1978 United States Grand Prix West race report

Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) driving at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West, Long Beach.

Carlos Reutemann claimed victory No 2 of the season for Ferrari

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Scratcher’s Paradise

Long Beach, California, April 2nd

Racing through the streets of Long Beach is now well established, but you can only do it once a year, not every day, but on that one occasion it is done remarkably well. This year’s Formula One Grand Prix was the third World Championship event to be held through the streets of the Californian seaport, the previous two being won by Regazzoni (Ferrari) and Andretti (Lotus). Such is the popularity of street-racing (or the dollars!) that everyone wanted to take part and the entry was over-subscribed. FIA rulings on circuit length (2.02 miles) and width only allowed 22 cars on the starting grid and there were 30 drivers prepared to race. The problem was solved by accepting 22 drivers from the. Formula One Constructors’ Association and having a “seeding-out” session for the remaining eight drivers, the best four joining the 22 chosen ones to make a total of 26 for official practice, of which the fastest 22 “irrespective of race or creed” would start in the Grand Prix. The “seeding session” was planned for one hour on Friday morning before official practice began, and it was obviously going to be a do-or-die effort for the eight rabbits. With no unofficial testing or practice allowed on the Long Beach streets before Friday morning, many of the rabbit teams went off to the nearby Willow Springs race-track to do some testing, prior to the qualifying for practice, for qualifying for the race—if you see what I mean!

As if to keep everyone on their toes Southern California was being uncertain about its tourist role of being sunny and it was occasionally showing that it can rain in the land of sunshine. The paddock and garage area was situated in a vast new exhibition building in the middle of the circuit, with quite a long trek for the mechanics to lug all the tools and equipment up to the pits situated on one leg of the dual-carriageway of Ocean Boulevard which runs through the centre of lower Long Beach city and forms one of the main straights of the circuit. Very early on Friday morning the long pit lane filled up with cars and equipment, with eight drivers ready to go out for instant’ action, with no time for fiddling or messing about with adjustments. These were Derek Daly (Hesketh), Hector Rebaque (Lotus 78), Brett Lunger (McLaren), Keijo Rosberg (Theodore), Ricardo Patrese and Rolf Stommelen (Arrows), Arturo Merzario (Merzario) and Danny Ongais (Shadow DN9). With official practice starting immediately after “rabbits hour”, all the other teams were lined up and ready to go, though the Long Beach layout is good in that you can come and go between pits and paddock while the circuit is in use, unlike Monaco for example.

It was no surprise that Patrese was fastest in this pre-practice qualifying session, but Merzario’s experience showed up when he made second place quite easily, and Lunger’s experience got him into third place. Rolf Stommelen surprised a lot of people by claiming fourth spot, and this left Rosberg, Daly, Rebaque and Ongais out in the cold. The first two finding that when the Formula One “circus” has something at stake it gets a bit serious, unlike the games they played at Silverstone in the rain. The Hawaiian driver Ongais was a disappointment with his brand-new Shadow DN9, especially as he is becoming a big name in USAC oval-track racing.


Now the serious business began, and not all that much behind schedule, bearing in mind that the whole circuit had to be prepared from the normal streets of the town. Official practice took the usual format of an hour and a half in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, and the Californian sun shone down on it all benignly. Some teams were bathed in the sunshine, like the Brabham-Alfa Romeos and the Ferraris, with everything going well, others, like McLaren were in the shadows with everything going wrong, while the Shadow team were in their own shadow with trouble. Patrick Tambay started off in the spare McLaren, to bed it in and see all was well, before transferring to his own car, and Hunt went straight into the fray in M26/4, but everything went wrong. Tambay spun and stalled on his test-run and had to be towed back to the pits as he could not make the engine restart, and meanwhile Hunt had gone out with the radiators partially blanked off to aid warming-up and to watch his temparature gauges and returned to the pits boiling merrily! Tambay returned to practice with his own car, M26/5, and Hunt was cooled off and refilled with water, no damage having been done, but not for long, as when he resumed practice he bounced off a wall and the car came back on a breakdown lorry. Hunt resumed practice in the spare car, and the McLaren team began to wonder which way they were pointing.

