The first thing to say about the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix is that it came close to being called off. Not because the weather was abominable, although it was, but because of a row between the race organisers and the teams. And if the dispute had remained unresolved, one of history’s fabled drives would have been lost.
To begin at the beginning. Traditionally, the number of starters had been restricted to 16, a number thought ample for a track as sinewy as Monte Carlo. In 1971 it was upped to 18, and for ’72 the organisers said they would allow 20 cars on the grid.
Enter the Formula One Constructors Association, FOCA or F1CA, as it then was (the abbreviation later amended, ‘fica’ having unfortunate connotations in certain Latin countries). At this time the association was new, formed by team owners after years of being taken for a financial ride by organisers. For 1972, it insisted, the fastest 25 cars must start in all GPs.
Initially, the organisers acceded to the demand, but the teams arrived in the Principality to find they had gone back on their word: it would be 20, and no more. Unless or until 25 starters were permitted, the team owners said, their cars would not be going out.
The autocratic organisers – at that time still largely unfamiliar with the words ‘Bernie’ and ‘Ecclestone’ – took this insubordination ill, and sent in the police to impound the cars, then housed them in an underground car park which constituted the paddock. Not surprisingly, the mechanics were unimpressed, and there ensued what may be termed ‘angry scenes’.
Temporary deadlock ensued, but eventually the matter was resolved by the French delegate of the CSI (then the sporting arm of the FIA), who insisted that the Monegasques stick by their original promise of 25 starters.
By this time much of Thursday’s opening practice session had been lost, so the drivers had barely an hour on the circuit – which had undergone alterations. Although the significant changes, involving the loop around the swimming pool and so on, were still a year away, the area approaching Tabac was revised, because of a resiting of the pits.
There had long been fears of a major accident in the pits, which were at the trackside, completely unprotected. The organisers undertook to move them, but a month before the race they attempted to slide out of their commitment, relenting only when the team owners threatened not to turn up. All told, the ambience at Monaco was frosty in 1972.
For that year alone, the pits were moved to the harbourside, on what had been part of the circuit. To enter pit lane the drivers went through what had previously been the chicane, while the track now followed what had been the escape road, then went through another chicane further down, immediately before Tabac. Rejoining from the pits was therefore nightmarish, for you came out into the middle of the chicane, and it needed a man with his wits about him to decide if it was safe for you to do so. Fortunately, Vic Elford was appointed to the task.
In those days, there was also a session on Friday morning, run before breakfast, and this was to settle the grid, for the weather was dry. Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72 took pole position, from the Ferraris of Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni, the BRMs of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Peter Gethin, and the Matra of Chris Amon.
Amon was not feeling great that weekend, taking antibiotics after recent minor surgery; and out of sorts, too, was Jackie Stewart, who qualified only eighth in his Tyrrell. “Usually I loved Monte Carlo,” JYS said, “but that year I was short of energy, and just not really with it.” Following the race, he would have a check-up, which revealed a bleeding duodenal ulcer, and caused him to miss the next Grand Prix, in Belgium.
It rained on Saturday, and in these conditions, Ickx always sublime in the wet was fastest, and Beltoise, four seconds slower, gave no indication of what was to come. Conditions on Sunday were even worse. Rain was one thing; more unexpected was the frigid wind lashing in from the ocean.
Before the start there was a fine piece of Monegasque theatre, which could have had unfortunate consequences. It was decided that the drivers should be allowed an extra ‘acclimatisation’ session, and the pity was that no one thought to mention this to the palace, for when the Rainiers arrived for their pre-race lap of honour, their car joined the circuit at Portiers, and found itself competing for track space with a selection of Formula 1 cars, one of which was the Surtees of SMB Hailwood. I wish, I really wish, I could tell you what Mike had to say on the subject later…
At 3.29 they moved off from the dummy grid, opposite the new pits, to the grid proper, still in its original location. There a ’10 second’ board was displayed presumably to confuse the drivers, for the flag was then immediately dropped.
Beltoise and Regazzoni may have been on the second row, but both got past Fittipaldi and Ickx before Ste Devote, and up the hill to Casino Square the red and white Marlboro BRM was in the lead. J-PB was off and running: “It was vital to get in front at the start,” he said, “because only the leader could see anything.”
After three laps, Beltoise had five seconds over Regazzoni, who was holding up Fittipaldi and Ickx, but on lap five Clay went down the escape road at the chicane, and Emerson, who could see little but the Ferrari’s red rear light, followed. Now Ickx was into second, and all anticipated that he would swiftly move in on Beltoise.
The gap, though, barely changed. Initially, lckx pared a second or two from it, but then Beltoise began to go away again. And where one might have expected the Ferrari driver – normally far more assertive than Beltoise – to close up, getting through backmarkers, on this day he lost ground.
Drenched through, teeth chattering, I kept a shaky lap chart, routinely checking on the BRM’s lead, and assuming that Ickx was saving his attack for the late stages; back then, there was no question of halting the race early – indeed there was not even the ‘two-hour’ rule, at which point races are now automatically ended. No, it was 80 laps, and it would take as long as it took.
There were many notable performances that afternoon – indeed, you could make that claim for anyone who finished, for there is no more unforgiving circuit, and conditions were as bad as I have ever seen. Astonishingly, 18 of the 25 starters were still there at the end, six of the retirements coming through accidents, among them Regazzoni’s Ferrari.
Upon alighting from his damaged car, Gianclaudio, not in the best of humour, sought to return to the pits on foot, and when discouraged from this plan by the flics, took a swing at one of them, which led to his arrest!
Finally, after almost two and a half hours, at an average of just 63.85mph, Beltoise took the flag, 38 seconds ahead of Ickx, the only driver not to be lapped by the BRM. Fittipaldi was third, followed by a twice-lapped Stewart, the underrated Brian Redman (subbing for Peter Revson at McLaren), and Amon, who finished sixth despite, astonishingly, making four pit stops for attention to a misting visor.
That one day in his seven-year F1 career, journeyman Beltoise produced a drive of majesty, one comparable with any of the great wet weather victories. There was a half-spin at Portiers, but otherwise he kept it all together, and what made his performance the more remarkable was that Jean-Pierre emphatically did not go gentle into the race. Throughout he passed left and right, over the kerbs, on the pavement, spearing through the dead reckoning as if guided by radar. It was a knife-edge drive, and if he never produced anything like it again, still he had known a Grand Prix drivers day of days.