A marathon affair
Silverstone, July 16th
The 1977 British Grand Prix lasted for exactly one hour thirty-one minutes and forty-six point nought-six seconds, on the high-speed track round the outside of Silverstone aerodrome. Just over one and half hours of motor-racing at an average speed of 130 m.p.h. It doesn’t sound much, but the work and effort that led up to this ninety-minute climax made the most hardened enthusiasts wilt a bit. Whether the build-up and preparation justified the end result is a matter of personal opinion.
Although the race itself started at 3 p.m. (2.59 p.m. to be absolutely precise) on Saturday July 16th, activity began on July 6th when the Formula One Constructors’ Association took over Silverstone for a day of testing preparatory to the official practice beginning on July 14th. They were also there on July 7th, still testing, and the outcome of all that was Andretti recorded the best lap in 1 min. 18.54 sec. with the Lotus 78, with Watson (Brabham-Alfa Romeo), Hunt (McLaren M26/2) and Lauda (Ferrari) a half-a-second or more behind. It was all unofficial and strictly “closed shop” for the Ecclestone/Mosley club, but strangely the works Renault was there; Renault-Sport which is the racing section of Regie Renault suddenly found themselves part of the Constructors’ Club! Naturally everyone was sniffing round the bright yellow turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre V6 Renault car, with its Michelin tyres, but they didn’t sniff for long because the engine broke itself. However, Jean Pierre Jabouille got in a best lap of 1 min. 21.00 sec.
On Wednesday July 13th things started happening again when the RAC invited the non-members of the Constructors’ Association along to Silverstone to indulge in a day of trying to qualify to be allowed to try and qualify for the Grand Prix. This day, in which there were two sessions of an hour-and-a-half each, was banned to the members of the Constructors’ Association and was known as “rabbits’ day”. Seventeen entries were accepted, of which the best five were to be allowed to return for official practice for the Grand Prix. As it turned out there were three non-starters, and of the remaining fourteen two of them eliminated themselves with accidents, one light and the other very serious, and of the twelve that were left seven of them were so competitive and close that the RAC told Mr. .Eeclestone that he should allow all seven, and not lust the best five, to play with the big boys on Thursday, and this was done. A detailed account of “rabbits’ day” will be found elsewhere.
At long last we were getting near to the serious business of the British Grand Prix, and Thursday morning was sunny but cool when the star performers presented themselves on duty, right on time and ready to go, as is the way of the Constructors’ Association members, Some of the . “rabbits” had already covered as many as 100 laps and they now had to start all over again, for times recorded on Wednesday could not be counted as official practice. Because the Wednesday practice did not come into the framework of the Grand Prix rules it was possible for the “rabbits” to cheat openly, and not surreptiously like their big brothers. In consequence, anyone worth his salt had used “unofficial” Goodyear tyres that were worth at least one second per lap and the chosen seven had all got under 1 min. 20 sec. On Thursday everyone had to toe-the-line or play-the-Goodyear-game (except the Renault which was using Michelin tyres) with the result that the overall practice-time scene looked distinctly odd. Very few of the stars went faster than the average “rabbit” of the day before, most of the “rabbits” were still well wound up from the previous day’s activity and though a second slower because they had to use “regulation” tyres, were still faster than “stars” like Reutemann, Mass, Patrese, Regazzoni and Fittipaldi. While waiting for Andretti to set the pace with the Lotus 78 most people completely overlooked Hunt with the McLaren M26. The Colnbrook team were quietly chiselling away with their new car, as they have been since they abandoned the M23 as far as Hunt is concerned, and Jochen Mass was also driving an M26. In the morning hour-and-a-half Hunt made best lap, with 1 min. 18.99 sec., and did it again in the hour in the afternoon with 1 min. 18.49 sec. Meanwhile Andretti was in all sorts of trouble. The morning had gone fair-to-middling, but in the afternoon he was suddenly confronted by Brambilla having an almighty moment all on his own, and in dodging the wayward Surtees the Lotus went so far into the fields that there was no way back without the help of a rescue team. Nilsson stopped and gave his number one a lift back to the pits, where the spare Lotus, which was brand new, was made ready for Andretti. He only did a handful of laps before the Hewland transmission broke up. The Lotus mechanics went and retrieved car 78/3, which was only superficially damaged, though sprouting earth and grass in some odd places, and Andretti continued to practise, but the whole rhythm of working down to a super-fast lap had been destroyed.
