Formula Three review

The Year of South and Daly

A refreshing breath of maturity has swept through the British Formula Three scene this season. This racing has been exciting, though rarely heart-stopping, technical, without becoming over-complicated, and clean, with only one major controversial accident all year. It has also produced two home-bred drivers of unquestionable ability in England’s Stephen South and Ireland’s Derek Daly. It is around the battle for overall supremacy between these two rivals that the story of the season revolves.

Both men had their share of good fortune and bad luck. For South, now into his third year of F3 racing, the season was to bring victory in the Vandervell Championship, controversy in the BP series, and an almighty accident at Silverstone from which he was extremely lucky to escape relatively unharmed.

For Daly, making his debut in F3, the Season started tamely enough with a series of promising placings. Following the much-publicised Silverstone shunt with South, however, the young Dubliner suddenly shot to prominence by taking his first-ever F3 win at the Croix-en-Trois European Championship round, and thereafter won race after race before clinching the BP title in the last round at Thruxton.

The intense rivalry between the two men was not confined purely to the track either. There was certainly no love lost between Daly’s larger-than-life sponsor, Derek McMahon, and the quiet and almost retiring South. And more than a few eyebrows were raised in surprise when the Stewards of the RAC quashed a disqualification imposed on South for a wing-height misdemeanor, thus instantly giving the Englishman a very real chance of snatching a championship “double”.

In the end, though, it looks as though it will be Derek Daly who reaps the greater rewards from an almost classic season of F3 racing. The red-haired Irishman’s attitude and utter dedication to motor racing is evident not only when talking to the man himself, but also in his style of driving dramatic and calculated. For next year he has a very competitive F2 drive, plus the possibility of the occasional one-off appearance in the British F1 Championship.

South’s future is not so rosy. At 25 years of age and with six years’ racing experience behind him, Stephen can hardly afford the luxury of yet another year in F3. He has proved beyond doubt that he has the skill and style to go further, but as in most professional sports these days a marketable personality is as important off the circuit as the drivers performance is on the circuit. For the time being, however, South is the brightest hope English motor racing has for the future, and it would be a tremendous waste if his talent was allowed to wither.

Stephen South’s racing plans, in fact, almost came to a grinding halt after the first two races when funds for his unsponsored March 763 began to run dangerously low. Fortunately he won both events, the first being: a Vandervell round at the Silverstone International Trophy meeting and the second a BP round at Thruxton, and caught the eye of BP themselves in the shape of Les Thacker, who signed him up for the rest of the year.

The extra money also Meant that Stephen no longer had to prepare and look after the car himself, this being left in the hands of Docking Racing.

South’s initial impact upon the 1977 F3 season was to turn sour at Silverstone at the beginning of April. While waiting on the grid for the beginning of the third BP Championship round, the wing heights of both Derek Daly’s Chevron and South’s March were measured, and both found to be slightly too high. Daly’s wing was accordingly adjusted, but South raced on as he was, coming third in the race, only to be disqualified at post-race scrutineering,

The rules of the Championship stated that any driver so disqualified must lose 2.o'”‘;of the maximum points total for the series, plus the points gained in that particular race. South thus found himself on minus 20 points, and with no chance of winning his spOnsor’s own championship. An appeal was lodged with the RAC, and when that failed the matter went before the Stewards of the RAC. To the utter ama?.ement of everyone concerned, including South himself, they reversed the decision on the grounds that the punishment was too severe, and instead fined South £100.

This bombshell hit the F3 circus just before the penultimate round of the championship at Donington where South, who had steadily been accumulating BP points, suddenly found himself back in contention for the title. His biggest rival, Derek Daly, won that race, and also the final at Thruxton, so justice, perhaps, ruled the day in the end.

By now South had already taken the Vandervell Championship, a shorter series than 131″s and based mainly on Silverstone, despite becoming involved in, perhaps, F3’s biggest controversy of the season.

