1978 United States Grand Prix East race report

Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) driving at the 1978 United States Grand Prix East, Watkins Glen.

Carlos Reutemann took a fourth win of the 1978 season

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Not a Lotus Day

Watkins Glen, October 1st

The United States Grand Prix, held at Watkins Glen, used to be one of the newer events on the calendar, starting in 1961 after trial events had been held on the Sebring airfield and at Riverside in California. Now in its eighteenth year at Watkins Glen the United States race is well established, though it does not seem to have developed the character of a classic event. The circuit lies in the hills above the small township of Watkins Glen in a very scenic part of the United States, north-west of New York and not far from the Canadian border. Held in the autumn the weather can be bitterly cold and it can even snow and threaten to cancel the meeting. It can rain to the extent that practice has to be cancelled, while the race itself can provide an end of season tenseness, with Championship results in the balance, or it can have an almost soporific, relaxed feel about it when the outcome seems irrelevant. Watkins Glen is a quiet provincial town for most of the year, but it comes to life with a vengeance at the beginning of October when the Grand Prix takes place. This year, with Mario Andretti already the 1978 World Champion, the Americans saw the event as more than a Grand Prix, it was an event at which to salute their World Champion, for though Andretti was born in Italy, he is considered by everyone to be a true-blue American and he himself goes along with that, living in Nazareth (Pennsylvania), not very far south of Watkins Glen.

Although the weather was mild and bright the Formula One “circus” brought its own cloud along in the form of a protest from a rather nebulous body who call themselves the Formula One Drivers Safety Committee. Such drivers as Fittipaldi, Lauda, Andretti and Hunt are involved and they requested the organisers to refuse the entry of Riccardo Patrese, suggesting that if he was allowed to take part they would withdraw. This followed the disastrous Monza accident which took the life of Ronnie Peterson, and was the culmination of growing unrest about Patrese’s driving, which has been under the surface all season. This apparent boycott of the young Italian was far from being unanimous amongst the drivers in the pit lane, but stemmed from the “upper echelons” only. Whatever the rights and wrongs are in the whole affair, which is discussed in detail elsewhere in this issue, there is seldom smoke without fire, and the result was that the Arrows team’s number one entry was withdrawn.

There were a number of changes amongst the teams, notably, of course, in Team Lotus. Colin Chapman insisted that Peterson’s racing number 6 should not be used by anyone else, and was all for entering only Andretti, but the Ecclestone rules do not allow for sentiment, and a second entry had to be made. This was going to be offered to the young Brazilian Nelson Piquet, but Ecclestone had already got him contracted, so the second Lotus 79 was offered to Jean-Pierre Jarier and he was given the racing number 55. The ATS cars were in the hands of Michael Bleekemolen and Rosberg, while the Surtees team had two new faces in it. Keegan’s place was taken by the little Frenchman Rene Arnoux, while Brambilla’s place was taken by Beppe Gabbiani. Brambilla is recovering slowly from his head injuries, received in the Monza accident when his Surtees struck the wayward Lotus of Peterson. The Wolf team had a second entry in the form of Bobby Rahal, an American who has been driving a Walter Wolf-sponsored Formula Three car this season. Ensign had a second entry in the hands of Brett Unger, who had forsaken his B&S Fabrications-prepared McLarens for this event. A last-minute entry was made for Piquet to drive a Brabham-Alfa Romeo, but the Brazilian did not appear, so only one of the 27 drivers was going to be left out of the race, the grid accepting 26 cars.


