March 701 on track: the F1 winner designed in ten weeks

The March 701 tends not to be regarded as a Formula 1 classic, but for a newcomer's first effort it achieved a great deal - and in short time, too

Front view of March 701 on track at Donington Park

Stuart Collins

How difficult is it to win in Formula 1? Ask Toyota. For the eight seasons and 140 races that the world’s largest car company contested between 2002 and 2009, not once did it manage to place a driver on the top step of the podium.

I mention this only because it puts the achievements of the car you see here into some kind of perspective. It’s a March 701, its name denoting the year and formula in which it ran. When March made its F1 debut, at Kyalami in March 1970, Jackie Stewart put his Tyrrell-run car on pole and led for the first quarter of the race until his Dunlops started to wilt in the South African heat, letting Jack Brabham‘s Goodyear-shod BT33 and then Denny Hulme‘s McLaren M14A through before the flag. Still, it was a podium for a brand new constructor.

A fortnight later at the Race of Champions, the same car and driver took pole and scored March‘s first F1 victory. Stewart could only manage the front row at Jarama for the Spanish GP, but won the race and lapped the entire field in the process. Its next race was the Silverstone International Trophy, but while JYS won one of the two heats, overall victory went to Chris Amon in another 701. Two more Grands Prix followed, at Monaco and Spa; it would be hard to imagine two circuits more different in character, but Stewart’s 701 made no distinction. He claimed pole in each, although in both races his DFV let him down.

Jackie Stewart leads the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix

Stewart in Spain

Grand Prix Photo

And that was that. The March, chassis number 701-2, retired. In two months it had done six races, scored four poles, two wins, a second and a third. After Spa the car was returned to Tyrrell’s base at Ockham in Surrey and sat in the workshop until it was sold to Eoin Young in 1977. It then found its way to the York Motor Museum in Perth, Western Australia. Thirty years later it was repatriated by Andrew Smith and, after two painstaking years of what’s best described as preservation rather than restoration by WDK Engineering, it was raced again at last year’s Monaco Historic Grand Prix. Smith put the car on pole and was leading by 45 seconds when he nudged a barrier, burst two tyres, crept back to the pits, changed the wheels — and still finished third.

Smith believes he was only the second person to drive the car and, after he let his Ecurie Ecosse team-mate Joe Twyman do a few laps, that makes me the fourth. Donington Park is cold but dry, 701-2 looking and sounding like it means business. The car is as original as it can safely be: the DFV had to be replaced, because the one used at Spa blew itself to bits (though its cam covers have been retained), and you’d not want to race on the original wishbones today, even though Smith still has them. Otherwise everything — the bodywork, tub, wings, gearbox and uprights — are the only ones it has ever had.

Andrew Frankel drives March 701 at Donington Park

Frankel at Donington

Stuart Collins

“We were really quite lucky,” says the unmistakable voice of Max Mosley, the man who provides the ‘M’ in March and found the money to make the 701 happen. “The general view was that no one would start a venture like ours without a huge amount of money. One journalist speculated we must have had about £500,000 to play with. In Fl terms that’s like having a budget of £500 million today. I didn’t start these rumours but nor did I think it was really my place to set them straight. It meant suppliers were very relaxed about getting their bills paid because they thought we were sitting on a huge pile of cash…”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The four founders — Mosley, Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and Robin Herd — stumped up £2500 each, but even with a derisory budget of £113,000 for the first season that left a mountain to climb. “In September 1969 we had 10-20 people working in one unit,” Mosley says. “We had, I think, one metal bending machine and a lathe. That was it. But they were outstanding people.”

The source of the next tranche of cash was surprising. “Porsche gave us £30,000 to provide a seat for Jo Siffert. He was about to do a deal with Ferrari that would cover both sports cars and F1. To keep him in its sports cars, Porsche had to put him in somebody else’s F1 team.”

The bulk of the remaining money came simply from selling cars: the works kept two but sold three to Tyrrell initially for £6000 each minus engine and gearbox, which Ford’s Walter Hayes then told Mosley to raise to £9000 and ‘not worry’ about the difference. The Blue Oval would cover that. Mosley remains convinced to this day that March wouldn’t have survived its first season without those extra funds. “Staying with Matra meant using its new V12, which Ken rightly refused to do,” Stewart says. “He’d tried to buy cars from Lotus and Brabham, but both refused, I guess because they didn’t want to risk being beaten by one of their own cars. So March was really the only way to go.”

Max Mosley with Robin Herd

Mosley and Herd in 1971

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Other customers included Andy Granatelli, who bought one for newly crowned Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti, and Colin Crabbe’s Antique Automobiles team, for whom a talented young Swede called Ronnie Peterson would make his F1 debut.

