#287 1977 Belgian Grand Prix

2022-07-20 01:00

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#287 1977 Belgian Grand Prix

The race organisers and the Constructors Association are quite happy to open the race to ‘members and a limited number of friends’, but quite a few no

The race organisers and the Constructors Association are quite happy to open the race to ‘members and a limited number of friends’, but quite a few non-members and independent drivers want to have an attempt to qualify for the 24 positions assigned to the starting grid. Fortunately these outsiders had a good legal-eagle on their side, who could clearly read the small press in the FIA Yellow Paper, where it says the race organisers must allow any reasonable candidate the opportunity to try a place on the grid. So 32 drivers are ready for training on Friday morning, the narrow pit lane is hopelessly overcrowded, as were Brands Hatch and Silverstone, and the unfortunate ones don't even have a well from which to operate, but have to camp-out on the grass and sand towards the first corner after the pits. How to be on Skegness beach, Brian Henton observes as his mechanics tried to keep the sand out of their toolboxes. Others ironically look at the Armco security barriers and the catch barriers behind them, wondering who decided to set up the over-flow pits in a danger zone. It must have been a dangerous area, or why have Armco and catch-fences. While some teams like Lotus and Wolf went straight ahead with the work, others like Tyrrell experimented with the spare car to get started and others were prevented from moving forward. One of them was Ensign, because Regazzoni barely had the tires and really hot oil before a connecting-rod broke into the Cosworth engine and drilled an expensive hole in the side of the block. He continued in the spare car. Of the private owners Arturo Merzario got into the pace very quickly and made faster laps than many of the factory drivers who were tinkering. The rules from 10:00 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. of the training session were going well, with Andretti faster, but with John Watson close behind him, when the rain started; light at first, but soon becoming constant with a darkness invading from all quarters. Nilsson had been out in the Spare Lotus and Depailler in the Spare Tyrrell and when they moved to their racing cars the track was damp, so they could make little progress.
Practice, as such, and starting grid qualification aspirations were exhausted well before the allotted time. In the afternoon the training was scheduled from 13:00 to 14:00, when it was raining hard and he became aware of the new look in Formula One that turned back from the retreat of drivers like Stewart and Hulme. It wasn't long since such weather conditions would have seen all the cars covered, the drivers all curled up in a caravan and suggestions that if the rain went on the race would have to be cancelled. Fortunately, those syndicate days are over and the attitude of most drivers today is we are here to drive race cars, wet or dry, so let’s move on. The result was that there was a considerable amount of activity during the very humid hour. Some drivers with two cars at their disposal, such as Jody Scheckter, and Jacques Laffite used their spare car, others had to do the costs with what they had and Merzario was prevented from leaving because a drive-shaft had broken down at the end of the morning and the car was under repair. None of the McLaren drivers' jobs ventured, management considered that activity useless, as John Watson did. Others who did not exercise in the rain were Jones (Shadow), Brambilla (Surtees) while his car was being machined after an engine explosion in the morning, Keegan and Hayje. The run times were 20 seconds or slower than dry, so the entire training session made no sense as far as the starting grid positions were concerned, and because the morning session had been abruptly interrupted by the rain, Saturday training would be more critical than usual. Jody Scheckter was comfortable (or uncomfortable, to be more correct!) Faster in the rain with Peterson, Nilsson and Andretti in a group behind him, followed by Reutemann and Lauda’s Ferraris. The weather was still grey and cold on Saturday morning when everyone went through the movements of the test session now and a half no time that Goodyear is reluctant to let the circus leave, although most teams would like.
Watson went out into the reserve Brabham, but began to boil, so he was early in his normal car, and the Ensign team had another disastrous engine blow-up again in MN06, so Regazzoni resigned to using the spare car for the afternoon qualifying hour. In the Lotus boxes there was a growing air of confidence, because everything was going well before the rain arrived the previous day and Colin Chapman was so confident with the conditions of the cars that he returned to England for some family affairs on Saturday leaving everything in the capable hands of his three technicians, Southgate, Bennett and Bellamy: At unofficial times the two Lotus cars were a first and a second The engine in the 78/2 had gone bang, of which there was no doubt from the Swedish’s description, and when the car was towed in it it it was seen that it had not exaggerated. A connecting-rod was skilfully popping out of the side of the cylinder block. The last hour was between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. and there was no alternative but to set 