#292 1977 Austrian Grand Prix

2022-07-15 01:00

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#292 1977 Austrian Grand Prix

In spite of the Osterreichring being in the middle of the country and difficult of access, from whichever direction you approach, few people miss the


In spite of the Osterreichring being in the middle of the country and difficult of access, from whichever direction you approach, few people miss the annual visit to the very scenic circuit. After the slow, twisty circuits like Monaco and Zolder the high-speed corners of the Osterreichring are refreshing, and after the stadium of Hockenheimring it redressed the sense of proportion of a lot of people, including some of the drivers. Following the lead set by the RAC/BRDC with the British GP over the question of too many entries for too few places, it is planned to have a qualifying day on the Thursday before official practice begin in which the more worthy of the new-comers can stake a claim to join in the real thing on Friday. At the last moment the idea has been dropped as B.R.M. and a couple more withdrew, so that there was room for everyone on Friday. There are no serious changes among the regular list of runners and surprisingly there are very few mechanical changes among the cars. The Shadow team is the most notable for change, as Patrese and his Italian backer have disappeared, leaving Tabatip cigars in full command of the advertising space on the cars, and Merzario is co-opted to take over DN8/5A. Alan Jones is driving DN8/4A with narrow fairing around the side radiators and a nose-mounted oil radiator, and his usual car DN8/3A is arrived as a box of bits, and has been built up into a complete car after the first practice day, but then only as a standby. The Ensign team changes their usual format, planning to use the newer car, MN07, for the race as it was spending too much time just standing about unused. Wolf are ringing the changes on WR1 and WR3, and Ferrari had 031 and 029 to race, with 030 as the spare car.


Brabham has resurrected BT45/5B for Watson, in place of 6B and Ligier are planning to race their latest car JS7/03 which is slightly narrower and smaller than JS7/01, which they have brought along as a stand-by. The German ATS team enters both of their Penske cars, with a Jarier in the later one and Hans Binder in the original one and a newcomer to the ranks (yet again!) is Ian Ashley with the Hesketh originally driven by Rebaque, now sponsored by Godfrey Bilton and his new Obex Oil company. Of the thirty entries, four are going to be disappointed as a maximum of 26 are permitted on the grid, of which the last six are going to be starting without any payment, according to the union rules of the Constructors’ Association, which is why everyone tries so hard during practice. It is one thing to qualify, but something more difficult to get paid for doing so. In the interests of spectator appeal a slow second-gear ess-bend has been built at the top of the hill after the start. It used to be flat-out for everyone, last year the radius was changed to give more run-off space, and this year it is a sharp ess, and spectators are encouraged to use the banks overlooking this new layout, to watch the action of heavy braking, gear changing and the scrabbling from one lock to the other. A sort of circus stunt in the midst of a very high-speed, finely-balanced lap. Practice begins on Friday morning, though many teams have been at the circuit the previous week, testing in readiness for practice. There has been a bit of a fracas between Colin Chapman and Goodyear over the hard, puncture-proof tyres the Wolverhampton firm insists everyone use, for the Lotus 78 worked better on a softer rubber.


Since the spate of tyre failures two three years ago, the top brass at Goodyear has insisted that tyres should be bullet-proof, which meant hard and resistant compared to what could be produced to achieve the ultimate in cornering power. Enzo Ferrari has been haranguing Goodyear all season about the apparent lack of development in racing tyres, but it now seems that there is a bit of a relaxing in the company policy. It is cool and dry during the morning 1½ hours of practice and with the introduction of the slow ess-bend lap times have increased by five seconds or more, so that a time of 1'41"0 looks quite good, while 1'40"0 is for the top runners. Hunt shatters everyone by doing 1'39"69, with apparent ease in the McLaren M26 and Lauda is hard behind him, but has to stop when a bearing in the throttle-linkage seized up. He takes over the spare Ferrari and promptly puts in a lap at 1'39"99, so that he and Hunt are in the ace class on their own. In the afternoon Lauda is back in his proper car, the seized bearing having been replaced, and gets down to 1'39"32, whereupon he stops and stays on the pit wall and watches the others trying to approach his time. Stuck just scraped into the ace class, with 1'39"97 in the Brabham-Alfa, but Hunt is the only one who looks like approaching Lauda’s time, repeatedly putting in sub-1'40"0 laps, but not close enough to worry the Ferrari driver. As practice ends Hunt has got down to 1'39"54 but that is as close as he can get. Andretti is very close to the ace class with 1'40"04 laps, but not close enough to worry the Ferrari driver. As practice ends Hunt has got down to 1'39"54 but that is as close as he could get. Andretti is very close to the ace class with 1'40"04, but it left Lauda, Hunt and Stuck as the top trio.


