After the Grands Prix of Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and the United States West, the Formula 1 circus arrives in Spain to kick off the European season. The prologue is over; now the challenge for the world championship title enters the decisive period. From Sunday, May 8, 1977, to the Italian Grand Prix on September 11, 1977, a total of ten races are scheduled, defining the championship within this timeframe. Among all the teams, Ferrari is in the best position to face this period. The Maranello team leads the Constructors' Championship (28 points, compared to Wolf's 19 and Lotus's 13), and its two drivers are at the top of the Drivers' Championship: the resurgent Niki Lauda and, tied for first with Jody Scheckter, with 19 points each, Carlos Reutemann is third with 13 points, ahead of Mario Andretti (11) and James Hunt (9). Lauda won one race (in South Africa), and Reutemann won another (in Brazil); both also secured a second and a third-place finish. A highly positive balance confirming the skills of the Austrian and the Argentine. The former has fully returned to his form, also contributing his testing expertise to the team, while the latter seamlessly integrated into the team without being disturbed by recent rumors about the possible hiring of Jody Scheckter or Emerson Fittipaldi, rumors later denied by Enzo Ferrari himself. The 312-T2, undergoing tests and trials with the six tires, continues to match the competition in terms of both performance and reliability. The opponents improve their means each year, but the red car from Maranello proves up to the challenging task.
Functional aerodynamics, efficient design, a powerful engine, adaptability to every circuit – these factors keep this car at the top. It's worth noting that the opponents vary: last year, the Hunt-McLaren duo emerged victorious, aided by Lauda's terrible accident at the Nürburgring, securing the championship. This time, we find Scheckter with Wolf and Andretti with Lotus, two good drivers and excellent teams. However, it's not certain that Hunt won't return to the spotlight eventually or that the Martini-Brabham with the Alfa Romeo engine won't find the path to success. The World Championship is wide open, and this uncertainty is one of the main sources of interest in the tournament. In Spain, at the twisty Jarama circuit near Madrid, Ferrari seems slightly favored compared to other teams, as the characteristics of the track should highlight the qualities of the Maranello cars. However, on Friday, May 6, 1977, during the first day of practice, Mario Andretti confirms that he is a dangerous rival for everyone, especially for the Ferrari drivers. The Italian-American is the fastest with his somber-colored Lotus, clocking 1'18"70, at an average speed of 155.71 km/h. Jacques Laffite follows with the Ligier-Matra (1'19"42). The Frenchman precedes Carlos Reutemann, with the Ferrari (1'19"64), and Scheckter, with the Wolf (1'19"81). Lauda sets the seventh time (1'20"17), just ahead of his fierce rival from last year, James Hunt, driving the new McLaren model M26. Andretti's ease in achieving this excellent performance is impressive. For the Italian-American, even the most challenging and demanding European circuits hold no secrets, and the Lotus confirms its regained competitiveness. Andretti completes dozens of laps at a pace of 1'19"0, a feat that other drivers achieve only occasionally.
"Compared to the United States West Grand Prix, the car is about twenty kilograms lighter thanks to the use of titanium parts. The difference is noticeable, and I hope it continues to be felt on Sunday because practice is valid and interesting, but what matters is the race".
If Andretti remains faithful to the protagonist role assigned to him by the prologue of the championship and, primarily, by the Long Beach victory, Wolf and Ferrari fail to do the same. Let's start with Scheckter because the discussion about Reutemann and Lauda will necessarily have to be more extensive. The South African's car appears unbalanced, with a clear tendency to oversteer: it becomes unstable in the rear in corners. Regarding Ferrari, it seems that Enzo Ferrari might not be very pleased with how things went at Jarama, for two reasons: the almost one-second difference between Andretti and Reutemann (approximately 1.5 seconds in Lauda's case) and a warning issued by the race stewards of the Spanish Grand Prix due to the use of a front wing of irregular dimensions. Niki Lauda explains:
"I had little traction, a bit of understeer, and a bit of oversteer. The situation has worsened compared to the free practice last week. We'll have to find a suitable remedy, and quickly. Of course, Andretti did very well".
