The Formula One Scene

The 1978 season was proving to be a jolly good one until about midway when it all started to go wrong. It had opened with a most interesting collection of variables that were going to prove or disprove themselves as the year went on. World Champion Niki Lauda had left Ferrari and joined the Alfa Romeo powered Brabham team under Bernie Ecclestone, Ferrari had forsaken Goodyear and was contracted to Michelin, Tyrrell had abandoned Derek Gardner’s six-­wheeled concept and had got Maurice Phillippe to design a more conventional four-wheeler, Lotus had taken a big step forward in the “ground effects” theory and Peterson had joined them as number two to Andretti. The breakaway group at Shadow Cars had set up a new team called Arrows and Frank Williams had at last got sufficient financial backing, from Saudi Arabia, to enable him to put together a neat and tidy team, with a nice new car designed by Patrick Head; Alan Jones joined the team as the sole driver. In addition to all this there were one or two new teams trying to make the big step up into Formula One, such as the French Martini team.

Not surprisingly the first half of the season proved stimulating and very interesting. Peterson soon showed he had lost none of his driving skill, after being in a doldrum with the Tyrrell six­-wheeler, and Patrese and Villeneuve both showed they had the ability if not the experience to win races. The new Lotus 79 turned out to be the most beautiful Formula One car many of us had ever seen, and it went as well as it looked, and Michelin showed that they didn’t have a great deal to learn in their first Formula One season. Lauda looked as if he was going to try and win the World Championship again, without winning any races, by always finishing second or third. Races were taking place under a scene of joy and happiness, with little in the way of dispute or protest and the whole air of Formula One was sunny, even if the weather wasn’t. Then we came to Sweden and the controversial fan on the back of the Brabham-Alfa Romeos, and the sun went in. Nobody trusted anyone any more, anyone who did anything or suggested anything was wrong, the bitter argument between Don Nicholls of Shadow and Jack Oliver of the new Arrows team ended up in court, the German GP at the Hockenheimring was unpopular with a lot of people, BMW overstepped the mark with a dubious publicity move to profit from Formula One, there were starting line accidents, the Austrian GP literally fell apart and the European season ended with the catastrophic Italian GP at Monza and the death of Ronnie Peterson. The last two races, at Watkins Glen and Montreal, might just as well have not happened as far as the overall interest they generated. The season had gone on too long, from early January to nearly mid-October, the actors were weary, the supporting cast tired and the management were not really convinced about the overall scene. Perhaps it had all started off too well.

It is now all over and everyone is planning to start afresh next January 21st with the Argentine GP in Buenos Aires. Since the muddle of the summer there have been moves going on involving an awful lot of the regular Formula One drivers, so that in the brief respite before next year there is a great “musical chairs” act being carried out. Before discussing the moves it might be as well to mention those drivers who are staying faithful to the teams they have been with this year. Lauda is staying with the Ecclestone team, Pironi is staying with Team Tyrrell, Andretti is staying with Team Lotus, Tambay is staying with McLaren, Villeneuve is staying with Ferrari, Fittipaldi is naturally staying with his family team, Jabouille is staying with Renault, Laffite is staying with Ligier, Jones is staying with Williams and Patrese is staying with Arrows. On the “musical chairs” we were to have had Peterson taking over the number one spot at McLaren, but his untimely death has meant a change of plans, John Watson now moves to McLaren and the promising young Brazilian Nelson Piquet joins Lauda with the Brabham-­Alfa Romeos. James Hunt moves from McLaren to Walter Wolf Racing, as Jody Scheckter is taking over the number one spot at Ferrari. Reutemann is leaving Ferrari and joining Andretti at Team Lotus, and Depailler is leaving Tyrrell and joining Laffite in the Ligier team, as the French team intend to run two cars next season. Hans Stuck is leaving the Shadow team to join the German ATS team and Mass is to join the Arrows team alongside Patrese.

Within the Formula One Constructors’ Association there has been some pressure brought to bear on those teams who have been doing quite nicely with a single-car entry. They have been told to “get their act together next year”. In consequence Ligier, Wolf, Fittipaldi and Williams will try to run two-car teams next season. Ligier have already signed up Laffite and Depailler, Frank Williams has signed up Regazzoni to support Alan Jones, Wolf ran Bobby Rahal in a second car for the last two races of this season, and Fittipaldi has long wanted to run his compatriot Ingo Hoffmann in a second car.

Already the McLaren team have shown us their new car for 1979, the M28, while new cars are imminent from Tyrrell and Fittipaldi. Colin Chapman has promised us the Lotus 80 for South Africa next year, and caused consternation by saying that anyone who is copying the Lotus 79 is wasting their time because the Lotus 80 will be as far in advance of the 79 as that was of the 78! Logic suggests a car devoid of external aerodynamic devices, such as nose fins and rear aerofoil, and being in itself more of an aerodynamic device than the Lotus 79. We wait with eyebrows well raised. The support that Guy Ligier has received from Engins Matra has come to an end, the engine department of the French aerospace firm say they can no longer continue with the V12 Formula One engine. Reluctantly Ligier is having to become a customer for Cosworth DFV engines and the French are to find themselves back where they began, when Tyrrell ran the Matra-Cosworth for Jackie Stewart.