Watson is almost a whole second slower than he should have been, not being able to get everything working in unison, and Scheckter is also well off the pace. Alan Jones is having engine trouble in the modified Shadow, and Regazzoni is nearly half-a-second slower than his new team-mate Tambay, who once again is impressing everyone with his smooth and effortless driving, recording 1'40"29, to give him seventh fastest overall. Keegan is looking very disconsolate as his Hesketh either has not handled properly or the engine misfires, and he is getting nowhere, and Jarier is having engine trouble. Binder, in the first of the ATS-Penske cars, has done well, much faster than Schuppan, who has replaced him in the Surtees team, and among the private-owners Lunger has done well, liking the high-speed corners. During the night the whole area rained heavily, so that car parks turned into autocross circuits and the thousands of campers have had an awful time stemming from the floods. For the Saturday morning untimed test-session there is still water coursing across the track on the top straight and Brambilla has an almighty accident, writing-off TS19/06 beyond repair, but stepping out unhurt and continuing in the spare Surtees until a water-pipe burst. Watson tries the spare Brabham and Scheckter is back in WR1, after changing to WR3 the previous afternoon. The circuit is still slippery in places and Peterson same in with the right-rear wheel of his Tyrrell all out of line, due to being hit up the back by Ribeiro, the March being badly bent. Jones tries the spare Shadow during the morning, but revertes to DN8/4A soon afterwards and Lafitte is trying both Ligier cars. On Friday Regazzoni has used Ensign MN06, but for Saturday he concentrates on the newer car, MN07.


In the final hour the sun shines and with the warmer conditions the general pace is quite a bit slower, so that Lauda’s best time of Friday looks safe for pole position. He can not approach 1'40"0, but is not unduly worried and few others could either. Watson losts control of his Brabham at the ess-bend and dings the nose against the bank, returning to the pits on foot to continue practice in the spare car, and Brambilla stops practice when the left-front suspension collapses on the spare Surtees. Laffite is in trouble with the ignition on the latest Ligier, so goes out in the spare car, and Nilsson and Jones both have to abandon their regular cars and take the spare ones, due to engine trouble. With 15 minutes of practice left Hunt has a new set of tyres put on the McLaren M26 and goes out for a determined last effort. He gets down to 1'40"5. Then his pit gives him the signal cool and he cruises round in 1'39"8, letting the tyres cool off, and then lap in 1'40"4, 1'39"7 and a last lap in 1'39"45 to make the best time of the day, but just missed the pole position. Meanwhile, Andretti is having a final fling and right at the end of practice gets in a lap at 1'39"74, to put himself in the ace class, along with Lauda, Hunt and Stuck, these four claiming the first two rows of the grid. The only familiar faces missing from the top end of the starting grid are those of Watson and Nilsson, the former in row six and the latter in row eight, their places being taken by Tambay in row four and Depailler in row five, back up at the sharp end again with the Tyrrell six-wheeler. Down at the back Schuppan and Villota just scraped on to the grid and Henton (March 761/7), Ashley (Hesketh 308E/3), Rebaque (Hesketh 308/2) and Ribeiro (March 761 B/3) were left out.


