Reflections in the Transvaal

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The South African Grand Prix certainly was a remarkable race, with five different drivers leading in turn and the winner leading for the last half a lap. Even more remarkable was the fact that Peterson won the race from the sixth row of the starting grid; the whole affair was a classic example of how unpredictable Formula One racing can be and a good indication that a driver should never give up hope. Too many drivers in Formula One over the years have settled for nor winning even before the race has started, yet everyone knows the age-old rules about racing, such as “never give up trying”, or “the race isn’t won until the chequered flag falls.” Peterson’s performance throughout the race was exemplary and a wonderful example to all budding racing drivers. He lost most of the the first day of practice doing development driving with the Lotus-Getrag gearbox, which is showing signs of being very good when the bugs are ironed out, and on the second day when everything went right for him, the wind and track were against fast times so that though he made a good time for the conditions it did not compare with the first day’s good times. This was why he was back in row six on the starting grid.

In the race he found his Lotus was lacking in top speed compared to those cars around him, like the Williams, the Ligier, the Ferraris and the Renault, but it was handling beautifully round the corners, so what he made up on the bends the others pulled back on the straight, which is why he took so long to break away from the mid-field bunch. On that final exciting lap he was able to use the Lotus handling to the full in his chase of Depailler’s Tyrrell and was happy to take corners on the wrong line and “sit-it-out” with the Tyrrell. As the two cars went into the right-hand Sunset bend side by side, Hector Rebaque’s Lotus 78 was ahead of them and it seemed he was going to be in the way, but in fact Peterson never caught the private Lotus in that last half a lap. This was not because the little Mexican pulled out a phenomenally fast lap, his best lap was i min. 19.53 sec. on lap 53, but because Peterson and Depailler were going relatively slowly in their wheel-to-wheel dice. When you are on the wrong line through a corner, sliding about and banging wheels with another car, you cannot be near the limit of speed. It was all exciting stuff to watch, but was being done at the pace of the slowest cars in the race. This does not detract from Peterson’s performance, it was heroic stuff and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Afterwards, Depailler said: “Ronnie was very determined … .”

Of course, the big question was why had Andretti run out of petrol at the crucial moment, and this time the answer was simple and uncomplicated; he did not start with full tanks, and the decision on that one was made by Mr. Lotus himself. Yes, Colin Chapman can make mistakes like the rest of us. A miscalculation, an error of judgement, an obsession to save 30 lb. weight, desperation to win, it could be any or all of these things. One thing about Chapman is that he gets it right more times than he gets it wrong, unlike some people who seem to be wrong all the time.

Looking at the fastest laps recorded during the race (which are given on the starting grid in the report elsewhere in this issue), it is interesting how many drivers made theirs in the first ten laps, before the problems caused the whole pace of the race to ease back a bit. Fastest lap was by Andretti on lap 2, in 1 min. 17.09 sec. and Peterson’s best was 1 min. 17.35 sec. on lap 53; Depailler’s best was 1 min. 17.29 sec. on lap 13 and Patrese’s best was 1 min. 17.15 sec. on lap 44. The best that Jabouille did with the Renault was 1 min. 18.13 sec. on lap 4, so it was not surprising that he was holding up a lot of fast runners.