In the next-door pit the Wolf team were not progressing as well as they wanted to, but down the line in the Ferrari camp things were looking good, for Lauda was well away with 1 min. 18.93 sec., second to Hunt, and these two were the only ones to get into the 1 min. 18 sec. bracket. Scheckter in the Wolf was close with 1 min. 19.05 sec. and in spite of all his troubles Andretti clocked 1 mm. 19.11 sec. just as practice ended. Many people seemed surprised that Hunt and the McLaren M26 were fastest, having written the combination off as being out of the running, but those who have been watching closely were aware that though the McLaren team had dropped from the position of leaders and pace-setters since changing to the M26 car, they had never dropped far behind and had never lost their way, like the Tyrrell team for example. Hunt’s third place in the Grand Prix of France was a worthy one and was unchallenged by those behind.
On Friday morning, still in dry conditions, the regulation one-and-half hours of untimed practice took place and then came the final hour in which to qualify; for a good place on the grid as far as the “stars” were concerned, or for one of the 26 allowed places as far as the rest were concerned, which meant that four of the entries were going to have to watch the Grand Prix instead of taking part. As things stood at the end of Thursday the works Renault had not qualified, for it had consumed its turbo-charger early in the day and then had trouble with its fuel-injection pump. Fittipaldi had not gone fast enough and Vern Schuppan was still feeling his way along in the new Surtees TS 19/07, having replaced all the previous drivers John Surtees had tried in the Durex sponsored car. In the Hesketh Motor Company there were more cars than they knew what to do with, for Hector Rebaque and Harald Ertl had come to the end of their finances and had given up their Rent-a-Drive cars, and the workshop had iust completed a new car for Rupert Keegan, so the Star of Southend-on-Sea found himself with four cars more or less for the taking. To replace Ertl the organisers had taken on another “rabbit”, the Spanish bank manager Emilio Villota and his M23 McLaren, but he did not look like qualifying in the top twenty-six. With three Association members among the nonqualifiers the final hour was going to prove interesting to see who was going to be hauled down off the ladder.
Up to this point only Hunt and Lauda had broken the 1 min. 19 sec. barrier, but now all the super-stars got really stuck in and Watson in the spare Brabham, Scheckter in the Wolf, and Nilsson in the Lotus joined the elite. The young Swede was in great form and without the personal ministrations of Colin Chapman, who was engrossed with Andretti, he was really flying. The Lotus team leader was not getting his act together at all well and could not find the combination of fine adjustments to give him the handling he really wanted. Not being one for driving on passion and enthusiasm alone, like some of the other racers, he finished up a lowly sixth at the end of the afternoon, and sixth overall, one place behind the beaming Gunnar Nilsson. Although Watson finished up with best time of the afternoon, he had not beaten Hunt’s time of the previous afternoon, but nonetheless was on the front row of the grid with the World Champion. Right behind them was the tenacious Niki Lauda with the Ferrari that he was saying was obsolete a week or two ago, with Scheckter and the Wolf alongside him. Then came the two Lotus cars, looking very “plain black” for all the John Player gold lettering had been erased as a sop to the Government health/tobacco department. After this group of “regulars” came those two hard-triers Stuck and Brambilla, who had both got through the day without hitting anyone or anything. In ninth place overall was the little French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve in the third works McLaren entry, run as a separate entity away from the mainstream of the factory surrounding Hunt and Mass. So well had this factory offshoot done their job that Meyer and Coppuck hardly knew they were there at the far end of the pits, and with a time of 1 min. 19.32 sec. in his first Formula One event Villeneuve had not only earned a big A for effort, but had caused a lot of eyebrows to lift and noses to twitch. The grey area in the middle of field was as grey as usual, but had some black spots in it, like Reutemann and Laffite, neither of whom could seem to get into the swing of the high speed Silverstone swerves, and some bright spots like the appearance of Keegan from the lower ranks, and new-boy Patrick Tambay in the brand new Ensign MN08, built for Teddy Yip’s Theodore Racing of Hong Kong. The end of the field was little changed, except that the turbo-charged Renault was well in, and the Kart-racing wonder-boy from Italy, Riccardo Patrese, was finding 150-m.p.h. corners something very new and not easy to learn, even though he did have a nice new Shadow DN8.
