The 1979 South African Grand Prix, officially advertised as the XXV Simba Grand Prix of South Africa (or Die Suid-Afrikaanse Simba Grand Prix in Dutch), was the third round of the 1979 FIA Formula One World Championship, staged at the Kyalami Circuit on the 3 March 1979. The race, which was the 25th South African Grand Prix to be held, would see Gilles Villeneuve claim his second victory, in a rain interrupted race.
Preceding this would a surprising but very significant result in qualifying, for Jean-Pierre Jabouille grabbed pole at the wheel of the turbocharged Renault RS01, a first in the Championship. He was to be joined on the front row by South Africa's national hero Jody Scheckter at the wheel of the new Ferrari 312T4, with Villeneuve lining up just behind his teammate in third.
It was a very dark, overcast afternoon when the field lined up on the grid for the start, with Jabouille ultimately managing to keep the scarlet Ferraris at bay. However, as the last of the cars charged into the first corner a cloud burst swept across the circuit, allowing Villeneuve to sweep into the lead as Jabouille slipped wide.
The race was stopped at the end of the second lap, the conditions simply too poor to allow the race to continue in spite of the fact that there had been no major incidents. The restart was hence delayed until the heavy rain had passed, with the grid set to running order at the end of the opening tour, meaning Villeneuve started on pole.
The restart saw the field split between slick and wet tyres, with Villeneuve surging into the lead on wets, while teammate Scheckter scrambled ahead of Jabouille using slicks. The two Ferraris duly sprinted away from the Renault racer in the early laps, with Jabouille holding up a train of cars as the circuit quickly began to dry.
Indeed, by lap fifteen it was clear that the slicks were the better tyre to be on, with Villeneuve duly sweeping into the pits at the end of the lap. He would rejoin a clear second, ahead of two other slick starters in the form of Patrick Tambay and Nelson Piquet, who had lost a lot of time earlier on.
The rest of those who started on wets soon made their stops, while Villeneuve steadily closed in on teammate Scheckter for the lead. That left Tambay and Piquet to fight over the podium, although they were soon supplanted by Jean-Pierre Jarier and Mario Andretti on fresher rubber. Jabouille, meanwhile, would run a safe fifth until a somewhat inevitable engine failure ended his day.
Ultimately the race would be settled with 25 laps to go, for Scheckter opted to pit for fresh slicks before Villeneuve caught him at the end of lap 52. The South African subsequently tried in vain to hunt down his young Canadian teammate in the closing stages, but fell four seconds shy as the #12 Ferrari took the chequered flag. Third went to Jarier ahead of Andretti, while Carlos Reutemann and Niki Lauda completed the points.
Formula One headed to the familiar sights and sounds of the Kyalami Circuit in South Africa for the third round of the 1979 campaign, with a whole month passing since the trip to Brazil. The circuit itself was unchanged barring some minor repair work in the winter, although there were some minor upgrades to the catch fencing and barriers to improve safety. That meant that almost all of the pre-race attention would be on the ever evolving political scene in F1, with more rumblings developing between the FIA and the Formula One Constructors Association.
Indeed, with the slow eroding of power of the former CSI, the former organising body for the Formula One Championship, FOCA had moved to grab control of the F1 directly from the FIA. The ploy, masterminded by FOCA controllers Bernie Ecclestone, boss of Brabham, and former March owner Max Mosley, was meant to ensure that FOCA had total control of revenues, organisation and rules, and had been growing momentum since the end of the 1978 campaign. The only body remaining in their way would be the remains of the CSI, which had been reformed into the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) by Jean-Marie Balestre early in 1979.
A significant issue in the emerging FISA-FOCA war was the en-masse adoption of ground-effect, to which FISA had adopted a negative stance. Indeed, Balestre's body had declared their intention to ban the use of side-skirts outright, reduce tyre widths and limit engine capacity, vastly increasing costs given most of the field were running with 3.0 litre engines, with the vast majority also having dedicated time and money to using ground effect. Furthermore, Balestre's squad would alienate Renault by suggesting a ban on turbochargers, effectively ensuring that a protest from FOCA was inevitable.
