It was 40 years ago today

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Believe it or not, our Editor-in-Chief’s first reporting job was at the 1971 Spanish Grand Prix. There followed a memorable season the first of many…

By the spring of 1971 things were starting to get a little desperate. Since leaving school six years earlier I had worked in industry and hated every second of it, to the point that the previous summer I had resigned from my job, reasoning that being out of work — and, more to the point, out of money — would oblige me to do something about getting into racing journalism. It must be said that my parents struggled on this occasion to understand. Everything would be all right, I assured them.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. I wrote to Simon Taylor, then editor of Autosport, advising him of my ambitions, and received a charming reply inviting me to report from such as Lydden Hill. Taylor had missed my point, I felt — had he not appreciated that I was talking about Formula 1?

Then I rang Motor Sport, by chance on the one day of the year when Denis Jenkinson was in the office. Jenks came to the phone, what’s more, chatted a while, and said I should seek him out in a paddock somewhere.

That was not impossible then, of course, for one could buy a paddock pass, and I habitually did. Beyond the feeling that I’d talked to God, though, it didn’t advance my quest. The Labour Exchange was beckoning, and, as my father gently pointed out, it was unlikely there would be many vacancies for Grand Prix reporters, no previous experience necessary.

As a last resort I ventured further afield, dropping a line to Car and Driver in New York, but in no great hope of receiving a reply. As it turned out, my letter landed on the desk of Caroline Hadley, who worked there as managing editor — and was English. She suggested that I go to the Spanish Grand Prix and write a piece: if they liked it, they would run it — and if they ran it, they would pay me. Hallelujah!

Then I panicked. I knew no one in motor racing, so how was I to write a Grand Prix report? For a start, how was Ito get a pass?

It was Easter, the weekend before Barcelona, and on Good Friday there was a nonchampionship F1 race at Oulton Park. I had thought to speak to Jenks, but he wasn’t there, so I tentatively approached Rob Walker, the last private team owner.

My instincts served me well. Rob was kindness itself, suggesting hotels in Barcelona and giving me details of the organising club. “Have you got a letter from the magazine?” he asked. I said I had. “Well, be sure to take it with you. They can be a bit excitable down there, but you should be all right if you don’t argue with them…”

Finally he said I should look for him in the paddock when I arrived, and as I headed home that day I felt a first mountain had been climbed.

Quite why I decided to drive to Barcelona I have no idea. At the time I had a Lotus Elan, Colin Chapman’s maddening masterpiece, but if the car were a delight to drive, it was hardly ideal for a trip to Spain. I had come to look upon any journey of more than 50 miles as an act of faith, and London to Barcelona was a little over 900. Then there was the journey back.

I was, however, ensnared by Elans — it was like having a wilful but irresistibly gorgeous girlfriend, the very kind your mother warned you about. The pleasures always had the edge — just — on the pain, but the secret was to regard an Elan as a toy. My mistake was to think of it as a means of transportation.

Anyway, off I set, and although the rorty little twin-cam was less than relaxing for high-speed touring I doubt I have ever been happier than that April day when I headed down the Autoroute du Sud. Apprehensive, of course, about this dive into the unknown, but aware that beckoning — if all went well — was the life I wanted.

All day I pounded down through France, the Lotus running like a watch, and I wanted the drive never to end. Into evening I intended finding an hotel, but kept putting it off for one more hour, one more hour… Through Narbonne, through Perpignan — and finally, coming up to midnight, I reached the Spanish border.

There was a bar there, and parked outside — I might have scripted this — was the Ferrari transporter. In I went, for coffee and a cognac, and there was Giulio Borsari, the team’s legendary chief mechanic. As we left, he beckoned me over to the truck and presented me with a Ferrari Yearbook from 1970. I have it still.

Once back on the road I felt I could drive for ever, and at about three got into Barcelona, parked in the only available spot — a building site — and slept in the car. Next morning I found a hotel room, showered, and set off to the Automobile Club, where they duly gave me a paddock pass.

