#287 1977 Belgian Grand Prix

2022-07-20 01:00

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#1977, Fulvio Conti,

#287 1977 Belgian Grand Prix

Jacky Ickx is hosting, but on Sunday, he won't be in the race. His return to Formula 1 in Monte Carlo was quite accidental, prompted by Regazzoni's su


Jacky Ickx is hosting, but on Sunday, he won't be in the race. His return to Formula 1 in Monte Carlo was quite accidental, prompted by Regazzoni's sudden withdrawal who preferred to seek dollars in Indianapolis, leaving a vacant spot in his car. The Belgian champion, happily married, wealthy, and engaged in the construction business, is primarily thinking about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which he will certainly participate.


"I will watch the race from the pits, perhaps cheering for Ferrari, which has always performed well here in Zolder. However, at this point, I believe the favorites extend beyond the men from the Maranello team: Lauda and Reutemann face several opponents with equal chances, from Scheckter to Andretti, from Lafitte to Depailler, from Watson to Stuck".


After last year's double win, Ferrari (with Lauda taking first place and Regazzoni in second) has increased its credit in Belgium. The team has the support of thousands of Italian fans among the numerous Italian workers in the Benelux region, particularly in this area. However, the moment is not very favorable for the Maranello team, which is seeking better balance for its cars. The Martini-Brabham-Alfa Romeo seems to have a more powerful engine, while the Lotuses have found a setup and weight distribution that make them more competitive. The significant news for the seventh round of the World Championship should concern Emerson Fittipaldi, who finally has a new Copersucar at his disposal. The Brazilian driver, forced to race at the back in previous races with an uncompetitive car, could once again compete among the best. This is because, on June 2, 1977, in unofficial practice, Fittipaldi set one of the best times, clocking 1'28"9. Gray sky, light rain, and the smell of french fries: from the glamorous setting of Monte Carlo, the Formula 1 circus moves in bulk to Flanders, Belgium. The transition is from a city circuit to one of the most beautiful and modern tracks, where everything seems extremely functional, always in the name of business, i.e., affairs and advertising, with colorful billboards and signs placed everywhere. This is a common denominator for all stages of the World Championship, along with the issue of always prohibitive costs. We are at the seventh race, one of those that should give a more precise picture of the aspirations of various teams and their respective drivers. 


Unfortunately, once again, bad weather intervenes. Already on Friday, May 3, 1977, during the first day of practice, it is difficult to decipher the true values. In Monte Carlo, the Martini-Brabham-Alfa stood out, and then Jody Scheckter won. During the first day of practice, Mario Andretti with his Lotus returned to the spotlight, confirming Watson's performance, while Jody seemed to be struggling, and the Ferraris appeared to be in a waiting position: Lauda was fifth, and Reutemann seventh, behind Andretti, Watson, Hunt, and Lafitte. In total, regular tests can be conducted, with the track perfectly dry, for only 37 minutes. It starts at 10:00 a.m., and shortly after half an hour, it starts to rain. The luckiest, or perhaps the most foresighted, immediately try to drive fast to secure a good place on the starting grid, which, if the situation does not change (and the forecasts are pessimistic), could be final. Some, like Patrick Depailler with the Tyrrell, do a few slow laps to fine-tune the setup and brakes. The Frenchman stops after a few laps, and when the car seems fine to him, he finds the track flooded by rain. Now Depailler has the last time among the thirty-two drivers who are trying, and he may fear not qualifying for the race on Sunday if the weather conditions do not change. There is not much satisfaction even at Ferrari, facing difficulties also because they gave up the free practice that many conducted the week before the Belgian Grand Prix. Says Engineer Nosetto, sports director of the Maranello team:


"We preferred to go to Anderstop instead of coming to Zolder because the Swedish circuit has always caused major problems, while the Belgian one does not pose great troubles. The problems that have emerged today are the usual ones, namely tire issues. The tires of Lauda and Reutemann's 312-T2 do not reach the optimal performance temperature, so the cars slide and skid, and in the turns, they understeer. Now we are trying to fix them with a particular setup. I emphasize that there are no engine issues: without these tire problems, no one would be ahead of us".