In between the Brazilian and South African Grand Prix FOCA had held a meeting at the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello about these issues, and subsequently declared that they would not work with the CSI or FISA, only the FIA. Unsurprisingly, given his standing in the FIA, Balestre managed to secure "La Fédération's" support for FISA, resulting in a rather tense arrival at Kyalami in the week prior to the race. Indeed, had the race not been bankrolled by local sponsors Simba, a food producer in South Africa, it was likely that the race would have been cancelled.
With that impending fallout allowed to simmer away in the background the teams began unloading a mix of old and new equipment in the paddock, with the same twenty-six drivers entered for the race as had been submitted in Brazil and Argentina. Heading the list were Ligier, who led both the Championship and International Cup for Constructors after two wins at the opening two races for Jacques Laffite. Indeed, himself and teammate Patrick Depailler would use their familiar race winning JS11s, with the original testbed car again serving as the spare.
Elsewhere, Ferrari had taken the plunge into running a ground-effect car, a major reason for the FOCA meeting being held in Maranello, and duly debuted the new 312T4 at the first opportunity. Two 312T4s were ready for home hero Jody Scheckter and teammate Gilles Villeneuve, which differed vastly from the last of the 312T3s that served as the spare. Indeed, the new car, which was said to look "like a very effective lawn-mower", featured revised suspension, updated, and twisting under-floor venturi tunnels, all designed to channel air around the eponymous, but heavily revised, Ferrari Flat-12 under the ultra-smooth bodywork. Indeed, modifications to the size of the cylinder diameters were required to get air flowing efficiently under the car (with an increase in depth keeping the capacity at 3.0 litres) as well as a novel exhaust system.
Lotus, in contrast, felt it was still too soon to debut their new Lotus 80 design, which was set to take over from their Championship winning, and ground-effect pioneering, Type 79s. Indeed, the only change for Mario Andretti and Carlos Reutemann would be a new set of stickers on the sides of their green machines, with Colin Champman signing a deal with ESSEX, an emerging conglomerate of oil companies. However, it was soon clear that Andretti's car was a new 79 chassis, the fifth 79 to be constructed, with the American's old car becoming the spare and hence meant that the original Lotus 79 could officially be sold-off to privateer Héctor Rebaque.
Tyrrell, meanwhile, would be busy developing updates to their 009s, with designed Maurice Phillippe adding some new deflectors to the sidepods, akin to those on the Ligier JS11s. Their driver line-up of Jean-Pierre Jarier and Didier Pironi remained unchanged, while most of the rest of their cars was untouched prior to an impending suspension update. There was, however, no news of a major switch to a full ground-effect design, with the 009 seemingly competitive despite being half-way between the conventional and revolutionary.
Elsewhere, McLaren hoped that their newest M28 would solve their dreadful top-end speed, appearing far narrower and slightly shorter than its elder sisters. The new car was issued to Patrick Tambay, with John Watson retaining his original car, although with no running prior to the weekend it remained to be seen whether the modifications would make any difference. Indeed, the Marlboro backed squad also arrived with a variety of mismatching spares in their pursuit of pace, with a number of different front wings at hand.
Over at Fittipaldi there was news of a new car, with the much-hyped F6 ready to make its debut with Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel. Another rather odd looking creation, most of Ralph Bellamy's time had been spent on improving aerodynamic performance at the rear of the car, resulting in a "shuttlecock" like design, aided by the floor-scraping nose. The Brazilian squad only had one of the new F6s on hand, however, and would run Fittipaldi's usual F5A as both a spare and a means of comparison.
Another team with a new car were found in the surprising form of Ensign, with the new N179 penned by Morris Nunn a complete contrast to the new Fittipaldi. Nunn's design threw most of the radiators and cooling systems at the front of the car, creating a relatively tall front end that was meant to allow air to flow underneath and to the side of the car better than if the clutter was moved back. A novel design, only time would tell if Derek Daly could muscle the car around better than the N177 which had been retained as the team's spare.
