1979 South African Grand Prix
- Saturday, March 3, 1979
- Simba South African Grand Prix
- F1 World Championship
After the severe ruffling that the Ligier team gave everyone in South America there was a lot of activity and most teams were out at Kyalami long before official practice began. Ferrari sent out two brand new cars, designated T4, which were a complete redesign around the proven flat 12-cylinder engine and the transverse gearbox/final drive unit, in an attempt to make better use of airflow. It did not take Scheckter and Villeneuve long to appreciate the new cars and the muletta T3 was soon discarded as being obsolete, yet only 12 months ago it was the latest thing from Maranello. Although everyone was twittering about “wing cars” and “ground effects” during the testing sessions, anyone who was paying attention to what was actually happening would have realised that brake-horse-power was the real name of the game, and in particular the ability not to lose what you had got. Kyalami lies 5,500 feet above sea-level and has a very long flat-out section. While everyone was fluttering about on aerodynamics Renault arrived with their 1978 cars, which are about as aerodynamic as a house-brick, and not much bigger than a Formula Two car, and blew everyone into obscurity by means of sheer b.h.p. The Ligier team did not arrive for any testing, preferring to experiment at Paul Ricard, in comparative peace and quiet.
Over the past ten years the South African GP has changed its character from one of a social gathering and a holiday to a high-pressure business activity for making the maximum amount of money in the minimum amount of time, just like any other Formula One Event. The race is always held on a Saturday and in the past practice was held on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday kept clear for preparing the cars, the track and the organisation. Few people complained about the arrangement and for most if was very popular, but this year Ecclestone and his lot put a stop to it all by announcing that official practice would be on Thursday and Friday, with no break before the race.
When the Kyalami circuit was opened for times practice on Thursday morning the skies were grey and over-cast and the temperature was distinctly cool, which was just what the turbo-charged Renault V6 engine wanted. While everyone else was worrying about their aerodynamics Jean-Pierre Jabouille went out and recorded 1 min. 11.80 sec., a whole second faster that most people had been doing during testing sessions, when hand-timing tends to be optimistic. Before a lot of people realised what had happened the sun came through the overcast and the air temperature rose dramatically and it was all over. The two Ferraris had almost broken the 1 min 12 sec. barrier, with Scheckter on 1 min. 12.04 sec. and Villeneuve on 1 min. 12.07 sec. The fastest three cars were all on Michelin tyres and horsepower was obviously still very important on a fast circuit like Kyalami. In a surprising fourth place was Lauda with the V12 Alfa Romeo-powered Brabham BT48, the new Italian engine beginning to look promising. After that it was the Ligier team once more leading all the Cosworth-powered cars, indicating that South American was not a flash-on-the-pan as far as Goodyear-shod “kit-cars” were concerned. With the rise in track temperature there was little hope of improvement and in the afternoon session the Renault team rested on their laurels and did not bother to practise. The new-boy of the team, Rene Arnoux, had done a respectable 1 min. 12.69 sec., which put him well among the favoured runners, so he didn’t practise in the afternoon either. For what it was worth Villeneuve was fastest in the afternoon, but a whole second slower than Jabouille’s morning time. The day ended on a slight air of disbelief, for after all the working and scheming and theorising about “ground effect” cars, the engine was still proving to be the real heart of a Formula One car. The Renault keeps demonstrating that its turbocharged 1½-litre V6 engine develops a lot of power, and its reliability factor is improving steadily. Nobody has ever doubted the ability of the Ferrari engineers to produce horsepower, and now it looked as though the new V12 Alfa Romeo engine was working well.