1979 Austrian Grand Prix

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Denis Jenkinson

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Third win for Williams

Knittelfeld, August 12th

It is always a pleasure to return to the Osterreichring after following the Grand Prix scene through the streets of towns, round the confines of small autodromes and the flat open space of airfields, for it is a modern racing circuit that has been built from scratch and one in the right way. It is fast, undulating, challenging, spectacular, spacious, impressive, and it was built exactly ten years go. The first events were held in the late summer of 1969, and the first Grand Prix took place in 1970. In those short ten years it has become as established as the Nürburgring itself and has developed a similar character. It is the place for a Grand Prix, rather than a Formula One event, and the event is almost a week-long affair rather than a quick dash in, perform, and dash out again event, like some. If all Grand Prix events were like the Austrian one, on circuits like the Osterreichring, we would soon get bored. It is the variety in Grand Prix racing that is part of the attraction for those lucky enough to go to the most of them.

After seeing the various performances on the fast Silverstone circuit, where the advantage was to those with nicely balanced cars that were uncomplicated but efficient, it was pretty clear that the same advantage would apply in Austria. The main difference in handling is that the flat airfield circuit tends towards consistent handling characteristics, whereas the Austrian circuit with its fast uphill corners and even faster downhill ones, called for an overall good quality, for some uphill corners tend to make the front end go light, and others make cars phenomenal understeerers because all the weight is transferred to the front tyres as the corners drop away downhill.

A rather depressing overtone to the meeting was the fact that many drivers who have not been doing too well recently have been blaming the cars or the team (never themselves!) and were either openly saying they had had enough of Team X and were moving to Team Z, or they were sniffing around for offers. Others were conscious that they were about to lose their jobs and were trying to put on a convincing show, which caused team managers to say “Why hasn’t he been driving like that in previous races?” The human being is very fickle and too many of today’s racing drivers are simple human beings and not super-men.

Not surprisingly at this time in the season there was only one brand new car in the paddock, and that was an ATS built from scratch along ground-effect principles, as distinct from being a 1978 car modified to ground-effects as best as could be managed. Most of the cars were unaltered, either because they were working well, like the Williams, Ferrari, Tyrrell and so on, or because the design teams, had run out of ideas. Lotus arrived with two cars that are best described as Lotus 79/80, or 79 plus or 80 minus. In other words a cobbled-up compromise that did not indicate any particular direction to the design principles. They had taken Lotus 79/2 and 79/4 and rebuilt the rear half completely. The Lotus-designed gearbox and final drive unit from the Lotus 80 was used, giving a 2½ in. longer wheelbase, but the brakes were moved outboard on to the hubs, which meant using Lotus 80 rear wheels, while the suspension members were all new and something of a compromise, not being tucked away out of the air-stream as on the 80, but hopefully better than the 79 as regards geometry and wheel movement. The spare car was Lotus 79/5 with normal rear end and Hewland gearbox.

There were no changes in the cars being used by Ligier, Tyrrell, Brabham, McLaren, Renault and Arrows, though the Alfa Romeo engines in the Brabhams had re-inforced exhaust manifold pipes to overcome the spate of broken pipes they have had recently. They were still of titanium, but had strengthening gussets here and there and the standard of workmanship on the welding was a joy to behold. The major change in the Tyrrell team was that Derek Daly was to drive the second car, as Jean-Pierre Jarier was still not fully recovered from his liver complaint. Rather than give Geoff Lees another one-off drive, as in Germany where he had done well and established his ability by Formula One standards, Ken Tyrrell decided to give Daly a similar opportunity to prove his ability in a one-off drive with a known good car. The Ferrari drivers were using the same cars as in Germany, but the spare car was 038, which Villeneuve had used in the British Grand Prix. Fittipaldi was using a new skirt system on his F6A car, hoping to overcome the problems of the skirts jamming up, and like most other teams they were trying out smaller front and rear aerofoils in the search for maximum speed rather than maximum downforce.

The Shadow team had returned to three cars, with the usual ones for the two young drivers and a mutual spare car, as they found the maintenance of four cars a bit too much and it prevented any development work back at the factory while the main part of the team were away. The Wolf team had two distinct cars, WR9 and WR8, the first in the form in which it was originally built and the second in a much-modified form. The rear brakes had been moved outboard, like the WR9, and the suspension members altered accordingly, and the rear aerofoil was supported centrally by two alloy blades (like a Williams!) in place of the normal Wolf arrangement of it being supported by large end plates. In consequences of this the bodywork at the rear was different. The Williams team were giving Regazzoni’s usual car (FW07/002) a rest and he had 001, while Jones had the latest car (004) and the spare was 003. These cars are to such an homogeneous design and obviously work so well, that it would be difficult to imagine any alternations to the basic layout. The entry was completed by the single-car teams of Merzario, Ensign and Rebaque. The works Alfa Romeo team did not enter as they were hard at work on preparing two new cars to make their debut at the Italian GP.

