The first of March

It's spent decades hanging on a wall, but now the first-ever March Grand Prix car is to run again - 40 years after one lucky journalist got to test drive it at Silverstone...

It was like bumping into an old flame. Forty years ago, in our distant youth, we'd shared just one dance. In the intervening decades we'd both moved on; inevitably, we were both showing our age. I never meant a thing to her, of course: back then, she'd had other partners who really knew how to tango. But I hadn't forgotten a single second of our brief time together. And now, for her, the years will soon be rolled away. She has a new partner who is going to restore her to her original glory. For me, a mere mortal, such remedies are not an option. I just have to make do with my memories of the day a Formula 1 team invited me to drive their Grand Prix challenger.

The rapid early growth of March is part of motor racing folklore. At first the racing car business put together in 1969 by Max Mosley, Robin Herd, Alan Rees and Graham Coaker produced nothing more than a single F3 car and a lot of brave talk, which included Mosley vowing publicly that there'd be a March team on the grid for the first Grand Prix of 1970. His pronouncement was greeted with derision by the establishment, but five March 701s were on the grid at Kyalami.

Two of them qualified joint fastest and one, driven by Jackie Stewart for Ken Tyrrell's team, led the first quarter of the race, eventually finishing third. Two weeks later Stewart won the Race of Champions, and the next month, at Jarama, March won a Grand Prix at its second attempt, again thanks to Stewart. That day 701s filled three of the top five places. A week later the Silverstone International Trophy was won by Chris Amon's works 701, with Stewart second. With three victories from its first four races, nobody was treating March with derision now.

A March 701 never won another Grand Prix. The new Lotus 72, winning repeatedly in Jochen Rindt's hands, suddenly made it look old-fashioned. But at season's end March finished third in the Constructors' Championship. In all, six 701s ran in 1970 GPs: Amon and Jo Siffert in the red STP-sponsored works cars; Stewart and first Johnny Servoz-Gavin, then Francois Cevert in blue Tyrrell entries; Ronnie Peterson in the yellow and maroon example from Colin Crabbe's Antique Automobiles; and occasionally Mario Andretti in Andy Granatelli's dayglo STP entry.

During the summer a 701 was sold to the German Hubert Hahne who, with backing from publisher Axel Springer, entered it for his home Grand Prix at Hockenheim. He failed to qualify, his best lap a lengthy 7sec slower than Siffert's second-row time. At once he instigated legal proceedings against March, claiming they'd sold him a sub-standard car, and two weeks later, on its way home from the Austrian GP, the March transporter was seized by the German police. Mosley adroitly resolved the matter by offering an observed test session at Silverstone. Ronnie Peterson set a competitive time in the Crabbe car, and then got into Hahne's silver car — and went 2sec a lap quicker. That ended the matter.

Robin Herd has admitted (Motor Sport, March '10) that the 701 was not the car he wanted to build. Many features of his 1971 F1 car, the bullet-nosed, side-radiatored 711, were already in his mind. But, dreadfully short of resources and time, he designed the 701 as a simple bathtub monocoque with cast magnesium bulkheads, front radiator and outboard suspension. The body was boxy and workmanlike rather than beautiful, with distinctive aerofoil-section side tanks and a bluff nose flanked by fixed wings carrying adjustable tabs at their trailing edge. From the start the car was about 50kgs overweight. In 12 weeks of day-and-night work Herd took the project from drawing board in November to the February press launch, when the assembled hacks were shown 701/1, Amon's works car, and 701/2, the first Tyrrell car. Max had calculated that each 701 cost £2500 to build, less its Cosworth DFV engine and Hewland DG300 gearbox. He fixed the selling price at £6000, but Walter Hayes of Ford said he'd rather pay £9000 each for the Tyrrell cars: he was shrewd enough to see that March were operating on the edge, and wanted them to stay afloat. Eventually, apart from three works cars including a spare, a remarkable eight 701s were sold.

Amon stuck with 701/1 throughout the season. At Monaco he belied its bulky looks by qualifying second, and holding second place for most of the race until a bolt dropped out of the rear suspension. The car was radically rebuilt before the Belgian GP, with a new monocoque, still in 18swg aluminium, carrying the previous car's running gear and chassis number. Helped by lighter wheels, side tanks and radiator, it had shed about 30kgs. At Spa Chris battled for the lead with Pedro Rodriguez's BRM, only to be beaten to the flag by 1.1sec. He scored another fine second in the French GP on the daunting Clermont-Ferrand circuit, chasing Rindt's Lotus 72 home, and at Hockenheim he was lying third behind Rindt and Jacky Ickx's Ferrari when the engine blew. Amon had access to a spare car, 701/6, with a monocoque made of lighter gauge aluminium, but he preferred 701/1 and never raced No 6. As the season drew on the 701s were clearly becoming less competitive, but the brave Amon continued to get results: eighth in Austria, seventh at Monza, third in Canada, fifth at Watkins Glen and fourth in Mexico.

