The United States Grand Prix (West)

No mistakes this time

Long Beach, California, April 8th

EACH YEAR the running of the United States Grand Prix (West) through the streets of the town of Long Beach in California seems to go more smoothly as the organisation solves past problems and learns from its brief experience, this year being the fifth event held on the interesting street circuit. Outside officialdom, such as the FISA circuit permit and similar agreements were all settled well before the race week so that the work of preparing the circuit was well ahead of schedule. Two minor improvements were made this year, one was the use of curved cast-concrete blocks to line the inside edge of some of the sharp corners, to re-place the ballast-filled oil drums used previously, and the other was to fill in the "lay-by" leading to the Queen's hairpin so that the road was a constant width all the way down to the hairpin, whereas previously it widened out, (which allowed Watson to make his desperate dive down the inside last year immediately after the start). The rest of the circuit was unaltered, still abounding in bumps, manhole covers, drains, kerbs, sharp descents and steep climbs, cambers and solid concrete edging all calculated to catch out the careless or the unwary. The Long Beach circuit really is street racing at its best, fast (90 m.p.h. lap speeds), with a 175 m.p.h. straight, two very tight hairpins, lots of wiggly stuff, but wide enough for overtaking.

The first race through the streets was in 1975 when a Formula 5000 event was held to gauge the reactions of the idea before a Formula One Grand Prix was held. In 1976 Regazzoni won the first GP for Ferrari, then Andretti won for Lotus and last year Reutemann won for Ferrari. As it is not possible for the teams to indulge in any pre-practice testing on the circuit, as also applies at Monaco and Montreal, a change was agreed upon for the arrangements for the two practice days, and it proved so popular that it looks like becoming standard practice for Formula One events. On each morning there was one hour of practice without official timing, in which the teams could find out about the circuit and make adjustments to gear ratios, spring and damper settings, roll-bar settings, aerodynamic adjustments and so on. Then in the afternoon there were one and a half hours of timed practice which accounted for grid positions. Previously we had an hour and a half on the first morning, followed by an hour in the afternoon, all timed, and then an hour and a half untimed on the second morning and an hour timed in the afternoon. This invariably resulted in the first session being pointless for starting grid times as everyone went faster as time went by, and it also meant that the final hour was a do-or-die effort, usually too crowded, as everyone was out together. The new arrangement seemed much more balanced.

During the first hour one could take stock of who was driving what and why. Neither Andretti nor Reutemann had driven a Lotus 79 at Long Beach before so they were on a pretty even footing. Team Tyrrell had a brand new 009 car, the fourth to be built and it was being kept as a stand-by, though it had Pironi's name on it. Tyrrell had sold the advertising space on the sideplates of the rear aerofoil mounting to Tamiya, the Japanese model firm. The Brabham drivers were running with nose fins on the BT48 cars, but there were plans afoot to discard them. The McLaren team was apt to be missed as the M28 cars had forsaken their red and white Marlboro colours for the blue and turquoise of Lowenbrau beer and well-known team personnel tended to look like complete strangers in new uniforms. The ATS team were hoping that their driver, Hans Joachim Stuck, would qualify without too much drama, giving them more time to get organised. Of the 26 drivers taking part in practice only the fastest 24 were going to get on the starting grid. The brand new T4 Ferrari was identical to the one Villeneuve had driven in South Africa, as regards the tail treatment of the body, and the older style used by Scheckter was now the spare car. Fittipaldi was setting out to use his new F6 car, with the older F5 in reserve, and Renault had their usual three cars for Jabouille and Arnoux. Shadow were attracting attention to their Dutch driver, Lammers with a gaudy facsimile of a lion sprawled all over the dark blue car, and the young Italian de Angelis just had a dark blue car. Walter Wolf Racing were preparing to give all their attention to their brand new WR8 car, as was Merzario with his brand new car. Nunn's Ensign team were trying a more orthodox radiator layout on MN09 which Daly was driving and the Ligier team had their usual three cars for Laffite and Depailler. The Arrows team were still using their modified 1978 cars, though new ones are under construction. Rebaque was advertising Mexican beer on his smart chocolate brown Lotus 79.

Last year I made some pithy comments about the unruly standards of driving on the Long Beach street circuit and the number of "rock-apes" who bounced their cars off the concrete protecting walls. The first test hour had hardly started before the first "rock-ape" was back in the pits with a crumpled nose wing and bent front suspension. This was Gilles Villeneuve with his T4 Ferrari and he was very apologetic to his mechanics as they fitted new suspension parts, but it meant no more testing as the cockpit layout of the muletta was suited to Scheckter and not the diminutive French/Canadian. Andretti had not gone much longer in his usual car 79/5 before something went wrong with the rear suspension and he switched to the spare car while it was fixed. Lauda changed to the spare Brabharn BT48 to do some film making, it having a camera fixed to the crash bar behind his head. (Funny how soon people forget safety-lessons or remember Graham Hill's accident at the Nurburgring).