There was no news of change at Renault, with the French firm only announcing their intentions to run a twin-turbocharged car in the near future, a direct challenge to FISA and their recent declarations. Indeed, so focused were the French squad on engine development for the new RS10, that there was no sign that the new car would have ground-effect at all. Regardless, their duo of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux would use the team's venerable trio of RS01s in South Africa, which remained ferociously fast and fragile.
Elsewhere, Arrows had built another new A1 for Riccardo Patrese to drive, with his old car being cannibalised to rebuild Jochen Mass' car once again. Wolf, meanwhile, had busied themselves further copying the Lotus 79 for James Hunt to drive, a new nose appearing that was almost identical to the 79's, while Williams were as they were in Brazil with Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni at the wheel. Merzario arrived with their unchanged pair of cars for the eponymous Arturo Merzario, while Shadow were struggling on with their outdated equipment and inexperienced pairing of Elio de Angelis and Jan Lammers. ATS also made the trip to the African continent, having built a new D2 for Hans-Joachim Stuck to race.
Completing the field would be Brabham-Alfa Romeo, with their trio of new BT48s already looking completely different to how they appeared in Argentina. Indeed, with Mr. Ecclestone distracted with FOCA, Gordon Murray had been left to throw anything he could think of to improve the performance of the design, resulting in new "canard" fins on the front wing, a narrower front wing and new engine mounting brackets. Furthermore, Niki Lauda had been gaining more confidence in the updated car after a series of tests, while teammate Nelson Piquet was fully fit and equipped with a new BT48 after his accidents in Argentina and Brazil.
Into the Championship and a perfect race for Laffite in São Paulo had ensured that the Frenchman was on his own at the top of the Championship, eight clear of his nearest challenger Reutemann. The Argentine himself was one ahead of Laffite's teammate Depailler, with a five point gap back to Watson in fourth. Pironi completed the top five upon arrival in South Africa, as he, Villeneuve and Scheckter had all added their names to the board in Brazil.
Unsurprisingly, with Laffite having won two out of two races, it was Ligier-Ford Cosworth that led the charge in the International Cup for Constructors, having left Brazil on 27. Indeed, with both drivers' scores now contributing the the Cup, Ligier's one-two in São Paulo had meant that they held a thirteen point lead, two shy of a perfect score. Team Lotus-Ford Cosworth were their closest challengers, with an eight point gap back to third placed McLaren-Ford Cosworth.
The full entry list for the 1979 South African Grand Prix is outlined below:
Qualifying for the 1979 edition of the South African Grand Prix was moved to Thursday and Friday, a rather significant change given the tradition of Friday being a rest day in previous years. The sessions themselves were divided up as they usually were, with both of Thursday's sessions, as well as Friday afternoon, used to set the grid, while Friday morning was dedicated to race practice. As for a target time the top end of the field would expect to beat the circuit record, a 1:14.65 set by Niki Lauda in 1978 as the Austrian ace swept to pole.
It would be overcast and hence unusually cool at Kyalami as the field rolled out of the pits on Thursday morning, an unexpected gift for those who had struggled with engine cooling in the opening two rounds. Indeed, the conditions were perfect for the turbocharged Renault V6s of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux, with the pair instantly setting the pace out front. Jabouille proved to be the faster of the two, and duly smashed Lauda's old circuit well before the end of the session, a 1:11.80 set many suspected on pure engine pace alone.
Indeed, while the two Renaults were charging about everyone else was focusing on aero-setup, a decision that ultimately proved to be a mistake. As such, by the time most of the field got around to posting some flying laps the sun had burst through the cloud, causing the air temperature to rise dramatically in the space of a few moments. Only the two Ferraris managed to get close to Jabouille's pace, with Jody Scheckter just falling shy of the 1:12.00 barrier, while Gilles Villeneuve was a fraction behind to complete the top three.
