Unlike his Argentine victory, Jacques Laffite's win in last Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix was no Sunday drive. He had to work hard for this one, for his team-mate Patrick Depailler pressured him for most of the 40-lap race to take the chequered flag only five seconds behind the make it a resounding Gitanes-Ligier double.
Depailler's challenge was not the only reason for Laffite's sweat-soaked brow and the lack of energy even to lift his trophy skywards at the end of the race. "Right from the start, the car was understeering badly," said Laffite. "I had to drive as hard as I could all the way. With Patrick only a couple of seconds away for most of the race, there was no chance to relax."
Fortunately for Laffite, Depailler also had his problems, serious oversteer became progressively worse as the fuel load lightened, and he dropped away slowly in the closing stages.
But, despite their handling problems, this was the Ligiers' race. Laffite set a new race and lap record, as he did in Argentina, and no other car even came close to challenging the two flying Frenchmen.
Their closest opposition was once again the Martini-Lotus 79 of Carlos Reutemann, but, as the Argentine said afterwards, "My car was okay, but just too slow to get near the Ligiers." Reutemann holds his second place in the points standings with third place, almost a minute behind the winning car.
The real race was for fourth position. Didier Pironi finally took the precious three points in his Tyrrell 009 after a fierce struggle with Jody Scheckter's Ferrari in the opening laps, and at the expense of Emerson Fittipaldi. Emerson drove a good race with the outdated Copersucar F5, only to have his performance spoiled by a loose rear wheel that dropped him well back in the final results.
Gilles Villeneuve and Scheckter took the final points, although both Ferraris made a stop for a change of rubber. Scheckter lost his place to Villeneuve after a longer stop, after staying out too long on his Michelin tyres that proved to be the wrong ones for the job.
One of the best drives of the race, although it was not reflected by his eventual 10th place, came from Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the turbo Renault. After stalling his car at the start, he carved his way back through the field from last to sixth place, only to drop back down the lap charts again with a stop for fresh front tyres. The chassis and engine had performed admirably, so there was some consolation for the disappointed Renault camp.
Alan Jones put up a strong drive with the Saudia-Williams, only to have it come to nought seven laps from the end with falling fuel pressure, which let the Ferraris back into the points a lap behind the leaders. The next places went to the two Arrows of Jochen Mass and Riccardo Patrese, who were split by John Watson's McLaren M28 in the closing laps of the race, all three cars running below par because of handling problems.
World Champion Mario Andretti's chances of a good placing were over almost before the race had started, for a leaking diaphragm in the fuel system caused a small fire, putting him out after just two laps. A loose steering rack spoiled James Hunt's chances in the Olympus-Wolf early on, as did a sloppy gear linkage on Niki Lauda's new Parmalat Brabham BT48. Both these cars, however, showed considerable improvement since their debut two weeks before.
Entry & practice
John Watson, McLaren M28 Ford, in the pits © LAT
Of all the tracks currently used on the grand prix circuit, there is none more demanding on both driver and chassis than Interlagos. Designed way back in 1939, the five-mile track winds around within itself, and a natural amphitheatre makes it one of the best tracks for spectators. Its 14 corners, from ultra-fast curves to second-gear hairpins, demand all of a driver's skill and the utmost from his car. It is a truly fine circuit, made even better this year by a $2million spending spree on new stands, pits, press room and safety improvements. But what it still lacks more than anything else is a decent surface. Over the years, the track has dipped and bowed to the stresses of nature, until, now, it can certainly take first prize as the bumpiest track on the GP calendar.
A patchwork of resurfacing over the worst spots has added to the drivers' difficulties, and has done little to promote a feeling of well being when they are trying to lap at times close to a 200km per hour average lap speed.
On a fast lap, the cars jump around in violent jerks of protest, as if trying to rid themselves of their tormentors. Hanging on for dear life, the drivers can do nothing but ride out the wild bucking motion, too busy to be scared, it is a battle to keep their heads from being thrown to one side by the g-forces, as well as keep the track in focus as the vibration turns the strip of road ahead into a crazy blur. At Interlagos, the F1 drivers really earn their money, nowhere more so than in the flat-in-fifth left-hander at the end of the pit straight.
