At one time the South African Grand Prix was a very happy affair and almost olde tyme in its make-up, untroubled by any of the pressures and disease brought on by progress. It was completely self-supporting in that the money paid by the spectators covered the cost of organising the event, with some left over for the club kitty. The increase in the size of the Formula 1 circus and the rise in transport costs grew out of all proportion so that over the past four years income from the spectators can no longer balance the cost of a World Championship Grand Prix and outside financial help has to be sought. This means that the South African Motor Racing Club are no longer their own masters as far as the Grand Prix is concerned and this year the search for financial benefactors to bridge the widening gap between income and expenditure caused alarm until a few weeks before the event. The South African newspaper The Citizen and Associated Engineering Ltd. eventually comes to the rescue with enough money to add to the expected gatemoney, to pay the bill for twenty-one Formula 1 teams, some with three cars and an army of personnel, others with one car and a handful of people, to make the journey to South Africa. Because of this undecided state of affairs until the last moment, certain work needs on the circuit to comply with FIA Safety Standards, are not put in hand until late in the day. There is little point in spending money on armco barriers, catch fences and run-off areas for wayward Formula One cars if there is not going to be a race; for National Formula Atlantic or Saloon Car racing the circuit is adequate. Added to this the Formula 1 circus is using the Kyalami circuit for testing new cars, new tyres, new aerodynamics and so on, and for this work, safety standards are overlooked. For such activity is in the nature of private work and the public are not supposed to be there, so the FIA has no responsibility, but once official practice begins it is their responsibility to see that the paying customers are protected from any danger from the competing cars.
Practice is due to start at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday March 1st and before it can start the organisers have to have an official document signed by the representatives frail the FIA to say all is in order. The men from the ministry are Curt Schild from Switzerland and Robert Langford from Britain, on behalf of the Constructors. The necessary work is not completed by Wednesday morning, so the document is not signed and practice cannot begin. All the drivers and constructors are ready to go, but without Schild’s signature of approval it is not possible. The noisy little man from the Formula One Constructors is all for packing up and going home, but he is told very firmly that practice will begin at 2:30 p.m., by which time the necessary work can be completed. It is actually reckoned that it would be finished by 1:30 p.m. but it is deemed sensible to allow an hour’s margin. The normal arrangement on fast practice day is to have 1 and a half hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, but this is scrubbed and it is agreed to have 1 and a half hours in the afternoon. This delay gives time to look more closely at the entry which totalled thirty drivers, of whom the fastest twenty-six will take part in the race. Details of the cars in use are given elsewhere in this issue, the overall aspect being one of lots of new things. The major teams are in orderly array, but some of the newer and lesser teams have been in some disorder prior to this first day of practice. The Hesketh team, who are spending money given them by Olympus Cameras, and been getting results due to Divina Galica being unable to match the pace of the also-rans in Formula 1, inaugurated their own qualifying session during testing the previous week. They added the young American from Rome, Eddie Cheever, to their team with the result that he is something like two seconds faster than the young lady, so he gets the entry. Having lost Cheever to Hesketh, the Theodore team signes up Keke Rosberg from Finland, the hard-charging F2 driver and winner of numerous Tasman races. The new Arrows team has the sad news that Gunnar Nilsson’s health is much more serious than anticipated, cancer having got a strong grip on the young Swede.
To take his place they have signed on Rolf Stommelen, who brings a lot of sponsorship money from the German Warsteiner Beer firm, so much in fact that both his car and Patrese’s are hurriedly given a quick golden blow-over on the upper parts of the body and Warsteiner decals are large and clear. There is no sign of the original sponsor, the mysterious Franco Ambrosio, who paid for setting up this new team, nor any sign of his name on the cars though the entry in the programme is still under Ambrosio Racing Team. Another completely new set of faces in Formula One is the Martini Racing Team of Renato Martini, not to be confused with the Martini-Rossi firm who used to support Brabham and still supports Porsche. The Martini Mk. 24 is making its debut in Formula One, as is its driver Rene Amoux, a Frenchman well known in F2. Poor Morris Nunn, having been dropped in the mire by Regazzoni leaving the Ensign team suddenly, and getting nowhere with the Hawaiian driver Danny Ongais in South America, is reduced to one entry for the Italian driver Lamberto Leoni. The rest of the entry is in good order and strength and it is good to see Renault-Sport back in the fray, still with Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the cockpit. The Goodyear tyre company wakes with a great rumbling after their defeat in Brazil by the Michelin tyre company, and the anticipated tyre war looks like being a massacre by reason of an operation-over-kill from Akron and Wolverhampton. The Brabham, Tyrrell, Lotus, McLaren and Wolf teams have more tyre variants available than they know what to do with, while second-class teams are being offered the best of the rest, instead of the usual standard wear, so that there are three Goodyear tyre factions in operation. The elite, the chosen few and the rest, while Michelin are content with two customers, Ferrari and Renault, to be dealt with personally and to their requirements. When practice finally gets under way there is no shortage of action, and Lauda and Andretti are the pace-makers, the new Brabham-Alfa looking very good.