Sunday morning sees the rain pouring down, camping is sheer misery, the car parks has turned from autocross fun to trials quagmires, and a vast proportion of the crows has abandoned their cars anything up to three or four miles away and are splashing through the rain on foot to get to the slippery grass slopes all round the circuit. The final warm-up session is postponed for more than an hour until the rain eases off, after the supporting Super-vee race has been abandoned and re-scheduled for the end of the day. As there is a national holiday in Austria the following day there are suggestions of postponing the whole thing for 24 hours, but the ramifications of such a drastic move discourages the idea. Around mid-day some of the contestants splash around on the soaking surface, as the rain eases off, and then it is announced that come what may the race would start at the scheduled time of 2:00 p.m. In the Surtees team Brambilla takes over Schuppan’s car, TS19/07, and the Australian driver uses the spare car, TS19/02. Regazzoni is happy to use the newer of the two Ensigns, number MN07, and Scheckter settles for Wolf WRR3, Watson’s Brabham-Alfa BT45/5B is easily straightened out, Jones returns to Shadow DN8/4A and Nilsson to Lotus 78/2, while Laffite drives the new Ligier JS7/03. After the drivers have been taken round on a parade lap in a vast collection of Morgans, four cylinder and V8-cylinder models, gathered together by the Austrian Morgan Club, everyone gets ready for a wet race. By the time the signal is given to leave the pits and drive round to the line-up grid in front to the grandstands the clouds are lifting and conditions are improving fast. Of the 26 starters, 25 set off on wet-weather tyres, the twenty-sixth being Hans Binder whose ATS-Penske is still being worked on with trouble in the fuel system.
The grid positions are marked by girls in white holding large placards bearing the driver’s name on the side facing the cars as they come round the circuit. When the car is in position each girl turns her placard round so that the blank side faces the approaching cars, and also the time-keepers and officials, so that they can see at a glance who is missing from the grid. Eventually Binder roars away from the pits, but he is too late and has overstepped the time limit for coming under starter’s orders, so has to be penalised. When he returns he is waved into the pit lane and has to join the grid at the back, as the field sets off on its pace lap. All this time the track has been drying rapidly, with improving weather conditions on the horizon. Everyone has a set of dry-slick tyres at the ready and as the starting time approaches first one car is put onto dry tyres, then another, then nearly all of them, as it is obviously going to dry out, though the first few laps of the 54-lap race are going to be on a very damp surface. Team Lotus makes a shrewd move by putting Andretti on dry tyres and leaving Nilsson on wet tyres he was going to get bogged down in mid-field, so it is worth a gamble. Shadow makes the same ploy with Merzario, while Jarier and Schuppan also remain on wet tyres. Binder’s place on the grid is left vacant and the field goes off on their pace lap. In orderly fashion they come down the hill to the starting line, a slight pause, and then with a roar in a cloud of spray they are off with Lauda just leading Hunt up the hill. However, Andretti has made a fine start and on the opening lap he shoots past the McLaren and the Ferrari and pulls out an enormous lead as they come round the Jochen Rindt curve and down past the pits. Hunt, Lauda and Scheckter are following, then Tambay, Stuck and Nilsson, the Lotus already in seventh place from sixteenth on the grid.
Only 24 cars go past, for Regazzoni has gone off onto the grass and slides helplessly almost out of sight down a slope, and Brambilla is out of his Surtees in the centre part of the circuit and tries to get it back on the track with the help of the marshals. On the second lap Scheckter passes Lauda and takes third place and while the Ferrari driver is worried about the conditions and his tyres and the feel of the car, Nilsson shoots past, having overtaken Stuck and Tambay. On lap 3 Nilsson is past Scheckter into third place and on lap 4 he goes by Hunt and there he was, second with Andretti in the other Lotus a long way ahead. In a similar fashion Merzario makes good use of his wet-weather tyres and climbes rapidly from fourteenth place up to sixth place, passing such notables as his team-mate Jones, Peterson, Teutemann, Mass and Lauda on his way. This unnatural state of affairs can not last for the track is drying rapidly and it was obvious the rain has gone for good, so that the knobbly wet-weather tyres would soon overheat. Brambilla has rejoined the race and after two laps he stops to have his seat-straps re-fixed, and Lafitte stops after four laps as the Ligier is feeling decidedly odd. He carries on for a time until he discovers that the engine is blowing oil out onto his rear tyres. On the third lap Ian Scheckter has lost control of his March going up the hill to the new ess-bend, and amidst a whole bunch of cars he has a private accident, but there are some near-misses. For six glorious laps the Lotus team runs first and second, and then at the end of ten laps Nilsson can be seen heading for the pits and Hunt goes by into second place. In a very quick time the wheels are changed and Nilsson goes off down the pit lane like a rocket, saving every possible second.
