Silverstone at 70: 1970s

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John Player Grand Prix, July 19 1975

John Watson recalls how the weather wreaked havoc…. on a track that had been modified to reduce the likelihood of chaos

A multi-car pile-up that ended the 1975 British Grand Prix early

During the build-up the focus had been on one side of the circuit, where the fast, flowing 150mph Woodcote had been eliminated – a direct consequence of the multiple pile-up two years beforehand, when Jody Scheckter spun his McLaren on the opening lap and triggered a chain reaction that wiped out a significant percentage of the field. Sweeping magnificence thus ceded to a brief diversion, a right-left-right flick bordered by temporary kerbing.

“It wasn’t too bad as chicanes go,” says John Watson, who was driving Team Surtees’s lead TS16. “The corner was quite quick, but it was still a bit clunk-clunk-clunk and lacked the elegance of, say, the Ascari chicane at Monza. It definitely interrupted the flow of the track and I was sad to lose Woodcote’s true challenge.”

Despite this fresh measure to slow the cars, officials still implemented a yellow-flag zone through the chicane and its approach on the opening lap, to be on the ultra-safe side. This time, though, pandemonium eventually broke out at the opposite end of the venue.

Silverstone had for a few days been pincered between sunshine and thunder, but the race commenced in dry conditions – the first time a British GP had been started by lights, rather than a Union Flag – and Carlos Pace (Brabham) led initially from pole-sitter Tom Pryce (Shadow), until Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari) usurped both of them. The Swiss continued to lead until being caught out by a passing shower, which caused him to spin, buckle his rear wing and head for the pits. Pryce would crash out soon afterwards.

With the circuit soon properly damp, some drivers began to peel in for tyres – but Watson was not of their number. “You have to remember how ponderous pitstops were back then,” he says. “You could lose a whole lap and, unless absolutely everybody came in, it wasn’t a clear-cut decision. It was also up to the driver to make the call, because there were no radios and teams didn’t have telemetry or weather radars, so had no idea what conditions were like on parts of the circuit they couldn’t see.”

The circuit soon dried, triggering further tyre stops for those on wets, and as the race settled down Emerson Fittipaldi worked his McLaren into the lead ahead of Pace and James Hunt, who had run at the front until his Hesketh suffered a broken exhaust. It looked as though a tame conclusion beckoned, but then dark clouds gathered towards the circuit’s southern fringe – and torrential rain gradually began to sweep across that part of the circuit. Wilson Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi) and David Morgan (Surtees) were first to be caught out – and others followed suit as the torrent intensified.

Watson joined them on lap 55, by which stage several other cars were also beached. “In the first part of the lap there was no indication about how bad things had become,” Watson says. “I came onto the Hangar Straight and noticed what looked like a mirage – I can still see it in my mind’s eye. About 200 metres from Stowe I remember going over this watery ridge, probably two inches deep, and that was it. The car became the world’s fastest water ski and I pirouetted helplessly.”

By the time the red flag was shown, leader Fittipaldi – who had just switched to wets – was one of only six drivers still tiptoeing through the puddles. With a result declared at the end of 55 of the 67 scheduled laps, Pace, Jody Scheckter, Hunt and Mark Donohue were awarded second to fifth places, even though their cars were by now badly rumpled.

“I have no idea how anybody got around Stowe,” Watson says, “and if they did the chances were that they’d fly off the road at Club. There were cars strewn everywhere…”

Summing up in Motor Sport, Denis Jenkinson wrote, “In 1973 the British GP started in chaos when Scheckter eliminated a large proportion of the entry, in 1974 it ended on a sour note when Lauda was prevented from completing his final lap and in 1975 it ended in chaos. It might be wise to abandon the 1976 British GP now…”