Gunnar Nilsson enjoyed the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder last weekend and he may have been the only one. On a day when the dingy circuit was made even more gloomy by appalling weather, the Swedish JPS Lotus driver scored a magnificent, if somewhat unexpected, victory after taking the lead from Niki Lauda's Ferrari with 20 laps to go. It was one of those wet-dry-wet races where fortunes fluctuate constantly and lap charts are a joke, but Nilsson made no mistakes all afternoon and thoroughly deserved his first grand prix win.
Lauda, after leading for 30 laps, had to be content with second place, being followed in by Ronnie Peterson's Tyrrell P34, the best finish Ronnie has so far achieved for Ken. A good drive by Vittorio Brambilla brought Team Surtees its first points this year, the Italian taking fourth place, ahead of Alan Jones's Shadow and Hans Stuck's Brabham-Alfa Romeo.
James Hunt, after showing in practice that the McLaren M26 is getting to be very good indeed, opted to start the race on slicks, the only man to do so. In hindsight, it was a bad decision, for the track took some time to dry out and by that time James was completely out of contention, lapped by the leaders after quarter of an hour. But it was a gamble and, had the track dried out quickly, Hunt would have been in good shape. As it was, he finished seventh, out of the points yet again.
In many ways, a remarkable race, this. Seven different drivers led it, for example, John Watson, Jody Scheckter, Jochen Mass, Brambilla, David Purley (!), Lauda and Nilsson.
Watson started from the front row with Mario Andretti and took the lead at the start. But both men were out before the end of the first lap, Watson spinning after being tapped by Andretti, who also went off the road. Scheckter then led for 15 laps until he, too, spun off, whereupon Mass, Brambilla and Purley had brief spells at the front as pitstops for dry tyres began. Once everyone was on slicks, Lauda established a good lead but the Austrian lost time with a spin when lapping Purley, and Nilsson caught and passed him at two-thirds distance.
Inevitably there were a great many spins and incidents during the 70 laps, but no-one was hurt, mercifully, the one happy aspect - apart from Nilsson's great drive - of a thoroughly miserable weekend.
Patrick Neve (Williams Grand Prix Engineering March 761 Ford) © LAT
A cheerless place, Zolder. Over the years, 'new' grand prix circuits acquire some sense of history - or, at least, some of them do. The Osterreichring is a good example of that. Only seven years the stage for a round of the World Championship, the place nonetheless acquired a certain 'feel'; when you're there, it seems like an important place, the race an event of some consequence. But Zolder, like Jarama and Paul Ricard, lacks atmosphere.
At Jarama, there is always the sentiment that one would infinitely prefer to be up the road at Barcelona; at Paul Ricard, thoughts of Clermont-Ferrand and Rouen are never far from your mind. And at Zolder, as you drive to the circuit, you pass signs to Spa and it takes a conscious effort not to follow them. There it sits, in virtual disguise save for annual visits by Barry Sheene's brigade (that's right, they still ride bikes there) and the 24-hour saloon car race.
But back to Zolder. Despite its forest setting, which is pleasant, it always seems very much like a 'bargain-basement' circuit. There is something rather tawdry about it. And the paddock defies description, an uneasy blend of fairground and POW camp. If that sounds harsh, well, that's the way it is. There is constant banal pop music (the kind that always scores well in the Eurovision Song Contest) over the PA system, there are stalls selling chips and chewing gum and ice cream, and the whole lot is wrapped up in high fencing. Everything seems to be fenced off, and the whole atmosphere is rather unpleasant and claustrophobic. To that lot, add a liberal sprinkling of Belgian police - everyone auditioning for the riot squad - and you will begin to gain some insight into the Zolder paddock.
On Friday morning, it was even more daunting than usual, for the sky was black and there was constant drizzle. The place even denied us the drama and majesty of a thunderstorm. Virtually throughout the day, there was merely this incessant fine rain that soaks you right through.
However, for the first few minutes of the opening qualifying session, the track was almost completely dry. Most of the drivers, therefore, dashed out immediately in the hope of putting in a reasonably quick one before the rains came down. As at Monte Carlo, the first car to really get moving was Hans Stuck's Brabham Alfa-Romeo, but after 20 minutes or so, most people were trying really hard and it seemed like the final hour rather than the start of the first session.