In Team Lotus all started off “even-stevens” for Andretti and Peterson, as the new Lotus/Getrag gearbox has gone back into experimental for modifications so the two drivers were both using Hewland gearboxes in their Lotus 78 cars from the word go. Andretti was the faster of the two until his engine blew up; fortunately the spare car was all ready for him to use. In the Ferrari team Reutemann had started off in 033, which he had raced in South Africa, but it developed a nasty vibration somewhere in the engine/ transmission area, so he changed to 032, the spare car. Meanwhile Villeneuve was very happy with his brand new T3 Ferrari, number 034. Lauda in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Reutemann in the spare Ferrari seemed to be setting the pace, though the timekeepers appeared to be losing control of the situation and doubts were beginning to arise about their accuracy.

Mario Andretti (Lotus) head down the head at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West, Long Beach.

Mario Andretti got his Lotus up to 2nd in qualifying

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Whereas the pace of the rabbits, who started the ball rolling, was around 1 min. 24 sec., the serious stuff was soon down to 1 min. 22 sec., with Reutemann galloping ahead on his Michelin tyres, into the 1 min. 20 sec. area. By the end of the first session there was a lot of work going on in the pits, especially on gearboxes and driveshafts, for the tight corners were giving 2nd gears a bad time and the bumps were straining the drive-lines. Added to that the circuit is very unforgiving of driver error and it was very easy to knock a corner off a car. Stuck’s Shadow DN9 that made its debut at the wet Silverstone meeting had ruined its Hewland gearbox, weaknesses in the Tyrrell 008 driveshafts and wheel bearings were appearing, and Patrese wrecked his gearbox as fast as the Arrows mechanics repaired it. Jarier had bounced his ATS off a wall and while doing so Laffite had to dodge him and crumpled the rear of the JS7/JS9 car. While he could continue in the spare Ligier, poor Jarier had to wait around while his mechanics put right the damage he had caused.

By the time the afternoon session began it was clear that the timekeepers did not have control of the situation so everyone got on with practice, hoping it could be sorted out by the end of the day. Any suggestion that the time in the pre-practice qualifying session for the rabbits might be suspect, thereby jeopardising the chances of the four who did not get in, was quickly over-ruled. The McLaren team were looking better in the afternoon, though Hunt was still having to use the spare car, and the Brabhams and Ferraris were looking confident. The Wolf team had more trouble than they wanted, and were making little headway, but the Frank Williams team were very happy, Alan Jones being more than content with the second of the FW06 cars. The Renault was having engine trouble, and Lunger was going faster than he had done in the pre-practice runs, but not fast enough to stay in the top 22, and neither did Merzario, though Patrese and Stommelen were well up the field. Peterson’s engine blew up in a big way, there being a gudgeon-pin circlip lying in an inlet trumpet afterwards!

Sorting out the times took a ridiculously long time, and eventually a single list of times was published combining the two sessions of practice, and they showed Reutemann and his young team-mate in the first two places with the Michelin-shod Ferraris, followed by Andretti and Lauda, then Hunt and Scheckter. It was difficult to argue with the list or say that the times were “fixed”, because two Ferraris, driven by an Argentinian and a French-Canadian, running on French Michelin tyres, on the front row of the grid was hardly a result to please the USA.

By next morning everyone seemed to be back to square one, with new engines installed, dents knocked out, suspensions replaced and drivers back in the cars they hoped to race. The hour and a half of untimed practice, intended for testing with full petrol tanks and race-worthy tyre combinations saw the mayhem continue. Depailler’s Tyrrell 008 had a cine-camera on its roll-over bar, and was later towed in with a broken driveshaft; Seheckter’s Wolf WR1 was brought back on a. breakdown lorry, with a broken rear upright; the Renault had a vast air-horn scooplog air into the turbocharger unit, in place of the NACA duct; Reutemann preferred the spare Ferrari to his regular one; Stuck Crashed his Shadow DN9 badly when dodging Keegan who was busy demolishing his Surtees, and the Brabhams were rubbing their back tyres on the top radius rods. There was never a dull moment.

