G hits the spot

In 1972 March was struggling with its ambitious 721X, and Formula 1 rookie Niki Lauda was no fan. Enter the 721G – based on an F2 monocoque and built in just nine days

X stood for experimental, G for Guinness; same manufacturer, but, as you might have already guessed, radically different mindsets. X had its eye on the midterm future, was – or rather wasn’t, as it turned out – the hoped-for giant leap; G was a nine-day wonder, a Plan B, the backwards step required to go forwards – or, as it turned out, at least hold your line. X made perfect theoretical sense but was too complicated; G was simple, practical and realistic.

March, down to two heads by 1972, its third full season, was still leading a double life. To the outside world it was STP slick and sophisticated, serene and stable. But internally, beneath the Oxford/Concorde/Gray’s Inn sheen provided by Robin Herd and Max Mosley – fellow co-founders Graham Coaker and Alan Rees had departed by now – no amount of
graft could stop the drift. Production was booming – in 1972 March built more than 80 racing cars, including 12 Formula 1s across three different models – yet financial meltdown appeared imminent. Indeed, but for 23-year-old Niki Lauda’s ‘pay driver’ schillings March might not have made it through the previous winter. Why? Despite his chat and charm, Max’s sponsorship deals were surprisingly soft. Far from being the bottomless money pit people thought, STP, March’s main backer, received a lot of exposure for very little expenditure. “In fact I got the first batch of money out of them – £10,000 for Chris Amon [for 1970],” says Herd, “by calling [STP company boss] Andy Granatelli out of a meeting and shaking his hand in the corridor of a New York hotel. It was a ridiculously small amount.”

There was a concomitant F1 problem with this shortfall. More established, financially secure, i.e. hard-nosed, teams like Colin Chapman’s Lotus and Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham, formerly fecund hothouses of the junior formulas, were about to divest themselves of such distractions in order to concentrate on the burgeoning powerhouse of F1. March, however, couldn’t afford to do so. Building racing cars was its bread and butter – but 20 F2s, F3s and Formula Bs, one F5000, four Formula Atlantics and six Formula Fords left it spread too thinly.

Formula 1 in truth was March’s distraction. F2 was soon (1973) to provide it with a financial bulwark, while its Indycar successes of the early 1980s would make it a go-getting model of Thatcherite Britain (on April 6 1987 it became the first such company to go public). Its F1 ambitions were the collateral on both occasions, however.

“At Monaco in 1972 Jochen Neerpasch [boss of BMW’s new M division] took Max and I to dinner and told us that he would like us to become the works BMW team in the European F2 championship,” says Herd. “This would give us the stability we badly needed, and thus that programme became our priority for 1973. F1 had never made commercial sense; we were only in it because we loved it.”

Herd’s first F1 March, 701 – 10 weeks from drawing board to high-profile Silverstone shakedown with reigning World Champion Jackie Stewart and former Ferrari number one Amon – had been necessarily simple. It proved remarkably effective initially – pole for its first GP, victorious at its second – but faded thereafter. The next season’s 711, with its longer wheelbase, Frank Costin-inspired low-drag body and future-pointing raised front wing, took the razor-sharp Ronnie Peterson to four second places and the runner-up slot in the drivers’ points race; March finished third in the constructors’ standings. Looking to build on this the still ideologically buoyant March took a fashionably Chapmanesque view of 1972: it was (only!) a technological breakthrough away from winning the World Championship.

Nine years previously ATS, founded by a number of cocky renegades (from Ferrari) and boosted by the presence of a World Champion (Phil Hill) – sound familiar? – was going to show Enzo how F1 should be done. However, its first car, unlike 701, was a total disaster. Only the placement of its ratios ahead of, rather than hanging out behind, the crown-wheel and pinion, and thus centralising mass within the wheelbase, made any sense.

March had hoped its partial use of Alfa Romeo’s sports car V8 in F1 during 1971 would lead to a prosperous association with the manufacturer. It didn’t. Above-its-weight Cosworth DFV punch knocked that idea flat on its arse. Perhaps Alfa’s transmission held the key. Its Tipo 33/3 sports-racer, one of which Peterson, co-driven by fellow March F1 racer Andrea de Adamich, used to win the 1971 Watkins Glen Six Hours, featured the engine/gearbox/diff layout Herd desired. March designed a new casing, Alfa provided the internals and Ronnie wrestled with the result: 721X.