Into the chicane behind the pits, Niki Lauda's Ferrari arrived a couple of times, smoke pouring from the front tyres, locked up for 20 yards or so. The Austrian looked to be on splendid form, as usual, the Ferrari apparently the quickest car on the circuit. But while the sight and sound of the Italian cars can fool the senses of the most sanguine and experienced observer, the stopwatch tells a different tale.
When the first session - 90 minutes - most of them damp - was over, the names of Mario Andretti and John Player Team Lotus were atop the lists, almost half a second clear of anyone else. Here we go again. Four weeks after Jarama, with the same apparent lack of effort he exhibited there, Andretti was psyching everyone once more. But no-one, surely not even Colin Chapman or Andrew Ferguson, can have been ready for the margin of superiority which Mario showed in the last session.
No one needs to be told how competitive modern grand prix racing is; usually pole position is won by hundredths of a second, sometimes a tenth, rarely a fifth. On Saturday afternoon, working quietly and efficiently, with no show of opposite locking or tyre-smoking, Mario began to set times which made one doubt one's stopwatch. While most of the other front-runners were struggling to get below the 1m27s, the American calmly drove Chapman's latest miracle round in 1m24.64s... It was fantastic and almost unbelievable. Jody, Niki, John, Carlos, Jacques, all looked quicker than the Lotus, but they weren't even close. Finally, Watson put in a 1m26.18s; more than a second and a half from Andretti, it nonetheless meant a place on the front row.
After a great deal of speculation about Andretti's recent domination of the Spanish Grand Prix, that it was achieved because his car was running with a locked differential, Mario would not be drawn upon questions of that kind. Diffs were the talk of the paddock all weekend. "Oh well, he's running his locked diff again," people were blithely saying in answer to incredulous faces as the practice times went up. 'Locked diff' is, in fact, a misnomer for 'very limited slip diff' is nearer the truth.
What Lotus have done is to reduce considerably the amount of slip in the differential so that, with any opening of the throttle, virtually the same amount of drive goes to each rear wheel. Conventionally, of course, a limited slip diff favours the wheel with the most grip at any time - in other words, the outside wheel in any corner. The majority of the 490 odd horsepower favours that outside wheel, which, naturally enough, has a tendency to spin uselessly, thereby wasting a lot of the power, right?
So, you say, reducing the amount of slip in the diff - as Andretti and Lotus have done - is only logical. If the power is evenly distributed between both the driven wheels, there will be far less wheelspin, infinitely better traction. That much, quite obviously, is true. But every silver lining has a cloud, and here the problem is that a completely different driving technique is called for.
With the diff set up thus, driving 'on rails' becomes an absolute necessity because every time you press the throttle, the car wants to go straight. You cannot come barrelling into a turn, set the thing up and take it through the corner in an opposite lock powerslide. The technique, it seems, is to go through the turn very smoothly, keeping an almost constant throttle all the way through until are pointing the way you want to go. Then you hit the throttle, both wheels bite hard into the road, and you're gone.
Gunnar Nilsson (Lotus 78 Ford) © LAT
So does it dictate a style of driving somewhat alien to the grand prix driver, and, just as many people found during the four-wheel-drive fad back in 1969, it is no easy matter to slap down your basic instincts and persuade yourself to drive to a whole new set of rules. People driving a turbocharged car for the first time say the same thing; to unlearn deeply entrenched habits - in the frenetic confines of an F1 cockpit - can be distinctly unnerving at first. Nilsson, for example, has tried his car with very little slip in the diff, and so far cannot get along with it.
Andretti, however, has become accustomed to the necessary technique over a number of years, for it is common practice in the USAC racing, where smoothness round the oval tracks and good traction out of the turns are everything. You don't see people hanging the tail out at Indianapolis; when that happens, the driver is in trouble.
Possibly Andretti is at a distinct advantage over all his rivals here. Not only does he have experience of driving with very little slip in the diff; it may well be that he has fewer instinctive driving habits to eliminate when doing so. Mario has not spent the past few years concentrating only on driving a conventional grand prix car. No, he has been winning at Daytona with a NASCAR stocker, at Indianapolis with a turbocharged USAC car, at Indiana States Fairgrounds with a front-engined sprinter, at Terre Haute with a championship dirt car, at Kyalami with a Formula 1 Ferrari, at Sebring with a seven-litre Ford or Ferrari 512S...
