1979 British Grand Prix race report - Williams all the way
It was all sunshine and peace at Silverstone over the period of the Grand Prix, the sun was shining, everyone was affable and there were all the ingredients for the best possible British motor racing garden party.
Clay Regazzoni crosses the line to win the 1979 British Grand Prix. Photo: Motorsport Images
There was everything on four wheels, from long, long ago to the very instant when practice began, and all sizes from 750cc Karts to 520bhp Formula 1 cars and from ERAs to 917 Porsches; there was something for everyone and everyone seemed to be there, some 25,000 on the Friday practice day and another 75,000 were said to have joined them for race day on the Saturday.
There were three things uppermost in people's minds as the cars assembled in the pit lane for the first practice session on Thursday morning. The memory of the fantastic last lap in the Grand Prix of France at Dijon, the speed of the Renault twin-turbocharged cars in that race, and the speeds that Alan Jones had recorded in unofficial practice at Silverstone the week previous. There were two schools of thought on the pushing-and-shoving and elbowing that Arnoux and Villeneuve indulged in at Dijon, which the whole world seemed to have witnessed thanks to skilled French television operators. One school was bubbling with enthusiasm and saying "wasn't that terrific stuff", while the other was "tut-tutting" and saying it was dangerous and should be discouraged. Niki Lauda was leading a little crusade among his Drivers Safety Committee to have the two miscreants reprimanded and even punished (isn't that awful, it sounds like Stewart and the GPDA all over again), while some of his colleagues were saying "nonsense, we all do it when the heat is on". After the Dijon race, the winning Renault engine was stripped and measured just to stop any nasty people suggesting that it was a 2.1-litre Le Mans engine, so everyone was keyed up to see if the Renaults could repeat their speed on the Silverstone airfield circuit; and speed was the operative word, for in tyre testing Lauda had gone round in 1m 13.30s (144mph) which had rocked everyone back on their heels, until Alan Jones came along and took the Williams round in 1m 12.99s (nearly 145mph), saying there was more to come. All this added up to excitement, and a huge crowd began to head towards the home of British Motor Racing, three days before the event.
The practice arrangements had returned to the new format of 1979, after the slight diversion at Dijon, so it was one hour of untimed testing on Thursday morning, ready for an hour-and-a-half of timed practice in the afternoon; and the same arrangement on Friday. There were 26 entries in the vast Silverstone pit lane, of which two were going to be forced to be non-starters thanks to rules and regulations, which seemed a bit silly in view of the wide open spaces afforded by the airfield circuit. Among the cars were 2 1/2 new ones and one different one, the odd half being the remarkable job the Tyrrell team did on 009/6, the car that crashed on Pironi at Dijon. The entire front end had been torn off, almost back to the cockpit, so a new front half had been bonded and riveted on to the undamaged part. The two new cars were the McLaren M29 and Wolf WR9. The McLaren was a complete rethink, mostly using the thoughts of other successful teams, like Ligier, Lotus and Williams and the resultant M29 was lighter, shorter and smaller than the unfortunate M28 and its derivatives. While the Williams uses a "secret" heat-exchanger to cool the oil, rather than a conventional radiator, and has it hidden away on the left of the monocoque within the side-pod, the M29 has its "secret" heat exchanger on the right-hand side. This first new car, M29/1 was for Watson, while Tambay continued to use his uprated M28 until a second new car is completed. The Wolf WR9 has its major changes around the rear end, the object being to gain more clear space for the air to exit from under the side-pods. The major components to be moved were the rear brakes, previously mounted inboard on each side of the differential housing; they are now hub-mounted and hidden away within the rear wheels and this meant new rear suspension members and a general re-design of the layout of the back of the car, though no fundamental changes were made to the rest of the design. This WR9 was brand new and untried, whereas the new McLaren had done some testing the previous week. The "different" car was what appeared to be a new Merzario from Arturo's small team, but what was, in reality, one of the Kauhsen cars that appeared so briefly early in the season. Using the basic Kauhsen WK the Merzario chaps had produced themselves a new car.
