#301 1978 United States Grand Prix West

2022-08-12 00:00

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#1978, Fulvio Conti, Ludovica Dell'Aquila,

#301 1978 United States Grand Prix West

Racing through the streets of Long Beach is now well established, but you can only do it once a year, not every day, but on that one occasion it is do


Racing through the streets of Long Beach is now well established, but you can only do it once a year, not every day, but on that one occasion it is done remarkably well. This year’s Formula One Grand Prix is the third World Championship event to be held through the streets of the Californian seaport, the previous two being won by Regazzoni (Ferrari) and Andretti (Lotus). Such is the popularity of street-racing (or the dollars!) that everyone wants to take part and the entry is over-subscribed. FIA rulings on circuit length (2.02 miles) and width only allowed 22 cars on the starting grid and there are 30 drivers prepared to race. The problem is solved by accepting 22 drivers from the Formula One Constructors’ Association and having a seeding-out session for the remaining eight drivers, the best four joining the 22 chosen ones to make a total of 26 for official practice, of which the fastest 22 irrespective of race or creed will start in the Grand Prix. The seeding session is planned for one hour on Friday morning before official practice began, and it is obviously going to be a do-or-die effort for the eight rabbits. With no unofficial testing or practice allowed on the Long Beach streets before Friday morning, many of the rabbit teams go off to the nearby Willow Springs race-track to do some testing, prior to the qualifying for practice, for qualifying for the race. As if to keep everyone on their toes Southern California is being uncertain about its tourist role of being sunny and it is occasionally showing that it can rain in the land of sunshine. The paddock and garage area is situated in a vast new exhibition building in the middle of the circuit, with quite a long trek for the mechanics to lug all the tools and equipment up to the pits situated on one leg of the dual-carriageway of Ocean Boulevard which runs through the centre of lower Long Beach city and forms one of the main straights of the circuit.


Very early on Friday morning the long pit lane fills up with cars and equipment, with eight drivers ready to go out for instant’ action, with no time for fiddling or messing about with adjustments. These are Derek Daly (Hesketh), Hector Rebaque (Lotus 78), Brett Lunger (McLaren), Keijo Rosberg (Theodore), Ricardo Patrese and Rolf Stommelen (Arrows), Arturo Merzario (Merzario) and Danny Ongais (Shadow DN9). With official practice starting immediately after rabbits hour, all the other teams are lined up and ready to go, though the Long Beach layout is good in that you can come and go between pits and paddock while the circuit is in use, unlike Monaco for example. It is no surprise that Patrese is fastest in this pre-practice qualifying session, but Merzario’s experience shows up when he makes second place quite easily, and Lunger’s experience gets him into third place. Rolf Stommelen surprised a lot of people by claiming fourth spot, and this left Rosberg, Daly, Rebaque and Ongais out in the cold. The first two finding that when the Formula 1 circus has something at stake it gets a bit serious, unlike the games they played at Silverstone in the rain. The Hawaiian driver Ongais is a disappointment with his brand-new Shadow DN9, especially as he is becoming a big name in USAC oval-track racing. Now the serious business began, and not all that much behind schedule, bearing in mind that the whole circuit has to be prepared from the normal streets of the town. Official practice takes the usual format of an hour and a half in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, and the Californian sun shines down on it all benignly. Some teams are bathed in the sunshine, like the Brabham-Alfa Romeos and the Ferraris, with everything going well, others, like McLaren are in the shadows with everything going wrong, while the Shadow team are in their own shadow with trouble.