There had been a lot of snow at Watkins Glen last winter with the result that the track surface had deteriorated considerably in certain areas, notably into the uphill chicane and this immediately drew comments from the drivers that it was bumpier than ever, when they tried it out on the Thursday before official practice began. The Ferrari team felt forced to disconnect their fore-and-aft anti-roll bar coupling system and even Villeneuve viewed super-fast laps as being a bit “dodgy”, though not as much as driving a Can-Am car on the circuit, as he did earlier this season. The young French-Canadian was agreeably surprised with the way the Michelin-shod Ferrari coped with the bumpy circuit and from the word go of official practice he and Reutemann were well among the pacesetters; Reutemann actually made the fastest practice lap on Friday afternoon with a lap in 1 min. 39.179 sec. with Villeneuve not far behind with 1 min. 39.820 sec. Villeneuve was delayed on Friday with a broken exhaust, and on Saturday morning in the untirned session his gearbox broke. Neither he nor Reutemann improved on Saturday afternoon but their Friday times netted them second and fourth places overall. They were split by Alan Jones in the Williams, who was on great form in spite of a lurid crash on Friday afternoon in FW06/002 when a front stub axle broke; something that has happened before, but this time attributed to incorrect heat-treatment (or more accurately due to bad quality control or inspection somewhere along the line). In the spare car on Saturday afternoon Jones put in a splendid lap at 1 min. 39.742 sec. to take third place on the grid, in row two alongside Villeneuve. All these times and efforts were excellent but not within sight of the man on pole position. This, of course, was Mario Andretti. The Lotus 79 seemed glued to the track and there could hardly have been a more triumphant home-coming for the new World Champion than the way he dominated practice. He was fastest on Friday morning with a time of 1 min. 38.925 sec. but in the afternoon was troubled with unequal diameter rear tyres, which raises quite a big problem with the Lotus 79, running as it does with an almost solid rear axle. With the more normal 15% slip in the differential it is not too critical if one tyre grows more than the other when heated up, but with a very low percentage limited-slip it can upset the whole handling of the car. With a best of 1 min. 39.662 sec. Andretti had to give way to Reutemann in the afternoon, but on Saturday it all came right and he took pole position with a time of 1 min. 38.114 sec., more than a whole second faster than the leading Ferrari, which was alongside him on the front row. Andretti was really pleased with the Lotus 79, reckoning it to be better than it had been all season, and that is quite something.

Some of the Lotus magic rubbed off on Jean-Pierre Jarier, the rather abrupt young Frenchman being determined to salvage some of his reputation with these two outings as “stand in” at the wheel of the second Lotus 79. Jarier, whose reputation was forged originally with some superb performances at the wheel of a Shadow DN5, has had a hard time in the past year or two with a succession of disappointments. Fully realising that he was having something of a lucky break owing to sad and unfortunate circumstances, Jean-Pierre Jarier approached the whole business with a degree of humility. There was a lot of experimenting going on in the Lotus camp with different brake components, the purpose being to track down the problem that had afflicted Peterson’s last runs at the wheel of his 79. Jarier’s car started practice with Girling master cylinders, but these were snatched away for Andretti’s use, leaving Jarier with the earlier pattern Lockheed units. A “soft” pedal feel after two or three laps was eventually traced to a small hydraulic leak. By Saturday both cars were fitted with the latest Girling master cylinders as standard. In spite of these problems Jarier was consistently fast and ended up on the fourth row of the grid, with a time of 1 min. 40.034 sec., alongside John Watson in the latest Brabham-­Alfa Romeo. The Frenchman was delighted with the Lotus for it was everything that everyone had told him it would be and he reckoned it to be the best racing car he had ever driven. Had 79/3 not split an exhaust pipe at the end of the final hour he might well have got down into the elite 1 min. 39 sec. class. As it was the split lost him 500 r.p.m. off maximum and scorched the fibre-glass bodywork, but no damage was done.

Mario Andretti (Lotus) at the 1978 United States Grand Prix East, Watkins Glen.

Mario Andretti found himself on pole for the eighth time this season

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The Brabham-Alfa Romeo team were much fancied on the fast Watkins Glen circuit, but they did not shine as expected. The philosophical Lauda had done his best but it was only good enough for the third row of the grid, alongside James Hunt. The McLaren driver was bubbling with enthusiasm for the M26, as it seemed to be going better than it had done all season, though whether this was just “end of term” excitement we shall never know. Tambay was as depressed as Hunt was jubilant, the Frenchman being unable to get in the groove. He tried the spare car and found no improvement, so resigned himself to the fact that the fault lay with himself. He was driving M26/7 normally raced by Giacomelli, while his usual car M26/3 was the team spare. Watson had a brand new Brabham, number 8 in the BT 46 series, which felt very good, but just was not fast enough and he came closer than anyone to breaking into the elite class of sub-1 min. 40 sec. laps with a time of 1 min. 40.000 sec. on Friday afternoon.