"You just hang on, point the car, and hope that it keeps to the line you have set it. The road goes blurred and you find your head leaning further and further over," said Alan Jones, one of the tougher drivers in the grand prix circus. Others have to tie their helmets to the epaulets of their overalls in a bid to keep their heads upright. Chassis must be set up to ride out the bumps, the long, fast, banked corners, the uphill and downhill hairpins and even the straights as best they can. At best, Interlagos is a compromise.
For Ferrari, Copersucar, Rebaque and Renault, who shipped their cars from Argentina to Brazil immediately after the first race, there were valuable days of pre-race testing. But, as official practice was soon to show a week later, if you are off the pace here, no amount of chassis adjusting is going to make that much difference.
After the sound thrashing dished out by the Ligier team in Argentina, their closest rivals came to Brazil with high hopes of narrowing the gap. "They had the edge around the difficult slower turns of the infield in Argentina - here it will be a much closer match," said the optimists among them.
But Gerard Ducarouge, the cocky team manager of the Gitanes-Ligier team, was never more sure of himself than at Interlagos. "We will blow everybody off - guaranteed," he predicted before practice had even begun. He was right. By the end of the first session, Laffite, still running his Argentina race engine and the chosen race tyres for this track, had obliterated December's best testing times by a full three seconds, and had shattered James Hunt's 1977 pole-winning time by over seven seconds.
11 laps was all the Frenchman needed to win pole position. For the rest of Friday afternoon, he wandered up and down the pitlane to see if anybody else looked like coming close. There was nobody, except his own team-mate Patrick Depailler. A fresh engine on Friday night brought Laffite his first troubles of the season, a fuel feed problem which could not be straightened out in the pitlane. In the first session on Saturday, two fifth gears found their way into the back of the gearbox, instead of a fourth and a fifth, so the final session reduced him to tyre testing in the T-car. His pole time was still a long way from being matches in hotter conditions and on a slower track surface.
In Argentina, Depailler was still not too happy with his car. In the first session he was almost 1.3s off Laffite's best time, but the handling improved due to a revision to the rear body section to make it more exactly like Laffite's car, which had sprouted extra ducting at the rear. Patrick then picked up another three tenths to break the magic 2m24.0s barrier and assure the Ligier team of their second consecutive front row formation.
The ease with which they had done it and (perhaps more to the point) the tyres they had used, made anybody ready to predict anything but a Ligier victory on Sunday either a fool or a saboteur.
Mario Andretti, Lotus 79 Ford © LAT
While Colin Chapman's ground effect principles might be working against him right now, he certainly seemed to be enjoying the challenge of a good fight once again after a season of so many easy victories, even if his drivers Mario Andretti and Carlos Reutemann did not seem to share his enthusiasm. New rear uprights for the Lotus 79, designed to cancel out the geometry changes imposed by the larger diameter Goodyear rear tyres this season, did help. But ride height and driveshaft angles are now not the same as when the original car was designed, with the result that both Andretti and Reutemann were doing more than their usual share of chassis adjustments, changing spring rates and roll bars in a bid to make the handling more comfortable around a circuit where it never feels perfect anyway. "With so much faster speeds and these new tyres, we are getting into a whole new area," said Andretti.
An engine problem, probably a broken valve spring, put Reutemann off the track for most of the first session and into the T-car for the second session, complete with its unmodified uprights and old-style smaller tyres. If nothing else, it showed that the new tyres, despite the problems, were a better bet than the old set-up, was half a second off Andretti's times of the first day, even though the World Champion was permanently in and out of the pits for adjustments. Reutemann started Saturday with a fresh engine and stiffer McLaren-loaned front springs, which seemed to be the way to go. The car was now less nervous and he turned in a good time with full tanks on Saturday morning.
With his allocated two sets of qualifying rubber, Reutemann went out at the start of the final session and had soon turned a time good enough for the second row, one of a few drivers to go faster on the slower track. With half an hour to go, and n more fresh rubber to try, 'Lole' parked his Lotus in the pitlane. There was nothing more to be gained.