In short, he had raced pretty well every type pf car, all calling for different techniques, constant changes of approach, and, to some extent, he continues the practice now. Therefore, it may well be that he acclimatises himself to something new rather more easily than would his fellow F1-only colleagues.
Questions about the diff brought a grin to the American's face over the weekend. "Well, we're playin' around with different things, you know..." And what were his feelings about Zolder? "Same as Jarama, I guess. The car likes it, so I like it." For Belgium, his JPS 78 was once more fitted with its familiar Nicholson engine, victorious at Long Beach and Jarama. Andretti said that he had been impressed with the 'development' Cosworth engine he had used at Monaco, but there were none of these units in Belgium.
Almost as happy as Andretti, Nilsson qualified third in the other 78. Like his team-mate, Gunnar was reluctant to discuss the subject of differentials, but did allow that his car's diff has a deal more slip than Mario's. "I prefer mine like this. Mario and I have different styles of driving, you know." Watching the two of them, out on the circuit, the difference was marked, Gunnar opposite-locking in spectacular style, Mario smooth as you like.
At the very end of Saturday morning's unofficial session, Gunnar blew a £7,500 hole in the side of his engine. Stopwatches had had him second quickest to Andretti in the session, so he was a little apprehensive about repeating the performance with the spare, long wheelbase, car during the final hour. As it transpired, he did himself and the team proud, only Watson's Brabham-Alfa preventing an all-JPS front row.
John was fresh back from a visit to Indianapolis - he wasn't so impressed - and was distinctly unwell all weekend, suffering from some kind of virus. With the glands in his neck very swollen, he was far from comfortable but nonetheless drove the BT45B as forcefully as ever. The cars themselves were largely unchanged although both were fitted with very long sideplates on the rear wings, similar to those tried on a Brambilla March some time ago. Hans Stuck, in the other car, was back on the ninth row, a long way from his starting position at Monaco, but his efforts during the final session were hampered by a broken rev counter.
Next to Nilsson's JPS, on the second row, was the inevitable Jody Scheckter with the Wolf. During testing the week before the race, the South African had been one of the very quickest, but, of course, all those times were made obsolete by Andretti.
Jody is rarely entirely happy with his car - which probably makes him the driver he is - but was not too unhappy after practice. At the left-hander after the pits, he was immensely spectacular, flicking the Wolf sideways, applying a large measure of right-hand lock and steering the car round on the throttle. Every time he did that, onlookers, complete strangers, looked at each other and grinned.
Friday night must have been an apprehensive one for Patrick Depailler. If Saturday turned out wet, he wasn't going to get a race. For Zolder, his regular race car was fitted with the new rear suspension, the most striking feature being extremely short top links. At the beginning of the first session on Friday, however, the Frenchman went out in the spare car, putting in only a very few laps, and by the time he got out in the race car, it was drizzling hard. At the end of Friday qualifying, the name of Patrick Depailler was, unbelievably, at the bottom of the charts.
Patrick Depailler © LAT
However, his few laps in the race car (with the new suspension) were sufficient to convince him that there was a definite improvement in handling. Immediately, therefore, Ken Tyrrell contacted the workshops in Ripley, and similar bits were made up for Ronnie Peterson's car and flown out on the same day. "Let's face it, we're right in it," said Ken before the last session. "Patrick says there's a slight improvement with the new bits, so we've got to use them. I can't say that official practice is a good time to try new things - that should be done during testing - but we're nearly three seconds off Andretti's pace. We've just got to try anything we can."
At the start of the last hour, it seemed for a few minutes that Depailler might even finish up on the pole. As the cars were waved out of the pits, one of the first was Tyrrell number Four and Patrick was soon driving as if his life depended on it. There was good reason for this: the sky was black and threatening, and he simply had to set a time to get him into the race. That was the first essential, but he did more than that, finally qualifying fifth after a really great effort.
Ronnie Peterson also found the new suspension markedly better taking more than 2.5s off his Friday time, and finishing up eighth fastest. During Friday afternoon's totally wet session - in which conditions Ronnie always shows well - his wonderful car control was much in evidence all the way round the circuit as he hurled the Tyrrell round, second fastest (to Scheckter) of the afternoon.
