THE SOUTH AFRICAN Grand Prix nearly did not happen. The date was canceled last December because the organizers were unable to raise the $250,000 necessary to transport the Formula I teams to Johannesburg. But, Alex Blignaut is not known as one of the greatest organizers for nothing. He managed to interest the South African Minister of Sport, Dr Peter Koornhot, who in his turn attracted Louis Luyt, one of the wealthiest South African industrialists and a friend of the Minister. Jody Scheckter helped by talking to them both and in no time at all Louis Luyt had guaranteed the required money. With Alex's excellent reputation as anorganizer, the CSI had no hesitation in reinstating the date; everyone breathed a sigh of relief to know one of the best G Ps of the year was on again.My wife and I flew to Johannesburg by private jet from Australia and arrived the week before the race when everyone was frantically testing tires. As we had the weekend free we decided to drive up to the famous and superb Winkler Hotel on the edge of Kruger Park. It is such an excellent hotel that each morning one finds his car has been washed. While I was still outside and my wife was at the.reception desk, Mr Winkler asked her if she was out here visiting and she replied we were there for the motor race. "Oh, of course," he said, "it is Rob Walker of Road & Track. I always enjoy his articles so much." It is wonderful how Road & Track is a link throughout the world.

The entry list for the South African GP had greatly changed from that of the Brazilian G P. It seemed the silly season was still with us. The prolonged rumors and bargaining which had gone on for more than a year over Ronnie Peterson finally came to an end and he was released by Lotus to go to March. Obviously the situation had been, very unsatisfactory for both sides for some time. The deal worked that if Lotus released Ronnie then March wouId withdraw their Formula 2 contract with Gunnar Nilsson, a Swede who won last year's British Formula 3 championship, so he could drive the JPS. No doubt quite a sum of money changed hands. Only one snag arose; When Nilsson was freed from his March obligation, he was not frantically keen to join' JPS. However, after about a week and some of the old Colin Chapman persuasive talk he signed

Vel's-Parnelli Jones had raised some more sponsorship money and Mario Andretti had been testing the car with the resuIt that the team was back in business for at least Kyalami and Long Beach. This left JPS without a second driver, and from what Mario told me he was not shedding too many tears over not driving the 77. Lotus made a temporary, but I think wise, choice in giving the second seat to Bob Evans.

John Surtees, who had withdrawn at the end of last season to design a new car, now produced his brain child, the TSI9, to be driven by Brett Lunger. Brett, sponsored by Chesterfield, seemed very satisfied with the whole situation. Everyone felt John had made a very courageous effort to be represented once more Renzo Zorzi had been replaced by Michel Leclere on the Frank Williams Team. Chris Amon had recovered from his injuries sustained in a road accident after the Long Beach Formula 5000' race in September and was once more in the original Ensign; he had the distinction of being by far the oldest f1 driver.

The only South African car was the Lexington Tyrrell 007 to be driven by Ian Scheckter, Jody's brother. Lastly, Harald Ertl had brought out his Hesketh 308 that he drove so well at Monza and Bubbles Horsley was Team Manager. Ingo Hoffmann was missing as the new copersucar was not yet ready for him. The BRM was also absent as they could not get on the charter plane.

It is difficult to give any accurate times during the tire testing as the teams tried so many different compounds and combinations. that the results meant nothing. But, on the hard race tires Niki Lauda was fastest and James Hunt second fastest. Emerson Fittipaldi told me beforehand that he reckoned 1 min 16.8 sec would be a good practice time.

On the Friday of tire testing Jacques Laffite really rubbished the Ligier Gitanes Matra when the front suspension broke. Fortunately the tub and Jacques were undamaged and they were soon able to repair the car.

Wednesday started cloudy with a temperature of 72 degrees but then the sun broke through to push it to 115 degrees in the afternoon. A lot of the faster people in that morning's practice did not improve much because of the heat. The day was memorable for two things. Firstly, neither Niki Lauda nor a Ferrari were fastest in either session and, secondly, Mozambique closed her borders to Rhodesia-just too close for comfort.

Within 10 minutes of the start Nilsson, having his first FI drive, brought the JPS into the pits smoking and it burst into flames. The rear brake master cylinder had stuck on, which set the brakes alight, and the whole of the rear of the car caught fire. This was quickly put out, but the car was too badly damaged to practice with again, so Nilsson finished up with no time.