Before all the F1 team managers and a huge crowd at the British Grand Prix supporting event at Silverstone, Derek Daly and Stephen South broke away from the rest of the field and in glorious sunshine followed each other nose-to-tail in a high speed game of cat and mouse for 15 of the 20 scheduled laps. Daly led all the way, weaving dramatically on the long straights in a vain bid to break the tow. Rounding Becketts for the 16th time, however, the Irishman missed a gear and slid wide. In an instant South was alongside. As the two cars approached Chapel they touched. Daly spun Off into the corn, bin South’s white March leapt high into the air, rolling several times before crashing back to earth.

Fearing the worst South was rushed straight to Stoke Mandeville hospital, but incredibly, his injuries were confined to severe bruising and a very stiff arm.

Because of the importance of the occasion emotion and argument ran high after the event. Most onlookers, and Stephen South himself, felt the accident was Daly’s fault, although photographs of the incident and the observations of the eventual winner, Anders Olofsson, supported the Irishman. At any other race it would all have been quickly forgotten, but this accident remained at the back of everyone’s minds for the rest of the season.

After a disappointing come-back in a new March 773 at Donington. where a stone through a radiator put the car out in a heat, South showed he had lost none of his skill at Snetterton where he drove a brilliant race to win from flag to flag. That, however, was to be his last championship victory of the year. Disheartened by the failure of his appeal against disqualification South lost some of his aggression until too late when the RAC Stewards made their ruling on the wing height affair.

For Derek Daly the season got off to a slower start. “The previous November he won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, and then abandoned plans to go FF2000 when his major backer, Derek McMahon, provided enough money to buy an F3 Chevron B38.

It took the dedicated Dubliner a little time to settle down in the faster formula, but two fourth placings in the Championship and a third place in the BP Championship gave some notice of better things to come.

In mid-April he actually won a heat and led the final of the Zolder round of the BP series, but he had the wrong tyres for the main race and Piercarlo Ghinzani slipped through to win. At Monaco, a race where the British contingent failed dismally, he was involved in a coming together with Stephen South and retired.

He had still not won a race “proper” until the British Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone where it all looked as though he was finally on his way to breaking the duck. That is until the 16th lap incident with South. Daly was badly affected by the “rock ape” tag most of the Press unfairly labelled him with, but he bounced back in the best way possible just one week later when he not only won his first F3 race final, but did it at the Croix-en-Trois European Championship round.

His second F3 victory came in the non-championship event supporting the Austrian Grand Prix, where his performance was good enough for Sid Taylor to promise him a one-off drive in F1 next year.

For the rest of the season Daly could hardly put a foot wrong. Four consecutive victories, including a win in the final at Thruxton, gave him the BP Championship. And he also made his debut in F2 at Estoril where he not only came fifth in the ICl/Newsweek Chevron, but set fastest lap as well.

Of anyone in F3 this year, Derek Daly looks the man most likely to follow in Rupert Keegan’s shoes. He himself feels it would be wrong to step straight into F1 but after a season in F2 he looks certain to prove Eire’s answer to Ulster’s John Watson.

While Stephen South and Derek Daly turned out to be the two great successes of the 1977 F3 season, perhaps the biggest failure was the Leyland-backed Unipart outfit. For them the season had opened on a very bright note with 1976 AG FF2000 Champion, Ian Taylor, taking pole position in the first two races of the year, with himself and Grovewood Award-winning team-mate, Tiff Needell also claiming two consecutive second places.

At the beginning of April things looked even rosier for Taylor was awarded first place at Silverstone after the first man home on the road, Geoff Brabham, had been disqualified over a leaking air restrictor. From then on, however, things went from bad to worse.

As in the previous year when Tony Dron was the driver, the team were using March chassis with their Holbay-tuned Triumph Dolomite Sprint engines. As they strove to keep pace with the development of the Novamotor Toyota engine, used by all their rivals, so the Triumph engine began to prove more and more unreliable. Everything from sheer lack of power to flexing in the stressed engine block were given as reasons for the team’s poor performances. They even bought a Chevron chassis in which the engine is not stressed but that was never raced.