The Austrian doesn't mention it, but there were also issues with the brakes, at least in the first part of the practice, due to a set of brake pads that wore unevenly. This issue caused Niki to lose a lot of time, forcing frequent stops in the pit. According to Engineer Roberto Nosetto, the explanation boils down to one word: maneuverability.
"I mean that our cars are slower than others because they can take corners a bit faster, and when they exit, the drivers can accelerate a bit earlier. A breath here, a breath there, and in the end, the differences become noticeable".
The second sore point, as mentioned, is the warning. It's the first step in the hierarchy of motor racing sporting penalties (more severe penalties include fines, exclusion from the race, disqualification), but it is bothersome, rightly so, because Ferrari has a reputation for honesty and fairness unique in this polluted Formula 1 circus. The race stewards, based on a report from the technical officials, invalidate Reutemann's times from 10:00 a.m., the start time of practice, to 11:21 a.m., the time when the incriminated wing is replaced. Subsequently, they issue this warning, which feels somewhat like a rebuke. The wing exceeds by a few millimeters the 150 centimeters that constitute the maximum width imposed by the regulations of the CSI. Therefore, the time of 1'19"63 that the Argentine achieved during this period is canceled, but Carlos immediately responds by setting a time of 1'19"64. Carlos Reutemann manages this in the last nine minutes of training, to be precise, in the last minute. And it's fortunate because in the subsequent hour of practice, Reutemann fails to go below the 1'20"0 limit. Engineer Nosetto candidly admits:
"We made a mistake. There's nothing to contest. Last year it was McLaren's turn to make a mistake, and they paid for it".
Indeed, the situation is quite different. Besides the imprecise measuring system used by the Spanish officials (a flexible tape measure was used), McLaren sought solutions that would radically improve performance, whereas Ferrari made a mistake clearly unintentionally. These aerodynamic elements were not manufactured to the millimeter in the factory, and no one was responsible for checking them, perhaps the most perplexing fact. But only those who don't work are sure not to make mistakes. Shouting scandal in a case like this would be at least ridiculous. The attention of the stewards also shifts to Hans Stuck's Martini-Brabham. In the second part of the practice, the German drives the reserve car, on which an excessive height of the rear wing is noted, and the times (still higher than those of the first session) are therefore canceled. For the Anglo-Italian team, however, the problems are different: John Watson, who clocks 1'19"89 (the fifth performance of the day), has to deal with brake issues, and Stuck faces suspension problems. The two, who do not participate in the free practice, now have to work more than their colleagues from other teams. Certain decisions by Bernie Ecclestone, the team's owner, leave us less perplexed. Poor Stuck is rear-ended by Hunt, who then goes off the track. Neither of the two drivers suffers the slightest scratch, and the damage to the cars is minor. Vittorio Brambilla tests with the reserve car due to a broken fuel distributor on his Surtees, and he sets the tenth time. Arturo Merzario, with a barely holding together March, ranks nineteenth in the standings, and Renzo Zorzi, with the Shadow, is twenty-second. All three would participate in the Spanish Grand Prix, as 26 cars are allowed to start the race, but this number could be reduced to 24. Organizers and the constructors' association are already quarreling about it. Nevertheless, controversy aside, as has happened on other occasions, on Saturday, May 7, 1977, Ferrari does not conclude the practice for the Spanish Grand Prix in an exultant manner. The issues from Friday persist, albeit less severe. However, Mario Andretti and the Lotus, above all, appear unreachable. Nevertheless, Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann make some progress, enough to place themselves in the second row on the starting grid, behind the duo formed by Andretti and Jacques Laffite with the Ligier-Matra. If the trend seen in previous races (such as the one in Brazil, for example) continues at Jarama, the situation could become challenging for the Maranello team. Andretti reiterates the Friday feat, setting almost the same time during the last hour of practice valid for the starting grid: 1'18"78, compared to 1'18"70.
