I ast month, in writing about Gilles Villeneuve, I railed against the statisticians in our sport — those whose
opinions are shaped, more than anything else, by numbers. Through the history of motor racing, it seems to me, there has been many a defeat more glorious than many a victory, but for some such things — emotion, legend — count for little, and these people tend, too, to consider the almighty World Championship as the only matter of real consequence.
Villeneuve never won one, and for some that automatically downgrades him, but, as I suggested, surely any list which omits Stirling Moss — while including many others of consummately less gift — can hardly be considered an absolute arbiter of anything.
There is also the question of race victories, and while these have always had for me a greater resonance than championships, there is in many ways little point in considering statistics from different epochs. For one thing, in today’s world of virtually bullet-proof reliability — FIAimposed rev limits, long-life engines and gearboxes and the like — mechanical failures, such as Pastor Maldonado’s blown Renault V8 in Sepang, raise eyebrows, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon in Formula 1: drivers from times past had to reckon on a 50/50 chance of making the finish, and often it wasn’t as high as that. Then there is the sheer quantity of Grands Prix in this era. Time was when there were umpteen non-championship Fl races on the calendar — sometimes six or seven a year in
England alone — but only a small number of what used to be known as Grandes Epreuves, events counting towards the World Championship. In 1950 there were just seven, increasing by 1958 to ten, and although — in the Ecclestone era — the nonchampionship races swiftly evaporated, and the number of Grands Prix ballooned, in the late ’90s Bernie told me he would ‘never, ever, put on more than 16…’ These days — give or take Bahrain — we have 20, and there are those who would like yet more.
Whatever, it’s clear that we cannot truly compare the records of drivers from different times. According to the bloodless record book, after all, Fangio won 24 Grands Prix, one more than Piquet. About even, right? Not really. Juan Manuel’s victories came from 51 starts, Nelson’s from exactly four times that number, 204. One of Fangio’s great gifts was contriving invariably to be in the right car at the right time. In the ‘Formula 2’ era of the World Championship, 1952-53, he struggled a bit with his Maserati against the might of Ascari and Ferrari, but otherwise he always
had the tools to do the job, and it goes without saying that he made the most of them, driving with matchless pace and panache when he had to — as at the Niirburgring in 1957 — but more usually holding to his dictum of ‘winning the race at the slowest possible speed’. It wasn’t only by chance that over time his cars let him down less frequently than those of his rivals.
When I interviewed Fangio in 1979 we chatted for a while about the drivers of the day, and his eyes lit up when we got on to Villeneuve. He was concerned, he said, that Gilles might be ‘too brave’, in the manner of his one-time Maserati team-mate Jean Behra, but he thought his natural ability on another level from the rest. “I just hope he lives…” he said.
From his 67 Grand Prix starts, Villeneuve won six times, and while that wouldn’t raise a blip in the Fl of today, it puts him in company with such as Jochen Rindt, John Surtees and Tony Brooks, all members of the deity as far as I’m concerned. It is all too easy to be seduced by numbers. By virtue of the fact, for example,
that he won 91 Grands Prix —40 more than Prost, 50 more than Senna — and seven World Championships — two more even than Fangio — Michael Schumacher is genuinely reckoned by some to be the greatest driver who ever lived. I think it unlikely that a set of circumstances such as Schumacher had going for so many years — Ferrari, Todt, Brawn, Byrne, bespoke Bridgestones, unlimited testing, bottomless budget, slave team-mate — will ever come the way of an F1 driver again. No one could reasonably dispute that Michael invariably made the best of what he had (nor, for that matter, that he was responsible for creating much of it), but — Vettel last season notwithstanding — it would astonish me ever again to see victories stacked on trays
the way they were for five years, from 2000 on. Even before leaving home for the next Grand Prix, one knew who would win it. In terms of absolute domination, that period in Ferrari’s history eclipsed even the Ascari era, for it went on so much longer, and many have been the drivers down the years — Brooks, Surtees, Villeneuve et al — who must have wished the team had been that way when they were there. Iron man he may be, but perhaps even Alonso looks occasionally at old posters in Maranello, and thinks wistful thoughts. Arguably the man most entitled to feel that way is Chris Amon, who was pitched at the age of 23 into the Ferrari team leadership after the death of Lorenzo Bandini at Monaco in 1967. For three seasons Chris was a front runner, setting pole positions, leading races, so often having the car fail under him when
victory looked assured. Glorious as it may have sounded, Ferrari’s V12 was no match for a Cosworth DFV, and as well as that, however hard it may be to believe now, money — in that pre-Fiat era — was in short supply at Maranello, and the F1 budget was dwarfed by those of the major British teams. “It’s a fact,” said technical director Mauro
Forghieri, “that we never gave Chris a car worthy of him. For me, he was as good as Jim Clark…” A nice tribute, but it didn’t help. Just as Moss is eternally regarded as ‘the greatest driver never to win the World Championship’, so the world remembers
Amon as ‘the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix’. Such is the way of it, and both long ago learned to live with the tags — Stirling, indeed, rather relishes it now: “At least it’s different, isn’t it?! I mean, if I’d won the championship once… some pretty ordinary drivers won it once, didn’t they?” The same goes for some who won a single Grand Prix. Plainly there were those — Ireland, Alesi, Trulli — who should have had more against their names, and others
— Cevert, Pace, Nilsson — who doubtless would have had, but on occasion a good journeyman, be it by good fortune or momentary inspiration, has taken the flag first, as when Richie Ginther won in Mexico in 1965, Peter Gethin at Monza in ’71, Sandro Nannini at Suzuka in ’89, or Olivier Panis at Monaco in 1996.
