James wins John's race
"What are you going to call this week's report?" asked John Watson ruefully, after losing his second apparently secure Grand Prix victory in two weeks. On the spur of the moment, it was difficult to think of a reply. In the Brabham-Alfa, Watson had looked very comfortable in the lead, which he took at the start and lost, 28 laps from the end, only when the Martini sponsored car was afflicted with fuel pressure problems.
John's misery was James Hunt's delight, however, the world champion giving the McLaren M26 its first victory. For James personally, it was the end of a mighty lean spell, his first win since Watkins Glen last October. Hunt qualified on the pole, but lost all the advantage at the start with a troublesome clutch. Fourth at the end of the first lap, he worked his way past Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda, moving on to Watson's tail and beginning a spell of psychological warfare with the Ulsterman which lasted for 25 laps. After Watson's retirement, James was left with a huge lead and finally cruised in 18 comfortable seconds ahead.
Behind the McLaren, enjoying his most competitive race for some time, was Lauda with the Ferrari, third fastest in practice. Niki held second spot for the first third of the race, but gradually the brakes went away and he wisely decided to drive for a finish which, by the end of the race, had become second once more.
Hunt celebrated with Nilsson and Lauda, but Watson was out of luck © LAT
Engine problems in practice and the race kept Mario Andretti out of serious contention at Silverstone, but nevertheless the JPS Lotus driver looked like taking some points from the day. Alas, however, his engine, which had been losing oil throughout the race, finally exploded only five laps from the end. His team-mate, Gunnar Nilsson, holding station behind Mario for most of the race, went ahead of him towards the end, turning in a fantastic display and very nearly catching the brakeless Lauda on the line.
Once again, Jody Scheckter was out of luck, the Wolf's engine blowing up nine laps from the flag when the South African looked a sure bet for third. Behind Hunt, Lauda and Nilsson, the other point-scorers were Jochen Mass (McLaren M26), Hans-Joachim Stuck (Brabham-Alfa) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Matra), who was slowed in the race by a steadily worsening misfire in the musical V12.
Tremendously impressive were two men new to F1 racing - Gilles Villeneuve, driving a works McLaren M23, and Patrick Tambay, at the wheel of an ensign for the first time. Villeneuve in particular demonstrated enormous natural talent, running a confident seventh in the early stages of the race. But for a pitstop - which later proved to be unnecessary - he would have been well in the points.
During the course of the meeting, a total of 113,500 fans attended Silverstone, the actual race-day attendance of more than 85,000 no doubt boosted by the prospect of Hunt and Watson on the front row for the British GP.
Something new at Silverstone, of course, was the day allocated to the non-F1CA entries only. This, be it remembered, was not a day for the purposes of testing, not a session in lieu of the two days' F1CA testing last week, from which the rest were barred. No, this was the day when you qualified for the right to try to qualify for the British Grand Prix.
Guy Edwards failed even to pre-qualify in his BRM... © LAT
The ethics of putting the beginners or backmarkers through a sieve seem absolutely reasonable - to me, anyway. There are certain people attempting to compete in Grand Prix racing, who have patently no business to be there, people who achieved a lack of success in the lower formulae, in some cases to a quite remarkable degree; people, to quote Peter Ustinov, "Who have made it to the top because they have no qualifications to detain them at the bottom..." And whatever may be said against, a quick check on this year's grids reveals that, with one or two exceptions here and there, it is always the same people who don't qualify. A fat wallet is never going to buy you the pole position. Money and talent are completely unrelated, and it is one of motor racing's great tragedies that so often this works the other way, too. A potentially brilliant young athlete needs a pair of spikes, a tennis player needs a racquet: with enough dedication, they can get themselves noticed. But, obviously, it is not so for a racing driver. Sometimes, of course, a wealthy father is nothing more than a catalyst. The Rodriguez brothers, for instance, had talent to throw away and were able to show it long before they were 20. Without their father, they would still have made it but it would have taken a great deal longer.
All this, however, digresses from the point. There have been many occasions recently when serious accidents brought about by this discrepancy in ability and experience have been only narrowly avoided. What was it Jody Scheckter said? - "Some of these guys think their mirrors are just for shaving in!" Some form of weeding out is necessary, whatever talk there may be of the poor, downtrodden private team. This is not to be unsympathetic to their plight. Not at all. But modern Grand Prix racing is not the place for the poor and downtrodden, and that's all there is to it.
