1978 South African Grand Prix race report

Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) competing at the 1978 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami.

Lotus driver Ronnie Peterson took his first win for two seasons at Kyalami

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Peterson saves the day for Lotus

Kyalami, March 4th

At one time the South African Grand Prix was a very happy affair and almost “olde tyme” in its make-up, untroubled by any of the pressures and disease brought on by progress. It was completely self-supporting in that the money paid by the spectators covered the cost of organising the event, with some left over for the club kitty. The increase in the size of the Formula One “circus” and the rise in transport costs have grown out of all proportion so that over the past four years income from the spectators could no longer balance the cost of a World Championship Grand Prix and outside financial help had to be sought. This meant that the South African Motor Racing Club were no longer their own masters as far as the Grand Prix was concerned and this year the search for financial benefactors to bridge the widening gap between income and expenditure caused alarm until a few weeks before the event. The South African newspaper The Citizen and Associated Engineering Ltd. eventually came to the rescue with enough money to add to the expected gatemoney, to pay the bill for twenty-one Formula One teams, some with three cars and an army of personnel, others with one car and a handful of people, to make the journey to South Africa. Because of this undecided state of affairs until the last moment, certain work needed on the circuit to comply with FIA Safety Standards, was not put in hand until late in the day. There was little point in spending money on armco barriers, catch fences and run-off areas for wayward Formula One cars if there was not going to be a race; for National Formula Atlantic or Saloon Car racing the circuit was adequate. Added to this the Formula One “circus” was using the Kyalami circuit for testing new cars, new tyres, new aerodynamics and so on, and for this work safety standards are overlooked, for such activity is in the nature of private work and the public are not supposed to be there, so the FIA has no responsibility, but once official practice begins it is their responsibility to see that the paying customers are protected from any danger from the competing cars.

Practice was due to start at 10 a.m. on Wednesday March 1st and before it could start the organisers had to have an official document signed by the representatives frail the FIA to say all was in order. The “men from the ministry” were Curt Schild from Switzerland and Robert Langford from Britain, on behalf of the Constructors. The necessary work was not completed by Wednesday morning, so the document was not signed and practice could not begin. All the drivers and constructors were ready to go, but without Schild’s signature of approval it was not possible. The noisy little man from the Formula One Constructors was all for packing up and going home, but he was told very firmly that practice would begin at 2.30 p.m., by which time the necessary work could be completed. It was actually reckoned that it would be finished by 1.30 p.m. but it was deemed sensible to allow an hour’s margin. The normal arrangement on fast practice day is to have 1 1/2 hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, but this was scrubbed and it was agreed to have 1 1/2 hours in the afternoon.

This delay gave time to look more closely at the entry which totalled thirty drivers, of whom the fastest twenty-six would take part in the race. Details of the cars in use are given elsewhere in this issue, the overall aspect being one of lots of new things. The major teams were in orderly array, but some of the newer and lesser teams had been in some disorder prior to this first day of practice. The Hesketh team, who are spending money given them by Olympus Cameras, and being getting results due to Divina Galica being unable to match the pace of the also-rans in Formula One, inaugurated their own qualifying session during testing the previous week. They added the young American from Rome, Eddie Cheever, to their team with the result that he was something like two seconds faster than the young lady, so he got the entry. There is no room for gentlemanly conduct in Formula One these days! If women are silly enough to demand equality they mustn’t complain. Having lost Cheever to Hesketh, the Theodore team signed up Keke Rosberg from Finland, the hard-charging F2 driver and winner of numerous Tasman races. The new Arrows team had the sad news that Gunnar Nilsson’s health was much more serious than anticipated, cancer having got a strong grip on the young Swede. To take his place they had signed on Rolf Stommelen, who brought a lot of sponsorship money from the German Warsteiner Beer firm, so much in fact that both his car and Patrese’s were hurriedly given a quick golden blow-over on the upper parts of the body and Warsteiner decals were large and clear. There was no sign of the original sponsor, the mysterious Franco Ambrosio, who paid for setting up this new team, nor any sign of his name on the cars though the entry in the programme was still under “Ambrosio Racing Team”. Another completely new set of faces in Formula One was the Martini Racing Team of Renato Martini, not to be confused with the Martini-Rossi firm who used to support Brabham and still support Porsche. The Martini Mk. 24 was making its debut in Formula One, as was its driver Rene Amoux, a Frenchman well known in F2. Poor Morris Nunn, having been dropped in the mire by Regazzoni leaving the Ensign team suddenly, and getting nowhere with the Hawaiian driver Danny Ongais in South America, was reduced to one entry for the Italian driver Lamberto Leoni. The rest of the entry was in good order and strength and it was good to see Renault-Sport back in the fray, still with Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the cockpit.