He rejoins the race just in front of Keegan, who is leading the rabbits and is away up the hill on full song in thirteenth place, but well wound up to do something about it. Lauda seems to give up when Merzario goes past him in the Shadow, and as he psyches himself into the impossibility of the situation and decides his tyres are all wrong, he slips back to eighth and then tenth place, just in front of Reutemann who is not going very spiritedly. Merzario’s moment of glory fades on lap 11 when he has to stop and change tyres. Even worse is John Watson, who has given up completely and is running in twentieth place, amongst drivers like Neve, Lunger and Fittipaldi. He just can’t get into the swing of things and is feeling a bit unwell anyway. One driver who isn’t giving up and is profiting from any weaknesses being shown by the accepted stars is Alan Jones. His Shadow is going well, feeling right, and as the track dries he picks off Mass Lauda and Tambay, moving up to fifth place just as Andretti’s Nicholson-McLaren Cosworth engine blows up in a big way on lap 12. This moves everybody up one, with Hunt now in the lead by a comfortable margin from Scheckter, Stuck and Jones who are nose to tail. Mass comes into the pits as his engine has gone rough, but it is only a split exhaust manifold pipe, so he rejoins the race, down in fourteenth place. Whether it is the sight of Tambay in front of him we’ll never know but Lauda now got over his neurosis and begins driving more like a works driver and re-passed the white Ensign. With Andretti’s retirement and Nilsson and Mass stopping at the pits, Lauda found himself in fifth place, but not a very meritorious one. At 15 laps Hunt is leading Scheckter by 12 seconds, and Jones has passed Stuck and has his sights on the Wolf, which isn’t being driven in a very inspired fashion. On the next lap he is into a well deserved second place, the same 12 seconds behind Hunt that Scheckter has been, indicating that Jones is driving consistently and Scheckter is dragging his feet.
That 12-second gap remains constant, with no strain on Hunt or the McLaren M26, and though the Englishman eased off and did not use maximum r.p.m. he is steadily pulling away from the Australian. From 12 seconds the gap creeps up to 14 seconds, 17 seconds and more, so that it looks as if Hunt has the race in his pocket. All eyes turn back to Nilsson when he catches and passes Peterson in one fell swoop and then latches on to Depailler. In two laps he is by and on the tail of Reutemann’s Ferrari, but not for long, though while pressing the Ferrari they both go by Tambay’s Ensign. Having dealt with Reutemann, the young Swede is now after Lauda’s Ferrari, but the Australian has woken up and was pressing to get past Stuck’s Alfa Romeo. It is now lap 29 and as Nilsson comes up behind the two 12-cylinder cars, Lauda is alongside Stuck as they go up the hill after the pits. As Lauda takes the Alfa Romeo, Nilsson goes as well and the two of them close on Scheckter’s Wolf as though the South African has given up. Nilsson’s driving is nothing short of inspired, and he starts lap 32 right behind Lauda, who is in turn right behind Scheckter. At the end of the lap Nilsson has gone by them both and is in third place. It is a memorable drive and makes you wonder what all the others are doing, except for James Hunt who is cruising around in first place in complete command of the race. As if to celebrate Nilsson’s climb up to third place the sun shines and everyone seems happy. Hunt has 20 seconds lead over Jones, who is still driving hard, but Nilsson is teaching him slowly but surely, and just as people are calculating when the Lotus would catch the Shadow there is an almighty bang and Nilsson coasts past the pits with smoke, oil and bits of aluminium spraying out of the engine. The super development Cosworth V8 has blown up in the biggest possible way. Now nobody is going to catch anybody, we are into lap 40 with only fourteen more to go and Hunt led by 22 seconds from Jones, Lauda, Scheckter, Stuck, Reutemann, Tambay and Peterson, the rest being a lap or more behind.
Poor Watson has already been lapped by his team-mate Stuck, and is trailing along between Fittipaldi and Lunger feeling very sorry for himself. On lap 42 there is another bang as the Cosworth engine in Tambay’s Ensign blows up completely, and the young Frenchman loses a certain seventh place. Hardly has the smoke settled from that one then Hunt heards the death-rattle in his special development Cosworth engine, as a valve or two brake up, and he coasts to a stop on the forty-fourth lap with only ten to go and 23 seconds lead. For two or three laps there is an air of disbelief in the McLaren pit, but the joy in the Shadow pit is enormous as Alan Jones comes by now leading the race, safely ahead of Lauda and Scheckter. A lap behind the leader Keegan is heading the also-rans, but has Jochen Mass closing on him. On lap 46 Scheckter is coming up to lap Patrick Neve driving the Frank Williams March, when he makes an error of judgement, got on the wrong line under braking and spins off into the soft ground on the edge of the track and stays there, throwing away third place, which has not been in any danger. The young Belgian never even sees the Wolf. There is a lot of shouting and yelling after the race and some very unseemly behaviour by the head of the wolf-pack. Jones and Lauda has lapped the young Belgian without any difficulty, so now there are only five cars on the same lap. With fingers crosses and praying for no more Cosworth explosions Alan Jones ticks off the remaining laps and though the partisan crowd urges Lauda on in the hope he would catch the Shadow, there is no hope and Alan Jones scores the first Grand Prix victory for the Shadow team and waves an arm to the sky as he takes the chequered flag, while the team in the pits are smiling so broadly their faces are nearly splitting; even Alan Rees, the team manager, is allowing himself a smile, while some of the mechanics are improving on the original Cheshire Cat.

Alessia Koua N'zi


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