The RAC's idea, therefore, of accepting all entries sent into them and organising an extra qualifying qualifier for those outside the F1CA was the best solution to the problem we have so far seen. Of course it was hard on them and their equipment. It would put them through an extra day of nail-biting and sweat, put further stress on the DFVs and the Hewlands, and at the end of the day - if they were lucky - they would have nothing more than the right to qualify over the next couple of days. Not a pleasant prospect, but with an entry of 41 cars, what else was to be done?
A young Villeneuve was out to impress in practice © LAT
Well, some of them rose superbly to the task. From the beginning of the day, there seemed to be eight drivers in with a serious chance of taking one of the five places: Villeneuve, Tambay, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Patrick Neve, Arturo Merzario, David Purley, Brian Henton and Brett Lunger. The young French-Canadian, of course, although not a F1CA-nominated entry, was driving a works McLaren and had had the benefit of the two-day test session the previous week. All in all, his performance was amazing. Bear in mind that his experience of F1 began only when he arrived to test. It was all new, the car, the power, the track, everything. Two things are immediately apparent about Gilles Villeneuve: he has tremendous natural pace and also the enthusiasm to go with it. Throughout the Wednesday sessions, Villeneuve pushed hard, looking for the limits, the car's and his own. To watch a driver at this stage of their career is always fascinating, and it seems apparent that grand prix racing has discovered an unusual talent here. Gilles had several spins, in both testing and practice, but by the end was quick, polished, smooth. He was, mind, uncommonly fortunate in one incident at Copse on Wednesday afternoon. Coming out of the corner, he pressed a little too hard a little too early, and in an instant the car was gone. The grass verge 'twixt track and sleepers on the outside of the corner is not very wide, yet the M23 somehow contrived to spin round three times on it at very high speed - and hit not a thing. "Yes, I pushed too hard," he said afterwards, a grin on his face, "and I guess it was lucky for me, no?"
Throughout the afternoon, there were dark hints that the McLaren was running on different rubber, from everyone else. Goodyear said that they had supplied the same tyres to everyone, but that didn't really answer the question. People were saying that McLaren had kept a set of "stickies" from Anderstorp qualifying and that Villeneuve had been using them, If you cast your mind back to Zandvoort last year, you will remember that Ferrari pulled that trick with Clay Regazzoni's car during practice. You will also recall how angry Alistair Caldwell and his men were. Cries of "bad sportsmanship" and, more to the point, "unfair". If you remember all that, you cannot possibly imagine that McLarens would do the same thing...
Other than Villeneuve, the sensation of Wednesday was Patrick Tambay, driving the Yip-sponsored Ensign for the first time. "I cannot tell you how impressed I am with this car," he beamed, his English almost as fluent as his driving. "It is so much better than I had dared hope. It is forgiving very much, and this gives me great confidence. You know, it was finished only this morning, never turned a wheel till' now. I am using Chris Amon's seat in here because there was not the time to make a new one. It was late as that."
Peterson gets comfy in his Tyrrell P34 © LAT
The other qualifiers for qualifying (what was that about Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chef...?) were predictable enough. Jean-Pierre Jarier got in comfortably with the ATS PC4 - although why he should have been required to do so, having already scored in the World Championship, seemed a little strange. Brian Henton, despite apparently trying a different line every time he went around Copse, set the fifth quickest time in his March, driving it for the first time since Jarama. And just ahead of him was Brett Lunger's McLaren M23.Originally, only five of these drivers were to be put forward into the Thursday and Friday sessions, but when it was all over a statement was issued by the RAC - the organisers - to the effect that Bernie Ecclestone had been contacted and had given his permission for the first seven to take part in the official sessions, some of the F1CA entries being scratched. Rather reminds one of the man who said, "You know, if anything happens to Scanlon, Callaghan gets to be Prime Minister..."
Had this decision not been taken, however, it would have been very hard on Arturo Merzario and Patrick Neve, both of whom got round in under 1m 20s. So they also were in, to be joined the following morning by Emilio de Villota! That makes eight, and that is how it stayed.
