The first Dutch Grand Prix took place on 26 August 1977. It was race number 13 of 17 in the longest season to date at the time. Niki Lauda arrived in Zandvoort with a comfortable lead in the championship: 16 points ahead of the South African Jody Scheckter, who had made a remarkable start to the year with Wolf in their rookie season, but who was starting to lose momentum and 20 points ahead of his Ferrari teammate, the Argentine Carlos Reutemann.
As soon as the cars hit the track, Lotus were strongest, especially Mario Andretti. The American took pole position, half a second ahead of Frenchman Jacques Laffite in the Ligier. Lauda was nine tenths back in fourth place, beaten by the current world champion James Hunt in the McLaren. The Austrian was level-headed as always, both on the track and in his post-qualifying comments: “We shouldn’t get excited about tomorrow. Andretti has already won. I’ll just see what the others do. Laffite and Hunt don’t have anything to lose and they might be able to cause Mario problems. I’m just focusing on bringing home some points.”
The starting grid was even more colourful than usual as attractive grid girls, their hair blowing wildly in the breeze, held up posters of each driver’s helmet in their spot on the grid. During a warm-up session that started at 13:15, the wind coming in off the sea was blowing against the direction of the track, inducing the teams to partially cover up the air ducts with tape and to shorten the fifth gear ratio, to ensure they could still get the most out of the power of the engines.
The red traffic light only lasted a split second before changing to green. All of the cars got away well. Andretti was quicker off the mark than Laffite but Hunt was even quicker. At the first corner, a hairpin which turned to the right and was slightly parabolic, he managed to get ahead of them all. His move surprised Andretti, who hesitated, allowing the Ligier to get ahead of him. The American driver, who could claim Italian roots, went after the car ahead of him, while Lauda was in fourth followed by Reutemann.
On lap 3 the Lotus got past Laffite and chased down the McLaren. At the first corner on the fourth lap, Andretti tried to go around the outside but Hunt held his ground. The American maintained position and tried the same move on the following lap, this time moving alongside the Englishman. Hunt however was no pushover and kept his line: the subsequent crash was inevitable. The McLaren flew upwards and landed with a thud on the exit kerb, while the Lotus spun around completely, ending up facing the wrong way on the track and being passed by Laffite in the Ligier and the two Ferraris. Lauda’s judgement at the start had been perfect.
Hunt’s race ended there, the car damaged beyond repair. Andretti on the other hand started his fightback, confident that he had the best car. He caught up to Reutemann and overtook him on lap 10. Lauda started to see the black figure of the Lotus getting bigger in his rear view mirrors. The Austrian was forced into defensive mode, affecting his lap times and benefiting Laffite who was gaining ground lap after lap. On lap 14, Lauda was free to push: Andretti had started to slow due to engine trouble. Free to think only about the track in front of him, Niki made up the ground he had lost to Laffite and overtook him to take the lead on lap 22. Further back, the Swede Gunnar Nilsson in the other Lotus had fought back and got himself into Reutemann’s slipstream, so close in fact that he crashed into him after getting his braking wrong. The Lotus went off onto the gravel, while the Ferrari managed to crawl back to the pits and get back out on track after a long stop.
Towards the end, Lauda was driving very cautiously, allowing Laffite to close the gap, but the Austrian had everything under control and crossed the finish line in first place, closing in on the World Championship which he could potentially win at the race in Italy. Scheckter finished third while Reutemann took home a point for finishing sixth. It was Lauda’s fifteenth victory with Ferrari, having overtaken Alberto Ascari’s record with his win in Hockenheim. It was to be Niki’s last win for Ferrari. His record would not be broken for another 20 years, when a young lad who spoke the same language but raced under a different flag would beat it: the German Michael Schumacher.