Two huge names in American racing were among F1’s teams in 1976. David Malsher charts their roller-coaster ride
A vigorous battle between the Parnelli of Mario Andretti and John Watson’s Penske enlivened the early stages of the 1976 South African GP, the second round of the championship. And although the Pamelli had a lame engine, and the Penske was suffering from acute oversteer because of incorrect tyre pressures, they went on to finish sixth and fifth respectively.
The following year, at the season-opener in Argentina, both these American teams were conspicuous by their absence. Penske had departed during the off season, heads held high, having proved they had what it takes. Pamelli, by contrast, had already been gone nine months, its Fl efforts having succumbed to indifference on the part of all but one of its major players. If their departures from GP racing differed wildly, so too had their attitude when they made their debut at the penultimate round of 1974, Canada’s Mosport. Nick Goozee, now Managing Director at Penske Cars, joined the company the day the PC1 was shipped to North America: “Roger [Penske] doesn’t ever do anything unless he’s dead serious about it.
Penske at the time was one of the most successful teams in the USA; he’d just won Indianapolis, a huge number of Can-Am races, and he had been one of America’s most successful sportscar drivers. First National Citibank were interested in promotion in Europe, approached Roger and he decided he would set up a team. But he was anxious to do it without a fanfare. So when his manager at the time, Heinz Hofer, learnt that Graham McRae wanted to sell his premises in Poole, Dorset, that’s where we settled, because it was easy to get ferries over to Europe and well out of the way of the motor-racing fraternity around the Home Counties.”
The only un-Penske part of the whole affair was the dearth of testing. “The PC1 was tested principally at our test track in Reading, Pennsylvania, although it was really just a large skid-pan,” Goozee recalls. “Mark Donohue liked to set cars up by going round and round, and then turning round and going the other way. But our car had about three weeks’ testing.”
By contrast, the Pamelli VPJ4 had tested at a proper racetrack — and been found wanting. “I was the driving force behind Pamelli in F1,” says Andretti.
“I was racing for them in Indycars and Formula 5000. [Pamelli] Jones wasn’t aspiring to get into Fl, but I thought it might be timely to have Firestone — which at the time was pretty much financing all Pamelli’s endeavours — step up to the plate and allocate a budget to Fl, which they did. But the only enthusiastic piece of the puzzle was me. What Maurice Philippe designed for us was a Lotus 72, so we were already a couple of years behind when we started. And it wasn’t even a good 72. The tweaks he put into the car looked pretty, but left a lot to be desired. In testing at Riverside, I was about 1.5sec off my F5000 time.
“Well that’s when we panicked and got John Barnard involved. His immediate response was, We must destroy this thing!’ but, you know, we didn’t really have the time. We were way too soft on suspension, so John got down to basics, threw away the torsion-bar system at the rear, because the spring rates were all wrong. More traditional suspension improved our time by about 1.6sec.” Yet for those last two races of ’74, Pamelli looked a better prospect than Penske.
Mario qualified third in the US GP — “the ‘Glen was so bumpy and the car so goddam soft, we lcinda hit a balance” — and that trend continued in 1975. At Penske, things were not going as Roger wished. “The PC1 was a good starting point,” says Goozee, “but Geoff [Ferris, its designer] was under fairly strict control about how far he could go. We had very little experience of F 1, so it was a very unsophisticated car. After testing in South Africa, Donohue said he thought PC1 had reached the extent of its abilities. So we bought a March 751 mid-season, and set about replicating that” Until the PC3 was ready, however, Donohue campaigned the March twice; he was classified fifth in the bizarre Silverstone monsoon, matching his best PC1 result, secured at Anderstorp. Then came tragedy in Austria. It seemed another regular shunt, a suspected deflating tyre pitching Mark into the barriers, the driver unhurt and talking lucidly about the incident He complained of a headache, but no one suspected he would die of a blood clot on the brain three days later. John Watson, his eventual replacement, knew the size of hole he was expected to fill: “It was truly devastating for the team because the Penske-Donohue connection was like Clark-Chapman. And it transcended Can-Am, Trans-Am, Indycars and F1. And,” adds John, “Mark was more than a driver: he was an engineer-driver.”
While mercifully never plumbing the same depths of tragedy, Pamelli’s ’75 season was proving far from straightforward. There had been flashes of promise but, frustratingly, the VPJ4 tended to be reliable only on circuits where it didn’t work.
“Sounds about right,” sighs Mario. “Montjuich Park is a case in point. We could have won that The two Ferraris had a coming-together at the start, and when James Hunt went out, I took the lead. Then a toe-link in the rear suspension gave out. From mid-season, we made no progress. I didn’t have much help in developing the car because Parnelli wouldn’t give us any testing.”
