Formula One scene - A look back at the South American races

The 1978 Formula One season started off with a rush with two races in South America during the month of January and it says much for the serious intent of the regular teams that they were all there in force. The way the teams work all the year round, year after year, is nothing short of amazing, especially in the unsettled industrial atmosphere of the everyday world, where strikes and go-slow action follow each other in quick succession. The continuous pressure on the workers in a racing team is something that the ordinary industrial worker would not believe if he was to experience it, but motor racing doesn’t wait for anyone. If you are not there when the starting signal is given, you’ve had it. The newly formed Arrows team brought this home to everyone in a big way, by building a car in something like 53 days and many nights! and getting it to the Brazilian event where it not only qualified for the race, but also finished. The Arrows team was conceived by Jack Oliver, who parted company from Don Nichols and his AVS-Shadow team, and took with him designers Tony Southgate and David Wass, manager Alan Rees, sponsor Franco Ambrosio and a bunch of skilled mechanics who immediately set to to make the first Arrows car in a new factory at Milton Keynes. When we went to see them on January 5th the monocoque was being riveted together, but had no outer panels on it or any suspension pick-up points. Bits and pieces were being made in all corners and draughtsmen were busy doing drawings for parts that were still in the design stage. A lot of parts were being made by outside firms and, of course, the Cosworth V8 engine and Hewland transmission were ready and waiting to be fitted, but even so it looked like a monumental job to have the car completed and ready for shake-down runs at Silverstone on January 20th, but they achieved it only to be prevented from running the car at the Northamptonshire circuit by a heavy snowfall. Next day it was flown to Brazil and run briefly on an airport runway before starting practice, driven by Riccardo Patrese. The name Arrows derives from Ambrosio, Rees, Oliver, Wass and Southgate, the extra R being added “… because you can’t spell it AROWS …”! Their number one driver is to be Gunnar Nilsson, but he had to spend the winter in and out of hospital having an internal operation on a growth that was bothering him all last year. Ile should be fit to race again by the time the European season begins: meanwhile Patrese is leading the team.

The keynote of the two South American races was undoubtedly tyres, and it would be true to say that it wasn’t the **** that hit the fan, but rubber. At least two years ago Enzo Ferrari expressed his dissatisfaction with the Goodyear company, mainly because he could not get tyre designs specifically for his own cars. Ile had to use compromise designs that were more suited to such cars as McLaren, Tyrrell and Lotus, or so he claimed. He did not like sharing a tyre company with so many other top teams and said that as soon as he could find a tyre company that would give him exclusive attention he would be leaving Goodyear. He has found that company in the French Michelin firm, and though they also support the Renault team, Enzo has got an exclusive connection as far as the front runners are concerned.

The Argentine Grand Prix was the first race for the Ferrari/Michelin combination, but not the first time they had worked together, for many years ago there was a lot of testing done by Michelin on Ferrari 312P sports cars. Reutemann put his Ferrari on the front row of the grid, alongside Andretti’s Lotus 78, which must have caused some eyebrows to lift. In the race the Ferrari was nowhere, due to a wrong choice of tyres for the conditions, and Reutemann stopped for a tyre change. He restarted in 15th place and finished seventh, so obviously the second choice was the right one, though a lot of people seemed to have ignored the writing on the wall. In the Brazilian race there was no mistake and Reutemann ran away from all the Goodyear-shod cars and coasted home to a shatteringly demoralising victory. When everything is right for Reutemann, which isn’t often, he can drive as well as the best, but this was one occasion when he made the most of the situation and excelled. A lot of the opposition griped that it was the tyres that won the race. Agreed that they assisted more than somewhat, but you or I would not have won that race if we’d been in the Ferrari, and young Villeneuve in the second works Ferrari had the same equipment but he didn’t win the race. So all credit to Carlos Reutemann for making the most of a good job, having often in the past had to try and make the best of a bad job.

Michelin, like Citroen, Porsche or Daimler-Benz, are not a company to under-estimate, though a lot of people do, and while their forays last year with Renault were not outstanding, they could have been regarded as experimental probes. When they contracted to support the Scuderia Ferrari in Grand Prix racing there could no longer be any question of experimental probes, this had to be serious, and it looks as though it is. For the last couple of years the Goodyear Racing Division has been in a difficult situation for the Top Brass in Akron have dictated that Research and Development on racing tyres should be slowed right down. They had a complete monopoly and research was galloping ahead with one or two experimental failures that brought a lot of unwanted publicity. With a monopoly there was no need to try too hard, certainly not to take any risks with experiments, so the whole pace slowed up, but now they will have to bring their big guns out again, for second place does not exist in the Goodyear book of rules.