Poor little Alex Ribeiro was once again the first to fail to join the starting grid, and engine trouble had prevented Brian Henton from guarding his position. Villota was not really expected to qualify, but biggest surprise of all was the fact that Regazzoni failed to qualify the works Ensign. Nothing had specifically been wrong, but like Reutemann and Laffite, the Swiss driver could not get everything right and for once the Chasetown team had to sit and have tea while all the others went racing. We had now had five days of activity and had still not arrived at the start of the British Grand Prix, and Saturday July 16th was not to be hastened. A full day of entertainment was planned and meticulously carried out and at 3 p.m. the Grand Prix was due to start and run for 68 laps of the high-speed perimeter of the Silverstone airfield. For some drivers, looking forward to covering a mere 68 laps was a relief; Laffite had already done 123 laps, not counting the two days of testing and the 1 1/2 hours on Friday morning, most of them had done over 100 laps and Brett Lunger had covered 213 laps, Patrick Neve 207 laps and Villeneuve 169 laps, but of course, the difference now was that the object was to cover 68 laps as fast as possible without stopping. For a final “test” there were 30 minutes of practice allowed on Saturday morning before the race, and then an air of quiet calm settled over the pits as everyone prepared for the Grand Prix. John Watson had decided to use the spare Brabham, BT45/1B, in place of the later car, for he felt happier with the handling even though it was a bit heavier. Jacques Laffite opted for the earlier of the two Ligier-Matra cars, though he was not truly happy with either of them. The McLaren team were more than satisfied with Hunt’s M26, and the Hesketh group had given Keegan 308E/3, previously driven by Rebaque. At the last minute Depailler had confused the Tyrrell team still further by trying the unmodified spare car, but agreeing to start with his usual P34/7. The Wolf team were right on schedule, using WR1 as planned, and the ATS team were using the Penske PC4/02 as planned. Lotus had installed a Nicholson/McLaren engine in Andretti’s car in place of the Cosworth factory development engine they had used in practice, but Hunt and Peterson still had the special works Cosworth engines in their cars.
During the lunch break there was a lot of wheel-changing practice going on, as the skies had become rather grey and ominous-looking. Up to now everything had gone smoothly with the RAC/BRDC organisation, and bearing in mind the chaotic fiascos of previous years, a lot of people were prepared for impending doom! A crowd of the order of 80,000 paying spectators was packed tightly round the 3-mile circuit, and they were still coming in as the starting time approached. From the pits the cars went off round the circuit as and when they were ready, to line up on the starting grid, while spare cars for Hunt, Watson and Lauda were wheeled down the pit line in case any last-minute panics occured. Nilsson went back to the pits for a final adjustment to be made to his fuel-injection, and then did another lap, and eventually all 26 starters were lined up two-by-two, the final rows being way back in the Woodcote chicane run-off area. Engines were started, and Hunt led them all away on a controlled formation lap. In a very orderly fashion they came under the Daily Express bridge, by-passed the Woodcote chic and took up their places on the starting grid.