Yet again, at Watkins Glen, the Pamelli worked and Mario was on the third row — and out after 10 laps. Penske, meanwhile, headed into the winter break with optimism. True, Watson had raced the PC1 when the new model had problems before the parade lap at the ‘Glen, but the PC3 had been 12th on the grid on its debut. Their new driver seemed fast too.
“I’d always been impressed by John’s driving,” says Ferris, “and I was one of the people who recommended he got the drive. His speed made up for any lack of experience in sorting the car. We really started to make progress with Watson.”
Across The Pond, Pamelli were floundering. “I was disappointed there wasn’t any real development going into 1976,” remembers Andretti. “I thought we’d have a new car, but unbeknownst to me, Vel [Miletich, team principal] and Parnelli were dragging their feet But there was no hint they were about to quit. “We’d just got the five-minute signal on the grid at Long Beach, and Chris Economalci [TV commentator] comes to me and says in that shrilling voice, ‘Mario, what’s your reaction on this being your last race with Vel and Pamelli Jones?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And he says, ‘I just got word from Vel that he and Pamelli have decided to bag it after this race.’ Well, I was so upset, I think I forgot to put it in gear at the start. “I had a contract, but it was just a bit of paper to give me a payment schedule, not binding. So when Vel said to me, ‘Now we’ll go and do Indycars’ and so on, I said, `No, I carved this time in my career, in my life, to devote to Formula One. I’m not getting any younger, I must do it now’
“When I told him I wouldn’t drive for him in ChampCars either, Vel said, ‘Oh yes you will. We have a contract.’ I said, ‘You can wipe your behind with that!’ Vel’s a good man, so when he made some threats, I knew he wouldn’t follow them through. There was no animosity after that.”
There was no animosity at all over at Penske, even though the PC3 suffered acutely when a regulation change in ’76 meant airboxes had to be removed. “The airbox had a major influence on the performance of the rear wing,” says Watson, “and we never really got the thing that balanced thereafter. The grid performances after Kyalami just went down: I got lost, as did the team. So it was decided to move on and create PC4.
‘The first time I drove it, at Anderstorp, still with a full-width front wing, it was almost undriveable. So Roger looked down the pitlane, saw the McLaren’s conventional front wing and much longer wheelbase, and basically said, ‘Make us one of those’. So Geoff Ferris put a big spacer between the engine and gearbox and put a conventional front wing on it and suddenly, at the French GP, the car was transformed.” After thirds at Paul Ricard and Brands Hatch, and a poor showing at the Nurburgring, the team travelled to Austria.
“We found one set of tyres that was magic,” says Watson. “I actually used those tyres in qualifying, the race, and again in qualifying the following fortnight in Zandvoort. Also we ran little plastic skirts on the nose, which gave you a lot of front-end bite. So although the car was oversteering initially, as those skirts wore down, the car got a better balance. “The track was partially damp at the start and there was Ronnie Peterson, James, myself, Jody Schecicter and Tom Pryce, and we were all mixing and
mingling. And I got through, got the lead, lost the lead, claimed it back and then drove away from the rest to win. It was poignant and emotional, especially considering what happened to the team on the same track, just a year earlier.”
Watson starred in the next round at Zandvoort, fighting a hard duel for the lead with Hunt until his gearbox expired with two-thirds of the race gone. Monza and Mosport delivered nothing, Watkins Glen just a point. The Fuji finale promised much, but Watson spun behind Hunt, and eventually retired with engine troubles.
And then Penske pulled the plug.
“I wasn’t MD back then,” says Goozee, “so I wasn’t privy to Roger’s plans. I got a phone call shortly after Japan which basically said, ‘We’re not going F1 anymore’, but immediately added we were going to design and build our own Indycars. So though there was shock at the first piece of news, it was quickly assuaged by the news that we were continuing and wouldn’t lose our jobs.
But why, when Penske had proved so adept at F1?
“Roger isn’t like the team managers we now know in F1,” explains Goozee. “He’s a pragmatic businessman who runs an empire with a turnover of $10 billion a year. The racing team is the flagship of that empire. Being away in Europe didn’t really help the US-based corporation in terms of marketing. It was very important that we raced in the Indycar series. That’s the reason behind Roger’s decision.”
Watson recalls his Penske days with fondness — and sadness: “It was a super little team, due largely to team manager Heinz Hofer. He was one of the best people! worked with. Having got me a ride at Brabharn, he came to see me in December to tell me he was getting married, and to sound me out about being best man. Fifteen minutes after he’d left, he was involved in an accident, in which he and a lady in an oncoming car were killed.” In the space of 16 months, Penske had suffered a double tragedy, yet went on to become the most successful ChampCar team ever — resilience and resourcefulness that would surely have made it a major F1 player.