Fabi’s March wins the title in New Zealand
New Zealand’s annual International motor racing championship, for Formula Atlantic cars, was won this January by the little Italian Teodorico Fabi in his factory-entered March. The series, spread over five circuits on five consecutive weekends, comprised ten, 50-mile races. Fabi was on pole position for eight rounds and won the first six in a row. He totally dominated the racing in his Scaini March 782, which was running the latest March 79B bodywork and fitted with sliding skirts.
The 23-year-old aeronautical engineering student from Milan, who will this year drive for the works team in the European Formula Two championship, set the pace at each race. His toughest opposition came from Australian driver Larry Perkins, who was driving the 77B chassis taken to New Zealand in January, 1978, by the March works team for Danny Sullivan. The American had finished fourth in the previous year’s series, when the title had gone to the Opert Chevron of Keke Rosberg, the Finn who also won the 1977 Formula Pacific championship.
Perkins had driven a Ralt in the 1978 series and finished runner-up to Rosberg while Bobby Rahal’s Open Chevron had pipped Sullivan for third place. Until this year March fortunes in New Zealand hadn’t been good, and the three seasons of Pacific racing since Formula 5000 was dropped had been dominated by British Chevrons with Ralts providing the only real threat.
However, this year, March were determined to show the form that has made their cars almost unbeatable in North American and South African Atlantic racing. The works team took out a Formula Two chassis, which was raced en route in the Macau Grand Prix by Alan Jones. The Australian had problems with broken spark plugs in that race, but had claimed pole position and shattered the lap record in his recovery through the field after a pit stop. The Macau race was won by Ricardo Patrese’s Chevron.
In spite of his successful Formula Two debut in Argentina last November with March, Fabi arrived in New Zealand virtually unknown. His career began in international slalom ski racing, and he represented Italy in that sport before he took up karting. During two seasons of 100 c.c. kart racing he again represented his country, until, in 1977, he took up single-seater racing. His first year was spent racing an Osella in Italy’s Formula Ford 2000 category and he won the championship outright.
Last year he campaigned a March in Formula Three, finishing fourth in both the European and Italian championships after winning three races in each series. In Argentina at the end of the season his chance with a works March-BMW saw him finish a fine second to Marc Surer at Mendoza.
The quietly-spoken Fabi proved a hard rival for the experienced Perkins in New Zealand. Also ranged against the youngster, and also in Marches, were Brett Riley, the expatriate Kiwi who now leads the Unipart Formula Three team in Britain; leading American Atlantic driver Jeff Wood and the Swede Eje Elgh who raced an Opert Chevron in Formula Two last year. Opert had entered two Chevrons in the New Zealand series; however, the cars arrived but the American and his drivers didn’t so Chevron hopes lay with local man Steve Millen, who had Chris Amon helping him with his Chevron B42. The leading Ralt runners in the series were the Australian John Smith and Aucklander Dave McMillan. The loss of the series sponsor and the non-appearance of Opert’s men meant the entry was restricted to about 15 cars. A further blow to the promoters was a testing crash before the second race at Pukekohe which put the promising Australian driver Andrew Miedecke in hospital with two broken legs, and left his Galloway chassis badly damaged.
Fabi quickly established himself as the man to beat and Perkins assumed the role of challenger at the three North Island races. However, after winning both races at Bay Park Tauranqa, on New Year’s Eve, both races at the New Zealand Grand Prix at Auckland’s Pukekohe circuit and then both races at Manfeild, Palmerston North, on consecutive weekends, the Italian was looking invincible.
It wasn’t until the two South Island races, at Teretonga, in Invercargill, and the airfield Wigram track in Christchurch, that the balance changed. The unusual scoring system, which gave points to the top ten finishers on the basis of 20-18-16-etc., meant that consistency, rather than winning, was important. As March found at Teretonga, failure to finish a race was a heavy penalty.
A fuel system problem sidelined Fabi in the first race and in the second the Italian had a coming together with Perkins which dislodged the nose section of the works March. A pit stop to have it changed dropped Fabi to seventh. Perkins’ March won both these races with Riley second. So, incredibly, the teams went into the two final races with Fabi leading Riley by a mere four points.
If Fabi had failed to finish either of those two Wigram races, the Pacific title would have gone to Riley who had been notching up consistent placings, albeit usually behind Perkins! A one minute penalty for a jumped start at Manfeild had already ended Perkins’ own chances in this sudden death play off.
At Wigram, Fabi was beaten to pole position for the only time in the series by McMillan’s Ralt, the local man suddenly finding form at the very fast airfield circuit. And, in the two Christchurch races, McMillan outran everyone. Although Fabi caught and passed the Ralt briefly in the first race, the March was slowed by overheating and had to settle for second place with Perkins and Riley in pursuit.
The championship rested on the final race and in the early laps McMillan led from Perkins, Fabi and Riley. The outcome wasn’t settled until Perkins and Fabi had another clash, only this time it was Perkins who lost the nose of his car, leaving Teo Fabi to finish second to McMillan again.
Riley’s March 778 was third and that was good enough to ensure him runner-up spot in the championship, only two points behind Fabi! Perkins, who had been knocked out of contention right at the start of the series by a first corner crash, salvaged third overall while McMillan’s late bid meant he shared fourth overall with the disappointing Elgh. The Swede was never in contention and his results were a third, a fourth, a fifth and five sixths. Elgh and Riley were the only drivers to finish all ten races. John Smith’s Ralt was sixth ahead of a dejected Jeff Wood and Millen, who had also had an unhappy series with the Chevron.
The vagaries of the scoring system ensured a thrilling climax to a championship which proved reasonably successful. Fabi’s Hart-engined March had reasserted the English manufacturers as the undisputed masters of the formula and the brief season “Down Under” provided Italy’s talented newcomer with some much needed experience in his short yet impressive career. – M. T.