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.