In the tyre world the entry by Michelin stirred things up and caused major changes. Goodyear fought an open battle with Firestone and Dunlop, for supremacy in Formula One, and won hands down. After a period of complete monopoly, during which they eased up on development progress, they have now had to get back to serious work which has meant concentrating on the more important job of winning races, rather than merely supplying tyres for everyone to race on. This they did effectively by winning 11 races to Michelin’s five, but the French firm were the moral victors for they won both American races, and the British (where Goodyear racing tyres are made) and also in Brazil where tyre competition in the normal business world is very strong. Before this season was very old Goodyear were producing special tyres for selected teams and drivers, and soon made it clear who they thought were going to win races for them. To put a stop to any acrimony and argument they openly pledged the fullest support to Andretti and Peterson (Lotus), Lauda and Watson (Brabham), Depailler (Tyrrell), Hunt (McLaren), Scheckter (Wolf) and Fittipaldi, the last-named more for non-racing business reasons than anything else. This meant that the chosen eight would get the best tyres that the Goodyear engineers could design for every circuit, with a wide variety to suit their cars and conditions, and this support would be free and at all times. When you realise that a racing tyre costs about £150 on average, and a set of four can be used up in three hard qualifying laps, it gives you some idea of the measure of support that Goodyear have been putting into Formula One. Of the rest of the runners it was made clear that they would all be given “regular” or “standard” racing tyres suitable for the conditions, and that the best two drivers on the first day of practice would get some special assistance, always free, for the final practice and for race day. As things turned out there were three drivers consistently ahead of the rest, and most times all three got extra help. These were Alan Jones (Williams), Laffite (Ligier) and Patrese (Arrows).

Goodyear have now announced their plans for next year; they intend to give full support to nine teams, who are (in alphabetical order) Arrows, Brabham, Fittipaldi, Ligier, Lotus, McLaren, Tyrrell, Williams and Wolf. Any other teams who want to use “regular” Goodyear racing tyres will in future have to buy them, at about £80 a cover. Presumably Ferrari and Renault will continue with Michelin, though whether the French firm will be interested in helping anyone else is not yet known. Hovering very closely in the wings is the Italian Pirelli firm who are all ready to join Formula One racing with the works Alfa Romeo car, if and when the state-owned firm decide to start Formula One racing. That Alfa Romeo have built and tested their own Formula One car, independent of the Brabham team, has been known for a long time and after it was photographed on test on the Alfa Romeo private track at Balocco, by someone “spying” from within, they came out in the open and released their own photos of the car, with Vittorio Brambilla driving it. Last August it appeared outside the factory for the first time when it was taken to the Paul Ricard circuit, in Southern France. A very strange thing happened: Niki Lauda drove it round the short test-circuit and pronounced it to be a useless waste of time! Now all the official development and testing by Brambilla had been done on Pirelli tyres designed especially for the car, but because of personal contracts, Lauda insisted on driving it on Goodyear tyres. It was hardly surprising that he was not enthralled. If you add to this the fact that the Lauda/Ecclestone-Brabham team are reliant on Alfa Romeo for engines, and bear in mind that another team using Alfa Romeo engines would jeopardise their supply, it is not surprising that they were not enthusiastic about the idea of Alfa Romeo running their own cars, for it is pretty obvious where any special engines would go. Without being too specific Lauda and Ecclestone let it be known that they considered the Alfa-Alfa to be a complete waste of time and suggested it would probably be abandoned. The European press took this up and without any official word from Alfa Romeo everyone was accepting that the project was still-born. At the Italian GP the Italian motor-racing enthusiasts were publicly blaming Lauda and Ecclestone for killing the Alfa-Alfa F1 before it had even raced. The new head-man of Alfa Romeo castigated the Press for spreading the idea forged by Lauda and Ecclestone, and publicly declared that testing was to continue and all being well an entry would be made in the Argentine GP next year. There the matter rests. One amusing aside that came from Lauda was his comment after someone said that Brambilla thought the Alfa-Alfa was very good. The devious little Austrian said that if Brambilla thought it was very good then the Surtees must be really awful!