With faster cars and better tyres brakes were coming in for a real caning and air scoops were bigger than ever, but even so smoke was issuing from most of the cars when they stopped in the pits. Arnoux's Renault died on him just before the pits so he walked in to collect a mechanic to help him get it going again, and meanwhile Jabouille was out in the spare Renault, preferring it to his own car. While Pironi was more or less minding his own business braking for the hairpin at the end of the Shoreline Drive straight, he was rudely hit up the back by Scheckter's new Ferrari, doing a fair amount of damage to both cars. However, as neither driver was hurt and both had spare cars at the pits they were able to continue testing.

While the lucky ones had lunch the pits and the paddock were very busy and the mechanics had a lot of work to do in a short time. At 12.30 p.m. the serious business of official timed practice began. Andretti was back in Lotus 79/5, Lauda was in Brabham BT48/2, but Scheckter was still in the muletta, Fittipaldi was in his old car, Jabouille was in RS01/02, the oldest of the three Renaults, but Hunt was still in the new Wolf. Another spare car had to be brought out, this time by the Shadow team, when de Angelis hit the wall on the exit of the corner before the pits. Alan Jones came walking back to the pits, having abandoned his Williams when the engine blew up and the Renault team prepared RS01/04 for Jabouille as the earlier car broke its transmission. The Ferrari drivers now both tried a new type of rear aerofoil which was wider and shorter, but more important, was mounted forward of the rear axle line. The organisation control and the breakdown lorries were well organised and disabled cars were dealt with very promptly. Twice during the afternoon crashed or broken down cars were in dodgy positions so practice was stopped while a breakdown truck whistled onto the circuit, scooped up the racing car on a tow rope or hanging from the crane and delivered it back to the pits or straight into the paddock, so quickly that the total delay was only 5 or 6 minutes.

Reutemann and Scheckter were setting the pace in the mid-1 min. 20 secs. bracket, already under last year's fastest practice lap of 1 min. 30.636 secs., and Villeneuve and Laffite were not far behind. Andretti was still playing with tyres and adjustments to trim the car to his liking, whereas his Argentinian team-mate was not bothering, reckoning that fast laps at Long Beach were so wild and woolly, that ground-effects, trim, balance, and so forth were of little importance. Getting the right foot stuck in was all that mattered. Laffite's efforts ended when his Ligier died on him out on the circuit; he thumbed a lift across the infield on the back of a motorcycle and went out again in the spare car. Reuternann's driving was very impressive and he was obviously very much in tune with the conditions and ended the afternoon with best time in 1 min. 20.126 secs., but right behind him was the cool Gilles Villeneuve with 1 min. 20.186 secs. Six hundredths of a second is not a lot at an average speed of over 90 m.p.h. The order at the end of the day was Reutemann, Villeneuve, Laffite, Scheckter, Andretti, Depailler; two Lotus, two Ferrari, two Ligier, the same faces in the same places! Hunt was leading the rest with the new Wolf, and the team were fairly happy with progress. Right at the back of the field was poor Merzario who was having all manner of small teething troubles with his new car, so that he never got in a full flying lap so the time keepers were unable to record a lap time for him.

Saturday morning saw another untimed testing hour in fine and dry conditions and everyone except Scheckter and Fittipaldi were back to square one, with their assigned cars. Although the new Ferrari (039) was repaired, Scheckter decided to stick with the spare car (038), while Fittipaldi settled for his old F5A/1 in preference to the new F6. Elio de Angelis had no option but to use the spare Shadow as he had damaged the monocoque of his assigned car in his accident. ATS brought their spare car out and Ensign wished they had a spare car when MN09 seized its clutch withdrawal mechanism. The Renault team had a really bad morning, for Arnoux appeared in the pit lane with a merry oil fire burning around the back end, due to a fractured oil pipe feeding the turbo-charger. Not too much damage was caused, but it was the end of activity for the morning. Then Jabouille went missing in 04 and news arrived that he had had a monumental accident on the back straight at over 170 m.p.h. A drive-shaft joint had broken and locked up the transmission; the car had turned into the concrete barrier and demolished itself as it skidded and skated to a standstill. Jabouille was remarkably lucky to escape with nothing more serious than a cracked wrist, but it was the end of his driving for the day, so the Renault team had one driver fit, but no car for him and the other driver injured and the spare car available for him. It was no surprise that the French looked glum.