For a long while we have been told that all tyres are equal and it is just that Chapman, for example, knows how to utilise them more effectively than say, John Surtees. Whether this was true has always been doubtful and in Brazil the truth was plain to see for anyone who was still in doubt. For the first time since he joined his brother’s Copersucar team, Emerson Fittipaldi was on the Goodyear short-list for a choice of tyres that were different. His position on the fourth row of the grid and his performance in the race was no fluke. He was now giving away nothing to the Lotus, McLaren, Wolf, Brabham runners, and it was heartening that he showed that he has not forgotten the art of high-speed driving and his performance brought joy to many hearts, expecially the Brazilian crowds. Whether he remains on the Goodyear “special list” remains to be seen, and we shall know in South Africa on March 4th. Some people just cannot understand this differentiation and think all tyres Should be the same, just as they think all Cosvvorth DFV engines should be the same. They have obviously never been involved in achieving the ultimate in anything. You might build ten engines or make ten sets of tyres and if you are satisfied with 99% then you will get them all equal, but if you will only settle for 99.9% then you are unlikely to get more than half the same. If your sights are set on 100% which they must be if you are going to win, then you’ll only achieve it perhaps twice out of ten. You give the 100% items to a driver and tcarn, if you want to win. In an ideal world if you make one item t00% you should be able to make the rest of them the same, but in engineering the world is not ideal, which is why the Editor’s Rover 3500 displeases him and my friend is very happy with his, and yet they were both built by the same people.

On the mechanical front the only new thing to appear, albeit briefly in practice, was the new Lotus gearbox. In many ways Colin Chapman has the same instincts as Enzo Ferrari, he is never satisfied with his racing cars or their components. Ferrari has a great respect for Chapman, as well he might, but it is Chapman’s attitude and philosophy on racing that Ferrari admires and respects. Having a Hewland gearbox/differential unit the same as everyone else has never really pleased Chapman, not that there is anything particularly wrong with Mike Hewland’s gearboxes, far from it in fact, but you have to wait for Hewland to decide to bring out a new design. Chapman and his designers conceived a lighter and more compact gearbox, designed to blend with the design philosophy of the Type 78/79 rather than making a compromise in the overall design to accept the standard Hewland assembly. Internally the system was different from the conventional as Lotus incorporated ratchet-type free-wheel mechanisms to be used with a clutchless system of gear-changing. Not having the specialised manufacturing equipment for gear cutting and so on, they had to seek help outside, and could hardly ask Hewland to do the work, though they could undoubtedly have done it. Referring back ten years or more Lotus approached the German ZF firm, who used to make gearboxes for Lotus racing cars, but they no longer had the capacity to take on such specialised work. Their next enquiry was to the Getrag firm, who have done a lot of work with Porsche. They were more enthusiastic and apart from doing the specialised gear work they co-operated on detail design improvements so that it is now almost a joint project. This transmission was on test last year on the Lotus factory test track at Hethel, fitted to the first of the Lotus 78 cars when it was pensioned off from racing. Now this new transmission is appearing in public during practice, being fitted to Peterson’s car for the first practice session until such time as all the bugs are ironed out. As it improves it will stay in the car longer and longer until it is completely race-worthy, which sounds like a pretty good development programme.

In direct contrast two of the teams in South America showed signs of losing their way. These were Wolf and Brabham, who both did the first race with 1977 cars modified in many ways so that they were virtually 1978 designs. Neither were outstandingly successful in the Argentine race and reverted to 1977 specifications for the Brazilian race, without much obvious improvement. No doubt the designers learnt something, but generally speaking a step backwards on the design front is seldom successful and usually suggests that a team has either run out of ideas or have lost their way. In a progressive and winning team, last year’s ideas must be obsolete; in the high pressure design race a step backwards, even just for reference purposes, is fatal if the opposition are making a step forward at that precise moment, and there were signs that others were making forward strides.

Recently there has been a lot of dissatisfaction expressed over the points scoring for the World Championship; with five or six potential winners in each race as well as a couple of outsiders it is perfectly feasible for a driver to become World Champion without ever winning a race. How you view this depends on what you think the object of the exercise is, either you view each event as a race to be won, with the World Championship as the end result, or you view the end result as the objective, which you achieve by doing just sufficiently well in each round. Now the odd thing is that the majority of people who write to me on this subject think that the end result of the World Championship is the object of the exercise, but wherever I go, be it paddock, spectator enclosure, Club room, bar or tea-shop a discussion will start on this subject with almost universal agreement that “the name of the game is winning motor races,” and being World Champion is the bonus at the end of it all. Very few of these people take the trouble to write and express their views, but they are all quick to join a discussion group. This is probably because they are active enthusiasts, rather than academic ones. I meet them at any form of motoring sport you care to mention, from Vintage events to Grand Prix races, from hill-climbs to trials. No matter how specialised their own activity they follow Formula One closely, thanks to the radio, the TV, the newspapers and the specialist magazines, and have very decided views on the matter. They can be competitors, on two, three or four wheels, organisers, marshals, mechanics, helpers, or spectators, but they are all active enthusiasts. If anyone does suggest vocally that each Grand Prix is merely a round in which to collect points for the big prize at the end of the season, he is immediately Attacked on all sides lw those who think each race is an event to be won.