The idea’s germ was to reduce the polar moment of inertia, the dumb-bell effect of having weight at the extremities.

“The 701 was a fast car but had a short wheelbase and was difficult to drive,” says Herd. “711 had a longer wheelbase, reducing the polar moment of inertia, and Ronnie always told me it was the easiest F1 car he ever drove. So I decided to go the whole hog in 1972: ultra-low moment of inertia.” X, with its Alfa drivetrain, was meant to change direction with greater efficacy. Yes, it might be twitchier, but surely reactive Ronnie would catch it and hurl it down the road. It didn’t work like that. It understeered for Britain.

Herd: “The change in weight distribution was partly to blame. But we could’ve got around that. What really screwed us was that Alfa gearbox. We’d heard that its change wasn’t so hot, which is why I got Ronnie that drive at Watkins Glen. Bless him, he came back and said it was fine, lovely, fantastic. He’d won, of course, so I shouldn’t have listened to him. It wasn’t fine, lovely or fantastic; it was slow and baulky. Plus we only had one full set of ratios. Niki [Lauda] was a lovely bloke, good company and all that, but it wasn’t easy convincing him that the ratios Ronnie had discarded were precisely the ones he needed. But the biggest problem was the diff. It was tiny and therefore permanently locked. Niki has since said he gave up on March when he saw me pouring STP into the diff. But all I was trying to do, and he accepts this now, was try to loosen it up.

“Ronnie and I had built ourselves up into this untouchable team, and we were blind to the 721X’s problems. Niki wasn’t. He sussed it straight away. He came in after two or three laps, said it was bloody rubbish and went off in a huff. And he was right. It was, however, inconvenient to accept that. Niki was very, very bright, very strong-minded, but, unlike Ronnie, who looked like a racing driver, Niki looked like a little rat, with that buck-toothed smile. He was a ‘rentadriver’. He was good, I knew that, but I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to him.”

However, after the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles in early June, even Herd had to admit defeat: “We didn’t have the money to do X properly. Money buys the right equipment, the right people and, most importantly, the time. We didn’t have time. It would have taken an age to design and build a new diff, and it was already the middle of the season and people were starting to get edgy. It was easier, faster and cheaper to build a completely different car.”

This decision marked the end of an era. Herd would never again tackle F1 in a blue-sky fashion. The red bills – and the ‘distractions’ – would see to that.

“I should never have left McLaren [at the end of 1967],” he says. “Looking back that represented my last real chance to be truly competitive in F1. McLaren was better-funded than March, and more focused.”

Fortunately, however, his two-year spell there had also exposed Herd to the occasional whoosh-bonk ethic of Bruce McLaren – as in whoosh, there’s your chassis, engine and gearbox; bonk, there’s your racing car. This approach was too simplistic, of course, but, as had the ATS, even it had its merit.

When Mike Beuttler, a gentleman racer funded by a consortium of City stockbroker friends, ordered an F1 car, March sold him, albeit “probably” on a sale-or-return basis, a whoosh-bonk: nine days from conception to completion. It was codenamed G, short for Guinness, short for Guinness Book of Records, where its speedy construction surely deserved it a mention. (Jonathan Guinness was also an original March backer.)

One of Herd’s most important early March tasks had been to design an adaptable junior formulae monocoque that would stand the company in good stead for years to come. With the input of ace fabricator-mechanics Dewar Thomas and Roger Silman, he did a bloody good job of it: Peterson dominated the 1971 European F2 title in one, and it was still winning in that category in 1977. Further unexpected benefits stemmed from this thoroughness, too.

John Cannon, a UK-born Canadian, dropped an Oldsmobile V8 into the back of a 722 and plonked it (72A or 725) on pole at its first attempt, the Rothmans F5000 Championship race at Nivelles, the monocoque capably soaking up the extra stresses and strains, indeed benefiting from the increased stiffness provided by the V8 in place of its usual in-line fours. Hmm… F2 monocoque, increased tankage, DFV, Hewland ’box, F1 rear end – whoosh, bonk, an F1 car.

Beuttler failed to qualify at Jarama in Spain – his brand-new car was unready and suffered fuelling problems – but in torrential conditions at Monaco he did well to keep it on the road to finish 13th, two laps ahead of Lauda in the 721X, in despair and deep in debt.