Peterson is doing the routine development running of the Lotus gearbox, fitted to Lotus 78/2, but soon runs into trouble with the crownwheel and pinion assembly, so spends most of the time spectating, the spare Lotus being reserved for Andretti. The McLaren team are looking very confident, with Tambay matching anything that Hunt can do, and looking disconcertingly relaxed and comfortable while doing so. At one point in the afternoon the young Frenchman is running about 200 yards behind Hunt for a whole string of laps, and you would think the two cars were tied together. It is no surprise at the end of the day to find their lap times are only 0.16 seconds apart. After a week of testing Lauda is in fine form and really enjoying the new Brabham, his best time being a shattering 1'14"65. Everyone expects the fastest lap to be around 1'15"0, or even under that figure, but not as far under as that. To show it is no fluke he puts in numerous sub 1'15"0 laps, but Andretti has the measure of him with 1'14"90. While some teams are having a good time others are in trouble, the first of the Williams cars is showing equal temperatures for oil and water, which is good, except that the readings are up around 120-degrees C, which is bad. Jones tries a lap in the brand new car, but it isn’t ready to be driven hard so his practice is curtailed. Laffite stops out in the circuit with the rehashed Ligier when the ignition disappears, later traced to a faulty kill-button on the steering wheel, but he walks back to the pits and continues practice in the spare car. Keegan’s Surtees keeps blowing out oil smoke on left-hand bends, and the new Ferraris were not settling in to a competitive pace. The Renault, also on Michelin tyres like the Ferraris, is deceptively quick and Jabouille makes a faster time than either Reutemann or Villeneuve. Jarier is going relatively slowly in first of the ATS-March specials, having to relinquish the number two car to Mass, scrubbing in new tyres, when he is rudely punted up the rear by Lauda’s Brabham. The World Champion makes a slight error of judgement, for which he apologises after wards, and a front wheel on the Brabham hits a rear wheel on the ATS and launches it high in the air.
This is at the climbing hairpin before the main straight, so no damage is done. Among the tail-end Riccardo Patrese is streets faster than anyone else, so much so that he is up amongst the mid-field runners and regulars, but not as high up as Patrick Tambay, but Patrese has to do it all on his own with no guidance from a master. Unbelievably slow sre the two Shadows of Stuck and Regazzoni and as neither is to be found wanting in driving ability, it suggests that the Shadow DN8 cars are past their prime as regards the use of their tyres. At the end of the afternoon the keepers announce loud and clear that Hunt has the fastest lap in 1'14"14 and certain members of the media who appear to have a Union Jack emblazo on their back-sides, rush to tell the world. Those who have been paying attention find it hard to accept, bearing in mind Tambay has matched everything that Hunt has done all afternoon, yet his official was 1'15"30; and add to that the knowledge that the McLaren team are satisfied with third and fourth fastest according to their timing. It is only a matter of time before a correction comes through showing an error of one second on Hunt’s time. The proper order then Lauda and Andretti both in the ace class Hunt, Tambay, Scheckter, Jabouille and Reutemann in the hard-trier category, followed by Watson, Villeneuve and Depailler in the under 1'16"0 category. Patrese is best of the rest, not benefiting from Goodyear super-tyres like the rest, while poor Fittipaldi is back to being an also-ran on regulation Goodyear tyres, not having the special treatment he received in Brazil. On Thursday morning there is 1 1/2 hours of untimed practice, for testing on full petrol tanks and on tyres for the race, though inevitably many teams are still scratching to make their cars perform properly. Considering this session does not count for qualifying or for grid position, there is a lot of trying and a few disasters. Alan Jones is out in the newer of the two Williams cars and goes off the road and bends the front end.
Andretti has a track rod end sheer off and returns to the pits with one-wheel Steering, to continue in the spare Lotus. The Renault engine goes bang; Patrese has a fastener come undone on the nose cowling of his Arrows so that it rubs on the ground and folds under to blank off the radiator and he arrives at the pits on the boil. Arnoux has the Cosworth engine fail in the new Martini and to end the morning Patrese spins off and crumples the rear end of his Arrows, fortunately not too seriously. Around mid-day it becomes ominously cool for South Africa and clouds keep obscuring the sun, but things improve by 1:00 p.m. when the final hour of timed practice is due to begin. The final session starts some 15 minutes late, by which time there is a strong head-wind blowing on the top straight so there is little hope of Lauda’s bogey time of 1'14"65 being beaten. He cruises round in the Brabham-Alfa merely waiting for anyone to challenge his poleposition time, with occasional fast laps to size up the situation. His best is 1'15"5, which proves to be equal secondfastest with young Villeneuve in the T3 Ferrari. With ten minutes still to go Lauda sits back in the pits knowing that his poletime is absolutely safe. His closest rival Andretti is having a bad time, for 78/3 has been repaired during the lunch break and he doesn’t manage many laps before the Cosworth Development engine goes very quiet; the drive to the fuel-injection metering unit is sheered, so it is back into the spare Lotus again for the Italo-American. Team-mate Peterson has a normal Hewland transmission in 78/2 and is really hammering on in vintage Peterson style, his judgement as he passes slower cars at 150 m.p.h. or more being beautiful to watch. There ss a pause in this final hour to collect John Watson’s Brabham BT46 when its Alfa Romeo engine blows up, and the Ulsterman has to continue practice in BT45/7C, the spare team car. Among the odds and sods struggling not be in the last four, and thus fail to qualify for the race, both Keegan and Rebaque suffer flat tyres.