Patrick Tambay starts off in the spare McLaren, to bed it in and see all is well, before transferring to his own car, and Hunt goes straight into the fray in M26/4, but everything goes wrong. Tambay spins and stalls on his test-run and has to be towed back to the pits as he cannot make the engine restart, and meanwhile Hunt goes out with the radiators partially blanked off to aid warming-up and to watch his temparature gauges and return to the pits boiling merrily! Tambay returns to practice with his own car, M26/5, and Hunt is cooled off and refilled with water, no damage having been done, but not for long, as when he resumes practice he bounces off a wall and the car comes back on a breakdown lorry. Hunt resumes practice in the spare car, and the McLaren team begins to wonder which way they are pointing. In Team Lotus all starts off even-stevens for Andretti and Peterson, as the new Lotus/Getrag gearbox has gone back into experimental for modifications so the two drivers are both using Hewland gearboxes in their Lotus 78 cars from the word go. Andretti is the faster of the two until his engine blows up; fortunately the spare car is all ready for him to use. In the Ferrari team Reutemann starts off in 033, which he raced in South Africa, but it developes a nasty vibration somewhere in the engine/ transmission area, so he changes to 032, the spare car. Meanwhile Villeneuve is very happy with his brand new T3 Ferrari, number 034. Lauda in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Reutemann in the spare Ferrari seems to be setting the pace, though the timekeepers appears to be losing control of the situation and doubts are beginning to arise about their accuracy. Whereas the pace of the rabbits, who start the ball rolling, is around 1'24"0, the serious stuff is soon down to 1'22"0, with Reutemann galloping ahead on his Michelin tyres, into the 1'20"0 area.


By the end of the first session there is a lot of work going on in the pits, especially on gearboxes and driveshafts, for the tight corners are giving 2nd gears a bad time and the bumps are straining the drive-lines. Added to that the circuit is very unforgiving of driver error and it is very easy to knock a corner off a car. Stuck’s Shadow DN9 that made its debut at the wet Silverstone meeting ruins its Hewland gearbox, weaknesses in the Tyrrell 008 driveshafts and wheel bearings are appearing, and Patrese wrecks his gearbox as fast as the Arrows mechanics repaired it. Jarier bounces his ATS off a wall and while doing so Laffite has to dodge him and crumple the rear of the JS7/JS9 car. While he can continue in the spare Ligier, poor Jarier has to wait around while his mechanics put right the damage he has caused. By the time the afternoon session begins it is clear that the timekeepers do not have control of the situation so everyone gets on with practice, hoping it can be sorted out by the end of the day. Any suggestion that the time in the pre-practice qualifying session for the rabbits might be suspect, thereby jeopardising the chances of the four who do not get in, is quickly over-ruled. The McLaren team are looking better in the afternoon, though Hunt is still having to use the spare car, and the Brabhams and Ferraris are looking confident. The Wolf team has more trouble than they wanted, and are making little headway, but the Frank Williams team are very happy, Alan Jones being more than content with the second of the FW06 cars. The Renault is having engine trouble, and Lunger is going faster than he did in the pre-practice runs, but not fast enough to stay in the top 22, and neither does Merzario, though Patrese and Stommelen are well up the field. Peterson’s engine blew up in a big way, there being a gudgeon-pin circlip lying in an inlet trumpet afterwards.


Sorting out the times takes a ridiculously long time, and eventually a single list of times is published combining the two sessions of practice, and they show Reutemann and his young team-mate in the first two places with the Michelin-shod Ferraris, followed by Andretti and Lauda, then Hunt and Scheckter. It is difficult to argue with the list or say that the times are fixed, because two Ferraris, driven by an Argentinian and a French-Canadian, running on French Michelin tyres, on the front row of the grid is hardly a result to please the USA. By next morning everyone seems to be back to square one, with new engines installed, dents knocked out, suspensions replaced and drivers back in the cars they hoped to race. The hour and a half of untimed practice, intended for testing with full petrol tanks and race-worthy tyre combinations saw the mayhem continue. Depailler’s Tyrrell 008 has a cine-camera on its roll-over bar, and is later towed in with a broken driveshaft; Seheckter’s Wolf WR1 is brought back on a. breakdown lorry, with a broken rear upright; the Renault had a vast air-horn scooplog air into the turbocharger unit, in place of the NACA duct; Reutemann preferrs the spare Ferrari to his regular one; Stuck crashes his Shadow DN9 badly when dodging Keegan who is busy demolishing his Surtees, and the Brabhams are rubbing their back tyres on the top radius rods. There is never a dull moment. For the final hour, when times are to count for the starting grid the timekeepers still do not seem to be in complete control of their equipment, and eventually only tell 0,5 who improves on their Friday time. Strangely Reutemann does not improve, though no one beats his Friday time, but Villeneuve moves up closer to him, and Lauda joins the elite in the 1'20"0. Stuck’s Shadow cannot be repaired so he is out, and Keegan has another go and this time really smashes up his Surtees.