For the final hour, when times were to count for the starting grid the timekeepers still did not seem to be in complete control of their equipment, and eventually only told 0,5 Who had improved on their Friday time. Strangely Reutemann did not improve, though no one beat his Friday time, but Villeneuve moved up closer to him, and Lauda joined the elite in the 1 mm. 20 sec. bracket. Stuck’s Shadow could not be repaired so he was out, and Keegan had another go and this time really smashed up his Surtees. He was not alone, for Bramlilla crashed his Surtees as well. Scheckter was using WR3, the supposedly spare Wolf, and Pironi hit a wall early on and had to sit and watch proceedings, while Depailler suffered an ignition failure which wasted a lot of time. On the fastest leg of the circuit the Brabham-Alfas and the Renault were consistently the fastest through the Frank Williams speed-trap, while the Ferraris were in amongst the average Cosworth-powered cars, yet were easily the fastest on lap times, so clearly maximum speed was not all-important.

When it was all over the two Michelin-shod Ferraris were still on the front row of the grid, with Reutemann in pole-position, with Lauda and Andretti in the second row and Watson and Peterson in the third row, so that the Lotus was the only Cosworthpowered car to challenge the Italian 12-cylinder cars. Gilles Villeneuve in second position had to rate the biggest A-for-effort, regardless of any supposed advantage of having a Ferrari or Michelin tyres. There are some new hopefuls at the back who would have still been at the back no matter how many Ferraris or Michelin tyres you gave them. The top Goodyear-shod runners were muttering amongst themselves finding it hard to believe that “a funny little French firm” could beat the mighty American firm. Of course, if the Ferrari team’s superiority was not due to the Michelin tyres then you had to admit that the new T3 Ferrari, on only its second outing, was a very good car. The advantage couldn’t possibly be with the drivers, some people were saying.

The four drivers who did not qualify were Stuck (Shadow DN9) who had no opportunity in the final hour, Pironi (Tyrrell 008/4) who also had to sit it out, Lunger who progressed progressively, but not far enough, and Leoni in the lone Ensign who had never looked like being fast enough. Although Keegan had scraped into last place on the grid he could not start as John Surtees was running out of spares and there was only enough to cobble up a single car out of the remains of TS19/07 and TS19/06. These were assembled onto the monocoque of TS19/02, which had been brought along “just-in-case”. Stuck was first reserve but the Shadow DN9 could not be repaired, so Pironi scraped into the starting list.


The field squeezes into Turn One at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West, Long Beach.

The field squeezes into Turn One

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Sunday was bathed in real Californian sunshine and after the morning warm-up Depailler’s Tyrrell, which was the spare car, had new driveshafts fitted as a precaution, Reutemann was very happy with the spare Ferrari, number 032, and Scheckter was down to drive WR3. Fittipaldi was set to race his brand new car, jabouille was driving the newest of the Renaults, this to be its first race, Jones was in the newer of the two Williams cars and all seemed to be ready for the United States Grand Prix West round the streets of Long Beach. 75,000 paying customers were thronging the 2.02-mile circuit, while thousands more were ready for a free-view from roof-tops, balconies, apartment windows and any other vantage point overlooking the scene. Last year the start had been on the top straight, by the pits, and there was a multiple accident on the first corner which is narrow and downhill, so this year the start was moved to the fast back leg of the circuit where there was room to spread out before the hairpin bend at the end of the straight. As it is a very slow hair-pin, and is wide, it was reasoned that there was more room for error. The new start line meant that the race was actually half a lap longer than last year, as the timekeepers and the finishing line were still on the top straight. After a warm-up lap from the pits round to the timekeeping line, the cars were lined up in staggered pairs as shown on the starting grid. Then they set off in formation, slowly round half the circuit, to the back straight where the starting lights were. There was a pause, the green light glowed and all 22 were away with a roar in a drag-race to the first hairpin. Reutemann led, but under braking Watson went down the inside, which forced the Ferrari to run wide and this in turn baulked Lauda who was hoping to go round the outside. Villeneuve nipped in behind Watson and as the Ulsterman was sorting himself out from being too fast on the wrong line, the young French-Canadian was by and off into the lead. Behind this 12-cylinder furore, Alan Jones had made a fine start and passed Hunt and Peterson before the hairpin. The order as the race got under way along the top straight was Villeneuve (Ferrari), Watson (Brabharn), Lauda (Brabham), Reutemann (Ferrari), Andretti (Lotus), Jones (Williams), Peterson (Lotus), Hunt (McLaren) and Scheckter (Wolf). In the melee at the first hairpin Jarier and Merzario had a corning together and both stopped at the pits for repairs, while Patrese already had a bent nose fin due to being tun over when he muffed his start.

