1978 Monaco Grand Prix race report

Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) driving at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.

Tyrrell's Patrick Depailler took his debut win on streets of the prinicipality

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A process of elimination

Monte Carlo, May 7th

Racing round-the-houses at Monte Carlo may have a lot wrong with it but it is never short on support or enthusiasm and this year 31 drivers were entered. As the CSI rules only allow 20 cars to take part in the Monaco GP, due to the restricted width and length of the circuit, there had to be a process of elimination. This began long before the sound of Armco barriers being assembled began, or the tubular scaffolding grand-stands began to rise up from every available space. The Formula One Constructors’ Association naturally booked 20 places for their members, which on the face of things prevented anyone else taking part, but the regulations allowed for 24 drivers to take part in practice, the slowest four irrespective of who they were, would be out of the race. There were still 11 lined up for the four practice places, so the Automobile Club of Monaco thinned this down by applying the CSI invitation rule, which allowed the Club to nominate two entries. These were the factory Renault and Frank Williams’ Saudia Airlines sponsored car for Alan Jones. The Renault was an obvious invitation, but some teams, both in the “Ecclestone Club” and out of it, were muttering about the Williams entry. On performance alone Alan Jones deserved to be invited, after his showing in South Africa and California, but you could hardly hold a race in the Principality of Monaco without inviting the entry sponsored by Saudi Arabia, not in this day and age.

This weeding-out process still left nine entries outside, so before official practice began on Thursday morning, they were allowed two half hour sessions to themselves, and the fastest two would make up the total of 24 for the official practice. As the circuit is built up around the town there is no possibility of any pre-practice testing, so the “rabbits” had to get stuck into it the moment the circuit was open for practice. The non-arrival of Danny Ongais with the American Interscope team Shadow DN9 reduced the numbers to eight, and during the first half-hour Derek Daly crashed the Hesketh 308E/4 and Hector Rebaque crashed his newly acquired Lotus 78/4, thus reducing the figure to six. However, such is the affluence of “rabbits” trying to break into the big time that both of them had spare cars, and were soon back on the circuit, Daly in 308E/5 and Rebaque in Lotus 78/1, but it did them little good as the two works Arrows were flying. Patrese was putting all, and more than he’d got into his driving, to make the best time, and Stommelen was using experience rather than bravado to make second best time. Rosberg (Theodore TR1-2) was trying too hard, and though spectacular and fearless, was not fast enough; Lunger with his brand new McLaren M26/6 had a hopeless task, as he had to learn a new car and a new circuit, not having driven at Monaco before, and Arnoux (Martini MK23) and Merzario (Merzario A1/01) were not in the running.


When the official practice began at around 11.30 a.m., to run for an hour and a half; “Bernie’s Boys” and the two honoured guests were joined by Patrese and Stommelen with the works Arrows, while the rest counted the cost of failure and wondered how long they could go on wasting money and effort. Patrese made his best qualifying lap in 1 min. 31.31 sec., which was very good under the circumstances, but it paled into insignificance once the big boys got under way. 1 min. 30 sec. was soon reached and then the “aces” began the battle of the “under 30 sec.”. In this select band were Lauda (Brabham-Alfa Romeo), Andretti and Peterson (Lotus 78), and Reutemann (Ferrari), with Watson, (Brabham-Alfa Romeo), Depailler (Tyrrell), Hunt (McLaren) and Villeneuve (Ferrari), not far behind. There were two major problems arising during practice, one being the loads on gearboxes and the other being the unforgiving guard-rails that lined the streets. With better traction being obtained from better tyres, and better rear suspension, the gearboxes were taking a hammering, especially first and second gears, while the gear-change never had a moment’s respite round the short wiggly circuit. The Ferrari gearboxes appeared to be adequately strong, but the Hewland gearboxes were failing with depressing rapidity, not necessarily the fault of the gearbox, quite often due to a lack of mechanical sympathy in the driver’s right hand, or a team trying some crafty internal trickery to try and obviate trouble.

