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#304 1978 Spanish Grand Prix

2022-08-08 01:00

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#1978, Fulvio Conti,

#304 1978 Spanish Grand Prix

Before the official practice begins at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, for the regulation hour and a half, there is a little preliminary skirmish among the rabb

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Before the official practice begins at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, for the regulation hour and a half, there is a little preliminary skirmish among the rabbits from which the four best will be let into the 10:00 a.m. practice. As Arnoux does not appear with the Martini car, and Ongais does not appear with the American-owned Shadow DN9, it leaves five contestants for the four places, so it is not so much which four would qualify for practice, but which one will fail. It proves to be Rosberg with the Ralt-based Theodore car. That business sorted out it means there are 18 drivers ready for the two days of official practice, from which four are going to be disappointed (or frustrated) by the end of Saturday afternoon. As things turn out there are 26 frustrated drivers by the end of Friday afternoon, for the two Lotus 79 drivers not only dominate practice, they demoralise it. Within the overall practice scene there is another fierce competition going on among the mid-field runners to qualify for the special attention of Goodyear. The tyre firm has named their chosen drivers who will get the best tyres possible, and the two best of the rest at the end of the first day of practice will get special tyres for the second day. In consequence practice is full of interest, with three major competitions taking place, the first for the front row of the grid, the second to be the two best runners on standard Goodyear tyres, and the third to scrape into the top 24 in order to take part in the race. As far as the fast end of the entry is concerned tyres are of little consequence, the game is catch the Lotus. When Lotus are recording laps around the 1'19"0 mark, the others are at 1'20"0, when they get down into the 1'19"0, the Lotus pit are showing 1'18"0, when the others scratch into 1'18"0, Lotus are down to 1'17"0 and so it goes on. To make matters worse it is not just one Lotus, but two.
 
Andretti is driving the brand new Lotus 79 and Peterson is in 79/2, and making very good use of it. Traffic on the circuit is very heavy and both Lotus drivers are finding it difficult to get a completely clear lap while doing 1'17"0, the circuit seems to be full of famous names in famous cars lapping a whole second or more slower, while the lesser lights and the rabbits are four and five seconds off the pace. In such a brief lap time this is not only remarkable, it is almost unbelievable, and makes the job of the Lotus drivers very difficult. At one point Andretti is down below 1'17"0 and all set for an all-out effort, with the best tyre combination fitted and a minimum of fuel, anticipating a lap approaching 1'15"0, in a three-lap burst, when he gets badly baulked and has to go on for five laps, and ran out of fuel just as he is well wound up! This takes the pressure off the other teams, some of whom are actually within a second of Andretti’s times, but then they nearly give up, for while the Lotus mechanics are rescuing their number one driver, the Lotus number two driver is on terrific form and leaps into the overall lead with 1'16"68. The Lotus 79 has made its point in no uncertain terms, with Peterson on pole position, Andretti alongside, and both drivers convinced that the cars could get into the 1'15"0 on a less crowded track. The whole effort is quite breathtaking. Reutemann, Hunt and Watson have been making heroic efforts, but are not really in sight of the two Lotus cars, while Scheckter, Lauda and Villeneuve are looking like good mid-field runners. In the Goodyear race Laffite and Patrese have come out on top by a pretty wide margin, and right down the bottom are Colombo, Keegan, Villota and Merzario. There have been various troubles, but none that are going to affect the overall scene, Stuck has his engine break quite early on, Jones is bothered by gearbox trouble and Tambay is playing carefully in view of his painful left ankle.
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Laffite has been using the new Ligier JS9, but without its vast rear aerofoil that merges into the bodywork, a normal JS7 type aerofoil being used. By the time the afternoon session begins at 1:00 p.m. it is very hot indeed, and the most important piece of equipment being used by the mechanics is an umbrella to shade the driver while waiting in the pit lane. The McLaren team are trying a double front aerofoil arrangement on Hunt’s car, using the normal chisel-nose and fins, with the extra aerofoil above the nose, mounted on struts attached to the front bulkhead. For the brief hour of practice the air and track temperature is too high, compared to the morning, so there is little hope of anyone approaching the Lotus times. Even though the whole pace is nearly a second slower, Andretti is still in front, but not without his troubles. At one point he is getting through experiments with different tyre combinations quicker than the Goodyear people can mount the tyres on the spare Lotus wheels, and while waiting the injection system on the Cosworth engine develops vapour lock and just refuses to work. Cold water is poured over the fuel pump and the injection unit, air bottles are exhausted on the starter motor, the sweating mechanics push the car, but still it will not fire. Precious practice time is slipping by, and outwardly completely unmoved Andretti sits in the car waiting patiently while his mechanics do all they know to get the engine started. On the Lotus 79 everything is so tightly packed in and so totally enclosed, that when the car stops the heat in the engine bay cannot escape. Eventually the vapour bubbles are dispersed and the engine runs as well as ever, and Andretti rejoins the practice, but the whole rhythm of experimenting and adjusting has been broken.
 
