1977 Dutch Grand Prix race report
Zandvoort, August 28th
The Motor Racing scene in Holland is simple and straight-forward compared with some countries, there is but one circuit, the Grand Prix always takes place there and it doesn’t change too much, so everyone turns up at the seaside resort of Zandvoort in a fairly happy frame of mind. Taking a lead from the British GP the Dutch organisers seeded out the “rabbits” from the entry and gave them a private test session on the Tuesday before the event, to sort out four to go forward into the official Grand Prix practice. There were nine entries listed for “rabbits day” and they included Brett Unger and Merzario, which seemed odd as they normally qualify well up among the “big boys” and Merzario was particularly incensed and refused to take part on the Tuesday. Brandishing the rule book of the FIA and with legal advice he got the special session made null and void after it had happened, so that the four who had qualified on the Tuesday had been wasting their time. These were Lunger (McLaren M23/14), Binder (Penske PC4/01), Henton (Boro 001 nee Ensign MN04) and Pilette (BRM P207/02). Three drivers were due to be left out, these being Ashley (Hesketh 308E/3), Villota (McLaren M23/6) and local lad Michael Bleekemolen (March 761/8) but with the cancelling of the result Ashley and the Dutchman appeared on Friday while Villota went off to another event. The Swiss driver Loris Kessel should have taken part with an old Williams car, but spent his time chasing John MacDonald of the RAM Racing team for some legal and financial matters left over from last season, and eventually successfully got MacDonald apprehended by the Dutch police.
On Friday the serious business began and it did not take long for Team Lotus to show that the Zandvoort circuit really suited the Lotus 78 and Mario Andretti. All the variables were finely tuned and in beautiful synchronisation and in a demonstration of smooth, flowing driving Andretti was in a class of his own. During the morning practice session he set a new standard with 1 min. 18.85 sec., the only driver to get into the 1 min. 18 sec. bracket, and the only one to even look like getting there. Hunt was driving hard, as always, but was nearly a second slower, with 1 min. 19.70 sec. and Reutemann had his Ferrari going well at 1 min. 19.74 sec., everyone else was over min. 20 sec. In the afternoon it was Andretti all the way again, slightly slower at 1 min. 19.07 sec., but still in a class of his own and there was a bit of a flutter about the place when Gunnar Nilsson ended up second fastest, at 1 min. 19.98 sec., no-one else getting below 1 min. 20 sec., though Hunt was next fastest with 1 min. 20.13 sec. At the end of the day the order was Andretti, Hunt, Reutemann and Nilsson with all the rest of the usual front-runners like Lauda, Laffite, Scheckter, Watson and Peterson wondering what they could do about the two Lotus cars. Others who were running strongly were Jones (Shadow DN8/4A), Regazzoni (Ensign MN06), Tambay (Ensign MN08), Stuck (Brabham BT45/3B) and Depailler (Tyrrell P34/7).
There were not too many problems with the cars. Lauda changed to a spare car, starting out with 031 and after a few laps switching to 030 and, staying with it for the following day. For the first time the McLaren team were able to be without an M23 car, or any obsolete spares, having completed a third M26, which Mass was driving, with the rebuilt original car as the team spare, Hunt driving his usual M26/2. Watson was happy with his usual car, Brabham BT45/5B but tried spare car, 1B briefly and though there were photographs available of the interesting new Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46, with its triangular-section monocoque and surface water and oil radiators, there was no sign of the new car, it being at the Alfa Romeo test-track in Italy. March had built a new car for Ian Scheckter, called a 771, but not radically different from an up-rated 761 and brother Scheckter was fairly happy with the Wolf WR2, not using the spare car WR1. Laffite was driving the latest Ligier, JS7/03, in long-wheelbase form with the cast alloy spacer between engine and gearbox, and with wide-track front suspension members, while the spare car JS7/02 was in standard short and narrow form, but the new car was going so well that the spare was not used. The Shadow team had uprated DN8/5A to the same specification as the Austrian winning car, with front-mounted oil radiator and slim fairings around the side water-radiators. The disagreement with their Italian sponsor had been settled so Patrese was back in the car, but he could not match the pace of Also Jones.
