#307 1978 British Grand Prix

2022-08-05 00:00

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#1978, Fulvio Conti,

#307 1978 British Grand Prix

Variety is something which the British Grand Prix always provides, fluctuating as it does from the pleasant garden-party atmosphere of the Silverstone

Variety is something which the British Grand Prix always provides, fluctuating as it does from the pleasant garden-party atmosphere of the Silverstone airfield circuit to the wire-mesh fence confines of the cramped and over-crowded stadium at Brands Hatch. Anyone who is at the British Grand Prix this year will know that you can get a quart into a pint pot. The fairly spacious pit-lane, overlooked by a new timekeepers bridge is well filled on Friday morning, when practice begins. There are thirty aspirants for the twenty-six places on the grid and their cars together with twenty-one spare cars provide a very full and busy scene. More remarkable is the paying spectator crowd that pours into the circuit from early morning, for it is a crowd that any Formula Two organiser would have loved to have seen on race day, and this is only the first day of Grand Prix practice. While the big boys dispute pole-position at the front end of the grid, the rabbits are vying for the back of the grid or in the unlucky four who are not going to race. In the solid block of mid-field runners there is equally keen competition among those running on standard Goodyear tyres to qualify for assistance with special tyres. We have become used to Team Lotus setting the pace in practice, and even dominating it, but Friday’s practice borders on the verge of being silly, unless you are a Lotus fan in which case it could not have been better. Peterson’s car, number 79/2, went to the Österreichring direct from the French Grand Prix and Andretti used it during the Goodyear tyre testing session (and made fastest lap!). It returned to the factory for a quick look-over and it was down to Brands Hatch for Peterson to use in the morning session prior to being taken apart and refurbished ready for the second day of practice. After winning at Paul Ricard, Andretti’s car, number 79/3, was returned to the factory to be straightened out after its crash during practice at the French GP.
This involved fitting a new front bulk-head to the monocoque and skilfully knocking out the dent and ripples in the skin in front of the cockpit. The Cosworth Development engine which won the French race was left in the car, the plan being to use it for the Friday practice at Brands Hatch and then install a new engine for the second day of practice and the race. While in Austria the oil tank on 79/2 developed a leak and was welded-up temporarily, as it is a cast-alloy tank that forms the spacer between the engine and gearbox. It is no surprise to find this arrangement on some other cars, such as the Williams and the Fittipaldi. Peterson had made fastest lap round Brands Hatch a week or two earlier, during a tyre-test session, driving his old Lotus 78/2, so on Friday July 14th he gets into the groove very quickly indeed with 79/2, even though it is a bit tired. With some inspired driving the Swede is well into the 1'17"0, reeling off a number of laps in this order when others are being hard put to get below 1'20"0. Meanwhile Andretti is doing his usual methodical juggling with the variables and is also into the 1'17"0, but not as fast as the Swede. The morning session ends with Peterson best at 1'17"16 and Andretti second with 1'17"83. In third place, an unbelievably long way back, comes Scheckter with the Wolf WR5 with 1'18"76 over a second and a half behind Peterson. The times of the rest of the Big boys such as Lauda, Hunt, Reutemann, Watson etc. are almost embarrassing to view, and what makes it all much worse is that the two Lotus 79 cars did not look to be going fast. A number of observers remarks that the Lotus 79 made it all look too easy, which is not far from the truth, for as with most things once you get it right it is easy. The hard bit is getting it right. Behind the chosen Goodyear runners, and in front of some of them, there is some good driving going on by those in the running for some special favours. Jacques Laffite in the Ligier JS9/01, unchanged since its good run at Paul Ricard, is going so well and is so much ahead of the others with a best lap in 1'19"55 that the Ligier team are given the very best practice tyres for the afternoon session.
After him the two Shadow drivers Stuck and Regazzoni are getting their cars going well, and Derek Daly is getting to grips with the Ensign. Alan Jones in the Williams figures high as always, as does Patrese in his Arrows, so they are all given encouragement and support in the form of better front tyres. As soon as the morning practice ends Peterson’s mechanics start to dismantle his Lotus 79 and his old Lotus 78 is got out for him to use. Meanwhile, Andretti carries on where he’d left off before lunch with a handful of laps, during which he clocks 1'17"81 but when his Hewland gearbox jumps out of fourth gear he thinks it best to have the back off and have a look inside. With only an hour of practice there isn’t really time for a gearbox overhaul, but the Lotus mechanics get stuck into it and have the gearbox internals out. It is all back together again with only a few minutes of practice left, but then the Cosworth V8 will not start, due to vaporisation in the fuel system while it had been stationary. A push-start gets it going, Andretti heading down the pits slip-road while so doing, but he runs over a man-hole cover which rips one of the floating side-skirts to pieces. End of Lotus practice and a good try for the Team Shambles award, if it could ever be got back from B.R.M. Peterson does not do very much practice with the old Lotus 78, a mere 13 laps, against some drivers who do 30 laps in the hour-long session, and he never gets below 1'20"0. With neither Lotus out on the track you would have expected the rest of the heavy-brigade to have forced their way to the front, but it is not like that. Watson and Lauda vie with Scheckter for best of the rest, the Austrian World Champion using the spare Brabham BT46/5 while his own BT46/6 goes back to the factory to have its suspension repaired. For a time Watson in BT46/3 takes third fastest place overall, with 1'18"57 but before the end of the hour both Lauda and Scheckter pass him.
The lap record still stands from the 1977 Race of Champions, when Hunt does 1'19"48 the fastest for practice for that race is Watson in 1'19"05, times which a year and a half later are of little interest. When it is all over Peterson still holds FTD with his morning time of 1'17"16. Andretti is second with 1'17"81, and then comes Lauda with 1'18"03, with Scheckter, Watson, Jabouille and Villeneuve also in the 1'18"0. Alan Jones is easily the best of the smaller teams, ahead of Hunt, both Ferraris and Depailler. The Lotus drivers are in a class of their own as their cars are torn apart to be made ready with new engines and components for the second day of practice. At the back of the field Geoff Lees (Ensign), Lunger (McLaren), Trimmer (McLaren) and Keegan (Surtees) are the non-qualifiers, the Southend-on-Sea driver in the Surtees having had a miserable day. The engine in his TS20 blew up in the morning so he transferred to the old TS19 only to find the gear ratios were all wrong, and a lot of time was lost just messing about. It has been a warm, dry day on Friday, and similar conditions prevail on Saturday when the untimed test session takes place in the morning prior to the death or glory one hour of timed practice in the afternoon. The two Lotus 79 cars are back together again and ready to go, Peterson’s car having had a new oil tank installed, and there is a third Lotus 79 in the pits as a stand-by. This is 79/1, the prototype car, now completely rebuilt and up-dated with the elliptical section rear wishbones as on 79/3, and a new design of brake calliper on the front. It has been fitted with a Hewland gearbox as its role of test-vehicle for the Lotus-Getrag gearbox has been shelved for a time. Lauda is back in his original Brabham, and Hunt is trying an experimental McLaren M26/4E. This is the car that Hunt crashed in practice in Spain and it had had the sides of the monocoque sawn off, leaving only the cockpit tub, and a complete redesign has been carried out around it, on the lines of a cross between a Lotus 78 and Lotus 79.