After driving a brand new Arrows (FA1/3) so well in the qualifying hour, Patrese had a moment’s lapse during the official session and dinged the left front corner badly, which creased the monocoque, so he changed over to the spare car (FM/2). Meanwhile poor Stommelen had pulled in with a searing pain in his ribs, having cracked one during a particularly violent manoeuvre. Team Surtees had started off with two brand new TS20 cars, but before the morning was over both cars were in trouble. Brambilla (TS20/01) had the mechanical fuel pump fail, and Keegan (TS20/02) had the clutch tail. The team spare (TS19/02) was in constant use. Another team with a new car and a load of trouble was Wolf, the new WR5 did a mere 12 laps before the teeth stripped off 2nd gear, and then Scheckter did 14 laps in WR1 and the same thing happened. The Ferrari camp with their Michelin tyres were looking pretty calm and confident, Reutemann using the car with which he had won at Long Beach (312 T3/032), but trying out the spare car before the end of the morning, this being 035, a brand new one. Villeneuve was using 034, with which he had led and crashed at Long Beach. By the end of this first practice session Reutemann was easily fastest, with 1 min. 29.51 sec., followed by Andrew (Lotus 78/3), Lauda (Brabham BT 46/4), Peterson (Lotus 78/2), Villeneuve (Ferrari 034), Hunt (McLaren M26/4), Depailler (Tyrrell 008/3) and Watson (Brabham BT 46/5), all familiar faces up at the front, with the “chirpy” visage of Gilles Villeneuve amongst them once again, on his first visit to Monaco.

After a lunch-break, during which most of the mechanics did more work than some people do in a whole day, it all started up again for a further hour. The Lotus mechanics had been finishing off a new car, a Mark 3 version of the Lotus 79, actually the car that made a brief appearance in the International Trophy at Silverstone. It was now completely redesigned at the back end and was fitted with a Hewland gearbox (see Notes on the Cars), and Andretti was down to drive it. Team-mate Peterson was forced to miss this practice, as he had crashed his car at the end of the morning session and the repair was no simple job. The works spare Lotus 78/4 had been sold to Rebarque, and Andretti was holding on to 78/3, just in case the new car was not right. While broken second gears and bent cars were the order of the morning, the afternoon seemed to be one of steam. Tambay came into the pits with his McLaren (M26/5) boiling merrily, and Depailler brought the spare Tyrrell (008/1) in with water and steam gushing from a punctured left-side radiator; the puncture being caused by a broken radius rod going through the matrix! The right-hand top rear radius rod had an ominous bend in it, so Depailler went off in 008/3, only to return pretty soon with steam and water gushing from its right-hand radiator, due to more rear radius rods trouble. There was an air of gloom amidst the steam, and Maurice Phillippe went off to telephone Ripley in Surrey and start the design of larger diameter radius rods! Andretti soon gave up with the new Lotus and returned to 78/3, while Laffite changed from the new Ligier JS9 to the old JS7, Scheckter was getting to grips with the new Wolf, with new gearbox internals, and Jabouille tried both turbo-charged Renault cars, and got well into the mid-field. It was still the “old firm” up at the front wit Reutemann setting a new standard in 1 min. 28.34 sec., while Lauda joined him in his new “ace” class, with 1 min, 28.84 sec. Behind these two came Andretti, Villeneuve, Hunt, Depailler, Peterson (on his morning time), and Watson, with Scheckter and Jones joining the top class.

Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.

Carlos Reutemann put his Ferrari on pole

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At the end of the day Jarier (ATS), Keegan (Surtees), Brambilla (Surtees) and Stommelen (Arrows) were the ones who looked like being eliminated in this latest move in the game of “find the winner”. However, the final hour of timed practice on Saturday afternoon would finally settle things, providing the circuit stayed dry and clear. Friday was a rest day for Formula One, though Formula Three cars and Renault 5 saloons disported themselves around the circuit. For those with nothing to do there were eating and drinking parties laid on by Gitanes, Marlboro, Saudi Airlines, First National City Bank, and Olympus Cameras, but in the Formula One paddock there was a lot of work going on repairing cars, redesigning bits and pieces, analysing faults that had appeared, trying to obviate repetition of breakages, searching for reasons for poor lap times, trying to think up ways of getting higher up the grid, or staying on it, or trying to work out how not to be in the last four cars. There was plenty of activity. Maurice Phillippe had flown back to England to get new parts for the Tyrrells, the Goodyear runners in mid-field were trying to get on the “short-list” for special qualifying tyres, and while Goodyear were resigned to Reutemann and Ferrari being at the front they were looking for ways of keeping Villeneuve from joining him, like making sure that anyone who could go as fast as the little French-Canadian had the best tyres. Over all this activity the wind blew, the clouds obscured the mountains and it rained, while the boats in the harbour rocked alarmingly at their moorings, making many people wish they were staying in a nice solid stone hotel.