The Renault was back on the scene, after solving their turbo-charger installation problems, mounting it all a bit higher, using a very she exhaust tail pipe, and a redesigned inlet rnanifold. Jabouille’s progress was stopped when a stone went into the air intake and played havoc with the turbine blades, and later it swallowed part of its inlet manifold, which did the valves of the V6 engine no good, so the army of mechanics were kept pretty busy. The Dutch drivers Hayje and Bleekemolen were driving the two March 761 cars financed by F&S Properties and the cars had been modified by Howden Ganley and his Tiga firm. The front track had been widened, the wheelbase lengthened, the oil coolers were mounted at the front, with new nose cowlings, and the rear anti-roll bar mountings were improved. They still only went as fast as the drivers could drive them! The Dutch HB Alarm System team of the Hoogenboom brothers produced their Ensign from last year, that they renamed Boro, now painted black and did a deal with Brian Henton to drive it in place of his March 761.
The weather had stayed fine during the Friday practice, but rain storms were around and the skies were decidedly unsettled. On Saturday morning during the untimed test-session many drivers tried their spare cars, if briefly, just in case they were needed, and then everyone was set for the last hour of practice, to decide their fate or their finances, as far as the starting grid was concerned. Of the 34 drivers out on the track, only the fastest 26 were going to be allowed to start, so there was some pretty desperate scrabbling among the tail-enders. Once more Andretti demoralized everyone, with a lap in 1 min. 18.65 sec., and what was worse was that he could run laps at around 1 min. 19 sec. while cooling off, or waiting for the traffic to thin out; most of his rivals were struggling to get into the 1 min. 19 sec. bracket, given a clear run. Team mate Nilsson was in all sorts of trouble, the Cosworth development engine in 78/2 was playing up with a defective fuel pump, so he went out in the spare car, 78/4 and had got down to a healthy 19.57 sec. when a link in the rear roll-bar mechanism broke, so he switched back into his first car. Regazzoni was on in Ensign MN07, with the Intention of keeping to it for the race, and Lauda was in Ferrari 312T2/030 also with the intention of racing it, and Scheckter was still in Wolf WR2.
The entry was dividing itsell up into interesting groups, according to lap times, with Andretti (Lotus 78/3) alone in the 1 min. 18 sec. group. Then came the valiant ones in the 1 min. 19 sec. group, and these were Laffite (Ligier JS7/03), Hunt (McLaren M26/2), Lauda (Ferrari 030), Nilsson (Lotus 78/4), Reutemann (Ferrari 029), Peterson (Tyrrell P34/6), Watson (Brabham BT45/5B) and Regazzoni (Ensign MN07). The surprise of that lot was Laffite at the head in the Ligier, the Dutch circuit suiting the French car and the driver making the most of it, as always. The grey mid-portion of the field was in the 1 min. 20 sec. group and the surprise here was to find Jabouille and the Renault at the head of it. Those who disapprove of anything so radical as the turbo-charged V6 on its Michelin tyres, were suggesting that it was only so high up the list because the turbo-charge had been screwed up to a short-life maximum and Michelin had produced some special short-life sticky tyres. Even it all this was true, which it wasn’t, it would all have been quite legal, even though it contravened the unwritten rules of the Ecclestone Club. A best lap of 1 min. 20.13 sec. by Jabouille on the Renault’s second race appearance, and the Frenchman’s third Formula One appearance was progress indeed for this interesting new entry upon the scene. An inverted-surprise was to find Jody Scheckter down in this grey area with the Wolf. Inevitably there were some incidents, with some thirty cars lapping the circuit, and while Jarier was having a spin on his own in the second of the ATS team’s Penske cars, Brambilla had an accident in avoiding him and bent the steering of his Surtees. He got back to the pits and continued practice in the spare car. Right at the end of practice and almost unnoticed, Watson went spinning in his Brabham when a rear radius rod pulled out of its mounting, but no damage was done.