The water radiators were moved from the rear, forwards on each side of the cockpit, with front entry for the air and top exits, the rear suspension was all new, with box-section fabricated rocker arms at the top to operate inboard spring units, the exhaust pipes were tucked in close to the engine, long side skirts were fitted and the rear of the car was decked in. Suddenly, everyone now wants air to flow under their cars, after struggling to keep it out for so long. Lotus really have started something yet again. Peterson is in unbeatable form round the twisty undulating Brands Hatch circuit and after setting off in the 1'17"0, while a lot of drivers are still hopefully aiming for 1'19"0, he then does an electrifying 1'16"8 and decides that is enough. Even Andretti cannot match this, for all his careful and calculated technical approach, and his best is 1'17"06. There are people who say that Peterson is over the hill as a driver, and others who say it is all down to the Lotus 79 and others say that the idea of a return of the vintage Peterson magic is a myth. Whatever it is, the Swede is in a class of his own on Saturday afternoon and sits and watches the others struggle during the closing stages of the final hour. The Wolf WR5 is performing well, or Scheckter is making it perform well, depending on how you view these things, and he is a comfortable third overall. Compared to the smooth running of the Lotus the Wolf looks wild and woolly, but at least it is giving results. As a result of their efforts on Friday Laffite, Patrese and Jones are getting all the help possible from Goodyear, and Daly, Regazzoni and Stuck are getting some help in the form of better front tyres. However, the super-Goodyear tyres are not instant-magic in that you just put them on your car and improve your lap time by a second or more. You have to know how to readjust your suspension settings and how to readjust your driving technique; for example with the sticky rubber you can brake much later into a corner, but unless you are brave enough and skilful enough to judge how late, the sticky tyres will not be much help.


Both Patrese and Jones are really making good use of their Goodyear help, and the Arrows driver is fifth fastest overall and the Williams driver sixth, which puts them on the third row of the grid, ahead of such heavies as Reutemann, Watson, Depailler, and Hunt. Goodyear are very pleased, for it pushes their Michelin rival back a row. The Lotus performance almost over-shadows such efforts as it does of other good efforts by Fittipaldi in getting alongside the turbocharged Renault, and Derek Daly who gets the Ensign well up the grid, alongside little Bruno Giacomelli. The McLaren team never seems to get into the Brands Hatch groove, with a time he records in the first session and he subsequently goes slower and slower. A remarkable feature of practice is the number of drivers who have spins, most of them quite harmless, but it is an indication of just how hard everyone is trying, right through the field. There have been races where grid-positions were decided by hundredths of a second, even thousandths, but this does not apply to the 1978 British GP, it is much more clear-cut than we have seen for some time. Looking at the starting grid it is a question of what the Team Lotus tactics will be, what will happen if Peterson takes the lead from the start, when will he have to let Andretti go by, or will they conceivably organise a dead-heat. For the rest of the field it is a question of who is going to finish third. Already the question of who is not going to race has been settled, with Stommelen (Arrows), Lees (Ensign), Keegan (Surtees) and Trimmer (McLaren) listed as the non-qualifiers. The crowds that pours into the Kentish stadium on Sunday, to supplement those already entrenched overnight, are of record proportions and the day is sunny and warm. All manner of side-shows and diversions are provided to keep the customers amused, from acrobatic displays, saloon car racing, Royal visitors, ex-racing drivers and Team Managers in a saloon car race, an enormous parade of Ford products covering their 75 years of history, food and drink in profusion and ice-cream and hamburgers. There is never a dull moment.


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.



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