The last Formula One race to he held was the United States GP at Watkins Glen, and that was on October 5th, almost three months ago; during that time an incredible number of things have happened that will have a bearing one way or another on the Formula One scene in 1976, which should start in a few days lime with the Argentine GP at Buenos Aires on January 11th. Almost every week since that last GP there has been some surprising or outstanding piece of news concerning teams, cars or drivers, some of it serious, some of it not so serious. To the Grand Prix world, the motor sporting world and the public at large the most shattering news was the death of Graham Hill in an air crash. Flying his own Piper Aztec, Hill crashed on his approach to Elstree aerodrome in thick fog, returning from the South of France where his Embassy-sponsored Formula One team had been testing their latest car. With him in the aircraft were Tony Brise, the new young star of the Hill team, Ray Brimble, the team manager, Andy Smallman the designer of the Hill car, and two of the team’s mechanics, Terry Richards and Tony Alcock. In that awful crash on November 29th all six members of the team were killed, and suddenly there was no more Embassy-Hill Formula One team, just like that. The loss of one team member is something every team in motor racing has to face up to sooner or later, but for six key members of a team to be lost in one accident is something that still seems unreal. Words seem unworthy to do justice to the loss that is felt, not only for Graham Hill, but for his young driver, the young designer, his conscientious and hard-working team manager and the two faithful mechanics. One can only look blankly into space and murmur “Poor old Graham”.
It is rather difficult to view things with a realistic sense of proportion, but surely the happening of recent times that is going to affect Grand Prix racing more severely than anything else is the action of Emerson Fittipaldi. There is no question that E.F. is one of the “front runners” in Grand Prix racing and certainly one of the natural winners and the combination of him and the McLaren M23 has been one of the strongest. A number of times last year Fittipaldi was the only one who seemed able to put any pressure on Lauda and the flat-12 Ferrari. Sifting through the news from the various teams over the past couple of months, I remarked to a friend that we had heard nothing from the McLaren team. During the season there had been mutterings that Fittipaldi was going to retire, and in some races it looked as if he had started his retirement, but then he made it clear that it was all rumour and that he intended to go on racing. This was supported by some really hard and enthusiastic driving at Monza and at Watkins Glen, so all seemed well settled in the Fittipaldi/McLaren partnership and there was no suggestion that Marlboro and Texaco were not going to continue their financial support.
With no warning whatsoever, Emerson Fittipaldi announced that he would not be driving for McLaren Racing in 1976, but was going to join his brother’s little Copersucar team! The Copersucar team came into being just over twelve months ago, formed by Wilson Fittipaldi, the elder of the two brothers, with a car designed by a Brazilian, Richard Divila, and built by established Formula One mechanics previously with such teams as lotus and Tyrrell. With Wilson Fittipaldi doing the driving they have been permanent members of the Formula One circus, with a base in England, to the west of London. While their results can only be described as mediocre, at least they made some progress during the season, having started from square one and they have never made any claims to he world-heaters, in fact the way they have quietly got on with their own job, learning all the time, has been one of the more pleasant aspects of the 1975 scene. But there was never any suggestion that the car, or the team for that matter, deserved a World champion driver, so it is difficult to see exactly what has prompted E.F. to join his brother’s little team. If it is national pride, as well it might be, to help put a Brazilian team more firmly on the Grand Prix map, then all praise to Emerson Fittipaldi for making this change, but the suddenness, with not even the smell of a rumour, is very baffling.