As if their mechanical problems were not enough, internal team relationships began to get a little strained towards the end and the news came as no real surprise towards the end of October that Unipart were withdrawing from racing for the rest of the season. Hopefully it won’t mean the end altogether of Leyland’s involvement with single seater racing, especially as Renault will be making a strong bid to upset Toyota’s stranglehold on the engine front.

As far as chassis were concerned honours were about shared between March and Chevron, with Ron Tauranac’s Ralt only winning in the hands of Geoff Brabham.

For March the American, James King, and the enthusiastic New Zealander, Brett Riley, both added to Stephen South’s tally of victories. Riley’s season started off on a sour note when the first cracks began to appear in the ill-fated AFMP March team. With backing from the Stars rock band and preparation by David Price Racing it all came good for Riley in the end, his season culminating in a brilliant performance in the final Vandervell round at Silverstone where he took the lead from Derek Warwick at Stowe on the last lap after a thrilling chase through the field. The likeable Brazilian, Mario Pail, was another to be let down by AFMP and he switched to a Ralt with moderate success.

Like Chevron, March switched to narrow track suspension mid-way through the season to keep up with the slippery Ralt on the straights, though by October one or two chassis had been fitted with 1978 specification suspension, with very promising results.

While Derek Daly’s private machine was carrying the Chevron banner, the works cars of Eje Elgh, a Swede patronised by Ronnie Peterson, and triple Formula Ford Champion, Geoff Lees, both met with varying success. For a long time after South’s disqualification and before his subsequent reinstatement Elgh actually led the BP Championship for quite some time, though the chances were ruined by Daly’s run of victories in the closing rounds. Geoff Lees’ only victory came at Thruxton. He was plagued by the lack of proper sponsorship, and blew his chance of clinching a possible deal at the Grand Prix meeting when he went off at the first bend during a heat.

RaIt did not enter a “works” car, but retained a great deal of interest in the progress of Jack Brabham’s son, Geoff, in his Esso-backed machine. The young Australian was rather erratic, although when he was able to keep it all together he proved a very real threat to the regular front-runners,

A Ralt driver who did, perhaps, deserve at least one win was last season’s European Formula Ford champion, Derek Warwick. He began this year with a Chevron, but became increasingly frustrated by the slow straight-line speed of his particular example, so he switched to a Ralt. Rad Dougall, who swept all before him in FF2000 this year subsequently hired Warwick’s Chevron and was also unhappy with the machine’s handling, so it looks as though that particular car was a one-off rogue.

Upholding French honour has been Patrick Gaillard in his private Chevron, again another rather erratic driver who was still a force to be reckoned with. Britain’s two Ians, Grob and Flux, were both on the verge of better things, particularly young Flux in his Ockley Ralt, while Paul Bernasconi was rather overshadowed by fellow Australian, Geoff Brabham.

Adding just a hint of variety to the chassis scene was John Bright, who struggled gamely with his under-financed Wheatcroft, a non-championship win at Donington being his sole reward for an enormous amount of effort and heartache.

These days the European F3 Championship carries very little extra prestige than the British F3 scene, and this season has been little exception. Piercarlo Ghinzani took the title in his March despite strong pressure from the impressive bespectacled Swede, Anders Olofsson, in a Rah.

Indeed while the home scene has grown in maturity, the European circus seemed beset by ever more accidents. One man who did, perhaps, come off worse than most in that respect was Irishman David Kennedy, yet another victim of AFMP affiliation. He managed to get a drive with Argo during the latter half of the season, but never achieved the results of which he was capable. One of the last accidents he was involved in was started by Beppe Gabbiani, a volatile young Italian who earned a six month ban for a whole string of shunts.

Overall it has been a good year of F3 It has been interesting, exciting, and the rewards went to the right people at the end of it all. –D.P.S.