Then I drove up to Montjuich Park, and that day will stay with me always, for suddenly I was surrounded by my gods. Wherever I looked there seemed to be a cluster of drivers, chatting, laughing — no motorhomes in 1971, of course. Clay Regazzoni went to a vendor’s stand to get Cokes for himself, Jo Siffert, Mario Andretti and Pedro Rodriguez. The days of cordon bleu in the paddock were some way off.

Eventually I found Rob Walker, who introduced me to members of the team, including John Surtees, and then proceeded to walk me round the paddock: “If you’re going to write about Formula 1,” he said in that mahogany drawl, “it would be a good idea if you met everyone…” And I think within an hour or so I had met pretty well everyone, including Chris Amon, who was to become — like Rob — a lifelong friend.

Difficult as it may be to believe now, that was how it happened. Here was my first day as ‘a journalist’ — and it was at a Grand Prix. No PR morass to work through, no need to make appointments weeks ahead. I asked Jackie Stewart if we could do a tape some time, and he said, “Sure, d’you want to do it now?”

We sat on some tyres near the Tyrrell truck. And tyres, I remember, were a conversation piece that weekend, for Firestone had brought slicks to an F1 race for the first time.

The age of uniformity had still to arrive 40 years ago. The three practice sessions were run in early evening at Montjuich, and under a low sun they came out finally to take on this most daunting of all street circuits. At over 150mph they went slightly left past the pits, launched themselves over a crest, then plunged downhill to a left-hand hairpin. This was some place to watch Grand Prix cars.

Stewart was fastest, but on Friday was leapfrogged by the Ferraris of Jacky Ickx and Regazzoni and by the Matra of Amon. On Saturday it rained, and so the grid was set.

Race day was hot, and although Ickx led away Stewart was all over him, and took the lead half a dozen laps in. JYS pulled clear, but in the late laps Ickx closed again. At the finish the gap was three seconds, with Amon, hampered by a broken shock absorber, third. As I began my new life, so a Tyrrell won a Grand Prix for the first time.

My only concern that weekend was that the Elan needed five-star petrol — remember that? — and in Franco’s Spain it was virtually unobtainable. On the brew available there was a lot of ‘pinking’ and the engine ran hot, but I made it back into France, put the right juice in, and got home to Regents Park Road without a hitch.

In those days there were fewer Grands Prix than now — 11 in 1971 — and Monaco, the next round, was five weeks away. Already, though, I had been to nonchampionship races at Brands Hatch (where Regazzoni won) and Oulton (Rodriguez), as well as the BOAC 1000Kms, and next on the agenda was Silverstone, where Graham Hill took his last F1 victory in the ‘lobster claw’ Brabham BT34. How well served was the British aficionado in those days.

My travel arrangements for Monaco had been made long ago, for I had been to the three previous races with Page & Moy, and booked the same trip, staying at the Hotel Alexandra as before. There my press pass was greatly envied, and I tried not to be smug. General admission to the circuit, after all, was 20 francs: two quid…

The weather wasn’t great in Monte Carlo. On the Thursday it poured down, and I remember the shrieking of Amon’s Matra as it oppositelocked out of Casino Square en route to fastest time. In early-morning practice on Friday Stewart was quickest, and Andretti lost the whole session with Ferrari problems — this would cost Mario dear, for it rained again on Saturday, and he failed to make the race.

Each circuit had a press room, of course, but fairly primitive they were. You couldn’t — as you do now — sit there, with track action on some TV screens and statistics on others, because there were no TVs. There were no press releases from the teams, either — and press conferences, too, were unknown. Consequently, unless you were typing, you spent all your time in the paddock or out on the circuit. I watched from the chicane, then still a very fast left-right flick on to the harbour front.

Stewart won again, but the big talking point was the performance of one Ronnie Peterson, who was second in the ‘tea tray’ March 711, and scored the first points of his career.

My best memory of Monaco, though, had nothing to do with the race. On the Monday morning, killing time before leaving for the airport, I noticed something of a clamour outside Rampoldi’s, just down from Casino Square.

