The year of the new young hopefuls
Over the years the lesser FIA formulae, like the European Formula Two championship and the various national and international Formula Three championships, have often been referred to as the stepping stones for the Grand Prix stars of tomorrow. How many times have you seen those advertisements inviting you to come and watch the rising Formula One stars of the future battling it out in their formative years ? Yet, there is some truth in those lofty claims because, this season in Formula One, the six drivers who finished at the top of the 1977 European Formula Two championship, are all being given a chance to flex their muscles and prove their worth in Grand Prix cars. Rene Arnoux, Eddie Cheever, Dither Pironi, Riccardo Patrese, Bruno Giacomelli and Keijo Rosberg have paved the way and, as a result of the recognition those young men got from their efforts last season in Formula Two, a whole bunch of new, young hopefuls have lined up to contest the 1978 championship.
This season marks the end of the longrunning French domination of Formula Two so, with Martini and Renault withdrawing to the more commercially viable Formula One arena, the way is clear for a more open competition. Although British support for the championship is still painfully thin, European and South American drivers still clamour to establish themselves in the most fiercely competitive and significant formula outside the dizzy heights of Formula One.
The three races that have kicked off this year’s thirteen round series have seen an extension of the March-BMW strength we saw in the 1977 finale at Donington. With the French quitting the scene, Robin Herd, at March, and Jochen Neerpasch, at BMW in Munich, have seen the opportunity to reestablish their strong Anglo-Germanic alliance which proved such a force in Formula Two before the French swept in. March and BMW combined to win the European titles, in 1973 With Jean-Pierre Janet, and in 1974 with Patrick Depailler, and now the three-year French stranglehold is over, the March-BMW partnership again reigns supreme.
At Donington late last year we saw Bruno Giacomelli on pole position in the prototype March 782, which at that time was running without its full-width aerodynamic sidepods. The Italian pounded the opposition into the ground in that English race, including the championship winning Martini Renault team. So, as the French closed the door quietly on a successful run that had seen French-built cars take the title for three straight years, March were already giving notice of their intentions.
The 1978 Championship began with the traditional Easter Monday meeting, organised by those faithful Formula Two supporters at the BARC. The 55-lap was sponsored by the car radio division of Philips Electrical and saw the welcome return of BBC television cameras. A long-running battle between team sponsors and the BBC had been quietly resolved, and the race was screened live.
It was a cold, miserable weekend and few teams were fully ready for the start of the season on March 27th. However, one team was prepared, and that was the slick new Polifac March team. Entered as the BMW Junior Team, the factory line-up was an intriguing three-car team. Joining Giacomelli were the Swiss driver, Marc Surer, who had raced his own private March-BMW the previous year and the German Manfred Winkelhock, who amazingly was taking part in his very first single-seater race! Both Surer and Winkelhoc.k had driven Group Five BMW 320 models in the German national saloon car series the previous year.
The rest of the huge entry was bristling with talent but, because of the early start to the year, many of the drivers were struggling to sort new and untried cars and engines. A glance at the line-up gave an indication of the state of play in Formula Two though, and it looks like being a solid March v. Chevron season on the chassis front, while the engine battle, now that Renault have withdrawn their V6, is between the German BMW engine and Brian Hart’s alloy-block, 420R, racing engine. Ferrari are still fielding their V6 Dino engine this season in a couple of Chevrons but that particular threat appears to have withered and died. The cars have yet to show any real potential, and certainly haven’t got anything like the power they showed off in a couple of Italian races late last year.
The entry numbered 18 Marches, most of them new 782 models, 10 Chevrons, and many of those were the latest B42 model, and, rather surprisingly, there were just three Ralts. Completing the field were Brian Lewis’ Boxer, which won the Thruxton race last year, and the smart new French-built AGS which was entered for Richard Dallest and ran with a BMW engine. The BMW brigade numbered 21 cars while there were 10 entries powered by Hart’s 305 b.h.p. four-cylinder engine, and those two Ferrari-engined machines. Few teams had time for any technical development on their “customer” cars, indeed the only noteworthy deviation from factory specification was the new March entered for the Italian Piercarlo Necchi. His car was fitted with the long-awaited, short-stroke BMW engine developed by Osella in Italy (92 mm. bore and 75 mm. stroke compared with the factory engines which have an 89 mm. bore and 80 mm. stroke) and it was also running Pirelli P7 radial ply tyres. Everyone else was on the usual Goodyear rubber supplied by Bernie Ecclestone’s British-based International Race Tire Service.
