Formula Two review
In June we predicted that this year's European Formula Two Championship would be a straight fight between the British works March team, with their German-built BMW engines, and the Elf-backed teams using French-built chassis and the powerful 300 b.h.p. Renault V6 engine. As the championship reached mid-season point that is exactly what happened and after seven races the tussle for supremacy between these two camps was the closest it had been for years: March had won four of those races, the French had won three, and the points were desperately close. First-round-winner, Hans Stuck, took a second masterful victory before his home crowd at Hockenheim in mid-June, and, because he is a Formula One graded driver and ineligible for championship points, that ensured a frantic scramble amongst the serious contenders.
The only other driver apart from Stuck to win two rounds by mid-season was the Italian Maurizio Flammini who followed up his convincing Easter Monday Thruxton win with a steady drive through a depleted field in the Rouen-les Essarts road course in northwestern France at the end of June. However, not even two wins were good enough for the works driver to shake off the persistent French and the hard-driving Maurizio found that he had slumped to third place in the championship—even though he was just one point behind the leaders! Flaminini had piled on 25 points but Patrick Tambay in the Martini Mk. 19 and Jean-Pierre Jabouille in his own-built Elf 2J spacefratne chassis, both French cars running the Renault engine, had amassed 26 points. The more experienced Jabouille, in his fourth season of Formula Two, won the third round of the championship at Rome's Vallelunga Autodrome but Tambay hadn't won a single race. He had managed to score points in all but two of the seven rounds and had finished third no less than four times. His best result, taking into account that he crashed while leading at Pau, was a second at Vallelunga.
Fourth and fifth in the championship at mid-season were the only other race winners. Rene Arnoux, the youngster that Colin Chapman got to sign a Lotus testing contract in 1974, had been brought in by Tico Martini and team-manager Hughes de Chaunac to partner Tambay in the defence of Martini's 1975 title. Rene is a real charger and promises to be the best of the young talent that is currently jostling for recognition. He is consistently one of the fastest men on the circuit and his win at Pau after Tambay's mistake, marked him out as a man to watch. He drives with his head arched forward and shoulders hunched which is a style reminiscent of both Roger Williamson and Tony Brise and it is probably significant that all three came into racing via karting. Arnoux drives his Martini aggressively, using short stabs at the accelerator through corners and plenty of opposite lock but this enthusiastic approach is backed up by sound judgement and quite extraordinary car control. He was at his best flinging the car between the narrow confines of the avenue of Armco barrier that now lines the Pau road circuit. It was a race where many of the other young drivers found themselves completely lost while little Rene was in a world of his own, powering the Martini out of the tight corners in graceful slides.
Michel Leclerc won the fourth round of the championship at the Salzburgring in Austria and what an incredible result that was because Michel came through from fourteenth on the grid. Both Leclerc and Arnoux had been harshly handicapped by the Austrian organisers' incompetence. Practice was a typical wet and dry situation except that the organisers had split the large entry in two and several front runners found themselves relegated to the hack of the grid. Leclerc and Arnoux both charged through and Arnoux took the lead, built up a 15 second lead; but then ,made a rare mistake that dropped him to fourth. Leclerc in his Elf 2J coasted through to win.
The only other regular pace-setter was the Brazilian Alex Ribeiro who is partnering Flammini in the March-BMW team. He was lying sixth in the series, although at times he had shown as much promise as his more fiery team-mate. At Rouen Ribeiro snatched pole position away from the French and was leading the race boldly until an electrical fault put him out. His other good showirrs were at Thruxton where he finished second to his team-mate and at Vallelunga where he was third.
These six drivers had quickly emerged as the contenders for the 1976 championship. Arnoux's fourth place was still very much in touch, he had 24 points, while Leclere was on 21 points and Ribeiro trailed with 15 points. The French have won the title for the last three years—ironically for two 0! those with March and BMW—hut will they beat the British team this year? It has been fairly conclusively shown by both Stuck and Flammini that March's four-cylinder production-based engine has the measure of the Renault in spite of everyone's fears that the torque of the French engine was going to turn the championship into a lopsided French benefit. In fact the switch to racing engines in 1976 has been a huge success because Brian Hart's all-alloy four-cylinder racing engine has also shown that, with a good driver, it can match both of these European-built engines.
Sadly, though, the season has once again been the British drivers more notable for their absence than their results. Grovewood award winner Brian Henton Appeared only briefly in practice for Thruxton with loot Tom Wheatcroft's new car which used the Holbay Abarth six-cylinder in-line engine and it is problems with this engine that have curtailed further outings. The soaring costs of cornpeting in Europe have accounted for the nonappearance of several other hopefuls although Ray Mallock has persevered with several showings and Richard Robarts survived a nasty accident at Vallelunga and is continuing with a new Mysons-backed March Hart.
It is the European privateers, most of them running British March or Chevron chassis, that have chased the works teams and among them are several talented youngsters. The Italian Giancarlo Martini has quietly forgotten about his private Ferrari 312T which he ran at the beginning of the year in a couple of non-championship Formula One races and has driven a new March-BMW with good effect in Formula Two. At mid-season he was holding seventh place in the championship with 10 points. There are three other promising drivers: the Brazilian Ingo Hoffman who is running a Hart-engined March in Willi Kauhsens team and finding it a lot easier than trying to qualify his Grand Prix Copersucar; the 19-year-old American Eddie Cheever who is settling in to a similar car being run for him by Ron Dennis: and the Finn Keijo Rosberg who has turned in a couple of fine efforts in the German-built Toj-BMW. Like Alex Ribeiro, both Hoffmann and Cheever are having their first season in Formula Two while Rosberg has previously raced in European super-vee.—M.T.