Having snatched the lead from his superiors (and betters?) there was no way young Villeneuve was going to give it back to them and he led the race in fine style, looking cool and confident. Hunt disappeared from eighth place on lap six when he hit a corner with his right front wheel and spun across the road and out of the race at the start of the pits straight. The order remained unchanged until lap 10 when Watson switched off his Alfa Romeo engine and stopped in a hurry, as there had been a big bang from the back of the car when the oil tank exploded. Young Villeneuve now had the reigning World Champion behind him, but if he was impressed he didn’t show it and continued to hold his lead, while Reutemann in the other Ferrari was close behind in third place. Andretti was leading the Cosworth-powered runners with Jones dose behind, and then came Peterson. This group had opened up a gap on the rest, who were following in the order Depailler, Scheckter, Tambay, Laffite, Patrese, Jabouille, Regazzoni, Brambilla, Fittipaldi, Stommelen and Pironi. Mass had retired with brake trouble, and Jarier and Merzario had rejoined the race.

Alan Jones closed up on Andretti and eventually slipped by the black and gold Lotus, and set his sights on Reutemann’s Ferrari, which was not too far ahead. By 20 laps the race had settled into a procession, With Villeneuve out on his own, Lauda and Reutemann close together, and then Jones and Andretti. The interest now lay in seeing what Lauda was going to do about the new Young Ferrari driver, if he could do anything at all, and in admiring the way Alan Jones was driving the sleek Williams car to lead all the Cosworth runners, as well as the Ligier-Matra V12 and the Renault turbo. Pironi disappeared from the back of the field when his gearbox broke, and then there was a big surprise when Lauda’s Alfa Romeo engine cut-out on the top straight when the ignition failed, and he coasted up the escape road and out of the race, thus leaving the two Ferraris In complete command.

Fittipaldi locked a front wheel under braking and put a flat on the tyre and had to stop for a change, which put him a lap behind thc leader and thus the procession continued. Andretti seemed to be giving up trying and failed to keep up with Alan Jones, but the Australian wasn’t giving up, and was very close to the tail of Reutemann’s Ferrari. Near the end of the fortieth lap, which was half distance, Villeneuve made a mistake corning out of the ess-bend before the corners leading up to the finishing straight, and this put him all wrong for the following sharp left-hander. Unfortunately Regazzoni was in the middle df the corner in his Shadow, and Villeneuve Wed to dive through on the inside, but this meant running over the kerbing and the Ferrari was bounced up into the air to land on the Shadow’s left wheels, which immediately flicked the Ferrari up into the air and into a sideways spin across the nose of the Shadow. The Italian car landed right way up, but backwards into the barriers and that was the end of the glory for the French-Canadian novice. Reutemann took over the lead and the worthy Jones was now second, well ahead of Andretti, who in turn was well ahead of Depailler and Scheckter. Tambay was on his own, well ahead of Laffite and Patrese, while the rest had been lapped.

Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) driving at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West, Long Beach.

