March and BMW challenge the French
Following the humiliation of 1975, when the one-off Schnitzer-BMW-engineer Martini ran away with the European formula Two Championship, there has been a fighting recovery by the factory Marches with their BMW works-built engines in the opening encounters of the new season. The British works team, with their 295-b.h.p., production based, 2-litre engines, have waded straight into the 1976 –the new-look “racing engines” era of the 1-year-old European Championship –with two stirring victories, Hans Stuck storming the opening round of the 13-race series at Hockenheim in Germany before a huge 125,000 crowd; and the young Italian Maurizio Flammini (pictured above) winning the BARC’s Easter Monday race at Thruxton a week later in another powerful demonstration of the renewed March-BMW challenge.
However, shadowing these impressive opening shots from combination that won the 1973 and 1974 titles has been an ever-present French threat. Ironically it was Frenchmen Jarier and Depailler who won those two previous March-BMW Championship, but this year the French have gone their own way. Six months ago it seemed March were going to sever their ties with BMW when one of the new Renault Gordini V6 engines was fitted in a factory March and tested by Vittorio Brambilla, but that deal looks to have been swamped by a new wave of nationalistic fervour from the French. In 1976 potent Renault racing engine is confined to a couple of two-car Elf-backed teams –both French, for French drivers and using French chassis!
Having clinched the 1795 Championship with Jacques Laffite driving for him (the French-based constructor’s first foray in Formula Two!), Tico Martini has returned with a new wide-bodied Mk. 19 design to accept the V6 Renault engine. His drivers are Patrick Tambay and Super Renault champion Rene Arnoux. The other pair of French cars are the space-frame Elf 2J models, designed by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and driven by him and Michel Leclere. Incidentally, it will be remembered that body Tambay and Leclere drove with works March-BMW cars last year, winning four races between them.
This year the regular March-BMW line-up is the bespectacled Flammini and the promising little Brazilian Alex Ribeiro who marked his first drive for the works team at Thruxton by qualifying alongside his more experienced team-mate on the front row in practice, and then finishing a fine second to him in the 55-lap race.
Strange as it may seem, March have won the two opening rounds, with Jabouille almost pipping them both times, yet the Championship is being led initially be the Martini team. At Hockenheim Tambay recovered from a start-line crash to drive right through the field in the two-part race and take an excellent third place, behind team-mate Arnoux who had driven steadily all the way. Jabouille retired while leading after the engine overheated and cooked itself.
At Thruxton a crown of 16,000 at the BARC’s race saw Jabouille close to within a second of Flammini who had been slowed by a puncture, only for the French challenge to dissolve when Jabouille spun off trying to avoid a slower car with just three laps to go. Ribeiro came through to take the vacant second place and Tambay in the Martini was a good third and the new series leader. Stuck, as a Graded driver, didn’t score points for his Hockenheim win, and Ronnie Peterson, who also drove for March in Germany, had a troubled weekend and never featured.
Underlying the BMW-Renault engine battle is a growing reputation for the all-alloy, four cylinder racing engine built by British engine builder Brian Hart. His 420R engine was being used by the talented Brazilian Ingo Hoffmann who was holding second place at Hockenheim when three laps from the finish his Willi Kauhsen-run March ran out of petrol! At Thruxton the 19-year-old American Eddie Cheever, another graduate from Formula Three along with both Ribeiro and Hoffmann, used a Hart engine in his March to finish a good fifth.
Rather surprisingly only one front runner is using the Schnitzer BMW engine this year and that is the Frenchman Francois Migault, who took his striking new Turin-built Osella to sixth place at Thruxton.
As far as the British are concerned the best hope must lie with Grovewood Award winner Brian Henton, who is driving for Donington Park circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft in an all-British car designed by former BRM designer Mike Pilbeam. This new combination is relying on the Holbay-developed in-line six-cylinder Abarth engine but unfortunately at the time of writing had only appeared briefly at Thruxton where it qualified on the fifth row before succumbing to engine problems.
There has been an extraordinary revival of interest in the European Championship and, in spite of the lack of “big name” drivers, the racing promises to be close and hard, while technical interest is also running high. The change to racing engines has resulted in interest from several engine builders and, as well as the BMW, Renault and Hart engines, there are units from Chrysler, Simca, Holbay-Abarth, Chevie Vega, Lancia and various Ford Cosworth-derived engines.
Racing-car manufacturers have also rallied to the new challenge and one of the most promising new designs looks like being Derek Bennett’s new Chevron B35, while British constructors Lola, Modus and, of course, March all have new cars. There are one-off designs from Wheatcroft, Brian Lewis and the Australian Bobby Muir, and in Europe there are new cars from Osella in Italy, Toj in Germany, Van Hill in Spain and Kaimann in Austria.
It promises to be a significant season in Formula Two but already there are strong indications that it will be a straight fight between March-BMW and the French. So far March have set the pace but it’s Martini out front–again.–MT.