Early on Friday morning, while the mechanics were preparing the cars for the 10 a.m. testing session, the rain was pouring down and the tops of the mountain were completely obscured by cloud. Although the rain had eased off by the time the track was officially open it was still very wet, but nearly everyone went out on heavily treaded “rain” tyres for there was no guarantee that the next three days were not going to be wet. Passing cars were more like power-boats than racing cars and there were quite a few heart-stopping moments for many of the drivers. Poor Nelson Piquet skated off the track and bent a track rod on his Brabham, so while it was replaced he went out in the spare car, and Jabouille tried the spare Renault as well as his own. Derek Daly was having a “baptism of water” rather than of “fire” on his first try out in a Tyrrell 009 and the Wolf team were running WR9 as it was too wet to learn anything about their modified car. Although the morning test session was only for one hour, it was long enough for most people and a relief when there were signs of the weather improving well before midday. By the time the afternoon timed practice period began at 12.30 the track was pretty dry and the clouds were breaking up fast, with occasional flashes of sunlight.

Lauda’s Brabham was being tried with nose-fins, Rosberg was still in WR9, Stuck had the new ATS going quite nicely, Piquet was back in his own car and running without nosefins, and Laffite was alternating between his own Ligier and the spare one. Everything seemed to be going along nicely, and as the track was now dry there was some hard trying in case the rain returned. The only problems were the Renaults and the Williams, as these two teams were well away and even some quite good runners were four seconds off the pace! Jones (Williams) and Jabouille (Renault) were the pacesetters and were well down in the 1 min. 34 sec. bracket and showing signs of going faster, while a lot of drivers were still struggling to approach 1 min. 40 sec. The new ATS skated to a halt when a rear tyre burst and damaged the right rear corner, so Stuck had to continue with the spare car. Lauda decided that front aerodynamic fins were not necessary on the Brabham, even though he was more than two seconds behind the Williams and the Renault. Although the Cosworth powered Williams and the turbo-charged Renault were turning in the same lap times, Jones 1.34.30 and Jabouille 1.34.40, their speeds past the pits on the Williams’ team beam-timer were markedly different. The Williams was varying around 260-265 k.p.h. Goodyear were supplying Alan Jones with an unlimited supply of soft “qualifying” tyres, which destroyed themselves in three laps, while the Michelins on the Renault did not look anything like as worn. On the soft Goodyears Jones would leave the pits and do a fast warm-up lap, then one flying lap and a third slowing down lap and into the pits, by which time the front tyres were scrap, having come up in enormous bubbles on the outside edges.

With twenty minutes of the hour and half left, practice was stopped as the Merzario and the Ensign were off the track and in dangerous positions. The Ensign had a broken a drive-shaft joint, and was towed back making a nasty clanking noise. Regazzoni’s engine had lost it edge in his Williams so when practice resumed he went out in the spare car (003). Elio de Angelis was using the spare Shadow as his own had collapsed with a split hub carrier on the right rear corner. Jones and Jabouille were soon at it again, vying for fastest time, but in spite of the tyre-destroying speeds Jones was still holding the advantage. Even though he was not in the Williams/Renault class, Laffite in the spare Ligier was also destroying front qualifying tyres. Tambay had an excursion off the track and destroyed the nose of his McLaren.

It had been a pretty hectic practice session for everyone was conscious that Austrian weather is not the most stable, so an instant good time for the grid was important in case the Saturday afternoon timed session was wet. Jones and Jabouille were in a class of their own, with Arnoux and Laffite not too far behind, but the rest of the top runners were two and three seconds slower, while the rabbits were as much as ten seconds behind.

