1979 Argentine Grand Prix race report

Jacques Laffite, 1979 Argentine GP

Laffite took victory for Ligier

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Ligier landmark

Buenos Aires, January 21st

The new Grand Prix season started with a flourish in Buenos Aires, for not only were we seeing new combinations of drivers and teams after the “musical-chairs” of the end of 1978, but there was a remarkable number of new cars appearing for the first time. Normally a new season opens with the scene very much like that at the end of the previous season, but not this time. The Lotus 79 domination of last year stirred everyone up to greater efforts and new cars and designs appeared in proliferation. It says much for the morale in Formula One that so many people rose to the challenge of the Lotus 79 even if some of them merely copied it in a different colour. A domination by one team or one driver can often spread alarm and despondency so that everyone gives up trying, but not in Formula One at the moment. Designers got stuck in and teams worked long hours to have their “Lotus beaters” ready for the race of the season. Some were able to get in quite a bit of testing before the Argentine race while others had to set out with untried cars.

New designs were in the paddock from Tyrrell, Brabham, McLaren, Ligier and Wolf, while the rest had uprated their 1978 cars to an interim specification, planning new deigns to be ready for South Africa or the beginning of the European season. Details of the cars in Argentina appear elsewhere in this issue.

The “driver-market” was very active during the brief lull after the end of the 1978 season, and to recap we now have Andretti and Reutemann in Team Lotus, with the World Champion and his World Champion car as number one on the entry list. Team Tyrrell have two Frenchmen, Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jarier, the Ecclestone Brabham-Alfa Romeo team has ex-World Champion Niki Lauda and the young Brazilian Nelson Piquet; McLaren have John Watson and Patrick Tambay; the German ATS team has Hans Stuck and Ferrari has Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve. The Fittipaldi team retains the services of the younger son of the family, and the Regie-Renault have blossomed out into a two-car team with the French drivers Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Arnoux. The Shadow team of American Don Nicols has European F3 Champion Jan Lammers and the USAC star Danny Ongias, though Ongias was side-lined for this race by an operation on a troublesome elbow, his place being taken by the Italian F3 driver Elio de Angelis. Walter Wolf now has James Hunt as his chauffeur and Irishman Derek Daly is still with Morris Nunn’s Ensign team. Like Renault the Ligier team has expanded to two cars, with Patrick Depailler joining Jacques Laffite. The Frank Williams team has also expanded to a second car, with “Clay” Regazzoni joining Alan Jones, and to complete the regular list the Arrows team have Jochen Mass to support their regular driver Riccardo Patrese. As very lonely privateers Hector Rebaque continues with the support of his family and Arturo Merzario by his own initiative.


The cargo-carrying planes disgorged the performers in South America, many of them from testing programmes in the south of France or Brazil and after an unofficial practice session on Thursday the serious business of official practice began on Friday morning. For everyone except the two Ferraris and the two Renaults it was a really serious start, for Goodyear had modified their previous decisions yet again about the supply of free tyres and the latest tyre technology, so that there was a rather lot of wrangling and rancour in the paddock, until the Goodyear chief suggested that if everyone didn’t shut up, he might suggest to his firm that they pulled out of Formula One. In the ensuing hush most sensible people realised that Goodyear knew what they were doing, even if they did change their policy day by day. The object of being in Formula One was to gain technology and win races for the Akron firm, and it was a real concern of theirs where the knowledge came from and who won the races for them. Obviously they would listen to the people who had something intelligent to say and make sure that any potential winner was on their best possible tyres. They would also make sure that any potential winner was as best placed at the start of a race as it was in their power to do. Meanwhile the Michelin firm were going about their own quiet way with Ferrari and Renault, now with four cars to look after.

From earlier testing sessions it was very clear that big strides had been made in cornering power and last year’s fastest lap was best forgotten. In addition to the new designs that were out for the first time there were numerous new cars to old designs as well as completely rebuilt and heavily modified “old” cars. For the start of a new season the scene has never looked healthier and nothing short of admiration is due to the workers in the various racing factories, as well as their outside suppliers, for completing so many projects. Clearly “industrial action” does not exist in the world of Formula One and its environs.