By now, no longer on best terms with Mosley, Amon had signed to go to Matra for 1971, and Siffert was going to BRM: Mosley sold Jo his car, 701/5, for his own use. For March it had been an incredibly hectic year, not only in F1 but also trying to turn a profit building production F2 and F3 cars, and running a Can-Am programme. Money was still desperately short. The muchvaunted STP sponsorship had in fact been a mere £25,000. Porsche had quietly paid £30,000 for Siffert's drive, to keep him away from Ferrari, and Firestone had put in £27,000. But it had been a long, hard season, and the now departed Amon was still owed a substantial sum.

So, in November 1970, Mosley was facing a difficult winter. He had the sensationally talented Peterson on board for '71, but he was desperately hunting for sponsorship and rent-a-drive deals. And there were new F2 and F3 cars to be marketed. What he needed was some off-season publicity. So he called me. At the time I was the youthful editor of Autosport, and — to my dumbfounded amazement — he offered me a real scoop: a track test of a current F1 car.

There had been one or two journalists who'd driven, and written about, F1 cars before. Autosport's long-time technical editor John Bolster, whose own racing career had ended in a big accident in the 1949 British GP, was an experienced track tester, and had frequently been entrusted with highpowered single-seaters and sports-racers. On another plane was Paul Frere, the Belgian writer, who is surely the only full-time journalist to have finished second in his home Grand Prix and won Le Mans, both in works Ferraris.

In total contrast, my racing experience was then confined to a couple of seasons in Clubmans Formula, first with a 1-litre U2 and then with a one-off 1600 called the RLR. I'd track-tested a variety of F3, GT and sports-racing machinery for the magazine, but an F1 car was beyond my ken. I'd known Max for some years — he too had been a Clubmans driver — and what he really wanted was exposure to prospective customers for March's new F2 and F3 chassis. But he knew that if he offered me a few laps in an F1 car, that would ensure a good spread.

The track selected was the Silverstone Club circuit. The appointed day, Friday November 27, was cold and threateningly overcast. I arrived to find an impressive group waiting for me: Max Mosley, Robin Herd, Alan Rees and Ronnie Peterson were all there. So was racer and wrench Bill Stone, who'd been March's first-ever employee, and fellow Kiwi Pete Kerr, a great character, who'd been employee No 3. Roger Silman, F1 mechanics Dave James and Bernie Ferri, Dewar Thomas and team organiser John 'Ace' Waddington were on hand too. Lined up beside the March transporter were the new F2 car, the 712, which had already done some testing in Peterson's hands; the new F3 car, the 713, which had been finished that morning and had never turned a wheel; and Amon's 701/1, veteran of 15 races in the preceding eight months and not long off the plane from Mexico.

Then it started to rain. While Bill Stone took the F3 car out to make sure everything worked, I went out first in the F2 and did about 20 laps, finding it surprisingly controllable on the slippery surface, at the speeds I was doing anyway. Then I did a handful of laps in the F3 — until the throttle stuck open when I lifted at the end of the Club Straight, arriving at Woodcote with all wheels locked and a dead engine.

Meanwhile wetweather Firestone R106s had been put on the 701, 10ins wide at the front and 15ins at the back. Ronnie went out to warm it up and was soon indulging in the sort of driving he loved best: heart-stopping oppositelock power slides coming out of Woodcote, head tucked down in the cockpit, hands blurring from lock to lock, the DFV's strident exhaust note rising and falling as the rear wheels fought for traction. I watched from the pitlane, rain dripping from the hood of my anorak, my heart in my boots. I was starting to have serious misgivings about my ability to cope with the task to come.

I'd been covering Ronnie's career since 1968, when he'd arrived in British F3 like a Swedish bolt from the blue in his yellow Tecno, sponsored by Smog cough sweets. Shy out of the car, extrovert in it, he'd become a friend. In F2 he was sensational, and in his first F1 season he'd gone well in the 701 that Mosley had sold to Crabbe, on condition that he put Ronnie in it. Now in the wet at Silverstone he was glorious to watch, but his times were around 63sec — compared to the 54sec he could regularly do in the dry. He came in to report that the clutch wasn't working properly and a rear tyre was going soft. There was no spare rear wet in the transporter, so while the clutch was bled and adjusted a new rear was fetched. During the hour this took, mercifully it stopped raining.

