With 10 laps remaining in last Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix West in Long Beach, Calif., the crowd began pressing more tightly around the pit of Mario Andretti. Andretti's gold-and-black Lotus was in second place, 13 seconds behind the Ferrari of Carlos Reutemann. Having seen Mario move up from fifth position as three of the cars leading him dropped back or out of the race, the group's collective wish was that their man would somehow overtake Reutemann and pull out his second straight win at Long Beach.
An aura of high hopes and anticipation seems to surround Andretti on the Formula I circuit, even when, as at this race, there is little reason for such enthusiasm. The Ferrari hadn't missed a beat for the first 70 laps of the 80-lap event, and it didn't miss a beat for the final 10, as Reutemann led Andretti by 11 seconds over the finish line and thus tied him in the points standing for the world driving championship at 18 apiece.
The race had been Ferrari's from the first day of practice on Friday. Reutemann had been officially credited with a lap of 1:20.636 on the 2.02-mile circuit through the streets of the city that day, and despite additional qualifying sessions the Argentinian's time held up to take the pole position. But on Sunday it was Reutemann's new teammate, 26-year-old Gilles Villeneuve of Quebec, who bulled his way into the lead and held it for 38 laps. However, when Villeneuve came up to lap Clay Regazzoni on the inside of a turn, there wasn't room and the cars touched wheels. Villeneuve's Ferrari bounced high in the air, skidded backward into a cement retaining wall and out of the race. Reutemann was the new leader.
Alan Jones of Australia drove his Shadow into second upon Villeneuve's crash and began chasing Reutemann aggressively, sliding the Saudi Arabian-sponsored car around the last turn onto Ocean Boulevard, his tires kicking up silver-dollar-sized shards of the street and spinning them into the air. But the front wing on Jones' car suddenly began drooping like a Fu Manchu mustache, and his engine was stammering seriously enough to be jerking Jones' head forward and backward as he accelerated along the front straight. Eventually the combination of deteriorating handling and the misfire would drop Jones to seventh, third place going to the Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler and fourth to the Lotus of Ronnie Peterson.
Andretti's second-place finish came as a result of attrition, and mostly at the expense of the Brabham-Alfa Romeos of John Watson and Niki Lauda, who each retired while running second, Watson on the ninth lap with a broken driveshaft, Lauda on the 27th with lost fuel pressure. The scene in the Brabham pits shortly thereafter was Felliniesque: sleek race cars shrieking and speeding past, just feet from where Watson, six feet tall, was huddling over Lauda, 5'8", in turn huddling over 5'6" team manager Bernie Ecclestone, clad in a black leather jacket this sunny day, the three of them sheltering rock star Rod Stewart. It was not a scene likely to be seen at your quintessential American auto race.
Long Beach was the fourth of a scheduled 17 races in a Formula I season that has already provided several surprises of more significance than Stewart's guest appearance in the pits. Andretti led every lap of the first grand prix of the year, which was in Buenos Aires, emphasizing what really needed no emphasis: that the 38-year-old former Indianapolis 500 champion is determined to win the world driving title. Reutemann, who is nicknamed "Lole," won the Grand Prix of Brazil, the second race of the season, and his effortless victory amounted to a declaration of war by Michelin, the French tire company, against Goodyear. Until Reutemann's win on Michelins, Goodyear had won 80 consecutive grands prix. Andretti's teammate, Ronnie Peterson, whom they call "Super Swede," won the third race, in South Africa, but only after a sensational 23-year-old Italian named Riccardo Patrese, driving a sensational 3-month-old car called an Arrows, had led until his engine blew up.
But no matter how much attention was being paid to Andretti's obsession, Michelin's challenge or Patrese's emergence as a potential star, Andress Nikolaus Lauda, whom they call Niki, was the center of attention on the circuit. After winning the drivers' championship in 1975 and again in 1977, he had turned his back on Ferrari and joined the Brabham team at the end of last season.