Laffite, on the other hand, fails to repeat the feat from the previous day, and Jody Scheckter, with the Wolf, while improving (from 1'19"81 to 1'19"57), cannot counter the vigorous counterattack from the drivers of the Maranello team—and is also involved in a spin. Lauda goes from 1'20"17 to 1'19"48, and Reutemann from 1'19"64 to 1'19"52. The Austrian and the Argentine push their cars to the maximum, navigating the tight turns of the circuit and sometimes riding the curbs, but evidently, they can't do more than that. Niki Lauda admits:
"I even pushed beyond the safety limits, then I decided to give up the last five minutes of practice and stop. If I had continued, I could have ended up off the track. The car is still very understeering, especially in the slower corners. I'm concerned that, despite our efforts, Andretti has maintained an advantage of over 0.7 seconds: if he doesn't encounter problems tomorrow, Mario will wave goodbye at the start and go on to win without any possibility of being challenged".
Carlos Reutemann shares the same opinion:
"Andretti's Lotus is faster than the Ferrari uphill at Jarama and in the corner leading to the straight of the grandstands and pits. My car, unlike Niki's, tends to oversteer, and when exiting a corner, I have to wait a moment before accelerating".
Alongside Lauda, Reutemann, and the Maranello team is Luca Montezemolo. The former sports director (who is part of the Ferrari board) has temporarily set aside his Fiat commitments for this weekend. The reason?
"Two days of rest, the pleasure of being in a world I love very much. Don't ask me for judgments about the team: I love Ferrari too much to start talking, there are already too many people doing it or writing nonsense".
In reality, willingly or not, Montezemolo, this is not just a vacation. Returning to see the Ferrari team after some time, dissonances are noticeable, as Enzo Ferrari would say. The team is no longer as united and cohesive as before, and the constant rumors about the possible arrival of Fittipaldi or Scheckter have not done well for the morale of Lauda and Reutemann. There is some diplomatic mending to be done, both inside and outside the team, but two days are definitely too short. Montezemolo remembers how the Maranello cars have always been at the very top since 1974. Despite the handling problems at Jarama, the drivers managed to achieve good times and deserve every confidence.
"Fittipaldi is seeking publicity at the expense of Ferrari. But Ferrari doesn't need him, neither today nor tomorrow".
Indeed, the Brazilian, by choosing to race with Copersucar, has not made a good deal - at least in terms of sports. Go and see the starting grid at this moment and beyond whatever results they achieve in the race. Lauda and Reutemann, the men of Ferrari, must engage with generosity and enthusiasm. For example, oversights like the irregular front wings are perplexing. The opponents are strong, and fading ones like James Hunt and McLaren are replaced by new ones like Andretti or Scheckter. The Italian-American driver says:
"The advantage I have over the Ferrari drivers today is the result of enormous work, mine and that of the entire team. At the beginning of the season, we had problems because of the engine, now I have three different types of engines, one prepared directly by Cosworth and the others by external workshops. Now I can claim to be in the fight for the world title. It's an excellent result in itself. Here, my Lotus is proving to be very balanced. I drive calmly, effortlessly. And we also have excellent brakes: with all these turns, they are used frequently. Of course, the race can hold some surprises, but I will try at all costs to win: I admit it, my dream is to become World Champion. Lauda and Scheckter, more than others, have the chance to prevent me".