In the Renault camp Jabouille began the weekend with high hopes for the French turbo V6. He started off at the wheel of RS01/02 in the first session of practice and recorded 1 min. 40.959 sec. before switching to RS01/03 for a comparison. In the afternoon he improved to 1 min. 40.136 sec. but then in the final hour on Saturday everything went wrong. Driving 02, for a start the anti-roll bar at the front broke, and then Jabouille had a spin at the bumpy right-­hander after the pits due to the brake pedal going “soft”. The nose-section and oil cooler were damaged as a result. The brake problem was traced to an hydraulic leak, but by then it was too late to stop his slide from sixth overall to ninth overall. At least the Renault team had some consolation in knowing they were first of the “regular Frogs”, and only a fraction behind Jarier’s guest performance in the Lotus 79. Jacques Laffite had been having a miserable time with the Ligier-Matra V12, the French engine manufacturer ending their Formula one activities on a sad note with two engine failures during Saturday practice. The engine broke in the newer of the two JS9 cars during the untimed practice, and Laffite took over the spare car JS9/01 but that blew up as well. Some really hard work by the Ligier mechanics got JS9/02 ready for the final hour, but Laffite failed to improve on his Friday time.

The Wolf team seemed to be coping pretty well with their two-car team, as a tryout for next year, though Scheckter’s grid position in row six was not very exciting, especially when looked at relative to the performance of Alan Jones and the Frank Williams car. Scheckter was driving the rebuilt WR6, now using a completely new monocoque, hence the numbering WR6-2, while Rahal was driving WR5, which Scheckter doesn’t like anyway. Rahal was getting to grips with the Wolf with a very smooth and restrained style and was well in among the regular back-markers, justifying his debut in Formula One. He made his best lap in the final hour, with the aid of a set of special Goodyear tyres, but right at the end of practice the Wolfs ignition unit failed and left him stranded out on the circuit.

The Tyrrell team performed as well as had become expected of them, both Depailler and Pironi being among the less-impressive mid-field runners. Emerson Fittipaldi was not as impressive as he has been in recent races, nothing being especially wrong, but he could not seem to get everything swinging along in unison. His best time of 1 min. 41.007 sec. saw him in row seven on the grid, alongside Hans Stuck in the Shadow who had been plagued by trouble. First he suffered a gearbox oil leak, which meant changing the complete unit, and then on the second day the oil tank split. Team-mate Regazzoni was as off-form as Tambay, and the two of them were side-by-side in row nine. The ATS team had completed a second car to the new D1 design, the first being destroyed in the testing accident at Silverstone which put Jochen Mass into hospital. This car was so new it had never been run before arriving at the circuit, but Rosberg did his best with it. A major problem with the steering arose on Saturday morning so he had to miss the final hour of timed practice. His team-mate Bleekemolen drove one of the older ATS cars, a 1977 Penske modified by March to become an ATS, and scraped onto the back row of the grid, alongside Merzario in his home-made car. Daly in the leading Ensign was not as far up the grid as one might expect, but he was ahead of his new team-mate Brett Lunger, who was finding the Ensign a very “light” car to drive after his McLarens. The Surtees team were in their usual place at the back of the grid, Arnoux qualifying fairly comfortably, but Gabbiani being the odd man out. He was not only a second slower than Merzario, but was seven seconds behind pole position, which meant he would have been lapped by Andretti every 14 laps.


Mario Andretti (Lotus) leads at the start of the 1978 United States Grand Prix East, Watkins Glen.

Andretti leads at the start

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Sunday morning, with a record crowd lining the circuit, Andretti’s day began badly, an omen of worse to come for the whole of Team Lotus. During the warm-up session in the morning Andretti was negotiating the third-gear left-hand bend out of the Chute when 79/4 broke the right rear stub-axle and the wheel came off. The car spun backwards into the guard rail and suffered considerable damage, though Andretti was quite a bit shaken. The Lotus Lads took 79/3 away from Jarier and fitted it out with all Andretti’s adjustments and settings in preparation for the race, leaving the Frenchman to drive 79/1 which had arrived that morning, untested and untried. Also in trouble was Hans Stuck, whose Shadow had its engine begin to seize up. His mechanics had to work against the clock to install a fresh Cosworth V8 in readiness for the 2.35 p.m. starting time. They managed it with ten minutes to spare, but Stuck was unable to do a warm-up lap.