This change of plans by the Brazilian ‘ace has left McLaren Racing in a bit of a whirl, and it co-incided with the departure from the firm of Phil Kerr, the business manager, and Denny Hulme, ex-team driver and a strong champion of McLaren’s fortunes. There were no behind-the-scenes complications in the departure of Kerr and Hulme, they are merely giving up motor racing and going home, to New Zealand; incidentally, taking Mike Hailwood along with them, the three of them aiming to, get involved in some business ventures once they are back in Kiwi land. Both Kerr and Hahne have been planning this withdrawal for nearly a year, making no dramatic secretabout it like some people would, but quite simply saying “We feel we’ve done enough, so we are going home”. Add to this the recent happy news that Bruce McLaren’S Widow, Pat, it about to remarry and lead a life that probably won’t he too close to Grand Prix racing and we see the McLaren Racing team wondering where its future and purpose lie. When Bruce McLaren formed the team and the factory he had a clear-cut aim, which was to become a manufacturer building road cars that would derive the benefits of the racing programme. Teams like Ferrari, Porsche and Lotus made good sense to Bruce, and it was tragic that he should be killed just when the first fruits of his endeavours were taking shape, in the form of a mid-engined road-going GT car. Since then the aims and projects of McLaren Racing have changed and they have become a self-supporting racing team, in which racing was their sole business, and indeed their sole purpose in life, and they have been very successful as the records book shows. The three people left in control are Teddy Meyer, Tyler Alexander and Gordon Coppuck, the first two American and the third an Englishman. Alexander’s main function in the firm is to run the American base from which McLaren do USAC racing and any other American activities, while Meyer looks after Europe and Coppuck designs cars used in both forms of racing. With the main force of their European project gone to the Brazilian team it would hardly be surprising if the remaining members of McLaren Racing begin to wonder why they are in Europe at all. The combination of Emerson Fittipaldi, McLaren Racing with Texaco and Marlboro money were all the right ingredients for the team to be Formula One World Champions, and it was not wishful thinking or day-dreaming, but whether it now holds good without Emerson Fittipaldi is another matter. As we go to press, James Hunt has announced that he will be filling the empty place in the team alongside Jochen Mass. The fact of Hunt being available is simply because Lord Hesketh stopped his Formula One racing team. Feeling that he had spent enough of his own money his Lordship searched around for someone to pay for his racing team, failed miserably to find anyone, so had no alternative but close down. The history of the Hesketh team is a simple one, they won the 1975 Dutch GP and the 1974 Daily Express International Trophy, which, alongside Ferrari and Lotus, does not exactly put them in the Golden Book as one of the greatest Grand Prix teams of all time. However, they made a niche in the annals of British motor racing by forging a lone patriotic path, racing for Britain with an all British team, at a time when everyone else was selling their team (and souls) to multinational firms with no identification other than a brand-name. This patriotic path went down well in British circles, but seemed to be lost on the International world of motor racing, other than being an expensive and eccentric British peculiarity.
Among the existing mid-field runners the UOP-Shadow team have become quite simply the Shadow team, for Universal Oil Products suddenly terminated their sponsorship of Don Nichols’ Shadow team. The co-operation was terminated with a very generous “Golden Handshake” so that Nichols can carry on for 1976 at unabated pace, while he looks around for someone else to support his racing. UOP must be very satisfied with their association with Nichols, for though the team only won the non-championship race at Brands Hatch, they nevertheless were often well to the fore in Grand Prix racing and generated a sympathetic relationship with the world at large which earned them far more world-wide publicity than their lone victory did.
The recently announced Ligier-Gitanes Formula One car, powered by a V12 Matra engine, has been showing up in early tests much better than a lot of people expected, and there has been no shortage of French drivers showing an interest. Jean-Pierre Beltoise is the official driver, but Jacques Laffite has left the Frank Williams team to drive for Ligier, even though Gitanes seem to think Beltoise is better publicity material. After all, the French cigarette company are backing the Ligier project not so much to win races as to sell cigarettes, especially the blue and white packets with the silhouette of a gypsy (gitane) girl on the front.
Before the turmoil caused by people and companies the serious side of Grand Prix racing, namely the Grand Prix cars, received a fillip almost every week. Chapman introduced his svelte Lotus 77, not a development of the Lotus 72 as Motor Sport said in its editorial last month, but an entirely new conception in the true Chapman spirit. Tyrrell set everyone buzzing with his six-wheeled Project 34, and Bernie Ecclestone set the Brabham-Alfa Romeo under way, with 100% backing from Martini and Alfa Romeo. Old man Ferrari showed himself to be as fit and well as ever, and the Prancing Horse has never looked better, the 1976 Ferrari 312/T2 with de Dion rear suspension being the car to watch closely. In previous years the opening race of the season has usually been a bit like the closing one of the previous season, but this year we could see things getting off to a flying start in Buenos Aires. These words are being penned rather early, due to Christmas holiday working in the magazine manufacturing business, so that by the time they are being read (January 2nd 1976) most of the Grand Prix teams will be on their way to South America and answers to questions such as “are Reutemann and Pace actually racing the Alfa Romeo-engined Brabhams, or are they using the Cosworth-powered BT44Bs?” will have been answered. Similarly, we shall know if Lauda and Regazzoni are using the De Dion suspension, whether Laffite is driving the Ligier-Matra, or whether BRM have risen once again from the dead. We might also know who is number two in the Lotus team, whether testing of the Tyrrell Project 34 has been totally successful so that a new six-wheeled 008 is being built ready for the European season, and just what March and Brambilla are aiming to do in 1976.
The list of Grand Prix races for 1976 has at last been published and is mentioned elsewhere in this issue, and if the last two months are anything to go by 1976 should be an outstandingly interesting season. Whether it is exciting as well is another point of view.