Andretti worked his way through the first set of qualifiers without beating Reutemann's times, having met with the Ligier on his quick lap. Then, with ten minutes to go, he stopped at the pits for a fresh set of rears and the front tyres off his team-mate's car, which Reutemann had said were better than any others he had tried. Two more laps and the chequered flag came out, the Lotus watches gave both drivers the same time and a definite place on the second row. When the official times were published, Reutemann had just pipped Andretti by 0.13s. It had been a splendid effort.
Had it not been for Laffite's time way out in front of the rest, the front few rows of the grid would have been very tight. Sharing the third row, after similar team rivalry, were the Ferraris of Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter.
Scheckter set the pace with a time in the final session, which he was subsequently unable to beat - despite him trying much harder. Villeneuve had to switch from his specially flown-in race chassis because of a poor engine, and driving his tired Argentina mount, which had done a lot of pre-practice testing here, managed to put together a lap a few hundredths faster in the final Friday session. Neither driver could improve on the slower track of the following day, the two Lotuses only just beating their Friday times.
Despite another engine failure during an unofficial session on Thursday, things were looking much better for the Renault team at this race. Aided by cool, overcast weather on Friday and revised oil radiator layout, the Renault held together throughout official practice and Jean-Pierre Jabouille ended up heading the fourth row of the grid, happy with his car, and hopeful that the weather would remain cool for the race. For the first time since arriving in South America, Rene Arnoux managed to get through practice without it being continually interrupted by engine problems, and he was able to show his worth with the 11th best time.
The Tyrrell team were having mixed success with their two cars, Didier Pironi setting a fourth row time, while his team-mate Jean-Pierre Jarier was back on the eighth row, some 2.5s slower. Pironi was happy, but for the fact that his car was very nervous and would unpredictably snap loose at the rear, which was not helping his pulse-rate one little bit. "I think it's going to be a very difficult race tomorrow," he said after practice.
Jean-Pierre Jarier, Tyrrell 009 Ford © LAT
For Jarier, there was no doubt about it. His Tyrrell 009 chassis, damaged in the practice crash in Argentina, was still very wrinkled and obviously not handling as well as it should. On Friday he notice the steering starting to stiffen up through the fast turns, a symptom which manifested itself in a cracked forward chassis hoop by Saturday afternoon. The damaged chassis was obviously flexing through the high-G, bumpy turns, which are hard enough on the best of chassis, let alone one that has already taken a beating.
Jarier, who had already been under the weather with a bad cold between races, could hardly be blamed for not looking too happy about the prospect of racing the car for another 40 laps. Things would be different in South Africa.
Emerson Fittipaldi had every right to look as happy as he did at the end of practice with ninth best time on the grid, despite the fact that, following a brief sortie with his new F6 chassis on Friday, he had decided to rest his hopes on 'old faithful' Copersucar F5. "It's important that we do well in front of our home crowd and sponsors and get a good finishing place. The new car is too new and we think our chances of finishing the races are highest with the old car," said Emerson. "He had only just begun to get the F6 into shape, and at the time he made the decision he was only lapping around the same time as with the F5.
Although he was keen to start racing the new car, the wisdom of his choice became apparent on Friday afternoon. He worked himself up to take the fast left-hander after the pits foot-to-the-floor for three laps, and set his own personal best time at Interlagos head the fifth row. "Trouble with the bumps or your vision, Emerson?" I asked. "I didn't notice, but my eyes were this big," he said, opening his eyes as far as they would go. He must have had trouble breathing, though, for he added that a normally waste-level part of his anatomy was in his throat!
Things were looking better for James Hunt and Walter Wolf's effort at this race, too. Between Argentina and Brazil, Doc Postlethwaite had been burning the midnight oil redesigning the car's sidepods, both aerodynamically and to take the repositioned oil radiator, having done away with the impellor cooling system frowned upon by the team's fellow constructors.
The car was still not performing as well as they had hoped for, still showing signs of the basic oversteer it had at the previous race, "although at least we have managed to make it more controllable now," Postlethwaite said. An overnight rethink on suspension settings and springs improved the car still further on Saturday and, despite the gear lever coming off in his hand at the start of the final session, Hunt got the car back to the pits for repairs and went out to improve his time by 1.3s over the previous day's best. "What I would like to do is go down to South Africa with several different sidepod designs and test them all. Up to now, we have simply not had the time to try such things," said Harvey.
