Dramas favour Scheckter
Mosport Park, October 9th
Although plans are afoot to transfer the Canadian Grand Prix to a makeshift “road” circuit round the Canadian National Exhibition Centre in the middle of Toronto, this year’s race took place in the rural surroundings of Mosport Park some 7-miles away from the centre of the City. The cars came straight up from the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and many teams faced a busy week rebuilding damaged machinery from the American race.
March Engineering were faced with a problem after lan Scheckter crashed 771/2 beyond immediate repair at Watkins Glen, so they arranged to fly out the monocoque of 771/1 round which the mechanics built a fresh car for the South African to drive in Canada. Similarly Jones’ damaged Shadow was rebuilt round the repaired monocoque of Patrese’s DN8/5A which was damaged at Monza, but the Brabham team simply transferred Stuck over to their spare BT45/1B after he damaged BT45/3B in the American race, keeping their fingers crossed that they would not be requiring the luxury of a spare chassis.
Aside from the technical stuff, Mosport was the scene of a great deal of “political activity”. To start with the Ferrari team had originally entered three cars for the Canadian Grand Prix, the third one to be driven by French Canadian Formula Atlantic driver Gilles Villeneuve who made his Formula One debut driving a McLaren M23 in this year’s British Grand Prix. However, Lauda got involved in a very big row with Ferrari following the departure of his mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi at Watkins Glen; Coughi had expressed his desire to move with Lauda to Brabhams, so he was suspended immediately mid-way through the United States Grand Prix weekend. Lauda was also very cool towards the idea of the team running three cars at Mosport, he eventually informed team manager Nosetto that he would not be taking part in the race, leaving Villeneuve and Reutemann to uphold the Italian team’s reputation.
Leaving aside the long term implications of Lauda’s decision there is no doubt that it was a sad blow for the many spectators who turned out hoping to see the 1977 World Champion Driver in action. However, there were other aspects of the race taking many people’s attention, notably the bumpy, rutted state of the circuit and what were considered to be inadequate safety facilities. Despite a recent inspection by the CSI’s Safety Inspector, most of the drivers reckoned that the guard rails were inadequately installed and the spectator fences were less than adequate and there were meetings between the Constructors and organisers, the drivers and the organisers and the drivers and themselves to try and sort the whole business out.
The first day’s practice took place in bright and sunny, but very cool, weather with Andretti Immediately underlining that he was going to be the man to beat at the wheel of the Lotus 78. He finished the first session fastest on 1 min. 11.58 sec. and although James Hunt tried tremendously hard with the McLaren M26 he couldn’t get closer than a 1 min. 12.55 sec. best. But it was not practice times that dominated the conversation after the first hour and a half was over but reflection over how fortunate Ian Ashley had been to escape with minor injuries from a very big accident at the wheel of his Hesketh 308E.
Coming back up the hill towards the start/finish area, the Hesketh apparently went light at the front end as it crested the brow at the top and was immediately pitched skywards. The car somersaulted three times, flew over the guard rail and then totally demolished a tubular steel television tower which was fortunately unoccupied at the time. The engine was torn right off the back of the monocoque, all the wheels were detached but the fortunate driver was extricated after 40 minutes work by marshals and taken away to hospital with a broken ankle and two broken wrists. From this accident mushroomed another major bone of contention, this surrounding the lack of a permanent helicopter facility to fly injured drivers to hospital. The argument was eventually resolved when the organisers finally agreed to supply a helicopter for the remainder of the weekend, but the general tenor of the weekend was starting to degenerate into a major “slanging match” between the various factions involved rather than a motor race pure and simple.