Over time Rampoldi’s was to become one of my favourite restaurants, but I didn’t know it then: my interest was caught by a pretty girl outside, smoking languidly, and holding a movie clapperboard.

I ventured in, and found a crowd around one of the tables, arc-lights everywhere. And there, sitting calmly, was Juan Manuel Fangio. On the wall behind him was a photograph of the multiple accident at Tabac in 1950, through which he had threaded his Alfa to victory. Now, with knives and forks and Solido model cars, he was fighting the battle again. During a break in filming I asked him to sign my programme, and he stood up, smiled and held out his hand. Now I really had talked to God.

Another month went by, and it was time for Zandvoort. I was always fond of this track in the dunes, which invariably provided a season’s overtaking in a single afternoon. Why Hermann Tilke has never duplicated Tarzan, I know not.

Ickx took the pole, followed by Rodriguez, Stewart, Regazzoni and Amon, but on race day it rained, and after a start delayed to allow the fuel pump on Andretti’s Ferrari to be changed — yes, really — the Dutch Grand Prix distilled to a two-hander between Jacky and Pedro: they were on Firestones, and Goodyear’s wets were hopeless to the point that I beheld the sight of Stewart being overtaken by the Surtees of Gijs van Lennep! JYS was lapped five times that day, and it impressed me that he resisted the temptation to park it. Ickx eventually won, with Rodriguez’s V11 BRM in second place and Regazzoni third.

Next, a couple of weeks later, was the French Grand Prix, at a new venue. The Circuit Paul Ricard may be in an agreeable part of the world, but anyone familiar with Rouen Les Essarts or Clermont-Ferrand found it hard to enthuse. It seemed appropriate that the race was a bore, Stewart and Francois Cevert coming in for the first Tyrrell 1-2.

As usual I used the Elan, but its oil consumption was beginning to worry me, and I dared to broach the subject with Chapman. “Of course it uses oil!” he responded at once. “What d’you think’s lubricating it? What you need to worry about,” he added, darkly, “is an engine that doesn’t use oil…” You could see how he got on.

What I remember most about Ricard, though, is interviewing Rodriguez, as ever wearing his deerstalker, despite the heat. It wasn’t long — maybe 20 minutes — but he couldn’t have been more charming.

I never did use the interview, though, for a week later Pedro was killed at the Norisring, driving Herbie Miiller’s Ferrari 512M in a meaningless Interserie race. For the first time I came face to face — on a personal level — with motor racing’s dark side. As for the tape, I lent it to someone years later and never got it back.

The weekend after that was Silverstone, inevitably clouded. BRM folk were distraught at the loss of Rodriguez, but Siffert stepped up magnificently and qualified third, behind Regazzoni and Stewart.

Clay’s pole lap was typically brave — and all the more so when you’d talked to him about it, for the Firestone slicks were setting up a vibration so disturbing that on occasion he was close to blacking out. “Goodyear,” he said, “seem to have solved this problem, but they won’t say how — and I think they should…” I could see his point.

Regazzoni and Ickx blasted over the line at the end of lap one, but Stewart was soon by them, and the two Ferraris — Andretti was absent, racing his godforsaken McNamara in the USAC race at Pocono — later blew up. Jackie duly won once again, followed by Peterson and the Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi. The only man to give chase was Siffert, until — suffering the Firestone vibration problem — he had to back off.

Afortnight later I was at the Niirburgring — by which I mean the Nordschleife, of course — and the means of transportation had changed, for the day after the British Grand Prix the Lotus ground to a halt on the M4. Another Rotoflex coupling — those words struck fear into the heart of Elan owners — had snapped, and with it went my patience. I traded the car in against an Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV — more of a girl-next-door, true, but she made a lovely noise and never let me down.

Stewart and Ickx were on the front row, and the Ferrari got away first, but JYS soon cleared off into a race of his own — before an audience of over 300,000. After Ickx had uncharacteristically gone off on lap two, Cevert made it another Tyrrell 1-2, followed in by the surviving Ferraris of Regazzoni and Andretti.

