The race before the race
With the ever-increasing popularity of Formula One and the more money it attracts, more and more people want to join the act. The Formula One Constructors' Association keep a tight hold on their membership and though they may nominate 22 entries, only the best twenty earn any real money for their efforts. Even so there is no shortage of aspirants trying to earn recognition and a place among the elite. Little is written down by the Association and even less is made public, though views are loudly expressed if not always clearly. The general feeling has been that too many "novices" are being allowed to take part in practice for Formula One events, thus spoiling the scene for the Top Twenty, though no explanation is offered as to how a "novice" should learn about Formula One without upsetting the establishment, especially in view of the fact that the Constructors' Association has virtually killed off all non-World Championship Formula One races in which a newcomer could gain experience of Formula One racing. Some years ago, when the Association was asked how one qualified for membership, the official answer was that you had to compete in at least 80% of the Championship races in one year. When asked how you went about getting an entry in your chosen 80% of the races, you were told you had to be a member of the Association to ensure such a thing! Times don't change, it's just the wording that is different.
In a well-meant effort to solve the dead-lock of newcomers in practice the RAC/BRDC came up with the good idea of inviting all the non-members to a day on their own before the British Grand Prix. In this way they could practise freely, unhampered by the Association or its members, and at the end of the day the fastest five would he allowed to join in with the official practice and endeavour to qualify for a place on the grid for the Grand Prix. This perfectly workable scheme was immediately opposed by "barrack-room" lawyers who claimed it was in violation of the written-down rules of the FIA as regards entries for Formula One races. The only answer to that, in all honesty, is to tell the FIA to re-write the rules!
On Wednesday, July 13th, before the British Grand Prix meeting began, a list of 17 entries was drawn up for practice in two hour-and-a-half sessions, enough cars to have had quite a nice supporting race. There were some surprises among the list, for the official BRM entry was there, the Stanley-owned Bourne team having been demoted from the Constructors' Association and their place given to the car from Regie Renault. It was an ironical situation when you think that BRM is as old in Grand Prix racing as Ferrari and is the only British team to make their entire car, chassis, engine and gearbox; a Manufacturer as distinct from a Constructor. But the Association is a hard-headed business organisation and judge teams on results, and since the Stanley family took over BRM from the Owen Organisation, results have been little more than nil. This demotion caused not a sound from Trumpington, the home of the Stanleys, or if there was one nobody heard it.
Undismayed, the BRM team arrived with two P207 cars and yet another new driver, the third this season. This was Guy Edwards, who replaced Conny Anderson, who had replaced Larry Perkins, but it was all to no avail for Edwards used up both cars and failed to get into the top five. Naturally the regular rabbits had a bit of an advantage by reason of their experience, and it was no surprise to find Jean-Pierre Jarier with the German ATS wheel firm's Penske PC4 at the top of the list. Impressive was the French driver Patrick Tambay, with a lot of racing experience in other categories, driving a brand new Ensign built by Morris Nunn's little workshop for the Hong Kong businessman and enthusiast Teddy Yip and his Theodore Racing Team, with the genial Irishman Syd Taylor in partnership. Young Tambay fulfilled their hopes with a confident second place in the final results. Third to quality was that hard trier Brett Lunger in his immaculate McLaren M23/14, prepared by B.S. Fabrications.
Many people overlook the fact that the skinny Arturo Merzario is not only a true private-owner, but also an owner-driver, and the colourful Art runs his whole effort with the aid of a handful of friends, and enjoys every minute of it. He occasionally disappears quietly off somewhere and drives in long-distance races for Alfa Romeo, and wins things like the Targa Florio that is still run as a National event. He probably makes more money in non-Formula One racing than some of the regular aspirants in F1, and undoubtedly this pays for his Grand Prix racing, and more power to him. It is rather like Jo Siffert, who used to go off and buy and sell vintage cars during the week to pay for, his Grand Prix racing, before he got a works contract. Merzario bought a 1977 March from the works at the beginning of the season and has consistently been ahead of the March works team, but mechanical reliability has not been the strong point of his car. He was fourth qualifier among the "rabbits".
In fifth place was a 25-year-old French-Canadian who is clearly being watched by everyone, and rightly so. From Canadian national racing and a little Formula Two racing the McLaren team had entered him in Hunt's old works car M23/8, with Colnebrook personel looking after him. He was smooth, confident, quick and remarkably cool. His name is Gilles Villeneuve (which could be translated into George Newton) and though he had a number of high-speed spins during the day, they were not clue-less ones Iike some drivers have. They were very reminiscent of John Surtees when he set out to learn the art of high-speed driving. A case of driving right up to the limit, and then just over it, in order to ascertain the exact limit. A lot of people simply drive far too fast and sail over the limit completely out of control, and that sort of driving usually ends in a nasty accident. Villeneuve did not look Iike having an accident as a result of going over the limit. It was his first serious attempt with a 450-b.h.p. Formula One car and he impressed. Very close behind him was the ever enthusiastic Brian Henton with his March 761/7 and then came Patrick Neve in Frank William's March 761. These two were so close to the top five that the RAC recommended to the Constructors' Association that they allow all seven to go forward to official Grand Prix practice, and that was agreed.
This pleasant day was marred by a serious accident to the popular David Purley in his privately owned and built Lec-Cosworth V8 car. After damaging the car at Dijon the team had worked hard to get it repaired in time for this test day, but things were not going at all right. Try he as could, and with designer Mike Pilbeam helping, Purley just could not get into the 1 min. 19 sec. bracket, where he should have been. Going into Becketts Corner, with only about 15 minutes Ieft to qualify, the throttles on the Lec appeared to stick open and, unable to knock off enough speed with the brakes, the Lec careered across the corner, through rows of catch fences and rammed the retaining wall at very high speed. The front of the car was demolished and Purley was trapped in the wreckage with severe leg and pelvis injuries. It took a long time to get him out of the wreck and he was taken to hospital in a pretty critical condition, but fortunately soon stabilized under treatment and care, but it will de a long time before he is mended.
The day had not started too well, for the Finnish driver Mikko Kozarowitzky had crashed his F & S Properties March 761 into the "chicane" damaging it beyond immediate repair and injuring a hand. Even among the "rabbits" there was a little politiking and cheating, for Goodyear had suggested they all run on a standard tyre as specified for the Grand Prix. One of the entrants had acquired some soft-rubber, short-life "sticky" qualifying tyres, and as the day was unofficial insisted on using them, so Goodyear were forced to let all the other quick runners have them. They were worth a good second on 1 times. - D.S.J.