After the Dutch GP the main talking point seemed to be the actions of Villeneuve, in particular the way he arrived back at the pits on three wheels. A lot of this chat came from people who had seen most of the action on the Television, but as so often happens the TV did not show everything or explain everything. Immediately after the race those who know Villeneuve well and have followed his career closely were unanimous. “What an incredible fellow he is”, they said, “a real racer”, and I agreed. But those who only saw the disastrous lap with the flat rear tyre and then the suspension breaking up and the Ferrari skating along with its left rear corner dragging on the ground and right front wheel airborne, so that only two wheels were on the ground, said “he’s daft, couldn’t he see what was happening. He was mad to go on like that”, and the pious ones said “it was dangerous”. Sitting in their armchairs in front of the Television set they seemed oblivious of a great number of things, all of which when added together make up the “racer” that is Gilles Villeneuve, and you cannot take one part away without destroying the whole.
Think for a moment about his whole actions throughout practice and the race. In the final practice Michelin ran out of qualifying tyres for the Ferrari team, and Scheckter as number one had what there was. Villeneuve, unlike some drivers, is not content to mope around saying “no more tyres”, he went out on some slicks that had been hand-grooved in preparation for a wet track, and he was really trying. On the grid he was next to Scheckter, six-tenths of a second slower. At the start he was meteoric and was down the outside of the grid from the third row into second place behind Jones as they started the first lap. He doesn’t waste time settling down, or playing-himself-in, he’s up and ready to go the moment the red light comes on. After following Jones for a time he then took the lead by running right round the outside of the Williams on the Tarzan hairpin, and he led the race until his left rear tyre began to deflate. He could feel a change in the handling, with a tendency for the tail to slide out into an oversteer situation, but he put it down to the tyres wearing down. Eventually the tail went too far and he spun, at over 140 m.p.h. Seeing a “play-back” of the TV film it was incredible the way he never lost control of the situation, and the moment the car had virtually stopped and was pointing the right way he let the clutch in and was back in the race. He had kept the engine running while he was spinning and never lost his sense of position in space. This attribute of being able to remain aware of your exact position while spinning, so that you are ready for the moment when you can make the next move, is due to the balance systems in your inner ears, which are called proprioceptors, and proprioception is this ability to remain ahead of the situation no matter which way you are pointing. You cannot develop this attribute, you are born with it, and it is very high in ballet dancers, acrobatic high divers, skiers and some racing drivers, like Gilles Villeneuve.
Having gathered up the Ferrari, and blaming the spin on his own misjudgement, he raced on after Alan Jones, in second place. On the next lap the soft tyre had had enough of being overheated and it burst as he passed the grandstands, doing all of 170 m.p.h. Keeping the car straight, which in it self was masterly, he slowed it as best he could and then at the last moment spun it to a stop just off the track, on the outside of the Tarzan hairpin. To have left the car there would have been really foolhardy as it was right in the line of fire of anyone in trouble at the end of the straight. By now there were only nine cars in the race so there was ample time to reverse the stricken Ferrari across the track to the inside, which Villeneuve did. But then the instinctive “racer” in him made him decide to go on, for everything seemed to be working all right, apart from having a flat rear tyre. He then set off on a full lap to try to get back to the pits for another wheel and tyre. When you’ve been doing 170 m.p.h., had a lurid spin, and grappled with a wayward car on three good tyres and one burst one, it is not surprising that he went a bit too fast and caused the tyre and wheel to break up and destroy the rear suspension. The Ferrari then dropped down onto its side skirt, which was rammed up into its guide and it tobogganed along on the rear end of the left-hand skirt, doing surprisingly little damage to the underside of the car, as inspection afterwards revealed. When Villeneuve got back to the pits his hectic race was over, but no-one can say he hadn’t tried. Some of the armchair critics could not understand why he went on with the remains of the wheel and the suspension trailing behind him, but from the cockpit of a Formula One car all you can see is what is in your mirror, and that is not much at the best of times. All it would have shown was that there was no tyre, and you cannot turn your head to look over the back! With a flat-12-cylinder Ferrari blatting away in your left ear inside a helmet you would not hear the scraping and jangling noise going on out the back, and as far as the odd feel to the steering and handling, a flat rear tyre is more than enough to make it feel odd.