By the time 25 cars were on the grid with Stuck in the pit lane the temperature had dropped quite considerably, but at least there was no sign of rain. They edged away on their pace-­lap and then Andretti raced away though the first few corners, throwing the Lotus 79 around as he tried to acclimatise himself to the handling of the unfamiliar car. He had made some long-shot adjustments and settings to the suspension, shockers, brakes, etc. before he took it out to the start. Although he led the field away into the first right-hander when the green light came on, he knew he had got problems. As he led the field out onto the back straight two of his problems were right behind him, in the form of the Ferraris of Reutemann and Villeneuve. On that opening lap Andretti was not getting away in true Lotus 79 style and the two Maranello cars were still with him as he completed it. In fourth place was the neat white and green Williams of Alan Jones, followed by Lauda, Jarier, Hunt, Watson, Scheckter, Depailler, Laffite, Jabouille, Rosberg, Tambay, Regazzoni, Pironi, Daly, Bleekemolen, Arnoux, Rahal, Merzario, Lunger, Stommelen and Fittipaldi. The Brazilian had dropped to the back of the field after cooking his clutch on the startline. Already retired was Rebaque who also had clutch trouble as he left the start, while right at the back came Stuck who had started the race from the pit lane, but returned there after one lap and retired with a failed mechanical fuel pump; a bitter reward for the Shadow mechanics’ lunchtime toil.

Into the second lap the Ferraris were closing on the black and gold Lotus and Andretti knew it was only a matter of time before they passed him. He was feeling none too confident about the brakes on the Lotus, the hardness of the pedal pressure was fluctuating and he was not prepared to use maximum braking effort. Sure enough, at the end of the back straight on the third lap Reutemann pulled alongside the Lotus under braking for the Loop and took the lead round the outside. Two corners later Villeneuve followed his team-leader’s move and went by into second place and from that point onwards the two Ferraris moved imperiously away in formation, leaving the frustrated Andretti unable to do anything about it. His “borrowed” Lotus was not as well balanced as his own car and he was having to take two or three “bites” at some of the corners, rather than throwing it in a well­-balanced attitude. These three runners had left the rest behind already but Alan Jones was doing a great job of keeping ahead of Lauda, Hunt, Watson, Depailler and the others. Jarier had dropped a couple of places on the second lap after a dust-raising slide at the right-hander after the pits, but was well ahead of the turbo Renault that had Scheckter’s Wolf snapping at its rear wheels. Rosberg had the new ATS up with them, and then there was a gap back to Tambay, Laffite, Pironi, Daly, Regazzoni, Arnoux and the rest. After seven laps Bleekemolen drew into the pits with his older ATS to say that the steering felt peculiar, but nothing could be found wrong and he rejoined the race in last place.

Apart from the race being one of the longer ones, at 320 kilometres, the track surface was not proving kind to tyres, especially the left fronts, and after only nine laps Watson relinquished his seventh place when he stopped at the pits to change the left-front tyre on his Brabham. When he rejoined the race he was in 22nd place! Two laps later Jarier was in similar trouble and his stop dropped him to 21st position, though he was behind Watson for the Ulsterman had moved up two places when Laffite joined Jarier in the pits also for a change of left-front tyre.

Patrick Tambay (McLaren) at the 1978 United States Grand Prix East, Watkins Glen.

Patrick claimed the final championship point in his blue McLaren

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Meanwhile the two Ferraris were cruising away into an impressive lead, having ten seconds advantage over Andretti by lap 15. The Lotus driver was being severely challenged by the Williams and inevitably the Australian went by the troubled Lotus on lap 21. This effort of getting Frank Williams’ car up into third place was doubly rewarded on the next lap for Villeneuve’s Ferrari went bang just beyond the pits and came to rest with an evil-looking mixture of oil and water pouring out of the exhaust pipes. Reutemann now had over half a minute lead from Jones, who was followed at a distance by Lauda, Hunt, Jabouille and Scheckter, but as a race the event was virtually over. Behind Scheckter came Tambay leading Fittipaldi, who had carved his way up through the back-markers in an impressive fashion, just as Jarier was doing since his pit-stop, using the Lotus 79 to the full. In the pits Stommelen was having the brakes on his Arrows bled, as he had overheated them, and Regazzoni had stopped for a tyre change. Rosberg’s run was cut short when the gear­linkage on the ATS failed and stranded him out on the circuit.