"Bob Evans had his wheel bearings wear out so again it was not to be JPS's day. I saw the two Swedes (Peterson and Nilsson) sitting on the Armco comparing notes on Lotus. Ronnie did not have all that wonderful a day as he was slower than teammate Vittorio Brambilla; after having low oil pressure for sometime his engine scattered in the afternoon. Brambilla was on great form, and in both periods of practice he was 3rd, just a fifth slower than Lauda who was 2nd."

Carlos Pace, in the Brabham BT45-Alfa Romeo, found after one lap of practice that his engine had no power. The only practice he got was a few laps in Reutemann's car, but the car was doing very well and Reutemann finished 6th with it. Carlo chiti, who I have known nearly 20 years, told me the Alfa-Romeo engine was giving a lot of power, but the chassis did not handle so well on the Brabham. 'I expect Gordon Murray would have told me exactly the opposite.

Lauda just could not get down to his unofficial practice time and he told me, "First I got the car right, but then it is slow. I don't know what the problem is. Ijust don't knmy."He resorted to changing gear ratios but this made him only 0.1 sec quicker. In the end he decided to change the ratios overnight but leave the engine. He was 2nd fastest in both periods.

Lauda just could not get down to his unofficial practice time and he told me, "First I got the car right, but then it is slow. I don't know what the problem is. Ijust don't knmy."He resorted to changing gear ratios but this made him only 0.1 sec quicker. In the end he decided to change the ratios overnight but leave the engine. He was 2nd fastest in both periods.

The hero of the day was James Hunt in the McLaren M23, being nearly 0.5 sec quicker than Niki throughout. I am not quite sure what one could attribute this to except perhaps James himself. He had a very special starter on the car which worked off a compressed air bottle and saved considerable weight.

Jochen Mass had the fire extinguisher go off in his McLaren M23, enveloping him in fumes. He also had bad understeer so he could do no better than 12th place. Mario Andretti had a wheel bearing go and thep found his engine down on power. He decided to change the engine and hope for better things the next day as he was only placed 16th.

Emerson was also having a bad day with the copersucar. I said to him, "It was not too good today. Will it be better tomorrow?"

He replied, "I hope so. I change all the car." I asked Jody how it was going and he said, "Terrible. Just terrible." Patrick Depailler said his Tyrrell was far from well.

Jody and Patrick changed the toe -in and downforce and had the, Tyrrells going quite well; they managed to pull up to equal 4th place with identical times. Ian Scheckter did well for one who is not a regular by placing his 007 15th.

As Hesketh Racing is no more, I nave joined the First National City Travelers Checks Penske Team. I have been welcomed by Roger (a friend of long standing) and all the team, including John Watson who is now my golf partner since dear Graham has departed. John started with a new Pc3 he intended for his race car but he found it down on speed along the straight and the engine had no punch. He reverted to the older car and after sorting it out improved his time to a respectable 10th.

The two Frank Williams cars were struggling with handling problems and Doc Postlethwaite reskoned he would have to burn some midnight oil.

The fastest six at the end of Wednesday's practice were: James, Hunt 1: 16.59, NikiLauda I: 16.90, Vittorio Brambilla I: 17.11, Jody . Scheckter and Patrick Depailler 1:17.18 and Reutemann 1:17.21.

Practice on Thursday started cloudy with a temperature of 75 degrees. When the sun came out later it reached only 87, which made the circuit quicker than the day, before. During the first period they followed the new system of having it untimed so the cars could run with full tanks. This left only the last hour to be timed.

What immediately emerged from the unofficial practice was that some cars had improved considerably, notably Lauda, Laffite and Watson. Emerson had the worst luck-the copersucar simply would not start, thanks to a short circuiting alternator, and he never turned a wheel all day. JPS was still out of luck. Gunnar Nilsson ran all right during the untimed practice but when it came to the timed session his car developed a fuel blockage after only two laps. Bob Evans had a radius rod pull out so the 77 still hadn't come right.

The lap record was held by Emerson with 1:17.10, done in 1973 and fastest practice lap was Carlos Pace's at I: 16.41. As soon as the last timed hour started, James Hunt went out and soon.':' recorded 1:16.1. When I asked him how he made such an improvement. he simply said, "I booted it hard and the track is quicker:' Alistair Caldwell found something wrong with Jochen Mass's Marlboro McLaren during the interval. They would not tell me what it was, but said it was "cheap and nasty." It did the trick and his time really came tumbling down, eventually finishing 4th with 1:16.45.                  .