78/1 for Nilsson, while 78/2 had installed another engine. Regazzoni was supposed to use MN07 and the March team decided Ian Scheckter should use the 761B rather than the new 771 for this crucial hour as the new car hadn't raced enough and they were still learning about it. The rather grey weather improve a bit during the afternoon, but it never look like becoming blazing June. The final frantic hour began and the confusion in the pit lane mount, with television crews trapesing about with cameras and cables, photographers taking the same photographs for the umpteenth time, small children trying to got drivers’ autographs and people and cars milling about. Amidst it all James Hunt came running down the pit lane, having abandoned M26/2 when the Cosworth engine blew up. Amid all the confusion the McLaren mechanics have to prepare M23/11 for him, in a forlorn hope of keeping the World Champion in the picture.
According to the regulations only 24 cars are going to be allow to start, these being the fastest 24 naturally, but before this final hour of qualifying the organisers are going round with a petition for the teammanagers to sign, agreeing that 26 cars should be allowed to start, in the hope that this would give the Belgians Neve and de Dryver a better chance of getting in the race. Andretti is reeling off quick laps with a deceptive smoothness, and Nilsson was not far behind, in spite of being in the spare car, with its longer wheelbase and old-type rear roll-bar layout. Clearly the Lotus 78s had been beautifully tuned to the circuit, and while 1'26"0 and a bit was a good competitive time, Andretti was well down below 1'26"0. Some quite good driver/car combinations were still trying to better 1'27"0, when the Lotus pit signals indicated 1'24"9 to Andretti which a lot of people just refused to believe. When 1'24"7 appeared everyone thought the Lotus time-keeper had taken leave of his senses, for the likes of Lauda, Scheckter, Depailler, Watson and so on did not look like approaching 1'26"0, let alone getting below it; here are Team Lotus suggesting that Andretti was 2 sec. faster than most of the top runners! The fact that Nilsson in the spare car was third fastest rather convinced the disbelievers that Lotus had pulled something out of the technical bag. When the turmoil of the final hour subsided it was seen that Lotus were not fooling, Andretti recorded 1'24"64, well below the fastest-ever lap recorded at Zolder, and the next fastest was John Watson with 1'26"18, one and a half seconds behind the Lotus. In an age when one and a half seconds can cover the first 10 or 15 cars at the end of practice, and pole position is often snatched by 1 1/2 tenths of a second, it seemed unreal that the Lotus should be that far in front. Team Lotus felt confident that if Nilsson had been in his proper car he would have been second fastest; as it was he was third, which was a fine effort on his part. This unbelievable situation at the front of the grid completely overshadowed the fact that Reutemann was faster than Lauda in the Ferrari team, and that both of them were much slower than Watson’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Scheckter’s Wolf (another embarrassing phone call to the Commendatore).
The back of the grid was almost unimportant in the general picture, though very important to those concerned. Patrick Neve had just scraped in with the Williams March, in 24th place, just behind Perkins who had not been shining too brightly with the Surtees. It was agreed that an extra two cars be taken into the race, so this let in Harald Ertl with his Hesketh and Jarier with the Penske. Keegan and Purley were well in, while Riccardo Patrese once again took all the kudos from the new-boys. Those that were left out were Hayje (March), Villota (McLaren), Anderson (B.R.M.), Ribeiro (March), de Dryver (March) and Rebaque (Hesketh). Overnight the speed of the Lotus was discussed in all quarters. It was accepted that Andretti was a good driver, but not that good, and anyway Nilsson was well placed, so it had to be something about the Lotus 78 that Chapman and his team had done. It wasn’t super-special Cosworth engines, for Andretti was using a John Nicholson prepared engine and Nilsson was using a normal run-of-the-mill Cosworth Engineering prepared unit. Lotus had got a special-development Cosworth engine, but were not using it, it was sitting in the transporter. It could not be special Goodyear tyres, because by the Constructor Association gentleman’s agreement everyone had the same type of tyre - or had they? It couldn’t be that Goodyear were preparing for the appearance of Michelin into Formula 1, by letting some special tyres slip out. If they had, they are unlikely to have had them for Andrew and Nilsson. It could not be the special low-percentage slip differential, for Nilsson wasn’t using one. The only common factor seemed to be the much-vaunted (at the beginning of the season) air-flow under the side-pods, giving additional down-force. From appearances both Lotus cars seemed to be running with their rear aerofoils at a shallower angle than most people, thus providing little down-force, but more important they were producing less drag. Observers remarked that Andretti was not only much faster round the long right-hand sweep that brings the track along behind the pits; but looked uncommonly steady. Perhaps the inverted aerofoil sections under the sides of the Lotus are now really working, having sorted out the other variables.