The Brabham team felt once again that they had sufficient down-force from their ground-effects so they removed the fins from the noses of both cars, automatically improving the air flow into the sidepods. Both Ferraris were still using the forward mounted rear aerofoils, and Andretti was still fiddling with adjustments to try and match the times of his team-mate. While brakes were obviously getting a hammering, it was the drive-shafts that were beginning to become the Achilles heel. Reutemann was towed in with the left-hand shaft broken at its outer end, having snapped off like a carrot alongside the circlips groove. This was the first time a drive-shaft had failed on a Lotus 79. Right at the end of the hour Fittipaldi came to rest with a broken universal joint on the left-hand driveshaft, and Hunt had come to a stop with an electrical fault.

After lunch it was still fine and dry, but a cool breeze was blowing, in fact conditions were ideal for fast motoring and everyone rose to the occasion. Villeneuve was experimenting with the two types of rear aerofoil on his Ferrari, while Scheckter had settled for the forward mounted one. In the morning test session Lauda felt that the V12 Alfa Romeo engine in his Brabham was getting tired, so sent it away to have a new one installed. The work was not completed by the time the final session began, so he started out in the spare BT48. He soon decided that it wasn't good enough for him, so sat in the pits and waited for his own car to be finished. Meanwhile his young team-mate was getting on with the job and recording some reasonable times. Arnoux was still in troublewith his Renault, the outer universal joint on the left-hand drive shaft breaking, while poor Jabouille had to watch from the side-lines with his right wrist in plaster. There was a lot of hard trying right through the field as witnessed by the number of spins and near-misses that were reported by course marshals, but nothing serious was reported. The lap times of the top group were coming down dramatically and whereas yesterday anything in the 1 min. 20 sec. bracket was good, today the top runners were well down into the 1 min. 19 secs. bracket. Then Reutemann set an entirely new standard with a lap in 1 min. 18.886 secs. and the two Ferrari drivers rose to the occasion and also got below 1 min. 19 secs. Depailler and Laffite were within a whisker of breaking the "ace" barrier, though Andretti was half a second adrift. Scheckter gave his all and clocked 1 min. 18.911 secs., which got him on the front row of the grid alongside Reutemann, and just as he stopped in the pits it was reported the Villeneuve had taken pole position with an incredible 1 min. 18.825 secs., this with the old-ype rear aerofoil mounted behind the rear axle line. Reutemann was still very much on form and looked set to snach fastest time back when he failed to appear. The other drive shaft had broken this time! And that was that. We had Villenuve, Reutemann and Scheckter below 1 min. 19 secs., and Depailler, Laffite, Andretti, Jarier, Hunt, Patrese and Jones below 1 min. 20 secs. and anything over 1 min. 23 secs. out of the running. Once again there was six-hundredths of a second between Reutemann and Villeneuve, this time to the advantage of the little French/Canadian. That so small a gap separated two such varied combinations was remarkable. V8 engine versus flat 12 engine, Goodyear tyres versus Michelin tyres, gearbox out the back versus gearbox transversely in front of the axle line, Italian suspension geometry versus English; two more different cars would be hard to find.

Rebaque and Daly failed to qualify, but with Jabouille out of action the young Mexican moved onto the grid, leaving the Irishman out in the cold on his own. The supporting races in the programme were run on Saturday, leaving Sunday clear with only the 80½ lap Grand Prix and no distractions.  A cloudy morning soon cleared to blue sky in which Toyota employed a fleet of tiny aeroplanes to "sky-write" advertising slogans across the blue celing. In the half-hour warm-up mechanical trouble intervened and Arnoux cam to rest with a broken outer universal joint in the left hand drive-shaft ajd the Renault team decided to withdraw his entry rather than risk another failure in the race, bearing in mind Jabouille's lurid accident of the previous day.  With the second Renault out it meant that Daly was assured of a place on the grid with the Ensign. Laffite arrived at the pits with the gearbox of his Ligier seizing up and quickly went out in the spare car, albeit with Depailler's name and number on it. He preferred his own car so the Ligier mechanics had to set to and fit another gearbox in place of the broken one, which itself was a new one only installed the night before.