Of the rest, Guy Edwards tried hard with the Stanley-BRM, but never looked like making the field, and nor did Tony Trimmer, disappointing in his Surtees TS19. Early in the day, Mikko Kozarowitsky destroyed the monocoque of his March 761 when he went off at the chicane and new team-mate Andy Sutcliffe lost virtually all the first session with clutch and gearbox problems. Brian McGuire was three seconds adrift of everyone else. And Hector Rebaque, Derek Bell and David Prophet all withdrew. In the second session, we had one of those dreadful sessions when all the cars peel off into the pits, their drivers climbing out, grim expressions on their faces. An ambulance rushed off towards Copse and practice was officially halted. David Purley had been involved in a horrifying accident at Becketts, the Lec hurtling into the corner, cutting through the marker cones on the inside of the apex before slamming into the outside bank head-on, at around 110mph. Immediately work began to free David from the car, but it was a terribly difficult and complicated task for the marshals and rescue workers. A long, long job which in itself was a good sign. In the pits, people were saying "if they're taking their time, it can't be that bad." Well, in absolute terms, it wasn't. That Purley had survived the impact at all was remarkable, but injuries to his left leg, ankle, pelvis and ribs were very serious and, after 50 minutes, he was rushed away to Hospital.
The Cause of the accident is not yet firmly established. Certainly, David was going very hard indeed at that time, having had a lot of problems earlier on. The lap before the accident was, in fact, his quickest of the day. The marks on the road indicate that nothing was amiss with the brakes and the most likely cause was a jammed throttle. Peter Jowitt examined the wreckage later and commented that Purley was extremely lucky to be sitting in such a strong monocoque. Whatever, a very sad thing.
Renault gave F1's first turbocharged engine its competitive debut at Silverstone © LAT
So, the preliminaries over, on Thursday morning, the heavies arrived. Testing the week before had indicated the likelihood of yet another Andretti pole position, for not only had Mario been quickest, he had also been consistently quickest, apparently able to turn in regular laps in the low and middle 1m19s bracket, the sort of time achieved by most of the others only when they were really trying. During those two days, the American had been confident as ever, pleased with the car.
James Hunt came to Silverstone only for one day of testing, but nonetheless put in the second quickest time overall with the McLaren M26. Now this sort of thing has happened before, of course. Frequently, the car has gone splendidly during testing (most notably at Zolder and Anderstorp), but come official qualifying and the race, has reverted to its old, recalcitrant self.
But not so this time. Hunt's name was at the top of the list at the end of the first session, and he removed half a second or more, to finish up with 1m18.49s, beyond the reach of anyone else and quicker even than Andretti's testing time. "I am a great deal happier with the car," he said, after practice. "In relation to the other cars, the M26 is still not as competitive as the M23 this time last year, but I feel we are making real progress now." This was a race James really needed, not merely for the emotional reasons of winning before a British crowd, but also to lift himself back into serious contention for the world championship. There was a great deal of pressure on him last weekend. He went no quicker in the last session but there was no need.
For Silverstone, Jochen Mass was also at the wheel of an M26, this a brand new car. It was the German, of course, who gave the car its maiden outing, at Zandvoort last year, since when he has driven the M23 - and very successfully. During the second session, in fact, he put in a few laps with older car. After spending much of Thursday getting the M26 sorted, Mass was very much quicker the following day, lopping a full second off his previous time to qualify 11th.
Between the M26's, ninth quickest overall, was the remarkable Villeneuve and his M23, by now the talking point of the paddock. By the end of practice, he had covered no less than 169 laps over three days, and looked more confident with every minute. That Gilles is associated with the McLaren team is primarily due to James Hunt's impressions of him during the Formula Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres last year. But despite his formidable reputation in Canada, few can have expected this sort of performance from him, first time out.
Andy Sutcliffe's RAM March didn't make the raceday field © LAT
"You can't let these things get you down to much." In the paddock, John Watson was talking of Dijon, the latest in a string of disappointments for him. "I was pretty depressed for a few days afterwards, but you get over it. All you can do is go on to the next place and start all over again." After a variety of problems on Thursday, Watson had an engine go in the race car after only a couple of laps during the unofficial session on Friday morning. The Brabham mechanics immediately set about changing it in time for the final 60-minute thrash in the afternoon, while John went out in the spare, putting in a lap of 1m18.6s. In the final session, he tried both cars before opting to stick with the spare. Not quite able to equal his morning time, John nevertheless put himself on the front row of the grid with the quickest lap of the session, set right at the end.