The Goodyear tyre company had awoken with a great rumbling after their defeat in Brazil by the Michelin tyre company, and the anticipated tyre war looked like being a massacre by reason of an “operation-over-kill” from Akron and Wolverhampton. The Brabham, Tyrrell, Lotus, McLaren and Wolf teams had more tyre variants available than they knew what to do with, while second-class teams were being offered “the best of the rest”, instead of the usual standard wear, so that there were three Goodyear tyre factions in operation. The “elite”, the “chosen few” and “the rest”, while Michelin were content with two customers, Ferrari and Renault, to be dealt with personally and to their requirements.


Niki Lauda (Brabham) oversteers at the 1978 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami.

Niki Lauda took his first Brabham pole in qualifying

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When practice finally got under way there was no shortage of action, and Lauda and Andretti were the pace-makers, the new Brabham-Alfa looking very good. Peterson was doing the routine development running of the Lotus gearbox, fitted to Lotus 78/2, but soon ran into trouble with the crownwheel and pinion assembly, so spent most of the time spectating, the spare Lotus being reserved for Andretti. The McLaren team were looking very confident, with Tambay matching anything that Hunt could do, and looking disconcertingly relaxed and comfortable while doing so. At one point in the afternoon the young Frenchman was running about 200 yards behind Hunt for a whole string of laps, and you would have thought the two cars were tied together. It was no surprise at the end of the day to find their lap times were only 0.16 seconds apart. After a week of testing Lauda was in fine form and really enjoying the new Brabham, his best time being a shattering 1 min. 14.65 sec.

Everyone expected the fastest lap to be around 1 min. 15.0 sec., or even under that figure, but not as far under as that. To show it was no fluke he put in numerous sub 1 min. 15.0 sec. laps, but Andretti had the measure of him with 1 min. 14.90 sec. While some teams were having a good time others were in trouble, the first of the Williams cars was showing equal temperatures for oil and water, which was good, except that the readings were up around 120-degrees C, which was bad. Jones tried a lap in the brand new car, but it wasn’t ready to be driven hard so his practice was curtailed. Laffite stopped out in the circuit with the rehashed Ligier when the ignition disappeared, later traced to a faulty kill-button on the steering wheel, but he walked back to the pits and continued practice in the spare car. Keegan’s Surtees kept blowing out oil smoke on left-hand bends, and the new Ferraris were not settling in to a competitive pace. The Renault, also on Michelin tyres like the Ferraris, was deceptively quick and Jabouille made a faster time than either Reutemann or Villeneuve.

Jarier was going relatively slowly in first of the ATS-March specials, having to relinquish the number two car to Mass, scrubbing in new tyres, when he was rudely punted up the rear by Lauda’s Brabham. The World Champion made a slight error of judgement, for which he apologised after wards, and a front wheel on the Brabham hit a rear wheel on the ATS and launched it high in the air. This was at the climbing hairpin before the main straight, so no damage was done. Among the tail-end Riccardo Patrese was streets faster than anyone else, so much so that he was up amongst the mid-field runners and regulars, but not as high up as Patrick Tambay, but Patrese had to do it all on his own with no guidance from a “master”. Unbelievably slow were the two Shadows of Stuck and Regazzoni and as neither is to be found wanting in driving ability, it suggested that the Shadow DN8 cars were past their prime as regards the use of their tyres.