At 26 laps Hunt dropped out from his well­-earned fifth place in order to change the front tyres on his McLaren and then a great sigh of disappointment went up from the crowd as Jabouille appeared in fourth place with the Renault. Andretti had already been passed by Lauda, and now the Renault was in front, but worse than that the Lotus was coasting silently into the pits with smoke rising from the back. The engine had blown up and it was all over for the local hero. Hardly had the smoke disappeared than Lauda’s Alfa Romeo engine blew up and he joined Watson on the retirement list, for the Ulsterman had suffered the same fate only three laps before. It was a bad day for Bernie’s Boys.

From that point on the only real interest lay in the progress of Jarier and Fittipaldi, who were still moving up through the field. At the 35 laps point Reutemann was cruising along, conserving his tyres and not straining his engine, well ahead of Alan Jones, who was followed by Jabouille, Scheckter, Tambay, Jarier, Fittipaldi, and Pironi. The Tyrrell driver was fighting hard to keep Daly and Arnoux at bay. Then came Hunt, making up ground after his pit-stop, and Rahal who was fighting understeer on the Wolf WR5 and was blistering the palms of his hands in the process. Depailler’s Tyrrell was long gone by this stage, with drive-shaft trouble on lap 24.

Jarier’s progress back up the field was not interrupted by Tambay, who was no problem to the Lotus driver, but then the Lotus 79 was up behind Scheckter’s Wolf and for a while there was quite a good scrap. Scheckter was busily engaged in trying to get past the Renault, so Jarier had to find his own way by both of them if he could. The Wolf went by on lap 41 sounding a bit rough, but had lost none of its performance, as the noise was due to a split exhaust manifold. Out in front Reutemann was beginning to ease off, having the situation well in hand, and he let his advantage drop from over 35 seconds to around 25 seconds, the Argentinian coming up to lap Hunt’s McLaren but taking his time about doing so. In fact, he followed Hunt for seven laps before finally getting by at the end of the back straight. By 50 laps the jostling trio of Jabouille, Scheckter and Jarier was getting quite interesting but the Renault’s brakes were fading and eventually when the three cars sorted themselves out Jarier was third, Scheckter fourth and Jabouille fifth, the Renault dropping from third to fifth in about 300 yards. Alan Jones was very happy in second place, knowing he could do nothing about the leading Ferrari and the Williams was going really well. It was calculated that if Jarier could continue his pace with the Lotus 79 he might just catch the Williams by the end of the race, which was over 59 laps, but getting by would be another matter. However, this was not to be for suddenly the Lotus coughed and slowed and with only three laps left to run the black and gold car coasted to a stop; it had run right out of petrol and the heart-broken Jarier was out of the race. His performance had put him right back into the F1 drivers’ market and had gone a long way towards restoring a somewhat tarnished reputation, but whether it was the Lotus 79 that was flattering-to-deceive is, of course, a possibility!

All this drama was of little interest to the triumphant Reutemann, who finished the race a comfortable 20 seconds ahead of the worthy Alan Jones. It was the Argentinian’s fourth victory for the Scuderia Ferrari and as he crossed the finishing line he waved to his team in what might be described as a derisory manner, in view of the fact that they have replaced him for next season by Jody Scheckter. However, Colin Chapman was noting his new man’s victory with interest, for Reutemann is due to drive the second Lotus works car in 1979.

Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) celebrates winning the 1978 United States Grand Prix East, Watkins Glen.

Reutemann is jubilant on the podium

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The well-earned second place by Jones for the Frank Williams’ team was just reward for a lot of very good efforts during the season, and Frank’s face was one huge grin after it was all over and Jones was looking really contented. Scheckter finished in third place with the Wolfs right-hand exhaust pipe dangling over the drive-shaft, no doubt wondering what next year will bring when he leads the race-winning Ferrari team. Jabouille scraped home into fourth place, three seconds ahead of the charging Fittipaldi who would have caught the French car had there been one more lap for the Renault spluttered out of fuel after the finish. Tambay was also running short of petrol on the last lap, but stuttered home into sixth place ahead of Hunt, while Derek Daly was pleased to finish eighth and Arnoux brought a smile to the Surtees camp by finishing a trouble­free run. The remainder straggled home to end a race that was a bit of an anti-climax to what it looked like being, but Michelin were happy to have now won both United States Grand Prix events, this one very close to the home of Goodyear. – A.H.