During the first session, Hans Stuck looked to be on tremendous form with the second Brabham-Alfa, squeezing a lot of laps (51) into the 90 minutes and ending up with the second fastest time. Unfortunately, however, he went less quickly thereafter, and second had become seventh by the end of practice.
Until Watson's last minute flier, the front row looked like a return to 1976. While Hunt's time looked impregnable, the man looking most likely to worry him was Niki Lauda, very much happier with the Ferrari at this race. At various places around the circuit, the Austrian's car looked steadier than for a long time. Niki really seemed to be in the mood at Silverstone, driving as hard as he knew how, a lurid spin at Becketts bearing this out. Coming out of the corner, he was on the throttle early and hard, the nearside rear edging out and out, finally just getting onto the grass. Immediately, the car was gone, spinning away down the road, completely obscured by its own tyre smoke, Lauda hitting the brake pedal hard. Nothing was damaged, and the next time around, Niki went through as quickly as ever. At Silverstone, both the Ferrari's had repositioned front suspension pick-up points, Lauda commentating that his car now turned into corners much better.
Last weekend, it was the turn of Carlos Reutemann to be the really disgruntled Ferrari driver. After the Thursday sessions, he was down in 21st spot. "I don't know why, but it is very difficult to balance the car here. If you set the car up to go through Stowe, for instance, you find it is impossible at some other corners." How close to Lauda's suspension settings were those on his car? "Almost the same, almost the same. But, for me, it seems to be very bad understeer into the corners, very bad oversteer out." During the last session, Lole improved his position to 14th, but was still three-quarters of a second from his team-mate. An unusual number of spins by the Argentine indicated how hard he was trying.
Villeneuve gets ready for a qualifying attempt © LAT
"I can tell you, it really shook me up," said Jody Scheckter of his incident during testing, when the Wolf and it's rear wing parted company at around 150mph, "but we've got the car handling much better this weekend than it was then. In fact, it's really not bad at all." This latter comment is about as close as Jody ever gets to saying he is happy with the car, and he was actually in pretty good spirits the night before the race. Since his conclusive win at Monte Carlo, the luck of the wolf team has turned all bad but Scheckter was optimistic of taking some points from this one. Throughout the meeting, the car was wearing its new airbox, tried at Dijon but not used for the race. Jody started the race from row two, alongside Lauda.
Five places lower on the grid than one might of expected, was Mario Andretti's JPS 78, which qualified sixth. He said he was quite happy with the car's handling, but felt his engine was a little flat, about 300 revs down. His practice was further hindered by an incident during the second session, in which he found his view of the road at Chapel Curve obscured by a huge cloud of tyre smoke, in the middle of which was Vittorio Brambilla's Surtees. To avoid the TS19, Andretti plunged off the road and into the fields. The wheat therein proved to be taller than the Lotus number one driver, but eventually he extricated himself and got the car back to the pits: "I tell you man, there was so much wheat in that car, we should have exported it to Russia!"
Andretti was sure that the car would be better on race-day, for the mechanics were going to fit the familiar Nicholson engine overnight. Sure enough, on Saturday morning, he reported after the warm up that the fresh engine would pull more revs on full tanks than the practice engine with just a few gallons on board. But ahead of Andretti on the grid, and in really great form all weekend, was Gunnar Nilsson in the other 78, who nosed ahead of his team-mate in the final session to qualify fifth.
John Surtees was in excellent spirits after practice for not only had Vittorio Brambilla qualified his TS19 an excellent eighth, but also the team's second car was in the race, in the hands of Vern Schuppan, the third man to race the Durex car this year. This was a brand new chassis whose biggest shortcoming, according to the Australian, was gross understeer. At Becketts, this was especially noticeable, Vern having to lift right off in order for the front tyres to get some grip. In the last session, he made a really heroic effort and lowered his previous best time by well over a second. "I can't really judge the car at the moment. It's brand new and needs a lot of sorting." Would he be doing more races for Big John? "Difficult to say right now. I'm going to see him about it next week. I hadn't really planned on doing any F1 this year. After USAC, it seems bloody competitive to me!"