A couple of weeks ago, it was thought that both James Hunt and Jochen Mass would be running McLaren M26s in the Belgian Grand Prix, but only one car was rolled out of the transporter. Jochen's is not yet ready, and he is unlikely to be seen in it before the French GP. Not that it seemed to bother him overly; in his usual M23, the German was on great form in practice, finally qualifying sixth.
Behind him on the grid, for only the second time since he joined McLaren, was Hunt, who qualified the M26 ninth. There were several changes to the car since its last appearance, in Spain, the most outwardly obvious being the adoption of a large oil cooler in the nose of the car, in place of the two smaller units previously mounted above the water radiators under the rear wing. This has also enabled the team to tidy up the plumbing. As well as this, there are minor changes to the front suspension geometry, and the twin calliper brake system has been replaced temporarily by single four-pot callipers.
In the first session, Hunt was third fastest, and indeed there was the promise of more to come for the M26 has proved fastest of all during testing. But the second session was a wash-out, of course, and James was unfortunate enough to blow his engine on the very first lap of the last, dry hour. Abandoning the car out on the circuit, he ran back to the pits and was soon out in his M23, but was unable to equal Mass's time. No matter; he was well pleased with the new car and confident of its potential.
So where were the Ferraris? Carlos Reutemann qualified seventh and Niki Lauda - yes, Niki Lauda - 11th! Their times were hard to believe, the two of them looking for all the world like front row candidates, whirling round the circuit with great dabs of power through the slow corners and opposite locking. The cars were still beset with the oversteer problems which have plagued them all year long.
Throughout practice, Lauda was giving monosyllabic answers to questions about his car; the French word for it is merde. Was the handling consistent, at least? "Yes, consistently merde..." After practice was over, the scene was just like that at Jarama a month ago, Lauda stalking round with a tense grin on his face, inwardly seething. To a man of Niki's temperament, the sixth row was no more than flesh and blood could stand. And, just as in Spain, Reutemann was relatively happy. The cars were not handling properly, but he had driven the thing as hard as he knew how. He could do no more than that.
Both Ferraris were running huge amounts of rear wing in an effort to get the back to stick down, sacrificing some of their horsepower for grip. But the manner in which the tails would flick out of line at the slightest provocation indicated that the sacrifice was in vain. At the end of practice, Lauda was fined 1000 Swiss francs for thrice ignoring the man with the stop-go sign at the end of the pitlane, and Reutemann, who had sinned only once, was warned.
After his depressing time in qualifying at Monaco, Jacques Laffite was much more his usual smiling self at Zolder. "Yes, I am very happy with the car here. You know, after Monaco we found that the car had a faulty shock absorber and that is why we had such problems with oversteer and traction there. Here, it's much better." Last year, of course, Jacques drove a fabulous race with the Ligier JS5, finishing third and winning the non-Ferrari race. With the JS7, he said he thought he could do well in the race. The race car, incidentally, is still fitted with a 73-type Matra V12, the team keeping the 76-type in the spare.
Jacques Laffite © LAT
Through the Heuer speed trap, set up on the straight behind the pits, both the Surtees TS19s were tremendously quick, recording the second and sixth fastest speeds, and team leader Vittorio Brambilla finished up 12th fastest in practice, slotting the Beta car onto row six, alongside Lauda's Ferrari. Vittorio was delighted with his car ("Yes, handling bene, bene...") but less pleased with his engine, which he thought a little down on power. The fact that, even so, the car was so quick through the trap indicates how slippery the little car is. Surtees F1 cars have always been among the quickest in a straight line.
Joining him for Zolder (and maybe a little longer) was Larry Perkins, having his first ride since the Kyalami debacle with the BRM P201. "It feels a little unstable at very high speeds, and it's a little twitchy under braking. The car I drove at Goodwood felt more stable. I like it a lot, basically, mind you. It's nice to drive a proper car again. I've just got to get my boot in it this afternoon and make sure I qualify."
This he managed, finishing up 23rd on the 26-car grid. Back from Indianapolis to resume his seat in the Ensign was Clay Regazzoni, full of enthusiasm for his American jaunt: "I don't understand. At the start, pace car go in, green light go on, into first turn and everybody brake! I don't understand this..." However, to the Belgian Grand Prix, the business of the weekend. It began badly, for Clay blew an engine on the very first lap of the first session.
