The rather shambolic race at Watkins Glen brought the 1979 season of Grand Prix racing to a close and whichever way you look at it, it has been one of the better seasons. There have been a whole spate of new cars and new engine developments, new teams have risen to the top, some old friends have sunk to the bottom and some disappeared altogether, two controversial ex-World Champions have moved on to other activities, but some shining new stars have risen to replace them. Hard work and devotion to the job have paid dividends this year and once again we have ended up with the anomaly of the driver who won most races not being acclaimed the World Champion. I will dispose of the World Championship for drivers briefly, in saying that it has been a load of nonsense since its inauguration in 1950, and with one or two exceptions has proved nothing worthwhile. For me, and a lot of people, a motor race is something to be won outright, there is little merit in winning a particular class or category and there is certainly no merit in coming second when winning is possible. In Grand Prix racing everyone is on an equal footing so the first man home is the winner; I really don’t see any point in making it more complicated than that. A journalistic colleague said to me recently that driver Y (not to be confused with W.B.’s Flying Officer X), had collared him after a race and said “Do you realise I scored a Championship point today?” I said to my friend “I hope you asked him what he was going to do with it?” ‘ — put it on the mantlepiece behind the clock probably! I think that driver believed that if he scored enough points he could become World Champion, I don’t think he was contemplating actually winning any races. At the moment we have two drivers whose only interest is finishing first, second isn’t good enough for them; they are Gilles Villeneuve and Alan Jones, the first is achieving results by a natural inborn gift, the second is achieving results by sheer hard work, determination and application. If you haven’t got the first attribute then the second will do, anything less is of little interest, which is why I have watched the steady rise of Villeneuve and Jones this year with a great deal of pleasure. I have also watched the rise of the Williams team with equal pleasure. The Ferrari team do not need to be watched, they are invariably at the top. The Renault team have been good to watch this year, even though they haven’t made the progress they deserve, but whenever I visited their pits there always seemed to be a happy and united atmosphere, and the same went for the Williams team and the Ferrari team. There was never any aggravation or gloom about the place, unlike some of the other teams. Now that Lauda has left the Brabham team and young Piquet has been given his freedom, along with a new car, I can see that team joining the happiness-stakes, and it is a simple fact of life that a happy team is a successful team. You only have to watch the way the mechanics grab a car as soon as it stops in the pit lane during practice, to wheel it back to the pit counter, or the way the team manager and engineer are waiting to plug in their intercoms to talk to the driver, or watch the mechanic in charge of tyres smiling and whistling as he rushes another load of wheels across the paddock to the Goodyear or Michelin depot, to see which team is on top of the world and on the front row of the grid. Happiness and enthusiasm breed happiness and enthusiasm and it’s the men at the top that start it all going, the driver, the engineer or the owner.
For those of us who cringe when they see a race-winner acting like a “yahoo” and wasting champagne by spraying it over everyone, it was really nice to see the Williams team behaving in a more seemly manner when they won. The team is backed financially by a multitude of business interests in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, like our own Royal Family, have a natural code of ethics and behaviour and Frank Williams and his team respect their ethics and behave accordingly. Alcohol in any form is not accepted by the Saudi Arabians, though they have no objection to other people drinking champagne, but to spray it over people is not exactly the behaviour expected of a Royal Family or its servants, and for that reason the Williams team try to accept their victories with a certain amount of decency and decorum. I, for one applaud Frank Williams and his sponsors, and I know I am not alone.
The past season has not been all happiness and light, but mostly the disagreeable things have been unimportant or irrelevant (except to the scandal and scare-mongers of Fleet Street). One or two people became pompously righteous about energy conservation, and tried to use it as a weapon against the threat of the turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre engine when it seriously challenged the unsupercharged 3-litre engines, especially the V8 Cosworth, but all they achieved was the knowledge that when it comes to the crunch the big manufacturers who are racing, namely Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, very quickly join forces. The same thing happened in Canada when Alfa Romeo were given a raw deal, so let us hope the “special builders” took note. It is odd that the loudest voices in any protest march seem to come from those at the back, you don’t hear the Renault people trying to get rid of the 3-litre engines, or the Williams people trying to get rid of 12-cylinder engines, or Ferrari trying to get rid of everybody!
