On the face of it, the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y. shaped up as a sheer masochistic anticlimax. The world driving championship had long ago been decided. The weather was lousy—cold rain, deep mud and short tempers. But, oddly enough, the race was a whizzer. Victory finally went to young Gilles Villeneuve of Quebec and Team Ferrari. There were countless spinouts, but no injuries or fatalities; and everyone went home wet but satisfied, though the popular choice, Australia's Alan Jones, in a pole-sitting, Saudi-Williams, lost his right rear tire after a pit-crew foul-up, thus ending a noble late-season charge on a decidedly sour note.
There were a number of other such notes during the season. Two former world champions—James Hunt and the great Niki Lauda—couldn't get a smell of the winner's circle and retired. The most spectacular car of the year, Jones' Saudi-Williams, won the most races but fell short of the championship. For U.S. fans, the most frustrating occurrence was the humiliation of Mario Andretti, the 1978 champion and only the second American to win the world driving title. Last season, in his ground-breaking ground-effects Lotus 79, Andretti was virtually unbeatable. This year, wheeling a Lotus 80 most of the time, Andretti's best finish was a third as other teams picked up on the aerodynamics of the Lotus design and went it some better.
There is no denying that the best of the cars that the Lotus 79 inspired is the Williams. Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian national airline, the car came on in the second half of the season in a manner reminiscent of the Lotus surge of a year ago. Jones, a tough, stumpy, 32-year-old Australian, won four of the season's last six races, waltzing away from the competition as if they were so many matildas.
But while the Jones-Williams combination was still coming together, Jody Scheckter, quietly, unspectacularly and with a steadiness that erased his old nickname of "Sideways Jody," had coolly kept his Ferrari together to finish every race he had started this season and score three wins. Thus, at the Italian GP, the 13th event in the 15-race series, he had sewn up his first world title, and Team Ferrari's ninth.
Though the Watkins Glen Grand Prix was for none of the marbles, Jones charged out and won the pole with a record-breaking run of 127.15 mph on Saturday. But it was O.K. Corral time on the Glen's 3.377-mile circuit when the green flag waved 24 cars off on Sunday afternoon. Rain had forced most teams to shift to grooved tires, and the Michelin-shod Ferraris were thought to be at a disadvantage. Not so. Villeneuve snapped past Jones upon leaving the grid and led him into the first turn. Scheckter, who had started in 16th place, quickly showed his championship skills, moving up to fifth by Lap 7. Andretti, who had qualified just back of Scheckter, gambled for a quick advantage by running on tread-less dry-weather tires. His gamble didn't pay off. Andretti quickly pitted to change to rain tires, and then his gearbox seized up on the 17th go-round.
Villeneuve, meanwhile, had widened his lead to as many as nine seconds, but when the rain stopped, Jones began to eat into the Ferrari's margin. Scheckter, who had closed to third place, pitted early to change to dry-weather tires, and it was obvious that sooner or later both Villeneuve and Jones would have to do the same. Just past the halfway point in the race, on the 34th of the 59 laps, Villeneuve pitted. His crew quickly changed his rubber, and he roared back out. But Jones by then had taken a 40-second lead.
Two laps later, Jones zipped into the pits for his change. That did it. His crew took 35 seconds—compared to Villeneuve's 22—to make the switch. And even then they didn't do it right. On the very next lap, Jones' right rear tire peeled off the rim as he entered the series of turns known as The Anvil.
Now it looked like there would be another of those familiar Ferrari one-two finishes, with Villeneuve in the lead and Scheckter second. It was not to be. With only nine laps left, Scheckter's car suddenly shed a tire, too. That left Villeneuve alone—second-place finisher Rene Arnoux, in a turbocharged Renault, was 47.78 seconds back—and home free for his third win of the season