The Formula One scene

The 1976 Formula One Season (the Formula One Constructors have successfully knocked the Grand out of Prix racing!) is surely one that everyone will be pleased to forget, though how all the faults are going to be corrected by the time the 1977 season starts is difficult to see. There is little point in re-capping in detail on what happened when, who won what and where, for it has all been recorded in Motor Sport and the other sporting Magazines and newspapers throughout the year and anyone keen on Formula One will have followed the season through its ups and downs.

One question that stands out is “what happened to the Ferrari team?'” Admittedly Maranello won the Manufacturers Championship, with five wins, and six second places, as well as other lower placings, but it looked as though the Ferrari team were going to dominate the whole season to begin with, and almost up to mid-season they had got everyone else in a twitch; then the tables turned and Ferrari didn’t win a race after the end of May. They were not completely trounced, far from it, but they were nothing like so dominant as they had been, or so it seemed. What really happened was that all the opposition Started the season with a severe handicap of some sort and it took them five months to sort themselves out Some teams never did sort themselves out and others never will, but that is of little importance. To start the season the McLaren team suddenly lost its team leader and king-pin, when Emerson Fittipaldi left them at short notice to join his brother’s Copersucar-financed team. Fortuitously for McLaren Racing the Hesketh team had folded up and James Hunt was out of work, so he joined the Colnbrook team. This meant they started1976 with a new set of values and Standards, but they soon started working well together and were well under way before mid-season and proved to be the only consistent challengers to Ferrari.

The Tyrrell team started the season with a big question mark over their heads, for they were gambling on a new car concept in the Project 34 six-wheeler. It took them until mid-season us get sorted out and their gamble paid off, with a win and numerous second places, and they were always in there challenging. Team Lotus were at such a low ebb when the season began, with a new and untried car and no star drivers that they could only get better, not worse. It got better, but took most of the season to achieve. From being one of the leading teams, with the Coswprth-powered BT44, the Ecclestone-Brabham team started a tong-term gamble with the Alfa Romeo-powered BT45. Although it improved as the season wore on, it was no significant improvement and the Brabhams were never serious challengers. the Shadow team lost their UOP financial backing so could see nothing but gloom and worry ahead of them, unable to complete their new car, and losing their chief designer when Tony Southgate moved to Lotus.

The single-car Penske and Parnelli-Jones teams were not really serious opposition, arid others like March, Surtees, Ensign, Fittipaldi and Williams, were nothing to worry about, apart from occasional flashes of inspiration from March, which seldom lasted very long. The new Ligier-Matra tom clearly had a long way to go. Facing all this, the Ferrari team could not help feeling confident for they had a new version of the 312 all ready to race before the season began, they had no driver problems, with Lauda and Regazzoni on the payroll and they were numbers 1 and 2 in the FIA Formula One line-up. Everything was on their side, so no wonder they dominated the first part of the season.

It says a great deal for the McLaren team, the Tyrrell team, and the Lotus team that they did not succumb to the situation, in fact it was probably just that which made them all the more determined to beat Ferrari, or at least to challenge him. Penske and March joined in, but more in their natural endeavour to improve, rather than to regain anything they had lost. Similarly, the Ligier team achieved excellent results in their first season by sheer hard endeavour to make the grade, which they undoubtedly did.

The 1977 season starts off on an entirely different footing, for this time it is the McLaren team who face the future without any handicaps. They still have Hunt and Mass driving for them, their new M26 has already been raced and nothing has changed within the team so that they can head into the new season on the same wave-length as they finished 1976. Ferrari, on the other hand, is far from settled as regards personnel, for they have swopped Regazzoni for Reutemann, have changed their team-manager yet again and are hampered by ill-health among some of the key people in the engine department. The Ferrari cars should not present any problems, but the people involved have yet to work together at a race. The dropping of Regazzoni seemed a strange thing to do especially after his 1976 score of a win and three second places. However, the reasons are personal and quite understandable, for Regazzoni can see only a limited life ahead as a Grand Prix driver and as there is no pension scheme at Ferrari, he has been setting up his future in various business activities. These have been taking more of his time than Enzo Ferrari was prepared to accept of one of his employees, so either Regazzoni had to curtail his private business affairs or leave Ferrari; he chose the latter.

