slow down and Derek Daly runs into a rear wheel of the Ferrari and bounces off into the Armco. The result is an undamaged Ferrari and a bent Hesketh. Among other small skirmishes in this final hectic hour, the Renault 03 arrives in the pit lane with a merry little bonfire burning around its turbocharger unit, caused by a leaking oil seal, and Keegan’s Surtees is wheeled away with a broken Cosworth engine. There are the usual excuses, like being baulked on the super-fast lap, or having the wrong tyres on at the wrong moment, or not getting the best Goodyear tyres, or the superiority of the Michelin tyres, but when it is all over there is little doubt that Colin Chapman and Team Lotus have got their latest version of the Lotus 79 really working and Mario Andretti is making good use of all its attributes. Last year he was on pole position with the Lotus 78 with a time of 1'24"64, his nearest rival being Watson (Brabham-Alfa) with 1'26"18. This year in the Lotus 79, on the newly resurfaced circuit, he is again on pole position with 1'20"9 and his nearest rival is Reutemann (Ferrari 312T3) with 1'21"69. First we hear that the Cosworth V8 is finished, then that Team Lotus are finished, then that Goodyear tyres are finished, and at one time I even think Andretti is finished! There are people who still find Formula One dull and boring!

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After a morning of fair-ground distractions the time approaches for what is to be the Grand Prix de Belgique, but what is in reality the Zolder Formula 1 race, or the Grote Prijs van Belgie. A thirty-minute warm-up session in the morning has produced a small fuel leak on Patrese’s Arrows, and a split rubber gaiter on the left-hand drive-shaft on Fittipaldi’s car, both of which are soon corrected, otherwise all seem alarmingly serene. The injured Jones and Giacomelli are ready to race, the tough Australian opining that the pain goes away once you start racing. At the ready, in case of last-minute panics, are Ferrari 035 for Reutemann, as he has decided he wants to race the spare car, with narrow front track, Villeneuve’s has been modified likewise during practice, the new and unused Tyrrell for Depailler, the short-wheelbase Ligier JS7 for Laffite and the unused Lotus 78/3 for Andretti. As it turns out none of them are needed. The 70-lap race is due to start at 3:00 p.m. and at 2:35 p.m. Fittipaldi leads the cars out of the pits to drive a lap round to the warm-up grid. Eventually all 24 cars arrive on the grid and by 2:45 p.m. they are lined up correctly in pairs. At one minute to 3:00 p.m. Andretti on the left of the road and Reutemann on the right, lead the procession of 24 cars round a full lap of warm-up and everyone pulls up on the starting grid proper. The red light is still glowing as Reutemann’s Ferrari begins to creep over the starting line; then the green light comes on, the black and gold Lotus 79 surges forward with rear wheels spinning, and is gone. Reutemann’s Ferrari hangs slightly as he snatches second gear early, to avoid spinning his Michelin tyres, but from all accounts second gear is not there and he quickly takes third, but initial momentum is lost and cars are passing the Ferrari on all sides. Before the bulk of the field are halfway past the pits there is a bumping and boring that would have done credit to Formula Ford.

 

Scheckter thinks he would jump Lauda’s Brabham on the outside by putting his left-side wheels on the grass, Hunt is following Villeneuve around Reutemann on the right of the grid, and Patrese is making a demon start from his good grid position. On the left of the grid Scheckter clips Lauda’s Brabham and flicks the 12-cylinder car into the barriers, while on the right Patrese punts Hunt’s McLaren up the back and sends it veering left across the path of the rest of the grid. In the ensuing melee Fittipaldi is forced to brake to avoid the wayward McLaren and gets hit up the back by Ickx with the Ensign, and Pironi’s Tyrrell rides up the wheels of the Martini and flies in the air. When the excitement subsides a very angry Lauda is climbing out of his bent Brabham, a despairing Hunt is wondering what he has done wrong and Fittipaldi is looking blacker than usual, his car out of the race. On the warm-up lap Jabouille has collided with Watson, the Ulsterman’s rear aerofoil being knocked askew, and now Pironi’s Tyrrell and Ickx’s Ensign are not the best adjusted cars on the track. Andretti is long gone away from all the unruliness, with Villeneuve in second place, followed by Scheckter, Peterson and Patrese nose-to-tail. At the end of lap 2 it is all over, Andretti is so far in front it is ridiculous and all he has to do is to play the game at his own pace, which he proceeded to do. He pulls out a comfortable lead over Villeneuve and then lets the young Ferrari driver sets the pace of the race, knowing he can pull out a second or more a lap whenever he wants to. It is pure Chapman and Team Lotus magic, the Lotus 79 never looking strained, Mario Andretti virtually coasting along comfortably out of reach of the Ferrari, with little or no strain on the Cosworth development engine, the Hewland gearbox or the Lotus chassis. For Lotus enthusiasts it is a joy day. For the rest it is racing and anguish.