He is not alone, for Bramlilla crashes his Surtees as well. Scheckter is using WR3, the supposedly spare Wolf, and Pironi hit a wall early on and have to sit and watch proceedings, while Depailler suffers an ignition failure which costs a lot of time. On the fastest leg of the circuit the Brabham-Alfas and the Renault are consistently the fastest through the Frank Williams speed-trap, while the Ferraris are in amongst the average Cosworth-poared cars, yet are easily the fastest on lap times, so clearly maximum speed is not all-important. When it is all over the two Michelin-shod Ferraris are still on the front row of the grid, with Reutemann in pole-position, with Lauda and Andretti in the second row and Watson and Peterson in the third row, so that the Lotus is the only Cosworthpoared car to challenge the Italian 12-cylinder cars. Gilles Villeneuve in second position has to rate the biggest A-for-effort, regardless of any supposed advantage of having a Ferrari or Michelin tyres. There are some new hopefuls at the back who would have still been at the back no matter how many Ferraris or Michelin tyres you give them. The top Goodyear-shod runners are muttering amongst themselves finding it hard to believe that a funny little French firm can beat the mighty American firm. Of course, if the Ferrari team’s superiority is not due to the Michelin tyres then you have to admit that the new T3 Ferrari, on only its second outing, is a very good car. The advantage can’t possibly be with the drivers, some people are saying. The four drivers who do not qualify are Stuck (Shadow DN9) who has no opportunity in the final hour, Pironi (Tyrrell 008/4) who also has to sit it out, Lunger who progresses progressively, but not far enough, and Leoni in the lone Ensign who has never looked like being fast enough. Although Keegan scrapes into last place on the grid he cannot start as John Surtees is running out of spares and there is only enough to cobble up a single car out of the remains of TS19/07 and TS19/06. These are assembled onto the monocoque of TS19/02, which was brought along just-in-case. Stuck is first reserve but the Shadow DN9 cannot be repaired, so Pironi scrapes into the starting list.