At the end of the afternoon the keepers announced loud and clear that Hunt had made fastest lap in 1 min. 14.14 and certain members of the media who appeared to have a Union Jack emblazo on their back-sides, rushed to tell the world. Those who had been paying attention found it hard to accept, bearing in mind Tambay had matched everything that Hunt had done all afternoon, yet his official was 1 min. 15.30 sec.; and add to that the knowledge that the McLaren team were satisfied with third and fourth fastest according to their timing, and it was only a matter of time before a correction came through showing an error of one second on Hunt’s time. The proper order then Lauda and Andretti both in the “ace” class Hunt, Tambay, Scheckter, Jabouille and Reutemann in the “hard-trier” category, followed by Watson, Villeneuve and Depailler in the under 1 min. 16.00 sec. category. Patrese was best of the rest, not benefiting from Goodyear super-tyres like the rest, while poor Fittipaldi was back to being an also-ran on “regulation” Goodyear tyres, not having the special treatment he had received in Brazil.

On Thursday morning there was 1 1/2 hours of untimed practice, for testing on full petrol tanks and on tyres for the race, though inevitably many teams were still scratching to make their cars perform properly. Considering this session did not count for qualifying or for grid position, there was a lot of trying and a few disasters. Alan Jones was out in the newer of the two Williams cars and went off the road and bent the front end; Andretti had a track rod end sheer off and returned to the pits with one-wheel Steering, to continue in the spare Lotus; the Renault engine went bang; Patrese had a fastener come undone on the nose cowling of his Arrows so that it rubbed on the ground and folded under to blank off the radiator and he arrived at the pits on the boil; Arnoux had the Cosworth engine fail in the new Martini and to end the morning Patrese spun off and crumpled the rear end of his Arrows, fortunately not too seriously. Around mid-day it became ominously cool for South Africa and clouds kept obscuring the sun, but things improved by 1 p.m. when the final hour of timed practice was due to begin. The final session started some 15 minutes late, by which time there was a strong head-wind blowing on the top straight so there was little hope of Lauda’s bogey time of 1 min. 14.65 sec. being beaten. He cruised round in the Brabham-Alfa merely waiting for anyone to challenge his poleposition time, with occasional fast laps to size up the situation. His best was 1 min. 15.50 sec., which proved to be equal secondfastest with young Villeneuve in the T3 Ferrari. With ten minutes still to go Lauda sat back in the pits knowing that his poletime was absolutely safe. His closest rival Andretti was having a bad time, for 78/3 had been repaired during the lunch break and he had not done many laps before the Cosworth Development engine went very quiet; the drive to the fuel-injection metering unit had sheered, so it was back into the spare Lotus again for the Italo-American. Team-mate Peterson had a normal Hewland transmission in 78/2 and was really hammering on in “vintage” Peterson style, his judgement as he passed slower cars at 150 m.p.h. or more being beautiful to watch. There was a pause in this final hour to collect John Watson’s Brabham BT46 when its Alfa Romeo engine blew up, and the Ulsterman had to continue practice in BT45/7C, the spare team car. Among the odds and sods struggling not be in the last four, and thus fail to qualify for the race, both Keegan and Rebaque suffered flat tyres. With barely ten minutes left the Arrows team were allowed some better tyres by the Goodyear firm and they quickly slapped them on Patrese’s car and the young Italian rose to the occasion beautifully with a lap that was fastest of the day, two-hundredths of a second faster than Lauda’s cruising lap. This put the Arrows up on the fourth row of the grid, alongside Villeneuve’s Ferrari, and both young men ahead of Reutemann, who was not on his Brazilian form. While the newcomers Patrese and Villeneuve had earned an “A for effort they were eclipsed by Tambay, who was on the second row alongside Hunt, and who may be given “double-A for effort”. Surprisingly in the comparatively “slow” final hour of practice, thirteen drivers improved on the Wednesday times, but Arnoux, Regazzoni Leoni and Stuck were the non-qualifiers. A race without Regazzoni seemed unthinkabh but it was a fact.