The race was due to start at 1 p.m. and well before time the cars left thep it lane, one by one, to do a warm-up lap round to the starting-grid area, which is situated at the timing-line/finish line opposite the pits. Of the 24 cars that left the pits only 23 got round to the grid, Reutemann's Lotus died half way round, and while everyone was in position the Lotus appeared on a rope behind a tow-truck. The fault seemed to be electrical and everything that could be changed was changed in double-quick time, the car given a push and it fired up, but it was too late for Reutemann to take his place on the grid, the rules had decreed the pit lane be closed and he would have to wait until the field had gone by on the first lap before he could join in. As last year the actual start was to be on the bottom straight, half a lap away, so that the race would actually be over 80½ laps, this being to avoid the bunched field having to dive into a sharp right-hand bend immediately after the start.  The 23 cars set off in formation, led by Villeneuve on his own, his Ferrari using the rearward mounted rear aerofoil while Schekter, in contrast, was using the latest forward mounted one still using the T-car. Laffite was in his regular Ligier, though Fittipaldi was using his older car. Hunt was still in the new Wolf and Pironi was in the original Tyrrell. The Brabhams had dispensed with their nose-fins and Rebaque and Daly were feeling grateful to the Renault team for withdrawing, while Merzario was using his older car. As the cars went by, heading for the lower part of the circuit, Reutemann forced his way out of the pit lane and followed them round, completely against the rules. At the start line there were no marshalls on the track, only marker boards poking over the concrete wall, and Villeneuve missed the actual line and came to rest beyound it with the others in some confusion behind him. With no-one on the track to indicate the next move, and the starter unable to give the count-down for the green light with the pole-position car well beyound its proper position there was nothing for it but to go round again. Villeneuve, Depailler, Scheckter and Andretti set off, but behind them was more confusion for Laffite's replacement gearbox locked solid and lewed him across the track, effectely blocking the rest of the field. The first four carried on round but when the rest eventually got by the stricken Ligier they were stopped up by the pits and re-assembled in grid order. The naughty reutemann was put back in the pit lane and Laffite joined him now in the spare Ligier, while his broken one was brought in dangling from a breakdown truck. This time 22 cars set  off for the start and everything went according to plan. With a roar that echoed all over the city of Long Beach the 22 cars got away and roared down to the Queen's hairpin with Depailler trying to get between the two Ferraris. Down in the mid-field there were some aerobatics as the cars braked for the hairpin and Tambay's McLaren ran up over the back of Lammer's Shadow and landed on Lauda's Brabham, which carried the McLaren along airborne. The others had to dodge about a bit and either stop or take wide lines round the derelict cars so there was quite a reshuffle in the order of the back-markers. When they ahd all gone by the pits Reutemann and Laffite were allowed to join in and the race was well and truly on, but without Lauda (Brabham) and Tambay (McLaren). Next time round the field was reduced yet again as Hunt retired the Wolf with that well-known Long Beach malady - a broken drive-shaft - and Lammers was in the pits for a new rear aerofoil.

Out in front Villeneuve was leading from Depailler, Scheckter, Andretti, Jarier, Patrese, Jones and Piquet. In the gerfuffle on the hairpin Watson had droped to the tail of the field but Rebaque had got himself ahead of Pironi, Mass, Stuck, de Angelis, Merzario and Fittipaldi, and was making the most of his good fortune. Jarier scratched past Andretti, but could not keep pace with the leading trio so a small gap opened up between Villeneuve, Depailler and Scheckter and the the rest, the South African running with his right front nose fin bent where Depailler had "trod" on it. It took about five laps for things to settle down by which time Villeneuve was firmly in the lead, but Jarier was getting himself sorted out and was pulling away from Andretti. On lap 8 he scrabbed past Scheckter and on the next lap he was past Depailler, but he was not gaining on the cool and calm Villeneuve out in front. Scheckter got past Depailler on lap 10, while Alan Jones had got past Patrese and set his sights on Andretti (and you still hear people say there is no overtaking in Formula 1 - perhaps they only watch it on television!).