Things were also looking up for Niki Lauda and the development programme of his new BT48 chassis, which he got onto the sixth row with Arnoux, as opposed to the last row with Arnoux at the previous race.
New skirts of a honeycomb material and a revised fuel system have now cured the car's two big problems from Argentina, while this weekend the team got down to finer aerodynamic and suspension tuning. Lauda set an encouraging 2m27.57s during the first day. After a lot of overnight alterations, "we went backwards in the development programme today, but at least we knew what not to do in the future, so even that has told us something," said Lauda, who seems positively delighted with all these new ideas to play around with. He was also delighted with the engine. "Big improvement - doesn't break - no oil leaks - no smoke behind. At least that's okay."
His team-mate Piquet took the second BT48 to replace his destroyed BT46, the plucky Brazilian doing well even to qualify the car after just a handful of painful laps with his still very badly brusied and swollen fight foot. "I cannot say much about the car for, however it is, it's 10 times better than I am capable of driving it because I just cannot use the throttle or brake properly," he explained. Most certainly, his appearance in the race would be no more than a token one for his home crowd, his chances of being able to run at the finish at sensible speeds being virtually impossible. His time, only 4s slower than Lauda's after just 14 laps practice was a heroic effort.
Alan Jones, Williams FW06 Ford © LAT
Thirteenth and 17th places on the grid went to the pair of Saudia-Williamses driven by Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni, both drivers making the most of their outdated cars and looking forward to the day when they get to try the new chassis and, hopefully, start to race with the frontrunners. "I've gone just about as fast as I can go - it would have been a good time around here in 1977," said Jones.
If the Williams team looked dejected, you should have seen the looks on the faces of the McLaren team. The best part of their weekend was the banquet served up by their Marlboro sponsor in the back of the garage each evening. Hardly had they had time to check their bags in at Sao Paulo's Hilton Hotel when things started to go wrong. John Watson was greeted with news of a $7000 fine levied by the Argentine GP organisers for his part in the crash, the fine to be paid before Brazil or he would not get to race.
Things got worse when Patrick Tambay put a wheel on the dirt during Thursday's free practice session, and spun his M28 into the barrier, comprehensively damaging the left side. It was repaired in time for the final session on Friday, only to be towed back in on the end of a truck again after another off into the barrier when a front tyre deflated under braking.
Although the car was not seriously damaged, the team had used up all its spares for repairs, and thus Tambay was relegated to the M26. After an uneventful untimed session, he again damaged his car when he spun and knocked off the nose, damaging the right sidepod. It was hurriedly patched up in order for Tambay to try to qualify for the race, which he eventually did in 18th place, after a total of eight timed laps all weekend.
The McLaren woes were not helped by the fact that Watson, whom everyone thought would be a frontrunner here, was only 14th on the grid alongside Jones. A faulty rear shock absorber cannot have helped his handling problems in the first session, and after that the team showed only token improvements in closing the gap to the front of the grid - almost a full 5s. "The handling just doesn't feel positive or precise," was about all Watson could reveal about the cause of his woes.
Riccardo Patrese and Jochen Mass were also finding their Arrows chassis anything but precise around this track. "You have to keep changing direction in the corners," was the way Patrese described his sawing action at the wheel. For Mass, a loose link in the front suspension on the first day did nothing to improve the front-end balance of the car, either. With qualifiers, Patrese improved in the final session, while Mass, using scrubbed qualifiers, had to make do with a lesser improvement to head the 10th row behind Regazzoni and Tambay.
Elio de Angelis was again the quicker of the two Shadow drivers when he got a set of 'medium-quick' qualifiers in the final session, once again the quickest of the non-favoured Goodyear teams. "I immediately knocked two seconds off my time even though the track was slower," said de Angelis, who also had the problems of a car which handled differently in left and right-handed corners.