Andretti doesn't include in his considerations someone who is already a World Champion: Hunt. The Englishman, starting in the fourth row, seems to have lost the competitiveness shown in 1976. His McLaren is not exceptional, but it's not the only reason for this decline. Hunt leads a cheerful life, and perhaps he no longer has the determination of the past. During the second day of practice, he performs a beginner's spin at the exit of the corner leading to the main straight, ending up with the nose in the safety barriers. Bodywork damage for the car, a bit of humiliation for the driver. Then, maybe he wins on Sunday: but Grand Prix races, as you know, can often be deceiving. On Sunday, May 8, 1977, the Spanish Grand Prix starts with a delay of twenty minutes because King Juan Carlos wants to personally greet all the drivers. Subsequently, on a beautiful day, the cars finally set off for the reconnaissance lap. As expected, Mario Andretti takes the lead with his Lotus, embarking on a solitary and trouble-free race towards the finish line. The Model 78 car undoubtedly has exceptional road-holding qualities, both due to the aerodynamic shape of the sidepods that increases grip and the absence of a differential that enhances traction. In Andretti's hands, it proves to be an unbeatable weapon. For a while, Jacques Laffite closely follows him, as well as Carlos Reutemann. After distancing himself, the positions stabilize. Meanwhile, James Hunt goes out immediately: The prodigy of the previous year has no luck with his new McLaren M-26. After two days of unsatisfactory tests, he doesn't even have the opportunity to compete in the race because the electrical system of his car causes issues, eventually leading to the engine's failure during the 10th lap. At the beginning of the 10th lap, the cars of Brambilla and Regazzoni collide, eliminating both drivers from the competition. Meanwhile, Laffite follows Mario Andretti for a while. Perhaps he would never have been able to seriously bother him, as the difference of over 0.7 seconds in qualifying speaks clearly. Still, the French car has a highly efficient engine (Matra), and the car-driver combination on this track gives an excellent impression, confirmed by the fastest lap. However, a poorly closed right rear wheel forces Laffite into a pit stop, taking away any chance of victory. Meanwhile, Reutemann, left alone to defend Ferrari's colors after Lauda's painful withdrawal, leads a very regular race that will allow him to finish in second place. The Argentine driver laps at a pace of 1'22"5, staying about 15 seconds behind Andretti. At the finish, he tells engineer Nosetto:
"I was pushing the car to its limits: trying to go faster would have meant losing control".
Italian drivers have no luck in Spain, as after Brambilla, Merzario is also out of the race due to a collision with Ertl, and Zorzi is forced to abandon the race due to a lubrication system failure. There is also a moment of tension when, at the entrance of the main straight, Rupert Keegan with the Penthouse magazine car, featuring a painted woman on the sides, visibly goes sideways and ends up in the protective nets on the inside of the track. Finally, let's not forget what happens to John Watson with his Martini-Brabham Alfa Romeo. The driver was in third place, then a spin relegated him to fifth place, but a few laps from the end, he had to stop due to a short circuit in the fuel supply pumps. The other driver of the Italo-English team, Hans Stuck, secures the consolation point with his well-deserved sixth place. Meanwhile, the race concludes without problems with the traditional throwing of the cap in the air by Colin Chapman as his victorious car passes, followed by the usual spectacle of fans invading the track to touch their idols. However, more than Mario Andretti's victory, somewhat expected after the outcome of the qualifiers, the incident that prevented Lauda from participating in the Spanish Grand Prix has stirred up the day at Jarama, the first in the European series of Formula 1 races. Niki's injury - a crack in the seventh rib - is relatively minor and will have no impact on his career, but it risks causing him to miss the next Monaco Grand Prix. Lauda's forced withdrawal, considering what had happened in Spain the previous year, almost feels like a mockery. In the meantime, due to this withdrawal, Lauda has lost the lead in the World Championship to Scheckter (third at the finish), has been surpassed in the standings by Andretti, and caught up by Reutemann, who secured an honorable second place for Ferrari behind Lotus. Ferrari #11's grid spot remained empty, and in the last row, the modest American Brett Lunger, with his equally modest March, replaced the man and the machine that were World Champions in 1975. What happened? This morning, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., a series of free practice sessions was scheduled, essentially a last half-hour of testing and trials before the imminent race.
Lauda took to the track with his Ferrari: a few laps, a few pit stops to make some adjustments. The usual things, the routine work every time. Then, the treacherous blow. Entering a left turn, in the downhill section of the circuit that leads to the straight in front of the stands and pits after a few hundred meters, Lauda felt a very painful stab in his back. A wrong move, a jolt inside the car, and the seventh rib cracked. Niki immediately sought refuge in the pits. It was his tenth lap of the morning. He was seen struggling to get out of the cockpit, with a very pale and sweaty face, tightly pulled mouth. He removed his helmet and gloves, spoke with Luca Montezemolo and the team officials. Sante Ghedini accompanied him into the large red truck that carries Ferraris around the world. It was 11:50 a.m. Ferrari's mechanics immediately called the doctor who assists a cooperative of drivers on the circuits (in addition to Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mass, Hunt, and Stuck). Rafael Grajales Robles, a Panamanian health professional working at the thoracic and cardiovascular surgical clinic of the German University of Heidelberg, immediately intervened, examining the semi-reclined pilot in an improvised bed prepared in the Ferrari truck. A short and agitated consultation followed before Grayal Robles decided to perform an X-ray check. Since the Jarama circuit's field infirmary did not have such equipment, Lauda flew to Madrid on a Guardia Civil helicopter, to La Paz hospital, accompanied by the doctor. At 1:17 p.m., Lauda was back at Jarama. Painful face, unsteady walk. The decision was immediately communicated:
"I'm not racing; I'm in too much pain".
