1979 Canadian Grand Prix race report
A Race to the Finish
Montreal, September 30th
Last year the Canadians organised a re-vitalised Grand Prix on a temporary circuit around the roads on an island in the St Lawrence river where it passes through Montreal. The fact that the home-town boy Gilles Villeneuve won it for Ferrari was eminently satisfactory for all concerned, but two features seemed to mar the event, one being the tightness of some of the ess-bends and the other the freezing cold weather. For this year the organisers rebuilt two of the worst ess-bends, making them faster and more interesting, but they could not guarantee to do anything about the freezing cold. However, the weatherman obviously approved of the track alterations for he rebuilt the weather pattern completely, and though mornings were grey and gloomy, afternoons were bathed in beautiful sunshine and at times it was positively warm.
More than the usual number of teams and cars turned up, which immediately posed problems, for the circuit was licensed for twenty-eight cars for practice with twenty-four for the race. In addition to all the regular entries Alfa Romeo arrived with two cars, and Tyrrell and Fittipaldi both entered an extra car, the “wood-yard” cars numbering three, and the Brazilian team entering two. This made a total of thirty so an half-hour of pre-practice qualifying was arranged for Daly (Tyrrell), Ribeiro (Fittipaldi) and Giacomelli and Brambilla with the Alfa Romeos. Not unnaturally the factory Alfa Romeo team were a bit incensed at being bracketed with a couple of drivers from two “no-hoper” teams who seemed quite unjustified at entering an extra car. If Williams, Renault or Ferrari had decided to enter an extra car it would have made sense, but neither Tyrrell nor Fittipaldi have exactly been pace-makers this season, and to penalise the works Alfa Romeos with these two entries made little sense. Alfa Romeo made it clear that they had no intention of suffering the indignity of pre-qualifying with a couple of “rabbits”, whereupon the organisers cancelled the pre-qualifying half-hour with little or no warning and stated that the Tyrrell and the Fittipaldi cars could take part in the official practice and the two Alfa Romeos were barred from practice; and thus it was on Friday, with the two red cars from Milan sitting in the pit road but prevented from running, while the two “no-hopers” took part. Not unnaturally there was a lot of table-thumping and FOCA and FISA meetings, and one point that came out loud and clear was that Ferrari and Renault were strongly on the side of Alfa Romeo. A compromise was made and one Alfa Romeo was permitted to take part in the second day of practice, the decision as to which one being left to the Alfa Romeo team. By mutual agreement they decided it would be Brambilla and that Giacomelli would stand down, but the whole affair was a classic example of mismanagement and bungling on the part of all concerned, and shows a sorry state of affairs in the mentality of those responsible for the running of Formula One when two small private teams, neither of whom win races, are allowed to foul up the efforts of a major manufacturer.
Due to one thing and another the Friday morning test-session was late in starting and everyone was fidgeting to get on with it because there had been no previous use of the circuit, for like Monaco and Long Beach, it is a once-a-year affair. While everyone else got stuck in, the Alfa Romeo team had to stand around and watch and could not have been pleased to see Team Tyrrell playing around with a television camera fixed to Daly’s car! While the circuit does have some fast corners the slow ones are more important and suspension systems and handling characteristics that would encourage the car to change direction quickly and accurately were all-important. Villeneuve started the day with a forward-mounted rear aerofoil, as used at Long Beach, but after a while returned to the more conventional one. Patrese was driving his modified Arrows A2, as was Jochen Mass, but the Italian had every intention of putting in some serious practice with the old Arrows A1 that he had driven in the Imola race, as it seemed better on slow corners, not that the A2 is all that good on fast corners.