Niki went. out to capture his usual pole position but he just could not do it. He told me his only problem was Hunt. When I pressed him harder he offered, "The engine has done a lot of miles and when I change it for the race I will have 20 hp more."

Poor Carlos Pace never got his engine going properly either day and was very dejected, but Reutemann was in better shape and made 11th spot. Mario reckoned his car was a little better but there was still plenty of room for improvement.

John Watson found the Citibank Penske was handling better, the engine had been improved, they had found the right combination of tires and the track was quicker. The result was he went faster and faster until he finally recorded I: 16.43 to give him a superb 3rd place on the grid. Roger and everyone were delighted. It was great for Betty and me, having just joined the team and everything going so well.

The fastest six were James Hunt 1:16,10, Niki Lauda 1:16.20, John Watson l:l6.43, Jochen Mass 1:16.45, Vittorio Brambilla I: 16.56 and Patrick Depailler I: 16.77.

THE WEATHER turned out to be perfect for the race Saturday with some clouds so that it was not too hot. During the prerace unofficial practice, Ferrari was thrown into a panic because Lauda's engine would not rev above 1l,000 rpm much less 12,500. They changed the injection pump and all was well again.

The start was on time and done by lights and a few didn't get it quite .right, but Lauda was perfect. Hunt was not so good and allowed Mass and Brambilla to get ahead' of him: Depailler was jinking in and out everywhere and Watson moved too soon, then stopped just as the light went green. This left him engulfed by cars and he dropped to 11th. Brett Lunger had put the Surtees TSI9 in 3rd gear instead of 1st and it took him about 10 sec to sort this out.Coming through crowthorne (the first corner) Depailler's jinking around caused him to hit Hunt's front airfoil and James said it was lucky it did not affect the handling of the Marlboro McLaren. Ian Scheckter kept tightly to the inside and Leclere, tried to push in. Ian had to ride over his wheel, hurling the Lexington 007 into the air and then the fence where his race ended. Leclere continued with bad handling until the end of the race. Emerson had to brake hard to avoid this accident and the copersucar fell to next to last position.

At the end of the first lap Lauda had a considerable lead over Mass, Brambilla, Hunt, Depailler, Peterson, Reutemann, Pryce, Regazzoni, Andretti, Scheckter, Watson, Pace, Laffite, Amon, Stuck, Jarier, Evans, Ickx, Nilsson, Fittipaldi, Ertl, Lunger and Leclere. On the 2nd round Brambilla and Hunt passed Mass but James could not get by the Beta March until lap 6. It cost him dearly as by the time he was through, Niki was 7 sec clear. This made it look like a different race with Niki out front and a struggling mass behind. The Ferrari continued to pull ahead bit by bit until about one-third distance; Niki had a 12-sec lead.

On the 8th lap Mass got by Brambilla who was then closely followed by Peterson, Depailler, Pryce, Regazzoni, Scheckter, Reutemann, Andretti, 'Watson and Pace. The two Brabham Alfas were throwing oil out like there was no scarcity. Andretti and Watson were wiping their visors, trying to see the track at all. After 15 laps Reutemann had lost all his oil and retired. Pace followed suit seven laps later with the same problem and those behind breathed a sigh of relief.

On lap 16 Depailler tried a very dicey move from behind Brambilla and Peterson when he pulled out to try to pass them going into Crowthorne. It misfired badly and the Tyrrell spun, knocking Peterson's March off the circuit. This did not overly please Superswede although he took it pretty philosophically. Patrick said he had changed the air ducts and this had upset the brake balance. However he continued in 13th place and progressed until he came upon the redoubtable Amon who was going as quickly as Patrick. As he was driving the 1974 Ensign it shows he has lost none of his old skills.

Depailler's effort let Tom Pryce get to grips with Brambilla whom he passed on lap 19, no mean feat as Vittorio is quite a stumbling block. Tom then shot off into the distance and Regazzoni and Scheckter closed with the March and started a long battle. Andretti had his engine go sour and he was losing at least 300 revs. John Watson was able to take him and close on the Brambilla battle 6 sec ahead. Nilsson had a bit of a run, passing three cars but after 18 laps his clutch began to slip and he was out.