Then I wriggled myself down into 701/1 and they strapped me in. The March looked bulky from the outside, but the cockpit was definitely snug. But I was then pretty much the same size as Amon, so I fitted fine, my elbows pushed in by the high cockpit sides, the tiny gearlever just under my right hand. I realised I was reclining in the same little space where Chris had been when he averaged 152mph around Spa in Rodriguez's slipstream, qualified on the front row at Monaco, and scored his first F1 victory at this same circuit seven months before; the same space where, an hour earlier, the soon-to-be great Peterson had been driving on the limit in the rain. A stab at the starter button and the DFV was ticking over, clattering and grumbling, giving me a vibromassage through the monocoque to which it was bolted as a stressed member. Kerr leaned into the cockpit to shout "drive it under 3000rpm, or over 5000rpm" and I found in my first cautious lap that I could indeed chug along with the electronic rev counter pointing below '3'.

I began to feed in the power, at first only when the car was pointing because at straight, because at Copse it was still damp, and at Woodcote it was definitely slippery. But coming out of Becketts I got braver, flooring the throttle in second. The nose lifted and the car weaved as the rear wheels broke traction. Such acceleration was new to me: it felt like I was strapped to a ballistic missile. Immediately I needed third, and at once fourth, and now fifth, and I glimpsed 8700rpm before braking for Woodcote. On the ratios in the box that day, that, I learned later, was 155mph. The brakes, despite a surprisingly long pedal, were immensely powerful, but the clutch was still not right, and after about 12 laps it wouldn't disengage at all. I could still change gear, feeding the lever into the slot on a down-change while heeling-and-toeing, but it was another thing to have to think about.

At one stage, accelerating in second, I hit a puddle and the wheelspin was so complete, the revs climbed so high, I thought the transmission had broken. Then everything, for a split-second, went silent, and I thought I'd blown the engine. Then it all came to life again — all that had happened was the rev-limiter had done its job.

Taking the Club circuit's Woodcote in third, in my caution I was coming off the cam: below 5000rpm the revs fell away and the throttle became less responsive. So I started taking it in second, which kept the revs high and allowed me to get some flow through the corner, although as I got back on the power the car would slide as the rear wheels started to spin again.

As it got dryer, so I got more confident. I was arriving at Copse in fourth, a sharp dab at the brakes and down to third, back to fourth and on to Maggotts. (I know Copse is just a lift for today's F1 cars, but this was 40 years ago.) Maggotts would have been flat for the proper chaps, even then, but I was giving myself a confidence lift. Brake hard from 140-40mph, helped by two gearchanges, for the Club Circuit's tight Becketts. A lot of understeer here: if I'd been more competent I would have used more power to balance the car better. Then that stomach-shrinking acceleration up through the gears to fifth, and feed down through the gears again for Woodcote.

I'd lost count of how many laps I'd done when the engine hesitated at Becketts, indicating I was low on fuel, and I came in. They said I'd done 28 laps, and it was time to go home. I was trembling with the effort of concentration, which gave way as I relaxed to relief that, on that slippery track, I'd brought the car back in one piece.

John Waddington had been timing every lap and I still have the sheet on which he recorded my efforts. It's headed: Silverstone Short Circuit, 27.11.70. Car 701/1. Driver R. Peterson. Going down the squares, it says, RP out, Tay in. My times are at first very slow, then gradually come down, and I see I managed a couple of 59.8sec. In the dry, Ronnie used to do 54sec. Please note, dear reader, this says nothing about me. All it proves is that it's possible for any monkey to drive a good racing car to within 95 per cent of a real racer's time. It's getting that last five per cent that requires true talent. But with no clutch, the damp track, and my general feeling of being overwhelmed by the whole occasion, I felt happy with my day. My head was a jumble of excited impressions, and I couldn't wait to translate them into reams of copy for the next week's issue.

I can't believe my article made much difference to Mosley's business, but in 1971 March sold around 30 F2 chassis, and it was the series' most successful marque. They sold a lot of F3 cars too. Max asked me back to Silverstone a year later, and I had a day with Ronnie's 711 F1 car, as well as the prototype 722 and 723. But that's another story. Tom Wheatcroft bought 701/1 and entered it for just one race, the non-championship Argentine GP in January 1971, getting Derek Bell to drive it. The race was in two 106-mile heats: Derek was seventh in the first and retired in the second with a blown engine, but so great was the attrition rate that he was awarded fifth place.

The car went to the Donington Museum, where Tom hung it on a wall "so it don't cost me any more money". After his death his son Kevin released a few cars for sale, and 701/1 has joined Roger Wills' stable. For old times' sake I called in at WDK Motorsport, wriggling aboard again. It's a great car, a

great piece of history, looking tired now; but the good news is it will be restored and campaigned in historic racing. There's talk of taking it to the New Zealand Festival of Motor Racing, which in 2011 will celebrate Amon's career. He'll probably have mixed emotions seeing 701/1, for his year with March wasn't the happiest. But it should bring back memories — as it did for me.

Thank you to Roger Wills, Joe Twyman & WDK Motorsport