This time last year we were all trying to get over the shock of the death of Ronnie Peterson, the tall blonde Swedish driver who could set the scene alight with his spirited driving. A number of people blamed a number of other people for the cause of the accident at Monza that cost Peterson his life and the acrimony and double-talk was all rather unpleasant. A group of the leading Formula One drivers instigated a personal attack on young Riccardo Patrese, the hot-headed Italian, and caused him to be banned from last year’s American Grand Prix, saying that if he was allowed to race then this handful of front-runners of the day would withdraw (two of them are now long-gone and forgotten). During the past summer the Italian courts investigated the Monza accident and at first laid the blame on James Hunt and Colin Chapman, then later came up with another pronouncement that laid the blame on Gianni Restelli, the man who started the race, and Riccardo Patrese, which was really rather remarkable if you have studied photographs of the situation leading up to the accident. At Watkins Glen, exactly one year after causing Patrese to be banned from the race, the drivers got together and signed a petition absolving Patrese from any blame in the Monza accident! Sometimes it is difficult to understand the workings of the human brain.
In Canada the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was re-constituted, this being a select club for current and active Formula One drivers, the intention being that it looks after their interests in Formula One racing, especially as regards safety and security. When it got going some years ago it was a hobby-horse for Joakim Bonnier and Jackie Stewart, and they did all the talking and virtually took all the decisions. It soon became something of a Trade Union with a powerful committee and a lot of disinterested members and when it was thrown open to any International Licence holder, in an attempt to gather in more revenue and to spread its influence further afield than Formula One, I joined, just to see what was going on. I was not at all impressed with what I saw and heard at the GPDA meetings and when poor old Bonnier was killed at Le Mans and Stewart withdrew from racing, the whole thing fizzled out and I was very relieved. Now it has sprung into life again, with Jody Scheckter as chairman and a committee comprising Fittipaldi, Jarier, Jones, Jabouille and Piquet. They say that the rest of the drivers have agreed to let this committee make any decisions they think that are necessary, so if there are any strikes, boycotts, new chicanes on fast corners, or circuits banned, we shall know who is responsible. In their first official hand-out given to the Press the opening sentence read “The Grand Prix drivers have reformed . . .” and I immediately thought, “Oh good! They are going to behave themselves.” Then I realised they meant “The Grand Prix drivers have re-formed the GPDA . . .” and I thought “Oh dear! Here we go again.”
By the time these words are being read it will be November and in just over two months the 1980 season will be under way, with the Argentine GP in Buenos Aires and hopefully the Brazilian GP to follow, but at the moment it is in some doubt. An old race has come back into the calendar in the Mexican GP, to be held two weeks after the United States (West) GP at Long Beach, and plans are progressing for an additional race at Las Vegas in November, so 1980 looks like being very busy indeed. Some teams are already well under way for next year, with fixed financial reserves and agreed team personnel, which includes drivers, engineers, mechanics and management. Ferrari and Renault do not anticipate any changes within their ranks, but most of the other teams are having a major or minor reshuffle somewhere along the line. Either the number two driver is being replaced or a designer is leaving, or the number one driver is moving to a different team, or sponsorship money is going somewhere else or coming from a different direction. At the time of writing everyone is avoiding telling the truth so there is little point in speculating and it is stupid to listen to what drivers have to say, as witness Niki Lauda saying he was leaving the Brabham team, then saying he was going to stay with them and finally walking out on them just as they got themselves re-organised. When practice begins for the Argentine GP we might be able to believe what we see; until then, apart from Ferrari and Renault, everyone is surrounded by hot-air. Doubtless, teams like Williams, Lotus and Brabham will be sorted out fairly soon, but some of the others may never get themselves sorted out, and some may disappear. Time will tell. – D.S.J.