1979 United States Grand Prix (East) race report

1979 US GP East feature

Gilles Villeneuve won the final race of the season for Ferrari

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The Williams team gives it away

Watkins Glen, October 7th

As the United States (East) Grand Prix followed one week after the Canadian event in Montreal (reported elsewhere in this issue) it was a simple matter to load everything on transporters and trailers provided by the organisers and move the whole “circus” down to Watkins Glen, some 350 miles away. At the American circuit they were housed in an enormous hangar divided into individual bays, where the mechanics could start repairing the ravages of the previous weekend. The Wolf team had the biggest job as Rosberg’s practice accident had damaged the monocoque of WR9, so the bare monocoque from WR8 was flown out to Watkins Glen and with spare parts and bits from WR9 a new car was built up, which could only be called WR8/9. Study of the damaged monocoque showed a remarkable resistance to impact by the honeycomb material used and the construction of the monocoque and explains why Rosberg was able to step out unhurt. Most of the damage to the monocoque was caused by the front suspension members being torn out by the roots from their pick-up points. There were no major problems in any of the other teams so that all thirty entries were ready for Friday’s practice, and many of them took part in a free-for-all test session the day before.

With the bad winters in North America the Watkins Glen circuit suffers more than most and the bumps and cracks in the surface are getting very bad. Due to the increases in down-force achieved by some of the cars this year, spring rates have increased, giving harder suspension characteristics and this has accentuated the bumps in some places. While some drivers were moaning and talking of boycotting the place next year, others were getting on with devising techniques for dodging the worst bumps and keeping their feet on the pedals, especially the accelerator, over the faster bumpy parts. I hardly need add that Jones, Villeneuve and Piquet were getting on with the job and not “wingeing.”

The Watkins Glen circuit in the summertime may be tolerable, but in near winter and pouring rain it is awful, and heading fast for squalid, which is a pity because the shape and contours of the track are as good as they come, but once off the track you seem to be in a permanent sea of mud. And on Friday it rained.


The first untimed session was due at 10 a.m., by which time a steady rain was falling and most of the cars in the pit lane were under tarpaulins. There were no changes in the entry from Canada and the track licence permitted thirty cars to practice, but only 24 would qualify for the starting grid. As 18 of the entry ventured out in the rain it is easier to list those that did not go out at all. They were Andretti, Stuck, Ribeiro, Surer, Merzario, Patrese, neither of the Ligier drivers, neither of the Williams drivers, and neither of the regular Tyrrell drivers; they let Derek Daly be the guinea-pig! Nobody did anything heroic for there was nothing to gain other then experience, but poor Giacomelli crashed his V12 Alfa Romeo on his slowing-down lap when he hit a new sheet of water streaming across the track. Fortunately the car did not suffer too much damage and it was repairable.

When the timed session was due to begin at half-past twelve the rain was really pouring down and the first to venture out was Brambilla in his V12 Alfa Romeo, going round in 2 min. 25 sec. on a lap that is normally covered in under 1 min. 40 sec. After a short while he executed an enormous spin out of the right-hander leading on to the pits straight. He kept the engine going and the car came to rest in the middle of the track, pointing the right way, so he let in the clutch and carried on to a round of applause from everyone in the pits. Next time he appeared he was heading for the pits minus his rear aerofoil! He had spun again and wiped the aerofoil off on a barrier. For a time there was no further activity and the rain kept pouring down and paper cups floated by in the pit lane. Then a Cosworth V8 started up and to everyone’s surprise Reutemann set off into the rain in the spare Lotus (79/3) that he had raced in Canada. He went round once and returned to the pits, having seen all he wanted to, so he did not get a lap time and officially Brambilla was holding pole position! Then a Ferrari engine started up and we all cocked our ears. When we saw number 12 splashing its way down the pit lane we all sat up and took notice, for number 12 was Gilles Villeneuve.

His speed down the hill past the pits was phenomenal and mightily impressive. The flat-12 engine was well on song and the streams of water from the tyres were awe-inspiring and he seemed to be going as fast as some people had been going in the dry. What is more, the slope down past the pits leads into a falling-away right-angle bend. If it had been anyone else you would have deemed it foolhardy, but Villeneuve is fast becoming “superman”, in the wake of Stirling Moss and Jimmy Clark. He put in a lap of 2 min. 01.437 sec. in the pouring rain, and no matter how good the wet-weather Michelins are or how good the Ferrari is, it was impressive. This sort of thing you cannot see or appreciate by sitting in front of a television set, no matter how good the cameraman is.

