Laffite the master
At the midway point in the European Formula Two season Jacques Laffite had the championship won, in fact the 31-year-old Frenchman had so dominated the racing that the only challenge in the remaining half dozen rounds looked like being whether anyone could beat him. After sweeping to victory in the opening race at Estoril in Portugal and in the first British race at Thruxton, Laffite’s one-off Martini was beaten at the vast Hockenheim stadium in Germany in mid-April but only after an engine failure and he bounced right back to win the next three races with such apparent ease that the opposition looked completely demoralised. After the early Hockenheim defeat the Elf/Ambrozium-backed Martini Mk 16 was on pole position for the races at the Nurburgring, through the streets of Pau in south-west France and the second Hockenheim race in June and Laffite was always the master. By mid-June he had taken his tally to five wins in six championship starts and hand in hand with this effort he had shared the winning Alfa Romeo sports car in three World Championship for Makes races. Some observers find it difficult to equate these successes with his indifferent showings in Formula One; he failed to qualify Frank Williams’ car at Monaco and had to miss the Barcelona and Anderstorp Grands Prix because they clashed with Formula Two fixtures, but Laffite says he is in Formula One this year to “learn what it’s all about” and his main objective is the Formula Two title. He wants to follow countrymen Jarier and Depailler into Grand Prix racing with the European title under his belt.
The only real low note for Laffite’s team came in early May at their Magny Cours base where Tico Martini built the prototype in his tiny workshop during the winter. The Martini “factory”, where this year the former British hillclimber has already built up more than twenty of his spaceframe cars for French Renault-engined Formulae, is situated only a few feet away from the edge of the small circuit and this was the venue for the only non-championship race on the calendar. The opposition saw it as a chance to save face by beating Laffite on his home ground. In practice the little yellow and black Martini was again fastest but as at Hockenheim the engine failed and it was left for Jean-Pierre Jabouille to win in his new Elf 2.
That was a disappointment to the Martini team but it was soon forgotten as they forged ahead in the championship so that by the half way mark Jacques had three times as many points as any other driver and his championship looked secure. The next round would be Salzburg which ironically was the scene of Laffite’s first and only 1974 win in Formula Two just twelve months earlier when he ran a Martini-modified March-BMW 742.
The only consolation to the rest of the young drivers as they chase Laffite round the European circuits is that at least they now have a yardstick and, if they do beat the Martini, that in itself will be quite an achievement. Team manager Hughes de Chaunac has got together a neat and highly efficient package, the car is constantly being tested and developed at Magny Cours and is always immaculate. Mirroring the Martini effort has been the run of wins by the BMW engines developed and built by Joseph Schnitzer and his brothers at their Freiburg factory in southern Germany. Schnitzer’s engines, which differ quite considerably from the works engines (they have, for example, got the fuel injection on the left of the head and the exhausts on the right which is an opposite arrangement to the Munich engines) have won all seven races held this season. Larrousse-used a Schnitzer-BMW in his Alpine when he won the first Hockenheim race in the older Alpine A367 and his team-mate Jabouille used another to win at Magny Cours. Schnitzer’s grand slam has been at the expense of BMW’s Motorsports Division, which is an incredible turn of events. Just as Laffite only scored one victory last season, Schnitzer only managed to head the BMW-engined works Marches once during 1974.
But it’s all-change this season and the people feeling the most out in the cold are March themselves, the giants of Formula Two racing and the championship victors for the last two years. The early season has seen an incredible turn of events and just as BMW have been humbled by Schnitzer’s bid, the defending champions have suffered defeat after embarrassing defeat at the hands of the tiny Elf Martini equipe.
For the past two years the Bicester team have steamrollered their way to two championships and during that time they were never headed in the points tables. This year, drivers Patrick Tambay and Michel Leclere have only two second placings and a fifth to show for the lavish effort behind the works March-BMW 752 team. Their engines have been unreliable and the young Frenchmen have made mistakes but they have also endured some cruel luck. Leclerc was on pole position at Estoril but had an engine fail. At Thruxton he was delayed by Brambilla’s spin, at Hockenheim a nose broke and a rear wheel came loose, at the Nurburgring he finished second to Laffite in the first heat but was out in the second after gearbox troubles and then a blown engine. At Pau he struggled home fifth and he led both Magny Cours and Hockenheim. At Magny Cours the engine blew and at Hockenheim he spun while leading the first heat and was hit by another car. Leclerc stormed back to win the second heat from the rear of the grid but it was too late Laffite had stolen another victory.
Tambay has been a little more fortunate. He drove steadily at Thruxton and the Nurburgring to finish second but retired at Estoril after the brakes locked up and he slid off through a catch fence, had an engine fail at Hockenheim, and he crashed at the last three races. At Pau he couldn’t avoid a back marker who had lost the rear wing, at Magny Cours he tangled with Brambilla and at Hockenheim he was put out by Austrian Harald Ertl after they had a coming together at the chicane when fighting for second place behind Laffite. Poor Tambay has had to start three races this season in new and untested cars. Both of the factory drivers have shown speed but victory has eluded the works cars and, of course, the many customers as well. At several races there have been more than twenty Marches in the entry.
Hans Stuck, runner up in the championship last year, has driven again for the works team at four races since Thruxton but has had the same bad run. He finished second at the first Hockenheim race, throwing away victory with three wild spins in the first heat and had an engine failure in the first heat at the Nurburgring. In both races he charged back to win the second heat but yet again it was too late Laffite had already won. At the most recent Hockenheim race Stuck had another engine quit while leading the first heat and came back to take second place in the other heat but again it was Laffite out front.
The only constant factor during the season has been Laffite’s run of wins. He has often been lucky but on the other hand he has always ensured that his car survived the distance which is essential when the organisers insist on running their two-part lotteries. After six rounds Laffite has amassed 45 points with Larrousse on a lowly 13 points with his win and a fourth at Pau. Tambay is third on 12 points and Jabouille has just 11 points. The only British driver competing in the championship this season is Brian Henton with his Brian Hart Ford-engined March. At the first Hockenheim race Henton was third and he has shown well at several other races but along with all those British constructors who quit the formula over the past couple of seasons he has found the soaring costs crippling. –M.T.