Ken Tyrrell’s team is starting Off with a new number one driver, who is even now bedding himself down with the ELF-sponsored six-wheelers. It was no surprise that Jody Seheckter left the team, for he has shown little enthusiasm for the Project 34, and his place has been taken by Ronnie Peterson. The enthusiastic arid hard-working Patrick Depailler remains as number two, as keen as ever on the whole Tyrrell set-up. I feel sure everyone hopes Depailler will win a Grand Prix ‘very soon, and what better than the French OP next year? From the progress made this year by the Brabham-Alfa Romeos they still have a long way to go to be up among the top teams, though their driver force is strong enough with John Watson joining Carlos Pace. The Brazilian Pace is one of those drivers who must win races and When he does it will be no surprise. Equally, John Watson proved this war that he knows what to do when he gets out in from. His term with the Penske team ended very abruptly when Roger Penske folded up his European Formula One activity and returned to America to concentrate on racing over there. Earlier in the year the Parnelli-Jones team disappeared from the scene equally abruptly. No doubt the world of USAC racing, at Indianapolis, asked what happened when Lotus and Lola left their scene equally abruptly. The ironical thing about Roger Penske was that he had just gone on record as saying that having won a Grand Prix in 1976, he was now going to win the World Championship for his driver, John Watson. Hardly was the ink dry than Watson was out of work, but only for a few hours, for Ecclestone was in like a ferret and the Belfast man was number two in the Brabham team, while other people were still wondering what had happened.

The mass-media hardly noticed who won the final race of the 1976 Formula One season, hut Colin Chapman certainly did, for it was Mario Andretti in a Lotus 77. Since the Belgian GP there were signs that this could happen, but it took a long time, though Andretti was always sure in his own mind that he was going to get there. As he and Nilsson have signed for next year with Chapman, and the new Lotus 78 has already been out on test, Team Lotus start the new year in a confident frame of mind, certain that the doldrums are over and they are back in their rightful place, near or at the top. It was faintly amusing that Andretti should win the Japanese GP run in awful weather conditions of rain and mist, for he is an accepted USAC driver and old soaks like Denny Hulme and Stewart used to tell us that “the USAC boys don’t race in the rain, so why should Grand Prix drivers be expected to?”. The truth of the matter is that Mario Andretti is a racing driver, and that’s all there is to it. Earlier this year I said I had become tired of waiting for Andretti “to come good”. It took nearly twelve months, which is far too long, but nonetheless I was pleased to see him get there.

Apart from Niki Lauda’s horrific crash at the Nurburgring, 1976 was a remarkably safe season, with no one being killed in a Formula One car, but we mustn’t kid ourselves that Formula One has now become safe. There is no way a 500 horsepower projectile full of petrol that can generate more than 1G cornering force and accelerate like last year’s dragster can ever be safe. That no one was killed this year was our luck; the rally world are having the bad luck at the moment, with three fatal accidents in as many months. The law of averages will return to Formula One, and when it does we must not get hysterical, hut must look back on 1976 as our good year. There is a lot of talk about safety and danger, if a thing is not safe it is assumed to be dangerous and vice-versa, which always seems to be too simple to my way of thinking. At the Japanese Grand Prix some of the drivers wanted the race cancelled as they considered the conditions too DANGEROUS. What they really meant was that it was too DIFFICULT. Statistics show that racing in the rain is actually safer than in the dry and I cannot recall the last fatal accident in Formula One in the rain, it could have been Jo Schlesser in 1968. It is driving a car over the limit, that is dangerous and more people do that in the dry than in the wet. As many people have said, accidents are mostly in the driver’s right foot, and the throttle works both ways. I am not suggesting that racing in the rain is easy, far from it, hut I do say that it is no more DANGEROUS than in the dry, but it is much more DIFFICULT. So if we are going to withdraw from a race, like Lauda did in Japan (and Pace and Fittipaldi as well), let’s make it quite clear that it was because it was too DIFFICULT for them, not too DANGEROUS.