Nobody was surprised to see Giacomelli easily fastest after practice, after all he had done thousands of miles in pre-season testing, but the South African Rad Dougall lined up beside him and that did raise a few eyebrows. Dougall, who was a front runner in English Formula Ford 2000 last year, was over half a second slower than the works car in his Toleman Group March-BMW, while third fastest was Surer’s works March. The Italian Alberto Colombo was fourth on the grid which incidentally the BARC had changed over to a two-by-two line up rather than those exciting 3-2-3 formation. Former European champion Jean-Pierre Jarier, having opted out of his Formula One drive with the ATS team, was driving for a private French March-BMW team and was fifth quickest and then came the quickest Hart-powered car, the Chevron backed by ICI and driven by Irishman Derek Daly. His team-mate, Jochen Mass was a lowly tenth and also well down in practice was last year’s winner, Brian Henton, who is now fielding a private March-Hart.
It was a disappointing start to the year, in many ways. Practice was turned upside down by wet weather and the race was utterly dominated by Giacomelli. He simply disappeared into the distance, setting fastest lap in the process, at an average speed of 119.7 m.p.h. Behind him, Dougall held on gamely to second place, until, just ten laps from home, he was overhauled by Surer. The American, Eddie Cheerer, worked his way through to a fine fourth, in yet another March-BMW. Winkelhock soon settled down to the art of single-seater driving to score a steady fifth placing, and sixth was Daly in the ChevronHart. The quickest of the Chevron-Ferraris, driven by Beppe Gabbiani, was seventh.
The Australian Larry Perkins, having his first outing in Formula Two, finished ninth in a Ralt-BMW and Mass, after a troubled race, limped into twelfth place, two laps behind. The last classified finisher, in 18th place and five laps down, was one Giacomo Agostini. Having won fifteen World Championships the Italian has quit bike racing and was having his first single-seater race in a Trivellato Chevron-BMW.
Henton and Jarier both retired with problems and also out of the running was the flying Keke Rosberg in his Opert Chevron-Hart. The Finn only just scraped onto the grid because of the wet weather that disrupted practice, only to go out with engine problems in the early laps.
A fortnight later the massive Hockenheim stadium in Germany rung to the cheers from ten of thousands of German spectators. But, their acclaim wasn’t for local hero Mass, he put in another indifferent performance, and it was Giacomelli who took his second straight victory. The tenth anniversary Jim Clark Memorial race again saw Giacomelli on pole position, again a half a second faster than anyone else, only this time it was Rosberg who was alongside. The impressive Chevron driver showed just what the Hart engine was capable of, yet he was the sole Chevron challenger in a sea of wide-bodied Marches.
The Marches of Hoffmann and Henton were on the second row and on the third were Colombo and Jarier. Mass was down in tenth, Daly was eleventh and poor Winkelhock had slumped to midfield. The opposition was quickly catching up on the edge which March had given themselves before the season began. The German race was run in two 20-lap heats and Giacomelli won both of them.
Rosberg beat him into the first corner at the start of the first race but, by the time they reached the first chicane, it was the March that had jostled ahead. After that Giacomelli was never headed. The Brazilian Ingo Hoffmann, team-mate to Eddie Cheerer in Ron Dennis’ BMW Challenge Team, chased him in second place until three-quarter distance then Surer got through, so it was another March 1-2. Jarier also squeezed by Hoffmann in the closing laps so the order in the first heat was Giacomelli, Surer, Jarier and Hoffinann, Then came Colombo and, sixth, was Daly in the Chevron. Rosberg dropped right back with tyre problems and a broken rear wing stay while Cheerer and Mass were also having problems and finished seventh and eighth respectively.