The fears for three days of rain were unfounded and Saturday was nice and dry, though barely warm. The hour of untimed practice in the morning was the last chance to try out ideas or make sure the spare cars were in good trim, so there was a lot of activity. Rosberg tried the modified Wolf but decided he preferred the normal one (WR9), even though the special one was faster: it was just that he felt happier in the standard car, and driver happiness is all-important. Alan Jones was testing the spare Williams (003), but Ferrari and Ligier were not using their spare cars. Jabouille got in a muddle while passing Daly and was put off onto the grass, the left-hand turbo unit picking up some bits in spite of good filters. This meant a change of turbo unit so Jabouille went out in the spare Renault (RS10) after having the nose-fins off his own car fitted to it. He was using nose-fins with very large end plates, while Arnoux had the more normal arrangement with small end plates. While all this had been happening Arnoux was really getting into the groove and turning unofficial laps the equal of his team-mate. It is rather pointless to say that Alan Jones was trying hard when he went off the road at the chicane, because he always tries hard. He can’t see any point in being in a racing car unless you drive hard. However, he went off the track in a big way and crumpled the spare Williams rather extensively and though his own car was out in front of the pit and ready for him by the time he walked back, practice was nearly over so he did not go out again. During the morning Andretti tried the spare Lotus 79, which was unmodified, and decided he preferred it to the modified version, but both Lotus drivers were so far off the pace that you felt they could not be trying desperately hard. They were little quicker than Stuck in the new ATS, and one would have thought they could have taken a Lotus without an engine round quicker than that. There was a distinctly cool air in the Lotus pit, for an irresponsible Swiss journalist had interviewed Andretti and used his quotes completely out of context so that it looked as though he was saying that Reutemann was the cause of the unrest in the Lotus camp and that he’d have to go. The swarthy Argentinian was not amused, nor convinced by the explanations, and was disenchanted with Team Lotus anyway and was obviously looking for somewhere else to go next year. All this sort of aggravation is not conducive to getting your cars on the front row of the grid.

In the afternoon conditions were ideal and while some drivers were ready to give everything they had got, others were moping around looking glum and beaten before they had begun. Drivers like the hard-nut Jones, the impassive Jabouille, the eager Arnoux, the enthusiastic Laffite, the cool Villeneuve, the quiet Piquet, the swarthy Regazzoni, and red-in-the-face Rosberg were all nicely wound up to give of their best. Lauda was about to try harder than he had done all season, not for the benefit of the Brabham team, but because he was in front of a very large home-crowd. Tambay was eager to do well, as he could see his job disappearing in 1980 and the Irishman Daly was very happy to be in a car which would prove whether he was competent or not.

Laffite was in the spare Ligier to start with, Rosberg was in the Wolf WR8, Jones was in 004, Jabouille in RS11 and everything was going fine. Arnoux was well in with Jones and Jabouille and the Brabham-Alfas were showing an improvement. Regazzoni was still not far away, but he could not match Jones, and the scene was developing into a battle of Jones against the two Renaults. Suddenly it all stopped, apart from Gaillard going round on his own in the Ensign, for Fittipaldi’s engine had blown sky-high and spread oil and bits all over the track. There was a twenty-five minute pause while the mess was cleared up and the old F5A/1 was brought out for EF to use. The Wolf WR8 was put to one side and WR9 brought out for Rosberg, and Rebaque’s Lotus 79 was being fitted with some spare skirts off Reutemann’s car, as its own had been damaged.

As everyone dashed off again to continue the high-speed round of aiming for the front of the grid, trying to get on it anyway, or merely to change position from an embarrassing one to a more reasonable one, Watson was having the steering column mounting altered on his McLaren M29. Jones was going so hard now that bubbles were appearing on this rear tyres as well as his front ones, and the supply of tyres from the Goodyear depot was amazing. The speed of tyre-fitting must have created a new record at the back of the paddock, for the supply of wheels was not unlimited. Andretti got back into his modified Lotus 79 after an oil leak had been cured, but still preferred the spare car, and Reutemann and Lauda were standing around waiting for something, though it was difficult to decide what. It was Arnoux that was giving Jones trouble and try as he might the Australian could not improve much on 1.34.30, but little Rene Arnoux was going quicker and quicker, and improved on Jones’ best time and went on even faster. Jabouille could not keep up and felt that the engine in his car was getting tired so transferred to the spare car, yet again, but was no quicker. It was Arnoux all the way, but Jones never gave up trying and he kept his place on the front row of the grid, with Jabouille in third place. Lauda had pulled his finger out for once and beaten his young Brazilian team-mate, and Villeneuve beat Scheckter, but just before the end of practice he went off the track in a big way and slid across the run-off area like a grass-cutter, arriving back at the pits with the underside of the car full of grass and earth. Daly had put in a time very close to Pironi with the Tyrrell, which was satisfactory but not momentous, and Merzario and Rebaque had been left a long way behind and were the two to non-qualify.