But he went out immediately in the spare car and, without making any adjustments, put in the 11th best time of the morning. On Saturday, the team had the misfortune to lose yet another engine. Despite improving his time, Clay nonetheless dropped to 13th place on the grid.
Next to him was one of the revelations of practice: Arturo Merzario and his privately-entered March 761B, more than a second clear of anything else from Bicester. After only a handful of laps in the last session, Art lost fourth gear. "Otherwise I do a mid-26, no problem," he said. Quite why Merzario was so much quicker than the other Marches, no one - least of all the other drivers - could explain. But certainly it was apparent that he was having a real old go, charging into the turns, sawing away at the wheel and thoroughly enjoying himself.
The other revelation was next. Riccardo Patrese has the makings of a great grand prix driver, of that there is no doubt. On only his second appearance for the Shadow team, the young Italian proved quicker than team leader Alan Jones, and his confidence in the cockpit is utterly remarkable for one of so little experience. At the left-hander after the pits, approached at around 150mph, plumes of smoke came off his front tyres lap after lap, as he left his braking to the very latest. Every time around, his right hand would appear at the top of the wheel as he turned into the corner, and there it would stay until he was out of it, never moving at all. There was no juggling with the wheel, simply a single confident movement which was enough to hit the apex perfectly every lap.
Just a fifth slower was Jones, who had no complaints at all about his car: "No, really I'm entirely happy with it, handling, traction, everything." Both Shadows had slightly revised suspension geometry for Zolder.
Between them, 16th in line, was Emerson Fittipaldi with the new Copersucar. Was it to be known as the FD05, I enquired of Wilson? "No, just F5" was the short, sharp answer. The D for Divillia was gone, so where was the B for Baldwin? No answer to that one. Although the car looked very twitchy through the back chicane, Emerson's overall impressions were good and he anticipates the next few races with pleasure. The car, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the Ensign (for which Dave Baldwin was also responsible), and, interestingly, the two cars recorded almost identical speeds through the speed trap, both being way down the list.
Rupert Keegan was most unhappy with the handling of his Hesketh. "I go into a corner with bad understeer, and then suddenly it changes to violent oversteer." After Friday's qualifying sessions, Rupert hadn't qualified, and people were saying that he, rather than the car, was at fault. It was, after all, a mere five days since that miraculous escape from the aeroplane accident at Le Touquet. And Keegan made no bones about it: it had frightened the hell out of him.
"I was alright soon afterwards, but then, when I was playing tennis the day after, it suddenly hit me." On Saturday, though, he was able to qualify easily. Harald Ertl's efforts just got him into the race, but he looked likely to go off the road at any time, his lines through the corners varying considerably from lap to lap. And Hector Rebaque's brand new Marlboro-sponsored 308E put in a godly number of laps, without ever looking likely to make the race.
Lining up alongside Keegan was David Purley's Lec, taking part in its first grand prix. 'Pearls' looked certain to qualify right from the start of practice, and reckoned he should have been higher up the grid, his own team's timing getting him a full second better than the 1m28.1s with which he was officially credited. Moreover, he was hampered in the last session by the weight penalty of 20 gallons of fuel.
"We couldn't get any fuel pressure with less than that in the tank, so we had no choice. Apparently there was air in the fuel system, so nothing more serious than that. I think we might go quite well tomorrow." The team's biggest worry at present is a lack of money. "We've used up all the Lec sponsorship," said David. "And now we're running entirely on my money. I don't know how long we can carry on without another sponsor."
Ian Scheckter (Team Rothmans March 761B Ford) © LAT
Ian Scheckter concentrated on the new March 771 on Friday, but switched to the old 761B halfway through Saturday morning's unofficial session. "I know the new one's basically a lot better, but we don't have the time to sort it out properly here. For the sake of setting a time, I'm going to stick with the 761 for the race."
Out for the first time in his new McLaren M23 (the 13th to be built), Brett Lunger was in good spirits: "This is a real race car!" Frank Williams has a new March at Zolder for Patrick Neve, the young Belgian having written off the original car during testing the week before. The car ran for the first time when practice got underway but Patrick managed to qualify alright, despite complaining of a diabolical roll oversteer.