The second heat was a repeat performance by March and, although Surer was allowed to lead until half distance, Giacomelli then resumed control to lead his young team-mate across the line after a convincing display of force. Jarier, a graded driver and not eligible for championship points, followed the works cars across the line in third place, once again, and Hoffmann was fourth. He was shadowed closely by countryman Alex Ribeiro in his March-Hart. Poor Daly, after bravely hounding the two works cars right up to half distance, was then forced to pit with a broken gear shift, so he was right out of the picture. Mass spun on the first lap and dropped to last but fought his way back up to 11th and Rosberg picked his way up from the back of the pack to be seventh at the flag. The overall result was never in doubt, Giacomelli winning comfortably from Surer, Jarier, Hoffmann, Colombo and Ribeiro; while Giacomelli and Surer shared a new lap record of 1 min. 59.4 sec. After two races Giacomelli had 18 pts., Surer had 12 pts. and the next men, Dougall and Hoffmann, had just 4 pts. It all looked too easy for March and BMW.
The most recent race, at the Nurburgring, was a classic confrontation. The teams were all in much better shape by the time of the April 30th Effelrennen and the race was the most tense encounter seen in Formula Two for years. In practice Giacomelli took up his customary pole position—he even had enough in hand to sit out most of the final practice— and alongside him on the front row it was again Rosberg. The previous weekend the Finn won a round of the North American Atlantic series in his Open Chevron and the German race was sandwiched in between testing for his Formula One drive at Monaco the following weekend. Kosberg has set himself a hectic schedule this season yet he seems to thrive on all the travelling and racing. He was fastest on the first day of practice, with an astonishing 7 min. 12.4 sec. round the North circuit. He didn’t improve on the second day and that is when Giacomelli slipped in his even more heartstopping 7 min. 11.5 sec. lap! Cheerer was third fastest on 7 mm. 12.9 sec. and then came the Brazilians Ribeiro and Hoffmann. In all, there were 35 cars on the grid and the promise of a superb race.
But who could have guessed just how incredible the nine-lap race would be ? From the start Ribeiro stormed into the lead, hounded by Giacomelli, Hoffmann, Cheerer and Britain’s Brian Henton who sliced up from his start on the fourth row. Rosberg, meanwhile, had made a poor choice for his first gear ratios and he was swallowed up by the pack as they swept down to the first corner. As the field disappeared from sight for the first time he was right back in eleventh place but already beginning his recovery.
For the first few laps it was Ribeiro desperately trying to shrug off the challenge of the works Marches in his Hart-engined car. However, by mid-distance, Surer had taken the lead although there was still nothing in it, for he spun and fell back. Then Giacomelli, who had dropped back to third after a mistake, grasped the lead from Ribeiro only to have his BMW engine promptly develop a misfire. As the championship leader limped off towards the pits Rosberg came storming through to join the battle and Cheerer snatched the lead briefly. So, as they entered the last few laps Ribeiro, Rosberg and Cheerer were scrapping wheel to wheel for the tiniest advantage. They started the last lap virtually line abreast across the front straight and when they reappeared, with the chequered flag in sight the trio were still locked in combat. Ribeiro got the decision, a matter of inches ahead of Rosberg so Cheerer had to settle for third, even though he was little more than a length further back again after an exhilarating race. The official results gave Ribeiro the victory—his first in Formula Two —by a tenth of a second and Cheever was half a second behind.
The three were covered by just 0.6 sec. Kosberg set fastest lap on the penultimate lap with a record-shattering 7 min. 17.3 sec. while Ribeiro got second fastest lap with a time just 0.4 sec. slower and immediately leapt to third place in the championship.
It was an amazing motor race. Surer recovered from his spin to salvage fourth place, just 3 sec. ahead of Henton, and Hoffmann took the final championship points with fifth place, a mere 0.6 sec. in front of Colombo’s March. 1 lart-engined cars had taken first and second places, an acute embarrassment to BMW on home ground, and the championship had suddenly taken on a whole new dimension. Ribeiro and Rosberg are two drivers struggling with insufficient commercial sponsorship and it was reassuring to see their teams tackling the works and beating them in what is undoubtedly the toughest race of the championship.
Jarier missed the Nurburgring. He said that as a Grand Prix driver he wouldn’t race there but his absence didn’t detract from a fine race. There were plenty of young chargers only too willing to take on the challenge. Jochen Mass had another dispirited drive and took a distant eighth while Daly retired with clutch failure, although he wasn’t doing well either. Agostini aftei his cautious debut at Thruxton, failed to qualify at Hockenheim, and finished 18th at the Nurburgring.—M.T.