The start of the Austrian GP was delayed by over an hour because of rain. It was still raining, albeit not as hard, when matters got under way — and the field was still very wary. Except Brambilla. From eighth on the grid he was third by lap six. His progress slowed during a lull in the rain, but when it returned with a vengeance he dealt swiftly with Niki Lauda and James Hunt to take the lead — and opened up a 27sec gap over the next 11 laps.
What happened next fuelled The Monza Gorilla legend. Surprised but delighted to see the chequer after just 29 laps, Vittorio flung an arm up in celebration, spun and clanged the barriers. Images of his damaged car completing one of F1’s more unusual laps of honour have clouded the day’s real story. This wasn’t a victory lucked into by some clown, it was the result of a sparkling display of car control. His moves at Boschkurve made onlookers cringe — but he pulled them off. His fastest lap was two tenths quicker than the next best. His spin was not the result of a lack of skill but of a surfeit of joy.
Once again there was post-race confusion. The weather was lifting and Tyrrell wanted a restart. This time Mosley came up trumps, pointing out that the race had been stopped with the chequer only; for there to be a restart it should have been flown in conjunction with a black flag. Game over. March, as a team, had scored its first GP victory.
“What a moment,” says Herd. “One long perpetual moment. When officials explained there’d only be half-points if the race was stopped at half-distance, we said, ‘Stop it!’ There was no chance of Vittorio backing off. On one lap he came past the pits following the ambulance! Max said that would be the last we’d see of him. Fortunately it wasn’t.”
At the end of ’76, the Italian (right) was on his way to a split with March founders Max Mosley and Robin Herd (left)
Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
Brambilla, Beta and March carried their association into 1976. The qualifying speed was still there — 11 top tens — but there was a new benchmark: Ronnie Peterson. Tired of Lotus shenanigans, he had returned ‘home’ to March and his first race for the team was at Kyalami. “We all expected Ronnie to go a second faster than Vittorio. But it didn’t happen,” says Herd. “That says a lot about Vittorio.”
Brambilla not only outqualified Ronnie — as he would in Spain and Belgium — he outraced him. There were, however, extenuating circumstances. Peterson’s first chassis was eventually mothballed after a Zolder off, and only then was its cracked rear bulkhead discovered. With a new chassis from Monaco on, he began to exert the authority to be expected of the man considered F1’s fastest. He left March for Tyrrell at the end of the year, his reputation restored, having won at Monza. In contrast, Brambilla’s stock had plunged after several ill-considered moves and three crashes at the Nürburgring.
“I don’t think he was trying harder because he was being measured against Ronnie,” says Herd. “It’s just the way he was. He was almost 40 — we weren’t going to change him. For instance, he liked a glass or two of wine before a GP. Max didn’t think this the best preparation and tried to stop him. At one race Vittorio hid under Ferrari’s transporter to avoid detection.”
Brambilla ended 1976 strongly. He was a whisker slower than Peterson in qualifying third at Mosport and fourth at Watkins Glen — and at Fuji he had another mesmeric wet-weather charge; he actually passed Hunt for the lead — but spun as he did so. He was running fourth when his engine failed on lap 39. His time with March, however, was over. Herd was being pressured by BMW to concentrate on F2 in 1977, and so Vittorio signed for Surtees.
“I liked his Italian connection,” says John Surtees. “I was impressed with Dr Ciceri of Beta, and there was a possibility of working with Alfa Romeo. Plus Vittorio was the kind of driver who could provide the occasional strong result, which is exactly what my team needed then.”
Vittorio scored six points in 1977 aboard the TS19, but the spins and dings piled up. And his Alfa connection proved a hindrance, not a help.
“Vittorio’s original sportscar deal with Autodelta was for testing,” says Surtees. “But it escalated. That took up a lot of his time — and also affected his driving of our F1 car. I think Carlo Chiti [Alfa’s motorsport boss] was promising him this golden future.” Brambilla won four 1977 World Sports Car Championship races for the Milanese marque.
Brambilla and Surtees soldiered on into 1978, by which time Vittorio was the beleaguered team’s sole representative. He salvaged a point in the Austrian rain, but started his last five GPs for the team mired outside the top 20; John Surtees believes he was hoping to be sacked so he could work with Alfa’s nascent F1 test programme. The actual end of their relationship, sadly, was even messier.
F1 return with Alfa, 1979 Italian GP
Hoch Zwei/Getty Images
Brambilla was on the back row at his beloved Monza when he got entangled in the multiple shunt that killed Peterson. Knocked unconscious by a wheel, he was initially considered at greater risk than the luckless Swede. “He was a big-hearted driver who didn’t necessarily think things out too well,” says Surtees. “He had lots of car control — but in the races he tended to let his emotional side get the better of him.”
Brambilla’s recovery was slow, but Alfa kept the faith and invited him to drive in the last three GPs of 1979. He was also its choice to replace the late Patrick Depailler at Zandvoort and Imola in 1980: he collided with Geoff Lees’s Ensign in Holland, spun out of last place on lap four in Italy— and announced his retirement from F1. He retired for good the following year.
Twenty years later, after watching Monaco qualifying on telly, he had a fatal heart attack while mowing the lawn. It wasn’t the sort of ending that had been widely predicted for him — but then gorillas, say the real experts, are fundamentally gentle.