It would have been an all Michelin shod top four at the end of the morning too, had Lauda not suddenly shot up the order late on with a 1:12.12, while Arnoux's best time was hampered by traffic. That time hence calmed the nerves of those on Goodyear rubber, for it reinforced the concept that it was raw engine power, rather than tyre grip, that was dictating the pace. The first of the Ford Cosworth engined cars appeared in sixth in the form of Jacques Laffite, a tenth and a half behind Lauda's Alfa Romeo powered Brabham.
The new-found heat carried through to the afternoon session on Thursday, prompting the two yellow-black Renaults to stay in the pits all afternoon. It was, ultimately, a wise decision, for no-one would get close to Jabouille's best lap, while most were a second or more off their best efforts from the morning. Indeed, Villeneuve ended the session fastest in a 1:12.86, a full second off the Frenchman's best effort.
Surprisingly, given the ever increasing temperatures, there were very few issues of note during the session, with only a handful of teams experiencing heat related issues. Instead, most were struggling to find an ideal setup for their ground-effect cars, with the pace of the two Renaults causing some of the more sarcastic journalists to speculate as to whether all the investment in ground-effect was worth it.
The conditions remained on the hotter side on Friday morning, with everyone trying, and failing, to match the pace of the imperious Renaults. Indeed, the only hint of fragility at the French squad came when Arnoux suffered their first engine failure of the weekend, although the team remained happy regardless. Furthermore, those who had instead invested in ground-effect inspired cars were suddenly trimming their designs, with a lot of complicated aero-pieces removed throughout the field.
Into the final qualifying session and, as many had come to expect, the best times from Friday morning were not to be challenged, despite the fact that Jabouille deigned join the fray. The only significant revision to the order at the front came in the form pf Patrick Depailler, who leapt ahead of teammate Laffite to lead the Cosworth contingent, setting the fastest time of the session. Indeed, the only other improvement of note was that of Emerson Fittipaldi, who was forced to switch to the old Fittipaldi mid-session after an engine failure in the new F6, only to find an entire second.
As such the biggest talking point on Friday would be a massive accident towards the end of the session which ultimately brought the running to a premature end. Didier Pironi was the unfortunate victim, the Frenchman's Tyrrell shedding a wheel at 150 mph which duly threw the #3 car into the catch fencing. What resulted was a heavily mangled 009, although Pironi himself would escape with only minor bruising and was passed fit to race the following day.
The full qualifying results for the 1979 South African Grand Prix are outlined below:
|4||5||Niki Lauda||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:12.12||1:16.44||1:13.39T||+0.32s|
|5||25||Patrick Depailler||Ligier-Ford Cosworth||1:12.51||1:17.88T||1:12.15||+0.35s|
|6||26||Jacques Laffite||Ligier-Ford Cosworth||1:12.26||1:15.80||1:12.56||+0.46s|
|7||3||Didier Pironi||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:12.33||1:15.18||1:13.22||+0.53s|
|8||1||Mario Andretti||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:12.36||1:14.21||1:12.54||+0.56s|
|9||4||Jean-Pierre Jarier||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:14.58T||1:15.19||1:12.55||+0.75s|
|11||2||Carlos Reutemann||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:12.75||1:14.19||1:12.82||+0.95s|
|12||6||Nelson Piquet||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:13.07||1:14.65||1:14.07||+1.27s|
|13||20||James Hunt||Wolf-Ford Cosworth||1:14.60||1:14.21||1:14.38||+2.41s|
|14||7||John Watson||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:14.44||1:16.10||1:14.55||+2.64s|
|15||18||Elio de Angelis||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:15.18||1:16.92||1:14.44||+2.64s|
|16||29||Riccardo Patrese||Arrows-Ford Cosworth||1:14.54||1:16.14||1:15.63||+2.74s|
|17||8||Patrick Tambay||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:14.58T||1:15.39T||1:16.22T||+2.78s|
|18||14||Emerson Fittipaldi||Fittipaldi-Ford Cosworth||1:15.24||1:16.17||1:14.61T||+2.81s|
|19||27||Alan Jones||Williams-Ford Cosworth||1:15.06T||1:16.23||1:14.64||+2.84s|
|20||30||Jochen Mass||Arrows-Ford Cosworth||1:15.00||1:16.79||1:16.10||+3.20s|
|21||17||Jan Lammers||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:15.46||1:17.05||1:15.35||+3.55s|
|22||28||Clay Regazzoni||Williams-Ford Cosworth||1:15.68||1:16.99||1:15.73||+3.88s|
|23||31||Héctor Rebaque||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:17.11||1:16.57||1:16.15||+4.35s|
|24||9||Hans-Joachim Stuck||ATS-Ford Cosworth||1:16.31||1:16.64||1:16.47||+4.51s|
|DNQ||22||Derek Daly||Ensign-Ford Cosworth||1:16.64||1:16.78||1:16.70||+4.84s|
|DNQ||24||Arturo Merzario||Merzario-Ford Cosworth||1:18.14||—||1:19.21||+6.34s|
- T Indicates a driver used their test/spare car to set their best time in that session.