The rain gives Lauda and Reutemann half an hour to solve their problems. Niki and Carlos also drove in the afternoon under the water, in the second training session, but the work was not very indicative. One can only hope for the sun when, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., there will be the last valid tests for the starting grid. On Friday morning, Andretti set the fastest lap in 1'26"51, a time already lower than the one (1'26"55) that allowed Lauda to take pole position and then win last year. However, in the race, Niki had done even better, setting a lap record (1'25"98). The Lotus confirms being a perfectly balanced car, while James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi seem to have made progress with their new cars. The Englishman, after the electrical system failure that stopped him at Jarama and the decision not to use the latest model of the car in Monte Carlo, reintroduces the McLaren M26, with the oil radiators on the side of the cockpit, in a more advanced position. This solution allows better engine cooling and a better balance of weights. As for Fittipaldi, the Brazilian seems to have a better car than the one he drove at the beginning of the season. The new Copersucar FD 041 is identical to an Ensign in bodywork and chassis design, with small variations in details. The former World Champion has currently set the thirteenth time, preceded by Merzario, Regazzoni, and Patrese in order. The Italian driver stopped almost immediately due to the breakage of a rear half-shaft and did not even take part in the second practice session. Riccardo Patrese's placement is good, considering it's his second experience in Formula 1 after the excellent debut in Monte Carlo. The school of young Italians is making progress. Too bad Bruno Giacomelli couldn't get on the track. On the new March, Jan Scheckter, Jody's brother, got behind the wheel, recovered from the injury suffered in the Monaco trials. Giacomelli was really hoping to race, and perhaps the March executives would have preferred to see the Italian driver on the track, since Jan Scheckter is currently not qualified, having the second-to-last time. 


The number of drivers on the track has been the subject of a protest by Ferrari in a meeting held in Bologna on Saturday, May 7, 1977, by CSI executives. An exception to the regulation was approved, which established for each race to accept entries from only two additional drivers besides those admitted to the race. CSI then backtracked, announcing by telegram that the new rule is unconstitutional, so organizers can admit to trials all the drivers they want. However, there is still a tug of war over how many will start: organizers want 26, constructors 24. Most likely, the organizers will win. It has been said many times that in Formula 1, the limits for drivers and cars have almost been reached. Then, on Saturday, June 4, 1977, Mario Andretti arrives and disrupts every canon, every previous parameter. Progress in racing is still possible, and the Italo-American has demonstrated it with his black and gold Lotus. In the final official tests to determine the starting grid, the small driver of Triestine origin sets a time of 1'24"64, which is prodigious, a time that leaves the nearest opponent, Watson with the Martini-Brabham-Alfa, 1.5s behind, an abyss for the very fast Grand Prix cars. All the others are even further away, on a different planet; the two Ferraris seem, in comparison to the Lotus, clumsy and awkward. The prognosis for the race sees the Maranello cars out of the fight for victory unless an unlikely miracle happens overnight, and the Maranello team presents two different cars than those that have been on the track so far. A track that, despite the always gray sky, is perfectly dry and therefore regular. Carlos Reutemann does better than Niki Lauda and will start in seventh position in the fourth row, while Niki will be in eleventh place, in the sixth row. A difficult day for Ferrari, which cannot tune the cars as it would like and as necessary. For Andretti, instead, obtaining pole position was almost a game, turning at an impressive pace always on times never approached by rivals. At the end of the tests, Mario appears very satisfied with himself and his car.


"Last week I was in the United States while the team came to Belgium for free practice. They called me every day to tell me how training was going, and I advised them on how to fix the car. When I arrived, the car was already perfect, there wasn't much to do. I really like the circuit, and I am confident for tomorrow. I will certainly have a good race".


When asked if Lotus has any secrets to hide, Andretti responds with a smile:


"The engine is always the same. It was tuned by the Englishman Nicholson. For the rest, we have nothing to hide. It's a car that allows straightforward driving, not even too difficult".


However, there are those who claim that Colin Chapman has made some important modifications to his car in order to fully harness the power of the engine. The problem of fully exploiting the engine's capabilities seems to be the major difficulty for Ferrari. Both drivers, as well as Engineer Nosetto, argue that the 312-T2 does not have a suitable setup for this circuit. Reutemann says:


"I had to work a lot and give my all to get the seventh time. But I still don't feel right. Yet I have the same tires as the others".


The Argentine does not want to accuse anything or anyone, but makes it clear that, in his opinion, it is about working on the car's setup. Niki Lauda, hidden on the truck transporting the cars, doesn't hide the difficulties he will face in the race.