He was lucky to have a car at all. On Friday, he managed to lose it under braking for the third gear right-hander below the pit straight, crashing heavily into a barrier which has no catch-fencing at that point. The previous day, Jan Lammers had written off the team's spare car in a similar accident at exactly the same spot. Fortunately for de Angelis, the chassis of his car was not as badly twisted as Lammers' had been.
Jan Lammers, Shadow DN9 Ford © LAT
Lammers qualified 1.3s behind de Angelis, but took the next place on the grid - his biggest problem in practice being to cope with the G-forces on his head, particularly at the quick turn after the pits. "Halfway through the corner I found myself looking up at the grandstands," said the Dutchman on the first day, before tying his head to his shoulders.
A switch to low-profile tyres found Derek Daly an instant 1.5s for a place on the back row of the grid, and a great improvement in traction from his old Ensign. "On the big tyres I was frightening myself at least once every lap," said the Irishman, much of whose first day's practice had also been spoiled by a stripped gearbox.
Hans Stuck was the final qualifier for the race with a disappointing time with the ATS, although he was still good enough to beat Hector Rebaque's best with the Lotus 79. The young Mexican was just unable to get to grips with the track, for a broken sandwich plate in the rear suspension - a brand new replacement fitted before practice - was the only serious problem.
The only other non-starter besides Rebaque was Arturo Merzario's Merzario. Any chance the little Italian might have had of getting in the race in the final session disappeared along with the spark for his engine, which left the car stuck out on the circuit for most of the final session.
The Grand Prix
It would seem that Brazilian meteorologists are as hit-and-miss at predicting the weather as their colleagues around the world. As the traffic filled the roads leading to Interlagos in the early hours of Sunday morning, the cars inched forward through a fine drizzle.
The morning warm-up began at 08:30 on a greasy track, but most of the cars were out and running, their drivers checking that all the overnight work had been properly done. There was panic in the Ferrari pit as Scheckter found his engine off-song, and the team set about a rushed engine change, while Stuck stopped at the pits with a rear suspension failure, which was also hurriedly rectified for the race. Patrese only had a couple of laps before a problem with the front suspension brought him back to the pits, but the highlight of the morning came after the chequered flag had gone out.
The start of the Brazilian Grand Prix © LAT
Laffite decided that he needed an extra couple of laps and ignored the chequered flag, almost running down Bernie Ecclestone, who took it in his own hands to stop the Ligier getting the extra track time. When Laffite finally drove back to the pits, a furious Ecclestone rushed up and dragged him off to the stewards' office. There, Ecclestone was politely informed that if anyone was going to take Laffite to task, it was the Clerk of the Course, and not the team manager of Brabham.
Laffite was given a verbal reprimand and wandered back down the pitlane with a big grin on his face. Perhaps what the sport really needs is an ex-schoolmaster complete with gown and cane to administer its finer points.
As the teams warmed up engines ready for the midday start, there was drama in the Lotus pit. Andretti's 79 had a small fire in the engine compartment, which repeated itself on the grid, causing chaos, for an overenthusiastic fire marshal, let loose with a powder extinguisher, could not turn it off as easily as he had turned it on.
The field was flagged off for the warm-up lap a few minutes before the start and there was another drama with Reutemann's Lotus, which refused to fire up on the air starter. Eventually it was sent on its way by willing pushers, an action which - according to regulations - should have caused Reutemann to be disqualified from the race. But more of that later.
There was also consternation in the Tyrrell pit, for Jarier's car had gone missing with an electrical failure. Merzario, who was all ready to go, was refused a place on the grid, so when the light finally switched to green, and the race was on, only 23 cars hurtled off into the first corner.
Laffite got the jump over his team-mate Depailler, who lost time with too much wheelspin. Last away was the Renault of Jabouille, who had dropped the clutch too soon on the difficult turbo engine, which died through lack of revs. Fortunately it fired up again immediately, but the Frenchman had just kissed goodbye to all his practice efforts for a good place on the grid. However, it was to be the start of one of the finest drives of the race.
