The 1977 Monaco Grand Prix

The Annual frolic round the streets of Monte Carlo, when drivers and spectators alike can indulge in flagrant law-breaking by the standards of most “civilized” countries, was its usual popular self. Many of the professionals within the Formula One “circus” will explain at great length why the Monaco Grand Prix is an anomoly in “… the modern world of Formula One racing…” but few will define what they mean by “modern world”. None will miss the opportunity of taking part in the manifestation, whatever their connection with motor racing, and the annual gathering in the tiny, overcrowded Principality brings out more people who had long since retired from the game, than any other event. You do not have to take it too seriously; in fact if you do you are liable to become disenchanted and bitter. But take it as it is presented and it is an event not to be missed. I would not go as far as one media source wrote in their pre-race blurb, that “Monaco is THE race to win”, unless you are a social-climber and value the opportunity of shaking hands with a real, live Prince and Princess on the winner’s rostrum. Like the Le Mans 24-hour race and Indianapolis, the Monaco Grand Prix has become something of an institution, even if it does not fit into the driver/ businessman’s idea of how Formula One should be moulded to suit his profession.

There was no shortage of entries, no boycotts by drivers, no reluctance to take part and the chosen Top Twenty, with two spares were all ready to go by mid-week. Practice was arranged for Thursday morning and afternoon; Friday was restricted for Formula Three and Renault racing practice, while Saturday morning saw the Formula One teams wasting hours on “testing” without official timing, and for an all-too-short one hour on Saturday afternoon everyone had a final chance to establish their position on the starting grid. The positions were very critical, for in the interests of something or other, the grid at Monte Carlo is lined up in two staggered rows, with all those on the left about two car lengths ahead of those on the right, making an effective 1 x 1 grid formation, so the car on pole position had two-lengths start over the second fastest, and so on.

There were a few changes among the establishment since the race in Spain, notably that Mc Laren and Tyrrell had made strategic withdrawals on the technical front and Shadow had swopped their young Italian driver for an even younger one, retaining the sponsorship money and the colour scheme of their cars. Mc Laren wisely decided that Monte Carlo was no place to continue development on their new M26 car, so Hunt was driving his old-faithful M23/8, with his newer M23 as a spare. The Tyrrell team showed further confusion since Spain by back-tracking their 6-wheeler design to Monaco 1976, for the cars used by Peterson and Depailler, in an attempt to find out were they went wrong since the promising showing of the P34 cars last year. The Brabham – Alfa Romeo team had been sorting things out on the Alfa Romeo test-track at Ballocco, mid-way between Milan and Turin, though some pro – Cosworth followers suggested unkindly that the “testing” had involved fitting 4-litre engines.

Monte Carlo is one circuit that can only be used for official practice when the management of the Principality permit it, so there had been no pre – practice – practice or pre – practice – testing. Thursday morning from 10 am to 11:30 am (actually 10 minutes late) was the first contact that they all had with the circuit, apart from those like Peterson and Scheckter who live in Monte Carlo and occasionally walk the streets. The Brabham team were fired with a very competitive spirit and Watson and Stuck were at the head of the queue waiting to leave the pit lane. With twenty five cars using the circuit, in and out of the pits, the scene was the usual confusion that the Formula One crowd accept as a qualification period. Fast drivers were held up by slow ones through the wiggly section on the harbour front, or had a clear run into the chicane at Saint Devote completely spoilt by someone leaving the pits. Slow drivers trying to learn were hampered by blue flags and the “chargers” forcing their way by down the hill to the Mirabeau Hairpin, or filling both mirrors through the slow corners. What became obvious very early on was the way some drivers and teams got into a rhythm, in spite of all this confusion, while others were going in fits and starts. Among those who quickly settled into a rhythm were the two Brabham drivers and Reutemann with the second Ferrari. It was very clear that Lauda, Hunt and Andretti just could not get things to flow, seldom doing more than a lap or two without stopping. Peterson worked into a good rhythm with the six-wheeled Tyrrell and Scheckter showed signs with the Wolf (or rather, with the wolves, as he tried WR1 and WR3). The two Brabham drivers were in a class of their own, very little wrong with their cars and the Alfa Romeo engines working well. While Watson was driving hard and neatly, his team mate Stuck was on the verge of an accident the whole time, but by reason of superb reflexes he didn’t actually have one. It was no surprise that the morning ended with the two Brabhams in the first two places, with Stuck fractionally faster, but while his hairy progress was fun to watch, it didn’t look as though he could keep it up for a whole race, whereas Watson looked safe and secure and only 0.13 sec. slower. Stuck was showing “enthusiasm, bravado and lightning reflexes” and by his own admission was well over ten-tenths in effort. Watson, on the other hand, was a fine example of how to be sure to get to the end of the 76-lap race, with every chance of being first.

