Mario Andretti, America's favorite international race driver and 1978 world champion, was happy to be back in a competitive car after two years of driving losing Lotuses. He now races for Alfa Romeo and is philosophical about the bad years. "The disappointments in Formula I are so many, the rewards so few," he says. "When you finally see the rewards, they're so overwhelming that with one good weekend you forget 30 bad ones."
When Andretti, who is 41, decides to retire, ready and able to step into his shoes as America's representative on the Grand Prix circuit is Eddie Cheever. Though only 24, Cheever already has five years of European racing experience. Andretti was born in Italy and brought to America when he was young; Cheever, in contrast, was born in Phoenix but has lived most of his life in Rome. This year is Cheever's first in a competitive car; he drives for Britain's Ken Tyrrell, who has groomed the likes of three-time world champion Jackie Stewart.
Mercifully, when the flag fell to start the 80-lap Long Beach race, the FOCA-FISA affair was put aside. Pole sitter Riccardo Patrese of Italy led the race for the first 24 laps in his Arrows-Cosworth, but only because Reutemann and Jones let him. Then Reutemann passed Patrese, and Jones overtook them both, driving aggressively but smoothly, as is his style. In the end he beat Reutemann by 9.19 seconds, finishing the 162.61-mile race in 1:50:41.33, an average speed of 87.60 mph. He was asked if he had any trouble getting past either Patrese or his teammate. "I don't consider any driver difficult to overtake," the world champion said with a small smile.
The FISA-favored Renaults had traction problems and were slow coming off the turns as their turbocharged engines struggled to regain the power they lost during long, cautious entries into the corners. Renault drivers Ren� Arnoux and Alain Prost must have felt much as Stirling Moss did when reflecting on driving a car with automatic transmission. "Stepping on the accelerator was rather like stepping on a squid," said Moss. Prost didn't survive the first lap; when last seen he was coming into a hairpin turn in the middle of—and perpendicular to—the rest of the field. The other cars all dodged him, but Prost retired immediately. Arnoux finished eighth and last, the rest of the 24 starters having retired.
Nelson Piquet, last year's winner at Long Beach, took third in his Brabham. Andretti and Cheever raced hard for fourth. For more than 50 laps Cheever held Andretti off, displaying his coolness, but then he lost second gear, and the old pro got past. That fourth place was better than he had done all last year. Cheever's fifth was his best Grand Prix finish ever. Afterward, Andretti said of Cheever, "Looks like I got me some help there to carry the flag." Then he added, "I just hope he stays behind me."
As the Williams cars passed under the British and Saudi and checkered flags, there were half a dozen smiling Saudi faces around Frank Williams, so pleased with the results that they looked as if they couldn't wait to reach for their wallets and slay the factory giants again.