Gilles Villeneuve qualified his Ferrari 2nd but crashed out on lap 38

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Reutemann looked set for victory, the Ferrari sounding as strong as ever, its Michelin tyres obviously capable of running the race, and his only worry was the white and green Williams that was forever in his mirrors. On lap 43 the right front nose fin on the Williams began to droop due to a structural failure, possibly due to an earlier blow underneath caused by running a bit wide out of a corner and running over a kerb. Jones could not see it, nor could he feel anything different about the handling, he explained afterwards, even though many people thought it would cause the car to understeer badly. It probably affected the top speed slightly, due to the altered drag factor, especially when the lefthand one drooped as well. The only noticeable thing was that the Williams dropped back ever so slightly, but not dramatically. At the end of the runners on the same lap as the leaders, Patrese clipped a wall with a front wheel, and broke the rim, which caused him to drive slowly round to the pits for a replacement and meant that he rejoined the race a lap behind the leader.

At 50 laps everything seemed settled, except that in motor racing nothing is ever settled until it is finished. Slowly but surely Tambay, in sixth place, was closing on Scheckter’s Wolf, and equally slowly but surely, Jones was dropping back from Reutemann and nearer to Andretti. It wasn’t the drooping nose that was slowing the Williams, but a hesitant note in its exhaust. A flap-valve in the fuel system or something wasn’t working properly and a misfire was coming in at high revs. At first Jones played along with it by not trying to rev too high before changing gear, but it got progressively worse and inconsistent, which really prevented him from learning to live with it. Meanwhile Tambay’s McLaren was right up behind the Wolf and the Frenchman was looking for a way by. On lap 60 he thought he had found the way, but Scheckter thought otherwise and the two cars collided. The Wolf was out of the race with a broken rear corner but the McLaren continued, with its front wheels slightly out of line.

On lap 63 the slowing Williams dropped back behind Andretti’s Lotus, and from the roar the crowd gave you would have thought that “Super-Wop” had actually caught the Williams! Reutemann was in an unchallenged lead and merely had to reel off the laps, and it seemed as if he lost concentration for a brief moment, for on lap 65 as he accelerated out of the long “Indy” hairpin, to join the concrete dual-carriageway of Shoreline Drive, he opened up just a fraction too soon and next instant was in the “father-and-mother” of a 360-degree spin. He kept the engine running and as the spin ended with the Ferrari pointing the right way, he let in the clutch and went on his way, wide awake, and concentrating hard! To anyone watching the race on a stop-watch on another part of the circuit, it probably looked as though Andretti had suddenly made up 5 sec. on the Ferrari.

Poor Alan Jones was suffering more and more as the fuel pick-up got worse, and Depailler went by him followed by Peterson, then Tambay and then Laffite, and from a hard-earned second place he drifted back to a miserable seventh and finally Patrese passed him, leaving him eighth. With the front of his McLaren out of line Tambay was being caught by Laffite’s Ligier, and after trying to outbrake the McLaren into the hairpin at the end of the back straight, the Ligier driver then tried again in desperation, as there were only four laps left to run. He mis-timed his manoeuvre on a right-hand bend and the Ligier’s left wheels ran up over the McLaren’s right wheels. Airborne the Ligier overtook the McLaren, and crashed down on its nose, crumpling the front aerofoil, but it was still running and Laffite carried on, but poor Tambay was out of the race with a bent motor car.

Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) sprays champagne on the podium at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West, Long Beach.

Reutemann dutifully douses onlookers in champagne

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Now it really was all over, with Reutemann cruising home to the first victory for the T3 Ferrari, and the second for Michelin tyres, followed eleven seconds later by Andretti’s Lotus 78. Then came Depailler in an unremarkable third place, having nursed a fragile car along as best he could, Peterson in fourth place after a stop to change the front tyres on his Lotus 78, then the battered Ligier, followed one lap down by Patrese’s Arrows still with a bent fin, the unhappy Jones in the sick Williams, Emerson Fittipaldi who ran out of petrol after crossing the line, Stommelen in the second Arrows, who had spent the whole race trying to cope with diabolical understeer, Regazzoni in the Shadow DN8 with its rear aerofoil all askew after the incident with Villeneuve and finally Jarier with the surviving ATS. Altogether a miscellaneous collection from the 22 who had set off with high hopes less than two hours before. Pure street racing is a very different thing from Autodrome racing, it’s harder on man and machine, but provides a good spectacle.—D.S.J.