Sunday is bathed in real Californian sunshine and after the morning warm-up Depailler’s Tyrrell, which is the spare car, has new driveshafts fitted as a precaution, Reutemann is very happy with the spare Ferrari, number 032, and Scheckter is down to drive WR3. Fittipaldi is set to race his brand new car, jabouille is driving the newest of the Renaults, this to be its first race, Jones is in the newer of the two Williams cars and all seems to be ready for the United States Grand Prix West round the streets of Long Beach. 75,000 paying customers are thronging the 2.02-mile circuit, while thousands more are ready for a free-view from roof-tops, balconies, apartment windows and any other vantage point overlooking the scene. Last year the start was on the top straight, by the pits, and there was a multiple accident on the first corner which is narrow and downhill, so this year the start is moved to the fast back leg of the circuit where there is room to spread out before the hairpin bend at the end of the straight. As it is a very slow hair-pin, and is wide, it is reasoned that there is more room for error. The new start line meant that the race is actually half a lap longer than last year, as the timekeepers and the finishing line are still on the top straight. After a warm-up lap from the pits round to the timekeeping line, the cars are lined up in staggered pairs as shown on the starting grid. Then they set off in formation, slowly round half the circuit, to the back straight where the starting lights are. There is a pause, the green light glows and all 22 are away with a roar in a drag-race to the first hairpin. Reutemann leads, but under braking Watson goes down the inside, which forces the Ferrari to run wide and this in turn baulks Lauda who is hoping to go round the outside. Villeneuve nips in behind Watson and as the Ulsterman is sorting himself out from being too fast on the wrong line, the young French-Canadian is by and off into the lead. Behind this 12-cylinder furore, Alan Jones makes a fine start and passes Hunt and Peterson before the hairpin.
The order as the race gets under way along the top straight is Villeneuve (Ferrari), Watson (Brabharn), Lauda (Brabham), Reutemann (Ferrari), Andretti (Lotus), Jones (Williams), Peterson (Lotus), Hunt (McLaren) and Scheckter (Wolf). In the melee at the first hairpin Jarier and Merzario have a corning together and both stop at the pits for repairs, while Patrese already has a bent nose fin due to being run over when he muffs his start. Having snatched the lead from his superiors (and betters?) there is no way young Villeneuve is going to give it back to them and he leads the race in fine style, looking cool and confident. Hunt disappears from eighth place on lap six when he hits a corner with his right front wheel and spins across the road and out of the race at the start of the pits straight. The order remains unchanged until lap 10 when Watson switches off his Alfa Romeo engine and stops in a hurry, as there has been a big bang from the back of the car when the oil tank explodes. Young Villeneuve now has the reigning World Champion behind him, but if he is impressed he doesn’t show it and continues to hold his lead, while Reutemann in the other Ferrari is close behind in third place. Andretti is leading the Cosworth-poared runners with Jones close behind, and then comes Peterson. This group opens up a gap on the rest, who are following in the order Depailler, Scheckter, Tambay, Laffite, Patrese, Jabouille, Regazzoni, Brambilla, Fittipaldi, Stommelen and Pironi. Mass retires with brake trouble, and Jarier and Merzario rejoin the race. Alan Jones closes up on Andretti and eventually slips by the black and gold Lotus, and sets his sights on Reutemann’s Ferrari, which is not too far ahead. By 20 laps the race settles into a procession, with Villeneuve out on his own, Lauda and Reutemann close together, and then Jones and Andretti. The interest now lay in seeing what Lauda is going to do about the new Young Ferrari driver, if he can do anything at all, and in admiring the way Alan Jones is driving the sleek Williams car to lead all the Cosworth runners, as well as the Ligier-Matra V12 and the Renault turbo.
Pironi disappears from the back of the field when his gearbox breaks, and then there is a big surprise when Lauda’s Alfa Romeo engine cuts-out on the top straight when the ignition fails, and he coasts up the escape road and out of the race, thus leaving the two Ferraris in complete command. Fittipaldi locks a front wheel under braking, puts a flat on the tyre, and has to stop for a change, which puts him a lap behind the leader and thus the procession continues. Andretti seems to be giving up trying and fails to keep up with Alan Jones, but the Australian isn’t giving up, and is very close to the tail of Reutemann’s Ferrari. Near the end of the fortieth lap, which is half distance, Villeneuve makes a mistake corning out of the ess-bend before the corners leading up to the finishing straight, and this puts him all wrong for the following sharp left-hander. Unfortunately Regazzoni is in the middle of the corner in his Shadow, and Villeneuve goes to dive through on the inside, but this means running over the kerbing and the Ferrari is bounced