John Watson in his McLaren during the 1979 British Grand Prix. Photo: Motorsport Images
For the rest, it was the mixture as before, successful or otherwise, except for Team Lotus who returned to square one. Both Andretti and Reutemann had a Lotus 79 as their first arm, with the first Lotus 80 as a spare car for the American and another Lotus 79 as spare for the Argentinian. The order was Andretti 79/4 and 80/1; Reutemann 79/5 and 79/3. Brabham had the same three cars as in the previous race, with BT48/02 for Lauda and BT48/03 for Piquet, both cars being fitted with the carbon-fibre disc brakes, whereas the spare car BT48/04 was using normal steel discs. Ferrari were ringing the changes on their T4 cars, with Scheckter in the car that Villeneuve raced at Monaco (039) and Villeneuve in the car that was the spare at Monaco (038), with the same spare car as used at Dijon (037), needless to say, all rebuilt from stem to stern with all new components, engines, gearboxes and so on. The flat-12 engine characteristics can be changed slightly by using different exhaust pipe lengths and diameters, and they were set up for higher power, lower torque characteristics for the sustained high speeds of Silverstone. The Ligier team were using three cars, Laffite in 04, Ickx in 01 and the spare 03, while Frank Williams' team were as normal, with Jones in 003, Regazzoni in 002 and the original FW07 as the spare. Arrows had altered the rear end of the new A2 design slightly, by fitting an aerofoil between the side plates at the rear, giving it in effect a double-aerofoil, like the Lotus 80/1.
On the driver front, there were no changes, and quite remarkably there were only two British drivers in the British Grand Prix, and they both came from overseas. There wasn't an Englishman in sight. The drivers came from America, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and Northern Ireland, but none from England. A sad state of affairs.
In these days of everyone "doing good" and anything exciting and enjoyable being stopped, it was the time to go out into the open spaces of Silverstone and watch at Stowe and Club corners, for in two years' time when the Grand Prix returns to Silverstone those corners may not exist. In testing, the latest Goodyear tyres and the road-holding of the better cars was allowing the drivers to take Stowe corner in top gear, after lifting off briefly (or so we were told in the papers). One driver/car combination was truly impressive, and that was Alan Jones in the Williams FW07. He came down Hangar Straight at close to 170mph, lifted right off at the end so that the overrun knocked an instant 30mph off the speed, turned into the corner and floored the throttle and the Williams came out of the corner at about 155mph and fairly hurtled down to Club corner, where he did the same. Most of the others were lifting off and hesitantly opening the throttle, some were changing down a gear and others were almost out of the corner before they opened the throttle. Because the Williams was so nicely balanced going into the corner, and all the way round it, Jones was able to be super-confident and you could visibly see the four tyres clinging to the road while the mass of the car and the driver wanted to fly off at a tangent under the effects of centrifugal force. It was something well worth seeing, whereas the Ferraris looked awful and were not worth watching, except to appreciate that perhaps they are not very good on high-speed corners due to insufficient downforce from their aerodynamics. This is the first time we have seen the T4 on a circuit without any slow corners or the need for low-speed acceleration. It could not have been anything to do with the Michelin tyres because the Renaults were looking quite good. Two drivers who were very courageous in lesser cars were Rosberg in the Wolf and Stuck in the ATS.
Gilles Villeneuve was left frustrated in an underperforming Ferrari at Silverstone. Photo: Motorsport Images
While this test session was at its height, Lauda came down Hangar Straight with a cloud of oil smoke coming out of the back of his Brabham-Alfa and cruised quietly by, and the next thing was that Scheckter's Ferrari spun off right in the middle of Stowe corner and landed up backwards in the catch-fences, bending the rear aerofoil. He restarted the engine and drove off slowly back to the pits wondering what had happened! Meanwhile, the same thing had happened to Alan Jones at Copse corner, and Scheckter had actually seen the Williams spinning off in his mirror. Earlier, the engine in the new McLaren had blown up, so Watson's progress was stopped and the McLaren mechanics were well underway with an engine change before the test session finished.