Lauda was feeling quite fit after his rib trouble in Spain, his Ferrari scat having been remoulded to give him better body support, but his morning was troubled by a broken drive-shaft on his regular Ferrari 030. He continued practice in the spare car, 027 and eventually pipped his team mate Reutemann by a mere one-hundreth of a second. However, they were both behind Peterson who had been throwing the six-wheeled Tyrrell about with inspiring confidence. Low down the list was Ligier, much to the consternation of Jacques Laffite, for nothing would go right with the car even though the engine was working well. It didn’t handle, didn’t accelerate, didn’t stop, didn’t steer and altogether was a bit of a pig, for no obvious reason. It was a case of getting all the various adjustments out of phase with one another and being unable to find a compromise. The other French driver, Jean-Pierre Jarier, was having a much better time with the German-owned 1976 Penske cars and was placed well up the field. Of the new young lads Rupert Keegan was impressing everyone with his command of the Hesketh, in complete contrast to his Formula Three efforts last year when he spent the whole time bouncing off the Armeo. Another new boy who was making people take notice was the Italian Riccardo Patrese, also from Formula Three, who was handling the works Shadow impeccably, having been thrown in at the deep end of Formula One. The fastest 20 of 25 entries were going to start the race and a surprise was to see Regazzoni in twenty first position with the Ensign.

After lunch there was an hour of practice, and just as it was about to begin large spots of rain began to fall, which soon turned into real rain. A lot of drivers left the pit lane, toured round for a lap and returned to the pits without recording an official lap time. The rain got worse and while some drivers went out on wet-weather tyres and had a bit of a go, others made no attempt to practice. Some, like the Mc Laren team, practised wheel changes and some simply covered their cars over and withdrew. Andretti tried the spare Lotus, which still had the original rear anti-roll bar layout, as well as the later car and was fastest of those who braved the rain. Hunt was working hard in the Mc Laren and Regazzoni was very gloomy as he had calculated on ensuring his grid position on this first day so that he could fly off to Indianapolis and qualify for the 500-mile race on Saturday, returning over-night for the Monaco race on Sunday afternoon. Eventually the rain came down so hard that even the bravest of them gave up and practice was quietly washed away, leaving the morning times counting for the grid positions until the final hour on Saturday afternoon.

While the mechanics prepared the cars for the Saturday onslaught the team managers managed, the drivers did whatever drivers do when they are not driving and the rest of the world junketed in the best “freemans” tradition. All the big-wigs from Cosworth Engineering arrived, on a sort of firm’s-outing, carrying three special DFV engines with parts made in magnesium instead of the normal aluminium and with numerous small but important changes internally around such areas as the valve gear. More important was that these three engines had been very carefully assembled, rather than “production assembled” like the normal run-of-the-mill Cosworth DFV engines, and they had plates riveted to the cambox covers, saying Cosworth Engineering, as a protest against those which bear a plate that says Nicholson – Mc Laren Engines Ltd., which have chalked up the last three Cosworth DFV victories. These Cosworth development engines which rev a bit higher and weigh a bit less, were destined one each for Lotus, Mc Laren and Tyrrell, with the Wolf team at the head of the queue should there be a fourth such special engine. They were not free, but were loaned to the teams in exchange for a large bag of gold to help pay for development costs, for since the original £100,000 given by Ford in 1966, Cosworth Engineering have been self supporting.