From the outset of official practice under shimmering blue skies it was the Goodyear runners who set the pace, only Scheckter’s Michelin-shod Ferrari putting up any real opposition. Completely unexpected from a totally new design was the performance of the Ligier team, now using Cosworth power in place of the wailing Matra engines. Apart from the JS11 being a totally new design, the actual cars that Laffite and Depailler were using had never been run. It was Depailler, new to the car and new to the team, who set the pace on Friday morning, and no-one approached him. He set up a whole new bracket of performance for the Buenos Aires Autodrome, with a time of 1 min. 45.24 sec. Team mate Laffite was also in this 1 min. 45 sec. bracket, as were Jarier with the new Tyrrell 009, Scheckter on the T3 Ferrari and Reutemann on his first go in a Lotus 79. Clearly the Lotus advantage of 1978 had been eroded, either by new designs or new driver/car combinations. Formula One has indeed risen to Colin Chapman’s challenge. Both Ligier drivers were impressed with the controllability of the new design, and its “response” to anything they did. The only trouble the team experienced was a broken retaining spring on one of the sliding skirts on Depailler’s car. With Jarier performing so well in the new Tyrrell, and the car painted in its usual Tyrrell blue, one could be forgiven for wondering whether Grand Prix racing had gone the full circle to French dominated days of the vintage years! The Tyrrell number one driver was not in luck and could not join his compatriots, for during the Friday morning session the front fell off the new Wolf on a fast section of the circuit and Pironi could not avoid running over the debris. This gave him a puncture in the right hand rear and sent the Tyrrell spinning off the course, damaging the suspension and side-pod on the right and giving the Tyrrell mechanics a lot of work; the car could not be repaired in time for afternoon practice and Pironi did not go out in the old spare car.

Last year’s all-conquering Lotus team, in their new green colour, were not getting underway as well as they would have liked. Both Andretti and Reutemann were having difficulty in getting the car balanced, fore and aft, on the latest Goodyear tyres. When they got the front end to stick in a corner the back would slide out, and vice-versa; total stiction on all four wheels was what they were after. Driving on your home circuit amongst your own followers and friends is always rekoned to be worth a second a lap, so it was no surprise that Argentina’s hero was quicker than the man from Nazareth.

Just in case anyone was getting carried away by the “ground effects” theories which everyone is chasing, Scheckter’s time in the “conventional” Ferrari 312T3 kept a sense of proportion. With a lap in 1 min. 45.58 sec. he was well in amongst the wonder cars, though they were all on Goodyear tyres and he was on Michelins. But maybe engine power still counts for something, and Ferrari engines have seldom lacked horsepower. His young team mate was in dire trouble all day, first the fuel pump packing up on his own car and then a similar thing happening to the Muletta.

Watson in the new McLaren M28 was not proving as competitive as pre-race testing had indicated, minor chassis and body alterations seemed to have upset the car’s balance, its attitude changing viciously between entering and leaving slow corners. As one point this caused him to spin off across the grass, which didn’t improve the sliding skirts at all. Team mate Tambay never got going properly on Friday, his engine suffering from a mysterious fuel metering unit problem, until it was discovered it had been assembled incorrectly!

Most miserable of all was undoubtedly Lauda and the new Brabham-Alfa Romeo V12. He spent all day struggling with BT48/2, sorting out problems involving the fuel system, the side skirts and a hundred and one other niggling little faults that would have been found had there been time to test the car before leaving Europe. The Renault team were little better off, the intense heat affecting the turbo charged V6 engines very badly. Jabouille tried the spare car as well as his new one, while Arnoux was in continual trouble on his first appearance with the team. There must have been an installation fault in his car for it broke three engines during the two days of practice. There was more than enough trouble in the Wolf camp, with only one car, albeit virtually untested. During official practice on Thursday a wayward bolt from a Ligier went through the radiator of the following Wolf and on Friday morning the nose section of the car fell off! In the afternoon the car was tried without nose fins, but it made it uncontrollable, so that avenue was abandoned. Then the engine broke and while it was being changed after practice an embarrassing scene was being enacted. Someone noticed that there were vanes on the clutch assembly that sucked air from under the car through the oil radiator. Recent legislation demands that any components that may have an aerodynamic effect on the car must remain motionless, so there was a bit of a stir in the ranks of the Constructors Association when they saw the Wolf. It was subsequently examined by Colin Chapman, Gordon Murray and Teddy Meyer and it was decided that the device would be acceptable if the ducting was modified to draw air from above rather than below the car. This was done on Saturday night. More cheating was discovered within the honourable ranks of the “Bernie Club”? Unthinkable, they are supposed to be honourable and united, or is it that design enthusiasm runs away with some people!

While a lot of the entries were in a shambles the Ligier team could hardly believe their luck, it was all going so well for them, and Tyrrell wasn’t saying too much in case he broke the spell of Jarier’s performance with the new 009. While the others worried or complained, or simply worked away at their problems, the boys in blue from France were smiling happily. Enthusiasm takes a lot of beating.

On Saturday morning, in the untimed test session things did not go at all smoothly. Andretti had a major set-back when a rear suspension rocker-arm mounting broke, which stopped any further experimenting, but it was repaired in time for the afternoon practice. There was hard work going on at the McLaren camp as well, for Tambay had had a wild spin and clouted a catch-fence pole with the rear end of the car, but that too was repaired in time for the all-important final practice. For one hour it was do-or-die, either in effort to keep a good grid position, to improve a bad one, avoid being eased off the back of the grid, as only 24 of the 26 entries were being permitted to start, or in the case of Lauda and Arnoux, to scrabble onto the grid at someone else’s expense. Trouble for some was still the key-note. In the not-quite-flat-out right-left “flick” after the pits Jarier was on “tippy-toes” when the rear aero-foil broke away from his Tyrrell 009.