It was something of a relief that practice was over and the rain had kept off, and as the race was due to start at 1.30 p.m. on the Sunday, instead of later in the afternoon as previously, there was every hope for a good dry race. The great god Television had fallen over itself in its business dealings; the entrepreneurs who are manipulating the money to be made from TV and motor racing had crossed swords with the Austrian national Television company and had lost, so nobody was having any live coverage of the event. The FOCA-BMW M1 Procar race took place after practice on Saturday afternoon, with the usual mixture of Grand Prix drivers and “local lads”, and there were supporting events for Alfa-Suds, Formula Three and Renault 5s, as well as aerobatics by three different teams of stunt-flyers, fortunately not all at the same time!

On Sunday morning from 10 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. there was a final test session and final decisions were taken. Andretti was to race the standard Lotus 79/5, Rosberg was to race WR9, de Angelis was going to have to race his Shadow DN9/3B-2 with the inboard-brake rear end as there was insufficient spare parts to repair his car to the new specification, but otherwise everyone was in order. The spare Williams had been stripped down to its bare components, ready for a rebuild when it got back to the factory. During the half-hour the engine in Tambay’s McLaren was not pulling as well as it might so an engine-change was started smartly. The engine in Ickx’s Ligier was running rough and misfiring, but rather than change it the mechanics were changing the electrics and anything else that might help to make it run more sweetly, but they were not having too much success.

Shortly after 1 p.m. all twenty-four cars left the pit road and went round the circuit to line up on the dummy-grid in front of the pits, Reutemann taking advantage of the rules to nip into the pits and then make another lap. After a long wait the engines were eventually re-started and Arnoux led them all off on the pace-lap. They stopped at the grid, before the pits, and lined up in pairs and when all twelve pairs were in order the red light came on. Revs rose, clutches began to grip and when the light went green we had a start that was memorable and will go down in history. Jones was convinced he could beat the Renaults away, but feared they might get well into their torque range before the steep hill up to the chicane and power past, so he made a super start. As the field started to move two things happened. A red rocket from the third row went past Jabouille and Arnoux and was alongside Jones as they roared up the hill; it was Villeneuve who made the start to end all starts, and he led Jones into the chicane. Meanwhile Jabouille made a hesitant start as his clutch did not operate properly, but back in mid-field Andretti barely moved, his clutch not gripping, and he completely confused Reutemann, Fittipaldi, Ickx and Lammers who were behind him. While Villeneuve sat it out with Jones, much to the Australian’s surprise, for he expected a yellow and black car to challenge him, not a red one, Andretti tried to get out of the way as he crept into retirement at the end of the pit wall. Lauda had followed Jones off very well and was in third place, ahead of Arnoux and Regazzoni as they finished the first lap. Villeneuve was giving it all he’d got, knowing that he could not hope to stave off the Renaults and Alan Jones, but making up distance on all the rest. Jones was right with him, knowing that he had to get by and away as soon as possible, before the Renaults got themselves sorted out. As the field streamed round the last corner at the end of lap 2 there was a cloud of smoke from the Arrows of Mass and ‘Herman the German’ pulled off to retire with a broken engine. Villeneuve hung on to his lead for three laps, but as he entered the pits straight he got a bit crossed-up and this gave Jones his chance to draw level and take the lead as they went into the fourth lap. Arnoux had got past Lauda on lap 2, but the hold-up had let the two leading cars get quite a way ahead. Jabouille soon got into the swing of things changing gear without using the clutch, and picked off Laffite, Lauda and Regazzoni in quick succession to move into fourth place. Once past the Ferrari Jones pressed on hard, for a while he was not worried about the Italian car, even when driven by Villeneuve, he was worried about the two French cars.

Arnoux and Jabouille were gaining steadily on the Ferrari, but Villeneuve was not giving in, and it took Arnoux until lap 11 to get into second place, and the following lap for Jabouille to get into third place. Meanwhile Jones had pulled out a huge lead and was settling down to some very fast running, lapping around the 1 min. 37 sec. mark, a time that many would have liked to achieve in practice let alone in the race. The intriguing situation at the front had rather overshadowed what was going on behind, though a lot of it was best overshadowed. With the leading Williams in front of the two Renaults, and the Ferrari of Villeneuve fourth, there was then quite a gap before Scheckter arrived with Regazzoni and Laffite in hot pursuit. Lauda had been elbowed back into eighth place, but ahead of Piquet, the two Brabham-Alfas running quite close to one another, with Pironi’s Tyrrell not far behind. Then came Daly, Rosberg and Tambay settling down to a nice three-cornered fight, with Stuck and Patrese behind them. Watson was a lonely sixteenth, followed by Reutemann who was going so badly that de Angelis was keeping up with him. Fittipaldi, Ickx and Gaillard were trying to make up for the time lost at the start, but the Copersucar-backed car from Brazil was feeling very sluggish as unknown to EF the master cylinder for the rear brakes had jammed and the rear brakes were binding, which was to lead to his eventual retirement, though he actually stopped at the pits because he thought the engine was tightening up!

