Tragedy and disorganisation at Rouen
The annual Formula Two race at the impressive Rouen Les Essarts road circuit has always been a favourite. The track itself is fast and extremely challenging, the surroundings are extremely pleasant and the meeting has always had a relaxed air. This year it was rather different and a shadow was placed over the whole proceedings by the death in practice of the promising Scottish driver Gerry Birrell. It appears his Chevron had a puncture on the fast downhill section at Six Freres and he ploughed straight on into the Armco barrier. Sadly the barrier was neither fixed into the ground very well nor well positioned. The two rails split open and Birrell succumbed to head injuries almost immediately. He was the first person ever to be killed in a Chevron.
After this tragic turn of events the organisation, almost entirely part-timers who run a meeting once a year, completely fell apart. At one stage it looked as if the whole meeting might be cancelled but finally the F2 drivers, led by Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson, agreed to race if a chicane was erected near to the point of the accident in an attempt to slow the cars down. Unwisely the organisers decided to use blocks of polystyrene which were shredded all over the place. Drivers soon found they could hit them with impunity and in so doing even lap faster.
Meanwhile other aspects of the organisation failed. There only appeared to be a couple of old and slow breakdown trucks so that at the end of each race it took ages to tow in those who had stopped on the circuit for one reason or another. We left the track at 9 p.m., three hours after the scheduled end of the programme, and there was still a French club race to be run.
Despite all of this we should not overlook that the young Frenchman and March Engineering discovery Jean-Pierre Jarier scored a fine win and put himself in a very much stronger overall lead of the European Formula Two Championship. At no point during practice, the heats or the final did Jarier look like being beaten except when he spun at the plastic chicane and clipped the guardrail. By that time he was so far in the lead that he was able to recover and still not lose first place.
Into second place some twenty seconds behind in the 100-mile final came the German driver Jochen Mass in his Surtees. Mass, who had won the previous F2 race a week earlier at Hockenheim, was the only Ford-powered runner at Rouen who really mixed it with the BMW-powered cars. Patrick Depailler in the Elf 2-Ford was actually second fastest in training but because of last minute gearbox trouble had to switch to team-mate Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s car which he found very much slower and he was never in the hunt.
So third place was claimed by Tim Schenken in the now much better handling Motul M1 powered by a Cosworth-BDG Ford. Schenken was driving on top form and in the closing stages he closed right up on Mass. Fourth at the finish was the private Antar March of Jacques Coulon and fifth was Wilson Fittipaldi. His works Brabharn BT40 has been given a new lease of life by replacing the Ford engine with a BMW engine tuned by Schnitzer. BMW and March Engineering have an exclusive contract together for Formula Two but, naturally, that doesn’t stop firms like Schnitzer, who have just had this engine homologated, selling to any customers that come along. Several other Formula Two cars will almost certainly have Schnitzer BMW engines soon.
A despondent Patrick Depailler finally finished sixth and saw his championship chances slipping away in the process while American Brett Lunger drove to a steady seventh place ahead of Jean-Pierre Jaussaud (Rotul) and the GRDs of Tetsu Ikuzawa and Brenden McInerney.
Talking of GRD, Rouen was the first meeting where Roger Williamson, Tom Wheatcroft’s promising protege, was driving his new March-BMW which was purchased to replace the GRD with which he had been campaigning so far this year with a marked lack of success. Williamson was sixth fastest in practice and went on to lead his heat before the engine blew up.
It was a promising start and five days later at the Monza Lotteria Williamson went out and scored a superb victory over a small field. Obviously still a man to watch.
Another March-BMW driver who impressed at Rouen was Hans Stuck. Despite his minimal single-seater experience and the fact that he had never raced at Rouen before he was third fastest in practice. Unfortunately in his heat he had to make a couple of pit stops with gear linkage and engine problems and in the final he left the road, fortunately without too much damage.
Rouen also saw the second appearance of the latest Lotus Formula Two cars called Texaco Stars. So far they are far from starring and frankly are very disappointing and Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson were at the back of the grid and racing in company with drivers of only a fraction of the Formula One drivers’ ability.
The problem does not seem so much the chassis which looks terrific, but the engines. These have been built up around the Lotus 907 unit as used in the Jensen-Healey by Novamotor in Italy. At a guess they must be a good 40 b.h.p. down on the decent BMW and Ford units. In heat two Peterson did manage to work his car quite well up the field but was obviously trying too hard. He lost it at the chicane, hit the Armco barrier which partly collapsed and blew along the top of the rail before landing back on the track on all four wheels. But the Lotus was bent and Peterson could count himself lucky that he didn’t fly completely over the barrier into the trees.
No, 1973 was not a Rouen to be remembered.—A.R.M.