One of the few things in this world more difficult than winning a world driving championship is successfully defending it. It has been 19 years since Jack Brabham of Australia was able to do so driving a Cooper in 1959 and 1960. Since then, not even the likes of Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart or Niki Lauda—with nine titles among them—have been able to hang on to their championships for two consecutive seasons. The difference between 1960 and 1979 is clear: pressure. Things just aren't as simple as they were when the tires were skinny and the drivers fat, instead of the other way around.
Now it is Mario Andretti's turn in the pressurized bucket seat. And it couldn't have been very comfortable for him at Long Beach last Sunday as 24 snarling Formula One cars prepared to race over the city's streets for a piece of the $600,000 purse in the Long Beach Grand Prix. For three days he had had niggling problems in practice, and for three days the world champion had worn a scowl or a look of worry. This is the kind of thing that happens when a conquering hero returns home to find himself an underdog. Finally, it took a daring pass with a little more than two laps to go for Andretti to finish fourth and collect three more points in his title defense. And there seemed little he could do but sigh and head home to Nazareth, Pa., with the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix on his mind.
It was an unexciting race as Formula One events go, won for the third time in the race's four-year history by a Ferrari, driven on this occasion by the easygoing 5'2" boyish Quèbecois Gilles Villeneuve, whose closest pursuer was his temperamental South African teammate Jody Scheckter, 29.38 seconds back. Alan Jones of Australia was third, 4.64 seconds ahead of Andretti's Lotus. The 27-year-old Villeneuve now leads the 1979 championship with 20 points after four races; Andretti, the reigning king, is sixth with eight.
The fastest driver through all but the final three minutes of qualifying had been Carlos Reutemannm, Andretti's new teammate and winner of last year's Long Beach race. But Villeneuve, after crashing almost as soon as practice began Friday—and shrugging it off as he does all his frequent shunts—slipped in a hot lap almost as the session was being flagged to a halt and stole the pole position from Reutemann by setting a new record of 1:18.825 for the 2.02-mile course. Considering that only .2 second separated the first five qualifiers, it was expected to be one very competitive race.
April 16, 1979
But most of the competition ended after the first lap. on which for the third time in four years one driver (Patrick Tambay) braked for a hairpin too little too late and bounded over the wheels of another driver (Niki Lauda). And that was the second attempt at a start. The first was aborted when Villeneuve apparently forgot to stop at the starting line after the warmup lap (and was fined 10,000 Swiss francs, about $5,900, for the oversight).
More of the reason for the dull race, however, was the fact that two of the fastest five qualifiers—Reutemann and Jacques Laffite—were ordered to the rear of the pack after last-minute technical problems had forced them to switch into their backup cars instead of those in which they had qualified. Thus. Villeneuve started with a space next to him, where Reutemann was meant to be, an advantage Villeneuve may not have needed, he so dominated the race.
It was the second Villeneuve-Scheckter sweep in the second race for the new truncated T4 Ferraris. They are what is referred to as "ground effect" cars. Designers have decided they have gone about as far as they can in improving straight-line aerodynamics, and now are concentrating on road-holding, their current solution being streamlining the bellies of the cars. Turn a Formula One car upside down—and as they weigh only 1.180 pounds, two strong men could do just that fairly easily—and you will not see dark greasy things, but rather a smooth expanse of aluminum. That, combined with the skirts along the sides of the car that actually skim the ground, creates a suction that holds these vehicles to the road. "This ground-effect business is something of a black art." says John Watson of the McLaren team. Watson knows whereof he speaks: despite having a pair of ground-effect cars, McLaren has earned only four points this season. "Nobody really knows for sure what they're doing when they design a ground-effect car," he says. "When they make a good one, as Ferrari has, they have to concede to a little bit of luck."
Getting the proud Italians to concede luck in the designing of an automobile would be infinitely more difficult than getting them to show it off, even if the car is rather odd looking. In contrast to the Lotus, with its long narrow snout, or the Brazilian Copersucar, which seems inspired by the Concorde, the Ferrari looks like a man with his nose bitten off. But it works, in particular on tight circuits like Long Beach.
The Ferrari might be the best car at the moment, but in the technoids' toy store that is Formula One racing, that can be a fleeting distinction. For example, in the first two races of the year, the Ligier driven by Laffite was vastly superior and won easily; now all of a sudden it seems merely good. Soon there will be a new ground-effect Lotus. Considering the fact that the leader in the voodoo world of ground effect is considered to be Lotus designer Colin Chapman, Andretti and Reutemann may soon find themselves once again with the best equipment on the track.
Despite his crown, Andretti is currently in a more difficult position with Lotus than he was last season, largely because of Reutemann. Last year Andretti got along well with his teammate, Ronnie Peterson (who was killed at Monza), but Reutemann is a tougher nut. He is a moody loner who doesn't become chummy with anyone.
Chapman, who understands drivers the way Angelo Dundee understands fighters, leaves Reutemann to brood alone, and Reutemann seems to be responding by exorcising himself of the erratic performances for which he is known. Last year he drove inconsistently for Ferrari, by whom he was less understood; Ferrari likes the fire to show in its drivers, but Reutemann has more ice than fire in his veins. Still, when he was good, he was very good, winning four races, second only to Andretti's six.
Adding to Andretti's frustration at Long Beach was the fact that things were going so smoothly for Reutemann during practice and qualifying. Despite the fact that Reutemann's and Andretti's Lotuses were twins, Andretti could not find the key to set up his car, for race cars are like snowflakes: no two are identical. "It's all just metal, and you think it should be the same, but it just isn't," Andretti lamented after qualifying, when he was sixth fastest.
Villeneuve, meanwhile, was bouncing about, his mood as buoyant as Mario's was cautious. Villeneuve is in a position that many drivers dream of—one he should appreciate, says Andretti. He is a Ferrari factory driver, who got there without really paying his dues—which is not the same as saying he doesn't deserve to be there. After only a few Formula One races, he was hired as a Ferrari team driver at the end of the 1977 season. But the pressures on him, like those on Andretti, are enormous, considering he is relatively untried, that he replaced a world champion (Lauda), and last but not least, that the pressures of driving for Ferrari are always enormous. But Villeneuve seems remarkably well equipped to handle them.
Last year at Long Beach, when he was a rookie, he led his teammate (then Reutemann) and the race for 38 laps, until he tried to lap a car where there was no room to pass. He crashed, knocked himself out of the race and handed it to Reutemann. Before Sunday's race, he was asked how well he remembered that near miss, and if he would do anything different today. He smiled at the question, as he does at most references to his errors. "There is no safe place to pass at Long Beach," he replied. "It is best to stay in front all day."
Villeneuve has learned a lot since last year.