The car went through the catch-fence and at first looked pretty badly damaged., but later inspection showed it could be repaired in time for the race. Practice was stopped while the damaged Tyrrell was recovered and the spare car 008/5 was got ready, but Jarier decided not to continue practice, his Friday time still standing good the second row of the grid.

Despairing of getting the new Brabham to work properly Lauda took the old flat-12 engined car for the final hour, in an attempt to get himself into the race. This meant that Piquet had to stand down, but such is the lot of a new recruit among the hierarchy. The Austrian had just got himself onto the back of the grid when the Alfa engine spewed all its oil out and splattered the circuit, which effectively put an end to last-minute heroic efforts for the rest of the field. However, before this happened Laffite had got a really clear run and had whistled the Ligier round in 1 min. 44.20 sec., three-and-half seconds faster than Andretti’s pole-position time of last year; such is the progress in Formula One. More oil was scattered by Tambay’s McLaren when it sprang a leak, the oil getting on the exhaust pipes and catching fire, which then set fire to the bodywork. It was all happening in Argentina. Scheckter’s Ferrari broke its engine and he went out in the Muletta for a few laps just before practice finished.

Through all the trouble and turmoil under the blazing sun the message came loud and clear in blue and white. Laffite on pole position, with Depailler alongside him. Two brand new French cars on the front row. Behind them was Reutemann in the green Lotus, having risen to the local Stimulus on the final hour of practice and out-speeded his rather disgruntled American team-mate. Andretti was honest enough, saying that if he knew what was wrong he’d have done something about it. No excuses, simply factual statements. Left out of the race were Stuck (ATS) and Arnoux (Renault), the lanky German’s yellow car having suffered a breakage of the left-rear suspension on Saturday morning and in the ensuing melee the car started to smoulder, so it was covered in fire extinguishant. There was not time to sort out the mess before final practice so Stuck had to stand by and watch his place drop off the grid. Arnoux never got into the swing of things all practice and viewed his first outing with the French national team in a rather jaundiced manner.


Most people felt that enough had happened already, and the race was not yet started, but there was more to come. In the warm-up session on Sunday morning Patrese tangled his Arrows with Piquet’s Brabham-Alfa, the troublesome Italian claiming that his brakes had failed. Piquet politely walked down to the Arrows pit to register a mild objection. The Arrows was too badly damaged to repair so Patrese became a spectator, but the Brabham was mendable, the damage being to the monocoque just in front of the right-rear wheel. This should have let Stuck into the race, as the first non-qualifier, but the ATS wasn’t ready so Arnoux moved up in the turbo Renault, taking a position behind the last row of the grid, a space being left where Patrese should have been.

With all the Argentine Government dignitaries in their place in the official box overlooking the start, the national anthem was struck up by a colourful military band, and thousands of loyal Reutemann fans rose to their feet and stood respectfully. Then it was time for the serious business of the afternoon and the two bright blue Ligier JS11s led the field slowly round on the pace lap to take up their 24 places on the starting grid, with a space where Paterese should have been, and Arnoux on his own at the back. Everyone seemed very well behaved, they paused; the red lights went on, then the green, and the 1979 World Championship season was underway as the pack got off to a clean start amidst a glorious wall of sound with poleman Laffite just getting the jump on Depailler as they headed into the first Esses beyond the pits.

Laffite, Depailler, Jarier and Reutemann got through without any problems whatsoever, running in tight formation, but immediately behind them we were treated to the worrying spectacle of yet another first lap shunt (no Paddy, we can’t start races on the second lap). Jody Scheckter and John Watson got themselves tangled, the Ferrari spinning right in the middle of the pack at the centre of the road. As one would expect, all hell broke loose. Watson’s M28 shot cross the circuit and off onto the dust on the outside while Andretti also went off the circuit in his efforts to miss him. Tambay, Pironi, Piquet and Merzario were also involved and Scheckter’s Ferrari was reduced to a total wreck after being rammed by three separate cars. Nelson Piquet fared worst, being lifted from his shattered car with a broken bone in his foot. Whether something happened to the Ferrari or Scheckter simply lost control no-one knows.

Round at the end of that opening lap came the three Frenchmen to be confronted by crossed yellow flags indicating that the race was being stopped, in the order Laffite, Depailler, Jarier, followed by Reutemann, Villeneuve, Fittipaldi, Regazonni, Jaboullie, Jones, de Angelis, Daly, Hunt, Mass, Rebaque, Lammers and Arnoux. Interestingly, only Jones followed the correct procedure and stopped right on the startline.

