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."