Brian McGuire failed to qualify his self-built BM1 © LAT
Still in deep trouble last weekend were Ken Tyrrell's boys. There were yet more major changes to Patrick Depailler's car. The front track, 10 inches wider for Dijon, was an inch more than that at Silverstone, and the rear track was also wider. In addition, the car's wheelbase was three inches longer, and there was also a new wing for Patrick to try. His car also had the first of the Kevlar bodies, this being about 17lbs lighter than the normal ones. For all the these changes, or perhaps because of them, the car looked pretty well undriveable and Depailler was stuck down in 18th position on the grid.
Ronnie Peterson's Tyrell had also undergone modifications over the past couple of weeks, now being to exactly the same specification as was Depailler's at Dijon. Qualifying 10th, a second off the pace, Ronnie delighted the spectators as much as ever with a lovely show of controlled power slides. For all that, the Swede, taking part in his 102nd Grand Prix, was slower than Gilles Villeneuve.
Both Shadows looked decidedly twitchy during practice, Alan Jones' car in particular flicking sideways as he turned the wheel at the entry to Becketts. With the DN8 thus oversteering, he then held the car through the corner on opposite lock, the power very confidently applied. Splendid to watch, but it was apparent that the Australian was having to work very much harder than most. The Shadows were also slow in a straight line, affirmed Riccardo Patrese. "Really is the main problem. Is oversteering, sure, but balance is not bad. In the straight line is slow, and this is a very quick track." By the end of the day, the young Italian only just made the race, 25th out of 26.
A major surprise - even to himself - was the position of Rupert Keegan after the first session. In Hector Rebaque's Hesketh, Rupert set the fifth quickest time, a fraction away from Andretti and quicker than Lauda! "There you are, told you I was an ace!" Keegan's was the only Hesketh in the race, for Rebaque wisely decided to give Silverstone a miss, and Harald Ertl's deal with the team has come to a sudden end. "I'm surprised how high on the list I am," admitted Keegan, "because the car doesn't feel that good. It's not bad, better than it was, but still not good." Fractionally slower in the last couple of sessions, his original time was still good for the seventh row, next to Reutemann's Ferrari.
Jacques Laffite, using the short wheelbase Ligier, was a trifle mystified. "Well I have a little bit of engine problem, but nothing bad, and the handling seems OK. You know, I think the best thing with this car is the brake, but here is not so important, with fast corners all the way round." Back in 15th place on the grid, Jacques was still anything but despondent. He is a racer, pure and straight, and his practice times rarely approach his performance on the day.
Jabouille qualified the Renault RS01 21st for its debut © LAT
Sensationally quick on Thursday morning - better even than Villeneuve - was Patrick Tambay, still raving about his Ensign. "The brakes are fantastic on this car! The handling seems neutral, and the only real problem seems to be the traction. But even that we are improving." Unfortunately, Tambay lost the last minutes of the final session when the mechanical fuel pump failed, robbing him of the opportunity to improve further. No matter. It was an auspicious beginning to his grand prix career.
But if all the faces around the white Ensign looked happy after practice, those near the blue one did not. For the first time in his life, Clay Regazzoni failed to qualify, indeed to get close to a qualifying time. The problem, he said, lay with the car's lack of straight-line speed; the handling felt fine. And certainly that is the way it looked, corner times taken at Becketts showing the Tissot car to be one of the very quickest. The Swiss was very neat through there and had the power on early. At the end of each stint, he would climb from the car, unable to believe his times. On Saturday evening, the little Ensign caravan personified dejection as Mo Nunn and Clay tried to discover what had gone wrong.
By contrast, Arturo Merzario was his usual bouncy self, yet again comfortably the speediest of the March drivers, enjoying himself on one of his favourite circuits. Brett Lunger's McLaren was also a comfortable qualifier, finishing up ahead of Jarier's ATS Penske. JPJ was angry at the end of practice, saying that he would have been much higher up the grid had not his front roll-bar broken after just two laps of the final session...
And of course there was Renault, its muted engine note and "early" gearchanges refreshing to the ear. After the first day, it seemed that the car might well fail to qualify for it's first grand prix. For one thing, Thursday was not a particularly warm day, and the Michelin tyres like heat if they are to give their best. And for another, Jean-Pierre Jabouille had a turbocharger break in the second session. "Well we were ready for this," said Gerard Larrousse. "Some people told us we were mad to come to a race at this stage, that we should have spent much more time on testing and development first. But I tell you, you learn much more when you go to a race. Already today, we find two very important things." And what were they? He grinned and looked at the sky, immediately changing the subject. "Something else, you see, today we had a turbocharger to change and that took 40 minutes. You know how long to change one on the sports car at Le Mans? Four!"