After an hour’s “clearing up”, the grid reformed with only 19 runners. Scheckter had bruised his hand badly enough for the circuit doctor to stop him resuming, Andretti took over the spare 79 while Tambay’s M28 had to be cannibalised in order to fix Watson’s car, so the Frenchman joined Pironi, Merzario and the unfortunate Piquet as non-starters.

When the starting signal was given for the second time Depailler leaped into the lead, completing lap one ahead of Jarier, Watson, Laffite, Andretti, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Jabouille, Fittipaldi, Mass, de Angelis, Hunt, Jones, Regazzoni, Rebaque, Lauda (who’d stuttered off the line with low fuel pressure at the first start before stopping at the scene of the accident), with Arnoux, Daly and Lammers bringing up the rear.

It took only a lap for Laffite to nip past Jarier, the Tyrrell 009 handling none-too-perfectly after its Saturday excursion, and mid-way round lap 5 Laffite neatly out-did Watson under breaking for the hairpin at the end of the back straight. Within a couple of laps he had spurted up onto the tail of his team mate, but Depailler was troubled with fuel vapourisation in the searing heat and his JS11 was popping and banging quite audibly by this stage. Reutemann quickly got into his stride, passing Andretti on lap three and quickly moving up to fourth at Jarier’s expense. By lap 14 he had worked his Lotus 79 right up onto Watson’s tail end and the Ulsterman, suffering somewhat from bump steer owing to a suspension link being slightly bent in the accident, was in no position to deny the Argentinian. To the accompaniment of rapturous applause from the grandstands, “Lole” pulled through into third place on lap 16. But he was going to have his work cut out to do anything about those flying blue and white Ligiers.

Further down the field there were plenty of problems. Arnoux’s Renault succumbed to the heat with another broken engine while Jabouille, running well in eight place ahead of Fittipaldi, fell victim to the same malaise and trailed in to retire at the end of lap 15. Jarier, running sixth behind the Lotus twins, had his engine blow up spectacularly at the same time while Lauda had long ago sought the sanctuary of the pits, his new Brabham plagued by its “newness”. He later emerged to do two more slow laps, but soon stopped for good.

As the two Ligiers circulated steadily at the head of the field, Reutemann led the chase with Watson and Andretti strung out behind. Fittipaldi took sixth place from Villeneuve on lap 20, the Ferrari’s handling deteriorating as its Michelins wore down. Four laps later the Canadian driver made for the pits for some fresh covers to rid himself of this difficult handling. Thus equipped he fought tenaciously back to eight place until engine failure caused his retirement five laps from the end.

Much of the race degenerated into a predictable and rather boring procession with Laffite gradually pulling away from his team mate as Depailler’s car misfired continually and began to overheat. The only real interest left for the patriotic crowd was to see whether Reutemann could catch the second Ligier. He came might close on lap 40, but then a cracked exhaust turned his engine slightly off-song and he dropped away slightly. When Depailler dived into the pits for water on lap 46 Reutemann was promoted to an unchallenged second. But he was quite unable to do anything about the superb Laffite who ran out a convincing and delighted winner first time out with the brand new Ligier-Cosworth JS11.

Third place fell to the reasonably satisfied Watson, Depailler charged back to fourth place following his pit stop but Andretti slowed right up over the final 20 laps. The body cowling over the left hand side pod of his Lotus had started to come undone and this was causing such a handling imbalance that he was having to drop from fifth to fourth gear at the far end of the circuit. He cruised his way home to fifth place, keeping a watchful eye on his mirrors for the fast-closing Fittipaldi, whose car, despite a broken exhaust pipe, got to within a length of the Lotus at the flag.

Into seventh place came Elio de Angelis, proving not a bit daunted by the power of his Shadow although he looked as though it was all “lightning reflexes and press-on enthusiasm”, and low fuel pressure slowed him over the last few laps. Jochen Mass struggled in eight with broken suspension on his Arrows, while the Williams pair Jones and Regazzoni crossed the line next, both cars having stopped for fresh tyres. Daly was a game last in the uncompetitive Ensign. Lammers’ Shadow broke a driveshaft joint, Hunt eventually retired with a mixture of electrical misfire and handling difficulties on the “too new” Wolf. Rebaque, who’d energetically chased and beaten Mass in the early stages of the race, stopped with a broken rear suspension mount shortly before the end although he thought that his tyres had “gone off”.

Not a brilliant season-opener by any means, particularly in view of the first lap accident and the numerous mechanical breakages, but what a superb performance by the brand new Ligiers. Laffite thoroughly deserved his triumph and, although it would be unrealistic to expect them to reproduce that sort of form at every circuit on which they race, they have certainly established themselves amongst the first division of the “anti-Lotus 79 brigade”! – A. H.