During the morning the 26 contestants for the Grand Prix have a final test-session, during which John Watson tries the spare Brabham, BT46/5, and decides to race it in place of BT46/3 which he had been using in practice. Renault decides to use RS01/03 and this time does not lend the spare car to a film company. Fittipaldi is feeling very confident in his lightened (by some 20 kgs) original car F5A/1, Alan Jones is conscious that it is all down to hint after watching Frank Williams win the ex-drivers saloon car race and Hunt and Villeneuve are wondering what has gone wrong, to put them so far back on the grid. Peterson has chosen the left-hand side of the grid, to avoid the pitfall of the steep camber by the starting area and everything is shaping up to the 1978 British GP over 76 laps being a good race. At 2:40 p.m. the cars leave the pit lane and weal round the circuit to line up on the starting grid and everyone is present and correct, but the waiting until the 3:00 p.m. start seems interminable. Eventually the grid is cleared and Peterson leads the field away on their pace-lap with Andretti close by. Back on to the grid, everyone in line, engine revs rise and a fantastic roar of power fills the Brands Hatch valley when the starting signal comes on and the 26 can surge forward. Andretti has positioned his car up the camber, quite close to Peterson’s and at the two sleek black cars, devoid of any John Player cigarette advertising, goes into Paddock Bend it is number 5 in the lead followed by number 6. They lead the field on the opening lap, with Scheckter, Jones, Lauda, Patrese, Reutemann, Depailler, Watson, Hunt and the rest following. On the climbing left-hand bend out of the arena, entering the back part of the circuit, Brambilla looses control of his orange Surtees and slides all over the place without hitting anything, rejoining the scene after everyone has disappeared from sight. The two Lotus cars run nose-to-tail in beautiful formation looking absolutely terrific and within three laps has opened up a gap on Scheckter, Jones and the rest that is almost insolent. The more so as the cars from Norfolk look so smooth and stable, while the rest seems to be scrabbling and wallowing about almost uncontrollably in their efforts to keep up.
It is not simply the aerodynamics of the Lotus 79 which makes it so superior, it is not as simple as that, but the combination of wheelbase, track, weight distribution, balance, suspension, springs, shock-absorbers and all the other parts of the equation that go to make up a Formula 1 car. All problems of Team order or control are solved by Andretti taking the lead on the first corner and one feels that all they have to do now is to cruise round for the rest of the 76 laps and if necessary, finish side-by-side in a dead-heat, without the drivers straining themselves or their cars. The whole scene being presented by Team Lotus is one of cool domination, without any strain. All this may seem boring and dull to those who are not Lotus fans, but to anyone who is on their side the scene is perfection. First and second from start, in team order, and pulling away from all their rivals without driving near the limit, and using identical Cosworth V8 engines to many of their rivals and reputedly less powerful than Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Matra or Renault. Six laps are reeled off and one is wondering what the rest are doing, when suddenly there is no Peterson in Andretti’s wake. Lotus number 6 has come to a stop on its way down from Druid’s Hairpin. The other 24 competitors must have taken heart as they passes Peterson climbing out of 79/2; the engine-driven fuel pump has failed. Well out in front on his own Andretti looks secure and serene, but behind him, now fighting for second place there is a truly great motor race going on. Scheckter is really driving hard in the Wolf WR5, with Jones (Williams), Lauda (Brabham), Patrese (Arrows), Reutemann (Ferrari), Watson (Brabham) and Depailler (Tyrrell) hot on his heels. Then come Fittipaldi and Daly, both running very nicely and actually closing up on the crowd in front. Hunt’s McLaren has subsided onto the grass on the bottom straight two laps after Peterson comes to rest, the right front suspension and brake disc being broken and mangled. Villeneuve is getting nowhere and is down among the tailenders so he stops for a complete change of tyres and rejoins the race in last place but he doesn’t run for long before a drive-shaft brakes.
The Renault also stops for a change of Michelins, but Reutemann is looking all right in sixth place. On lap 19 Andretti has an enormous lead, but significantly it suddenly does not increase any more, and it looks as though he might be easing back, confident that no-one can catch him, but it isn’t confidence at all for as he comes round Clearways to complete lap 23 he is seen to be heading for the pit road, with a deflated rear tyre! Scheckter lads the hard-driving motley lot across the line, to take over the lead of the race and their efforts are renewed for now first place is at stake, not second place, which puts a different complexion on things. The Lotus mechanics have a new wheel and tyre on the 79 in an unbelievably quick time and Andretti is back on the track in twelfth place, behind Pironi’s Tyrrell. Almost immediately he moves up to eleventh as Laffite takes the Ligier into the pits for a tyre change, and another lap suffices to pass Pironi and take tenth place. Alan Jones is really putting on the pressure now, with a chance of actually leading the British GP, and Frank Williams’ team would have got a great cheer for doing so, but it is not to be. After two or three stabs at getting by the Wolf, the Williams suddenly swoops about as it accelerates up the hill out of the arena. Jones stirs about on the gearlever as it feels as though it has jumped out of gear or broken the gearbox, but nothing happened and the white and green car comes to rest, out of the race with the righthand drive-shaft sheared as clean as a carrot inside the rubber gaiter over the inboard universal joint. Car #27 is out on lap 27: this gives Scheckter a slight respite, but he cannot relax for Lauda can now clearly see first place, which interests him a lot. Fittipaldi has caught up on to the tail end of this leading bunch and Daly is doing an impressive drive in the Ensign and keeping the yellow Brazilian car in sight, though he now has Andretti right behind him. Without any visible strain or excitement the black Lotus is pulling back the lost time with impressive regularity and speed, and with only 28 laps run there looks to be ample time for Andretti to get back into the lead, barring accidents and baulking.