The Brabham team had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Niki Lauda to drive the new Cosworth-powered BT49, for up to this point he had not even sat in the car, let alone driven it. His interest was such that he had never even been to the factory to see the new cars being built! In direct contrast Nelson Piquet had hardly let the new design out of his sight; had done all the test-driving and couldn’t wait to start racing the car. It was a classic example of one driver on the way down and the other on the way up. As it turned out Lauda drove ten laps in the brand new car BT49/03 and then sloped off to his hotel, leaving Bernie Ecclestone to circulate a bare-faced lie that the Austrian was unwell. In truth (though truth is hard to find in Formula One) Niki Lauda had just “done a James Hunt” and walked out on the world that had been giving him a good livelihood these past few years – it is a world that had also tried to kill him, and failed, but that is a calculated risk that a racing driver takes when he commits himself to motor racing. It was not until the afternoon that it was officially admitted that Lauda had retired from Formula One racing and broken his contract with the Brabham team. The Brabham mechanics who had worked night and day to build the new team of BT49 cars were not amused, but took some solace from the energy and enthusiasm, to say nothing of the skill, of Nelson Piquet. Quite by chance (would you believe!) the Argentinian driver Ricardo Zunino was in Montreal and with difficulty the entry for Brabham number 5 was instantly changed from Lauda to Zuninio!
When we had finally disposed of the “hoo-hah” over Alfa Romeo and the disappearance of Niki Lauda, we could take serious stock of the situation leading up to the Canadian GP. It was no surprise to see Williams and Ferrari up at the front battling away, but the circuit did not suit the Renaults with so many low-speed corners. Unlike some teams, who “whinge” about the unfairness of the turbo-charged Renaults when they are on fast open circuits, the Renault team were not “whingeing” about the unfairness of the Canadian circuit which so obviously suited the Ferraris and the Cosworth-powered cars. Apart from low-speed pick-up, which is still inferior to their rivals, the Renaults were facing brake problems, especially with full petrol tanks when the weight was at maximum. The AP-Lockheed technicians were working closely with the French team to overcome their problems, concentrating on getting rid of the heat build-up under braking. On this circuit with numerous short sharp dashes between heavy brake applications Renault were not the only ones facing problems and most cars were using bigger air-cooling ducts or additional ones, some designed into the system, others merely tacked on hopefully. McLaren had scoops on the rear of the engine cover that bifurcated to feed air down each side of the inboard rear discs as well as enormous front scoops, while Williams added flexible hose to feed cooling air to the calipers themselves. Before the end of the hour’s test session the engine in Watson’s McLaren had failed and he was using the spare car, while Villeneuve had reverted to the rearward aerofoil mounting.
The afternoon timed practice period of one and a half hours was put back 30 minutes due to the late start in the morning, but when it got under way the two Alfa Romeos were forced to remain in the pits once more, while the arguments continued behind the scenes. Alan Jones now set the pace officially and the only other driver to get near him was his own team-mate Regazzoni and it was interesting to note the designer Patrick Head was not present, leaving the team in the competent hands of his two young technical assistants Neil Oatley and Frank Dernie, the former looking after Regazzoni and the latter looking after Jones, with Frank Williams overseeing the whole operation. Jacques Laffite was obviously in good form and the two Ferrari drivers were hard at it, but after a while Villeneuve’s engine showed signs of losing power so he took over the spare car, which was in T4B form, as it appeared at Monza, with outboard rear brakes. The water injectors to the rear brake ducts on the Wolf were replaced with a different type, and Renault experimented with a different shape of rear aerofoil on the new car being driven by Jabouille. With Lauda sloping off to the other side of America to “get away from it all” the Brabham team stuffed Zunino into car number 5 and threw him into the deep end. Not being fully prepared for this he wore Lauda’s helmet and overalls which confused a lot of people, and as Piquet was using a new type of helmet coloured white instead of the familiar red and white it was not surprising that the Brabham team personnel looked a bit bewildered by it all. However, Piquet’s driving was not bewildering and he was making terrific progress with the new car, ending the afternoon in sixth place, right in there with the Ferraris.
As no one was in the same bracket as Alan Jones the Williams team could afford to stop serious practice early and let him go out in the spare car to bed in a new crownwheel and pinion assembly. Merzario’s practice ended early unintentionally when the right rear hub broke and Reutemann and Andretti both ran out of petrol near the end of practice. Watson had to spend the afternoon in the less competitive spare McLaren, so that Tambay was much the faster of the two. Reutemann had tried the spare Lotus (79/3) and found he preferred it to his own car (79/4) but as it was supposed to be Andretti’s spare car there was a bit of tension in the camp when he said he wanted to use it for the race.