up into the air to land on the Shadow’s left wheels, which immediately flicks the Ferrari up into the air and into a sideways spin across the nose of the Shadow. The Italian car lands right way up, but backwards into the barriers and that is the end of the glory for the French-Canadian novice. Reutemann takes over the lead and the worthy Jones is now second, well ahead of Andretti, who in turn is well ahead of Depailler and Scheckter. Tambay is on his own, well ahead of Laffite and Patrese, while the rest has been lapped. Reutemann looks set for victory, the Ferrari sounding as strong as ever, its Michelin tyres obviously capable of running the race, and his only worry is the white and green Williams that is forever in his mirrors. On lap 43 the right front nose fin on the Williams begins to droop due to a structural failure, possibly due to an earlier blow underneath caused by running a bit wide out of a corner and running over a kerb. Jones cannot see it, nor can he feel anything different about the handling, he explains afterwards, even though many people think it would cause the car to understeer badly.
It probably affects the top speed slightly, due to the altered drag factor, especially when the lefthand one droops as well. The only noticeable thing is that the Williams droops back ever so slightly, but not dramatically. At the end of the runners on the same lap as the leaders, Patrese clips a wall with a front wheel, and breaks the rim, which causes him to drive slowly round to the pits for a replacement and means that he rejoins the race a lap behind the leader. At 50 laps everything seems settled, except that in motor racing nothing is ever settled until it is finished. Slowly but surely Tambay, in sixth place, is closing on Scheckter’s Wolf, and equally slowly but surely, Jones is dropping back from Reutemann and nearer to Andretti. It isn’t the drooping nose that is slowing the Williams, but a hesitant note in its exhaust. A flap-valve in the fuel system or something isn’t working properly and a misfire is coming in at high revs. At first Jones played along with it by not trying to rev too high before changing gear, but it gets progressively worse and inconsistent, which really prevents him from learning to live with it. Meanwhile Tambay’s McLaren is right up behind the Wolf and the Frenchman is looking for a way by. On lap 60 he thinks he has found the way, but Scheckter thinks otherwise and the two cars collide. The Wolf is out of the race with a broken rear corner but the McLaren continues, with its front wheels slightly out of line. On lap 63 the slowing Williams drops back behind Andretti’s Lotus, and from the roar the crowd gives you would think that Super-Wop actually caught the Williams! Reutemann is in an unchallenged lead and merely has to reel off the laps, and it seems as if he lost concentration for a brief moment, for on lap 65 as he accelerates out of the long Indy hairpin, to join the concrete dual-carriageway of Shoreline Drive, he opens up just a fraction too soon and next instant is in the father-and-mother of a 360-degree spin.
He keeps the engine running and as the spin ends with the Ferrari pointing the right way, he lets in the clutch and goes on his way, wide awake, and concentrating hard. To anyone watching the race on a stop-watch on another part of the circuit, it probably looks as though Andretti suddenly made up 5 sec. on the Ferrari. Poor Alan Jones is suffering more and more as the fuel pick-up gets worse, and Depailler goes by him followed by Peterson, then Tambay and then Laffite, and from a hard-earned second place he drifts back to a miserable seventh and finally Patrese passes him, leaving him eighth. With the front of his McLaren out of line Tambay is being caught by Laffite’s Ligier, and after trying to outbrake the McLaren into the hairpin at the end of the back straight, the Ligier driver then tries again in desperation, as there are only four laps left to run. He mis-times his manoeuvre on a right-hand bend and the Ligier’s left wheels run up over the McLaren’s right wheels. Airborne the Ligier overtakes the McLaren, and crashes down on its nose, crumpling the front aerofoil, but it is still running and Laffite carries on, but poor Tambay is out of the race with a bent motor car. Now it really is all over, with Reutemann cruising home to the first victory for the T3 Ferrari, and the second for Michelin tyres, followed eleven seconds later by Andretti’s Lotus 78. Then comes Depailler in an unremarkable third place, having nursed a fragile car along as best he could. Peterson in fourth place after a stop to change the front tyres on his Lotus 78, then the battered Ligier, followed one lap down by Patrese’s Arrows still with a bent fin. The unhappy Jones in the sick Williams, Emerson Fittipaldi who runs out of petrol after crossing the line, Stommelen in the second Arrows, who spends the whole race trying to cope with diabolical understeer. Regazzoni in the Shadow DN8 with its rear aerofoil all askew after the incident with Villeneuve and finally Jarier with the surviving ATS. Altogether a miscellaneous collection from the 22 who set off with high hopes less than two hours before. 


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