A few minutes after practice ended tropical rain-storm hit the Kyalami hillside and for ten or fifteen minutes the rain poured down. Then it was all over and sunny an warm as if nothing had happened. A fascinating country South Africa.


The cars race down to the start at the start of the 1978 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami.

Lauda and Mario Andretti (right) vie for the lead at the start

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Friday was a rest-day for some and work day for the teams, but it did make race-preparation a more leisurely affair. Saturday saw the skies looking ominous as the crowd poured into the circuit. National races, old car parades, stunts and show-biz passed the time until the 2.15 p.m. starting time, during which the skies cleared and the weather became truly South African, with little or no wind, so a fast 78-lap race could be anticipated. From the pits the competitors did warm-up lap round to the starting grid, and when Lauda arrived he found Andretti’s Lotus sitting on the right-hand side of the front row, the position he had chosen after practice was ended. Having chosen the right-hand side as pole position the grid was made out accordingly, but next day when printing the definitive grid a clerical error had transposed right and left. Nobody queried the change as it was assumed that Lauda had changed his mind, so some teams were using the first hand-written grid, while others were using the incorrect printed one. Chaos reigned for a time and never did get sorted out so that the first five rows were correct, the next three were wrong, the next one was right, the next two wrong and the last two right!

When the starting light shone Lauda surged away in the lead but then muffed his change from first to second, by going into fourth. It was only a momentary hesitation but it was enough to let Andretti pull ahead as they breasted the rise before plunging down the hill to the right-hand Crowthorne Corner.

In the second row Tambay had over-heated his clutch and could not get away so every one passed him. Down the hill Andretti led, followed by Lauda with Hunt trying to squeeze through on the inside and while those two were eyeing each other Scheckter went by on the outside and into second place. As they plunged down the long fast curve at Butbeque Bend and into the 150 m.p.h. Jukskei Sweep, Andretti led Scheckter, Lauda, Hunt, Jabouille, Patrese, Watson and Reutemann. After they had all gone Tambay followed, his clutch cooled off, and out to make amends.

Andretti simply ran away into the distance and it looked like another Argentine domination all over again, with Scheckter, Lauda and Hunt following. Patrese got by the Renault very smartly on lap 3 and on lap 5 Hunt’s Nicholson-tuned engine blew up without any warning and his race was over. This left Patrese in fourth place, not quite matching the pace of the leaders, but leaving the Renault and the others behind. Right at the back of the field Tambay was up with the tail-enders by the end of lap 2, and then proceeded to pick them off in ones and twos each lap, actually passing two cars in the middle of Crowthome Corner on one lap. His Pro. gress was very pretty to watch, cool, determined neat and confident. By lap 10 he had elght cars behind him, driven by Mass, Stommelen, Brambilla, Rebaque, Keegan, Rosberg, Lunger and Merzario, and had his sights on the tail of the mid-field runners. Andretti’s doirunation lasted for sixteen laps and then he was forced to ease off the pace as his left front tyre began to overheat. The immediate order behind him was unchanged, with Scheckter, Lauda and Patrese nose-to-tail. The unfortunate Jabouille was proving to be a mobile chicane with the Renault, holding up a whole string of cars and going just fast enough to make it difficult to overtake. Depailler was the first to scrabble by, on lap 9, then Watson got by on lap 11, but Reutemann, who was next in line just could not find a way by. As the leading Lotus cased its pace and slowed to that of the trio behind it, Scheckter and Lauda were also watching their left front tyres closely. These three were on the super-Goodyear tyres, while Patrese was using “the best of the rest” and using them well, so that the pace of the race slowed up to his standards. Depailler had caught this bunch up, his tyres not overheating while he was stuck behind the Renault, and seeing the Tyrrell in his mirrors Patrese nipped by Lauda’s Brabham-Alf a, which was having to pussy-foot a bit. Andretti had no option but to ease off and let his tyres cool down, and on lap 21 Scheckter went by into the lead to a roar of approval from the crowds. As Andretti dropped to the back of the leading group, Patrese found himself in second place and Depailler moved up into third place, behind Lauda. Scheckter’s lead was short-lived and he had to case off as he saw the overheating signs on his hard-worked left-front tyre and on lap 27 Patrese went charging by into the lead, forcing his way by the Wolf under braking as if he was in a Formula Three race. The lead was now being contested at the pace of the special-Goodyear tyres, while the super-Goodyears were cooling off, having been overworked. Patrese made the most of a heaven-sent opportunity and forged ahead into a commanding lead, driving beautifully and in complete control. Scheckter dropped back behind Lauda so that by lap 30 we had the situation of Patrese out in front in the Arrows car, followed by Depailler in the Tyrrell 008, then Lauda in the new Brabham BT46 followed by Scheckter and the Wolf and Andretti in the Lotus 78, with the last three “stroking it” in readiness for another go at the lead. What they seemed to have misjudged was the pace at which Patrese was driving, for the Arrows was fast disappearing.