- Bold indicates a driver's best/qualifying time.
|16||Elio de Angelis|
In contrast to the previous two days of qualifying, raceday dawned dark and overcast, with overnight rain still lingering in the air. The circuit was, however, dry by the time the field emerged for the warm-up, which was staged without any issue, and would remain so as the grid was assembled for the start. Indeed, it was only as the field pulled away to complete the formation lap that a few spots of rain fell, although there was no question of swapping to wets.
Much to the delight of the home fans it was Jody Scheckter in the new Ferrari that made the best launch, the South African ace blasting ahead of pole sitter Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Unfortunately for them the start/finish straight at Kyalami was very long, and hence allowed the turbocharger in the back of the Renault to spool up. That allowed the Frenchman to draw level with the scarlet car as they hit the brakes for the first corner, and duly swept around the outside of Crowthorne corner level with Scheckter.
The pair remained side-by-side through the Jukskei Sweep at full speed, before Jabouille finally clinched the lead on the inside of Sunset Bend. However, just as the Renault pulled into the lead heavy rain came sweeping across the circuit, greeting the field as pulled towards the Esses. Jabouille and Scheckter duly went charging into the water at unabated speed, while Niki Lauda slowed up in fourth behind Gilles Villeneuve and duly saw Jacques Laffite and Didier Pironi charge past at the end of the lap.
The second lap would see Jabouille slip wide and gift the lead to Villeneuve, moments after the Canadian slipped past teammate Scheckter. The South African ace himself would also slither past the Renault at Clubhouse corner, with all three already several seconds ahead of the pack. A few moments later, however, their lead over fourth placed Laffite would be completely destroyed, for the race was stopped midway around the third tour.
The rains down in Africa
The race was paused for a whole hour as the rain continued to pour down upon Kyalami, the first time that it had rained during the South African Grand Prix. However, once the rain stopped and the circuit showed signs of drying naturally the field were assembled on the grid, based on the order as it stood at the end of the second tour. That left Villeneuve on pole ahead of teammate Scheckter, with everyone getting a free choice of tyres, either slicks or wets, for the restart. Ultimately, only a handful would gamble on slicks, namely Scheckter, Patrick Depailler, Patrick Tambay and Nelson Piquet.
Ultimately it was to be a mixed result for those on slicks, with Villeneuve sprinting into the lead, while Scheckter held onto second on his bald tyres. Indeed, the South African racer somehow managed to keep Jabouille at bay, the Renault simply spinning up its rear tyres, while René Arnoux tumbled to the back of the field after a jarring getaway. Otherwise it was a fairly tame restart given that the track was still fairly wet, with no major incidents of note.
It was later in the lap that the first accident of the race occurred, albeit one that did not really affect the race. Indeed, Jan Lammers was the cause and ultimate victim, sliding into the side of Héctor Rebaque when trying to lunge his Shadow inside the Mexican's brown Lotus. Rebaque was sent into a lazy spin onto the grass, and duly scrambled back onto the circuit, while Lammers' Shadow was sent sliding into the catch fencing and out.