“The 701 was a simple car,” says Robin Herd. “It had to be, really, because we had neither money nor time. It seems unthinkable now, but in November ’69 we had nothing but a few sketches. Then Max goes and announces to the world’s press that we’re going to launch the team at Silverstone in February. We had 10 weeks to design and build a Formula 1 car. All hell broke loose. I lost a stone and a half, but on that cloudless day we had two cars, a red one for Amon and a blue one for Stewart.”

Mosley takes up the reins. “I think most people thought we’d have one car parked there. We turned up with two and both ran. Then we announced we’d sold another to Granatelli: that really got people’s attention.”

Andrew Frankel briefed on March 701 cockpitThe simplicity of the 701 is easy to see. It had a monocoque tub to which a DFV was bolted as a fully stressed member, but by 1970 so too did most cars on the grid. Suspension was by wishbones, brakes outboard at every corner. Those inverted aerofoil sidepods are interesting, though: Peter Wright was in charge of the 701’s bodywork and was clearly trying new ways to exploit airflow. “We didn’t have the money or time to do what we wanted with the suspension or bodywork,” Herd says. “It could have been the first ground-effect F1 car.” Instead Wright would need to wait until he was at Lotus at the other end of the decade before he could perfect the technique.

Simple it might have been, but the 701 was quick. Walking down the pitlane at Kyalami, Mosley could hardly believe his eyes. “I was there with Robin and saw our cars first and second on the grid. I was 29 years old and on top of the world.”

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The car had flaws, though, and Stewart for one was not shy about saying so. “I have massive respect for Robin,” he says, “and the car he built was robust and clearly very fast, but it was not easy. In fact I’d say it was the most difficult F1 car I drove. The H16 BRM had all sorts of issues but was very manageable compared with the March. On jounce and rebound the 701’s responses were incredibly fragile. I think Chris and I were able to go quickly because we were probably the two smoothest drivers around at the time, so therefore did least to upset it. But I had to stretch my personal elastic much farther than I cared to get the lap times. The Tyrrell was very straightforward, even with its short wheelbase. And as for the Matra — I could have slept in that and still been competitive.”

The problem was weight distribution. Herd: “We had this big, heavy radiator at the front, which I balanced by putting the big, heavy oil tank at the back. But having these masses at either end gave a high polar moment of inertia that made it unpleasant to drive, although the problem was mainly in slower corners.”

Herd admits there was a more fundamental issue, too: “Because the car was so simple, it didn’t leave much room for development. While our rivals got quicker throughout the season, we stood still.”

If you look at 701-2 in close detail, you’ll see all sorts of unique Tyrrell modifications, including adjustable front aerofoils, a steering damper and different pick-up points for the rear suspension.

Static March 701 at Donington Park

The engine is warm now. It’s a strong DFV built to modern regulations, if not to the ultimate specification, but it still gives better than 500bhp at a very safe 10,500rpm, compared to the 430bhp it would have had when new. In a car weighing little more than half a tonne I am under no illusions about what is about to be unleashed.

I’d feared the cockpit would be so small as to deny me access, but the only real problem is that the top of the surround is too narrow to accommodate my shoulders. Happily this can be detached with the loss of only the headrest and some purity of line. As a car designed mainly for customers, I guess Herd knew it had to be able to take a wide range of physiques.

Clearly no efforts have been made to vary the driving environment from the norm of the day. A simple central tacho is flanked by combination dials providing the temperatures of water and oil, plus oil and fuel pressures. Everything is in slightly the wrong place — the gearlever too far back, the elbow slots cut into the body sides too far forward, which says nothing about Herd’s interior design and everything about the difference in forearm length between Jackie and I.

Andrew Frankel climbs into March 701

Frankel climbs in

Stuart Collins

The DFV blasts into life. There’s never much theatre with such motors: no little coughs, splutters, bangs or rasps to build expectation before f treating you to the full choral magnificence of its voice. This is a DFV, the Mike Tyson of racing engines: not nice, not pretty, but capable of hitting harder than anything else of its era.

That said, a modern DFV is far easier to manage than those of 10 or 20 years ago, which could be made to give more than 500bhp but only with that power concentrated into a tiny band somewhere between 8500-11,500rpm. They don’t exactly run like road car engines even now, this one requiring a steady foot and 3000rpm just to maintain an uneven idle, but it’s tractable enough to pull out of the pits and onto the track without making you look like the out-of-depth amateur you really are. Donington Park’s wide open spaces, smooth surface, quick corners and long straights are the perfect place for this.

