Unsurprisingly, the pit lane at the first Grand Prix of the 1979 season was full of Lotus 79 copies. Early in the year, Ligier’s JS11 was the best adaptation of "ground effect" principles. Jacques Laffite dominated the first two races, and Patrick Depailler, whose season was to be cruelly cut short by a hang-gliding accident, added a further victory for the team. As the season progressed however, Ligier lost its way and proved unable to sustain its challenge.
Lotus, meanwhile, found that the edge it enjoyed the previous year had vanished. Although Carlos Reutemann and Mario Andretti used the Lotus 79 to finish in the points early on, it was no longer the quickest car. Its replacement, the theoretically more advanced Lotus 80, finished third in Spain but this proved to be false promise. The car was dropped and the team would not win again until 1982.
Jody Scheckter moved to Ferrari after a fallow year at Wolf and formed a successful partnership with Gilles Villeneuve. The French-Canadian was quicker over a single lap but Scheckter was more consistent come raceday. Early Villeneuve wins gave way to Scheckter victories as the season progressed. Fittingly, Scheckter clinched the title by winning at Monza and Villeneuve added to the Italian crowd’s delirium by finishing second.
The dominant car in the second half of the season was the new Williams FW07 in which Clay Regazzoni scored the team’s first victory at the British GP. Alan Jones won more four races after mid-season but this pace was too late to mount a championship challenge.
Jean-Pierre Jabouille scored the first win for Renault and for a turbocharged engine at the French GP. However, the race is best remembered for an exuberant, wheel-to-wheel battle for second position in the closing laps. Rene Arnoux and Villeneuve repeatedly passed and re-passed each other – their cars often touching and often off the road – until Villeneuve eventually won the position.
Brabham had a frustrating final year with 12-cylinder Alfa Romeo engines. The team reverted to Ford-power by introducing the new BT49 at the Canadian GP. Team leader Niki Lauda controversially retired from the sport at that race (although he would return in 1982), but young Brazilian Nelson Piquet was immediately on the pace in the BT49, qualifying on the front row for the year’s final race at Watkins Glen. Alfa Romeo sporadically entered a Carlo Chiti-run works team for the first time since 1951.