Publishing schedules meant that my American employer didn’t need a report of the next race, at the Osterreichring, and I regretted not going, for it was won by Siffert, who took pole position and resisted every challenge — including that from Stewart, who retired but still finished the day as World Champion, his points total now beyond reach.

After a quick jaunt to Oulton to see Surtees win his second Gold Cup on the trot, it was time for Monza, always my favourite race of the year. There were, believe it or not, six hours of official practice for the Italian Grand Prix, every minute of which counted for the grid, and on the first day it was that man Siffert who was quickest. I watched at the Lesmos, enthralled.

Back then Monza was still a flat-out slipstreamer, and although the place was routinely denigrated as no great test of a driver, still the feeling was that, like Monaco, it had its place as a maverick event on the F1 calendar.

It’s becoming a distant memory now, but time was when Saturday qualifying at Monza was like Pole Day at Indianapolis. Much was on the line, particularly for Ferrari.

Prior to John Barnard’s arrival, lunch — pasta and Lambrusco — was a ritual, and when I looked in on the team that day the drivers and mechanics were all at one table, Regazzoni taking a glass of wine with his tagliatelle. And they say things have changed…

It had been expected that the ’12s’ would have the edge at Monza, and the final session settled into a scrap between Ferrari and BRM, with Amon’s Matra thereabouts. Timekeeping, though, was… haphazard, for there was no automatic system, no TV screens showing order changes. After each session you waited — and waited — for the sheets to be issued, and when Ickx’s Ferrari was shown as fastest, the local journalists rushed away to write suitably rabid stories.

When I saw Amon, though, he said that Michelle Dubosc, Matra’s own timekeeper, had him on pole position. And, lo, eventually the authorities acknowledged — after the papers had gone to press — that, yes, Chris had run a lap faster than Ickx’s best. Half a second faster, in fact, and over 156mph…

When the tifosi arrived on Sunday morning, they were disappointed to find a blue car, rather than a red, on pole, although slightly mollified that Amon, whom they still loved from his Ferrari days, was the driver.

They were further soothed when Regazzoni, on the fourth row, decided against waiting for the flag to fall, and left in his own time. Before the rest had moved he was in second gear — at least — but to penalise a Ferrari at Monza was unthinkable, and at the end of the first lap Gianclaudio had a sizeable lead.

Early on, though, most of the leading was accomplished by Peterson’s March, hounded by Siffert’s BRM, the Tyrrells and the Ferraris. As always at Monza attrition was high, and soon both Ferraris were gone, followed by Stewart, while Siffert found himself stuck in fourth gear.

As the race progressed others came into the picture, notably Hailwood, who hadn’t been near a Formula 1 car for six years and was returning with Surtees. On lap 25, indeed, Mike — who had qualified 17th — came by in the lead! “I didn’t know what this slipstreaming lark was all about,” he said. “I was just minding my own business — and seemed to be passing people…”

All the while Amon was running around sixth, but on lap 37 he showed his hand, and the Matra — running surely the tiniest rear wing ever seen in F1 — suddenly vaulted from fourth to first. Eighteen laps to go… was Chris at last going to win a Grand Prix?

After 10 laps in the lead, though, he came by sixth — and holding his left hand in front of his eyes. “I’d been losing tear-offs, so this time I taped it more firmly — and when I pulled it off the whole bloody visor went! Actually, it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference, because then I started to get fuel starvation, as well…”

Going into the last lap Peterson led from Cevert, Hailwood and the BRMs of Peter Gethin and Howden Ganley, but out of Parabolica, on the run up to the line, Gethin went a thousand revs over the limit before snatching top gear, and thus took his only Grand Prix victory. Ganley — fifth — was six-tenths behind his team-mate.

It was the last time around for the old Monza, devoid of what Hailwood would call ‘these poxy chicanes’, and that day the lead changed 25 times among eight drivers. I don’t recall anyone talking about a need to improve ‘The Show’.

