Formula Two Review
JUST AS Hanschen Stuck dominated the two opening rounds of the European Formula Two Championship last season, Frenchman Jacques Laffite has emerged as the early season pacesetter this year. The 31-year-old Parisian had a rather lucky win in the opening race at Portugal’s Estoril Autodrome on March 9th but was consistently the fastest throughout the BARC-organised Easter Monday meeting at Thruxton, and won comfortably when the expected March challenge from Stuck, Ronnie Peterson and Vittorio Brambilla faded.
Laffite, a former French Formula Three champion, is competing in his second season of Formula Two having raced last year with a March-BMW which had been modified by French constructor Tico Martini. During the 1974 season Laffite was the biggest threat to the cars entered by the works March team for Depailler and Stuck, and after a good win at the Salzburgring in mid-season he came close to toppling the Bicester team. By the end of the season he had dropped to third place in the Championship behind the works team but he had been easily the best of the many privateers.
During the winter Martini has built up his own Formula Two car at his workshop at Magny Cours. It is designated his Mk. 16 and is the first monocoque chassis Martini has attempted. Although very similar to last year’s March 742 design the newcomer is smaller than the latest March 752 and looks very neat. Unlike the works cars it retains a front radiator and uses a Schnitzer-prepared BMW engine.
Laffite has declared his determination to win the 15-round Championship this season and has decided he will stand down from his drives in Frank Williams’ Formula One car at three Grands Prix which clash with Formula Two races. At Estoril the Martini proved to be quick immediately, even though it had only been briefly tested, and after practice Laffite was second fastest.
The race was marred by a shower of rain shortly before the start which left the track damp and Consequently most cars started the race on wet tyres. By half-distance the surface had begun to dry out and within a few laps the tyres were overheating and chunking. All of the fastest cars were forced to stop to change onto slicks while two little-known Swiss drivers, Loris Kessel and Jo Vonlanthen, carried on. Their Marches were using older and harder compound wet tyres and, because they had been running much slower, their tyres were likely to last the distance. Several of the fastest cars struck trouble after the enforced pit stop and Laffite was the only one left to gather in the two Swiss drivers. He was able to catch and pass Vonlanthen but KesSel had pulled further ahead and looked set to pull off one of the biggest upsets in European racing for years, when his gearbox failed.
Laffite carried on to win with Vonlanthen staggering across the line second, while strung out behind were a gaggle of young Italians. It was a mixed-up start to the season and the meeting ended in total confusion, with several teams disputing the results. Sixteen cars contested the Portuguese race at the start of March and by the end of the
month the numbers had swelled to 30 for the Thruxton race, which was the first Formula Two meeting in Britain for two years. Reflecting the successful partnership between March and BMW which has won the Championship for the last two seasons, 22 of the cars at Thruxton were built by March and of those 17 were Robin Herd’s latest, wide-bodied 752 design.
Laffite was fastest in both practice sessions and once again all of his main opposition were delayed or eliminated. He won the first 30-lap heat even though the clutch broke soon after the start and settled for a safe third in the second heat.
A crash at the chicane during the first heat, caused by a very slow back-marker spinning his Formula Atlantic Chevron, ended the race for Ronnie Peterson. The Swede was competing in a March-BMW entered by former Rondel Racing Director Ron Dennis, and after his runaway win in the 1972 Thruxton race was expected to show the way again. However the car was new and untested and after qualifying only seventh fastest Peterson was struggling to overcome obvious handling problems. He spun in the early stages of the race and was making his way back up through the field when he came across the stalled Chevron in the chicane. In a flash Peterson and five others had piled helplessly into each other and it was only prompt action by the marshals that sorted out the chaos. One driver suffered a broken arm and at least four cars were seriously damaged.
Brambilla was driving Dennis’ second car and the Italian drove through strongly from near the back of the grid to win the second heat in spite of a wild spin. In the first heat he was delayed when the ignition box worked loose and in practice he had been second fastest tO Laffite, the March Grand l’rix driver also using a Joseph Schnitzer-prepared BMW engine. The big surprise at Thruxton was the performance of the Ford-engined cars of Brian Henton and American Ted Wentz. Henton’s Brian Hart-engined March qualified third fastest (the fastest three were all inside the outright record and established the first
120-m.p.h. lap at the Hampshire circuit) and finished second to Laffite in the first heat, while Wentz was fifth fastest in his Cosworthengined Lola T360 and ran a close third. Unfortunately Henton was sidelined by a tyre failure in the second heat and Wentz, who was having his first race in Formula Two, was forced out with a holed radiator after taking to the grass to avoid Brambilla’s spin.
The works March team have continued backing from Elf Oil this year and their two drivers are Patrick Tambay and Michel Leclere, who both had their first seasons in Formula Two during 1974 driving spaceframe Alpines. They have quite a reputation to uphold for the March team and are likely to have their work cut out this year.
Leclere was on pole position at Estoril and after leading for some time retired with engine failure after his pit-stop for tyres. Tambay led for a time too but he quit when the brakes failed and he slid off through a catch fence. At Thruxton the two were overshadowed in practice but came through in the first heat to finish with Leclerc fourth and Tambay fifth. Leclerc got caught up in Brambilla’s spin in the second heat but Tambay drove a steady race to finish behind Brambilla and take second overall.
Stuck was run in a third works March at Thruxton but it was a disastrous weekend. He had mechanical problems right through practice and only did a few laps in the race before a tyre came off a rim. He will drive the car again in the Hockenheim and Nurburgring races but because of his Formula One grading is no longer eligible for the European Championship.
Apart from Laffite, the biggest threat to March could come from Jean-Pierre Jabouille who has built another new French car. It is a space-frame design which is a follow-up to the Alpine which Jabouille has driven for the last two seasons. A second car is to be run for Gerard Larrousse. At the first two races there were settling down problems; however, the car should be quick on fast circuits as it has a very narrow track. Jabouille finished fourth at Thruxton.
The Italians are again out in force, with Gabriele Serblin likely to be the quickest of the March line-up and young Alberto Colombo already showing some promise. Vincenzo Osella ran his new car for the first time at the end of 1974 and he is fielding two cars this season for Giorgio Francia and Duilio Truffo.
Of the many other March customers the best look like being Japanese driver Masami Kuwashima and the young Austrian Hans Binder who has former BRM Formula One driver Helmet Marko managing his team.
Chevron will not run a works car this season. There will be several of the Derek Bennett-designed Bolton cars in Formula Two though and among them will be two of the latest B29 chassis fitted with Chrysler Simca engines. Most Formula Two runners will continue to use the German BMW engines but after the power show by the Ford-engined cars at Thruxton there could be a swing to the British engines once again. In 1976 racing engines will be eligible for Formula Two and this will see a completely new look formula with the Renault V6, Brian Hart’s own fourcylinder engine and the possibility of new engines from Osella in Italy and a couple of Japanese manufacturers.—M.T.