When all the lap times were sorted out there were not too many surprises, though a lot of people had been so busy eyeing Hunt and Lauda that they had over-looked Laffite in second place with the Ligier, albeit more than half-a-second down on the flying Andretti. There were eight non-qualifiers, among these being Merzario, who had been plagued with an engine misfire on his March, as well as some drive-shaft trouble. Schuppan failed to qualify the second works Surtees car and the BRM-by-Stanley would have been slowest but for the brief appearance of the Dutchman Bleekemolen.
Dutch bye-laws prevent the making of too much noise before midday on a Sunday, so the Formula One teams had to contain themselves until 1.15p.rn. before they could have a final test session in readiness for the 3 p.m. start of the 75-lap race. In the brief run round more than enough trouble appeared, the Ligier developed an incurable oil leak in its Matra engine, so the normal length spare car had to be hastily got ready for Laffite; the engine in Nilsson’s Lotus would not run properly so he transferred to the spare car, 78/4; the newer of the two works Ensigns developed an incurable misfire so Regazzoni reverted to MN06 and Keegan took Ashley’s Hesketh in place of his own, as the engine would not run cleanly in 308E/4. Brambilla was back in his proper car, after another rebuild, and the latest car that Schuppan failed to qualify was carrying the Italian’s number and spare bodywork and was prepared in readiness as a spare.
At 2.30 p.m. the 26 cars left the paddock and drove round to a dummy-grid in front of the pits, each driver’s position being indicated by a large board carrying a painting of his helmet in the appropriate colours. There was a strong head-wind blowing along the straight and many of the teams had whipped their gearboxes apart and lowered their fifth gear ratio (or sixth in some cases) after the test session. It was warm and dry, but not fantastic weather for being at the seaside. In formation, led by Andretti, the 26 cars went round for another lap, and this time stopped on the starting-grid. The red light glowed briefly and then the green came on. Andretti almost jumped the start, but got away with wheels spinning, with the Ligier alongside him on the left. What the Lotus driver didn’t bargain for was having a McLaren on his right, especially as there wasn’t really enough room between the Lotus and the guard-rails. Hunt had made a superb start and wheel-to-wheel with Andretti he sat it out down to the first corner, with the two cars virtually rubbing tyres together. It seemed that Hunt would have to give way, especially against a tough little customer like Andretti, but the McLaren driver wasn’t World Champion for nothing. Into the long hairpin they went, wheels still rubbing, and being very tight on the inside Hunt held on and took the lead, and we all stood up and cheered our heads off. As the Lotus went a bit off line Laffite dived past into second place and a furious Andretti found himself in third place when he should have been away in the lead; all due to an audacious bit of driving by the English World Champion. Behind all this John Watson had been elbowed out wide by a Ferrari, and the Brabham ran over the kerb and cracked the Alfa Romeo oil sump, so that the Ulsterman was soon followed by a cloud of smoke as the oil leaked onto the exhaust system. As if that wasn’t enough, on the bends behind the paddock Mass tangled with Jones and the McLaren flew through the air, lost its nose cone and crashed into the catch fencing and out of the race.