Ronnie Peterson leads into Turn One at the 1978 South African Grand Prix, Kyalami

Peterson (foreground) and Villeneuve fight it out

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The Renault still had a steaming mob behind it and amongst them was Peterson, whose Lotus was losing out on the straight, but making up on the twisty bits. He was closely involved with Jones in the Williams and Laffite in the Ligier, while all three were giving trouble to the two Ferraris. At the back of this lot was the remarkably cool Tambay, who had displaced Pironi’s Tyrrell 008 from the tail-end of the mid-field. By this time a number of cars had disappeared, Cheever’s Hesketh was leaking oil, Fittipaldi’s car had broken a driveshaft and Rosberg’s Theodore had suffered clutch failure. The Renault began to pop and bang and misfire and Jabouille withdrew on lap 39, much to the relief of those behind it and Peterson had won his battle with Alan Jones, but the Australian was still hanging on to the Lotus, Lauda now pulled away from Scheckter and Andretti and closed up on Depailler, but Patrese was still an embarrassing way ahead and even if the Brabham’s super-Goodyears could stand the pace it began to look as though Lauda had let the Arrows get too far ahead. On lap 44 Andretti speeded up and passed Scheckter, but more interesting was the fact that Peterson in the second Lotus was gaining rapidly on all of them.

At 50 laps the order was Patrese (Arrows), Depailler (Tyrrell), Lauda (Brabham), Andretti (Lotus), Scheckter (Wolf), Watson (Brabham), Peterson (Lotus), Jones (Williams), Reutemann (Ferrari), Villeneuve (Ferrari), Laffite (Ligier), Tambay (McLaren), Stommelen (Arrows), Pironi (Tyrrell) and Jarier (ATS), Keegan, Lunger, Rebaque and Brambilla having been lapped. As Tambay passed the Ligier, so Peterson passed Scheckter and it became clear that the Swede had got the bit between his teeth and was really pressing on. Without any warning Lauda’s Alfa Romeo engine blew up on lap 53 and Keegan was going round slowly with smoke pouring from the back of the Surtees and laying a trail of oil. On lap 55 as Tambay, Reutemann, Lafitte and Villeneuve went into Crowthorne Corner (yes, the remarkable Tambay passed the two Ferraris in one lap!), the second Ferrari slowed up dramatically with oil pouring out in the back, all over the braking area for the corner, and pulled off the track, An oil pipe had failed. Next time round Laffite had got past Reutemann and as Tambay led them into the corner he got off line, avoiding the Ferrari oil, only to run into the oil from Keegan’s Surtees which spun the McLaren off the track and tail-first into the barriers. Laffite missed both lots of oil and carried on, but Reutemann slithered straight on, on his team-mate’s oil, and into the catch fences. He climbed out unhurt and a short while afterwards a small petrol fire brewed up around the Ferrari, but marshals soon had it out. Meanwhile Tambay had got his McLaren back onto the track, but all he could do was drive round to the pits and retire as a radiator was damaged and the rear aerofoil was crumpled.