Saturday morning all was well with the world, it was dry and the sun was shining, the boats had stopped bobbing about in the harbour and everyone was ready for one and a half hours of untimed testing and general messing about. Team Lotus were back to three cars, Peterson’s 78/2 having been repaired, while Andretti was about to try the new Lotus 79 as well as his old car. The new Surtees TS20 cars had been fitted with a new front suspension in which the rising-rate geometry for the coil springs was more advantageous at the ends of the movement. Stommelen was still in pain with his ribs, so was sitting out, and Watson was trying the spare Brabham (BT 46/3) as his new one had an odd feeling about the front end. Gearboxes were still a headache and Scheckter stripped the teeth of second gear yet again, this time on the new car WR5, and Andretti did the same thing on the Lotus 78/3. There was never a dull moment in the pits! The Tyrrells now had new rear uprights and larger diameter radius rods for the rear suspension.

The lunch break was another scene of feverish activity as cars were prepared for the final hour of qualifying. Those in gearbox trouble were fitting new parts, others were putting new bits in anyway, Stuck’s Shadow was having its drive-shafts worked on, Brambilla’s Surtees TS20 was all apart to rectify a faulty clutch, Watson’s Brabham BT46/5 was abandoned and he was using the spare car (BT46/3), the spare Ferrari was not being used, Jabouille was using the earlier of the two Renaults, Scheckter was in the repaired WR5 Wolf, and everything was boiling up merrily. The Ensign, Williams and Fittipaldi teams had not needed to use their spare cars, and Jones had been put on the Goodyear “short-list” to try and keep Villeneuve in the second Ferrari as far back as possible. Reutemann was firmly and serenely on pole position as this final hour got under way, with 1 min. 28.34 sec. and only Lauda looked capable of challenging this time. He was in second place with 1 min. 28.84 sec., a whole half a second away, and that is a long way at Monaco.

This practice was barely under way before Scheckter was going down the pit lane pointing at the spare Wolf and the mechanics rushed about changing wheels, for WR5 had broken its gearbox again! Patrese arrived at the top of the hill before the Casino Square far too fast and all on the wrong line and took the long left-hander leading to the Square in a series of cannons off the guard-rail, tearing off bits as he went.

Somewhat chastened and shaken he returned to the pits to take over Stommelen’s car; the German driver had taken a deep breath, braced himself against the pain, and gone out and done a good lap which assured him a place on the grid, and then handed the car over to his young Italian team-mate. Jones was making good use of his good tyres and was well below 1 min. 30 sec. and would have gone faster had he not clouted a kerb and upset the handling slightly. Lauda made the fastest time of the afternoon with 1 min. 28.88 sec. and decided he could not go any quicker so sat in the pits to watch the progress of the others. Reutemann’s best was 1 min. 28.95 sec., but he still held pole position with his Thursday time and Lauda was in second place with his Thursday time, so this final hour was of no value to either of them. While this half of the Brabham-Alfa Romeo team was sitting it out complacently, the other half was hard at work. Watson had clouted the rear end of BT 46/3, so BT46/5 was being robbed of the left-rear upright and suspension parts and the Ulsterman stood around anxiously as the minutes ticked away. Laffite changed from the new Ligier to the old one, Scheckter was back in WR5 after his men broke all records for repairing a very hot Hewland gearbox, Andretti was concentrating on his Lotus 78 and Peterson was in good for. With only a few minutes left Watson’s car was finished and he roared off, obviously wound up pretty tight. While Lauda was watching the times of the Ferraris, the Lotuses, the Tyrrells and the McLarens, he was suddenly shaken rigid to find that Watson had put in a lap at 1 min. 28.83 sec., to snatch fastest time of the afternoon and take second place on the grid! Lauda and Ecclestone could hardly protest that the time was a mistake!