"We'll see. Understeer, oversteer, understeer, oversteer in all parts of the circuit. Maybe the asphalt is different in Monte Carlo. Down there, even though I didn't have a perfect car, I felt it in my hands. Here, nothing, you don't feel anything. It will be very difficult to achieve a good result. The car doesn't work with these tires. We'll have to take risks, and that's what I'll do. Two points are better than nothing".


At the start, not only will Andretti's Lotus be in first place, but also Gunnar Nilsson's, in third place, a sign that the English team has found the right balance for the Zolder track, with this rather cold temperature. Ferrari will try everything by using the softest compound tires available, but the battle will be uneven. For the race, the three Italian drivers entered have qualified brilliantly: Brambilla, Merzario, and Patrese respectively mark the twelfth, fourteenth, and fifteenth times. Brambilla, however, had to use the reserve car because the better one had engine problems, while Merzario was slowed down by gearbox issues. Patrese is quite satisfied, although he complains about the same inconveniences that Ferrari drivers had. As for the top performers, the World Championship leader, Jody Scheckter, is ahead of the two Ferrari drivers with the fourth time, in the second row, ahead of Depailler and Mass. World Champion James Hunt is between Reutemann and Lauda. The Englishman broke the engine in the first lap of the tests, and in the race, he will compete with the new car but with an old engine. For Hunt, the black streak continues. On Sunday, June 5, 1977, after the morning practice sessions held on a dry track, bad weather arrived to complicate everything. Shortly before 3:00 p.m., a very strong wind started blowing, and when the cars were already lined up, a fine but dense rain began to fall. In a short time, the asphalt was completely wet. The team managers faced the dilemma, especially those with two cars in the race. Some considered taking the risk, hoping to guess the right tire choice. 


However, in the end, only James Hunt, the most daring of all, remained with slick tires on his McLaren. A risk that the World Champion paid dearly, immediately falling behind. At the start, a huge water spray rose, and Jody Scheckter took the lead on the first lap. The South African, initially starting in the second row, was helped by Andretti and Watson. The Northern Irish driver of the Brabham-Alfa, disciplined by the disappointment at Monte Carlo, where he was overtaken by Scheckter, had a furious start. But Andretti made the same decision. At the first chicane, the two ended up one behind the other, and the Italian-American crashed into the right rear wheel of Watson. Result: both out. From this moment, an incredible carousel begins, and chaos increases as the drivers realize that the rain is stopping. Scheckter continues to lead, chased by Nilsson, Mass, Reutemann (who started very well), and Laffite, but surprises follow one after another. There are numerous off-track excursions, spins, and collisions with guardrails. The first of the big names to pay the price is Carlos Reutemann: during the ninth lap, the Argentine overtakes Mass successfully and moves into third position, behind Scheckter and Nilsson. Meanwhile, tension reigns in the pits. Lauda makes a sudden move, stopping on lap 14 for a tire change, switching to slicks. The Austrian is in seventh position, and with the new tires, he starts to climb. The sign for Reutemann to stop is already displayed at Ferrari, but Carlos does not obey. 


Shortly after the chicane, on a downhill stretch, the Argentine feels the left rear wheel unbalanced, and soon after, he goes off the track, hitting the barrier. After Lauda, Mass and Nilsson also return to the pits, but the German and the Swede lose much more time than the Austrian in changing tires. While Ferrari's mechanics, openly applauded by the crowd in the stands, change the tires in 15 seconds, causing Niki to lose only four positions, Mass and Nilsson have a much longer stop, over half a minute. Lauda takes advantage of the favorable moment and accelerates, taking the lead on lap 23. Initially, the Ferrari driver builds a good margin over his two rivals and also over Brambilla, Jones, and Peterson, who are returning to the top positions after their own pit stops. However, it is noticed that each lap the Ferrari #11 loses ground to the pursuers, confirming the performance difference observed in the practice sessions. Mass is the first to attack, and he would have surely overtaken Lauda on lap 40 if he had not gone off the track, performing a series of spectacular spins. The German admits to making a mistake, miscalculating distances. Just when it seems that Lauda has the situation under control, Nilsson reappears, followed by Brambilla and Peterson. Gunnar gains one to three seconds per lap, and Vittorio also approaches the Ferrari driver. On lap 50, after leading for 27 laps, Lauda surrenders the lead to Nilsson, who easily overtakes him before the chicane and then resists the comeback of the unleashed Peterson, who, however, cannot repeat the feat of his compatriot, evidently having a more competitive car. The Tyrrell driver manages to overtake Brambilla, who spins (the Italian driver spins on the track three times, apparently because the car in front of him does not let him pass) to avoid colliding with the lapped Englishman Purley. In the final laps, Purley also scares Lauda, causing him to spin for a similar action. Niki ends up on the sand but manages to rejoin the track immediately. Scheckter is also a victim of an incident but continues despite having to make several pit stops. However, the efforts of the South African are in vain, as he eventually retires due to a fuel pump failure in his Wolf. Among the Italians, Merzario has an anonymous race, finishing fourteenth and last, mainly because his March had a malfunctioning fuel pump from the start. Riccardo Patrese, on the other hand, does not finish the race. After starting well, getting behind Lauda, the Italian driver almost immediately goes off the track, damaging the car in the corner after the pit straight. 


