Niki Lauda's second win of the season laid down a marker for the year, and his victory at the South African Grand Prix came in the old 1975 Ferrari. Rivals were left pondering how dominant the team would be when their new car was unveiled. James Hunt again impressed in practice in his new McLaren, once again securing pole, but he was beaten off the line as in Brazil and Lauda was never headed.
Hunt's efforts in practice came unstuck when he was checked by Vittorio Brambilla at the start. As the cars lined up, Brambilla, who was fifth on the grid, eased forward so much, that as the green starting light flashed he was sandwiched between Hunt and John Watson. Hunt was baulked, and that allowed Lauda to move into the lead with Jochen Mass second and Brambilla third.
"In the mix-up I slightly cooked my clutch," Hunt said. "Then I had a problem getting past Brambilla who was slower in the bends but faster at the end of the straight." It took him until the sixth lap to pass Brambilla and Mass, by which time Lauda was nine seconds ahead.
Despite having a slow puncture in a rear tyre from the tenth lap, Lauda maintained his lead before easing off in the final laps. "I was sure James would catch me on the last lap," Lauda said. "There was nothing I could do to stop him and the car was all over the place. When the race was over, my mechanics found I only had two pounds of air left."
"I could see I was rolling him in and I gave everything in a gigantic final effort," Hunt admitted. He finished less than two seconds behind Lauda's ailing Ferrari with his McLaren team-mate Mass third. Tom Pryce was sitting in fourth until having to pit near the end with a puncture.
Ronnie Peterson, who had switched from Lotus after a season of speculation, was lying fifth when his March was clipped by the spinning Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler and sent into the catch fencing. To add insult to injury, Depailler was able to carry on and eventually finished eighth. It was an even worse day for Ian Scheckter, Jody's brother, who found his Tyrrell tangled in the catch fence before a lap had been completed.