By the time the two Ligiers were winding their way through the infield halfway around the first lap, Laffite and Depailler had already pulled out 50 yards over their opposition. Andretti and Reutemann had a 'moment' in front of the rest of the field as they both went for the same bit of track through the fast turn at the end of the straight, Andretti getting the place, while behind them Scheckter held fifth with Fittipaldi (who made a great start), Pironi, Villeneuve, Lauda, Jones, Patrese and Hunt all hard on the heels of the Lotus duo.
Andretti's third place didn't last long. The leaking diaphragm, which caused the problems at the start, was playing up again, and the World Champion was forced into the pits at the end of the second lap, another flash fire erupting before the car was finally pushed away.
It didn't take very long for the demanding track to start sorting out the quick from the slow. The two Ligiers were easily outpacing the rest of the field as the gap grew with each successive lap, while Reutemann's third place looked safe despite a great drive from Fittipaldi in fourth, who was under no pressure from the Ferraris. The early morning drizzle had given way to a clear sky and a hot sun by the time the race had started, and the Michelin men had chosen a 'safe' compound for the Ferrari drivers which, in retrospect, turned out to be a little too safe. Both red cars were sliding around the track as their hard tyres struggled for grip, and the more rubber that went down and the lighter the fuel loads became, the worse their plight.
Scheckter was soon under heavy pressure from Pironi, who managed to slip by seven laps into the race, only to lose the place again before the end of the lap with a spectacular spin under braking for the same corner that had caused the practice demise of the two shadow cars. Pironi put a wheel on the grass under braking, and before he could react the car was spinning straight down the track towards the barrier. After three complete turns, the 009 had almost lost its momentum and Pironi expertly gathered it up again to steer it back onto the track in the wake of the Ferrari, having missed the barrier by a matter of inches.
By this stage, Villeneuve was circulating a distant seventh, his tyre problems compounded by a down-on-power engine which, he said, was costing him 700rpm on the straights.
Jones found himself a safe eighth behind Villeneuve, for Lauda had dropped well down the field after his good start when gear selection difficulties set in with the new Brabham. He struggled on for another few laps before parking in the pits for good on lap five, the problem being traced to a flexing linkage rather than the box itself, as first thought.
Another gap in the midfield runners appeared when Hunt dropped out a couple of laps later, his Wolf suddenly developing a violent instability, particularly under braking. A closer look showed the steering rack had come loose on its mounting.
Gaps had also appeared further down the field. Tambay, who had been narrowly leading Watson after the Ulsterman made a bad start, went inside Regazzoni at the hairpin, only to have Clay firmly shut the door with his rear wheel on the way out. For Tambay, it meant another trip over the kerbs, putting him out of the race, while Regazzoni visited the pits for a quick damage inspection, before continuing the race at the back of the field.
Carlos Retemann, Lotus 79 Ford; and Emerson Fittipaldi, Fititpaldi F5A Ford © LAT
Regazzoni had also, inadvertently, been the instigator of Piquet's retirement on the same lap as Lauda. The young Brazilian, who had started the race on half-empty tanks and soft tyres knowing full well that his foot would not last out 40 laps of hard driving, found his naturally fast progress through the back of the field blocked by Clay. He had to brake hard at one stage, which sent a stab of pain shooting through his foot, and he instinctively came off the brakes again, the front spoiler of his Brabham getting bent on the back of the Williams. He cruised around to the pits and limped off into retirement.
After just 10 laps of racing we were down to merely 18 cars, now well spread out around the long track which, fortunately, bends back on itself so often that it gives the impression of there being more cars circulating than there actually are.
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of an otherwise processional race was Jabouille's drive back through the field. By lap 10 he had moved by Watson and was rapidly cutting the long gap to Mass and Patrese, who were having their own private battle for 19th. After another 10 laps, he was right on their tail, passing Patrese first who, like Mass, was having trouble with his Arrows, which was understeering badly into the corners and then switching to oversteer as he powered out. Both were carefully nursing their front tyres, but Patrese's problem was worse than that of Mass.
Jabouille moved up another place behind Jones on lap 21 when Villeneuve shot into the pits for a new set of tyres complaining that the others "were like driving on ice."
