100,000 fans gathered on Sunday, which turned sunny and warm just in time for the race. As with the previous year, the start would be on the Shoreline Drive straight, rather than in front of the pits, giving the drivers more of a run down to the first corner. On the warmup lap preceding the drive around to the grid, Reutemann's engine cut out, and he had to be helped back to the pits. The problem was quickly solved, and, while the organizers ruled that he must start from the back of the grid, Reutemann ignored the officials and went back out.
The cars made their way around for the start on Shoreline Drive, and, as they approached the grid markings, pole-sitter Villeneuve drove right past his starting position! This confused the entire field, who were taking their cue from Villeneuve. Some actually thought the race had started, and everyone ended up back at the pits! On the way to the grid, Laffite's Ligier had suddenly slid across the track when the back end seized. He was allowed to switch to his spare car and, when they finally got under way, he started the race from the pits with Reutemann. After only eight laps, Laffite retired with overheated brakes, and Reutemann broke a driveshaft after just 21, so two of the top five qualifiers were out early, and the door was wide open for the Ferraris.
At the end of one full lap, Villeneuve led Depailler, Scheckter, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Andretti, Riccardo Patrese, Jones and Nelson Piquet. Villeneuve got to the first corner ahead of Scheckter and quickly began to draw away. Scheckter lost a position to Depailler on the first half lap, but began pushing hard to take back second place. When Depailler missed a gear, Scheckter nearly hit him in the back, and Jarier slipped his Tyrrell past both of them. On the next lap, Scheckter also got around Depailler, whose troubles with fourth gear would last the entire race.