Enzo Ferrari, 79 years old and racing automobiles for over half a century, takes anything less than complete allegiance as a personal rejection, and II Commendatore never really forgave Lauda for his season-ending performance in 1976. On that occasion, in Japan, Lauda gave up any chance of winning another championship by withdrawing from the race, because he thought heavy rain had made the track unsafe. Nor was Lauda forgiven in Italy, where motor racing is discussed on the front pages of newspapers. But while the Italian press can be direct in expressing its displeasure, Signore Ferrari seldom speaks out. When he does, however, it is no small occasion, and last year he held a press conference to comment on what he referred to as Lauda's "treacherous defection."
"Since 1950 my Ferrari has shown an Italy which is not solely represented by spaghetti and music," he said. "It took abroad the image of a new Italy, that of an Italy based on the endeavor of Italians. The word patria—homeland—still exists in our vocabulary and the homeland is not to be denied, it is to be victorious and honored in all fields—including sports. Ferrari has won 22 titles, and I hope we will win another before I die. Racing cars are the sole purpose of my life.... Lauda on my side represents advantages, sorrow and worry. To have him compete against us will merely mean one more competitor."
In that same press conference, Ferrari threw a few spears the way of Goodyear, which had supplied tires for all of the Formula I teams in 1977. Ferrari made clear his dissatisfaction and hinted that there might be a different tire in Ferrari's future. Sure enough, Michelin announced shortly afterward that in 1978 it would supply tires for Ferrari (as well as for the French Renault team). It was a symbiotic arrangement; neither concern had much to lose, everything to gain. The Michelin tire was untried in competition; few teams would be willing to gamble with an unproved tire. However, the Ferrari team had unexpectedly been thrown into a rebuilding year with Lauda's defection, and a championship was not really expected of it. Reutemann is regarded as competent, occasionally brilliant, but not consistently of championship caliber, and Villeneuve is essentially a rookie. In effect, without Lauda, Ferrari had no championship to lose. But, if the Michelins should turn out to be faster tires than the Goodyears....
Which in two out of four races is precisely what has been the case. In Brazil and at Long Beach, Michelin was clearly the fastest tire. Rubber is racing's linchpin. All the horsepower of the world is of no use if it does not get to the ground. Michelin can shower Ferrari with a variety of rubber compounds, from tires as soft as chewing gum to ones as hard as a handball; a selection of about 200 tires was on hand at Long Beach. Goodyear, with 19 cars to help set up at Long Beach, cannot be so thorough. It is caught between a rock and a hard place, and all it can do—which it is doing—is assign its engineers in Akron to night shifts. Says Leo Mehl, Goodyear's director of racing, "Michelin wants to knock us off, that's what they want to do. They spent a lot of money, they got the prospects and they're in it to win. And devoting all their attention to one team is the easiest way to do it." Lotus, McLaren and Brabham, in particular, have pleaded that Goodyear pay more attention to them—that is, to offer them more tires at the expense of the slower teams—but Goodyear has, so far, done its best to keep everyone, even the teams with little chance of winning, supplied with the best tires possible.
So, Reutemann and Villeneuve qualified one-two on Michelins. "If they had Goodyears they would be ninth and 10th," scoffed Lauda. Meanwhile, the other teams worked frantically to find the fastest combination of tires and suspension settings, no simple task considering they had just four practice sessions totaling five hours to set up their complex racing machines.
Andretti, last year's come-from-be-hind winner, was among the drivers playing catch-up to Ferrari. Before the final qualifying session Saturday afternoon, in which he whittled his time down to 1:21.188—more than half a second slower than Reutemann and fourth fastest in the field—Andretti was muttering to himself. "We're struggling," he said. "I jacked that suspension all around. Last night I was cutting grooves in the tires by hand. What the heck, it used to work on the dirt tracks when I was racing midget cars. Thought I'd fall back on that experience."
And, considering Reutemann's and the Ferrari's and Michelin's strength this day, in a way it was experience that did pay off for Andretti. For if there is one thing he has learned in his 20 years of racing, it is patience, and patience won him six championship points on Sunday, points he so covets in his pursuit of the world driving championship.