At the back of the field Laffite had given up the unequal struggle and retired, though Reutemann was still picking off the tail-enders and was behind Rebaque, but officially a whole lap down. Rebaque had been elbowed back by Pironi and Mass, but was still going well, and ahead of Fittipaldi, de Andelis, Stuck, Merzario, Watson and Daly, but a small fire broke out on Merzario's engine and put him out of the race. At 20 laps Villeneuve was still in full command, but Scheckter was pressing Jarier hard, but to no avail. Jones was up with Andretti and the two of them were close behind Depailler. Then came Patrese on his own, with Piquet, Pironi and Regazzoni having a nice little battle, and Mass and rebaque in close company. Fittipaldi retired with drive-shaft failure and Daly had been lapped by the leader. Then on lap 21 Piquet was forced to stop for a tyre change and almost immediately Reutemann stopped out on the circuit with yet another drive-shaft failure. Things now settled down for a bit, though Villeneuve had long been settled down in the lead. Jarier's earlier efforts were now having to be paid for as his tyres were badly worn and of them was setting up a nasty vibration.  Scheckter passed him on lap 29 and he then dell into the clutches of Depailler, Andretti, and Jones. At the back of the field Mass was also suffering from worn rear tyres and the Arrows was sliding its tail out earlier and earlier on the corners, so that Rebaque eventually got by. With Jarier dropping back the two Ferraris were now well out on their own, but Villeneuve was waiting for his team-leader. There was a very busy little foursome dicing for third place, with Depailler getting more and more angry with his fellow countryman who was refusing to succumb to pressure, while Jones was sizing up the World Champion and his Lotus. These four were runing in very close, and very fast company, and on lap 37 Andretti was ahead of Depailler, but on the next lap the Frenchman was ahead again, and o nthe next lap Jones out-smarted Andretti as they braked for the hairpin at the end of the bottom straight. He did this right in front of a large party of Saudi Arabian VIP's who were spectating at that point, which should earn Frank Williams' team a bonus from their sponsors, (and there are still people who claim there is no overtaking in Formula 1!). This was just as the half way point was reached, and Patrese dropped from seventh place when the front brakes failed on his Arrows car, letting Regazzoni and Pironi move up a place, yet to be lapped by the flying Villeneuve. However, Pironi dropped back and Regazzoni's negine began to misfire so the Rebaque was able to pass him and take over seventh place, albeit a lap behind the leader.

Jarier hung on as long as he could with the worrying vibration from one of his Tyrrell's tyres, but eventually went in to the pits on lap 46 to have all four changed, which left Depailler, Jones and Andretti still scrapping for third place and let Rebaque up to sixth place. Frequent visitors to the pits to change tyres and generally fiddle about in a hopeless fashion to try and find speed or reliability, or a little bit of both, were Watson (McLaren) and Stuck (ATS). Eventually Watson gave up with trouble in the fuel-injection system and Stuck spun and stalled and was push-started, which brought about the black flag and disqualification.

With 30 laps to go the finishing order looked settled, but Alan Jones had other ideas and he was pushing his Williams car just as hard as it would go, and keeping the pressure on Depailler's Ligier, while Andretti was still hanging on. On lap 61 this hard-charging trio were about to lap a gaggle of back-markers and that was all "Jonesy-boy" needed. When the dust had settled he was ahead of Depailler and firmly in third place. Jarier was back with them, but a lap behind due to his pit-stop, which would have confused anyone not paying proper attention. In the last stages Depailler's gearbox broke fourth gear and without it it was only a matter of time before Andretti got by, which he did on lap 76.

Rebaque's encouraging run ended ignominiously with eight laps to go when he fell over the Ensign while lapping it, and he and Daly were out of the race. Since his pit stop Jarier had worked his way past Pironi and de Angelis and was about to catch Rebaque, so he was now handed sixth place without any opposition. Pironi and de Angelis had had a slight coming-together, which later resulted in collapsed rear suspension on the Tyrrell and the Frenchman went straight-on at the corner before the pits. He was push-started and did another lap to retire at the pits though he was officially disqualified.

With contemptuous ease Villeneuve reeled off the remaining laps to complete a perfect Grand Prix victory; he made fastest practice lap, started from pole position on the grid, led from start to finish and netted a new lap record in doing so. You cannot improve on a performance like that, and exactly 12 months ago he threw away certain victory in this race by making a silly mistake. No mistakes this time for Gilles Villeneuve, he learns from his mistakes, and more than makes up for them. — D.S. J.

Long Beach Banter

If there had been a Driver of the Day award it would have undoubtedly gone to Alan Jones and the Williams FW06. A fine example of mind over matter and getting on with the racing.

An American newspaper has a LITS award, presented in politics by a "Little old Lady in Tennis Shoes" for outstanding un-achievements. If we had one in motor-racing it would surely have gone to the McLaren team.

It was sad to see Hector Rebaque robbed of a possible sixth place so near the end, for while he is unlikely to be a World Champion, such private-owner efforts against the hard world of FOCA deserve encouragement.

Racing on the streets has always been demanding, unlike racing on a clinical Autodrome, and the mechanical carnage is usually high, but those who succeed can consider it a job well done.

Including the Canadian GP at the end of last season Villeneuve has won three out of the last five Grand Prix races. Natural talent, luck or a good car? We shall see as time goes on.

Villeneuve and Reutemann were each fined 10,000 Swiss francs for infringement of rules. Better than being penalised a minute.