The red light came on, engine notes rose, clutches were slipped, everyone trembled with anticipation, the green light glowed, feel juggled with pedals, wheels spun, smoke rose, the roar of 26 engines dominated everything and Watson’s red Brabham-Alfa Romeo shot off into the lead, with Lauda and Scheckter right behind. Hunt made a hesitant start, and the order on that opening lap was Watson, Lauda, Scheckter, Hunt, Nilsson, Andretti, Villeneuve and Mass. Only 25 cars completed the opening lap for Keegan’s Hesketh fell apart on him before he was half-way round. On the third lap Peterson’s Tyrrell had gone, with a broken Cosworth engine, and the next time round Tambay’s new Ensign expired in the middle of the Woodcote chicane when all the electrics disappeared. By this time the field had settled into a pattern, surprisingly quickly compared with some circuits, with Watson leading Lauda, followed by Scheckter with Hunt pressing hard, then came Andretti and Nilsson, the Lotuses having changed places, with the newcomer Villeneuve keeping up with them all in a most confident manner, and leading Mass in the second M26. That was the first race that was developing. The second one was led by Brambilla ahead of Laffite, Reutemann, Stuck, Merzario, Jones and Depailler. Then came Ian Scheckter in the works March, with Jarier and the turbo-charged Renault behind him. Bringing up the rear were Patrese, Fittipaldi, Lunger, Neve and Schuppan.
Hunt was clearly not content to follow Scheckter, especially as Watson and Lauda were pulling away, and on the seventh lap the World Champion got by the Wolf and set his sights on Lauda’s Ferrari that had been getting smaller as it drew away. On the same lap Reutemann arrived at Woodcote with only his rear brakes working properly and promptly spun the Ferrari without hitting anything, but had to wait until everyone had gone by before he could rejoin the race. Next time round he went into the pits where it was found that a front brake pipe had broken; it was replaced and the system topped up and five laps later the disgruntled Argentinian rejoined the race. By ten laps Hunt had left Scheckter, Andretti and Nilsson and was closing up rapidly on Watson and Lauda. In seventh place Villeneuve had lost a little ground, but had not really lost contact with the leading group, which was very impressive for a Formula One debut and he was still leading Mass. However, his water temperature gauge had gone berserk and the needle was pointing up instead of down, and as he had made a slight excursion off onto the grass at one point he thought he might have damaged something in the water system. At the end of the ten laps he handed Mass seventh place as he went into the pits. While his mechanics looked around the car and could find nothing wrong and came to the conclusion that the water temperature was all right and it was the mgauge that had broken, the young Canadian had undone his seat belts and climbed out, thinking his race was over. By the time he was strapped back in and sent on his way he had lost two laps and rejoined the race just ahead of the Scheckter-Andretti-Nilsson dice. The Renault was the next casualty when Jabouille brought it in with a cracked inlet manifold, after an all-too-brief run of only twelve laps; a repair was made and it rejoined the race well down at the back but intent on getting in some racing miles, but only lasted another live laps before the turbo-charger broke. Slowly but surely Hunt was catching Lauda, driving in a hard and determined fashion, with fastest laps into the bargain and at quarter-distance, or 17 laps he was less than half a second behind the Ferrari, while Watson was three-quarters of a second ahead of the Maranello car. This trio were in a race of their own, while between them and the following trio, on the road though not in fact, was Villeneuve. Scheckter was getting closer to him, and rather than ignore his followers and make them find their way by one at a time, and spoil the rhythm of their three-cornered battle as some drivers do, this very cool newcomer moved over, let all three go by and tucked in behind them and resumed the same pace, sitting comfortably with the three works stars. Depailler did not quite complete the quarter-distance, for the six-wheeler’s brakes played up and the Frenchman went off the road and demolished the front end of P34/7. Four laps later Patrese coasted to a stop in the new Shadow with a lack of fuel pressure. Hunt was now attacking Lauda with serious intent and it happened at the end of lap 23 as they braked for the chicane. Once by Hunt was away after Watson and there was nothing Lauda could do about it, the M26 McLaren was going well and Hunt was in his best fighting form. Watson’s three-second lead fast disappeared and was soon down to a bare second, which meant that Hunt could study all the details on the back of the Brabham-Alfa. Elsewhere there was little serious change, Scheckter, Andretti and Nilsson had reached a dead-lock, Mass was all on his own still in the seventh place that Villeneuve should have had by rights, Brambilla was still leading Laffite and Stuck, though the hard-trying Merzario dropped out with a broken universal joint in a drive shaft on his privately owned March. Early in the race Alan Jones had been with the last group, but he muffed a gear-change, lost some ground and just could not make it up again. Almost a lap behind the leaders were the two yellow cars of Jarier and Fittipaldi, while Neve and Schuppan were already lapped, Lunger had been forced to stop and have the ignition unit changed, and was well behind, as was Reutemann.