From 12:30 until 2 pm, the timekeepers were on the job to record everyone's movements and things began to get very exciting. Jones was using the spare Williams, while his own was checked over, and Scheckter was using the spare Ferrari. Watson was back in the M29 with a fresh engine fitted and Lauda was soon changing from BT48/02 to BT48/04, but it wasn't helping him to keep up with his young Brazilian teammate. The scene at Team Lotus was so sad that it is best to draw a veil over it, and it was pointless to ask what was the matter, as some people were doing, because if Colin Chapman and Nigel Bennett knew they would do something about it. The new Wolf was giving trouble in its fuel system, so Rosberg was out in the spare one, and Laffite was concentrating on the newer of the Ligier cars, which he had not liked at Dijon. Regazzoni's progress stopped when the skirts on his Williams went wrong, and as Jones was out in the spare that was that. The Australian was really making good use of the spare Williams and finding it as good if not better than his designated car. He was way out in a world of his own, lapping at under 1m 12s, the point at which the programme speed table stopped! He was down to 1m 11.88s and feeling really happy about it, with no complaints and really enjoying the whole business. His average speed for that shattering lap was 146.84mph, with a brief maximum down Hangar Straight of 168-170mph. Progress towards the ultimate of cornering at the same speed as you go down the straight was being made.
In a different class were the rest of the runners, led by the two Renaults of Jabouille and Arnoux at 1m 13.27s and 1m 13.29s respectively. Then came the two Brabham-Alfas with Piquet at 1m 13.47s and Lauda at 1m 13.92s After that the times (as shown in the accompanying table) were over 1m 14s which was over 2 seconds off the time of the Williams, and it was difficult to take any of them very seriously. It wasn't for lack of trying for many of the drivers put in over 40 laps of practice during the hour-and-a-half. Down at the end of the field, the runners were nearly eight seconds off the pace of Alan Jones, and we are often told that racing is too close these days. So the first day of this high-speed Grand Prix ended with Jones proving himself to be right when he said there was more to come after his private test-session, and the Renaults were maintaining the performance they had shown in Dijon. Of Lauda and his Driver Safety Committee, we heard no more.
"The Williams was going like an Inter-City 125, but faster, and looked so smooth and confident that it made you wonder what was wrong with all the others."
On Friday the weather was getting distinctly warm, and it seemed unlikely that speeds would improve. During the morning test session, Andretti tried the Lotus 80, but there was not too much enthusiasm around the Lotus pits. Jones and Scheckter were back in their original cars, though the Australian was beginning to wonder why, as the spare car had gone so well and felt so good. Before the end of the morning, with the rising air temperature, the water and oil temperatures on the Williams were getting a bit too close to the optimum for comfort, so the aluminium water radiators were changed for brass ones, the slight weight penalty being worth it for peace of mind over temperatures. Among some of the teams who were trying to keep up there seemed to be a lot of front-spring changing going on, but none of it looked like getting them into the 1m 12s bracket, though it might have helped to make the situation look a little less depressing, or helped to ease the drivers brain-pain, especially as Regazzoni was beginning to get up with his team-leader, and James Hunt told us long ago that "Regga" was over-the-hill. Scheckter's Ferrari damaged its engine and instantly a change was begun, the work going so quickly that it was ready to go again with a new engine by the time the afternoon session began at 12:30. Every time the Brabham-Alfas broke, and they seemed to do it regularly, "little Bernie" closed the doors of the garages and made his chaps work in the dark! All very secret. Apart from oil leaks, one of their troubles seemed to be the titanium exhaust pipes breaking, which was interesting because Lotus had replaced lots of suspension components on the 80 with steel parts because the titanium parts kept cracking. Interesting study for the metallurgists here.
With the ambient temperature quite a lot higher it was pretty certain that "Jonesey-boy's" pole position was safe, but everyone was keen to get closer to it even if there was no hope of improving on it. The depressing part for most teams was that the Williams was turning in lap times on full petrol tank and hard racing tyres that they could not match on soft "short-life" tyres and five gallons in the tank. There was almost an air of disbelief along the pit lane, but nobody could argue with facts and all the teams' time-keepers had the facts. Practice had barely been running half an hour when everything went quiet and it was reported that Patrese had shot the Arrows A2 into the fences at Becketts, so there was a pause while it was retrieved, the damage being slight, but it meant he had to continue practice in the old Arrows A1. While this had been happening the new Wolf was playing up with an electrical fault, so Rosberg switched to WR7 and Jones switched to the spare Williams while the fuel was drained and measured from FW07/003. Villeneuve went out in the spare Ferrari, and generally was far from happy, and it was strange to see him return to the pits and have no Ferrari engineer to greet him and plug in the radio communication. Eventually the Michelin engineer went and spoke to him! Mr. Ferrari having said that Scheckter could be World Champion this year, it looked as though the team harmony was being interrupted.
