The late Seventies should have been the Formula One privateers’ heyday — cars were cheap and engines were plentiful — but instead they proved to be their swansong. Gary Watkins explains exactly how they were squeezed out of an increasingly businesslike paddock
The McLaren M23, unfamiliar in blue and white, tried to leave its pit. A ‘heavy’ in a Goodyear shirt blocked its way. Threats were issued and the car was (temporarily) prevented from going out on the long Brands Hatch circuit to try to qualify for the 1978 British Grand Prix.
Anyone watching from the grandstands would have been bemused at the strange goings-on around Tony Trimmer’s Melchester Racing garage. Few could have known that this was one of the closing skirmishes in the battle to remove the privateer from Formula One.
When Trimmer and fellow British F1 series front runner, Geoff Lees, failed to make the cut at Brands, grand prix racing changed forever. Never again would a team running someone else’s chassis be able to pitch up, as and when, and attempt to qualify for a world championship grand prix. It was the first step on the road to the highly structured world of F1 we know today.
The battle to remove the privateer had begun in 1977. The Formula One Constructors’ Association was beginning to flex its muscles under the stewardship of Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone. Still going by the Italian obscenity of F1CA, the organisation brought a package of 22 cars to each race. Not only did it create a them-and-us situation for those without membership of F1 ‘s inner circle, but it gave Ecclestone increasing power in the paddock at a time when entries were proliferating.
Never had there been such a cheap time to go F1. The pool of Cosworth DFVs was growing steadily; Brabham, remember, had offloaded its V8s the previous year, and for 1977, Lotus and McLaren had the new magnesium-block version. Everything else was available off-the-shelf, too.
“I doubt if F1 has ever been so affordable,” remembers Giuseppe Risi, the man who ran Spaniard Emilio de Villota in a handful of GPs that year. “We went to McLaren and bought a car in which James Hunt had won two races the previous year and it even had the latest six-speed gearbox. It cost us £17,000.”
New independents, in addition to Risi’s outfit, included Brian Henton’s British Formula One Racing Team, BS Fabrications and, although not a privateer in the true sense, Lec Racing. Add in up to two Marches run by F1 sophomore John Macdonald under the Dutch F&S Properties banner, the return of Frank Williams as an entrant and up to three Heskeths, and it’s easy to see why there were problems.
RAM Racing supremo Macdonald remembers the conditions the non-F1CA teams were forced to work under, even at the less well-attended flyaway races: “We were running Boy Hayje at Kyalami and there weren’t enough pits, so we were given a bench to put our equipment on. And we were so far along the pitlane that we were on the slope down the hill to the first corner.”
The situation got worse when the F1 circus returned to Europe. Two entries put in for the Spanish Grand Prix by the British-based Motor Race Consultants organisation were turned down. Ex-Formula Two racer Peter Gaydon’s company had been working for British competitors racing on the Continent since 1969, and in F1 he was now looking after most of the privateers, plus Ensign and Hesketh. Sorting out complications with entries was his bread and butter: “In those days, one still entered via the local sporting authority [the ASN],” he explains. “If they said no, it was normally left to the last minute. My job would then be to make a much fuller presentation.”
Gaydon was sufficiently confident that he would be able to obtain spots on the entry list for Henton and Hayje that he advised their respective teams to make the long trip to Jarama. The son of a diplomat, he used only his powers of persuasion to get the two Marches into official qualifying. A month later at Zolder, however, he would have to bring legal assistance.
All of MRC’s customers had been turned down for the Belgian Grand Prix, and Gaydon’s representations to the circuit and the Commission Sportive Internationale, motorsport’s governing body, were to no avail. An introduction to an international law specialist by the promotions firm that was looking after the Chesterfield cigarette sponsorship on Brett Lunger’s BS Fabs entry saved the day: MRC’s teams were allowed into the event and one of them, Purley’s Lec, famously went on to lead the race.
Yet more argy-bargy followed at Anderstorp, this time over the allocation of garages in the Swedish track’s ‘dual-carriageway’ pitlane. Even though there were 34 spaces for 32 entries, F1CA was demanding places for its teams’ T-cars. A ‘compromise’ was reached whereby the MRC cars were paddocked in an adjacent area.
“We parked in a field somewhere,” remembers Gaydon, who was also managing the third Hesketh driven by Hector Rebaque. “We had to push our cars across mud and through a public area just to gain access to the track.”