1979 US GP East Jones

WIlliams’ Alan Jones took pole

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Next to go was Scheckter, and it is obvious that the Ferrari team were taking the whole scene very seriously. The 1979 World Champion went round in 2 min. 11.089 sec. and then another Cosworth V8 was heard warming up. It was the spare Williams that was being warmed up, ready for Alan Jones who had decided he had better find out about the conditions as it might be the same on Sunday. Huddled figures in green water-proof suits helped him out of his water-proof boots and ensured that he got into the car with dry racing shoes, while Frank Williams said “Just go however fast you feel like going” and Patrick Head, who had rejoined the team at this race, looked on with admiration, for there is nothing better for a designer than a driver who is prepared to have a go. The best wet-weather Goodyears were fitted to FW07/3 and as Jones set off into the unceasing rain there was a splutter and a popping from the Renault pit as mechanics started up the turbo-charged V6 of Renault RS12 for Arnoux; it was the same story as in the Williams team. Alan Jones was finding it impossible to give the Williams anything like full-throttle, even on the straights, for the rear wheels spun hopelessly even in top gear. Clearly Michelin had something over Goodyear when it came to really heavy rain. The best Jones could do was 2 min. 37.742 sec.

Hans Stuck did one lap in the ATS and came back saying it was impossible and Jan Lammers bravely did some slow laps. Meanwhile Scheckter had stopped and was trying to tell the organisers to cancel practice officially, but they were interested in watching the impressive Gilles Villeneuve who was still circulating. Arnoux did a few slow laps and then spun off and damaged a side-skirt, so that was that. Practice finished when the hour-and-a-half was up, not when Scheckter thought it should and afterwards Villeneuve was asked about his performance. His reply? “I could have gone faster, but I would have crashed.” And the rain poured down and was still pouring down when it got dark.

Next morning the weather was dry, very windy and turning very cold, so everyone prepared for snow to come next. “That’s all we need” said some people. “Villeneuve was Champion snow-mobile racer of Canada, he thinks nothing of sliding one of those things on snow at 100 m.p.h.” Luckily for the other 29 drivers the snow didn’t come and the sharp wind dried the track, and helped to dry the soggy tents and sleeping bags of the campers. The morning test-session was 10 minutes late in starting as some catch fences needed repairing after celebrities in Toyota coupes had practised for a publicity stunt. Everyone was soon out and thrashing round trying to make up for lost time, and many of those who had not even run their engines the day before were in trouble. Jabouille was in the spare Renault, Zunino had to change to the spare Brabham as his own car sprang a petrol leak, Regazzoni suffered a broken engine and was stranded out on the circuit, the Ensign broke the lower rear wishbone on the right-hand side, and Villeneuve’s Ferrari engine went sick with suspected valve trouble and was hurriedly rushed back to the workshop hangar to have another engine installed. Daly’s Tyrrell was towed in after practice finished having stopped out on the circuit when the fuel pump driving belt broke. Laffite had a wheel come off his Ligier without causing too much damage.

The last practice session began a bit late and it was now or never for a grid position, with six of the competitors guaranteed to be unlucky, but which six remained to be seen. The Ferrari mechanics had completed the engine change in Villeneuve’s car in an incredibly short space of time and he was all set to go. The Williams team decided to let Regazzoni use the spare car, (FW07/3) rather than attempt a rush engine change and Daly was in the spare Tyrrell (009/5) while his own car was being repaired in the pits. Jabouille was in RS14 and Reutemann was still in the spare Lotus (79/3). Piquet was in the spare Brabham (BT49/01) as his own car was down on power and needed an engine change, and everyone else was in order, including the two works Alfa Romeos. The pace had barely got under way before the chequered flag was waved and it all stopped. Pironi and Laffite had stopped out on the circuit and a breakdown lorry was sent out to tow them in; the Tyrrell had broken its engine and the Ligier had died with ignition failure. Laffite was able to take over the spare Ligier (JS11/04) but Pironi had to stand around and watch everyone else as Daly was out in the spare Tyrrell and the Irishman’s own car was still being screwed back together.

