John Watson and Niki Lauda started the 1978 Formula One season in Argentina. Watson qualified 4th and Lauda 5th in the 1977 Brabham Alfa Romeo BT45-C. The new car, the BT 46 was not available at the start of the season. The car still used the Tipo 33 TT 12 engine. The flat-engine lay-out proved to be a big disadvantage for the aerodynamics of the car during the season. During the race John Watson blew up his engine after 11 laps. Niki Lauda did much better, finishing 2nd.
For the second race at Jacarepaqua in Brasil, the 1977 front wing was used on the BT 45-C. Despite this modifcation Lauda only managed to qualify 10th and John Watson had to start from the 21st position on the grid. Lauda however, was in great shape and finished 3rd, while Watson climbed up to 8th. Lauda’s performance was remarkeble, especially because the number 1 and 2 used the superior Michelin radial tyres. Lauda raced with the old-fashioned Good Year diagonal tyres.
Next stop was Kyalami in South Africa. The new BT 46 made it’s first appearance and Niki Lauda claimed pole position. Watson started from the 10th position. Lauda, who managed to maintain the lead in the race, had to retire after 52 laps. Watson finished 3rd.
Long Beach was next on the Formula One calendar. Lauda qualified 3rd and Watson 5th. Watson had to retire from the race after just 9 laps with a leak in the oil tank. Lauda retired after 27 laps with ignition problems.
At Monaco Watson secured 2nd position in qualifying; Lauda started 3rd from the grid. Watson took the lead right from start but missed a chicane in the 37th lap and finished 4th. Niki Lauda, while running in third place, had a tyre puncture, forcing him to make an pitstop. He managed to catch up however and finished 2nd.
At the Spanish Grand Prix Lauda qualified 6th and Watson 7th. After 56 laps in the race Lauda’s engine broke. Watson finished 5th.
On May 21st, Lotus introduced a new car during the Grand Prix of Belgium at the Zolder circuit, the Lotus 79. This was the first car to use the so called ground effect, using the aerodynamics to ‘suck’ the car to the ground, enabling incredible cornering speed. All other racing teams had no answer to this and both Ferrari and Alfa Romeo who used a flat engine lay-out had no way of copying the design of the Lotus 79. Lauda however managed to qualify 3rd but crashed during the start of the race. Watson qualified 9th and spun off the track after 18 laps.
The next race in Spain, Lauda qualified 6th and Watson 7th. Watson managed to finish in 5th place, but Lauda’s engine broke down after 56 laps.
Unable to copy the Lotus 79 design, Brabham Alfa Romeo came up with a stunning alternative at the Swedish Grand Prix. The car, the BT 46b, was immediately nick-named ‘the vacuum cleaner’ or ‘fan car’. The car featured an enormous fan at the back, which sucked the air from underneath the car creating a similar ground-effect as the Lotus. Lauda qualified 2nd and Watson 3rd. Watson spun off the track after 19 laps and had to retire. Lauda won the race.
No surprise, the other teams protested and the FIA banned the fan-car for future races.
At Le Castelet in France, the ‘normal’ BT 46 was used. Watson took pole position and Lauda qualified 3rd. Lauda did not finish the race; he retired with engine problems after 10 laps. Watson finished 5th.
Qualifying at Brands Hatch was not very succesful: Watson 9th and Lauda 4th. During the race however, things turned for the better. Lauda finished 2nd and Watson 3rd.
At Hockenheim, the Lotus team was too quick for the Alfa’s. Niki Lauda qualified 3rd but blew up his engine in after 11 laps in the race; Watson started from the 5th place on the grid and finished 7th.
At the Austrian Grand Prix, Watson qualified 10th and Lauda 12th. After a restart, Watson finished 7th in the race. Lauda crashed in the 27th lap.
The Dutch GP at Zandvoort saw Lauda starting from 3rd place on the grid; Watson qualified 8th. During the race Lauda claimed the fastest lap and finished 3rd. Watson finished 4th.
The victory of the Brabham Alfa Romeo’s at Monza (Lauda 1st, Watson 2nd) was overshadowd by the tragic accident of Ronnie Peterson. Peterson died the day after the accident.
With two races to go and the Brabham Alfa Romeo team second in the constructors championship, Lauda qualified 5th and Watson 7th at Watkins Glen. Both cars didn’t finish the race; Watson’s engine failed after 25 laps and Lauda’s engine stopped after 28 laps.
The last race of the season at Montreal saw a third Brabham Alfa Romeo, driven by Nelson Piquet, at the starting grid: Watson 4th, Lauda 7th and Piquet 14th. Piquet was contracted for the next season as Watson signed a contract with McLaren for the 1979 season. Lauda and Watson didn’t finish; Piquet finished his first race for Brabham in 11th position.
Brabham/Alfa Romeo ended 3rd in the constructors championship of 1978. Lauda took 4th position in the drivers championship, Watson 6th. The end of the 1978 Formula One season also meant the end of the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT 12 engine in Formula One. For the next season Alfa Romeo would develop a new V-shaped engine, in order to apply the aerodynamics lessons learned from Lotus.