Dr. Grajales Robles specified:
"Lauda has a crack in the seventh rib. It's something that happens during violent efforts or impacts. The pilot cannot take the risk of a long and tiring race like this. We could give him a painkiller injection, but the effect would wear off after a few laps, and he would be dealing with very intense pain again, risking aggravating the situation".
Luca Montezemolo summed up the situation:
"Niki couldn't gamble the championship today with a rash decision to get on the track anyway. The championship continues; in a dozen days, the Monaco Grand Prix trials begin. It's better that he gets well now and properly".
Lauda briefly spoke from inside the Ferrari truck and said:
"I don't know how it could have happened. Maybe I breathed out of rhythm, maybe I took a hit against the body due to a bump. In that spot, centrifugal force is significant. The fact is, it's impossible for me to race: I have a terrible pain, I can barely breathe. And I have the experience of last year when I participated in the Spanish Grand Prix with two broken ribs. I finished the race at the limit of my strength, and back then, I had two weeks of intense treatment and physical training behind me. Today, I'm sure I couldn't finish the competition. You know, pain doesn't scare me: I proved it at Monza after the Nurburgring, but here, it's useless to try. Now I'm going to Vienna for more X-rays and to start treatment immediately. I hope to be in Monte Carlo. It's an unfortunate mishap, especially at this point in the championship. I'm convinced that today I could have competed well with my Ferrari".
Niki is dejected: these are advantages that one should not have to concede to competitors. And the situation could be even worse if the rib were broken.
"You never know if the doctors observe these X-rays accurately. I don't know; today's accident could also be a consequence of last year's rib fractures".
A few minutes later, Lauda left the circuit in a 131 to head to Madrid's airport. The fact that he drove the car himself prompts discouraging comments, as discouraging as some comments from some of his colleagues commenting on the withdrawal. This is a world where everything and everyone is doubted, probably because many live in falsehoods. Thus, Lauda, who should not have raced in Spain in 1976, managed to get on the track, and this time, when it seemed that nothing should hinder him, he had to retire. Isn't it a mocking twist of fate? The Austrian and Ferrari are not very lucky at Jarama. It's another bitter moment in the life of this unconventional champion, but Niki will know how to react with the will and character that have made him dear to millions of fans. This, too, is a drama, albeit different from that of the Nurburgring. Lauda's injury caused a lot of commotion in the Formula 1 circus, raising, as mentioned, malicious or interested opinions from some of his colleagues. The first to speak is Carlos Reutemann:
"It's a disaster for Niki, it really wasn't needed. I can't judge whether he could have started. This decision was solely up to him".
Emerson Fittipaldi, on the other hand, expresses his opinion:
"Lauda did well because, starting in those conditions, he risked having to stop after ten laps in worse conditions and thereby compromising the entire season. He has a race in twelve days, and it was wise to give up on this one to get proper treatment".
Always critical, Arturo Merzario says:
"I don't know what to say. In Monza, I broke a rib during practice, but I still raced on Sunday, even though I was in great pain. If he didn't feel up to it, it means he was suffering a lot".
Clay Regazzoni, on the other hand, offers a calm and objective opinion:
"For some time now, strange things have been happening to Lauda. Surely, he must have had a serious problem because he's not the type who doesn't know how to endure pain, as he demonstrated last year when he raced here with two broken ribs and returned to Monza in rather precarious physical conditions".