Lauda’s withdrawal from the Japanese race left Hunt with a hollow victory in the points total and the claim to be World Champion for 1976, but Andretti won the Japanese GP and drove a much more intelligent race under very difficult conditions. Someone has to be World Champion because the rule book says so, but personally I have always maintained that the FIA should be in a position to withhold the title if they did not consider anyone was worthy of it. 1976 is a year in which I would have withheld the award. Hunt was the most successful driver, with seven outright victories, aside front politics and lawyers and tribunals, and that can’t be bad, for the name of the game is “winning”, though to look at some of the people in Formula One you would think that the name of the game was “being there”.

On the question of all the protests and bickering that went on throughout the season I thought the Bulletin of the Vintage Sports Car Club summed it all up, for most Vinagents follow Grand Prix racing academically, “, . . how lucky we are in the VSCC not to have clever men with tape-measures running about telling us that we have just lost a race which We have won, or vice versa; and how fortunate we are that our fellow competitors do not seem to be as skilled with the protest form and cheque book as those in the big league. It is some twenty-five years since Tim Carson (the Secretary then) dealt with the last protest at a VSCC event by taking the fee and the protester to the bar, and spending the former on refreshment for the latter and himself. The subject of the protest became forgotten . . .”

Looking to the immediate future, which is the Argentinian GP in January or the Brazilian GP, depending on the vicissitudes of the various “wheeler-dealers” behind the scenes, the McLaren team must start off as favourites, with Ferrari, Tyrrell, and Lotus as their immediate challengers. The Brabham-Alfa Romeos and the Ligier-Matra will not be far behind, with the field made up of the usual mish-mash of hopefuls and hopeless. It seems likely that Ligier will try and run two cars later in the season, the second one probably going to the French F2 driver Rene Arnoux. The Renault turbocharged 1 1/2-litre Formula One car has yet to be seen and will be awaited with interest. A courageous private venture is the new Walter Wolf Racing, built on the remnants of the Wolf-Williams team. After a lamentable 1976 season with the ex-Hesketh 308C and its designer Harvey Postlethwaite, the Frank Williams team that was financed by Austrian-born Canadian oil-millionaire Walter Wolf has been reformed on a much sounder-looking base. A new car has been designed by Postlethwaite, not radical in any way, but following his basic ideas that started in the Hesketh 308, and Jody Scheckter has been signed up to drive it. Peter Warr has left Team Lotus to run the Wolf team and the car is called Wolf-Ford Formula One, which means the Wolf-Cosworth V8 and it is painted blue and gold and proudly carries the Canadian maple leaf. Walter Wolf succinctly points out that he was born in Graz in Austria, went to Canada 20 years ago and made his fortune in the world of oil machinery and equipment, and while there are French-Canadians and British-Canadians, there are also just plain Canadians, and he is one of them! In the new set-up Frank Williams has not been left out completely, as he will be hovering in the background on the business side of things, for though this team is a rich man’s hobby, like all rich businessmen Wolf will not be squandering money and the team will try to pay its way. This is somewhat like the Rob Walker team of 1959/60 when he and Stirling Moss set out to tackle the works teams. They succeeded thanks to the genius of Stirling Moss. Whether Scheckter can bring the same satisfaction to Walter Wolf, time will tell. Of first importance is to find out whether Postlethwaite’s ability as a designer is as good as it is thought to be, for 1976 was an awful let-down. There is a strong feeling that the trouble with the Williams FW05 (nee Hesketh 308C) was in the cockpit. Scheckter should be able to resolve that problem.

We are told that the Stanley family is returning with a new BRM racing car, designer unknown, but Larry Perkins will be the driver.—D.S.J.