While everyone “clucked” and “fussed” over the disappearance of Niki Lauda, some people hardly noticed that Alan Jones had lapped at 1 min. 30.625 sec., when a reasonable estimate for the revised circuit had been about 1 min. 32 sec. Nor did they seem to notice that dear old “Regga”, who is totally disregarded by many people, was second fastest with 1 min. 31.577 sec., and no matter how good the car is you’ve still got to drive it to be that near the front.
Saturday morning was grey and gloomy, but at least it was dry and not too cold and the “common round” began again at 10 a.m. for another untimed hour. Engines were hardly being looked at anywhere, but brake pads came in for a lot of scrutiny all along the pits. Patrese was trying the old Arrows A1 as it seemed more happy at dodging about through the tight ess-bends, which were loosely referred to as “chicanes”. Zunino was now dressed in his own gear, and after only ten laps the previous afternoon he was now getting down to some serious learning. Reutemann was back in 79/4, but was more interested in 79/3 and Alan Jones was trying the spare Williams, Villeneuve had a new engine in his Ferrari (041) and the “muletta” T4B had been rebuilt to T4 spec. with inboard rear brakes. With permission now granted for one car to practice, Alfa Romeo sent Brambilla out in the brand new V12 car. This meant that 29 cars were to be allowed to practise and already Scheckter was beginning to flaunt his role as next year’s reigning World Champion (don’t forget Andretti wears the crown until the end of this season) by stamping about the pits saying there were too many cars out on the track. Nobody seemed very interested in his views, and anyway there was only 28 drivers taking part as the Wolf was undergoing numerous mods away in the garages and Rosberg did not have a spare car. As the test hour ended Piquet’s Brabham BT49 proved very reluctant to start as the fuel system was playing tricks.
Whether it was the thirty entries that had turned up, or Alfa Romeo’s refusal to be messed about like “rabbits”, or Lauda’s walkout, something seemed to have upset the smooth running of the organisation. In the regulations they had stated that the race would be over 74 laps, but then changed it to 70 laps at the last minute, and now stated categorically that it would be over 72 laps. At the end of the Friday timed session it had taken a long time for results to be issued and when they were, four of the times were hopelessly wrong. By the time the corrected results were produced it was nearly dark. As there were races also being run for National Category Formula Atlantic, Formula Ford, Formula Honda Civic(!) and mixed sports and GT cars, one could be excused for thinking perhaps they were trying to do too much on a temporary circuit.
Saturday afternoon started grey and cool but got progressively warmer, and was crucial to those teams out to win the Canadian GP, for somehow the Williams stranglehold on the front row of the grid had to be broken. As no team was more determined to win than Frank’s Boys it was not going to be easy. Jones started the afternoon in the spare Williams to do some full-tank test running as time had run out in the morning, and that done he got into his own car and defended his pole-position in no mean manner. Jabouille was using the spare Renault (RS10) as the engine in his new car was showing signs of tiredness, while Patrese was settled in the old Arrows A1. To try and help Mass with the A2 the rear aerofoil had been removed completely, hoping that this would alleviate the inherent under-steer, but it seemed like they were “clutching at straws”. Mechanical problems caused both Daly and Watson to take to their team’s spare cars, and after everyone was well underway Rosberg appeared in the Wolf and after only a handful of laps he sailed off the road into the guard-rails in a totally inexplicable manner, the only rational decision being that he was trying too hard too soon. The front of the car was a total write-off and the Finn was lucky to escape unhurt. This stopped practice for nearly three-quarters of an hour, not only to remove the damaged Wolf but also to repair the guard-rails.
