Formula Two Review - The French Bow Out with Another Title

At the vast Estoril Autodrome in Portugal, little Rene Arnoux finally clinched the 1977 European Formula Two title in his Martini-Renault Mk. 22. He finished second in the October 1st penultimate round to put the coveted Championship safely out of reach of his few remaining rivals. Mindful of the bitter disappointment in 1976 when the Championship was stolen from his grasp in that incredible Hockenheim finale by Jean-Pierre Jabouille, the determined Arnoux made sure that it was wrapped up with a steady drive that earned him just enough points to claim overall honours. His strongest challenger, the 19-year-old American Eddie Cheever, finished almost alongside him, in third place in the tough Portuguese race, but the five-eighths of a second that split the two cars meant the dispute was settled before the final round of the thirteen-race season at Donington Park in England at the end of the month.

The race prior to Estoril had been right back at the beginning of August at Misano in Italy and it was there that Arnoux made a rare mistake at the first corner and crashed. Cheever too made an error, and had to settle for second place which meant that when they arrived in Portugal nearly two months later (the Zolder and Salzburgring rounds were cancelled) the Martini-Renault of Arnoux, the car that had led the Championship ever since winning the opening round at Silverstone, had a nine-point advantage over the Ralt-BMW of Eddie Cheever. In practice at Estoril it was Arnoux’s team-mate Didier Pironi in the other Elf Martini that went fastest and alongside him on the front row was the Italian Bruno Giacomelli in the works March-BMW 772P. Arnoux was on the inside of the second row and next to him was Riccardo Patrese, the Italian driver of the Trivellato team’s Chevron-BMW B40, and he too still had an outside chance of challenging for the Championship. Cheever was tucked in behind Arnoux on the third row in his Project Four/ Ron Dennis Ralt, while sixth fastest, and making an impressive debut in the formula, was Irishman Derek Daly. He had been put in the ICl/ Newsweek Chevron-Hart B40 run by Britain’s Ardmore team and had quickly come to grips with the car.

The 50-lap race saw Pironi immediately in command and, although it was the first time he had led a Formula Two race, the young Parisian made no mistakes. He set a cracking pace. In the early laps Giacomelli in the March chased him hard and looked poised to overtake him when the March suddenly spun off the track at one of the wide Estoril hairpins (above, opposite). At that stage Arnoux was lying safely back in third, needing to take only a single point to clinch the Championship providing Cheever didn’t score. However, Cheever’s Raft was at that point right in behind him in fourth place. As the race developed it seemed Cheever might have got ahead of Amoux and forced the Championship sort-out into the final round but then Cheever himself started to come under increasing pressure from the Finn Keijo Rosberg who was running fifth in Fred Opert’s Chevron-Hart.

Rosberg soon worked his way tight in behind the Rah and, to Cheever’s annoyance, began to attack at any opportunity. At every corner Rosberg was trying to dive through on the inside and as Cheever began weaving about to block the moves, Arnoux was able to edge away. Well into the race Rosberg was still trying desperately to snatch third place from Cheever when his efforts got the better of him and he slid round in a spin at the same spot that Giacomelli had gone off. With Rosberg delayed, Cheever was then able to catch Arnoux again yet, just as he was sitting in behind the French Martini once more, Rosberg had recovered and was shadowing the pair of them. Once again the fight was on and Rosberg began once more to press hard for a chance at Arnoux. He began trying round the outside of Cheever (lower, opposite) and as the three cars went into the final laps they were running nose-to-tail. However, they trailed Pironi’s winning Martini across the line in the same order—Arnoux, Cheever and Rosberg—the three cars covered by less than a second!

Pironi had pulled clear of this battle to take his first win in the European Championship while Amour; had secured the title. With a one-two finish, it was a great day for Tico Martini who was making one of his rare visits to a meeting. He has been busy this season back at his Magny Cours workshop in central France building the new Cosworth-powered Grand Prix car that he and Equipe Martini team manager Hughes de Chaunac intend to run in Formula One in 1978 for Rene.

Fifth place was taken by Daly in the Chevron after an excellent drive that also earned him fastest lap, and sixth was Patrese In the BMW-engined Chevron. Patrese had a fiery coming together in the closing laps with Cheever’s team-mate, Ingo Hoffmann, and the Brazilian’s Ralt was sent flying through the air. It rolled several times but Hoffmann emerged from the upturned car angry yet unhurt.

With a round to go the Championship was, in effect, all over. The race at Donington late in October might well have been a showdown finale if Cheever had managed to scrape ahead of Arnoux in Portugal, but as it turned out the American wasn’t even at the last round. He injured his hand when his works BMW 320i rolled in practice for the World Championship of Makes race at Vallelunga a week before, so the Championship wound down to a rather hollow finish. Tom Wheatcroft wanted the Formula Two race co round off his first season at the ambitious new English circuit and, in spite of the series having been settled, the teams were keen to race at the fine new circuit which looks likely to become a regular venue for Formula Two. In 1978 Wheatcroft plans to run a Championship round in mid-season but to get that date he had first to accept the dreary October 30th fixture this year.

The entry for Donington was surprisingly good although, in contrast to Estoril, the racing was a disappointment. March wheeled out their prototype 1978 Formula Two model and the car, which had already done extensive testing, was able to pulverise the opposition. In practice Giacomelli was about a second faster than anyone else and in the 65-lap race Bruno simply drove away to win by half a minute, and set fastest lap. Into a distant second place Rosberg brought Opert’s Chevron and third was Pironi in the Martini. Pironi had needed to win outright to wrest second overall in the Championship away from the absent Cheever. The Swiss driver Marc Surer had taken over the works March 772P chassis, which he took to a promising fourth place—Surer will be joining the three-car works March-BMW team in 1978—and fifth was Danny Sullivan, the American having his best result of the season in Brian Lewis’ Boxer-Hart. Trundling home in sixth place, and almost lapped by Giacomelli, was Arnoux who claimed he fiat-spotted his tyres while chasing Pironi in the early laps.

A lap down in seventh place was Brian Henton, the fifth driver of the season to handle the ICl/Newsweek Chevron, and eighth, after a troubled race, was Alex Ribeiro in the third works March. Patrese had challenged Rosberg for second place in the early laps before retiring with gearbox problems brought about by the loss of the clutch. It was a disappointing race run in cold, miserable weather and unfortunately reflected badly on Formula Two. Outside Britain the racing is usually tensely competitive, yet nearly every time the Championship crosses the Channel it is seen in a bad light. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that the racing is always too early or too late in the season. Hopefully a Donington race next June Will cure that.

In winning Donington Giacomelli had taken his third win of the season. That equalled Arnoux’s number of wins, yet in the Italian’s case was only good enough for equal fourth in the Championship with Patrese. March, on the other hand, had taken their fifth win of the year and thereby edged ahead of Martini who could claim only four outright victories. Rene Arnoux had become the fifth consecutive Frenchman to win the Formula Two title and the seventh since the series was started by the FIA in 1967. For the last four years Elf have backed the winning French drivers and teams, for the last three years the Championship has been won by French-built cars and for the last two years the Renault Gordini V6 engine has powered the winning chassis. Now the French are withdrawing from Formula Two to concentrate on other International racing, notably Le Mans and Formula One. Yet, with British constructors like March, Chevron and Raft and European engine builders like BMW and Ferrari matched by Britain’s Brian Hart, the racing should be just as good in 1978. The prospects, if anything, look even better because the racing should be a lot more open.