Scheckter was having some anxious moments as his fuel-injection pressure was dropping off and when he went to change down the engine would die on him, leaving him free-wheeling into corners with no power. Eventually this happened once too often and caught him out at Crowthorne Corner and he slid off the road onto the loose earth run-off area and could not get going again, and was forced to abandon the Wolf and walk back to the pits. While he was having these troubles Peterson had passed Watson’s Brabham BT46 when it had a momentary and harmless spin, and he was now closing up on Andretti, who was holding third place and waiting for the young Patrese out in front to make a mistake. He was waiting in vain for the Italian was driving neatly and tidily and looking remarkably confident in this first time at the front of a Formula One race. All was remarkably well in the Arrows cockpit, in only its second race, and all the temperatures and pressures were perfect, and Patrese was only using 10,200 r.p.m. Then there was a bang as it left Clubhouse Corner and the Cosworth V8 wrecked itself and, almost in tears, Patrese pulled off the track and watched Depailler go by into the lead.

The whole race now seemed a bit unreal, for we have become so used to Depailler in a Tyrrell being in second place, that it was difficult to believe the likeable little Frenchman was in the lead with only 15 laps to go. Behind him Andretti still looked ominous while Peterson had pulled dutifully in behind the Lotus number one. Watson was a firm fourth, followed by Jones and Stommelen, the second Arrows driver having got past the Ligier by reason of some audacious braking.

In the closing laps the leading Tyrrell began to leave a smoke trail as oil leaked from the gearbox, and the second Tyrrell was sounding rough with a broken exhaust manifold pipe. With only three laps to go Andretti’s Lotus popped and banged as it ran out of petrol, and Peterson shot by with his eyes glued on Depailler’s Tyrrell. Andretti got to the pits and petrol was flung into the tank and he roared off down the pit lane, only to stall the engine at the exit. It restarted and he was back in the race, but down in seventh place. Stommelen also ran out of petrol in the second Arrows, but made it to the pits for more. Meanwhile Peterson was winding himself up tight and was within striking distance of the leading Tyrrell as they started the last lap. Apart from being low on gearbox oil the Tyrrell was now faltering with fuel starvation; down the long right-hand sweep of Barbeque Bend Peterson gave the Lotus all it had got and up through the Jukskei Sweep he zoomed up into the Tyrrell’s slipstream and was alongside as they braked heavily for the right-hander at Sunset Corner. Literally wheel-to-wheel Peterson stayed with the Tyrrell on the out side of the corner, still almost touching they covered the short straight to the sharp left-hander of Clubhouse Corner, where the Lotus was now on the inside, and neither of them would give way. Out of Clubhouse Cornet and into the short straight the Lotus forged ahead to lead through the Esses, up the to the Leeukop hairpin and Peterson had it made. He won the South African Grant Prix by less than half-a-second, having only held the lead for half-a-lap throughout the 78 laps, but it was the most important half.

Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) on the podium at the 1978 South African Grand Prix.

Ronnie Peterson shows his delight at winning

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It had certainly been a memorable race and one that few people will forget in hurry, with anguish and heartbreak for an incredible number of drivers, but the closing laps were pure “vintage” Ronnie Peterson driving; something we have been lacking for too long. Andretti, Scheckter, Patrese Depailler and Peterson all held the lead at some time in the race. There was much to be learnt from it all.—D.S.J.