Lotus put their special engine into Andretti’s spare car, Mc Laren put their into Hunt’s car 23/8, and Tyrrell have his to the fastest of his pair of ELF drivers, which was Peterson. Come Saturday morning and everyone was ready, though the weather was still grey and nasty, with soggy-looking clouds enveloping the mountains behind the town, and occasional showers of rain. Almost unnoticed was the complete absence of the works March team; they had been about on Thursday, but Max Mosley was wishing they had not been there. Alex Ribeiro crashed his car beyond immediate repair, and wasn’t very fast anyway, while Ian Scheckter crumpled his car on a barrier. While the car was hammered straight, poor Scheckter found he had damaged his ribs and had to withdraw, so March were to two down, with two to go (Merzario and Hayje). Regazzoni took one look at the weather and disappeared off to Indianapolis (where he was to qualify comfortably) and Morris Nunn co-opted Jacky Ickx back into the Ensign team; the Belgian driver being at Monaco “in passing”.

During the morning the weather improved noticeably, the boats in the harbour stopped rocking about and the sun came out and the twenty three potential starters went at it as though the time-keepers were actually recording their lap times. The Brabham boys were first out again and showing that Thursday had not been fluke, while Jody Scheckter was looking really impressive with the Wolf. The Lotus team sent Andretti out for a few laps in the spare car to try the special engine, but were applying their fine tunning of the suspension, tyres and aerodynamic devices to 78/3. Keegan was in trouble with his engine blowing its oil out, instead of using it, and he eventually spun due to his oily back tyres, but escaped damage.

The hectic tempo that worked up during the morning continued with even greater ferocity during the final hour. While the Brabhams were quickly away, Stuck did not last long as his engine, newly fitted the day before, broke its valve gear and though the lanky German tried the spare car it did not suit him and he had to sit in the pits and watch everyone trying to beat his Thursday time of 1 min. 30.73 sec. In fact, not many did, only Scheckter, Reutemann and Peterson surpassing him to begin with, but right near the end of practice Watson got everything right and beat the lot of them with 1 min. 29.86 sec., the only driver to get under the 1 min. 30 sec. barrier, which put him in a class of his own. A remarkable amount of incident packed itself into the final hour, for Keegan was still loosing oil and Andretti lost control on it and clanged into the barriers, which bent the ends of his Lotus 78/3, while Scheckter had a private accident, overdoing things and hitting the barriers with the rear of the Wolf, crumpling the aerofoil mounting and damaging the gearbox.

When the noise and confusion subsided it was found that Watson was on pole position, followed by Scheckter, Reutemann, Peterson, Stuck, Lauda, Hunt and Depailler, and somebody had to telephone Enzo Ferrari and explain that “the flat-12 engine” was fastest! A lot of people were telling Keith Duckworth that the fastest Cosworth powered car was the Wolf, using a bog-standard “production” DFV! Those who said it was all a matter of luck were not doing justice to Watson and Scheckter, who were on terrific form and a joy to watch. There were no new faces up at the front of the grid, indeed there seldom are, for the way from mid-field to the front is a long hard slog. Commendable was the driving of Riccardo Patrese in the Shadow, and Jacky Ickx in the Ensign, the first for qualifying fifteenth at his first attempt at Formula One and the second for qualifying the Ensign in seventeenth position with little or no warning. Those left out of the Top Twenty were Merzario (March), Hayje (March), Ertl (Hesketh), Ribeiro (March) and Ian Schekter (March) and, of course, Regazzoni who did not intend to return. The March performance was worthy of BRM in their declining years, four in the entry and none in the race.

