Race of Champions
Brands Hatch, April 15th
SNOWED OFF on March 18th the Race of Champions meeting was held in glorious sunshine on Easter Sunday before a fair-sized crowd, which should indicate to over-enthusiastic race promoters that the old-established principle (now long forgotten) of starting a new season at Easter wasn't such a bad idea. The idea behind this year's Race of Champions was to raise money for the Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Fund for cancer research, the likeable young Swede dying from cancer just prior to his thirtieth birthday. Hopefully everyone was giving their services freeof-charge for the meeting, the finance-orientated Formula One Constructors Association agreeing to put on a benefit-show for the occasion. When the meeting was originally suggested for Easter Sunday the FOCA threw their hands up in horror, saying it was impossible with the Grand Prix season in full swing. However, nothing is impossible, even to FOCA, and when the original race date of March 18th was abandoned because of snow on the Kentish stadium, it was agreed to support the event on Easter Sunday, April 15th. On April 8th they were all racing in California, on Thursday April 12th they were at a test-day at Zolder in Belgium, and on Saturday April 14th they were due at Brands Hatch for practice. With a schedule like that it was not surprising that some of the promised entry fell by the wayside. It was too much for the teams of ATS, Fittipaldi Automotive, Ensign, Merzario and Frank Williams Engineering. However, entries came from Team Lotus, Brabham, McLaren, Ferrari, Shadow and Arrows.
Team Lotus gave the first public showing of the Lotus 80, albeit only during practice, as it was still not race-worthy, and Mario Andretti drove it. Since its press debut it has grown nosefins and a second rear spoiler mounted at the top of the side-plates (shame on you, Chapman!). A detailed description of this new Lotus will hopefully appear next month. For the race, World Champion Andretti had Lotus 79/3 with a very "second hand" engine as the Cosworth resources were a bit strained. Mr. Ecclestone did us proud with his Brabham-Alfa Romeo team, producing two of the latest BT48 models with V12 power units, 48/2 for ex-World Champion Lauda and 48/1 for the rising star from Brazil Nelson Piquet (pronounce it Pee Kay, because I think you may be saying it quite often in the not too distant future). John Watson had the McLaren M28/2 which he had driven at Long Beach now back in its red and white Marlboro colours, but not going any better. Ferrari sent the modified 312T3 for Gilles Villeneuve, with which they experimented with side-skirts and under-car air-flow before perfecting the T4. Elio de Angelis had a works Shadow and Jochen Mass had a works Arrows. These seven represented the world of top Formula One racing, but running concurrently was a strong entry of British Formula One league competitors taking part in a series of races sponsored by the slot-racing firm Aurora. As these competitors are limited to a "nominally good" Goodyear tyre and use ex-works cars from one, two or three years ago, they could not expect to be competitive with the FOCA drivers. This category is at last proving to be a good training ground for newcomers aspiring to Grand Prix racing and a good haven for those who tried Grand Prix and failed to make the grade but are reluctant to give up.
The race was run over 40 laps of the full circuit at Brands Hatch, with the seven FOCA members at the head of the grid and the twelve Aurora runners on a separate grid behind. The Aurora grid was reduced to eleven when the favourite runner David Kennedy failed to make the start with the Theodore Racing Wolf WR4 due to gearbox trouble at the last minute. Lauda led away, hotly pursued by Villeneuve and Andretti, but going into the left-hander before leaving the Club circuit, the World Champion dived inside the Ferrari, cutting across in front of it in a very healthy racing manoeuvre. Villeneuve was not impressed and soon nipped by the Lotus, so that the order at the end of the first lap was Lauda (Brabham V12) Villeneuve (Ferrari flat-12) and Andretti (Lotus V8) when you've seen one Formula One car, you've seen them all, runs the platitude used by the bored and cynical critics of Formula One! It looked as though Lauda was going to run away with this non-championship event in his 1979 car, against the 1978 1/2 Ferrari and the 1978 Lotus, but Goodyear tyres thought otherwise and after only 8 laps he was in the pits for a tyre change as somebody in the Brabham team had obviously made a bad decision on what to use and how to set-up the suspension. By this time Piquet had passed Mass and taken fourth place, which became third; trailing along behind, but ahead of the Aurora runners were de Angelis and Watson.