For me it is not inappropriate that Panis’s sole victory came where it did, for I always thought of him in much the same way I thought of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, whose only win also came in Monte Carlo. While Olivier happily allowed that his triumph owed much to luck, however, Beltoise won his Grand Prix because that day he simply drove faster than anyone else. Forty years ago this month. Thinking back, it was an odd race, the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix, and not only because it produced a most unexpected winner. The weather, for a start, was foul, not at all what one expects; the pits were nowhere near the start/finish area; and only days before the race there looked to be
a possibility that it would be called off…
Since the beginning of time the number of starters permitted at the Monaco Grand Prix, given the tight confines of the track, had been 16, but in 1971 this was increased to 18, and for ’72 the organisers put it up to 20. Not enough, according to FOCA, the newly formed association of teams masterminded by B C Ecclestone, then the owner of the Brabham team, and a man beginning to exert some muscle in the paddock. Bernie had long before learned that a dog won’t howl if you beat him with a bone, and that philosophy translated itself readily ED
into the language of Formula 1. After years of acting individually, of being taken for a financial ride by Grand Prix organisers, the team owners had now embarked on an adventure which would bring them — most of them, anyway — wealth beyond imagining. They found they liked it.
“God forgive me for saying it,” Frank Williams said to me once, “but FOCA was essentially a union…” For a bunch of resolute independents, this notion didn’t sit well in itself, but whatever you chose to call it, there was no denying it worked. What FOCA required was not 20 starters, but 25, and the organisers
indicated that this would be acceptable — until, that is, the teams had actually arrived in town, and installed themselves in the paddock, whereupon they declared that, no, the grid would remain at 20. Before the days of Mr E, probably there would have been a grumbling acceptance of the situation, but now the world of Fl was changing, even if the Monegasque officials had
failed to spot it. Not until it was agreed that 25 cars would start, FOCA said, would their cars take to the track.
Everyone knew you didn’t treat Grand Prix organisers — let alone the Monaco Grand Prix organisers — like that, and the response from the Automobile Club was typically calm and measured: the police were sent in to impound all the Fl cars, that year housed in an underground car park. It was no surprise that the mechanics took this development ill: angry scenes ensued.
For a time it looked like deadlock, but fortunately the French delegate of the CSI (then the sporting arm of the FIA), was able to prevail upon the Monegasques to honour their original undertaking — to permit 25 starters, after all. By now we were into Thursday, and much of the opening practice session — on what was a revised circuit — had been lost.
Although major alterations to the track, including a loop around the swimming pool area, were still a year away, there were some changes in 1972 — and for that year only, as it turned out. These were introduced because there had long been concerns about a possible accident in the pits, which were situated at trackside — completely unprotected — in the start/finish area.
In response to the teams’ request, the organisers agreed to a resiting of the pits, but a month before the race — quelle surprise — said it wouldn’t be possible. Fine, said the teams: it doesn’t matter, anyway — because we’re not coming. And lo, it became possible to move the pits, after all. The blazers, though, were distinctly unsettled by these exhibitions of insubordination: one way and another, the atmosphere was frosty that year. The pits, it transpired, had been repositioned on the harbourside, on what had previously been part of the circuit — the stretch between the exit of the chicane and the left-handed Tabac. The revised track now went straight on down what had been the chicane escape road, then through another chicane much further down, immediately before Tabac. Rejoining from the pits was mighty hazardous, for you emerged into the middle of this new chicane: Vic Elford, fortunately, was selected as the man to decide if it were safe for
you to do so.
Back in the day the times from every practice session were ‘official’, and counted for the grid. Back in the day, too, there was a session in Monte Carlo early on Friday morning. Very early — in fact, I remember in 1969, before I was working in Fl, going straight to it after a long and sociable evening in Nice. As John Wyer once said of Mike Hailwood, “Amazingly, he was at the track before we were — one wasn’t sure if he was up very early or up very late…”
This pre-breakfast session in 1972 was to settle the grid, for it alone was run in the dry. Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72 set the best time, and therefore took pole position, followed by the Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni, the BRMs of Beltoise and Gethin, and the Matra of Amon. Chris was feeling decidedly below par that weekend, still on antibiotics after minor surgery, and not at his best, 111,
either, was Stewart, only eighth fastest in his Tyrrell. As one who traditionally excelled at Monaco, Jackie admitted that he felt short of energy, and simply wasn’t on his game. A few days later he was found to have a bleeding duodenal ulcer, which obliged him to miss the next GP, at Nivelles.