Jody Scheckter, who has gained a good advantage in the World Championship standings, is sincere:
"It's a shame for him, but it's better for us because he's always a dangerous opponent. Lauda is a driver with a lot of determination, and if he gave up, it means he really couldn't do it".
The winner, Mario Andretti, says:
"I'm sorry, and I hope he can come back for the next race. He's a rival I respect and prefer to beat on the track".
The Italian-American was the protagonist of a more eventful Grand Prix than anticipated, but only for the trailing positions. The race was rich in incidents that made it exciting.
"It was all quite easy because the car was perfect. When I no longer saw Laffite in the mirrors, I focused on finishing the race without making mistakes. Certainly, with this victory of mine, the World Championship becomes even more beautiful".
And he adds:
"Lauda's absence has, in a way, favored me because he's always a man to keep at bay. I have good chances at Monte Carlo, and there's no guarantee that I won't be able to achieve the hat-trick".
James Hunt doesn't hide his disappointment:
"I'm just unlucky. It's not a good year. I had to stop because the engine was vibrating a lot, and the car was bouncing".
For Jacques Laffite, this was a day to forget. His right rear wheel loosened, even though it had been tightened more than usual at the start. Clay Regazzoni is asked for an explanation about the incident in which he was involved with Brambilla:
"Vittorio touched me in the second corner after the straight, with a rather risky maneuver. I'm sorry because both of us could have had a good race and earned points for the World Championship standings. Moreover, I don't understand why there was a need to take risks on the ninth lap".
"I had been pressuring Regazzoni for three laps because he was slower than me in the mixed part. In the first corner, he widened, and I pulled alongside him. Regazzoni then moved to set up the second corner, and I couldn't avoid the impact. It's a shame because my car was performing well, and if Clay had let me pass, I could have stayed with the front-runners".
Niki Lauda was supposed to test the six tires and start preparing for the Monaco Grand Prix, whose trials would begin on Thursday, May 19, 1977. Lauda's and the Maranello team's great fear is only one: not being able to participate in the Monaco competition either. This is not an unfounded concern because these cracks are painful and require treatment and rest. There is also the fear that the crack could ultimately turn into a real fracture, and then the situation would become truly sad. However, it must also be said that even Lauda could not have opposed the unleashed Andretti. Reutemann had a regular and honest race, with the maximum effort possible, but his Ferrari retained the flaws from the previous day, and by pushing it harder, the Argentine would have only risked going off the track. Moreover, not even Scheckter, with the Wolf, was able to counter Andretti. Jody, in fact, settled for third place, a third place that puts him at the top of the World Championship standings. The South African now has 23 points against Andretti's 20 and Lauda and Reutemann's 19. A magnificent quartet that promises exciting challenges, provided the same clear gap between the Lotus and its rivals does not recur in the upcoming championship events. Andretti is a driver who has matured in recent years.
The Lotus, after a dark period, has found in him the tester it has been looking for a long time and certainly did not identify in an Ickx or a Peterson. Andretti has done an enormous amount of work in collaboration with Colin Chapman and his technicians, and the results are finally coming. Long Beach, Madrid: an impressive series that could continue in Monte Carlo. Ferrari and Wolf had grip problems at Jarama caused by the unhappy combination of the tire type provided to various teams by Goodyear and the characteristics of the circuit. The cars from Maranello and the British one encountered difficulties and had to run in defense; it is unlikely that it will always be like this in the rest of the championship. And probably, even Lotus will find its moment of difficulty. The important thing, especially for Ferrari as well as for Wolf, is to engage with enthusiasm. It is in difficult moments that a team and its men must show courage, energy, and a desire for revenge. As the World Championship continues amid the hopes, problems, and fears of its protagonists, a new name emerges on the Formula 1 scene. On Wednesday, May 11, 1977, Renault, the great French car manufacturer, presents its single-seater with a turbocharged engine in Paris. Another true contender enters the fray. The debut is expected on Sunday, July 3, 1977, in Dijon, at the French Grand Prix. The car will be equipped with French-made tires: Michelin. The Goodyear monopoly is destined to end.