Another lap in, and the Brazilian crowd let out a collective moan when Fittipaldi cruised slowly around to the pits, handing fourth place to Pironi. Emerson stopped at his pit pointing wildly to the rear of the car. The pit crew, thinking it was a tyre problem, had the car up on jacks and were changing all for tyres before Emerson cold explain his problem, which turned out to be nothing more than a loose rear wheel. With fresh tyres, he roared out of the pits and back into the race, but now at the back of the field, his chances of a good place completely gone after such a fine drive.
By lap 27, Jabouille had moved into the points and sixth when Scheckter decided, perhaps too late in the race, that a stop for fresh tyres would be better than finishing on the ones he had. A slower change by the Ferrari pit crew left him well behind Villeneuve and a lap behind the leaders, by the time he had rejoined the fray.
Then it was Jabouille's turn. On lap 30 the yellow Renault, now the only one left after Arnoux had ended his race the previous lap in a high-speed, sixth-gear spin after the pits, came rushing down the pitlane for fresh front tyres.
Once again Jabouille found himself near the back of the field, but he was still driving just as hard as he set off after de Angelis, who was now 10th.
Up front, the lead battle was still in full swing, although Depailler's chase had lost its sting as both backmarkers and steadily worsening oversteer - increasing as the tanks lightened - slowed him down. Laffite could now lap at around 2m30 compared with the 28s he'd been doing earlier on (setting a fastest lap in the process). In the final laps he had to find a way past Mass and Villeneuve's Ferrari, which had worked its way back to fifth after the stop.
Jacques Laffite on the podium © LAT
When the flag finally came out on Laffite's well-deserved victory, Depailler was still only 5s behind, an equally deserving and not surprisingly long-faced second. Reutemann's solid drive to third place was as much as he could have expected, his car running well.
Pironi was the only other driver to remain unlapped by the leader, and it was he who shared the winners' rostrum with his countrymen in the post-race confusion over Reutemann's push-start. After a decision by the organisers, Reutemann was given third place.
It was their fault that no penalty had been given at the start, therefore they could let the result stand, a point of view which Ferrari team manager Mauro Piccinnini did not share and he immediately filed a written protest which will no doubt be forgotten in the political intrigues which seem to surround any sort of important decision in grand prix racing. As Peter Warr later said: "Whether or not you think the push-start rule is a stupid one or not, you must apply the rule in this case and then re-write the rule if you want to change it."
Unsurprisingly, Ken Tyrrell was in full agreement. So Ferrari, for the time being, were classified in fifth and sixth places, Scheckter retaking Mass in the closing stages of the race to take the final point 10s behind Villeneuve.
Watson put on a superb spurt in the final 10 laps, passing Patrese for eighth place and only just failing to catch Mass for seventh, setting his own best lap two from the end.
Another couple of laps and Patrese's ninth would have probably gone to Jabouille, who ended up an eventual 10th, 4s behind. He was disappointed at his final result, but in a way encouraged: "It's the first time I've finished a race without any sort of problem."
Fittipaldi took the next place, only 3s behind the Renault, de Angelis coming home 12th after another steady drive, his performance marred only by a down-on-power engine and a loose nose section, which started vibrating up and down and wearing itself away under braking in the final few laps of the race.
Daly had an uneventful race to take 13th, about all he could have hoped for after starting from the back without much chance of 'racing' with anyone else, although he did beat Lammers home. Little Jan came in 14th knowing a lot more about grand prix racing than when he started, a trip across the grass at the hairpin one lap having been his only mistake.
A further lap down, Regazzoni was posted as the final finisher, for with just seven laps to go his team-mate Jones lost fifth place when the fuel pressure started to drop on the Williams. He made a brief stop and went back for one more lap before retiring for good - a disappointing end to another strong drive from the Australian.
The only other car to fail to make the distance was Stuck's ATS. After battling at the back end of the field with a very nervous-looking car, he was finally put out of the race when one of the spokes on the steering wheel sheared - that's how hard he was fighting it.
With two convincing victories in the opening two races, Laffite is suddenly the top contender for the 1979 title, and judging by the performance of the opposition, it's going to take a Lotus 80 for Reutemann to catch him, or even to hold on to his one-point lead over Depailler in South Africa.
To continue reading this feature, subscribe to Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus subscription includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.