Down the long straight to finish the opening lap came Hunt, driving the M26 McLaren as hard as it would go, knowing that he had a tenuous lead but determined to make the most of it. He was followed by Laffite, Andretti, Lauda, Reutemann, Watson, Peterson, Regazzoni, Tambay and Depailler. On lap 2 Andretti was past Laffite and after Hunt, but the Englishman wasn’t waiting for anyone. After so short a distance the first five cars had already broken away from the pack, while Watson headed into the pit lane to retire and Nilsson had come up behind Peterson. Lap 3 and Andretti was gaining on Hunt and on lap 4 they went towards the Tarzan hairpin at the end of the long straight almost side-by-side, and the Lotus driver tried to run round the outside of the McLaren as they started their fifth lap. Hunt was quite unmoved and the Lotus had to drop behind for another lap. Ending lap 5 the Lotus was even closer and was alongside all round the hairpin and still there as they came out, with the right front wheel between the McLaren’s left wheels. It was close indeed, almost too close for comfort, but neither driver was going to give in, they were racing for the lead, not messing about at an old ladies teaparty. Then it happened, the McLaren rear wheel touched the Lotus front one and Hunt was airborne while Andretti was spinning. The McLaren crashed down onto the edge of the track, landing astride of a kerb, smashing the water pump under the Cosworth engine and breaking a rear radius arm front mounting. As Hunt slithered to a stop in a cloud of steam, Andretti gathered up the Lotus and roared away after the Ligier and the two Ferraris that had gone by during the fracas. A furious Hunt walked back to the pits to tell Colin Chapman what he thought of his little USAC driver, but Chapman was unmoved and thought Hunt should have moved over and let Andretti through, as the Lotus was lapping much faster. Naturally, everyone supported their particular favourite, but it really was a simple case of two born racers having a go at each other. It’s nice to know that a bit of spirit and passion has returned to Grand Prix racing, after some of the “old women’s knitting circles” we used to have to sit through.
As the air cleared and we saw that Laffite was firmly in the lead from the two Ferraris, with Andretti in fourth place, it was noticed that Jarier had retired his Penske at the pits with ignition trouble and Peterson was still leading the second part of the race, ahead of Nilsson, Regazzoni, Tambay, Depailler and Jones. Then came a very uncharacteristic Jody Scheckter in the Wolf, followed by the Renault leading Fittipaldi. The rest followed after a gap, in the order Stuck, Patrese, Brambilla, Keegan, Henton, Ian Scheckter, Binder, Lunger and Ribeiro. Although the 12-cylinder cars were in the first three places, Andretti was gaining on them rapidly, closing up on Reutemann’s tail by lap 10 and easily whipping by into third place. Next lap he was right up behind Lauda’s Ferrari and setting his sights on out-braking him into the Tarzan hairpin or running round the outside of him,bat Lauda was not giving the Lotus driver any help and he was still in second place at the end of lap 13, with Laffite out in the lead. As they came down the straight to end lap 14 the Lotus had dropped back behind Reutemann’s Ferrari, and just as we were wondering why there was spoof of smoke and the Cosworth engine blew up, the Lotus coasting past the pits to retire and let the three 12-cylinder cars go on their way. Down at the back of the field Keegan had spun off the track and out of the race, and Patrese had stopped at the pits to change front tyres. While Andretti had been doing his best against the Ferraris, Nilsson had passed Peterson, so was now in fourth place and getting well wound and gaining on Reutemann. Without having to worry about the Lotus getting larger in his mirrors, Lauda could now concentrate on winning the race for it was just a matter of time before he caught Laffite. Without any fuss and taking his time, Lauda moved into the lead as they started lap 22 and then it was all over. He just drove away in complete command of the situation.
Peterson stopped at the pits with his engine running badly, a new ignition unit was put and he rejoined the race but finished that lap on foot as the engine died altogether due to a broken ignition pick-up on the flywheel. As Lauda was going into the lead Depailler stopped at the pits with a flat second-front tyre on the right, but was soon back in the race and on lap 18 Regazzoni’s Ensign came to a stop when the end pulled off the accelerator cable, down by the pedal. Interest now turned to Nilsson, who had his head down and his shoulders hunched, and was closing fast on Reutemann. Getting up behind the Ferrari was one thing, but getting past was another, matter, and the chances were not enhanced as they began to lap the slower cars. After the first four, which were still Lauda, Laffite, Reutemann and Nilsson, there was a very long gap before Tambay arrived leading the rest. With so many retirements and so much trouble before half-distance was even in sight, Scheckter was now sixth in the Wolf, Jones seventh in the leading Shadow, closely followed by the Renault in eighth place, with Fittipaldi hanging on in ninth place. Then came Brambilla and Henton and further back Stuck was only just leading Lunger, Binder and Depailler. Even the tail end did not remain stable for long as Depailler stopped at the end of the straight when his engine broke, and at the same time there was a puff of smoke from Jones’ Shadow as his engine also broke, just as Jabouille was looking for a way to get the yellow and black Renault past the white car.