When Colin Chapman return on Sunday morning he is both pleased and angry, for while he expect Andretti to be on pole position he intend that he shoud have done it by a few tenths of a second, not a whole second and a half. Team Lotus had shown their hand unnecessarily. The race was due to start at 3:00 p.m. after races for Renault-powered cars, parades and demonstrations and all the fun of the fair. Shortly before mid-day the Formula One cars that had qualified had a last test-session, which allowed Hunt to try out the M26 now with a development Cosworth engine installed, and Depailler to try his 6-wheeler fitted with Tyrrell’s special Cosworth engine. The Lotus super-Cosworth stayed in the transporter. The Ferrari team had a mild panic when Reuternann’s car broke an oil pipe and he stopped in a cloud of smoke. Just in case any damage had been done and it couldn’t be repaired, the Argentinian took the spare Ferrari out. Down at the back of the field there was also trouble, for Lunger’s new McLaren developed an incurable misfire so Sparshott and his lads had no alternative but to get really stuck in and change the engine, before the 3:00 p.m. start. As Boy Hayje was first reserve the F&S team kept their March at the ready, just in case the B&S team ran out of time. There is a fantastic wind blowing along the starting straight, against the direction of travel and the pits and paddock were full to overflowing with anyone and everyone. As 3:00 p.m. approached the wind got stronger, the skies got greyer and as the cars left the pits to drive round to the grid the officials on the start-line who had left their waterproof clothing behind were looking very uncomfortable. In the Lunger pit all had been going well until a final petrol pipe joint was being connected up, which refused to connect properly. As it was buried under the car it took too long to cure, so that they ran out of time by five minutes. Hayje was allowed to join the cars in the pits and the gate was closed. In the Hesketh camp Keegan’s car was found to have a crack in the front suspension mounting so a mad scramble got Rebaque’s non-qualified car out of the transporter and bits of bodywork from Keegan’s car were fitted to it. The young Southender had to set off into the race in a car he had barely seen before, let alone sat in before.


On the starting grid Andretti’s Lotus was topped up with petrol, while scrutineers went among the cars with a simple but effective height gauge through which rear aerofoils had to pass without impinging on it. All was well. The race was to be run over 70 laps of the little circuit and before the signal was given to do a warm-up lap the rain started. First as a fine sea-mist in the wind and then as a thick, but soft summer-rain. Mechanics rushed about with rain tyres, jacks, wheel nut tools, and team-managers covered their proteges with umbrellas and the officials who hadn’t brought their waterproofs regretted it. The minute signal to the start of the warm-up lap was given and still everyone was on slick dry weather tyres. Away they went on the warm-up lap, with Andretti setting the pace, all that is except Hunt, his McLaren taking a long time to start. Eventually he left and caught the others up. By the time they returned to the grid a sign had gone up reading Start Delayed. Everyone sat miserably on the starting grid while minutes ticked by, even though the Omega clock on the control tower sat resolutely at 6:15 p.m. Then out came the sign Wet Race, which meant that the race was going to be run, come-what-may, under the existing conditions and there was a free choice about what tyres to use and when to use them. Still no move was made by anyone to fit wet weather tyres, though everyone had their equipment ready. It looked as though everyone was reluctant to start and they were playing for time, but the rain was still coming down. A one-minute warning signal was given that the normal starting procedure was about to be re-enacted. Nothing happened for a moment, and then Watson’s crew began to change tyres; he was followed by Scheckter, then Laffite, then Andretti and then everyone was changing over to wet-weather tyres and the wet race was on. Amidst all this activity Hunt’s mechanics stood motionless, the World Champion had decided to take an enormous gamble and start on dry-weather tyres, in the hope that the rain would soon stop and that he could keep close enough to the race pace, to profit when the others had to stop to change tyres.