By 26 laps the order was Lauda about 12 sec ahead of Hunt, who was 10 sec in front of teammate Mass, followed 6 sec later by Pryce. So, there was nothing very exciting going on up front. But, this was followed by the Brambilla-Regazzoni-Scheckter battle and 5 sec back Watson who was rapidly being caught by Laffite in the Gitanes Ligier. Regazzoni passed Brambilla and two laps later Scheckter overtook Vittorio as well, but during these laps Jody had lost about 2 sec to Clay. For the next 25 laps Jody persistently chipped IOths off the Ferrari's lead until eventually he managed to get on its tail. But before he could pass, Regazzoni's engine blew up.

Jean-Pierre Jarier made an excursion and met up with a boulder, puncturing his radiator and he had to retire. Laffite had closed right up on Watson and on lap 32 he went ahead and immediately set after Brambilla. Within 10 laps he was on Vittorio's tail, but to pass him was quite a different matter. Eventually he drew the Matra right alongside the March opposite the pits and it looked as if Laffite would really make it this time. But, I had seen greater people fail before and I was betting he would not make it. In fact, the next lap Vittorio came around all alone. It turned out that the Matra, instead of overtaking the March, had blown up at the end of the straight.

Pryce was driving an excellent race in the Shadow and was securely in 4th place. Then on lap 44 he had a puncture in his right rear tire; he had to do almost a complete lap slowly before he could get to the pits. Although they made a quick wheel change, it dropped him to 13th spot. He made a very spirited fight back and finished in 7th place.

By lap 36 Hunt had closed the gap on Lauda to 6.4 sec and Niki afterward said his left rear tire had begun to deflate. However, he was able to hold the gap to 6.2 sec at half distance. Lap by lap Watson was closing on Brambilla, although it was a slow process and I doubted if he would be able to pass Vittorio, even if he did catch him.

Further back Depailler was desperately trying to pass Amon but then Fittipaldi and Pryce split them up. Another battle was being waged for 12th place between Evans, Stuck and Lunger.

Lauda was still maintaining his lead on Hunt of just over 6 sec and on lap 68 he made the fastest lap in 1:17.9, in spite of his deflating tire. At this point Hunt and Lauda'were 30 sec ahead of Mass. The main excitements were whether Watson could catch Brambilla or if Fittipaldi could pass Amon who was really doing a brilliant job. Both of them were gaining on Andretti at 1 sec a lap. Also, there was the question of whether Lunger could overtake Evans after their race-long duel. Unfortunately none of these questions were answered very satisfactorily. Eight laps from the end Emerson's brand new engine scattered. Fittipaldi had taken the copersucar from 22nd to 9th spot and it was unfortunate his drive should end like this.

But even worse was what happened to poor Chris Amon. He had put up a superb performance and was lying 8th in an outdated car when four laps from home the left tank's electric pump failed and he finished 14th.

With five laps to go Watson was within 2 sec of Brambilla and we were getting very excited. Suddenly the Penske came by, right on the tail of the March, and the next lap Vittorio dived into the pits for fuel and he dropped two places.

Toward the end James Hunt began closing fast on Lauda and first the gap dropped to 4 sec and then finished at 1.7 sec. One, was not sure if Niki was in trouble or if he was just easing up. Personally, I thought the latter but after the finish Niki said his left rear tire had been losing air or there was something wrong since lap 21 and the car had been getting worse and more sideways with oversteer. When the car came in there were about 21b of air in the tire and it was virtually flat. So, although it was a brilliant drive in typical Lauda champion fashion, it would be only fair to say Lady Luck must have smiled on him (or fortune favors the brave) because that tire could not have gone on much longer.

When someone asked James why he did not catch Niki, he replied, "Because I couldn't drive any bloody faster. Anyway, the way Niki drove, I couldn't have passed him." When he was told Lauda had a puncture from lap 21, Hunt's comments became unprintable. Personally, I don't think it was possible to have a puncture all that long, especially as one of the mechanics heard the air hissing out at the end. I think he had camber trouble, or it was all the oil on the track that made it handle badly and the puncture came toward the finish. However, it was a great performance. It was the 60th Fl win for Ferrari out of 255 starts. Lotus has had 57 wins.

The race was as well organized as, ever and I still reckon it about the most enjoyable GP. I think it will remain so as long as Alex Blignaut and Francis Turner are in charge.