The privateers’ biggest battle was yet to come, though. For the French race, MRC secured acceptance only for two Heskeths and was forced to go to court to get the rest of its teams into the meeting. Gaydon’s lawyer got a preliminary judgement in favour of MRC, and on the Wednesday before practice, he was due to go back to court in Paris to take out an injunction that would have prevented the race from going ahead. But half an hour before the hearing, the line of tucks outside the Dijon gates was allowed in.
Gaydon had found a clause in the CSI’s Yellow Book for 1977 that gave his lawyer an almost cast-iron case in court. The long-winded and badly worded adjunct stated that ‘all applications for entry… which are issued from well-known entrants… should be accepted’. It then read, ‘Organisers will provide as many series (sic) as necessary in official practice’.
Gaydon’s case was against the CSI, though its secretary-general at the time, Yvon Leon, is insistent that the governing body wasn’t behind the moves to drive out the privateers. “The local ASNs were quite entitled to take cars from who they wanted,” he says. “My feeling is that the CSI was not involved in what was going on.”
The little teams, however, believed they knew who was pulling all the stings; Peter Macintosh, F1CA’s executive secretary at the time, doesn’t disagree that it was his organisation: “Everyone was so intent on maintaining the package that F1CA may have become overly protective. At the same time, the organisers were very cautious about anyone from outside the package because, without F1CA, they wouldn’t have had a grand prix.”
The court action set a precedent and the privateers had no more problems getting entries for the remainder of 1977. At Silverstone, all-comers were welcomed into what became the 14-car pre-qualifying session famous for the beginning of Gilles Villeneuve’s career and the end of David Purley’s.
Twelve months later at Brands, however, hostilities recommenced between privateers and FOCA, as it was now known.
The clause in the Yellow Book guaranteeing qualifying spots had been removed, but Trimmer and Lees still managed to get accepted for their home race. And for the RAC to allow them in, two cars were bumped onto a reserve list: Hugues de Chaunac’s Martini squad and Theodore, which had just switched to an old Wolf after starting the season with its own design, both made wasted trips to Brands.
Trimmer and Lees, who was also a race-winner in his Jack Kallay-run Ensign N175 in British F1, may have obtained one-off entries, but neither was given much of a chance to make it onto the grid.
Goodyear offered free tyres to both teams and the deal they signed stated that they would run no other tyres bar those supplied to them that weekend. “I remember thinking, ‘Great, free tyres’, but slowly we realised that it was a stitch-up,” says Trimmer. ‘The tyres were so bad I spun eight times.”
“It was like driving on ice,” recalls Lees. “I don’t know what they had given us but they had no grip whatsoever. It became clear at this point that we weren’t wanted there.”
Both drivers had raced on the same circuit four months earlier and knew that the times they could do on the hard ‘spec’ Goodyears they ran in Britain would easily get them on the grid. Melchester had some of these tyres in its truck and Trimmer gave a few quid to a fitter from Ecdestone’s International Race Tire Services, which provided the support for Goodyear’s products, to mount up a set. The big guy at the front of the Melchester pit was the result.
Privateers picking and choosing their races in machinery of varied vintage may not have been part of Ecdestone’s vision of F1, but he was not averse to using these smaller teams to his advantage. BS Fabs was contesting the full season with Lunger in 1978 and had a spare McLaren M23 after switching to an M26. Ecclestone approached team manager Dave Sims at Brands and suggested that he should offer the older car to Formula Three charger Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian would contest three end-of-season GPs — and then sign for Brabham.
The lot of the privateer became even more difficult in 1980 with the creation of the Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile. The new body, which replaced the CSI, took control of entries away from the ASNs, not that the local clubs didn’t try flexing their muscles on occasion. The Real Automovil Club de Espana, which jointly ran the Spanish Grand Prix with the Federacion Espanol Automovilismo, tried to get local hero de Villota into the 1981 event, famously throwing out the ATS after it had allegedly arrived late for scrutineering. But by then, of course, the Concorde Agreement, which ended the FISA-FOCA War, was in place, and one of its stipulations was that teams should commit to contesting the full season. Telexes flew, and after first practice, the German team was reinstated. De Villota, whose GRID Williams featured on the front cover of the race programme, was out.
A couple of years later, F1’s rules were changed so that only the teams who were building their own chassis could compete in F1. For the record, the last private entrant was Mike Earle’s Onyx team, which tried to qualify that man de Villota in a third March for five of the first six European races in 1982.
And the last start by a privateer? Rupert Keegan, at Watkins Glen in 1980, his fourth qualification from seven attempts in a RAM-run FW07B Williams through the second half of the season.
No-one knew it at the time, but a chapter in Formula One history closed that day.