Although Peterson is only fourth fastest in the afternoon, with Reutemann’s Ferrari and Lauda’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo between the two Lotus cars, the overall scene is still one of Lotus domination. Laffite is going really well in the new Ligier, being fifth fastest in the afternoon, ahead of Scheckter with the Wolf WR5 and the number two drivers of the Brabham and Ferrari teams. The Shadow mechanics have failed to change the engine in Stuck’s car in time, so the lanky German misses the afternoon session completely, and Alan Jones is frustrated when the injection unit on the spare Williams car plays up and he cannot use it to make a comparative test with 002 which he had used in the morning. As practice is coming to an end, the Spanish driver Villota loses control of his McLaren on the fast downhill bend leading on to the pit straight, and as he spins wildly Regazzoni misses him by a hair`s-breadth, but the next car along catches it fair and square. It is Hunt in McLaren M26/4, and the right front corner is pushed back into the monocoque, the suspension members twists and tears and it is the end of its useful life as far as the Spanish GP is concerned. Hunt gets away with a bruised right hand and Villota is unhurt. Such is the affluence of Formula 1 of these days that both men have spare cars ready for them next morning. Hunt taking the spare works McLaren M26/3 and Villota his earlier McLaren M23/6. Saturday morning is testing time; for checking fuel consumption, tyre wear, handling in racing conditions of weight and balance, and a general fact-finding and confirmation session before the final hour of timed practice in which there is the last chance to claim a good grid position or merely to scrape on to the back of the grid. During the morning session some teams check that their spare cars are race-worthy, others still try to get good lap times, while some like McLaren continue to have trouble.
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The engine in Tambay’s McLaren M26/5 breaks so there is some feverish work by the Colnbrook chaps to change the engine in time for the afternoon session. This panic is caused by Hunt already needing the spare car, there only being one between the two drivers. Team Lotus are so confident in their pair of Lotus 79 cars that they don’t bother to run the old Lotus 78 cars, and Wolf are equally happy with their WR5, so that WR1 is not used. Ligier, however, run their interim car JS7/JS9/01 and convince themselves that the new JS9 is all right. Even on tyres that will last the 75 laps and carrying a full load of petrol the two Lotus drivers are lapping in times that many of the other competitors would like to be able to record with near empty tanks and super-sticky qualifying tyres. The only ray of sunshine that filters through to the other teams from the Lotus pit, apart from the hot Spanish sun, is the sight of boiling water bubbling out of the overflow pipes on the Lotus 79 cars, and mechanics pouring cold water on the mechanical fuel pumps, the injection pumps and the radiators. While out on the track and running fast the cooling system of the Lotus is working perfectly, but a slow run down the pit-lane and standing still in the hot sunshine is causing overheating and vapour-locking. Team Lotus are not unduly worried as they do not intend their drivers to spend much time in the pits, nor to run slowly. This slight problem is indicative of the efficiency of the Lotus 79 when in its normal habitat, which is out on the track and running fast. Some designers think that Colin Chapman runs things a bit too close to the limit for comfort, but he always does, and if you don’t you’ll never get an advantage over your rivals. The last hour looks as though it is going to build up into a glorious thrash with all the stops pulled out and everyone throwing caution to the winds.
 