Since the big accident at the start of the Italian GP there have been a number of repercussions. Immediately afterwards Hunt was blaming the whole business on Patrese, saying that he “barged” his way back into the closely packed field, which bounced Hunt’s McLaren into Peterson’s Lotus. The Lotus swooped right in a big arc, hit the guard rail and bounced back across the track and was struck by Brambilla’s Surtees. While Hunt was blaming Patrese, and Patrese and his team were saying it wasn’t true and there were no marks on the Arrows, Carlos Reutemann was saying that he was very angry with drivers who dart from one side of the track to the other immediately after the start, when cars are all so close to each other, and added that drivers like Scheckter should be penalised for being undisciplined. Studying a series of photographs (in colour) taken between the starting signal being given and a matter of yards before the collisions began it is clear what Reutemann was going on about. On the grid he was immediately behind Scheckter; in the next picture there is no change in position, but in the next Scheckter has dived across to his right, to tuck in behind Laffite’s Ligier, and there is empty track ahead of Reutemann’s Ferrari. In order to get behind the Ligier the Wolf has cut across the front of Hunt’s McLaren, and in the next picture Hunt is veering to the right. Just at that moment, Patrese, who had got a rolling start due to the mismanagement of the starter, is about to overtake Hunt, well within the half-track width. As he passes he has to swing out to the right as the McLaren is not running straight and true. What happened after that is dependent on drivers’ viewpoints, but in North America a lot of them were very “tight-lipped” when asked about the situation, while Patrese was adamant that he did not hit anyone at all. Unfortunately Riccardo Patrese has a rather quick temper and does not exude charm, like Tambay or Villeneuve, for example, so a lot of people put their own interpretations on anything he says or does, while the shady manoeuvrings by some members of the Arrows team, as evinced by the Law Courts, does not help matters. All season Patrese has been trying just a bit too hard and enthusiastically for his experience, like Scheckter when he started in Formula One, and James Hunt when he was in Formula Ford and Formula Three. He has been driving fast and with a lot of inherent skill, but a bit unruly at times, like elbowing Alan Jones off the track in Sweden, and tangling with Ertl at the start of the re-run Austrian GP and being involved with Pironi in Holland. He has not been as helpful as he might have been when faster drivers have wanted to overtake, and Lauda has complained that he weaves about on the straights. By the end of the season he was not the most popular driver in Formula One, especially amongst the reigning stars, for without doubt he was going to get in amongst them before long, and they already had Villeneuve in their midst which meant someone was going to be de-throned. All along there has been the feeling that Patrese wanted a good kick up the backside from someone, to make him cool-off a bit. At Watkins Glen he got it. A small group of the leading drivers who call themselves the Drivers’ Safety Committee, or some-such name, threatened to withdraw from the United States (East) Grand Prix if Patrese’s entry was accepted. After much hassle the Arrows team tactfully withdrew his entry. There was an obvious feeling that the Monza accident was being blamed on him and this was retribution. It was not his fault, but the suggestion sparked off the protest which had been simmering near the surface since mid-season. He raced at Montreal, in the Canadian GP, carefully keeping clear of any trouble and finished fourth. Perhaps he did need a kick up the backside, though whether it was done in the correct manner is a matter of opinion. – D.S.J.

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Record-breaking, if no longer fashionable, has not altogether disappeared from the motoring scene. A Ford Granada with a 2.1-litre diesel engine recently set the British National 24-hour record in Class D to 59.85 m.p.h., covering 1,436.63 miles. In all, 22 records fell, in the Class D and unlimited c.i. classes. The car was more-­or-less a standard Granada, running on alloy wheels shod with Michelin TRX tyres, and with an enlarged fuel tank. Fuel consumption was 27.6 m.p.g.

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The Vintage SCC’s Lakeland Trial is scheduled for November 11th.

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A 1932 Duesenberg SJ-261 Phaeton got itself into Newsweek recently because it was sold in Auburn, Indianapolis, for a record 235,000 dollars, to a young Boston stockbroker and his wife – who wished to remain anonymous “for security reasons!”

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The Chamberlain Special was running in a regularity contest at Australia’s Sandown circuit when it shed a front wheel, fortunately on a slow corner, after it had been pulling 5,000 r.p.m. (100 m.p.h.) along the straight. It has been given new stub-axles for both wheels, as the fatigue crack was obviously of long-standing. Mr. Alan Chamberlain is making good progress with his rebuild of the 1904 90 h.p. Napier “Samson”, which he hopes to run in British competitions next year.

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Firestone have issued a booklet, “Fifty Years at Brentford”, to commemorate the opening, in 1928, of their Brentford premises, which replaced a small office in Tottenham Court Road, where Firestone had established their first UK contacts in 1915. Firestone figures prominently in the new Paramount musical film “Grease”, set in the 1950s, and is using this association to promote its 70-series Wide-Oval tyres, known as “Stones”, aimed particularly at younger motorists interested in customising their cars.

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The Singer OC has recorded in its magazine the return to Le Mans of no fewer than 17 Singer Le Mans last June. Thirteen of them came from Britain, and they included a 1935 Fox & Nicholl 1 1/2-litre Le Mans model. There is good photographic coverage, and the exploits of Singers at Le Mans from 1933 to 1949 are recalled in a special article, which reminds us that 26 Singers raced at Le Mans and 14 completed the course. The current issue of the Citroen CC’s magazine Citroenian contains much twin-cylinder material – and the flat-twin Citroen is by no means dead! – and an account of a re-enactment of the route used by famous Citroen endurance-driver Lecot, by a 1938 Citroen Light-15 in 1971.