Just as Peterson’s Lotus 79 has disappeared without any warning so does Andretti’s. The Cosworth engine breaks and that is that. Grim-faced, Team Lotus can only pack their tools and equipment and look forward to the next race; it is all over for them on their home-ground, after starting off so well, and the race isn’t half-way through. It is now pretty obvious that any one of the motley lot at the head of the field can now end up the winner, but there is no guarantee who it will be, for Scheckter, Lauda, Patrese, Reutemann, Watson, Depailler and Fittipaldi are all running nose-to-tail and seem pretty equal. Daly’s good debut in the Ensign ends when a wheel breaks off, and Fittipaldi’s hopes are dashed when his Cosworth engine blows up. On lap 34 Lauda takes the lead from Scheckter so easily that the Wolf just had to be in trouble, and two laps later the South African is heading for the pits; the Hewland gearbox has broken. A lap more and Depailler is in the pits with a flat left rear tyre and the whole race is really open with half-distance just coming up. At the halfway mark, which is lap 38, Lauda leads from Patrese, Reutemann and Watson and providing the Alfa Romeo engine keeps going it looks as though he must win. Behind these four there is a long gap to what is normally the tail end of the field, but which now holds fifth, sixth and seventh places, down to twelfth and this lot are in the order Pironi, Rosberg, Depailler (making up time after his pit-stop), Mass, Tambay, Giacomelli, Lunger and Stuck. Already a lap behind is Brambilla, though he is still having a trouble free run, and well back due to pit stops are Laffite, Jabouille and Regazzoni, the Ligier with deflated tyres, the Renault for changing tyres and the Shadow for tyres and exhaust pipe troubles. As the four cars that are in a position to win left Clearways for the run along the top straight to complete lap 39, the gold painted Arrows is slowing as the left-rear tyre deflates, and Reutemann’s Ferrari is by into second place.
It is too late for Patrese to get into the pit lane and he has to go on with the tyre down on the rim. He completes the whole lap, but going much too fast, and by the time he gets to the pits the tyre is in shreds and the flailing rubber has wrecked the left rear corner of the car and the lower members has graunched along the ground, so it is all over for the young Italian. As he limps into the pits Pironi’s Tyrrell is just ahead of him, also in trouble, for the top bolts holding the engine and gearbox together has broken and the car is trying to break in half. Here we are on lap 41 with the scene looking completely unreal relative to practice and the way the race has started. Lauda is firmly in the lead, followed by Reutemann and Watson, all with Italian 12-cylinder engines, the Michelin-shod car sandwiched between the two Goodyear runners. Almost unbelievably in fourth place is Rosberg with the yellow ATS, having out-driven all the other tail-enders, though amongst them Depailler is making up ground. With the smell of first place in his nostrils, and Lauda and a Brabham ahead Reutemann begins to press hard, and slowly but surely he pulls up on the Brabham-Alfa. Meanwhile Depailler gets into fourth place, but even so Rosberg is holding a creditable fifth. Stuck is sixth, which is a fine effort after spinning on the opening lap and dropping to last place, until Brambilla spins further round that fateful lap. The lanky German has worked his way in amongst the Lungers and Giacomellis at the back of the race, and then works on past them, and now, because of the unreal nature of retirements and troubles, he is up in sixth position, showing that it pays to keep trying. For ten laps the Ferrari closes on the Brabham-Alfa and it then seems that stalemate has set in. Lauda is not going to give in or relax, and he certainly is not going to be pressured into making mistakes, of that you could be certain. During this time the Renault retires in a spectacular cloud of smoke as oil pours into the exhaust-turbo through a broken seal.
The outcome seems to be settled and for another ten laps the two Italian 12-cylinders power round a small distance apart, with Reutemann wondering what he can do about the ice-cool, automaton in front of him. By this time Watson has fallen back and is no threat to the Ferrari, not that he ever has been. Lauda is coming up to lap the Rosberg, Stuck, Tambay, Giacomelli group when the ATS expires out on the circuit with a broken drive-shaft on lap 59. As Lauda enters Clearways at the end of lap 60 he is shaping-up to lap Giacomelli, and Reutemann is right behind the Brabham. Lauda completely misjudges what Giacomelli intends to do and goes to pass on the right just as the McLaren driver moved that way, expecting the World Champion to overtake on the left. Lauda lifts off to dodge to the other side but as he does Reutemann shoots past both of them in a brilliant instant-decision manoeuvre and is gone away into the lead. Many drivers would have missed the opportunity it was so brief and sudden, but undoubtedly Reutemann was on 100% concentration, anticipation, and action. After so many changes of fortune it now looks as though the race is settled for a rather rattled Lauda takes an awful long time to get past Stuck even though Reutemann has managed it in two laps. There are only four cars on the same lap driven by Reutemann, Lauda, Watson and Depailler. A lap behind are Stuck, Tambay, Giacomelli, Lunger and Brambilla, while Laffite is three laps down due to tyre trouble, but nonetheless lapping as quick as Watson, actually sitting just behind him on the road. The three 12-cylindered cars end in a triumphal song, the Alfa Romeo having the Ferrari in sight but not close enough to cause worry, and Reutemann receives an enormous cheer and applause for his victory, especially from the thousands of spectators in the Clearways area who have witnessed his brilliant demonstration of opportunism. The Grand Prix ends the busy day, there being no supporting races afterwards and the crowds floods on to the circuit and around the pits to soak up the atmosphere of a remarkable British GP that had gone off smoothly and without a hitch. All the spectators have to do is find their cars in the parks and try and head for home, but that is another matter altogether.