When practice resumed Watson was back in his proper McLaren, but Daly, Jabouille and Patrese were still in the spare cars. Then Piquet had to resort to the spare Brabham BT49 while his own car’s fuel system was looked into, and then trouble in the Ligier team put Ickx into their spare car. With 30 minutes still to go Alan Jones had recorded an official 1 min. 29.892 sec., the only driver to get below 1 min. 30 sec., but Regazzoni was fighting hard to stay on the front row as both Villeneuve and Piquet were giving him a bad time. He improved on his Friday time but so did Villeneuve and Piquet on theirs. Finally the “local hero” snatched second place from “the old Bandit” and “quiet Nelson” was right up the Williams tail. While all this had been going on “Jonesy-boy” had been sitting in the pits watching, with his timekeepers keeping him informed as to how close the opposition was getting. Villeneuve was still over half-a-second away, but you cannot underestimate the spritely young French-Canadian, and equally you cannot underestimate the rapidly rising young Brazilian in the Brabham team. Just in case, or as a warning of intent, Jones went out again for a few laps as practice drew to a close, but he needn’t have worried, pole-position was well and truly his, as once again he was in a class of his own. However, Villeneuve was alongside him on the grid and in the second row Regazzoni had Piquet uncomfortably close alongside. To get a brand new design onto the second row so soon shows great ability for the designer Gordon Murray, but no praise can be too great for Piquet, for apart from the car being new he had to make the change from Alfa Romeo V12 characteristics and power to those of the Cosworth DFV, and behind him was a whole line of drivers who have been using Cosworth power all year, and some for many years. Alex Ribeiro in the second Fittipaldi wears the slogan “Jesus Saves” on his helmet; if the Brabham team need a slogan they should use “Nelson Saves”.
While all this was happening up at the front of the grid there were two good efforts down near the back, for Brambilla had qualified eighteenth in his first try with the V12 Alfa Romeo and with only one day of practice, and Zunino of nineteenth on his first Grand Prix appearance. The fastest 24 were accepted for the race, so both were comfortably in. A good mid-field effort was that of Stuck with the ATS, who was in row six. The team had done some useful testing in England and modified the car in details to make it more “dodgeable” and suited to the wiggly Montreal circuit, and had obviously done things about right.
Each morning in Montreal the weather had been getting worse, though not actually breaking, but Sunday morning was the worst and rain seemed inevitable; fortune was on the side of Formula One and not only did the rain hold off but by midday conditions were improving rapidly and a lovely autumn afternoon was blossoming. Warm-up time was from 10 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. and Mass was allowed out in the Arrows A2 as first reserve, just in case anyone had last-minute trouble. Reutemann was being allowed to race Andretti’s spare Lotus (79/3), Piquet’s fuel system trouble had been sorted out on Brabham BT49/02 and Jabouille’s new Renault (RS14) was all set to go with a new engine installed. With Ribeiro not qualifying Fittipaldi had his second F6A standing by as spare, and Alfa Romeo had prepared Giacomelli’s car as a stand-by for Brambilla. Patrese was in the old Arrows A1, and quite happy about it and everyone else was in correct order.
The start was due at the odd time of 2.20 p.m. and the race was to be over 72 laps. As the cars were driven off from the pits to do a lap and line up on the grid the sun was shining and all was set for a good race. At the end of the warm-up lap Patrese, Tambay, Watson, Villeneuve, Jabouille, de Angelis, Reutemann and Regazzoni all went through the pit lane, to stop for some minor adjustment, or merely to profit from another lap of the circuit. All 24 cars were nicely lined up and Alan Jones led them away on the parade lap of the circuit, keeping the pace down and the pack orderly, so that they were all correctly positioned when the red light glowed. As it disappeared and the filament in the green light began to glow Villeneuve was gone, and likewise Scheckter made a good start from the fifth row and took to the grass on the left to go past Jabouille’s Renault. As Villeneuve powered into the first right-hand bend Jones was in behind him and the two hard-nut racers were away and opening up a gap on Regazzoni almost at once. Piquet was in behind the second Williams car and Laffite was leading the rest but soon pulled out a gap on Andretti, Pironi, Jabouille, Arnoux, Scheckter and Stuck. The Ferrari team-leader had got a bit boxed in on the opening lap but soon got into his stride and picked off both Renaults, Pironi and Andretti in quick succession, doing some demon out-braking manoeuvres going into the hairpin before the pits. Piquet stormed past Regazzoni into third place, which much have put new heart into the whole Brabham team, and Laffite would have liked to have had a go at the Swiss driver, but was foiled when his engine broke after a mere nine laps. At the same time Rebaque stopped at the pits to have a different set of tyres fitted and Jabouille came in with ineffective brakes, the pads having glazed their friction surface.