It was a sporting gamble on the basis of win it all, or lose it all, no half-measures. The count-down began with the red light glowering balefully down onto the 26 cars, the green light came on and everyone was away in a cloud of spray, Watson out-accelerating Andretti to the first corner. They all stayed on the road though two back-markers spun and streamed round the long back curve and came rushing down the back straight to the chicane behind the paddock. Suddenly there was a shower of sparks amid the spray and Watson and Andretti spun off the track. The little US-Italian had goofed on braking and punted the Brabham up the rear. Miraculously everyone avoided the spinning car, though Nilsson had to take to the rough momentarily, and then the 24 remaining cars had gone over the small hill and were returning for the end of the opening lap. Scheckter went storming by in the lead, the Wolf looking very good, with Nilsson and Mass following. Already there was a gap before Reutemann arrived leading Depailler, Laffite, Peterson, Lauda, Brambilla, Patrese, Stuck, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi and the rest. Hunt was already down into eighteenth place, from his ninth starting position, but he was still going faster on slicks than some aspiring World Champions were on wet-weather tyres. There was little change on the second lap, apart from Scheckter making the most of the clear road ahead of him, and Hunt dropping back to next to last. On lap three the new Fittipaldi car spluttered to a stop beside the track with water in its electrics. While Scheckter was pulling away, Mass was racing wheel to wheel with Nilsson for second place, the two number two drivers putting on a fine show now that the number ones were out of the way. On lap 6 Stuck went off into the sand and dirt and appeared in the pits with a brown front on his red Brabham, and lost a lot of time being cleaned up and put back into the race. By lap 7 it looked as if Hunt had lost out on his gamble, for the rain was still falling and he was lapped by Scheckter, which meant that he was now more than a pit-stop behind the leader.


On the next lap the duelling Nilsson and Mass lapped Hunt, and though the rain was easing off the track was still very wet and slippery, as Stuck found out as he spun into the chicane behind the paddock, but kept the Brabham on the track. By 10 laps Jody Scheckter have  a commanding lead, while brother Ian have spin his March off into the dirt, covering the engine with sand and earth so that it would have asked for engine failure to try and restart. In struggling to get the better of Nilsson, Mass had a quick spin, which let Reutemann go by. The Ferrari driver had pulled away from his followers and this allowed Mass to catch the spinning McLaren and carry on in fourth place, before Lane, Brambilla, Lauda, Patrese, Peterson, Regazzoni and Jones came along, the last three running abreast down the straight past the pits. Purley was doing a good job leading all the non-works cars and holding twelfth place overall. With the strong wind still blowing the track dried quickly as the rain stopped, especially on the path taken by the racing cars, but it was still treacherous off the ideal line, as Patrese found out on lap 13, when he spun off into the crash barrier. At this point Peterson came in to change over to dry-weather tyres, while the others kept to the wet patches on the straights to cool their wet-weather tyres which soon over-heated on the dry parts of the track. At 14 laps Scheckter still had a long lead, followed by Nilsson, Reutemann and Mass spaced out, and then Brambilla, Lauda and Laftite, followed by Regazzoni, Jones and Purley. At this point Lauda drew into the pits to change on to dry-weather tyres, and before a lot of people had noticed he was in the pits the Ferrari was up on the jacks, the wheels off, new wheels with slick tyres on, the jacks were down and Lauda was gone. The Ferrari mechanics surpassed themselves, for the car was stationary for 16 seconds! He is back in the race in ninth place, long before Hunt appeared so that the McLaren driver’s gamble have really failed. In the early part of the seventeenth lap Scheckter lost control on a wet patch and spun off the track, damaging nothing more serious than the Wolf’s rear light, but before he could get going again, aided by the marshals, he had dropped to eighth place, just ahead of Lauda.


While Lauda had been in the pits Reutemann had spun off on the treacherous surface and hit the Armco, as had Keegan, who had been unable to keep up with his fellow Hesketh owner Ertl. Scheckter’s slip let Nilsson into the lead for the rest of that lap, but the Swede was already easing off to come in for a tyre change, so it was Mass who actually led at the end of lap 17. Nilsson’s tyre change went as wrong as Lauda’s had gone right, for the left-front wheel nut jibbed at going back on and the luckless Swede was over a lap behind Jochen Mass when he rejoined the race, now in thirteenth place. Regazzoni and Jones stopped to change tyres on lap 18, so everyone behind them moved up two places and then Mass made his pit-stop and this let a surprised Brambilla into the lead, followed by Laffite and then Purley, who had profited from everyone’s stops and troubles. When Laffite stopped for a tyre change after 21 laps, Purley moved into a glorious, but tenuous second place. On the same lap Scheckter stopped to change tyres, having been passed by Lauda and Mass. Poor Hunt was still a lap down on whoever led the race, with no hope of improving his position. One lap more and Brambilla was heading down the pit road for dry tyres, and then Purley followed him, so that Lauda now went by in the lead, followed by Mass and Jones. If David Purley had carried on for one more lap before coming into the pits he would have had the moment of glory of actually leading the race! Unfortunately his pit-stop was a disaster, for he stopped the engine while the wheels were changed and then had trouble with the starter motor and lost a lot of time before he got back into the race. By lap 25 all the excitement of pit-stops and tyre changing was over and the race order stabilised itself. Lauda was leading comfortably, thanks to his mechanics, with Mass second, Jones in a worthy third place, followed by Brambilla whose pit-stop had been very good. Then came Scheckter, still making up for his misdemeanour, Laffite and Nilsson, who were now on the same lap as the leader. The track was dry, everyone was on dry tyres and a new race was in progress.