Villeneuve led for laps 8 and 9 and then Andretti decided his rightful place as World Champion was at the front so he took the lead on lap 10, at which point Piquet headed his Brabham for the pits to change a tyre. "Aha," we thought, "nice Mr. Ecclestone has arranged a handicap for his drivers by giving them a mandatory pit-stop, to nullify their advantage in having 1979 cars." But it wasn't as simple as that, a wrong decision had been made. Leading the Aurora field was Rupert Keegan in an ex-works Arrows, followed by Desire Wilson, the South African woman driver in an ex-works Tyrrell 008, Guy Edwards in an ex-works Fittipaldi F5A and Villota in a Lotus 78 bought from the Hector Rebaque team.
For another 10 laps Andretti and Villeneuve ran round in formation, but then the Lotus began to suffer from brake fade and the Ferrari closed on it foot-by-foot, yard-by-yard, until the start of lap 28 when the young French-Canadian decided the Lotus was spot-on in his sights and he took Andretti right on the apex of Paddock Bend in a beautifully timed manoeuvre. All those people in the bar who were bemoaning the lack of passing in Formula One missed it, but the huge crowd in the enclosures around that part of the Stadium didn't miss it, and they saw one of the many reasons why Gilles Villeneuve is a name to be remembered.
All this while Jochen Mass had been holding a lonely third place, but Nelson Piquet had other ideas following his pit stop, and in spite of a split exhaust manifold making the V12 Alfa Romeo sound a bit flat, he was going faster and faster, really getting into the swing of the Brands Hatch circuit. He soon caught and passed Mass and with Andretti in further trouble with front tyres that were blistering, he set his sights on second place. Out in front Villeneuve was in complete control in that smooth, cool, style that is becoming increasingly impressive. With fading brakes and both front tyres coming up in bubbles, Andretti was having a miserable time, but kept going "softly-softly". Piquet was in exactly the opposite situation and was going "harder and harder" and took Andretti on lap 36, setting up a new all-time lap record for the circuit as he did so. His time was 1 min. 17.46 Sec. (121.47 m.p.h.), which not only bent Lauda's existing record of 1 min. 18.60 secs., but also Peterson's fastest practice lap of 1 min. 17.61 secs. (Mark with interest, young Pee-Kay).
In winning the 40 laps race Villeneuve lapped Niki Lauda, who just seemed to be going through the motions of being a professional racing driver, and led Piquet home by 15 seconds. A praiseworthy World Champion struggled home into third place on front tyres that I wouldn't have driven down the pit-lane on, and the cheery Jochen Mass finished fourth. John Watson faded quietly away with the McLaren, hoping the sponsors didn't notice and de Angelis followed Lauda home. The Aurora class was a bit processional with Keegan leading comfortably until lap 36 when his engine blew up and this would have let Desire Wilson into the lead, but her engine was sick and she was dropping back, so Guy Edwards inherited the lead. Among the other fancied newcomers Needell crashed the Formula One Chevron rather badly and Bullman crashed his works Surtees, while Villota disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
As pleasant Bank Holiday entertainment the experiment of mixing the FOCA Formula One cars with the Aurora Championship cars was very successful, only next time there should be some sort of handicap system so that it can be all one race and not two separate ones. How about a lap start for the Aurora cars, or two pit stops for the FOCA cars, one for tyres and one for fuel?
To fill out the 2-day programme and justify the cost to spectators there were races for Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic, Formula Two, Sunbeam saloons, BMW Saloons, and Formula Sports 2000 as well as aerobatics by a small bi-plane. Everybody won at Brands Hatch but Gilles Villeneuve was the winner of the Race of Champions.
RACE OF CHAMPYIONS - Formula One and British Formula One League - 40 laps - Brands Hatch - 4.207 kilometres per lap - 168.28 kilometres - Warm and dry
1st: G. Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T3A/033) 53 min. 17.12 sec. - 189.452 k.p.h. (117.72 m.p.h.)
2nd: N. Piquet (Brabham BT48/1) 53 min 32.19 sec.
3rd: M. Andretti (Lotus 79/3) 53 min. 40.29 sec.
4th: J. Mass (Arrows A1/05) 53 min. 57.88 sec.