1977 Long Beach Grand Prix
Until a puncture denied him victory, a series of perfect laps saw his wolf humble the might of Lauda’s Ferrari and Andretti’s Lotus
I suppose that the 1979 Italian GP at Monza, when Gilles and I were second and first and I won the World Championship, has to be my most spectacular race, but from a driving point of view I always thought that the US GP West at Long Beach in 1977 stood out as my best.
I’d done three years with Tyrrell, and didn’t want another with him, so I looked around. Walter Wolf was trying to hire me, and a few other people, and I said to him, “If I can get the people and money I want, I will come with you.” And he said okay. I went out to hire all the people I wanted to run the team Harvey Postlethwaite, who designed the car, the WR I, Peter Warr to manage it and some of my mechanics, such as Roy Topp with whom I’d worked at Tyrrell. We had a three-year plan, thinking that would get us established and then we would fight for the World Championship.
Things, however, got off to a good start as we won the first race, in Argentina. In fact, we were leading the World Championship until halfway through the season! I was leading the points when we went to Long Beach, and I remember James Hunt laughing, “That’s good, because that’s those points out of the way.” But in Long Beach we were very competitive, and he stopped laughing after that. We were good friends.
Niki had won at Kyalami, and he took pole at Long Beach for Ferrari. Mario Andretti was next in the Lotus and I was third, two-tenths off Niki and two hundredths off Mario. I got into the lead, I think, at the first corner. I was just a little faster than Mario, with Niki hanging on with a flat-spotted tyre. It wasn’t that I was that much faster than Mario, it was just that I was doing such – how can you say? – perfect laps. ‘Perfect’ is not quite the right word, but I got into such a high rhythm. In most races you brake a little bit too much here or go a bit wide there. But I got into such a rhythm it was perfect, and three-quarters through the race I was three seconds ahead of Mario. I was pulling away. It wasn’t in chunks but each lap it was a little bit more. He was probably making the little mistakes that everybody does, and I was making fewer than you normally make. Or I would normally make. And then I had to overtake Brian Henton in a March and that’s when I picked up a nail, or something. It was my right front tyre and as it started going down, I signalled I was coming in next time. In the meantime, I was throwing the weight off the right front, sliding the car’s back out everywhere. But when I approached the pits I looked in my mirror and I couldn’t believe they had hardly caught me. So I thought: “Let’s do another lap.” I think what happened was that the tyre got soft, skidded I and some rubber went over the hole. So the tyre lost three quarters of its pressure, but had kind of sealed itself. So I went round again and thought I’d try another lap. I think there were something like six laps to go when it went down, and Mario and Niki caught me a little bit at a time. Really, I was surprised I could carry on; I thought the tyre would come off the rim and I was surprised how fast I could go with it like that. The real trouble was that I couldn’t brake late, because the right front would lock up. They caught me with three laps’ to go. Mario got on my tail and I couldn’t do anything. At the end of the straight he just outbraked me. Then the next lap Niki did the same and I came third but still only five seconds behind Mario.
That was bad, but we had a good year and led the championship. But there were two things that put us out of it. One was a fuel percolation problem. Normally it wouldn’t happen until the middle of a race, we couldn’t make it happen in practice so before we cured it, it had messed up six or seven races. And then I crashed while leading in Belgium. It was drying and I spun off. Otherwise we probably could have won the title. I won in Canada and Monaco which was fabulous. It depends how you look at your best race. You have to say that Monaco in ’77 was probably sweeter than the one with Ferrari. And of course there’s Monza 79. But for me the best was that Long Beach race. I was mad at the end! I remember these good-looking girls coming up to me afterwards, and normally I get quite polite when there are good-looking girls around. But I think I was just rude, because I was so upset. But, looking back, I think it was probably my most perfectly driven race.