In his usual way, of getting on with his job quietly, Piquet was third fastest, behind Jones and Jabouille, but his progress was stopped when an exhaust manifold pipe on the left side broke in two. The car was hidden away from prying eyes and the word put out that the Brabham team had used up all its quota of Goodyear qualifying tyres. Jones was so happy with the spare Williams that it was agreed that he should race it, with a brand new works Cosworth engine fitted for the occasion. No matter what people say, if you prove your worth to the world you get help from the right people and Frank Williams was enjoying the full support of Cosworth and Goodyear, while needless to say the full support he has been receiving from Saudi Arabia was being repaid in full. While nobody can guarantee a race result, for there are so many things on a racing car to go wrong, Alan Jones and the Williams was a foregone winner of the British Grand Prix, for no other car/driver combination had approached his practice times, but even a short 200 mile Formula 1 race is a long way when you come to actually do it.
As always, the British GP (Garden Party) at Silverstone was a very long day of activity, for many it was 5 am to 11 pm and during all that time there was to be a brief hour-and-a-half for the GP (Grand Prix), the rest was splendid entertainment. We had already had a Formula Three race qualifying for the big Vandervell-sponsored race on Grand Prix day, and also another round in the BMW publicity Procar race, which Lauda won and the crowd expressed their disapproval of B. C. Ecclestone Esq., by booing when he appeared at the prize-giving. Saturday was fine and dry and the air was full of helicopters, static balloons, performing aeroplanes, men on parachutes, you name it, it was up there. On the ground there were saloon cars racing, Formula Three cars racing, old cars racing, exotic cars parading, drivers from the 1949/50 British Grand Prix era displaying that they could still drive, wining and dining, drinking and eating, and all the other things that happen when you get 100,000 motor racing enthusiasts together in one field. It was all very orderly, very enjoyable and a credit to the Royal Automobile Club who start the affair off, and the thousands of willing helpers from motor clubs all over the country who help to keep it all going. It really was a splendid day, but there was the serious business of the 68 lap British Grand Prix to attend to.
Clay Regazzoni gets a great start to jump into the lead of the British Grand Prix. Photo: Motorsport Images
As is customary there was a 30-minute test-session in the morning in which teams made final decisions, or not as the case may be. The Wolf team had settled to run WR7 as the new car was still misbehaving, Alan Jones settled to race FW07/001 and it had the very best Cosworth DFV in it, Lauda was to race the Brabham T-car, while Laffite was going to race the Ligier T-car but changed his mind at the last moment and decided to use JS11/04. Poor Jabouille was in trouble for he meant to use this half-hour to try his Renault on full petrol tank on different tyres and decide which ones would give him the best chance of holding on to the Williams from his position on the front row of the grid. His Hewland gearbox played up and he never got out on the track, so he had to guess at his choice of tyre to suit the Renault on full tank. Stuck was standing by as first reserve and his hopes rose when the Ensign was towed in with a broken engine. As the start was not due until 3 pm there was plenty of time for the Ensign team to install a new engine, so all 24 starters were ready to leave the pits at 2:30 pm after the aeroplanes had filled the air with aerobatics and paraffin fumes.