All things being equal, Jean-Pierre Jarier should have been much higher up the grid with the ATS PC4. Early in the first session, the Frenchman was running in a new gearbox and when he was ready to get mobbing, the rain started. Nonetheless, he was impressed with the handling in the rain and was eighth quickest in the really wet second session. But fuel-metering problems on Saturday afternoon meant that he only just scraped in, 26th and last.
Those who didn't were Boy Jayje with the F&S March, Emilio de Villota, who looked much less confident in his M23 than at downtown Jarama, Conny Andersson, whose BRM put in a lot of laps and seemed marginally less uncompetitive (as opposed to more competitive) than before, Alex Ribeiro, who crashed his March yet again on Saturday morning, and Hector Rebaque. And there was Bernard de Dryver, the unremarkable Belgian F2 person, hiring Brian Henton's March for this race. As he regularly fails to qualify for F2 races, his performance at Zolder was not unexpected. Mikko Kosarowitsky, who should have made his F1 debut with a March, withdrew because of a shortage of engines - he had blown two at Silverstone the week before.
When practice was all done with and the times became known, there was general disbelief at the margin of Andretti's superiority, but there was no reason to doubt it. In the last hour, he had circulated consistently in the low 25s while the other frontrunners were looking wistfully at 1m26s. 1.5 seconds... What was happening here? If the rain held off, it as going to be a massacre, nothing less. The only other crumb of hope for others was the thought that Zolder is notoriously vicious with racing cars, wearing down transmissions and, particularly, brakes. Huge brake ducts were much in evidence.
As well as this, it is not easy to gear for Zolder, as was apparent throughout practice, for regularly one heard the machine gun chatter of rev limiters letting the drivers know that enough was enough. And there had been an unusually high number of blow-ups, What was depressing for all but the JPS team, however, was the thought that Andretti would have no cause to hammer his brakes or stretch his engine. Why, the car had even recorded the third quickest speed through the traps. Once a problem with the JPS 78, now even its straightline performance was good.
"God's in his heaven - all's right with the world." I know not where Robert Browning was when he wrote those words but, sure as hell, it wasn't Zolder. Conversely, he may well have been there when he wrote "Oh, to be in England now that April's here." Hell, forget April, any old month will do.
If the atmosphere had been murky during the two days of qualification, it was downright unpleasant on race day. It was dark, damp, cold, miserable, just as before. But there were additional factors to compound the gloom. The riot squad was out in force, the traffic was heavy and the whole thing was garnished with the fragrant aroma of good old open Flemish sewers. The POW camp picture was complete. Spectators rising to experience the joys of the paddock for themselves were first requested to part with £25 for the privilege! Many of those already in there were giving serious consideration to tunnelling out. It must be the only grand prix in the world with an escape committee...
A consolation, however, the only consolation, was the thought that we might, after all, have a race rather than a foregone conclusion. From the sky, it was obvious that rain, great Flemish drops of it, was inevitable at some stage during the day. In the Lotus pit, Andretti glanced apprehensively at the sky. For once, however, pretty well every other driver and team manager wanted rain, and plenty of it.
The will of the majority won the day. Towards the end of the Super Renault race, the rain started to come down, heavily at first, and as 3pm approached, conditions were bad. The road was thoroughly soaked and, although the rain had stopped temporarily, a tremendous gale was blowing up, battering the hoardings and blowing great quantities of sand all over the track. Indeed, from the first corner, the squall was such that the pits seemed to be almost hidden in a sandstorm.
Nonetheless, round they came on their warm-up lap, every last one of them on slicks. No, surely not... At the end of the lap, however, engines were cut, the PA system announced that it was officially a wet race and the entire procedure had to be gone through again. What to use: slicks or wets? The old, old, story, the team manager's dilemma.
By now, the drizzle had started once more, and that seemed to answer the question. Wets it had to be. But then, to everyone's absolute astonishment, Hunt's McLaren M26 rolled up to the dummy grid, still shod with slicks. Brave gamble it certainly was, but it still seemed curious. Of course, if the track dried out quickly, James was going to be in clover, but really it didn't look very likely.
Mario Andretti leads start of the Belgian Grand Prix © LAT
After taking the pole at Monte Carlo and then getting beaten to the draw by Scheckter, Watson was determined not to let the same thing happen again and he made a superb getaway to lead Andretti and the rest into the first turn where, amazingly, there were only a couple of spins, by Ertl and Ian Scheckter, both of whom continued. Out on to the back straight, Watson still led, followed closely by Andretti, Nilsson and Jody Scheckter.