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I’d expected the steering to be finger-tip light but it’s not; even gently easing my way into the experience the car feels brutish, physical and intimidating. The tyres have been in warmers, so at least there’s grip on this not-quite-freezing day, but if I don’t get my foot down and start to make the car work, it won’t last long.

So I do exactly that: on the long straight after Coppice, I press the throttle as far as it will go. And lift. It wasn’t something I’d planned in advance, nor even something I intended at the time it happened: it was an instinctive, involuntary reaction to a force which some subconscious, primitive part of my brain saw as a clear threat to my ongoing wellbeing. The acceleration felt like standing still while all the world you could see was pulled towards you.

But it is amazing how quickly you adapt even to forces as alien as this. Next time around I could keep my foot there and hurtle through space, time and gears until 10,000rpm showed in top, probably 170mph or more, and still leave the braking margin of a true coward.

Ford DFV engine in March 701

In fact it is above 100mph or so that the March is at its most explosively extraordinary. Even by the standards of other DFV-powered F1 cars I’ve driven, it gathers momentum at a surreal rate. You might remember that last year I drove a Lotus 92 from the other end of the DFV’s long and illustrious career. But while the 92 clearly started to slow above 150mph, the 701 charges madly on. The reason is simple: it has no drag. Smith reckons that even its considerable rear wing is so far forward and so compromised by the position of the driver’s head that it makes little or no difference.

To test my theory I do an impromptu back to back with a Mercedes-Benz SLS GT3 race car that happens to be circulating at the same time. It’s 42 years younger than the March, has an engine of more than double the capacity, with more power and a doubtless preposterous torque advantage. It thunders out of Coppice spitting fire only for the little old March to drive past as if it were a diesel-powered E-class.

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The brakes, by the way, are not nice. The pedal travel is long and soft, which not only fails to reassure when you most need reassuring but also makes crucial heel and toe downshifts both difficult and painful. It slows well enough, but shows its age compared with modern machinery that will let you hit the pedal as hard as your thigh will allow from top speed all the way to the turn-in point.

And what of that Wild West handling? I couldn’t find it and, more relevantly, neither can Smith, who drives as hard as I’ve seen someone handle an historic F1 car. The 701 clearly likes to understeer, but as long as you’re prepared to take charge and are not shy about correcting any loss of grip at the front, it feels composed and even quite faithful, especially in quicker curves where you need it most.

I was surprised by how firm its springs are: of course it feels soft by modern standards, but compared with other 3-litre F1 cars of a similar vintage (those that didn’t need much spring rate because they had no downforce), it maintains its ride height remarkably well. But I expect the real difference is partly down to JYS driving on an entirely different level to even its current owner, and of course the immense variance between a 1970 treaded Dunlop and a 2012 Avon slick.

Jackie Stewart in March 701 at 1970 Spanish GP

Stewart leads the way in Jarama

Jackie Stewart tests March 701 at Brands Hatch in 1970

Stewart tests the car ahead of Kyalami

The light of the 701 burned brightly, but briefly. Although Herd maintains that a little reliability might have made the 701 a title winner in Stewart’s hands, the car having taken pole in three of its first four World Championship races and won the other, there were no more firsts in qualifying or racing for the rest of that year. Lotus finally started to extract the potential of the 72 while Ken Tyrrell, who had always viewed the 701 as a stop-gap while he built his own car, immediately put his top driver in the Tyrrell-Ford 001 as soon as it was ready, before the season’s end. The Scuderia woke up too, scoring a hat trick of late victories with its 312B.

What Herd says about the car lacking development potential is entirely true, but there was something else going on, too, and Mosley doesn’t hesitate to put his finger on it.

“At Kyalami I really thought we’d done it,” he says, “but I was too young to realise it was only going to get harder from there. Realistically we were lucky. We caught F1 when it was half-asleep. At some races in 1969 you’d only get 13 cars on the grid. And then we came along and made the F1 establishment look stupid. We were, if you like, the most enormous wake-up call and stung a lot of very talented people like Colin [Chapman] into action. It was always going to be hard after that.”

Quite so. But you make a lot of your luck, and the fact is that four young men, penniless in F1 terms, came together and in 10 weeks designed, built and delivered a Grand Prix car good enough for a talent like Stewart’s to score pole in its first World Championship race and lap the field en route to victory in its second. Formula 1 has always provided a rich seam of stories but few that are more extraordinary or less widely acknowledged than this.

Our thanks to Andrew Smith, WDK Motorsport, Donington Park and Christopher Tate for their help with this feature.

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