Gilles grabs a moment with wife Joann © LAT
On the Friday afternoon, however, the sun was out, and Jabouille managed to lower his time by a full second, qualifying with ease and delighting his masters. Did the turbo lag cause him any problems in traffic? "No, none at all, not really. There is very little delay, actually." At 35, after years of patient dedication, Jean-Pierre is where he always wanted to be, in grand prix racing, and there seemed to be no happier man in the place.
The Copersucar-Fittipaldi F5 is still refusing to behave as Emerson Fittipaldi would wish. It was here at Silverstone, at the British Grand Prix two years ago, that the great Brazilian scored his last victory, and one can only wonder how long he will resist the temptation to seek a drive worthy of his ability. To see all that talent squandered every week is heartbreaking. Throughout the first day, Emerson was hampered by a misfiring engine, but still the abiding problem is the handling: they simply cannot get the back end to work. "At every circuit, the same trouble. The front is good, really. But we cannot make the back stick properly. Still, it's better than it was."
Although the original intention was to run the March 771 for Ian Scheckter, the South African was in old faithful, the 761B, throughout the meeting. "It's going better than at Dijon, that much I will say. We were going to bring the 771, but it's having a lot of modifications at the moment - going back to side rads and so on." Like most of the March drivers, Ian set a time in the first session, and was unable to better it thereafter. Exactly the same was true of Patrick Neve, in Frank Williams's car, the Belgian claiming the last position on the grid. Marches tend to heat up their front tyres more than most, the cooler weather of Thursday being more to their liking than the hot conditions the following day.
Apart from Clay Regazzoni, the others to miss the action were Alex Ribeiro (yet again the fastest non-qualifier), Brian Henton and Emilio de Villota.
Sitting in traffic, queuing to get out of the circuit on Friday evening, there was plenty of time to contemplate the morrow, the race, the weather, the crowds. With Britain's two leading drivers on the front row of the grid, Northamptonshire was in for one busy time.
Race day was completely chaotic. In the paddock, familiar faces arrived late, people telling stories of abandoning cars five, six miles away, trudging across fields, all to have any hope of arriving at the track some time before the start. In all, 85,000 people turned up, and it seemed like ten times that number. Were there really fewer people than can be accommodated by Wembley stadium? Whatever, the place was packed.
Nor can there have been any complaints about lack of action. The Grand Prix, scheduled to start at three o'clock, was preceded by every conceivable type of demonstration. The Group 2 Jaguar flew round briefly, sounding and looking glorious - and mercifully not disgracing itself. As ever, however, the highlight of the 'pre race entertainment' had to be the superb Red Arrows, as slick as ever. No matter how many times you see them, the effect is always the same. Awesome they are, nothing less.
Finally, the build up done, spectator areas thickened as those without portable grandstands struggled to get around those with, clamouring to get close to the fence as the cars emerged from the pits to begin their warm-up lap.
Before the race, James Hunt was very hopeful - naturally enough - of getting down to Copse in the lead, of settling the issue early. But coming up to the line, he realised there was trouble. The McLaren's clutch was refusing to free properly, so that even with his left foot right to the floor, the car would still 'creep'. James could, of course, hold the car on the brake, but was worried that holding it too long would overheat the clutch and burn it out. Consequently, he had to wait until the very last second before banging the clutch in and was slow away.
Watson, however, had no such problems, and when the green light flashed, the Brabham-Alfa made a superb start, the clear leader down to Copse. And another man to get a real flier was Niki Lauda, the Ferrari screaming through from the second row to snatch second place at the first turn. Scheckter's Wolf also got away well, the South African trying to muscle inside the Ferrari as they turned into Copse, but Lauda was having none of that, thank you, closing the door very firmly. James, after his problems, was fourth at this point.
Watson led Hunt until falling fuel pressure put the Brabham driver out © LAT
As the leaders disappeared towards Maggotts, the field was already minus one. At Copse, Reutemann's Ferrari and Keegan's Hesketh had touched (they had started from the same row) and Rupert's car emerged from the corner with one front wheel very definitely not parallel to the other. Finally it parted company from the car, and that was the end of Rupert, very sad for him after a good showing in practice.
