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.
Alessia Koua N'zi