One by one, in no particular order the twenty-four cars left the pit lane and went round the circuit to form up on the starting grid, and Rosberg took the opportunity to nip back into the pits for a final adjustment to the spare Wolf, before doing another warm-up lap. After what seemed to be a very long wait Alan Jones led them off on the pace lap and they returned to await the red light and then the green light for the off. Regazzoni made a super start from the second row and arrived at the first corner going almost too fast, and without really meaning to he elbowed his way past Jones and into the lead, with Jabouille in the Renault third. He was still leading on the other side of the circuit, but then Jabouille went round the outside of him as Alan Jones went through on the inside and from first Regazzoni was suddenly third and all was in order. The first lap saw the order Jones, (Williams), Jabouille (Renault), Regazzoni (Williams), Piquet (Brabham), Lauda (Brabham), Andretti (Lotus) — having made an incredible start from the fifth row, Arnoux (Renault), Laffite (Ligier), Villeneuve (Ferrari), Reutemann (Lotus) and the rest, but nothing was settled and there were about to be a lot of changes of position.
The first thing that happened was that Piquet over-cooked it at the Woodcote chicane and spun off, which left Lauda leading a pretty desperate bunch who could see the leading trio disappearing into the middle distance. Jones and Jabouille were away on their own, Regazzoni was a lonely third and Arnoux, Villeneuve, Andretti and Scheckter were trying to get by Lauda. The World Champion did not get the chance for the Lotus destroyed a wheel bearing and he was out after only three laps. The other three went by the Brabham and soon pulled away and at five laps the race had settled down. With no strain at all Alan Jones was pulling out an enormous lead, while Jabouille soon realised he had chosen the wrong type of Michelin tyre, for not only could he not keep up but they were wearing too quickly. Regazzoni was sitting comfortably in third place and Arnoux was leading the two Ferraris who looked anything but comfortable. Laffite was having a ding-dong with Lauda and Jochen Mass had got his Arrows well into the midfield bunch. His teammate Patrese was anything but happy, for he had already been into the pits after starting late.
Gilles Villeneuve brings his car in for a service during the race. Photo: Motorsport Images
The Williams was going like an Inter-City 125, but faster, and looked so smooth and confident that it made you wonder what was wrong with all the others. Jabouille was falling back dramatically and it was only a matter of time before he stopped to try some different tyres, and Reggazoni was sitting pretty to take over second place. Sure enough, it happened on lap 17 and we had the impressive sight of the two neat white and green Saudi Arabian backed Williams cars in first and second places in the British Grand Prix. Renault's hopes were not dashed, for Arnoux was in a pretty strong third place, having out-distanced the two Ferraris and Laffite was leading the rest of the field, the tail-enders already being lapped by Alan Jones. The Renault pit stop was a disaster, and with four new tyres, Jabouille got all tangled up in the wheel-nut spanner air-line and tore the nose cone apart as he roared off. He was back at the end of the lap for repairs, but they took a long time and he kept the engine running and one of the turbo-chargers overheated and seized and that was that.
Scheckter had taken his rightful place ahead of his teammate on lap 14 but it wasn't going to do him much good, as they could not even see the leading Williams, let alone hope to catch it. Alan Jones was really coasting along, even though he was lapping in the 1m 14s bracket and he was running with nearly 1,000rpm in hand. Regazzoni was having to keep a wary eye in his mirrors and watch his pit signals, as Arnoux was going very consistently behind him, though there was no one else to worry about. Lauda was unhappy with the Brabham brakes and after being passed by almost everybody of no note he gave up. By 20 laps, Jones had lapped Lammers, Gaillard, Fittipaldi and Rebaque, and shortly after he lapped Tambay, de Angelis, Ickx, Pironi and Jarier in quick succession. Watson had the new McLaren in seventh place but then had to stop for a tyre change on the left-front; he then did an impressive climb back up through the tail-enders to regain his position.
At half distance, Jones was still in full command and everything was running smoothly, Regazzoni was still second and had got the measure of Arnoux, who was still third, but Laffite had got his Ligier among the Ferraris; everyone else had been lapped by the flying Williams. A great cheer from the crowd accompanied Laffite when he overtook Scheckter, and then Reutemann disappeared into the pits as his Lotus felt odd and he thought it might be a slow puncture. It turned out to be a deteriorating skirt, on which the ceramic rubbing bits had broken up, so he went on his way. As Alan Jones came down to Woodcote corner to complete his fortieth lap, with everything seemingly in order, there was a bang, a cloud of smoke and that was the end of his super Cosworth engine and the end of his race.