Watson really put a lot into that first lap, holding his lead all the way round and pulling out a little from Lauda, Scheckter and Hunt. Behind James, the two Lotuses were together, Nilsson ahead of Andretti, whose engine, from the very start, was already starting to smoke. At the end of the third lap, the roles were reversed, and we looked forward to a real fight between Mario and Jody.
Early in the race, there was a spate of retirements. Peterson's engine blew itself to pieces on the third lap, and Tambay's F1 debut proved regrettably short, the white Ensign coming to a full stop with a complete electrical failure a lap later. And then, after six laps, Ian Scheckter flew off the road at Club, hurting the Rothmans March but not himself.
After seven laps, the scarlet Brabham still led from Lauda's Ferrari, but James Hunt was now really on the move, getting by Scheckter and starting to close on Lauda. It was becoming a three-cornered fight, for Scheckter and the Lotuses were gradually being dropped. Every time around, one expected to see Andretti making a serious attempt to get past the Wolf, but this never happened, the three cars circulating in crocodile, lap after lap. The oil smoke drifting from Andretti's car every time the American got on the throttle coming out of turn was starting to be a real problem for his team-mate, Gunnar's visor catching a fair proportion of it. Not funny at all.
Next to go was Depailler, whose Tyrrell jinked to the left at the entry to Copse and mowed down a couple of rows of catch fencing. "A brake problem", said the Frenchman as he walked back to the pits. What sort of brake problem? "Well, no brakes at all, actually..." Ahem. While this was happening, the Renault, after circulating well for a dozen laps, was in the pits, requiring attention to a broken inlet manifold. It took the mechanics a quarter of an hour to repair it, whereupon Jabouille came out again, sadly only for another four laps. The yellow car droned slowly past the pits, and Jean-Pierre parked it on the inside of Copse, another turbocharger broken. Nonetheless, it was far from a disappointing debut, and has strengthened the resolve of the Renault management to attend the remaining Grandes Epreuves this season.
For the first 11 laps of the race, Gilles Villeneuve's showing was altogether remarkable, the young French-Canadian grabbing seventh place at the start and maintaining it with no apparent problem, ahead of Mass, Brambilla, Laffite and Reutemann! But the McLaren's temperature gauge was going up and up, and Villeneuve, unwilling to do something really expensive to the DFV, stopped at the pits to have the matter investigated. After a check, it was discovered that the gauge was faulty! Poor Villeneuve smoked the tyres out of the pitlane, but two laps had been lost. In fact, Gilles came back into the race just as the leaders went by, and lost very little to them in the ensuing laps.
Villeneuve finished the race 11th in his M23 © LAT
Another caller in the pits was Reutemann, whose Ferrari had spun spectacularly at the Woodcote chicane. A front brake pipe had detached itself and when Carlos tried to slow the car he found himself with rear brakes only. Hence the spin. After having the pipe replaced, the Ferrari rejoined, albeit a long way back.
At the front, Watson was looking more and more comfortable. Was he getting away or was Lauda slowing? The latter seemed more likely, for Hunt was all over the Ferrari, but not quite able to get by. Eventually, however, James nosed ahead of Niki at the Woodcote chicane, and the chase was on, with two-thirds of the race remaining.
At this point, the M26 was quite clearly the fastest car on the circuit, Watson's three-second lead evaporating quickly. After only six or seven laps, Hunt was right behind the Brabham, but Watson was in a similar position at Dijon when Andretti was pressing him, and showed no signs of weakness or error. "I think the M26 was definitely a little bit quicker than the Brabham", Hunt was to say later, "but there was no way I could pass John. My only chance was to sit there, pressure him and hope that he would make a mistake somewhere." Certainly, the world champion was pushing hard, but Watson looked every bit as unflappable as in France.
Once Hunt had gone by Lauda, the Austrian fell away quickly. For some time, he had been bothered by failing brakes and, having lost second place, could see no useful point in forcing. The Scheckter-Andretti -Nilsson train was still running on time, but not close enough to the Ferrari to be any real threat. This three-car dice was, in fact, rather a disappointment, Andretti's anticipated charge never coming, the JPS still smoking badly. Every time around, one doubted that it would appear again, but it always did. Eventually, however, there had to be a "metal to metal situation". Behind Mario, Gunnar was really starting to fret, for his team-mates oil was not only smearing his visor but also starting to clog his oil cooler. The temperature was climbing.