At-half distance there was no change and the official gap between the Alfa Romeo and the McLaren was one second and five-hundreths, but already Hunt had been within touching distance of the Alfa Romeo gearbox, and was looking for a weakness in Watson’s defences. As Andretti had discovered at Dijon, Watson does not have any weaknesses in his driving or his race tactics, and all Hunt could hope for was a failure in the Brabham or the Alfa Romeo part of things. For four laps in succession Hunt was very close indeed as they applied maximum braking for the chicane, but Watson’s driving was faultless, and Hunt was forced to drop back for a “breather”. Then at the end of lap 44 Hunt gathered himself up and took a mighty lunge and the two cars were wheel-to-wheel as the drivers stood on the brakes, but Watson is as brave as they come and he sat it out and didn’t give an inch, and continued to lead the race.
All this had left Lauda a long way behind and as he had lost confidence in the feel of the Ferrari brakes, he was content to settle for third place. On lap 50 the Alfa Romeo’s fuel pressure dropped, the engine missed its beat as the fuel-injection suffered and Hunt was by into the lead, while the unfortunate Watson headed for the pits. In a vain hope of effecting a cure some more petrol was put into the Brabham’s tanks and Watson rejoined the race, now down in twelfth place, but it was no use and after a few more laps he was back again and finally had to retire and see another victory slip through his fingers. It was no use talking about the “luck of the Irish” that was a myth made up by the “little people” south of the border.
Hunt was now completely unchallenged and in response to signals from the McLaren pit he eased right off to cruise home as he pleased to win his own Grand Prix. Behind, all was not so clear cut, for Scheckter had been pulling out a lead on the two Lotus cars, or to be more accurate, they were dropping back as Andretti’s engine was tiring and he was holding up Nilsson who felt he shouldn’t overtake his number one. On lap 53 he could hold back no longer and went by with the determination to catch Scheckter, and then worry about getting past the Wolf. As Andretti’s engine weakened and he dropped back, Nilsson romped up on Scheckter, who was alerted to the danger and he made his fastest lap of the race on lap 59 and as he started lap 60 his Cosworth engine blew up and he coasted to a stop, leaving Nilsson a nice comfortable third place. The Swede was not satisfied with that and having had a go at Scheckter he now had a go at Lauda. Andretti’s failing engine went bang in a big way as he came under the Daily Express bridge at the end of lap 63, with only five to go. and spraying oil and water and smoke out of the hack the Lotus came to a halt on the grass in the chicane run-off area, keeping the mess off the racing line into the corner. As Andretti climbed out of the Lotus amid the original “cloud of blue smoke” Nilsson was going faster and faster in pursuit of Lauda’s Ferrari. As a joyous James Hunt took the chequered flag to win the first straightforward untroubled British Grand Prix for five years, Gunnar Nilsson was recording his fastest lap of the race and finished a fighting third only one and a quarter seconds behind Lauda’s Ferrari. Mass was a lonely fourth, Stuck took fifth place from Laffite, with the victorious McLaren between them on the road, and Alan Jones was a lonely seventh. Brambilla was eighth having been forced to relinquish what would have been fifth place when a tyre deflated and he had to stop for a wheel change, and Jarier had a non-stop run into ninth place, and Neve a similar untroubled run into tenth position. Eleventh was Villeneuve, his result giving no indication of the smooth, confident way he had driven, but he was undoubtedly “the man of the meeting” and Schuppan, Lunger and Reutemann followed him home.
James Hunt was a worthy winner for he had driven a hard race dispelling any thoughts that he had lost form this season, and the McLaren team’s work with the M26 had finally reaped its reward. While putting the pressure on Watson, Hunt had recorded the fastest lap of the race in 1 min. 19.60 sec., to Watson’s best of 1 min. 19.63 sec. Formula One racing is indeed close. – D.S.J.