Sunday morning was anything but Cote d’Azur, though with a bit of luck the rain was going to hold off, and at 11:30 am there was a 30 minutes free practice session to make sure everything was all right. Once again the Brabham pair were ready and waiting at the head of the queue, and in case anyone had trouble Merzario, as first reserve, was also out on the circuit. Lotus had taken the special Cosworth V8 and gearbox assembly off the spare car and installed it in 78/3 for Andretti, and the Wolf team had swapped the rear end of WR3 onto WR1 for Scheckter, while both Hunt and Peterson were still using their Cosworth special engines. After a Renault sponsored race and a lunch break things were ready for the great occasion we had all come for, the 76-lap race round the streets of Monte Carlo. While the racing cars were warming up there were parades round the circuit of Rolls-Royce cars, girls on Honda motorcycles, vintage sports cars sponsored by Gitanes cigarrettes, all interspersed by Vic Elford going round in a 928 Porsche course car loaned by the Stuttgart factory. Finally the parading came to an end when Prince Rainier himself drove his Princess round the circuit in an open Rolls-Royce and then 21 Formula One cars roared round on their way to the starting grid, with Merzario hopefully in twenty first place. The 928 followed, going a bit quicker this time, and they all formed up on the 1 x 1 grid while poor Merzario returned to the pits with no hope of joining in. Another warmup lap, serious this time, in strict formation and another fast lap for Vic Elford and then they were all lined up under the cold stare of the regulation Red Light, having been informed that “…there will be no passing between the start line and the Saint Devote Corner”. A rule announced by the Sporting Comission of the Automobile Club of Monaco, in the interests of safety. The Red Light went out, the Green Light came on and Scheckter was gone, overtaking Watson’s Brabham as it hesitated with spinning wheels. Flagrantly breaking the law, Scheckter led into the Saint Devote chicane and away up the hill. (If you make a stupid law can expect it to be broken – like the 1976 absurdities over more millimetres!). By all the rules the whole field should have ascended the hill to the Casino in grid order, but it wasn’t a bit like that and while the rule-makers opened their mouths in shock the twenty cars were gone in a roar that shook the town, with Vic Elford in the 928 really scratching to keep the tail enders in sight during his regulation opening lap “follow-up” with the course car.

It was a pretty orderly opening lap which all twenty cars negotiated safely and the order was Scheckter, Watson, Reutemann, Stuck, Peterson, Lauda, Hunt, Depailler, Mass, Jones, Jarier, Nilsson and the rest with Binder bringing up the rear. Watson was very close behind Scheckter, trying hard to make up for his hesitant start, and though there was little hope of getting by in the tight confines of the street circuit, unless Scheckter made a mistake, which wasn’t likely by the look of it, the Ulsterman was not going to relax and settle for second place. Among the rest Stuck’s Brabham was grounding over the bumps throwing out showers of sparks, Patrese had the right front canard fin on his Shadow crumbled by someone’s rear wheel, and Nilsson was in trouble with his gear linkage and stopped at the pits after seven laps. By 10 laps Peterson had gone into the pits with defective brakes and it began to look like “twenty little nigger boys”. Although Scheckter was leading all the time he was having to work hard, for Watson had the nose of his red Brabham right under the Wolf’s tail, pushing hard all the time. Depailler had dropped a couple of places when his brakes played up, and Mass had got past Andretti. On the twentieth lap Stuck’s Brabham went coasting through the Casino Square, suffering a major electrical failure and stopped in a small cloud of smoke as a short-circuit manifested itself. This let Lauda take over fourth place, behind his team mate Reutemann but the Ferraris were barely in sight of the Wolf/Brabham duel at the front. Laffite was trying hard to get by Brambilla, but in vain, and Keegan was bracing himself to overtake the ex-World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