With teammate Alan Jones dropping out with reliability woes, Clay Regazzoni crosses the line to win the 1979 British Grand Prix. Photo: Motorsport Images
You could imagine his feelings as he coasted into the pits with a certain victory snatched away from him by a mechanical failure. For the Williams team as a whole, it was heart-breaking, but they were consoled by dear old "Regga" now solidly in the lead, for Arnoux in the Renault could do nothing about him. Laffite's joy at being third did not last long for his engine went sick and after stopping at the pits to make sure it wasn't something simple like a wire off somewhere, he retired with internal engine damage. At the same time Rosberg fell out when the Cosworth engine in the Wolf went sick with trouble in its fuel-injection system, so we had a rather depleted field with only four cars on the same lap, and all this had let Jarier into fifth place, though a lap behind, and Watson was sixth. Patrese came into the pits to report a rumbling vibration in the back of his Arrows, set off again and promptly had the gearbox break.
At 50 laps Villeneuve was brought in and all four tyres were changed for a softer and stickier type and he set off again, but he had lost his fourth place and was no longer causing Scheckter to keep an anxious eye in his mirrors. Before the race ended Villeneuve was back into the pits again, ostensibly with fuel-vaporisation problems, but it had been clear that he was going no faster on the change of Michelins and he retired in a very unhappy frame of mind. Round and round went Regazzoni, followed consistently by Arnoux, but Scheckter was losing speed dramatically, his tyres worn thin and his engine not running cleanly. On lap 56 Regazzoni lapped the Ferrari, and smiled to himself hoping that Enzo Ferrari and James Hunt were noticing, and then a cheer went up as the blue Tyrrell of Jarier took away Scheckter's third place, and an even louder cheer as Watson's new McLaren passed the stricken Ferrari on their last lap. Pironi had lost contact with his team-mate when he had to stop and change a blistered tyre, and Tambay ran short of petrol before he got the chequered flag for his seventh place. Elio de Angelis had been black-flagged because his rear aerofoil was coming adrift and he stopped at the pits for repairs, and this together with a one minute penalty for jumping the start put him behind his Dutch team-mate, even though he had been well ahead of him at the start.
Clay Regazzoni on the podium alongside Renault driver Rene Arnoux. Photo: Motorsport Images
To say that Regazzoni's victory was popular with the crowds would be an under-statement, the cheering, waving spectators poured onto the track as the swarthy Swiss made his lap of honour beaming from car to car under his heavy black moustache, and well he might. He knows as well as anyone that he is not the world's greatest Grand Prix driver, nor ever will be, but he does know he is a good solid racing driver who keeps at it and enjoys it. The Williams team didn't know whether to laugh for Regazzoni or cry for Alan Jones, it was all too much and to win the British Grand Prix was almost more than Frank Williams ever dreamed of. It had been Frank Williams and his little team all the way, and it was fully deserved. — D. S.J
Among the drivers from past British Grand Prix events were Phillipe Etancelin, Luigi Villoresi, Raymond Mays, Baron de Graffenreid, Bob Gerard, John Bolster, Tony Rolt, Duncan Hamilton, T. C. Harrison, George Abecassis, David Hampshire, Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Geoff Richardson, Cliff Allison, and no doubt many more we didn't see.
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The parade of exotic cars displayed by the one-make clubs was mouth-watering. There were Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins, Porsches and Jaguars; something for everyone.
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Sir John (Jack) Brabham was the guest of honour of the BRDC, and as we said many years ago, old Black Jack will always be welcome back in the motor racing scene.
The Historic race, for all manner of cars from 1931 to 1960, saw an impressive line up of 35 cars on the grid with a good scrap for the outright victory between Willie Green in Bamford's Dino 246 Ferrari, Lamplough in a P25 BRM and Halford in his Lotus 16, with de Cadenet joining them until he spun in his Tasman Aston Martin DBR4 single-seater.
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Sad part of the day was when Gerry Marshall went on his head in his Triumph Dolomite in the saloon car race, knocking himself about rather severely.
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No doubt that the Grand Prix of France at Dijon encouraged a lot of people to attend the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Let us hope the RAC have sent a little gift to the Dijon organisers in appreciation of the overflowing coffers.