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After being engulfed at the start Reutemann shakes himself free of unnecessary opposition and settles into seventh place behind Watson’s Brabham, with a gallant Jochen Mass keeping up with them in his team-mate’s ATS. Peterson is indicating that Scheckter is in his way, but the Wolf driver has blinkers on and isn’t impressed. Ickx has called at the pits for a new nose cowling and framework to replace that bent on the back of Fittipaldi’s car, and the Renault has its usual gaggle of frustrated Cosworth-powered cars behind it, among them Jones and Depailler. As Scheckter starts lap 8 a determined Peterson forces his way by on the first corner and is gone, and a moment later Alan Jones is in the pits with the Williams to have another pair of front wheels and tyres fitted as he can’t really control the front end on the existing ones. One by one the struggling mob of tail-enders are getting by the Renault, and the thought occurs that if a private-team has perpetrated the turbocharged car, Obergruppenfuhrer Ecclestone would have banned it long ago. Once Peterson has gone Scheckter heads for the pits to have a loose h.t. lead fixed, but is soon back again to have the front tyres changed, these two stops, at 10 laps and 14 laps, dropping him right out of the picture. There isn’t too much competitive racing taking place at the front of the field, Andretti is playing cat-and-mouse with Villeneuve, who is doing a first class job holding second place, while Peterson is a comfortable third. Patrese in fourth place is having to keep an eye on his mirrors as a rather dispirited Reutemann is beginning to think he ought to have fourth place. Watson stops to have some different tyres fitted to his Brabham, hopefully to make it feel better, and Jones is back in the pits at 15 laps for another change of front tyres, this time to a different compound altogether.

 

Ickx also stops to try some different tyres, and the Renault stops with brake trouble. Watson has a big spin on the right-hand bend leading into the back straight and bounces over the kerb and smashes the bottom of the Alfa Romeo engine, limping back to the pits to retire. In mid-field Mass has been going well, thanks to a good grid position and a good start, but now his gearbox is breaking up and he gradually drops back. Having been the first of the back-markers to get by the Renault, Brambilla is holding a good sixth place, but Depailler and Laffite are closing up on him pretty rapidly. In the early stages of the race Stuck has ran into the back of his team-mate, but while the Swiss continues unaware that the thump has broken a gearbox oil pipe, the German has to stop for repairs to the nose cowling. While the front half of the race seems serene and confident, the back half is untidy and ragged. Brambilla stops to change front tyres, Stommelen goes off the road, and Scheckter stops for a change of front tyres. Patrese spoils the scene at the front when he comes into the pits with the rear suspension cross-member broken, and that is that, which lets a relieved Reutemann move up into fourth place. Depailler and Laffite have been pounding along well, making up for time lost early in the race, but now the Tyrrell begins to have gearbox trouble and Depailler slows, leaving the Ligier-Matra to go on its way in fifth place. At half-distance, which is 35 laps of the 4.262-kilometre circuit, there are only eight cars on the same lap, with Andretti going as slow as Villeneuve, rather than disappearing into the distance, followed by Peterson, Reutemann, Laffite, Depailler, Regazzoni and Pironi. A lap down come Giacomelli, Arnoux and Lunger in very close company and actually swopping places. They are followed a long way back by a miserable Mass, with fewer and fewer gears in the Hewland box on his ATS, Stuck, Jones, Brambilla, Ickx and Jabouille in the Renault with dodgy brakes, and a dejected Scheckter.

