Official timed practice is scheduled to take place on the Thursday and Friday prior to the race, but to give the teams a chance to familiarise themselves with the circuit the track is open on the Wednesday as well for untimed testing. From the outset both Williams FW07Cs of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann proves to be particularly competitive and laps at an average speed of just on 100 m.p.h. When the first official qualifying session starts on Thursday. Reutemann, anxious to do well in this final race of the year and clinch the World Drivers’ Championship, takes advantage of the comparatively cool weather conditions. With a cool breeze taking the edge of the fierce South Nevada sunshine, the dusky Argentinian is well at home and leaves his rivals stunned with a scorching 1'17"821 best, an average speed of 104.917 m.p.h. Jones simply can’t match that, failing to break the 1'18"0. Barrier despite experimenting without the engine cover in an effort to improve the airflow over his Williams’ rear wing. But the Australian is quickest on Friday when the weather is much hotter, lapping 1'17"995. To ensure himself second place on the grid, using his race car for this task after the spare in which he begins practice breaks a valve spring. In this final session it was Reutemann’s turn not to be able to break 1'18"0 following a spectacular incident during the untimed session which can mark the end to both race and Championship prospects for himself and Nelson Piquet. Reutemann comes upon the Brabham team leader running slowly, just off the line, tries to squeeze through the gap and miscalculates the amount of room available. The Williams vaults over the Brabham’s rear wheel, spins in mid.air and comes crashing down onto the circuit again. Piquet’s car emerges relatively unscathed, but the FW07C is immediately took back to the garage for monocoque and suspension pick-up point damage to be examined. The car returns later to the pit lane for Retuemann to use during the final timed session, but after wearing out one of his two sets of qualifying tyres he stops to report that the morning impact has probably bent the suspension pick-up points, causing an aggravating amount of understeer.
Most of the competing cars are transported in convenient trucks from the previous race in Montreal, arriving at Las Vegas in notably clean and undamaged condition, which pleases the mechanics considerably. One man who has a fresh face machine is Gilles Villeneuve, for whom Ferrari 126CK turbo 051/B is sent out from Italy to replace the chassis which finishes a somewhat frayed third in the Canadian. Round the eight twists and turns of Las Vegas Villeneuve is, predictably, great entertainment as his Ferrari turbo swings from lock to lock and he indulges in couple of heart-stopping spins during the course of practice. He eventually squeezes a hectic-looking 1'18"060. Even in the circumstances at Las Vegas, Villeneuve feels he might even have broken the 1 min. 18 sec. barrier he hasn’t confronted by two slower cars immediately ahead of him at a point where his younger brother has parked on the brakes, destroying the prospect on an even quicker practice lap on his last set of Michelin qualifying tyres. Unusually, the Las Vegas Circuit is run in an anti-clockwise direction and the preponderance of left hand corners is causing some discomfort amongst the drivers. One such who suffers more than most is Piquet who seeks assistance from a boxing masseur to relieve cramp in his neck. The unfortunate side effect of this is a badly bruised back and Nelson has to return for several more massages during the course of the weekend. The pain is bad enough to stop him practising on Friday morning, but he forces himself into a fourth fastest 1'18"161. Lap on Friday afternoon. This is good enough to beat Alain Prost’s impressive Renault RE34, which runs the gauntlet of gear selection problems and a minor brake fluid leak, and qualifies fifth on 1'18"433, a time recorded on Thursday. John Watson’s McLaren MP4 lines up sixth although the Ulsterman is not without his problems, virtually has to abandon practice on Thursday due to a sinus problem attributed to his hotel’s air conditioning. The one other competitor with a chance of winning the World Championship title is Jacques Laffite, but the Frenchman complains of an engine pick up problem and dire lack of traction, so much that he commandeered team eats Tambay’s machine to record his 12th fastest 1'19"167 and decides to use that car in the race.
Tambay has already set an impressive seventh quickest overall time to place himself ahead of Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo and the Lotus 87 of Nigel Mansell. The Birmingham driver is comfortably the quicker of the two Lotus entries, despite having to transfer to the team spare in the final session after his race machine develops timing problems and a sticking clutch. De Angelis, unhappy with his 87’s handling and complaining that he is unable to get a clear run in the traffic, can’t improve on the 15th place. Rene Arnoux has a new Renault (RE35) to replace his chassis damaged at Montreal, this car equipped with carbon fibre aerosols front and rear as first see on Prost’s car. However, a new car brings Arnoux no improvement in fortune and following a turbocharger oil leak and consequent fire on Thursday, he spins off into a retaining wall damaging the rear wing, suspension and gearbox. The net result of these problems is a 1'19"197. Best, only good enough for 11th place on the grid. Both Alfa Romeos qualifiy respectably enough, but Didier Pironi has continual handling problems and a turbo failure which contributes to his lowly starting position in the second Ferrari turbo. De Cesaris does a respectable for McLaren despite missing much of the first untimed session when his MP4’s engine drops a valve. Hector Rebaque suffers a front brake failure in Thursday, the Brabham coming to rest undamaged in one of the runoff area sand traps. He qualifies 16th eventually, one place ahead of Alboreto’s Avon shod Tyrrell while Cheever’s similar Goodyear shod machine is a couple of places back on this occasion. Dereck Warwick at last qualifies his Toleman-Hart for his first Grand Prix (and, indeed, his first motor race of any sort for more than a year!), a real white knuckles effort, but this time Henton fails to make it in the other car from Witney. Jarier is unexpectedly far back in the new Osella following engine failure on Thursday. Rosberg manages to struggle his precarious-handling Fittipaldi on to the grid despite steering that seems periodically to be seizing up on him while the final row of the grid comprised Surer’s Theodore and Salazar’s Ensign, both alter game practice efforts. Borgudd’s ATS and Daly’s, March 811 is numbered amongst the non-qualifiers, the popular Irish driver admitting that he knows his car has handling problems but they don’t really feel that bad! Jacques Villeneuve also fails to qualify on his second attempt at getting on to a Gran Prix grid at the wheel of the second Arrows.