It was taking a long time for the front runners to really get going for the icy wind that was blowing was keeping tyres and brakes too cool for optimum performance. However, Jones and Villeneuve were the pace-setters, with Regazzoni doing his best to keep up, but the Renaults were comparatively slow, which was a surprise for they were very fast down the back straight. Piquet was beginning to shine in the Brabham-Cosworth V8 and his new team-mate was not disgracing himself. Andretti was having an awful time in his home Grand Prix, and was managing very few flying laps and then the engine broke pretty drastically with bits of valve gear in the inlet tracts. As Reutemann was using the spare Lotus it took some time to alter the pedals and seat of the Argentinian’s normal car (79/4) so that Andretti could drive it and even then he didn’t fit properly. Reutemann was so much happier in 79/3 as the monocoque was stiffer and it felt better over the bumps, and he was beginning to put in some encouraging lap times. Andretti’s task was pretty hopeless. Scheckter decided to try the spare Ferrari (038) to see if it would go any better than his own (040) and down at the Tyrrell pit they were preparing to call Jarier in and let Pironi have a go in his car.

Due to the late start and the delay to collect broken cars this timed session was extended until 2.30 p.m. and shortly after this announcement Zunino went flying through the catch fences at the corner before the pits. He was quite unhurt and equally undisturbed, blaming himself for an error of judgement. Up to this point he had made the very respectable time of 1 min. 38.509 sec., which compared well with Jones and Villeneuve who were in the 1 min. 36 sec. bracket, and he was actually seventh overall at the time of his crash. He was on a set of super-sticky special Goodyears, which was a new experience for him, and he was unable to discern when they were at their optimum temperature, which was made more difficult by the intense cold. He went too fast too soon. The gearbox on Watson’s McLaren broke and he had to transfer to the spare car, and then Pironi went out in Jarier’s car (009/3). After only a handful of laps he was back in the pits with the most evil looking mess of water and oil coming out of the inlet trumpets on the left-bank of cylinders and from the exhaust. While everyone was peering gloomily through the smoke Jarier roared away in Daly’s repaired Tyrrell (009/5) and the team began to feel they had lost control of the situation. The Rebaque had stopped out on the circuit as had Laffite’s Ligier, the French car having a minor fire around the inlet trumpets, but damage was slight. One couldn’t help thinking that perhaps two races on the trot at the end of the season was asking too much from over-worked machinery and over-worked teams.

While all these disasters were being enacted Alan Jones was going faster and faster and had out-distanced Villeneuve’s Ferrari comfortably, but a new combination was appearing on the scene. It was Nelson Piquet and the Brabham BT49, for Cosworth DFV power was beginning to show what has been wrong with the Ecclestone team these past few years. In the final count Jones was well over a second faster than his nearest rival, which proved to be Piquet who was a mere whisker ahead of Villeneuve, but it was enough to put the Brabham BT49 on the front row of the grid alongside the Williams and to relegate the Ferrari to the second row alongside Laffite’s Ligier. The new number two in the Brabham earned himself a big A (for effort) as he ended up ninth overall in only his second Grand Prix, well ahead of a lot of drivers who have been at it for a long time, perhaps too long in some cases.

Regazzoni did his best and ended up fifth overall, on the third row of the grid with Reutemann alongside him. Now that the Argentinian felt happy he was driving the way he should and while he was in a good sixth position it had to be realised that he was well over two seconds slower than Alan Jones! In the fourth row were the two Renaults, disappointingly well off the pace of the leaders. Only one Alfa Romeo qualified, that of Giacomelli; Brambilla was first reserve, the other non-qualifiers being Mass (Arrows A2/2), Lammers (Shadow DN9/4B), Rebaque (Rebaque HR 100-001, Ribeiro (Fittipaldi F6A-1/2) and Merzario (A204).