There was heavy rain on the Saturday and no one could touch Ickx, who marked himself down as race favourite for Sunday’s forecast was for more of the same. From Beltoise, four seconds slower, there was little indication of what was to come. The weather on race day was dreadful — worse even than in the red-flagged Grand Prix of 1984, for as well as lashing rain all day there was also a raw wind blowing hard in from the sea. In today’s world starting a race in such conditions would be
out of the question. So as to allow the Royal Family time to take a leisurely Sunday lunch, traditionally the Grand Prix did not get underway until 3.30, and this time there was a piece of impromptu comedy which might have had decidedly unfunny consequences. Given the appalling conditions, it was
decided to allow the drivers an additional ‘acclimatisation’ session. A sensible plan, and it would have been better yet if someone had thought to inform the palace, for when the Rainiers arrived for their lap of honour, their car took to the circuit at Portiers and found itself jostling for position with.., a gaggle of Fl cars. Accident was mercifully averted; embarrassment was not.
The start was also theatrical, for as the drivers arrived from the dummy grid (on the harbourfront, where the pits now were) to the grid proper (in its traditional location), they were shown a ’10 second’ board — whereupon the flag was immediately dropped, and the race was on. None of your ‘safety car’ starts in 1972, of course: it was a flat-out blast to Ste
Devote, and while Beltoise and Regazzoni may have been on the second row, they made a better job of it than front row starters Fittipaldi and Ickx. As they splashed their way up the hill to Casino Square Beltoise, hell-bent on leading — and thus being the only man who could see — was where he wished to be.
We thought it only a matter of time before others, notably Ickx, reeled in the BRM, but J-PB was on a mission. Three laps in he had pulled out five seconds on Regazzoni, who temporarily held up Fittipaldi and Ickx before taking to the escape road at the chicane on lap five. Emerson, who could see little but Clay’s red rear light, followed him in there… Now Ickx was in an uncluttered second place, and all expected to see the Ferrari swiftly close on Beltoise. As it was, though, the gap barely changed, and most astonishing of all was that as and when they went through lapped traffic — which was often — the BRM actually increased its advantage. Jean-Pierre, not normally the
most assertive of drivers, was this day unassailable. It was as if he had concluded that this would probably be his one shot at winning a Grand Prix, and no one was going to take it from him. I confess, though, that as I stood there near the old Gasworks Hairpin, frozen to the bone, struggling to keep some
kind of soggy lap chart, still I favoured Ickx eventually to overhaul Beltoise. It was going to be a very long afternoon, that much was clear, for there was no question of halting the race early — which Jacky, as Race Director, would himself do a dozen years later — and nor was there yet the ‘two hour’ rule, when a race is declared over. The Monaco Grand Prix was scheduled for 80 laps, and 80 laps it would be.
When they were finally up — after two hours and 27 minutes — 18 of the 25 starters were still mobile, which was remarkable. Indeed, given the unforgiving nature of the circuit and the daunting weather, it was barely credible that there were only six accidents, one of which involved Regazzoni on lap 52.
After stepping from his damaged Ferrari, Clay thought to make his way back to the pits, and took it ill when some gendarmes sought to prevent him from doing so: after taking a swing at one of them he was instantly arrested!
One thought of Peter Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar, wherein the same fate befell World Champion Jose Julio Fandango, after going down an escape road and inadvertently crossing the Spanish frontier. “Of course,” the commentator noted, “he didn’t have his passport with him — they like to travel as light as possible…”
So completely did Beltoise hold sway that Ickx, 38 seconds behind at the flag, was the only driver not lapped by the BRM, which averaged just 63.85mph in the atrocious conditions. Fittipaldi made it through in third place, followed by the subdued Stewart (two laps behind), the McLaren of perennially underrated Brian Redman (subbing for Peter Revson, who was at Indianapolis), and Amon, sixth in spite of coming in four times — no planned pitstops in those days, remember — to have a misting visor cleaned.
Undoubtedly the treacherous track surface worked in Beltoise’s favour that day, for an accident at Reims in 1963 had left him with a permanently weakened left arm, and in a dry race he would often tire towards the end. Power steering was unknown in Fl in those days, although Matra, Jean-Pierre’s previous team, had already experimented unsuccessfully with a system in an attempt to alleviate his problem.
At Monaco, though, with far less grip available, and correspondingly less steering effort required, Beltoise had no such problems. There were those who murmured that he had been fortunate to have behind him a V12, with smoother power delivery than a Cosworth V8, but that argument can be swept aside by the fact that Ickx — perhaps as good in the wet as the sport has known — also had a ‘twelve’ to work with, and could make no impression on Beltoise.
It was dank and frigid in Monaco that day, and it was also Jean-Pierre’s day in the sun. Neither he nor BRM were to win another Grand Prix.