It turns out the complete opposite, principally due to Andretti going out for a brief handful of laps and recording 1'16"8, while everyone else is trying to get below 1'18"0. He then tries a different set of tyres and records 1'16"39, which deflates everyone, even his team-mate. He gives up at that point and sits on the pit-wall to watch the others, not from complacency, but because the static overheating trouble is becoming a nuisance every time he stops at the pits. While Team Lotus are spreading alarm and despondency among the other top teams, and finding nothing wrong with Goodyear’s latest tyres, or being frightened by Ferrari and Michelin, there is gloom at the other end of the field as certain drivers realise they are going to be in the last four. Lunger puts paid to his chances of escaping relegation by spinning off into the sand in his McLaren M26/6. Although he resumes practice in McLaren M23/11 he has little hope of qualifying. The Williams team are not as happy as usual, as their disastrous first day of practice has ruled them out of the Goodyear short-list- for-special-attention, and all Alan Jones can do is to fumble about among the also-rans, while Patrese on the best Goodyears is making the best use of them and is up near the front. With Andretti’s shattering 1'16"39 from Saturday and Peterson’s 1'16"68 from Friday the two Lotus 79s occupy the front of the grid in a class of their own, regardless of 12-cylinder power, Michelin tyres or brilliant new young drivers. There would appear to be times when experience counts, and this seemed to be one of them. Among the usual faces in the usual places at the front of the grid, that of Villeneuve in the second Ferrari is becoming a regular and consistent occurrence, and Patrese with the first of the Arrows is beginning to make a consistent impression. In spite of what a lot of people say and think, Hunt is seldom far away from the front, and this time is fourth fastest, and in the second row with Reutemann.
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On Sunday the skies are not quite as clear as they have been, but it is still more than warm enough and the race is due to start at the very late hour of 4:00 p.m. Just before midday there is a 30-minute final-test-session for the fortunate 24 who are going to take part in the 75-lap race, though few of them can see it being much of a race with Andretti and Peterson on the front row in the 1978 Lotus cars. Those who are left out are Merzario, Lunger, Villota and Colombo, while Rebaque and Keegan are delighted to have qualified. As this is the 75th anniversary of the Royal Automobile Club of Spain, the arrival of the reigning King and Queen by royal helicopter is a special occasion. After the drivers have driven their cars from the pit lane, round the circuit to the dummy grid in front of the main grandstand, they all remove their helmets and are presented to the King at the foot of the control tower. He wishes all the participants Good Luck and most of them think to themselves we’ll need more than that, with those two sleek black Lotus cars on the front row of the grid. Andretti is a whole second better than the best of the rest, which seems impossible on such a short circuit. When averaging 100 m.p.h., a full second is a lot of distance. One driver who does not intend to give up and whimper, is James Hunt. As always, he is out to stir things up, and his McLaren is mounted on unsuitable tyres for the full 75 laps, but very good ones for a dynamic sprint for as long as they will last. His teammate Tambay is set for the full distance. Hunt’s attitude is that if he can’t win he might as well enjoy himself, rather than trail along dejectedly, hoping trouble will strike the Lotus lads. As 4:00 p.m. approaches, engines are started, the grid and the pits are cleared and the two black cars, with their gold advertising lettering, lead the field away on the warm-up lap. The 12 pairs of cars pause on the grid, at the foot of the giant control tower, the red light changes to green quicker than some drivers expect and the race is on.