1979 US GP East start

Villeneuve leads in the wet

Motorsport Images

The rain had held off on Saturday and everyone had their fingers crossed for Sunday, but the morning dawned with ominous grey skies and a temperature that seemed hell-bent on dropping to freezing point. The pre-race warm-up half-hour should have taken place from 9.30 a.m. to 10 a.m. but a series of old-car club races delayed things and in the final one a car overturned and spread oil on the track and damaged the catch fencing, so there was more delay while the mess was cleared up. It was gone 11.30 a.m. before the track was open to the Grand Prix cars and with the start having been brought forward from 2.35 p.m. to 2.02 p.m. to satisfy the television moguls, time was going to be short for anyone who had last minute trouble. Piquet was back in his own car (BT49/02) while Zunino was using the spare car (BT49/01); Ken Tyrrell had got his three drivers back in their right cars, Reutemann was still in the spare Lotus (79/3) but Andretti was back in his own car (79/5). Everyone else was in their correct car, the usual enormous amount of work done on a Saturday evening rectifying the ravages of practice and taking precautionary measures against trouble in the race. Before the 30 minutes were run Jarier’s engine was in trouble and Villeneuve’s Ferrari had an incurable oil leak, so that the Tyrrell mechanics and the Ferrari mechanics had to accomplish engine changes in half the normal time and there were some dark words about “old cars” putting the schedule behind time and television making it even more difficult. By reason of incredible teamwork both cars were completed in time for the opening of the pit lane, but rain was already on its way. Some slight play in the front wheel bearings of Regazzoni’s Williams caused the team to change both front hub and upright assemblies, as a precautionary measure, otherwise everyone was ready to go. Patrese had tried Jochen Mass’ Arrows A2 as well as his own but decided he preferred his own.

Before anyone had left the pit lane the rain arrived and came down in a healthy downpour, so that most of the cars left on heavy treaded rain tyres. However, Ecclestone decided to gamble on the rain stopping pretty soon and he sent Piquet out on “dry” treadless tyres, and Colin Chapman took the same gamble with Andretti. By the way the rain was streaming across the track it seemed a bit of a futile gamble and put Piquet in a very dangerous situation as he was on the front row of the grid and would have precious little grip until the rain ceased. As it was his first time at Watkins Glen it seemed like sacrificing a lamb to appease the gods. On the way round to the grid both Zunino and Arnoux were in trouble on the water-logged surface, but both managed to gather things up without hitting anything. While the 24 starters were lining themselves up in orderly pairs the rain was pouring down and few of them could have been looking forward to the 59 laps ahead of them. As they set off on their pace-lap behind the Williams of Alan Jones the rain stopped bouncing off the track and turned to a light drizzle, but showed no sign of stopping altogether. They returned to the grid in orderly fashion, the red light came on and then the green light shone and all 24 cars disappeared in an enormous cloud of spray. Just before the spray enveloped them we could see Piquet’s Brabham virtually stationary with its “slick” tyres spinning helplessly, while Jones in the Williams shot forward with a streak of red close up behind and about to go by. Then the scene disappeared and it was a miracle that the Brabham wasn’t punted up the back by those behind. The awful weather was the biggest disappointment this season, for on a dry track we would have had a monumental few opening laps, with Jones, Piquet, Villeneuve, Laffite, Regazzoni and Reutemann in the first three rows. All “hard-chargers” more interested in racing than talking.