Behind Gunnar at this time were Mass, Brambilla, Laffite, Stuck and Merzario. At the wheel of his privately-entered March, Art was doing a simply fabulous job, staying right with these factory cars, driving really hard. But, of course, happy endings are a thing of the past - did they ever happen? - and the red March came slowly into the pits on lap 37, a driveshaft broken. A real shame. At the same time, Stuck moved ahead of Laffite, whose engine was misfiring more and more as time went on.
All the way down the field, there was now virtual stalemate. Watson and Hunt continued to circulate nose-to-tail at the front, Lauda was on his own in third place, Scheckter had got away from Andretti and Nilsson, and Mass, in the other M26, was running alone in seventh. Behind Jochen was Brambilla's Surtees, but the Italian came in on the 42nd lap for a new tyre.
At the end of lap 49, however, there were both cheers and groans from the stands. Hunt's McLaren came out of Woodcote chicane alone; of Watson, there was no sign. Eventually, the Brabham appeared, making straight for the pits. It had happened yet again. "A fuel pressure relief valve broke," said John afterwards. "I've never ever heard of that happening to a race car before." A couple of laps later he returned to the race but finally retired for good on lap 61.
So now James was home and dry, with a very comfortable lead over Lauda and no pressure at all. Indeed, Teddy Mayer hung out a sign to his driver, suggesting that he cool it, and not risk running out of fuel. This done, Hunt really rolled it off for the last 10 laps, safe in the knowledge that there was no threat to his lead.
Behind him, however, things were different. With but 14 laps remaining, Gunnar Nilsson overtook his team leader, immediately pulling away. Within the JPS team, there is a tacit agreement that Nilsson does not pass Andretti unless authorised by his pit. The situation rarely arises, of course, but on this occasion the move should have been made long before it was. Once by, Gunnar really got to his work, closing rapidly on Scheckter and the brakeless Lauda. Nilsson's task was amplified somewhat on lap 60, when Jody trickled into Copse with a dead engine, very dead in fact, for it had expired. The Wolf team's bad luck continues, Scheckter only about 20 miles away from third place and four points. Nor was the drama yet over, for on lap 63 there was no Andretti. All the oil had gone, finally, and the engine let go dramatically as Mario headed into Woodcote. Thoughtfully, he immediately pulled of to the edge of the circuit, away from the line into the chicane. Brett Lunger's line must have been somewhat unusual at that point, however, for he found the oil and spun his M23 into the catch fencing. Just before this happened, Hans Stuck had a huge moment on the oil but managed to catch the car all right.
And there it all ended, James bringing the M26 in for its first win, to a rapturous reception from the crowd. Lauda, pacing himself superbly right to the end of the race, took second place, just a second and a half in front of an absolutely inspired Nilsson, who had given his very best for the last 15 laps. What a pity he had to sit for so long behind the ailing Andretti. Half a minute later, Mass arrived with the second M26, the last places being taken by Stuck and Laffite.
"I would never have got past John," said James. "I really felt for him but still I was very happy to see him go. Apart from the clutch problem at the start, the car went really well." More than anything, of course, this win restores the team's morale. Nine months without a victory is a long time for an outfit like McLaren Racing. For John Watson, it has been longer than that, and the Ulsterman really must be doubting that he will ever win another race. In the last four races, he has been wiped off the road twice, has had the car let him down twice. He can do no more.
In actual fact, John was far less despondent after the race than one might have expected - certainly less so than Zolder, for instance. Perhaps he's getting resigned to it, almost anticipating it. "I don't think I made any mistakes. I find it much easier to lead than follow, actually. I knew that unless I did something wrong, James wouldn't be able to get by. On one lap, James got alongside me into the chicane, but there was no way I was going to give way. I learned a lot from the Dutch Grand Prix last year!"
There was plenty of drama in this year's John Player British Grand Prix, if very little actual overtaking. Niki Lauda has now put himself clearly at the top of the World Championship, but this time last year, his position seemed infinitely secure, remember. Shall we recall this year's race as the one which started another late run by James Hunt and McLaren, as the one which John Watson lost or the one in which we first saw Gilles Villeneuve, who surely would have finished fourth, had it not been for his stop? Time will tell. But certainly we will remember it as a superbly organised meeting, with not a trace of the controversy which has dogged the British Grand Prix over the past four years.