In the final reckoning the order was Reutemann, Watson, Lauda, all with 12-cylinder engines, then Andretti, Depailler, Hunt and Peterson all ahead of Villeneuve with Scheckter and Jones right behind the second Michelin-shod Ferrari. Once again 12-cylinder engines and Michelin tyres had dominated practice and a lot of people were wondering who was going to finish second in the race. The elimination process had now got the numbers down to 20, the four unfortunates being Mass (ATS), Regazzoni (Shadow DN9/4A), Jarier (ATS) and Brambilla (Surtees TS20/01). Although practice as at long last finished, paddock work was just beginning for the Arrows mechanics; Patrese’s car had not damaged its monocoque so a major rebuild was started, and everyone else began final preparation, checking everything for damage or wear, for Monaco practice is very hard on cars.


Jody Scheckter keeps his Wolf ahead of John Watson's Brabham at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.

Jody Scheckter keeps the Wolf ahead of John Watson’s Brabham

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Sunday morning was grey and gloomy, but dry, and the temperature was far from the normal Cote d’Azur. A final test-session of 30 minutes was allowed at mid-morning, in which Mass and Regazzoni were allowed to take part, just in case any of the selected 20 ran into trouble. Fortunately none of them did, for Regazzoni pranged his Shadow! Watson had settled to use the spare Brabham, Andretti was to race the Lotus 78, Scheckter was to use the old WR1, as the new car was still destroying its gearbox, Jabouille was settled to use the spare Renault and Keegan to use the spare Surtees though Laffite was happy to race the new Ligier. Depailler and Hunt were using Cosworth development engines, Andretti and Tambay were using Nicholson-prepared Cosworth engines, and Scheckter, Peterson and Pironi were using standard Cosworth engines.

After the Prince and Princess of Monaco had made a tour of the circuit in a drophead Mercedes-Benz all was ready for the race, due to start at 3.30 p.m. and run for 75 laps, one less than last year. From the pits the 20 starters drove round the circuit to line up at the start in virtual single-file, the two rows being staggered, Reutemann’s Ferrari on the right, Watson’s Brabham on the left, Lauda’s Brabham on the right and so on, down to Fittipaldi all alone at the back. Another warm-up lap was permitted, going off in grid order, followed by the strange looking Porsche Safari Rally car being used as course-car, and then the serious business was ready to start. All those involved had been in Monte Carlo at least since Wednesday, waiting for this moment. As the starting signal was given the noise was fantastic as the sound of 20 engines averaging 485 b.h.p. each shattered the peace of the Principality. From his lone position at the front Reutemann muffled his start and was swamped as the jostling mob accelerated towards the Ste. Devote chicane. Depailler made a terrific start from fifth place and as Lauda, Reutemann and Hunt indulged in some pushing and shoving, banging wheels and the Armco barriers, the Frenchman was away in behind Watson. The Ulsterman led away from the melee, with the Tyrrell behind him, then came Reutemann and Lauda, but the Ferrari was already slowing with a damaged left rear tyre losing pressure. Hunt was in similar trouble with a right font tyre and a crumpled nose as well, and before the race was really under way two of the top runners were limping round to the pits for help.

