Jody Scheckter, who had left Tyrrell in the close season, won the Argentine Grand Prix on his debut for Wolf as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the leading drivers in 1976, both failed to make a mark.
It was only 11 weeks since the end of the previous season and a number of teams were not ready with their new cars, although Colin Chapman had pulled another surprise, providing Mario Andretti and his new team-mate, Gunnar Nilsson, with the stunning Lotus 78, the first "ground-effects" car. It had prominent side pods with sliding skirts which produced masses of downforce. There had also been a few personnel changes. Clay Regazzoni had switched from Ferrari to the lesser Ensign team, while John Watson and Carlos Pace formed a strong new pairing at Brabham.
There was a slightly surreal edge to the weekend as so high was the risk of kidnapping that 5000 troops were assigned to protect drivers and teams. The first practice session was abandoned as overzealous security guards obsessively checked and re-checked credentials.
Hunt also upset the local media by arriving for a press conference at a top hotel in bare feet, his legendary informality not going down well. Despite that, he lived up to his label of pre-race favourite by securing pole with Watson alongside him on the front of the grid with Scheckter back in 11th.
Hunt and Watson dominated the early stages, with Watson leading for 11 laps, while Lauda slotted into third before he was forced to retire because of severe engine vibration in his Ferrari. By halfway Hunt was in the lead and 15 seconds ahead with team-mate Jochen Mass third, and all seemed good for McLaren.
But it quickly went wrong as Mass spun off and then Hunt ran too wide at a hairpin and slammed into a barrier. "The car suddenly went on at the apex," Hunt said. "I had a look around and couldn't see anything wrong. But I'm not terribly disappointed because historically the first winner of the season has usually failed to win the title."
That put Watson back in front with Pace second, but Watson then slowed and quit with suspension problems. Scheckter, meanwhile, had slowly been working his way through the field and took the lead ten laps from the end.
Mario Andretti, who had taken over Gunnar Nilsson's Lotus when his own had been wrecked when a fire extinguisher exploded in practice, passed Pace and looked set for second when he suffered a rear wheel bearing failure two laps from the end.
Scheckter's victory owed as much to his car's reliability as anything else, but the crowd only cared that local boy Carlos Reutemann had secured third in his Ferrari, and mobbed him at the finish line. Emerson Fittipaldi took fourth, finally gaining some reward for his patience with the unpredictable Copersucar. The local press, however, declared Reutemann to be the best driver even though he did not win, with Cronica stating he was "the hero of the grand prix".
"It's a miracle," Scheckter beamed. "The car is so easy, the team is so new. But it's not only because the other drivers fell out that I won. I tell you, it's a miracle."