Back with the leaders and Villeneuve was allowed to escape up the road on the slicks in the early stages, with Scheckter instead having to defend heavily from Jabouille. Come the start of the third lap after the restart the Renault was ahead of the #11 Ferrari, moments before Depailler slid off the circuit on his slicks. However, Jabouille's race would go down hill after that point, with another small slide allowing Scheckter and Jean-Pierre Jarier to slip ahead.
The race soon settled down after that point, with Villeneuve continuing to pull away out front despite the fact that the circuit was drying. By lap fifteen the Canadian had a healthy advantage over his teammate, and duly slipped into the pits for fresh slicks as Scheckter had finally posted a quicker lap on the previous tour. Villeneuve duly rejoined a few seconds behind his teammate in second, with the rest of the wet starters slowly trickling in during the final laps.
Indeed, it was proving to be a beautifully controlled performance from Villeneuve, who was keeping his Ferrari perfectly controlled while teammate Scheckter was slithering around Kyalami. Furthermore, with Jabouille dropping away and Jarier simply lacking the pace of the two ahead the Ferraris were on their own for the rest of the afternoon. Indeed, Villeneuve steadily reeled in his teammate through to half-distance, before Scheckter swapped to fresh Michelins before the Canadian caught him.
With the Ferraris out of reach, for Scheckter rejoined a safe second, the attention was on those behind, although there was very little action of note. The most spectacular incidents of the race would end the races of Laffite and Alan Jones, with both spinning off the circuit due to mechanical issues. However, while Laffite's was a lazy spin into the gravel due to a puncture, Jones' Williams would be written off in the crash-fencing after suffering a suspension failure through the Jukskei Sweep. Both would fortunately escape unharmed.
Elsewhere Arnoux was a major focus of attention as he picked his way through the field, although he was to be an unexpected victim of Jones' accident when debris from the shattered Williams punctured his tyres. The sister car of Jabouille fared little better, its V6 engine finally detonating itself after an impressive couple of days of running, leaving Lauda and Clay Regazzoni to fight for the final points with Nelson Piquet. That handed the focus of the race on the fight for third, with Mario Andretti sat directly behind Jarier as the race came towards its conclusion.
Out front, meanwhile, there were small hopes of a late fight for victory as Scheckter, on fresh slicks, was steadily closing in on teammate Villeneuve. However, the South African ace would run out of time to catch his young teammate, leaving Villeneuve to sweep home a handful of seconds ahead of the home hero. Jarier, meanwhile, would cruise home in third, Andretti not really bothering to challenge, while Carlos Reutemann and Niki Lauda completed the points.
The full results for the 1979 South African Grand Prix are outlined below:
- 25th South African Grand Prix to be staged.
- Maiden pole position for Jean-Pierre Jabouille.
- Renault secured their first pole position as a constructor and engine manufacturer.
- Second victory for Gilles Villeneuve.
- Also the 20th win for a car with #12 as its race number.
- 74th win for Ferrari as a constructor and engine manufacturer.
Despite failing to score in the third race of the season it was still Jacques Laffite who led the chase of the crown, six ahead of Carlos Reutemann. The Argentine himself had managed to close the gap, although the big winner of the day was Gilles Villeneuve, who leapt into third a point behind the Argentine. Patrick Depailler slipped to fourth ahead of Jody Scheckter, while Mario Andretti retained sixth.
In the International Cup for Constructors it was Ligier-Ford Cosworth whom continued to lead the way by virtue of their near-flawless start to the season. Ferrari were instead the big-winners of the afternoon, leaping into second on eighteen points, a point clear of Lotus-Ford Cosworth. Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth retained fourth ahead of McLaren-Ford Cosworth, while Fittipaldi-Ford Cosworth had slipped behind Brabham-Alfa Romeo.
Only point scoring drivers and constructors are shown.
Images and Videos:
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- D.S.J., 'Notes on the cars at Kyalami', motorsportmagazine.com, (Motor Sport, 01/04/1979), https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/april-1979/83/notes-cars-kyalami, (Accessed 04/11/2018)
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