On the opening lap the order became Watson, Depailler, Lauda, Andretti, Scheckter, Jones, Peterson, Villeneuve, Tambay, Pironi, Ickx, Patrese and the rest. Reutemann had a new wheel and tyre fitted and screamed out of the pits just as Watson was finishing his second lap, and the Ferrari roared away ahead of the Brabham, but virtually a whole lap behind. Anyone who missed the start, or was not paying attention during the opening lap, could be excused for thinking that Reutemann’s Ferrari was leading the race, and actually pulling away from Watson’s Brabham! The situation soon levelled out, with Watson and Depailler going for all they were worth, sliding within an inch of the Armco, and glued nose-to-tail. Behind them, looking completely calm and unhurried, was Lauda, content to sit a few lengths back and let the two natural non-winners slog it out while he surveyed the situation. Within four laps these three had broken away from the rest, who were being led by Andretti though he had Scheckter, Jones, Peterson and Villeneuve in close line astern behind him. Tambay was already on his own and then came Pironi, Ickx and Patrese in a tight duelling trio, followed by the yellow Renault and the yellow Fittipaldi, while the suffering Stommelen brought up the rear bravely. Stuck and Keegan had fallen over each other at the back of the field and Laffite had lost contact due to gearbox failure. Depailler was pushing Watson hard, with little hope of getting by, but determined to make the Brabham driver make a mistake or over-stress his brakes, engine or gearbox, but even so he was keeping a wary eye on his mirrors to see what Lauda was up to. The wily Austrian sat back just out of harm’s way, not straining himself or putting undue stress on his car, but in complete control of the situation. Behind this fascinating situation the nose-to-tail quintet were still hard at it, though the Williams FW06/001 was beginning to blow out oil from a leak in the cast-alloy oil tank that joins the engine to the gearbox. This was getting onto the rear brakes, making smoke and giving Alan Jones a bad time under braking. On lap 13 he overshot the Ste. Devote chicane, running wide and letting Peterson and Villeneuve by before he could gather it all up. Ickx was also in brake trouble with the Ensign MN06, and disappeared into the pits after 15 laps, leaving the two new-boys, Pironi and Patrese, to play together. In spite of the oil on his rear brakes Jones was gaining on the quartet he had left, and they were still hammering away hard. All this while Reutemann was staying ahead of the leaders, looking for all the world as if he was leading the race comfortably! As one-third distance approached there was no let-up between Watson and Depailler and no signs of failing or mistakes, so Lauda thought it about time he had a closer look at the situation. With absurd ease he zoomed up behind the battling duo, virtually looking over Depailler’s shoulder to see how his team-mate was getting on at the front. As they were beginning to lap the tail of the field Lauda was keen to be close to the leaders, to avoid being bulked by a slower car. If Watson and Depailler were going to nip through a gap he was making sure he’d go through with them. Before half distance the Williams FW06 ran out of oil and as the pressure sagged Jones switched of and parked in the Casino Square before too much damage was done.

Mario Andretti (Lotus) competing at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.

Mario Andretti finished 11th for Lotus, 6 laps down

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Although at the back of the field, Reutemann was leading on the road and was well ahead of Watson, so he came up behind the tail of the field first. Stommelen had moved neatly out of the way, as had Fittipaldi, but then Reutemann got stuck behind Jabouille in the Renault, and just could not get by. This meant that Watson, Depailler and Lauda moved closer, roaring past Fittipaldi up the hill from Ste. Devote as though the Brazilian had stopped. This was just before half distance, and they were now behind Reutemann who was still being held up by the Renault. Watson’s brakes were beginning to fade, on lap 38 he went straight-on at the chicane into the harbour front, allowing Depailler and Lauda to go by, re-joining the circuit by the link road down in third place. On the next lap Reutemann finally got by the obstructive Renault, and Depailler and Lauda were then quickly by, and on lap 43 the Argentinean lifted off and let the Tyrrell and Brabham through. On Lap 45 the unexpected happened, Lauda felt a rear tyre begin to lose its pressure and instantly shot into the pits, without wasting time to think about it. The air-jacks lifted the car, both rear wheels were changed, and leaving enormous black lines Lauda went down the pit lane like a drag-racer. On the same lap Andretti came into the pits for the pipe to the fuel pressure gauge had broken and petrol was spraying around the cockpit. The leak was stopped and there was another impressive pair of black tyre marks down the pit lane and Andretti was back in the race. All this changed the situation completely.

Depailler now had a comfortable lead, with no pressure in front or behind him, Watson was in a chastened second place, Scheckter was third, with Peterson and Villeneuve still pressing him hard. Lauda was sixth, just ahead of Pironi and Patrese, who were followed at some distance by Tambay. The young McLaren driver had executed an impressive spin in the middle of the Casino Square, which had made his eyeballs press on his vizor and lost him a lot of time. Reutemann was a lap behind, as was Andretti. The Ensign brakes had been bled and Ickx tried again, but to no avail, and then a drive-shaft broke; this was replaced and he tried once more, but still the brakes were playing up so reluctantly the car was withdrawn. Stommelen had to give up through sheer pain and fatigue, and Hunt’s unhappy drive at the back of the field ended when the rear roll-bar broke.