Clear of back-markers for a time Nilsson renewed his attack on Reutemann’s Ferrari, but with a bit too much vigour and ran into the back of it out on the far side of the circuit. The Lotus went off into the sand and the Ferrari limped back to the pits with the rear aerofoil hanging off. A new one was fitted and the peeved Argentinian rejoined the race a lap behind his leading team-mate and down in 13th position. All this left Tambay in a remarkable third place, with everyone spaced out behind him. The Renault had a big spin and then came into the pits and a broken link was found in the rear suspension, so the car was withdrawn after running well for 39 laps. Lauda was still driving round in the lead, completely confident and the Ferrari not being strained at all. The Ligier-Matra was firmly in second place, Laffite driving well in a car that he had hardly driven in practice and together they were steadily lapping the rest of the competitors, only Tambay, J. Scheckter, Fittipaldi and Brambilla being on the same lap as the two 12-cylinder cars. Brian Henton was going well in the Dutch-owned Ensign and leading all the rest of the runners, including Stuck in the works Brabham-Alfa Romeo and both works March cars.
It was now only a matter of reeling off the laps for Lauda and Laffite, and lapping the Cosworth-powered cars that were left in the race. Brambilla was still working away and caught and passed Fittipaldi, before they were lapped by Lauda and then with every possibility of catching Scheckter’s Wolf before the end of the 75 laps the stocky Italian pressed on hard. When Lauda and Laffite came up behind him he dutifully moved over and let them through, for with the traffic Lauda had eased off in a cautionary manner which had allowed Laffite to get close in behind the Ferrari. The Austrian driver was not worried by this, but was not making life too easy for the Frenchman, swooping about a bit here and there to disturb the air-flow over the front of the Ligier. When they went by the Surtees, Brambilla tucked in behind to get a “tow” closer It Scheckter, but as they took the fast right hand curve onto the long straight, the Surtees was in very turbulent air from the two 12-cylinder car and was literally blown off the road, hitting the guard-rail in a cloud of dust and stopping with the front wiped off. As always, Brambilla stepped unhurt from the wreckage. Scheckter was lapped without bother and now only Tambay’s Ensing was on the same lap as the Ferrari and Ligier but they were already in his mirrors. Henton’s run with the Boro-Ensign ended when the engine petered out and then he coasted to a stop near the finishing line with four laps to go and a certain sixth place gone, though he did not know he was being disqualified for having received outside assistance to restart after a spin earlier on. Starting lap 74 the th behind the pits. It was out of fuel, even though the third-placed Ensign coughed and then died up the hill from the Hunzerug Hairpin behind the pits. It was out of fuel, even though the owners Taylor and Yip had supervised their own fuelling and done their own calculations. Poor Patrick Tambay was distraught as he walked away from the car, having driven into a splendid third place and put a lot of works drivers to shame.
As Lauda led Laffite across the line by nearly two seconds, Scheckter and the Wolf found themselves in third place, but a lap down, and a delighted Emerson Fittipaldi came home fourth after a completely trouble-free run for a change. Tambay was classified fifth and Reutemann scraped into sixth place after catching some of the slower cars and inheriting places by retirements. Remarkable in such a race of attrition that the two works March cars both finished with no greater incident than a spin by Ribeiro. By keeping out of trouble and application to the job Lauda had got himself another Grand Prix victory, and when all the shouting has died down and the dust has settled it is the winning of the race that counts in the long run. – D.S.J.