Lauda looked to have it all made for victory, he was well out in front, driving smoothly and efficiently and the Ferrari sounded perfect. Neither Mass nor Jones were going to give him any trouble, nor Brambilla for that matter, though Scheckter, Laffite and Nilsson were on the same lap but too far back to be a danger or so it seemed. When Mass had a spin on lap 29, without leaving the road, Lauda’s lead was even more secure, though Scheckter and Nilsson were closing rapidly on Jones and Brambilla. On the next lap, as Regazzoni’s Ensign blew up its third Cosworth engine of the weekend, the Wolf was in third place and Nilsson was all mixed up with Jones and Brambilla, and was joined by Peterson and Laffite. On lap 32 it was Lauda’s turn to have a spin, for the track was still slippery in places where intermittent rain showers had started again, but not all over the track. This spin did no harm and did not jeopardise the lead that Lauda had and on the next lap the Matra engine in the Ligier blew up and Laffite coasted onto the grass. The light rain was now spreading to all parts of the track, but not heavy enough to cause a panic for wet-weather tyres. Although Scheckter was securely in third place he did not know it, for in the confusion of pit signals he had not read his correctly. The Wolf pit was at the far end of the row, among Lotus and Tyrrell and almost on the braking point for the sharp left-hand bend, and in the gloom Scheckter had been unable to grasp the situation and thought he was nowhere in the race. Thinking he had nothing to lose and not enjoying the wet track on slick tyres he went into the pits and changed to wets, which elevated Nilsson into third place, the Swede having got the better of Jones and Brambilla, though Peterson was unable to do the same. When Scheckter rejoined the race he was down in seventh position, nearly a whole lap behind Lauda. The rain did not develop into anything serious and by pussy-footing they were all keeping on the wet road in spite of being on dry-weather slicks. That is until lap 40 when Mass lost it and spun the McLaren off the track and out of the race.


This now left Nilsson a comfortable second place, but a long way behind the leading Ferrari, with Peterson now third, having passed Jones and Brambilla, though Jones was now down on power due to a broken exhaust manifold pipe, and the Shadow was sounding very rough, but still going. Scheckter was now a remarkable sixth, but with the drying track he was in trouble with his knobbly wet-weather tyres overheating and throwing bits of tread. The nice drying wind was still doing its stuff and as things improved Nilsson’s Lotus came into its own and the Swede began to reduce the gap on the leading Ferrari at an astonishing rate. Within ten laps on the dry road the Lotus was right up behind the Ferrari and on lap 50 the Swede out-braked the Ferrari into the chicane behind the pits, as if he was overtaking a back-marker, and was gone over the hill into the lead, just like that. There was nothing Lauda could do about it, and with all respects to Gunnar Nilsson’s driving ability, it just had to be a case of a vastly superior car. Behind them Brambilla had elbowed his way past Peterson, into third place, but then overdid it on a corner and got all crossed-up, so that the sixwheeler went back into third place. Poor Scheckter had finally been forced to return to the pits and change back onto dry tyres and was now well over a lap behind everyone that mattered. Hunt was still in the race, but almost unnoticed, though actually in sixth place, more than a lap behind the leader and he was followed by Depailler, who had been delayed by two pit stops. Closing on them was Stuck, who since his earlier mistakes had been going well, and when Peterson lapped his teammate the Frenchman hung on and got towed closer to Hunt, for the Swede was in flying form. Once away from Lauda, the younger Swede was able to roll it off and cruise home untroubled, revving to a mere 9.500 r.p.m. in the gears, instead of the normal 10.800 r.p.m. The Lotus was just remarkable, and Nilsson was doing a great job of work with it. Scheckter’s unhappy day ended with only seven laps to go when his engine spluttered and died, for what seemed like an electrical fault somewhere, and Nilsson cruised round to complete the 70 laps. 


Alessia Bossi


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