After the leaders had gone by Fittipaldi resumed his race with the Renault, but it was not long before Lauda was coming up to lap them again. On lap 56 Peterson’s gearbox broke and he was out, leaving Scheckter safely in third place, for Villeneuve was no longer close enough to cause any trouble. However, once past the two yellow cars, and with his new tyres warmed up nicely, Lauda began to pile on the steam. In no time at all he as up behind Villeneuve’s Ferrari, and as they went up the hill to the Casino on lap 63 the nose of the Brabham was right under the rear aerofoil of the Ferrari. Down the hill to the Mirabeau hairpin Lauda dodged from side to side, but Villeneuve refused to be ruffled. Round the old station hairpin they were almost touching, and down onto the seafront the Brabham was really pressing hard. Into the tunnel they went and out the other end the Ferrari came clanging along the guard-rail, its left-front wheel and suspension folded up over the nose, and the left- rear wheel torn of. As the battered Ferrari slithered to a stop Lauda went by, now in fourth place. What had happened in the tunnel was not too clear, but Villeneuve thought his left-front tyre was punctured, which had made him run out wide and hit the barrier!

As Lauda had poured on the steam the Wolf pit had warned Scheckter, who also put on a spurt and closed on Watson. Depailler was safely away in the lead, hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong, for his first victory was definitely in sight. Poor Watson, who was safely in second place, except that Scheckter was gaining, overshot the Ste. Devote corner, and while the marshals pushed him back the Wolf went by, starting lap 65 with ten to go. As Watson rejoined the race he had his team-leader in his mirrors, and the Austrian was well wound up. At the end of that lap Lauda sliced by Watson with his steely eyes on the tail of the Wolf.

Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) enjoys a cigarette at the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix.

Depailler kept his cool throughout the race to take his first win

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With only five laps to go Reutemann had moved out of Scheckter’s way, and then moved out of Lauda’s way, and the Wolf driver was sweating. With three laps to go Lauda recorded a fantastic new lap record in 1 min. 28.65 sec., faster than he’d gone in practice, and then second gear stripped on the Wolf as Scheckter stormed out of the Rascasse hairpin and past the pits. Lauda was by into second place, but with no hope of seeing Depailler. The Tyrrell 008 ran perfectly to the finish and a joyous Depailler won his first Grand Prix, after coming so close so many times, and ELF Team Tyrrell had something to celebrate with their new car. The brilliant Lauda stormed home into second place, with a lucky Scheckter third, for the broken bits dropped clear of the gear-cluster and he was able to keep going. A rather unhappy Watson finished fourth, followed by Pironi and Patrese nose-to-tail, as they had been for most of the race. A gloomy Reutemann finished knowing that he could have walked the race if only he’d not muffed his start and allowed himself to be nudged by the unruly Lauda. The obstructive Renault finished a long way back after trouble with its brakes, and Andretti was even further back after two more pit stops to repair the fuel injection metering unit. – D.S.J.

37th Monaco Grand Prix – Formula One – 75 laps – Monte Carlo – 3.312 kilometres per lap – 284.4 kilometres – Warm and Dry

1st: P. Depallier (Tyrrell 008/3) 1 hr. 55 min. 14.66 sec. – 129.325 k.p.h.
2nd: N. Lauda (Brabham BT46/4) 1 hr. 55 min. 37.11 sec.
3rd: J. Scheckter (Wolf WR1) 1 hr. 55 min. 46.95 sec.
4th: J. Watson (Brabham BT46/3) 1 hr. 55 min. 48.19 sec.
5th: D. Pironi (Tyrrell 008/4) 1 hr. 56 min. 22.72 sec.
6th: R. Patrese (Arrows FA1/2) 1 hr. 56 min. 23.43 sec.

Fastest lap: N. Lauda (Brabham BT46/4) on lap 72, in 1 min. 28.65 sec.–134.649 k.p.h. (new record)