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Another five laps see Regazzoni’s Shadow disappear when the final drive runs out of oil, and as this is happening Villeneuve is in trouble. Just as the little French-Canadian driver brakes for the first left-hand corner past the pits his left-front tyre burst, and though he swoops about a bit he keeps control and has to limp round the whole of lap 40 with the tyre disintegrating. By the time he gets to the pits the wheel is locked solid and skating along on the mangled tyre and he is down in fourth place, Peterson and Reutemann having passed him while he is limping along. The nose aerofoil is a bit tattered, but he soon sets off again with a new wheel and tyre fitted, but is well down in sixth place, and is actually lapped by Andretti as he leaves the pits. There are now only four cars on the same lap, Andretti’s Lotus 79, Peterson’s Lotus 78, Reutemann’s Ferrari, and Laffite’s Ligier- Matra. It is Lotus joy day, with the new Type 79 leading the now obsolete Type 78, and Goodyear are beginning to wonder why they have been getting in a flap, while the Michelin men are wondering where they have gone wrong. With no need to hurry Andretti lets Villeneuve go by and gets back on the same lap, while Depailler is going slower and slower as his gearbox brakes up, finally giving up at the pits after 51 laps. Among the back-markers Giacomelli gets the better of Arnoux and Lunger and pulls away from them, though later he spins and they both go by. Gathering himself up the little Italian catches and passes Arnoux, but fails to catch Lunger. All is now set for a triumphant Lotus 1-2, but at the end of lap 56 there is consternation as Peterson comes hurtling down the pit lane with his left-front tyre completely wears out. New front wheels and tyres are on in record time and the Swede leaves the pit lane at about 100 m.p.h., in spite of a red warning, and nearly collects the Ensign as he rejoins the race in fourth position, behind the Ligier and in front of Villeneuve.

 

If one can have seen Peterson’s face behind his visor, the well-known glazed over look is on it and his progress back up towards the front is vintage Peterson at his best. Almost unnoticed Scheckter spins off at the chicane before the pits and ends his race in the sand. In a matter of seven laps Peterson storms up to, past, and away from the Ligier, as if it isn’t there, and up to, past, and away from Reutemann’s Ferrari in like manner. It is Peterson magic, which, as in South Africa, belies any idea that the Swede is past his prime. He just needs a little incentive to rev. him up. On lap 57 he is fourth and on lap 67 he is back in second place, having caught and overtaken Laffite’s Ligier and Reutemann’s Ferrari, just like that. It is Super-Swede at his best. For the last three laps it is a triumphant Lotus 1-2, but the excitement isn’t over. Brambilla’s Surtees has expired at the pits in a cloud of smoke when a piston brakes, Jones is struggling along with a broken exhaust manifold pipe, Mass is limping along with very few operative gears in his Hewland gearbox, and Laffite is inspired by Peterson and thought he ought to take third place off Reutemann, but the dreaded yellow peril is between them, in the shape of the Renault, and it seems completely incapable of getting out of the way. As they start the last lap Laffite gets by the Renault and closes on Reutemann’s Ferrari down the straight behind the pits. On the approach to the chicane the Ligier is half a length ahead, but on the wrong side of the road and on the wrong line. As they turn into the lefthander the two cars touch and spin, the Ligier going backwards off the road with bent suspension, the Ferrari gathering itself up and continuing! With the left side of the car damages and marks by the Ligier’s rear wheel, Reutemann finishes an unhappy third, with Villeneuve in fourth place. Laffite would have been the only other driver to complete the 70 laps, as it is he is in the sand at 69£ laps, so he is given fifth place, ahead of all the also-rans. The result is Lotus 1-2, Ferrari 3-4, but all the joy is in Team Lotus.

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