The spray on that first lap was terrible, only Watson having a clear view of what was happening, the rest driving into nothing. Then, as so often happens on these occasions, there was disaster for the two leaders at one of those damnable chicanes, just before the pits. As Watson braked, the Brabham-Alfa's gearbox was nudged by the nose of Andretti's JPS; in an instant, both cars were spinning off the road. After only two miles, the front row was out for the day. There was virtually no damage to the Brabham - the exhaust pipes had been closed up somewhat - but it came to rest with a dead engine, and John's repeated efforts to start the thing proved fruitless. After the race, the mechanics went down to collect the car and the engine fired up on the button...
Back in the paddock, Watson was understandably upset: "Oh yes, Mario apologised, but... I mean, both cars were out of the race... I don't know, what have you got to do?" His voice tails off, he purses his lips, shrugs, looks at the sky. One solitary point he has. Currently unquestionably the leading British driver, right up there in nearly every race, he has only one sixth place to show for it.
Andretti's team-mate Nilsson also went off briefly at the chicane but was able to get back on the road before losing too much time. As he did so, however, Jody Scheckter sneaked the Wolf through and past, and as they came by at the end of the first, eventful, lap, the South Arican led from Nilsson, Mass, Reutemann, Laffite, Depailler, Lauda and Peterson.
Once in the lead, Scheckter started to go away, little by little, with Nilsson and Mass close together in second and third place, then a gap to Reutemann and the rest. Behind this bunch was a fast closing Brambilla, revelling in the rain as always, really charging along to overtake Peterson on the fourth lap and Depailler on the fifth. The first retirement of the race was that of Fittipaldi, who brought his new car to a stop behind the pits, its electrics completely soaked.
After only a few laps, it was obvious that Hunt's gamble was not about to pay off, the world champion tiptoeing round at the tail of the field, his slicks giving no grip at all in the atrocious conditions. At the Sterrewachbocht (whatever that means), the left-hander after the pits, the M26 seemed to be going through at walking pace, and it is to Hunt's great credit that he kept the car on the road at all. Only eight laps into the race, however, the Wolf had lapped the McLaren. It was staring to dry out now, but a minute and a half - even allowing for the others to stop for slicks - is a massive deficit to make up.
The first to stop for dry tyres were Stuck and Depailler, on laps seven and eight respectively, and this did seem a mite too soon for the track was still mainly wet rather than dry. Out at the front, Jody Scheckter looked untouchable, but behind him there were changes. On the ninth lap, Mass's M23 spun off, the German losing his third place to Reutemann's Ferrari in the process. The Argentine driver was really looking strong at this point, reeling in Nilsson all the time. Time after time, the Ferrari swept out of the Sterrewachbocht in beautifully-held powerslides, right up to the verge and no more.
After 10 laps, seven cars had detached themselves from the rest. Scheckter held an ever-increasing lead from Nilsson, Reutemann, Mass (catching up again after his spin), Brambilla, Laffite, and Lauda. Behind Niki, there was a gap to the next bunch which was led, incredibly, by young Patrese who was coping brilliantly with the conditions and leading Peterson, Regazzoni (who had also had a spin), Jones, Purley, Keegan, Ertl, Merzario (troubled by a recalcitrant fuel pump), Jarier and Neve. Sadly, Patrese's race came to an abrupt end on the 13th lap when he lost control of the Shadow at the right-hander on to the straight behind the pits, the car coming to rest against the guardrail.
Ronnie Peterson makes a pitstop in the Tyrrell P34 © LAT
And now started the rush to pitlane. Between laps 13 and 20, lap charts went to pieces. In they all came, Peterson, Lauda, Nilsson, Regazzoni, and the rest. And amidst the confusion in the pits, there was further drama out on the circuit. On the 15th lap, it was Reutemann's turn to spin, tearing the bodywork of the Ferrari and crumpling the rear wing. And a lap later, a stampede of photographers and a burst of harsh, guttural Flemish over the PA meant that something very important had happened. And, sure enough, it had. Very close to Patrese's abandoned Shadow was another car, off the road. Scheckter! With a lead of more than 15s, Jody had made a rare mistake and spun. Finally he was able to restart, now far back in eighth place.