A Lotus was supposed to win, and it was indeed one of Colin Chapman's black cars that crossed the finish line first in a thrilling Belgian Grand Prix. However, it was not Mario Andretti who achieved this victory but his teammate, the 28-year-old Swedish driver Gunnar Nilsson, who had a beautiful race leading to triumph ahead of Niki Lauda and compatriot Ronnie Peterson. Lauda also had a magnificent race, once again demonstrating that he is primarily an intelligent driver, endowed with tactical and driving sensitivity that other Formula 1 champions do not possess. With today's second place, the Austrian gained six points for the World Championship, points that, after the end of the practice sessions, seemed only a mirage. The Zolder track ultimately proved favorable to the Ferrari driver: his direct rivals collected very little, if anything. Therefore, the satisfaction in the Maranello team for this result is more than justified. Niki Lauda came close to a miracle at Zolder in the Belgian Grand Prix, the miracle of winning a race with a significantly inferior car. He finished second, behind Gunnar Nilsson, who had the advantage of driving the Lotus, but it was a great achievement. One might ask Enzo Ferrari: how long will we have to wait to see Niki behind the wheel of a truly competitive car again? The 312-T2, for better or worse, continues to maintain a certain level, but not only does it no longer have the advantage of the previous year, in certain conditions, others are superior, by a large margin. For example, the Lotus in the Spanish Grand Prix or this one in Belgium, the Brabham-Alfa, the Wolf. Ferrari, with extreme honesty and clarity, acknowledged this in the days before the Grand Prix, putting an end to the usual Italian controversies that more or less subtly, more or less cunningly, accused the drivers, Lauda and Carlos Reutemann. It is the 312-T2 that is not working, and it would be futile to deny it. It is better to face reality decisively: Ferrari has the means and the people to do it. The important thing is not to arrive too late. The Belgian Grand Prix was indeed very favorable for Ferrari and Lauda in particular. Mario Andretti retired after a few hundred meters of the race, Jody Scheckter in the final stages after losing the lead in the chaotic alternation of wet and dry conditions on the Zolder track. Reutemann also removed himself from the equation, so today Scheckter retains the lead in the World Championship standings with just one point ahead of the Austrian: 32 to 31. The others are starting to fall behind. The magnificent four are, perhaps, reducing to two? 