A very noticeable trend throughout practice and the race was the threat to the established drivers by some newcomers. The starting grid was very illuminating, with Patrick Tambay in row 2, Riccardo Patrese and Gilles Villeneuve in row 4 and Didier Pironi in row 7. Any reasonably competent driver should be able to get into a Formula One car and qualify on the back of the grid at his first attempt. If he qualifies in mid-field on his first try he is worth watching, and if in subsequent races he progresses steadily forward up the grid, at the expense of some established stars you can reckon he has got above average talent. Tambay, Patrese and Villeneuve have shown this talent without question. Other relatively new drivers started by either not qualifying, or scraped onto the back of the grid, and they are still there, even though it is time some of them progressed forward. It was probably just as well that Patrese did not win the race, though it did look pretty certain with a 14 sec. lead and 14 laps to go, when his Cosworth V8 blew up. A new driver in a new car would have rocked the establishment badly, and the establishment is balanced on such a competitive knife-edge these days, both technically and by internal politics and big business, that it could easily fall apart at the seams if it got too excited. The passing media, who do not follow motor racing very closely, would have had a bad time trying to sort out “Riccardo who? Driving a what?”. Patrese (pronounced Patraysee), who was born in 1954 a few days before Alberto Ascari won the Mille Miglia in a Lancia V6 sports-car, and who lives in Padova through which that great race used to run, took over the lead with remarkable confidence, when the stars stumbled. The important thing he did was to get by Jabouille in the Renault on the third lap, before the front runners got too far ahead. If he had taken as long as Watson or Reutemann to get past the “yellow chicane” he would never have been in the right position at the right time, to take over the lead on lap 27. A lot of people wondered why Reutemann, Ferrari and Michelin did not shine like they had done in Brazil, but they probably overlooked the fact that in South Africa there was a whole new set of circumstances. The T3 was brand new and in its first race, and is a completely new design having little or nothing in common with the long established T2 cars. It wasn’t that bad.

A disturbing trend that has spread this year is that of allowing “graphic artists” to have a go the racing numbers. Numbers on a racing car are’ principally for the benefit of the time-keepers and the spectators and should be simple and clear to read. Too many of the cars at Kyalami had numbers painted on by the team’s “graphics man” who viewed the number as part of the overall colouring and sponsorship design so that they were anything but simple and clear to read. The numbers on the Brabhams were a poor joke those on the Lotus cars looked identical when glimpsed at 175 m.p.h.; the Ferraris were placed on a sharply curving surface so that only one digit could be seen from some angles and many more were funny-shaped numbers that could he confused when seen at speed. A number may look all right when seen in the paddock, but on a 150-m.p.h. corner, or 175-m.p.h. straight it can look very different. If the time-keepers miss car’s lap time the teams get very excited; if the spectators cannot read the numbers the teams couldn’t care less. To have illegible numbers, funny numbers, “smart-alec” numbers or badly positioned numbers is totally irresponsible. Let’s hope the CSI takes its foot out of its velvet boot and gives Mr. Ecclestone and his lot a kick up the backside.

During the morning of race-day, amid all, manner of entertainments there was a parade of old cars, some of which indulged in an impromptu race. In the Johannesburg area there is a strong Vintage movement, based on the principles of the VSCC of Britain, with 1930 as do Vintage limit and 1940 as the Post-Vintage, Thoroughbred limit. There is also a strong group with cars that do not fit these limits, such as pre-war American cars and post-war cars. The two factions live together very amicably and both were invited to take part in the parade. In the assembly area the Bugatti, Bentley, Talbot, Rolls-Royce, Alvis faction were lined up on one side and the Chrysler, Chevrolet, Austin A40, Morris 8, Triumph Roadster group on the other. Once out on the circuit they all mingled with one, another to provide a remarkable variety. I took the opportunity of riding with my friend Pete Theobald in his Talbot “105” tourer and we started at the back with a couple of Bentleys and, a Bugatti and had a good dice through the field finishing 3rd! Way out ahead was a cut-and-shut special Bentley, with 4 1/2-litre engine in 3-litre chassis, driven with great verve by Peter Sutcliffe, who will be remembered for racing sports and GT cars a few years ago. It’s nice to see a driver retired from front-line professional racing still enjoying good motor cars and a bit of sport.

Before the Grand Prix itself the 26 drivers were taken round on a lap of honour in open MG sports cars, each car having large stickers on the side proclaiming who the passenger was. I would imagine the chap who took Peterson round on that lap is very reluctant to remove his stickers. These MGs ranged from PB through TA, TC, TF, TD to have MG-A and MG-B. Abingdon would proud of the array assembled for this pleasant task, though no doubt British Leyland did not even know it happened, or even cared, if our correspondence columns are anything to go by. – D.S.J.

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