If Villeneuve’s instincts had not made him try to get back to the pits and go on racing, he would never have done all the other things, like the super start, passing Jones round the outside, control and catching the spin. After it was all over he was completely philosophical about it all, yet some of the “old women” in Formula One wanted to have him reprimanded for dangerous actions. You can’t please some people; not long ago they were complaining that Formula One was dull and nobody did any passing or drove with fire in their belly, as in the “good old days”. Now that someone is doing this they scream “dangerous and foolhardy”. Me? I like Villeneuve, he’s the best thing that’s happened to Grand Prix racing for a long time, and he’s out to win with the ability to do so. If some clown at the back of the field tries to act like Villeneuve then I am not amused, but the French-Canadian is out in front, trying to win. For those who long for “the good old days” I would remind them of Bernd Rosemeyer in the rear-engined Auto Union. Nothing has changed, he drove cars on flat tyres, he went off the road, fought the car back onto the track and went on racing, he feared nobody, not even Caracciola and Nuvolari, and he won Grand Prix races. Rosemeyer was one of my boyhood heroes and that was 1935-37. That was 44 years ago, and I love all the same attributes in Gilles Villeneuve. Nothing changes, people only think things change.
This year there has been a big increase in the casual following of Grand Prix racing, and almost every time you go in the pub after a race your friends are waiting to talk about what they had seen on the Television, for they are not lucky enough to actually go to the races. Last year the reaction was that it was all a bit dull, but this year it has been completely the opposite, which can’t be bad.
All this rather overshadowed Jody Scheckter’s drive, which must have been one of his best. In our photograph taken behind the pits on the opening lap Scheckter is next to last, only Fittipaldi is behind him, and this was brought about by his clutch playing up at the start and overheating. He cooled it for that first lap, crossing the timing line in 19th place with the clutch now biting properly, and by the next corner he was 18th. He then carved his way up to 16th on lap two, then 14th on lap three, 11th on lap four and on up to third place by lap 26. By all normal standards anyone in 19th place on the opening lap might as well forget about the race, and a lot of drivers would have done, but Scheckter rose nobly to the challenge. When Villeneuve went out he moved into second place, where he finished. At no time did he make up time on the leaders, but that is no disgrace, for they were not hanging about. Some days Scheckter can be a bear, other days he acts like a hero, and this was one of them.
The man that won the race was not without merit either, for Alan Jones is a hard-driving winner whichever way you look at it. He’s stocky, rugged, tough and unrelenting and during the race he had to cope with a gearbox that baulked about going into one gear and later jumped out of another gear. The way he braked hard in a straight line and let Villeneuve spin across in front of him was brilliant and so typical of the man, for he never gets in a flap. His consistency of lap times was outstanding, for after the race the time-keepers gave us a complete list of all his 75 lap times. On lap 24, 25 and 26 his times were 1 min. 20.442 sec., 1 min. 20.444 sec. and 1 min. 20.414 sec. and there were many more in that bracket. His fastest lap was 1 min. 19.444 sec. on lap 46 as he closed on Villeneuve, realising the Ferrari was in trouble. When he had to brake while Villeneuve spun his lap time dropped to 1 min. 23.096 sec. and immediately went back to 1 min. 20.048sec. At lap 64 he eased off to 1 min. 21.733 sec. and for the last three laps he dropped to 1 min. 24.4 sec. No wonder his team think he’s great.
In the first practice session there was a disaster with the official time-keeping and results were not published until after 6 p.m., practice having finished at 2.30 p.m. The reason was given as trouble at the computer, for the times were being sent direct to a computer in Rotterdam to be processed and returned in tabulated form for instant read-out. From all accounts the computer did not give trouble, it merely did what it had been told to do, namely process the lap times for one hour. Someone had goofed on programming the machine, thinking that timed practice was for one hour instead of 1 1/2 hours! Don’t ask me how they sorted that one out, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Ending on a sad note, last year Team Lotus scored a resounding 1-2 with Andretti and Peterson in the fabulous Lotus 79. This year Andretti and Reutemann were still using the Lotus 79 cars but both retired by lap 10 and before the race was really under way the Lotus pits were completely empty. Even worse for lotus fans is the fact that the win last year was the last Lotus victory (officially) in a Grand Prix. Though Andretti won last year’s Italian GP he was penalised out of victory. A Lotus doldrum has happened before, and it will no doubt happen again, but in the meantime they will be back on top, for Colin Chapman doesn’t give up that easily. – D.S.J.