 

Andretti makes a good start and so does Reutemann, behind him, but Peterson has not been paying attention and fumbles his getaway. In a start that would have made the drag-racing fans cheer, Hunt takes his McLaren off the line and shoots between Peterson and Reutemann. Before the end of the pits he swoops past Andretti on the left and then dives across to the right and aims for the first corner with the brakes hard on, knowing that if anyone (particularly Andretti) is going to get by he will have to take the long way round the outside. The whole manoeuvre is racer Hunt at his brilliant best, and he must have an evil grin on his face as he leads the field through the tight corners on the back leg of the circuit. For five glorious laps Hunt drives his heart out, using every inch of the road, and more, as the McLaren slides over the kerbs in a superb all-or- nothing display. A slightly ruffled Andretti sits back and watches this display of sheer enthusiasm and joy, and then as they started lap six the Lotus closes up, goes by, and it is all over. Hunt has had his moment of glory and now the serious motor-race begins and Andretti just drives away into the distance. Those opening laps stand Hunt in good stead, for though Andretti passes him with ease, it means he is in a sound second place, with only Reutemann’s Ferrari in sight behind him, in third place. Then come Watson, Villeneuve, Patrese, and Laffite with a gap to the next group that consists of Scheckter, Peterson and Lauda, followed by Pironi and Tambay. Right at the back of the field comes the yellow Renault, for Jabouille has been elbowed out of the pack on the first corner, and has spun. This solves all the problems of the turbo-car holding people up, but unfortunately Depailler gets baulked by the spinning Renault and gets a bit left behind. At 10 laps the scene settles down, with Andretti and Hunt well away, Reutemann in a lonely third place, then Watson with Villeneuve, Patrese, Laffite and Peterson line up behind him and pushing hard.

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Lauda has got clear of Scheckter and is aiming to join the group ahead, but in ninth place the World Champion is going to need more than skill to ever see the leader. Pironi and Tambay are behind Scheckter and then come Mass, Brambilla, Depailler, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi and Jones all fairly close, with Stuck dropping back from them as his Shadow is not handling too well. Keegan, Rebaque, Jabouille and Stommelen bring up the rear, as Ickx is in the pits having the throttle linkage on the Ensign looked at. The Renault is giving a good display of its claimed 500 b.h.p. as it wafts past Rebaque along the main straight, and shortly afterwards does the same with Keegan’s Surtees. It is clear that Ferrari and Michelin have made a mistake over the tyres fitted to the two red cars from Maranello, for Reutemann is losing all contact with the leaders and Villeneuve has dropped to the back of his group, and is passed by Lauda on lap 16. Whereas Hunt has made a deliberate choice of unsuitable tyre, and is holding on to second place as long as he can, and enjoying it, the Ferrari drivers are very frustrated. Fittipaldi decides his tyres are not right and stops to change them, and Tambay has gone missing, the McLaren stuck in the sand and unable to restart. The Frenchman has been driving without using the clutch for gear-changing, in order to rest his left ankle which is sore, and he muffs a change down and spins off the track. Although he restarts the engine he cannot get any grip and has to abandon a perfectly healthy car. On lap 20 Rebaque’s Lotus 78 is making an awful noise as it goes by the pits and he stops next time round. A complete exhaust pipe has broken off, from the cylinder head to the junction for the tail pipe, due to grounding over the bevelled kerbs, the young Mexican not being experienced enough to know where you can run over kerbs and where you shouldn’t.

 

On lap 22 Patrese disappears from a good fifth position when the Cosworth engine in his Arrows breaks, and Reutemann is visibly dropping back from Hunt into Watson’s sight. Andretti is now beginning to lap the tail enders, not that it causes him any trouble, and he even goes by the Renault as if it was not there. His complete command of the race is exactly as expected, but Peterson stuck in sixth place is all wrong, though it is difficult to see what the Swede is going to do about it, with Laffite and Watson in front of him and Lauda close behind. Not an easy bunch to deal with, even for an inspired Peterson, and after his bad start he is not looking all that inspired, but he is thinking about it. With Villeneuve now down in eighth place and being worried by Scheckter and Pironi, and Reutemann holding a tenuous third place, the Ferrari/Michelin combo decides it is time for a change, so both drivers are signalled in. At the end of lap 28 Reutemann heads down the pit lane to where new wheels and tyres are laid out ready, and the mechanics change all four very rapidly. They have just finished when Villeneuve appears down the pit lane and there is a bit of a scramble to let Reutemann’s car off the jacks and send him on his way as the second Ferrari pulls up. Even though the next set of wheels and tyres are still in the pit, the Ferrari boys do a pretty quick job and as Villeneuve drives off down the pit lane, Andretti goes by to complete his 29th lap, so the young French-Canadian is now a full lap behind. Reutemann has resumed in tenth place, behind the two Tyrrells of Pironi and Depailler. All this leaves Watson in third place, a long way behind Hunt, while Andretti has a very comfortable and relaxed 12-second lead.