In a very short space of time the field became spread out, but it did not mean the race had become dull and processional, for Jones was hounding the Ferrari relentlessly and he was clearly not settling for second place. Scheckter was still gaining ground and Reutemann had passed Andretti. On lap 15 Stuck and Arnoux had a coming together and as they both spun the two left-rear wheels contracted violently leaving the ATS and the Renault hors de combat with the left rear wheels hanging off. As their dust was settling Scheckter was in the pits having all four tyres changed for a different type and he stormed back into the race having dropped to seventeenth place, but immediately started an incredible drive back up through the field. Meanwhile, Villeneuve and Jones were still hard at it in an apparent state of deadlock, with a very slight advantage on the road to the Ferrari driver. Jones had his head down and was looking very confident, neither gaining ground nor losing any, which rather suggested that he was well in command of the situation and was letting Villeneuve set the pace. This was precisely what he was doing, for it was going to be a long race (by today’s mini GP standards) and Jones knew that no one had much in reserve in the way of fuel or tyres, so it was a case of hard driving without being extravagant on consumable items. Tambay had retired with engine failure and Patrese had spun off the track and stalled the engine of his Arrows and could not restart; Reutemann had gone by the pits in a cloud of oil smoke as the oil tank-cum-spacer between the engine and gearbox had split, and he trailed oil right round the circuit as he toured back to the pits to retire. The entrance to the pit lane saw the retirement of de Angelis with his royal blue Shadow when the engine died due to distributer failure and his team-mate Lammers was having a miserable time with ineffective rear brakes, which had already caused him to spin and drop to the back of the field. Clouds of oil smoke seemed to be the keynote of the race retirements, for at 30 laps Daly had ground to a halt with engine failure and a smokescreen.
Scheckter was still carving his way through the back-markers and was up to tenth place, but nearly lost the lot when he was lapping Lammers and the young Dutch boy obviously wasn’t expecting it. The Ferrari had all four wheels locked up on the grass verge going into the pits hairpin and Scheckter went by in a cloud of dust shaking his fist. The Shadow driver nearly fell off the road in embarrassment. While Jones was now beginning to lean on Villeneuve ever so slightly, not with a view to overtaking, but more as a warning to the Ferrari driver to “watch it” and to let him know who was boss of the situation, Piquet was holding a firm third place, followed by Regazzoni running on his own. Then came Andretti with no opposition followed by Pironi equally lonely and further back Brambilla was keeping the new Alfa Romeo ahead of the Ligier of Ickx, but both were destined to retire, the Alfa Romeo with ignition failure and the Ligier with gearbox trouble. The new boy Zunino was doing a commendable job in his first Grand Prix, having passed both works McLarens very early on in a spirited fashion, as well as dealing with Patrese and Daly before they both retired. That Scheckter caught and passed him was no disgrace, but then his good run was halted by the gearlinkage on the new Brabham coming apart and he was forced to stop at the pits for repairs.
On lap 33 Villeneuve lapped Lammers by going through on the inside of a very fast right-hand swerve and clearly the Dutch driver did not know that Jones was close behind and he moved across in front of the Williams. Thanks to the Australian’s quick reflexes and car control the young lad wasn’t punted up the backside, but he caused Jones to have an almighty “moment”, and lose two seconds on the flying Villeneuve. That the Williams was right up behind the Ferrari again within three laps confirmed that Alan Jones had the situation well in hand, and the race was now half over. An interesting situation was about to arise, for Scheckter was closing on Ickx and Brambilla in his climb through the field, and Villeneuve and Jones were coming up to lap all three of them. If Jones needed any help to deal with Villeneuve this situation could be the one. Scheckter dealt with the Ligier and the Alfa Romeo very smartly and then the leaders were all over them at the pits hairpin and were hard after Scheckter. If anyone had expected Scheckter to help his team-mate by a little gentle “team work” they were sadly mistaken, for the two leaders went by the South African as if he wasn’t there. Braking for the hairpin the Williams closed visibly on the Ferrari on lap 45, as if Jones was having a trial run and for the next five laps it was pretty obvious that the Australian was taking aim. Sure enough, at the end of lap 51 Jones went up the inside of the Ferrari in braking for the hairpin, just as the Ferrari turned in and the two drivers sat it out wheel to wheel all the way round the corner, neither of them giving or expecting an inch more road than they had. It was the high spot of the race for those lucky enough to be watching on that corner and the Williams led by a few feet as they started lap 52.