As it was, the weather and the big difference between Goodyear and Michelin wet-weather tyres put paid to any hopes for a battle, and Villeneuve made the most of the clear road ahead and pulled out an enormous lead over Alan Jones on the opening lap. He was so far ahead that his spray had settled and dispersed before the Williams arrived. Giacomelli did not complete the first lap, ending up off the track in the lone Alfa Romeo, while Scheckter was lucky to still be in the race. He had overtaken some cars before the first corner and then “lost it” and taken to the grass in a big way. Fortunately there was enough grass for him to skitter about on before he found his way back onto the track. Reutemann, Regazzoni and Laffite followed Alan Jones, but not for long as the Frenchman spun his Ligier at the end of lap four and finished up in the catch fences, only to find that Ickx had done the same thing with his Ligier on lap 2 and the two French cars were out of the race and parked within sight of each other! Scheckter was galloping through the field after his excursion onto the grass and by lap six was between the two Renaults in sixth place. By lap eight Jones had come to grips with the conditions and Villeneuve was no longer pulling away, the Williams seemed to have the measure of the Ferrari, but that was all. Reutemann had spun off the course on the previous lap when the dry-battery pack, that energises the fire-extinguisher system in the cockpit, fell from its mounting and dropped between the Argentinian’s knees just as he was taking a corner and the interruption to his concentration was enough to make him lose control of his Lotus. It gives you some idea of the knife-edge on which the leaders were balancing. Scheckter had now passed Jabouille’s Renault, so he moved up in fourth place and began to close up on Regazzoni. With the rain showing little sign of abating Lotus called Andretti in on lap 10 and put him on wet-weather tyres and two laps later Piquet was in at the Brabham pits for the same treatment; both of them had already been lapped by the leader. Scheckter took Regazzoni’s third place from him on lap 13 and the Swiss managed to hang on to the tail of the Ferrari for two laps, but no more. Down in midfield the blue Tyrrells had been running in formation, Jarier, Pironi and Daly, but the Irishman felt happy to go faster and overtook both of the Frenchmen. This obviously did not please Jarier and he speeded up and pressed Daly until they had a coming together on lap 19, which left Daly with a damaged skirt on the left-side and Jarier off the track and out of the race. Andretti had already disappeared from the scene when a tooth broke off fifth gear and jammed the selector mechanism in the gearbox.

1979 US GP East Arnoux

Rene Arnoux finished 2nd in his Renault

Motorsport Images

The rain had now stopped and the strong wind and the wide tyres were drying the track remarkably quickly, so that on lap 20 Scheckter stormed into the pits to change to “dry-weather” tyres and he was followed in by Regazzoni for the same reason, and then Rosberg brought the Wolf in for a tyre change. All these were done with the engines kept running, and Scheckter rejoined the race in fifth place, once more behind the two Renaults. The leaders had gone by before Regazzoni was back in the fray but he was in seventh place, behind Daly. The Wolf never went out again, for while the mechanics were changing the rear tyres they noticed some irreparable damage to the gearbox, occasioned by Rosberg having gone off the road on the lap on which he stopped, so the engine was switched off and that was that.


The situation now was that Villeneuve was still leading Jones and they were both using the wet parts of the track rather than the racing line which had dried out, to try and preserve their “wet-weather” tyres as long as possible, each waiting for the other to make a move towards the pits. The Ferrari driver was a bit anxious as the engine that had been installed just before the start was a practice one and not a meticulously prepared race-engine, and the oil pressure was not as high as he would have liked. Jones, on the contrary, was quite happy for all was well with his Williams-Cosworth. It began to look as though Scheckter and Regazzoni had changed tyres a bit too soon for they were not making up ground at all and Daly passed the Ferrari and Stuck in the ATS passed the Williams, and then Scheckter was lapped by the leaders. At 25 laps Jabouille disappeared from third place when the Renault engine failed and this let Arnoux up into third, while Daly was now fourth, though one lap behind. So the order was Villeneuve (Ferrari), Jones (Williams), Arnoux (Renault), Daly (Tyrrell), Scheckter (Ferrari), Stuck (ATS), Pironi (Tyrrell), Regazzoni (Williams), de Angelis (Shadow) and a long way back, but still in the race, Watson (McLaren), Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi), Surer (Ensign), Zunino (Brabham), Patrese (Arrows) and Piquet (Brabham).

At 29 laps Regazzoni appeared to suffer from brain-fade for he charged past Stuck going down the hill past the pits, not realising that Stuck was behind Piquet and that his overtaking manoeuvre was going to have to take two cars when there was only time and distance to overtake one car. It was a foregone conclusion that the Williams was going to go off the road, and so it was, but not before it had punted the Brabham up the back. Pironi and de Angelis stopped for “dry” tyres, then Watson did likewise and Piquet as well. The track was now nearly completely dry and Jones was right up the tail of the Ferrari as they started lap 32 and before the end of the lap he had gone by into the lead. They had lapped Arnoux and were now on their own and searching desperately for damp patches to cool their overheating tyres. At the end of lap 34 Jones went by on his own and Villeneuve headed down the pit lane. In something like 20 seconds he was on his way again, still in second place and the Williams mechanics were standing at the ready awaiting the arrival of their man. They had rigged up a tubular gantry to carry the air-line for the outside front wheel well clear of the front of the car, and all four wheel-nut spanners were held at the ready.