At the front of the race, although a “production” Cosworth DFV was leading it was hotly pursued by three Italian 12 cylinders, with Hunt and his Super Cosworth trying to keep up. With wide cars on a narrow circuit and a remarkable equality among the drivers and cars a race must of necessity become a procession, with everyone waiting for the others to make a mistake or have trouble. The Monaco GP was no exception, though it wasn’t a dull procession for groups of the cars were running very close to each other. Finding he could not keep up with the leaders, Reutemann let his team mate go by into third place and settled himself into a safe fourth position. Andretti was pressing hard on the tail of the number two Mc Laren as the number one Mc Laren expired in a cloud of smoke as its special Cosworth engine broke! Laffite was hounding Brambilla, for Jarier had acquired a flat front tyre and had stopped at the pits to change it, and Keegan had taken a deep breath and passed the ex-World Champion, which made Fittipaldi stop and try some different tyres!

At 30 laps Watson was still pressing hard, but Scheckter was completely unshakeable and looked to be well in control of the situation; Lauda was third, Reutemann fourth, Mass fifth with Andretti still under his tail, and Depailler close behind them in seventh place. Alan Jones was holding a nice eighth place and then came Brambilla and Laffite. A long way back, but doing very well, was Patrese in the second Shadow leading Ickx in the Ensign and then came Keegan about to be lapped by the leaders. Fittipaldi and Binder were bringing up the rear. A few spots of rain fell at 40 laps, but did not develop into anything and the roundy-round continued at unabated speed. Ickx and Patrese were lapped by the leading pair without any trouble and then the Brabham’s brakes played up and Watson went up the escape road at the chicane onto the harbour front, letting Lauda slip through into second place. Watson gathered himself up before Reutemann appeared and Scheckter could now relax for the first time in 45 laps. Four laps later and the Brabham locked up its gearbox as Watson entered the Saint Devote corner and he spun to a stop, his race finished, leaving the two Ferraris to chase the Wolf in a vain hope of retrieving honour for Italy. Depailler had disappeared when his gearbox broke just before this, and then Nilsson went out with the same trouble on his Lotus, after running many laps behind the race, following his pit stop.

While Scheckter could now run the race at his own pace, with Lauda comfortably behind him, and Reutemann even further back, Jochen Mass still had Andretti right on his tail, the Italian (USA brand) studying all the nuts and bolts on the back of the Mc Laren, hoping one of them would fail. Keegan was slowing down as his Hesketh was falling apart behind him, the rear anti-roll bar mounting breaking up, and Laffite was pressing Brambilla so hard that the two of them were closing up on Alan Jones. With ten laps to go Scheckter was in complete command of the situation, easing off as his pit kept him in touch with what was behind him. The Wolf was running perfectly and as the remaining laps ticked by the South African judged his position perfectly, allowing Lauda to close up within sight of its tail as they covered the last lap, but while Lauda was pressing hard, Scheckter was “cruising”, so that if anyone was going to make a last minute mistake it was going to be the Ferrari driver, not the Wolf driver. The Mass/Andretti battle lasted right to the end, the Lotus driver making a desperate attempt to overtake but failing, and Laffite finally took the Ligier past Brambilla’s Surtees as the Italian had to ease off when his fire-proof balaclava inside his helmet slipped down over his eyes.

Scheckter scored his second win for the Wolf team this season after a superbly judged drive, even if he did infringe the law at the start, and the Ferrari team finished a solid second and third, which was better than some two-car teams who didn’t finish at all. The Mass/Andretti duel for fourth and fifth places lasted right to the chequered flag, with Alan Jones and Laffite close behind in sixth and seventh places, followed by Brambilla driving almost blind. Patrese covered himself in glory on his Formula One debut, with ninth place only a lap behind the winner and Ickx brought the Ensign home well in the money, followed by Jarier and Keegan. – D.S.J.

By ‘D.S.J’ of Motor Sport Magazine (1977), from my private collection. Published here for non-profit, entertainment-only purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.