There is reason to doubt: let's not forget that the championship is still long, and Andretti has the better car. The affirmation of Nilsson proves this, in the end. The Swedish driver, who had not shown speed in Formula 1 until now, had achieved the third-fastest time (1'26"45) in practice on Saturday, and in the race, when the track dried, he had no trouble reaching and overtaking Lauda. Niki had lapped in 1'27"11 during practice. As for Andretti, it should be remembered that Mario had secured pole position with a lap time of 1'24"64. In practice, Nilsson, who had struggled in the early part of the race, was able to win comfortably. But anyone sitting in the Lotus cockpit would probably have crossed the finish line first. Lauda has shown that in racing, not only determination matters, or - at least up to a certain limit - the competitiveness of the mechanical means. Niki overturned an unfavorable situation with a bold but calculated move with rare timing: he was the first to change from wet to dry tires, and the move allowed him to even take the lead in the Grand Prix. A matter of experience, intuition, and intelligence. A splendid tactical move, which only the presence of the Lotus prevented from being entirely successful. Lauda repeated the attempt made by James Hunt in 1975 in the Netherlands: the Englishman, then with Hesketh, won the race just ahead of the Ferrari of the Austrian in a weather situation similar to that of Zolder. Naturally, the success of the Ferrari champion's move was due to the skill of the Maranello mechanics, who replaced the four tires of the 312-T2 in about fifteen seconds, a record time, ten seconds faster than the other teams. Working so quickly and so well means being trained, capable, ready, with steady nerves. But the team is strong, and it shows in these circumstances. One more observation on Lauda, recalling what was said and written after Japan. Even at Zolder, it was raining at the start, and there were rain clouds, but the track was passable, and racing could genuinely take place, and Lauda raced. And well. It reaffirms that at Fuji, the withdrawal was not an act of the driver's fear but a conscious decision, and the decision of others to continue was a reckless choice. On the Lotus caravan, crowded with dozens of fans indifferent to the pouring rain, there is great celebration. Champagne bottles are abundant to toast to this new success of the sleek black and gold car. Today's victory has made the team leaders even happier because it was achieved by Gunnar Nilsson, a discovery of Colin Chapman. The lanky Swedish driver, just out of the car, had said:


"I won. It doesn't seem real to me. I'm naturally very happy, and I have to thank Chapman, who provided me with a perfect car".


In the paddock, after the initial excitement, Nilsson responds to the journalists bombarding him with questions and judges his winning race:


"It was a tough battle because I had to make a lot of overtakes, and not everyone let me pass easily. I knew I could achieve a good placement, but I really didn't hope for the victory. I'm sorry Mario went out so early because we could have had a nice one-two".


Sitting in a corner, looking dark, Mario Andretti reluctantly participates in the winner's celebration. The Italian-American driver doesn't make excuses for the incident he caused and says:


"At the braking point of the first chicane behind the boxes, I arrived a bit too fast, slipped on the water, and touched Watson. We both ended up in the sand, and I could have restarted because the car hadn't suffered damage, but I couldn't get it back started".


There are cheerful faces at Ferrari too. Engineer Nosetto, the sports director of Ferrari, says:


"All in all, it went quite well because Nilsson, who is not a points man, won, while we achieved a valuable second place with Lauda, bringing him just one point behind Scheckter in the World Championship standings. Of course, this race was tormenting because the lap times were quite irregular, and we feared every time Niki stopped. When we saw that Lauda was in the lead, for a while, we hoped, but the Lotus confirmed that it is significantly superior to us. We have no regrets for not coming here to test, preferring to go to Anderstop on a track unfavorable to us like the Swedish one instead of a circuit where we had won in the last two years. The important thing now is to work hard to try to adapt our cars to these tires. Tomorrow and the day after, we will test at Zandvoort in preparation for the Dutch Grand Prix, and then we will continue testing at Fiorano".


Niki Lauda adds:


"I am more than satisfied because starting eleventh and finishing second is an excellent result. It was quite difficult at the beginning with the rain, but I always pushed to the maximum. A problem was also the lapping, especially that of Purley, who hindered me, we touched, and both ended up in the sand".


Someone asks him about the fear of rain:


"I'm not afraid of water when the conditions are normal. It is not logical for me to race in impossible conditions. Here, they made a mistake because they didn't signal that it had started raining again, and this is very serious because there was danger. The problem now is the Lotus, which is stronger than us, while our car with these tires is not good".


At Brabham, the atmosphere is very different. John Watson says:


"Nothing goes well for me. I was rear-ended by Andretti, and the race was over. It's a shame because I had a good start, and the car was perfect".


Engineer Carlo Chiti, for this new negative test of his drivers, is instead furious:


"They can go to hell. They always destroy everything and never manage to achieve a positive result. I don't understand why they always find themselves in the middle of accidents, while, for example, nothing ever happens to Lauda".


Perhaps he didn't know about Purley. Vittorio Brambilla is both happy and upset at the same time since he has finally managed to get a valuable fourth place.


"They all obstructed me, and making overtakes was a big adventure. I even spun twice because I was touched by Alan Jones and David Purley, and it was close that this time too I ruined the car and had to retire. My Surtees was going very well, and without these difficulties, I would certainly have finished among the top three".


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