Jones now gave it all he’d got and threw caution to the winds as regards tyre wear and fuel consumption as he pulled out a two second lead. At something like 2.7 seconds he felt he must have shaken the tenacious little French-Canadian off, and without visibly slowing he eased the pressure very slightly, to conserve his fuel and tyres and in no time at all the red Ferrari was large in his mirrors! Later, Jones said, “Jeez, that guy just won’t give up,” with an air of respect in his voice. While this had been going on Scheckter was being very wily, tucking in behind his young teammate and really having a go, because he could see that the two leaders were going to catch and lap Pironi and Andretti, and they were the next two to catch on his climb up through the field. If they relaxed and moved over to let the leaders through he could possibly benefit. And this is exactly what happened so that Scheckter moved up to fifth place, even though he was a lap behind the leaders, and set a new lap record in doing so. It didn’t last long for Jones and Villeneuve were hard at it again and the Australian set a new record at 1 min. 31.272 sec. on lap 65, his fastest of the race and the French-Canadian did his fastest on lap 66 with 1 min. 31.467 sec. (nearly 108 m.p.h. average).
All this while Piquet was holding a very impressive third place in the new Brabham-Cosworth, and Regazzoni was firmly in fourth place, everyone else being a lap or more behind. When the Williams driver suddenly closed up on the Brabham and then overtook it, it was obvious that Piquet was in trouble, and the smell of hot gearbox oil indicated where the trouble lay. Three laps later he was heading for the pit lane and his superb debut run with Gordon Murray’s new design was over; the gearbox casing had split.
As the race ran its last ten laps Jones and Villeneuve were still driving really hard, right up to the chequered flag and there was a bare second between them. Villeneuve clearly had no intention of giving in. It was a really healthy sight to watch those two racers racing and they made veryone else look like a lot of old women. They finished one second apart after 72 hard laps that had taken 1 hour and 52 minutes and afterwards both drivers agreed it had been a really hard race, but immensely satisfying; Jones and the Williams team were very satisfied that he had fought hard all the way and finished an honourable second; he felt he and the car had done all they could. Goodyear were particularly pleased with the Jones/Williams combination for Montreal is too close to home to suffer a defeat by the French Michelin firm, and Cosworth chalked up their 125th GP vistory for the DFV engine, which was originally financed and backed by Ford. As it was Goodyear’s 125th GP victory as well, Ford joined them in presenting Alan Jones with a magnificent inscribed gold clock to mark the occasion.
It had been a race of mechanical disaster and only nine out of the twenty-four starters finished the race. Scheckter had driven a race worthy of a World Champion to finish fourth, Pironi was fifth, Watson sixth, after a precautionary pit stop to take on three gallons of fuel eight laps before the end, which did not lose him a place, Zunino was seventh, after a drive that indictaed a lot of spirit, Fittipaldi was eighth, doing the last part of the race very slowly as a front wheel bearing had broken up, and Lammers struggled in ninth and last with his brakeless Shadow. Andretti ran out of petrol with five laps to go. It had been one of the more satisfying motor races. – D.S.J.
Alan Jones did not quite achieve the perfect race. He made FTD in both practice periods, started from pole position on the grid, won the race and set a new lap record – but Villeneuve led for the first 50 laps. After the race Jones said “I’d rather have him in front of me during the race than behind me; that way I can see what he’s up to.” Rest assured, the young French-Canadian will always be up to something.
Of the two extra FOCA entries that caused Alfa Romeo so much embarassment the second Fittipaldi didn’t qualify and the third Tyrrell was in last place on the grid. Hardly a justifiable situation to face on a mjaor automobile manufacturer.
With space on the notre Dame island limited, the organisers discouraged the use of private cars, supplying a mini-bus service from the town centre. Going out in the morning was simple, returning in the evening was a bad joke – it seemed to be a one-way system. The immaculate and tasteful Montreal underground train system saved the day.
After four years in the wilderness trying to make a good racing car around an Alfa Romeo engine Gordon Murray was truly relieved at the way his new Cosworth V8 powered BT49 performed first time out. By the end of the day some of us had almost forgotten that Niki Lauda was once the Brabham team leader. Perhaps with Piquet and Cosworth leading the way the Ecclestone team will now find their way out of the wilderness.