On lap 13 Arnoux waved his team-leader by into second place, and while Jean-Pierre did his best to gain ground on the flying Williams of Alan Jones, Arnoux craftily made sure that Villeneuve did not gain anything. However, this situation lasted no time at all for Jabouille’s gearbox protested at being used without the clutch and the Renault free-wheeled into the pits at the end of lap 17 to retire with broken gears. Arnoux could now stop watching his mirrors and concentrate on the scene ahead, but Jones was too far ahead to be seen, so everything was settled. It was Williams first, Renault second and Ferrari third, and nobody else in the picture, though Scheckter was still fourth, ahead of Laffite and Regazzoni, the Frenchman having got past the Swiss. The other Ligier, driven by Ickx went by the pits at the start of lap 27 making a horrid noise from its engine and we never saw it again.

While Frank Williams was happily watching his car lead the race, Colin Chapman was at the other end of the pits watching his only runner with a dejected air. Unable to get away from the Shadow of de Angelis, Reutemann came into the pits just before he was lapped by Alan Jones. In a pit stop that was so leisurely it was laughable he had a different set of tyres fitted and cruised away to try again. After two laps he was back to ask to have the original tyres put back on as the car felt no better, but was told to retire and have a cup of tea, rather than waste everyone’s time. Gaillard brought the Ensign in from the last place as the rear brakes had packed up, and after a long stop to affect a repair he rejoined the race.

Having dealt with Regazzoni and taken over fifth place, Laffite decided he could do something about Scheckter in fourth place, but as he was gaining round his rev-limiter went on the blink and began to cut in earlier than it should so fourth, fifth and sixth positions were stabilised, as were first, second and third. The rest were being led by Lauda, but all had been lapped by the flying Williams, and Piquet had retired after a brief changing of places with Lauda, when his Alfa Romeo engine blew up. John Watson had caught up with Tambay and Daly, Rosberg having retired with electrical trouble, so that the Frenchman was now the meat in an Irish sandwich, but then the Ulsterman got by his team-mate and began to race against Daly. From the tail end of the field Stuck had retired the ATS when the engine broke, and Patrese had retired his Arrows “because it felt wobbly” due to a suspension breakage and with ten laps still to run Lauda drifted into the pit lane with no oil pressure in his Alfa Romeo engine.

The leading Williams was running beautifully, oil pressure and oil temperature, water temperature and fuel pressure all as they should be, and Jones was reeling the laps off consistently below 1 min. 37 sec. As Arnoux went by to start lap 49 the Renault engine spluttered and popped and banged as the injection system became short of petrol, due to a malfunction somewhere in the fuel system. Arnoux spluttered his way round and was able to free-wheel into the pits where some more petrol was rapidly put in and the engine fired up again. He roared away out of the pits but Villeneuve, Scheckter, Laffite and Regazzoni had gone by and Jones was about to go by again. As Jones cruised round on the last five laps, with Villeneuve a very contented second, still driving his Ferrari as hard as it would go, Laffite was beginning to close on Scheckter, for the South African’s car was running out of brakes. Jones lapped Arnoux, so that there were only five cars on the same lap, and at the back Watson was trying desperately to get by Daly, but failing. As Scheckter started his last lap the blue and white Ligier was catching him fast, and as they went up the hill to the chicane Laffite pulled out and went by the Ferrari into third place. Alan Jones waved triumphantly as he crossed the line and Frank Williams and his team were almost overcome at seeing one of their cars win the third Grand Prix in a row. As the north and south of Ireland did their last lap Ulster tried so hard to conquer Eire, and they crossed the line almost side by side, with the advantage to the south.

Totally content with the way the Williams had performed Alan Jones was full of praise for everyone who had worked so hard for him, from Patrick Head the designer to the lad who cleaned his visor during practice. It was a truly happy team and the only comments Jones had to make were that he missed a gear-change once, his own fault, and had a slight vibration near the end when a balance weight came off a wheel, otherwise everything was perfect, which is more than can be said of all the others.–D.S.J.

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