James Hunt did two things fairly easily in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen last Sunday: he won the race and lost his crown. The new world driving champion is Niki Lauda, a man few believed would ever be back, let alone regain the title he had won in 1975, after his crash last year in the German Grand Prix. Lauda clinched the championship by driving to a conservative fourth at the Glen, behind his only remaining challenger for the crown, Jody Scheckter, who finished third.
It had been, at least as far as the sport goes, a dull, wet, miserable week—until the last lap of the race. Hans Stuck led the first 14 laps in his 12-cylinder Brabham-Alfa Romeo, but then he ran off the course when he tried to lap three cars on the inside of a turn.
Hunt, to his admitted relief—he had been unable to gain on Stuck—inherited the lead with Mario Andretti, Scheckter and Lauda in pursuit, and their positions never changed for the remainder of the race. Hunt steadily drove away from Andretti and stretched his lead to as much as 17 seconds. With only a few laps remaining, Hunt began slowing to conserve his deeply grooved rain tires, which were wearing rapidly on the drying racetrack, and Andretti's black Lotus sneaked up behind him. It was not until Hunt passed the pits on the last lap and saw his McLaren crew frantically waving him on that he was aware of the threat and got back on the gas to hold off Andretti and win by two seconds.
Andretti has had an up-and-down season. He has won four Grands Prix, one more than Lauda and two more than Hunt. But he has also suffered more than his share of blown engines, which Lauda has not had to contend with because of the reliability of the Ferrari, a proud marque whose Italian red cars have now won the Constructors' Championship for the third consecutive year.
October 9, 1977
But next year Lauda—who had six second-place finishes in addition to his wins at South Africa, Holland and, fittingly, the German GP—will not be driving a Ferrari. He recently announced he will join the Brabham-Alfa team with John Watson. That startling announcement made, the next question was obvious. Who would replace Lauda? The equally obvious answer, at least at first: Andretti.
What a tidy scenario—Italian refugee goes to America with visions of Tazio Nuvolari in his young head, wins the Indy 500 and becomes America's greatest race driver, has a dry spell and is considered washed up, comes back, and makes a solid run for the world championship in an English-made Lotus, signs with Ferrari the next year, wins the world championship and retires.
The hitch—Andretti had signed a letter of intent with Lotus before Lauda quit Ferrari. So Andretti, morally if not legally bound, is sticking with the team that has been good to him. But Andretti thought about it pretty hard before making up his mind.
"Ferrari is the only team I would ever have considered," he said. "When I signed the letter of intent with Colin Chapman [owner, designer and team manager of Lotus], Lauda's leaving Ferrari was the furthest thing from my mind. Still, I had to talk to Ferrari, even if it was going to make a mess. To make things even more difficult, their offer was better than I expected. It was the toughest decision of my career."
So Niki Lauda is world champion for the second year out of three. Lauda is a man of puzzling motivations and strange, if unquestionable, determination. Now, after his remarkable comeback, it almost seems as if he is handicapping himself again by bolting to a team with a car that is as notoriously unreliable as it is fast. But that is Lauda's way. His reputation as a driver certainly has been reestablished, though early in the season there had been rumors Ferrari was no longer confident of his ability to help develop a race car. Should Lauda make Brabham a consistent challenger next year, who would doubt his ability in that area anymore?
Andretti also knows what he wants and is doing everything in his power to get it. His career is anything but over. And the tidy scenario that would have been may yet be realized—all but the color of the car.