Thursday, 29 March 2012

1978 Monaco Grand Prix

I recently watched a full video of the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix, and this prompted me to make some observations about the Formula 1 scene back then, and the odd comparison to our modern racing.

Viewing footage of this particular race served to remind me that this was the end of an era, and the dawn of a watershed in the sport's development, although few realised it at the time.  This was the last race before the introduction of the revolutionary and ground-breaking Lotus 79.  The complexion of F1 altered almost overnight, and the contest in the principality was the last glimpse of the "old order".  Grand Prix racing lost some of its innocence, and the modern era commenced.  Not only were "ground effects" about to become de rigueur, the commercial side of the sport was also beginning to be transformed, largely through television exposure.

These things are keenly felt by the likes of myself, who maintain that the period 1970-1977 represented some kind of golden age of F1 racing.  However, I acknowledge the merits and appeal of the ground effects and turbo eras which were being ushered in as the teams raced at Monaco in '78. 

So, to the race itself.  New talent was emerging and making its mark, in the form of Gilles Villeneuve,Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi and Riccardo Patrese.  In the early stages of the race, the Williams of Alan Jones was quite prominent, symptomatic of the continuing rise of Frank's team.

The pole man was Carlos Reutemann in the gorgeous Ferrari 312T3, arguably one of the best looking F1 cars of its era. However, the grid was extremely competitive, with no one team or car/driver combination enjoying any discernible margin of superiority.  This was all to change at the next race in Belgium, when Colin Chapman's latest creation shook the status quo to its foundations.

The pattern of the race was influenced to some degree, as ever at Monaco, by the start.  Lauda and Reutemann clashed, and the Argentine driver had to pit with a damaged rear aerofoil. Caught up in all this was James Hunt, who brushed the barrier whilst taking evasive action.  One of the curious things about Hunt's F1 career was his relative lack of prowess and success on street circuits, although the failures were not always attributable to him.

John Watson took the lead at the start, and had the race under some kind of control, exhibiting his flair and fluency.  Alas, he was not to prevail this time, and as in so many races in 1977/78, he was denied victory. The Brabhams were pointedly competitive at this event, all this before the introduction of the notorious "fan car".

Watching the race in full, I was reminded how people's perception of Formula 1 has been affected by the role of television.  There is a tendency to lionise and wax lyrical about "the good old days", but much of this thinking is based on snippets of footage and brief highlights, in the days before widespread live TV coverage. There were lengthy "fallow", uneventful and even tedious phases in races in those days, and Monaco '78 was not a lights to flag thriller itself. Contrary to what some people might have you believe, processions are not a recent innovation....

The two Brabhams and Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell were clearly superior, and forged ahead into a race of their own, providing an absorbing three-way tussle.  Depailler constantly harried Watson, and the Frenchman drove with elan and panache, but also control and discipline.  The Brabhams may have been adversely affected by the weight and thirstiness of the Alfa engine, whereas the Tyrrell was more nimble and forgiving.

Eventually, Watson stumbled at the chicane after the tunnel, and Lauda was forced to pit for new tyres, leaving Depailler to proceed in relative comfort towards his maiden triumph. Lauda's difficulties were the springboard for a spirited recovery drive, with the Austrian's car assuming some very unorthodox angles, perhaps one of the least "Lauda-esque" displays of his entire career. His audacious manoeuvre to pass Jody Scheckter in front of the pits was especially impressive.

In the end, though, it was Depailler's day, and few would have begrudged him his moment of glory. This was a fully merited victory, although as it transpired the Tyrrell team was unable to build on it to any meaningful extent.

Watching the race was a very useful and enjoyable exercise, providing a snapshot of a time of change in Grand Prix racing.

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