At the end of lap 36 the green and white Williams could be seen heading for the pits and everyone was tense to equal or beat the Ferrari team’s 20 second stop. The quick-lift jacks slid under the front and rear, the wheel-nut spanners chattered, the car was up in the air, the old wheels were off, the new ones were on, but . . . the right rear hub-nut had not spun off instantly, it had tended to seize on the threaded hub, and this put the mechanics on that wheel a few seconds behind the other three. Jones had the engine revving, three of the mechanics jumped clear of their wheels, arms raised, the jacks started going down but the mechanics on the fatal right rear wheel were still a few seconds behind and as the car touched down and the jacks slid away Jones let in the clutch and was gone before the nut on the right-rear wheel had been locked tight. It was too late to stop him and despair overtook the team for they knew that only a miracle could keep that wheel-nut in place. In no time at all the circuit radio announced that the wheel had come off and the Williams had skated to rest on the grass verge. The Williams team had made a complete **** up, and given the race to Ferrari. For the first time for a very long while the boys in green and white packed up all their gear before the race was over. Not since the Belgian GP at Zolder last May had the Williams team failed to have at least one of their cars running at the end of a race. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Jones would have beaten the Ferrari on the dry track, and as it turned out with the Ferrari oil pressure fading fast it would have been easy. But the facts were that Villeneuve was now unchallenged, though as yet no-one other than he knew about the fading oil pressure.

Scheckter had overtaken Arnoux, while Daly and Stuck had stopped for “dry” tyres and once Jones was out Villeneuve eased right back and let the second and third cars unlap themselves, though Arnoux stopped to change tyres which immediately put him a lap behind again. It was now all over, with Villeneuve almost a lap ahead of Scheckter, the Renault in third place, followed by Pironi, Daly, de Angelis, Stuck and the rest. Although he was a long way behind Piquet was driving the Brabham BT49 very hard, and recorded the fastest lap of the race on lap 51. His new team-mate had spun off the track and bent the right front suspension, the Ensign had broken its engine and the lone Arrows had broken the rear suspension. On lap 49 Scheckter had the left rear tyre burst and the flailing rubber damaged the rear suspension as he kept the car under control and pulled off the track. All this time Daly was struggling with unbalanced handling on his Tyrrell and was getting tired and on lap 53 the car got away from him and he spun out of the race. With only five laps to go a drive-shaft broke on Piquet’s Brabham and he pulled off the track, leaving only seven cars still running. Villeneuve had been going slower and slower and when he let Pironi, de Angelis and Stuck go by, to put themselves back on the same lap as the Ferrari, it was pretty obvious that the French-Canadian was in real trouble. With an unchallenged victory in front of him it was natural to ease the pace, but he had eased more than was reasonable. To the great joy of the many Ferrari fans in North America he nursed the car home to the chequered flag, comfortably ahead of Arnoux’s Renault and Pironi’s Tyrrell-Cosworth. Three different makes, three different engines and three different nationalities of teams in the first three, which was a fitting way to wind up the 1979 season of Formula One motor-racing, as distinct from driver-racing.

Afterwards Villeneuve explained that his oil-pressure had been falling for the last 25 laps of the race and he had really nursed the engine to the finish, otherwise he’d had no problems. He said how he had gone into the first corner from the start side-by-side with Alan Jones and had nearly “lost it”. When asked how many more times he had nearly “lost it”, he replied with a grin “every lap”. At the Canadian GP he had said “In Formula One you should always be driving right on the limit, but sometimes, you have to stick your neck out a little bit more”. I can recall drivers like Fangio, Moss and Clark saying things like that!

1979 US GP East Podium

Villeneuve celebrates his win on the podium

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To finish up the 1979 season and to look forward to the 1980 season Gilles Villeneuve said he was signed up with Ferrari for next year and went on to say “I like them and they seem to like me”. The understatement of the year. But Alan Jones and Nelson Piquet have no intention of letting him win everything in 1980, and the Williams team are 100% behind their rugged Australian, while Gordon Murray and the Brabham team will make sure that the quiet little Brazilian driver gets the best.

It all starts up again in January 1980. Not long to wait! — D.S.J.