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The foursome of Watson, Laffite, Peterson and Lauda looks as though it has reached a stale-mate situation, except that the Lotus driver can see an opportunity just ahead. They are coming up to lap a group of tail enders and in the ensuing melee Watson goes from third place on lap 36 to sixth place on lap 38, and Peterson is leading the bunch when the pushing and shoving and dust has died down. Watson’s excuse for this and the fact that he begins to drop back, is that he is having trouble with his gearbox. Be that as it may, the fact is that Peterson, Laffite and Lauda begin to close up on Hunt, with Peterson looking as though he wants second place. The Tyrrell team are having a mixed race in eighth and ninth places, for just as Depailler overtakes Scheckter, Reutemann overtook Pironi, so it is a case of win one, lose one, but it is all mid-field stuff and of little consequence. Andretti is now 20 seconds ahead and cruising along comfortably, while Hunt is still in second place, even though his tyres are wearing thin. Peterson is still a long way back, but is closing steadily and Laffite and Lauda are staying with him. While Reutemann is picking up the odd place here and there, Villeneuve is not making much progress, so he is called in again and another set of tyres are fitted. As Peterson gets his sights on Hunt’s McLaren on lap 50, Depailler is into the pits with a misfiring engine. The ignition unit is changed but before this is done the second Tyrrell is also into the pits with an equally erratic engine. Depailler does another lap, with no improvement so the plugs are removed and one of them has bits of metal on it, from something nasty inside the engine, so that is the end. Pironi’s trouble is simply a loose lead in the h.t. system and it is soon rectified and he is back on full song. As they start lap 53 Peterson wafts by Hunt’s McLaren and into second place and three laps later Laffite goes by the McLaren and then Lauda goes by.

 

Hunt’s tyres are used up and he should have stopped by now, but the decision is being left to him, and it is not until lap 60 that he finally heads down the pit lane to have all four wheels and tyres changed, but he has let the others get too far ahead. What has delayed his decision is the sight of Lauda’s Brabham by the side of the track on lap 57, with a broken Alfa Romeo engine, which means that Hunt is back in fourth place, and then a lot of excitement and confusion on lap 58 when Reutemann’s Ferrari goes off the track in a big way, bounces over the guard-rails and is caught by the debris nets protecting the back of the paddock. The swarthy Argentinian climbs out with bruises on his chest, leaving the Ferrari hanging in the nets like a fly in a spider’s web. By the time Hunt has changed tyres and gets back into the race he is a lap down and in sixth place, with no hope of improvement, unless someone drops out. There are only 15 laps to go and Lotus are once again in first and second places, this time with two Type 79 cars, and one feels they could probably have done the same thing with last year’s cars! With just over 20 seconds between them the two sleek black cars tour on to victory, having completely annihilated all opposition for the second race in succession. Laffite brings the new Ligier home to a good sporting third, followed by Scheckter in a distant fourth place and Watson fifth. An exhausted Hunt is sixth, one lap down, having driven as hard as he knows how, and the rest follow at varying intervals, not at all happy for their future as Team Lotus seem to be on a winning streak with the bit between their teeth. The remaining Ferrari is tenth, running the last third of the race with a split exhaust pipe and sounding awful. John Surtees can see a ray of hope on the horizon as both his cars have run non-stop throughout the race, Brambilla being seventh, one lap down, and Keegan eleventh, two laps down.

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