Back on the circuit Hunt felt that he could have gone quicker if he hadn’t lost much of his first practice with a broken exhaust pipe, while McLaren fortunes looked quite promising with Mass finishing the first second third quickest although a 1 min. 13.48 sec. was a long way from Andretti’s “flier”. In the afternoon the “Racer’s racer” went even quicker, trimming his time down to 1 min. 11.385 sec. but Hunt was keeping with him and took the McLaren round in a 1 min. 11.942 sec. Although they were not to know it, rain would subsequently wash out the second day of practice leaving these two pace-setters sharing the front row of the starting grid of Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Mass had a spin into the guard rail at the first corner after the pits when something broke on his McLaren but the German driver had managed a 1 min. 13.116 sec. best before he did so which left him fifth in the overall standings. Third and fourth were the Swedes Ronnie Peterson (Tyrrell P34), showing something of a resurgence of his old form with 1 min. 12.750 sec., and Gunnar Nilsson with the second Lotus 78 on 1 min. 12.975 sec.
Despite several spins Depailler kept in sight of his team-mate with a good 1 min. 13.207 sec. lap while both the Shadow DN8s were going well in the hands of Jones and Patrese although the Australian driver felt that there was “something not quite right” somewhere in his rebuilt chassis. Jones’s best was 1 min. 13.347 sec. which was almost equalled by young Patrese, the Italian driver beginning to find his feet in Formula One and managing a respectable 1 min. 13.435 sec. in the process. Anxious to put on a good performance in front of his patron’s home crowd, Jody Scheckter managed a best of 1 min. 13.497 sec. in his Wolf WR1 during the afternoon session. His morning’s practice had been interrupted when a water rail broke on this car and he was forced to take over the spare WR2.
Amongst the 12-cylinder brigade there were few smiles to be seen, John Watson qualifying the fastest Brabham-Alfa Romeo on 1 min. 13.500 sec. which was just over three-tenths of a second quicker than Reutemann in the quicker of the two Ferraris. Villeneuve, in stark contrast to his impressive Silverstone outing, was struggling hard in Ferrari 312/030. He found the car extremely twitchy and difficult to drive when near the limit and although he diplomatically refrained from drawing a comparison with the M23 it was obvious that he wasn’t very happy. The current Ferrari has never been a desperately competitive car at Mosport, so perhaps Villeneuve will show more impressive form in future races. At the end of Friday he unfortunately blotted his copybook rather badly by spinning off as he went into the hairpin. His Ferrari ended up amongst the catch fencing with its right hand suspension units badly bent as well as ruined nose section and rear wing, but the Ferrari mechanics had the machine ready to go again on Saturday morning. His best time was a 1 min. 14.465 sec lap which didn’t put him as far up the grid as some of his more optimistic supporters predicted.
Jacques Laffite also swapped cars, using his spare Ligier-Matra JS7/03 after the engine broke on his race car 02 during Friday morning, but he was well in harness during the afternoon and recorded a 1 min. 13.739 sec. to head Stuck in the second Brabham BT45B (1 min. 13.953 sec.), Regazzoni’s Ensign MN07 (1 min. 13.999 sec.), Vittorio Brambilla’s Surtees TS19 (1 min. 14.229 sec.) and Tambay’s Ensign MN08 (1 min. 14.464 sec.). The last named had trouble in the first session with an engine that wouldn’t run properly but the mechanics fitted a different fuel metering cam, which improved things for the afternoon.
Engine failures plagued Fittipaldi’s Copersucar, Binder’s Surtees and Jabouille’s Renault during the first session and the French team ended the day in a very despondent frame of mind. All the delays in the practice schedule enabled the turbocharged V6 engined car to be made to an end after 30 laps with valve problems in the engine of his March, but by far the most spectacular retirement of the race came two laps later in the form of Keegan’s Hesketh.
Racing close behind Lunger’s McLaren, Keegan came up to lap Binder’s tail-end Surtees on lap 33 only for the Austrian driver to move over and give way to the American driver and then chop back into line without noticing Keegan behind him. The Surtees and Hesketh immediately tangled wheels, Keegan’s car flying up in the air before crashing down into the guard mil, virtually hod on. The young Southend driver emerged with a broken ankle and minor cuts; Binder was unhurt.