All the foregoing is merely a lead in to the suggestion that is often made that a point should be given for the fastest lap in the race, as used to be done some years ago. The recent Argentine GP was a good example of why this is not a good idea. The results gave the fastest lap to Gilles Villeneuve, which no-one really believed, then it was said that Depailler made fastest lap, and finally it was generally agreed (unofficially) that Hunt had made the fastest lap. All this depends not only on the accuracy of the time keeping but equally on the accuracy of the analysis of the time-keeping. The fastest practice lap was 1 min. 47.75 sec. by Andretti, while the fastest race lap was given to Villeneuve with 1 min. 49.76 secs. Races are invariably run at lap times two to three Seconds slower than practice, due to different tyres, fuel loads, suspension and aerodynamic adjustments, track conditions and to on. If Andretti had been given 1 min. 49.76 sec. in the race it would have made sense, but it did not make sense for Villeneuve, whose best practice time was 1 min. 48.97 sec.

After the race the organisers published a comprehensive booklet containing everyone’s race lap times and study of this revealed an obvious mistake somewhere in the time-keeping or analysis system. Villeneuve was said to have made fastest lap on lap 3, when the leader Andretti was lapping at 1 min. 51.79 sec. The Ferrari driver was running in tenth place at the time and did not overtake anyoneduring this supposedly fastest lap, which makes it very suspect. Most drivers made their fastest laps around the 40 to 50-lap Mark, apart from Depailler, who made his on lap 2, Villeneuve lap 3, Scheckter lap 3, Pironi lap 3, Stuck lap 3, Brambilla lap 3, and Merzario lap 3. In Villeneuve’s chart his following lap was 7.79 seconds slower, yet he held the same position in the race. Scheckter was nearly 5 seconds slower on his next lap, Pironi 8 seconds and so on. which must surely prove that there was a clerical error somewhere. Depailler was 2.06 seconds slower on the lap after his credited fastest, but maintained eighth place! Discounting this suspect group the fastest lap was by Hunt in 1 min. 50.58 sec. on lap 44, which makes much more sense, as around that time he also recorded laps in 1.50.98; 1.50.74 and 1.50.60. Andretti’s fastest was 1.50.95 and Lauda’s 1.50.94. Discounting his lap 7. time, Depailler’s best was 1.50.95 on lap 41, a time he had worked down to progressively. So would it be wise to go back to giving a Championship point for fastest lap?

On the driver front Peterson fans will have been pleased at his showing for he seems to be well in tune with the Lotus 78 and still has the ability to go fast, though whether he will maintain it for the whole season we will have to wait and see. The three new drivers in top teams, Tambay ,in McLaren, Villeneuve in Ferrari and Pironi in Tyrrell, all acquitted themselves well. Tambay and Villeneuve, who had some Formula One experience last year, fully justified their selection being very high on both starting grids, and it only wants one of the established front-runners to falter for one of these newcomers to be in his place. If you have the natural ability to get to the top, you should be well up the starting grid as soon as you start racing, not scraping in on the back rows; and both Tambay and Villeneuve have shown this ability. The next step forward is another matter altogether. For his first two Formula One races Didier Pironi was satisfactory, especially bearing in mind that the new Tyrrell 008 was also making its debut. He started and finished in both events, which is a lot more than some people managed. Divina Galica and Eddie Cheever went all the way to South America to fail to qualify for either event. They could have achieved the same overall result by staying at home and saving all that expense!

The question of who should be given the chance to fill up the back of the field continues to prove difficult and all manner of schemes have been tried, each with its good points and its bad points. The latest suggestion is that for the Monaco GP the “rabbits” should practise at the Paul Ricard circuit, and the best times there should qualify for a place in the entry list at Monaco, there still being a final qualifying on the Monogasque circuit. In the world of USAC racing in America there are plans for sixteen cars (plus four reserves) to come to Britain in the Autumn and already there are more than 20 applicants for entries, so they are going to hold a qualifying session at one of their tracks during the summer, to Sort out who can come-to Britain. In the Dublin Bay GP held just before Christmas (and reported at length in Autosport) Friday practice on the Dublin City circuit was transferred to Phoenix Park because it was Market Day in Dublin, but that was another matter altogether! D.S.J.