Still Robin and Ronnie soldiered on with X – ZF in place of the original Weissmann diff, Hewland internals instead of Autodelta’s, normal 721 rear suspension fitted – but for the French GP at Clermont-Ferrand Peterson and Lauda, as well as Beuttler, had 721Gs. Ronnie qualified ninth, ran as high as third and finished fifth despite a broken rollbar. That’s better.
“G proved that simple is often best,” says Herd. “I was surprised it was that competitive. It was a big ask for the monocoque, but it was good and sturdy.” From now until its first withdrawal in 1977, March’s F1 cars would be F2-based: small, quick in a straight line, not always tough enough to push right to the bitter end, but potential winners in the right hands on the right track. Sadly, however, they could not repair the damage done by X.

Peterson, loyal to a fault but desperate to progress, had in France signed an option with Chapman: he would drive for Lotus in 1973, and with him would go March’s best chance to be an F1 force. And even that was a slim one. As for Lauda, an F2 winner for March in 1972, he seemed shot to F1 hell. Almost five seconds slower than Peterson in qualifying in France, only ‘Blocker’ Beuttler was slower. At the Nürburgring, over 20sec slower than Ronnie, Niki was at his wits’ end.

At Watkins Glen Peterson – in a car featuring a front bulkhead repaired after a practice shunt by using modified bits of a, ahem, purloined wrought-iron gate – charged from 26th to fourth, an inspirational performance that sent him on his way to the most successful chapter of his career. The uninspired Lauda, meanwhile, started 25th and finished 19th, aka last, 10 laps in arrears after a pitstop caused by fuel injection problems. His F1 career appeared to be over. Luckily for him BRM was otherwise persuaded – firstly by his money, then by his latent talent.

“The poor sod, we almost destroyed him. And Niki takes some destroying,” says Herd. “He was as quick as Ronnie. At the Rouen F2 race we had to slow him down and let Ronnie past. I don’t know why we did that. In F1, though, Niki gave up mentally that season. I understand why, he had every justification to do so, but if he’d got his arse in gear he could have been as successful as Ronnie in that car. He was better at set-up and should have used that strength, as he did in subsequent teams.

“For our part, to lose two such good drivers in one season was damned careless. I was wrong to do X when I did. It overstretched us. If we’d started the season with G I am sure we could have won a race. We might have won in Canada if Graham Hill hadn’t been such a pain in the arse.” Peterson, chasing Stewart’s leading Tyrrell 005, spent several frustrating laps trying to lap the veteran Englishman before an attempt to dive by saw them collide. Instead it was a young Englishman who would give G its best result – and Peterson who would deny it victory – 13 months later.

James Hunt, ‘The Shunt’ of F3 March yore, made his F1 World Championship debut at Monaco in 1973. The 25-year-old ran as high as sixth before his engine coughed its guts up. He was in the ex-Peterson 721G/3, reworked, as were all the 1972 Gs for ’73, to feature a narrower track, longer wheelbase and front rather than side rads. It was plain white and run by Alexander Hesketh’s enthusiastic team, which included designer Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, coaxed from March. Hunt followed Monaco with sixth in France, fourth and fastest lap in Britain, and third in Holland. But the best was yet to come. In America Hunt chased Peterson’s Lotus 72 from flag to flag, again setting fastest lap, without finding a way past that season’s quickest combo. Meanwhile, Herd, Jean-Pierre Jarier and BMW dominated that year’s F2 championship, a programme which made financial sense but which did not provide the buzz of F1.

“Hesketh was a good little group,” says Herd. “James was a fab driver; Harvey was a competent engineer, not an Adrian Newey, say, but extremely practical; and Nigel Stroud was an excellent chief mechanic. They were a focused one-car team that put together a good development programme [altered nosecone, sidepods, airbox and rear-suspension geometry]. They showed what the car was capable of.”

Was Hesketh’s the way in which a works March team could have been successful in F1?

“Yes, I think so,” says Herd. “I would have happily swapped places with Harvey. But I couldn’t have done that without causing the collapse of March. It wasn’t an option.”

X had marked the spot, but there were too many boxes to tick. G wasn’t the complete answer either, but it was a B-for-effort effort. And that, in March’s practical reality, would simply have to do.