Although the race between the two leaders continued with tremendous spirit, there seemed little prospect of Andretti being deprived of his advantage by the pursuing McLaren. Hunt was maintaining the pressure, keeping the American ..on his toes” but that wasn’t enough to fluster the determined little driver from Nazareth, Pennsylvania. But there was one big chance available to Hunt. At their current rate of progress it was dot that they would lap Jochen Mass’s third place McLaren some way before the end of the race, to his team-mate might well prove decisive in determining the outcome of the race. Nobody could have foreseen just how prophetic those thoughts were to become!
At the end of lap 60, as they swung through the right hander before the pits, the order was Mass-Andretti-Hunt and, down into the hairpin, Andretti attempted to squeeze past the German driver. But Mass seemed to have appreciated the situation and Andretti got onto the dust and “all screwed up” as he made his effort to pass. Although Mass therefore stayed ahead of this tight trio, Hunt managed to pass Andretti as they came back up the hill towards the pits. The ruse had apparently worked and Hunt was leading the Grand Prix for the first time. All he now had to do was to lap his team-mate which shouldn’t have been so very difficult.
Through the pit area they went on lap 61 in the order Mass-Hunt-Andretti, down into the uphill right hand Turn Three where Mass moved to the outside of the corner, with the best intentions of waving James past on the inside line. Unfortunately Hunt had already decided to try the outside and as Mass moved over to the left the two McLarens collided, Hunt being pitched very violently into the retaining wall on the side of the track while Mass spun and resumed in fourth place. Hunt’s M26 was written off in the impact, its driver briefly trapped in the wreckage, and the whole incident effectively spoilt what might well have been a McLaren 1-2 finish.
Hunt was furious, storming back to the pits to complain violently that his team-mate had pushed him off the circuit. On the way back he attempted to cross the circuit and was restrained by a marshal; Hunt’s resultant impulsive response left the marshal on the ground, but it subsequently cost him over 2,000 dollars in fines for losing his temper and walking too close to the edge of the circuit. Meanwhile, Andretti led the race.
With under 20 laps left to run the incredible Lotus 78 driven by Andretti had lapped the entire field. But Chapman’s driver wasn’t taking any chances whatsoever. He dropped his maximum revs to 9,500, stayed well clear of the circuit edge on corners and even let Scheckter’s Wolf unlap itself. Barring misfortune, there was absolutely no way he would be caught before the finish.
However fate chose to wait until three laps from the end of the race to snatch yet another victory from Andretti. The Lotus’s Cosworth development engine blew up very suddenly, and violently, mid-way round its 77th lap and there was nothing left for Andretti to do but coast quietly into the pits and walk away from the scene.
That left Scheckter with a comfortable lead over Depailler, Brambilla, Patrese and Mass, but there was still more action to come. As he brought the stricken Lotus back to the pits, Andretti had dropped a swathe of oil round the racing line and it was this oil Patrese hit on a left hander not far before the pits on his 77th lap. The Shadow spun violently, careering off the circuit into the wreckage of Keegan’s Hesketh. Patrese leapt out unhurt, which was just as well for Brambilla crashed his Surtees into the wreckage next time round, throwing away third place in the process. Villeneuve spun without hitting anything, as did Ongais’s Penske, but the Ferrari driver broke a driveshaft as he tried to get underway again. Fortunately everybody missed him!
So the Canadian Grand Prix came to an anti-climactic finish with Scheckter delighting his tom patron Walter Wolf by scoring his third victory of the season, this time on “home soil’. for the Austrian-born Canadian entrant. Depailler took a good second place ahead of the determined Mass, while Jones and Tambay were classified ahead of Brambilla after steady runs. Eleven cars were classified at the end of the race, but only seven were actually moving by the time the chequered flag came out, the other two being Ongais and Ribceiro in seventh and eighth places. – A.H.