I didn’t go to Mosport, where Stewart won in the rain from Peterson, and Mark Donohue was a remarkable third on his F1 debut, but was at Watkins Glen for the season-closer. This was my first visit to the USA, and it seemed easiest to book with Page & Moy, who promised a couple of days in New York before going up to the Glen. Among my fellow travellers was Chris Craft, down to drive a privately-entered Brabham.

There weren’t many ‘flyaway’ Grands Prix in those days — South Africa, Canada, the USA — and an appealing aspect of them was the appearance of unfamiliar faces. Peter Revson, for example, drove a third Tyrrell, Sam Posey a third Surtees, and John Cannon a fifth BRM!

In total there were 31 entries, but the Ferrari of Andretti and the McLaren of Donohue, having practised, were withdrawn because the Trenton USAC race, to which they were contractually bound, was rain-delayed from Saturday to Sunday. Mario, praying for a further deluge in New Jersey, was mortified.

I adored everything about the Glen, about upstate New York in the fall. If it poured down at Trenton, it was cool and sunny 200 miles to the north, and Stewart, Fittipaldi and Denny Hulme qualified for the front row.

Afterwards I mooched around the Kendall Center with my tape recorder, and enjoyed the first of countless mugs of tea with Ken Tyrrell. All the cars were housed in the one building, and there the drivers hung out, too. Briefly Ken and I were joined by Cevert, who spoke of his hopes of another 1-2 the following day.

As it was, the Tyrrells were first and fifth, for though Stewart led for a dozen laps his car began to understeer badly, and he waved Cevert by. Soon Ickx was past, too, and the chase was on.

All season long Jacky had insisted the Ferrari B2 wasn’t a patch on the original 312B, and an engine problem in practice had put him into the spare — which happened to be the older car. At two-thirds distance he was within a couple of seconds of Cevert, but eventually retired.

Francois therefore won his first — and, sadly, only — Grand Prix, and to this day I have never seen a more joyful racing driver. Formal podiums were virtually unknown, and he stood on a raised platform, surrounded by a crush of well-wishers. I couldn’t get near, and so held up my camera, and hoped for the best. While no photographer, on this occasion I have to say I was gratified by the result.

Gratified, too, that Siffert had finished second, for I had drawn him in the Page & Moy sweep and pocketed 30 bucks, which was worth having back then.

If my first season of covering the Grands Prix was done, there remained one more event on the calendar, this the Rothmans World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch, organised at short notice following the cancellation of the Mexican Grand Prix. Ferrari and Matra declined to send cars, but still the entry was a good one, and the late autumn weather was sublime.

Siffert had pole position, but made a terrible start, and it was his team-mate Gethin who took the lead, chased by Fittipaldi. From mid-pack, though, Seppi began to move up, and by lap 12 was hard after Stewart for third place.

I was at Druids for the start, and then walked back to Paddock. Once there, I looked across the circuit, and was appalled by the sight of thick, black smoke in the area of Pilgrim’s Drop, then by the worst of all sounds at a motor race: silence.

Returning to the press room, I ran into Philip Turner of The Motor, and asked the dread question of those days: “Who is it?” “It’s Siffert,” said Turner, “and I’m afraid he’s dead…”

In the dip just before Hawthorn’s the BRM had unaccountably turned sharp left, hit the bank, somersaulted and exploded. Although Seppi’s only injury was a broken ankle, he died from asphyxiation in the smoke and flames.

So it was that in mid-November I made my way to Farm Street for the Memorial Service, having been there only three months before. One had long thought of Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert, team-mates at BRM and Porsche, in the same beat. Now both were gone.

It was a crushing end to my first year of working in motor racing, but it wasn’t a surprise — a shock, yes, but not a surprise — for the sport I fell in love with as a kid had always been like that. Looking back these 40 years, I find there is much I liked better about the Formula 1 of 1971, but not everything. Not by any means.

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