For a couple of laps, Mass took over the lead before stopping for slicks, whereupon Brambilla took the Surtees to the front until he, too, stopped for rubber. So who led now? Remarkably it was David Purley in the Lec. Lordy, a privately entered car was leading a world championship grand prix. What was coming down here? It couldn't last, of course, and it didn't, for Purley had to come in for tyres like everyone else, but it was still nice to see.
So now we all had a real problem. Who was leading? Finally, it became clear that Niki Lauda, after a truly fantastic tyre change which occupied only 18 seconds, was in front, followed by Mass, Regazzoni, Jones, Brambilla, Scheckter, Nilsson and Laffite. Soon after his tyre change, poor Purley had to stop again for another front tyre.
While those on the track sorted themselves out, an angry Keegan was back in the paddock, changing into civvies. Altogether, it had been a trying day for him. Before the race, a variety of things - including a steering arm which was flexing - suggested that it would not be prudent to race his regular car, so Rebaque's Hesketh, which had not qualified, was hastily fitted with Rupert's seat and Penthouse bodywork for Keegan to use in the race. "I was lapping Boy Hayje," said Rupert later. "And he just turned straight into the side of me." The Dutchman, in fact, was in the race only because Bratt Lunger's McLaren refused to run properly after a late engine change just before the start.
And now the rain started again, a persistent drizzle rather than a deluge, but enough to make a lethal surface for slicks. Regazzoni was really flying along now, the Ensign catching Mass's McLaren, but a great effort by the Swiss came to an end on lap 31 when his DFV let go in a big way - the Ensign team's third blow-up of the weekend.
Two laps later, Laffite was missing from eighth spot, the Matra V12 blowing up all over the road, right in the braking area for the chicane! There were several anxious, twitchy moments as a result, but somehow no-one went off the road there.
While Mass closed up on Lauda, Scheckter pitted once more, coming out again on wet tyres! And into third place, driving very calmly, came Nilsson, who had passed Jones and Brambilla.
Gunnar Nilsson (Lotus 78 Ford) leads Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari 312T2) © LAT
The Swede's third place became second on lap 40, for Mass's superb showing had come to an end with another spin, the front of his McLaren quite badly damaged.
Now Lauda's lead was starting to look distinctly tenuous, for Nilsson was really pressing on, hoping that the surface would dry out, confident that his Lotus would then have the legs of the Ferrari. Indeed, he had no need of a dry track for, even in the drizzle, the leading Ferrari was getting bigger all the time. By the end of 49 laps, Gunnar was right on Niki's tail, and the next time around, he was past and going away. Behind them, Brambilla's Surtees was starting to come under pressure from Peterson, the Tyrrell driver moving past with 15 laps left. In fifth place, Jones soldiered on with seven cylinders and, in sixth spot, a lap behind, Stuck was really storming round in his Brabham-Alfa.
Once in the lead, Nilsson pulled swiftly away, building up an advantage of 20 seconds over Lauda. During the last few laps, he was content to cruise round behind Ertl, his lead at the finish being 14s. As he took the flag, Gunnar raised both arms aloft, just as Francois Cevert used to do, waving enthusiastically to the spectators all round the circuit. Victory in a Grand Epreuve! In only his second F1 season, he'd done it, and a superb drive it was too, in conditions which had caught out the likes of Andretti, Reutemann and Scheckter. The latter, incidentally, after looking a runaway winner in the early stages, finally retired a few laps from the end with engine trouble.
Lauda was quite happy afterwards, although somewhat upset with Purley who, he said, had blocked him three times while being lapped, finally causing him to spin. There was no Zolder hat-trick for him, but six points brought him right back on Scheckter's tail in the World Championship table. For Peterson, Brambilla and Stuck, there were the first championship points this year, and Jones finished in the money for the second time in a fortnight. Other good, competent drives came from Ertl and Neve, ninth and 10th.
Right after the race, the rain started once more, heavily this time, and everyone packed up quickly, eager to get out of this benighted place for another year. Over the PA system came a scratchy rendering of the Swedish national anthem in Gunnar's honour and, wouldn't you know it, the damn thing kept sticking until someone - suitably embarrassed, one hopes - pulled the needle off and put it out of its misery. Perhaps that best summed up the whole meeting.
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