After three rounds in what looks like being a tough year of Formula Two, there have been three different winners, in three different makes of car and using three different types of engine. The European championship was predictably being led by the little Frenchman Rene Arnoux in his Martini Renault but a number of very promising young newcomers to the FIA championship have emerged. These drivers, the American Eddie Cheever in his Ralt-Hart; the 1976 European Formula Three champion, the Italian Riccardo Patrese in his Chevron-BMW; and Bruno Giacomelli, the Italian who finished runner-up to Keegan in last year’s British Formula Three series and who this year is driving a March-Hart, had all threatened Arnoux’s superiority. Cheever, Patrese and Giacomelli all look set to win races in 1977, indeed both Cheever and Patrese have already led events, while several other names also stand out as exciting prospects, particularly Arnoux’s team-mate Didier Pironi in the second Martini-Renault and the high-flying Finn, the spectacular Keijo Rosberg in his Opert Chevron-Hart.
After the initial rounds, two in Britain at Silverstone and Thruxton, and the third at Hockenheim in Germany; Arnoux led the championship with 18 pts. Britain’s Brian Henton, driving Brian Lewis’ Boxer-Hart, had slipped into second place with 13 pts. after a fine win at Thruxton, the Italian Alberto Colombo, having scored in all three races, was third on 7 pts. Tied on 6 pts. and equal fourth were Cheever, Patrese and Britain’s Ray Mallock. There are 14 races in the 1977 championship building up what could be a tense finale at the Donington circuit at the end of October. In the second year in which all-out 2-litre racing engines have been allowed to contest the series, Formula Two looks set for some close, hard racing.
The engine battle this year looks to be it three-cornered dispute between the production-based German BMW engine, the Renault Gordini V6 and the all-alloy four-cylinder racing engine built at Harlow in Essex by Brian Hart. Ferrari have fielded several works V6 engines but they haven’t proved competitive in the early rounds. On the chassis front the leading constructors have been Martini, March, Chevron and Ralt while Brian Lewis’ British-built Boxer, a year-old chassis designed by John Clarke, has upset the established manufacturers with that fine Thruxton win.
The season began early in March, too early many people thought because cars and engines weren’t ready. The BRDC had replaced their traditional non-championship Formula One International Trophy with the opening round of the European series after FICA decreed that one non-championship race a year in Britain was all there would he Silverstone has the Grand Prix, and therefore Brands Hatch got the other Formula One date for the Race of Champions. The Daily Express were still backing the 29th International Trophy meeting and it marked the beginning of both the European racing season and the BRDC’s Golden Jubilee year.
It was a rush to get the cars ready for such an early beginning to the season but a representative entry arrived for the 47-lap race at the fast airfield circuit. Practice saw Michel Leclere on pole position in one of the spaceframe French chassis which he, and 1976 Champion Jean-Pierre Jabouille, raced last year. Cheever’s Ralt was on the outside of the front row and then came the Belgian Patrick Ness who was in the single works March. The Bicester team are running a car based on their 77B Atlantic chassis as it development exercise and, fitted with a factory BMW engine, the little 772P is proving very fast. Mallock was fourth quickest in the new Chevron-Hart that he is racing for Creighton Brown’s Ardmore team but several of the other fancied runners, notably Arnoux, were were well down after troubles in practice.
The racing got off to a dramatic start when Cheever confused the starting procedure and left the grid thinking there was another warm-up lap. He was at the other end of the pits before he realised his mistake but it was too late. Although he waited Its the others to catch him up, with a minute penalty for jumping the start, he was out of contention. It turned into a race of attrition. Leclere went out with a broken engine and Nest, having his first Formula Two drive, saw his chance of victory disappear when a rear wheel worked loose and sent him lurching sideways in the chicane. Until has the March had been well in front. After a pit stop Neve recovered to finish third but the race had gone to Arnoux. The Frcnchman had slowly worked his way up through the field from it fourth row start and, in spite of troubles with the fuel system on Tico Martini’s latest MK22 chassis, had snatched a lucky win. Mallock drove steadily into second place, and behind an unhappy Neve came the Brazilian Ingo Hoffman, in his Ralt-BMW, Colombo’s March and Patrese’s Chevron. The only compensation for Neve was fastest lap at a record 1 min. 21.85 sec. (128.96 m.p.h.). This equalled Leclere’s pole time and showed the potential of the March.
Thruxton, five weeks later, saw the teams a lot more organised and the 55-lap race at the Hampshire circuit developed into a bitter argument for the lead. Four cars took turns at setting the pace and there was some good dicing all the way down the field. Practice was dominated by the works March which had passed into the hands of Alex Ribeiro. The Brazilian was half a second quicker than Henton while Cheever was again on the outside of the front row. Giacomelli and Leclere were on the second row and on the third were Patrese, Pironi and Hoffmann
From the start Ribeiro leapt into the lead, but his frantic pace in the opening laps soon took its all on his tyres and Cheever came through to head the bunch. He was in control for most of the race until a combination of troublesome back-markers and a slowly deflating tyre, allowed the rest to haul him in. Again there was a group running nose-to-tail. Patrese took over the lead from Cheever until his fiery driving wore a front tyre so much that it blew out under braking for the chicane. That is when Henton came to the front. Cheever had been rammed from behind by Leclere when the Frenchman lost his brakes, and had caused both cars to spin at the Thruxton complex. However, in the sort-out at the finish it was Henton from Cheever, Ribiero, Colombo and Patrese. Leclere and Hoffmann didn’t finish and poor Rene Arnoux hardly started. His Martini tangled with another car on the grid, flipped high on its back wheels and crashed back down.
Henton’s win was a major breakthrough for British Formula Two interests and the first victory for a British driver in Formula Two since Roger Williamson won the Monza Lottery in Tom Wheatcroft’s March-BMW in 1973. It was also the first Formula Two win for Brian Hart’s own 420R engine. Henton set fastest lap in the race too, a new outright Thruxton record of 1 min. 10.67 sec. (120.02 m.p.h.). Before Thruxton the organisers of the traditional Easter Monday race had been involved in a running battle with the entrants over sponsorship. The dub wanted the teams to reduce the amount of advertising on cars so that the BBC would televise the race and thereby ensure the BARC of getting a sponsor. As it turned out the teams refused but the backers of the meeting, the Car Radio Division of Philips Electrical, carried on as sponsors and the BBC filmed three of the supporting events. The BARC were satisfied in the end, although not quite to happy about the twenty-five per cent increase in travel money that the CSI insisted organisers pay out at each Formula Two race this year. Thruxton was the most expensive meeting ever organised by the BARC and the prize fund alone was more than £40,000. The crowd at the meeting was about 15,000.
Five days later at Hockenheim the crowd had swelled to nearly 100,000 for a well-promoted meeting that was to have ranged local heroes Hans Stuck and Jochen Mass against each other. However, as it turned out, Stuck who was running alongside Cheever and Hoffmann in the Project Four Ralt team, was in difficulties all weekend. He never had a chance to join the confrontation and the two-part race became a Mass benefit. The McLaren F1 driver was in the works March 772P and the car realised fully the potential it had shown in Britain.
As at Thruxton the March-BMW was half a second quicker than the opposition and Mass won both 20-lap heats. This time it was Giacomelli second quickest and the Italian again showed well, only to be frustrated for the third time by engine problems. In the first heat his March, which is being run by the semi-works AFMP Euro racing team based in Silverstone village, ran third behind Mass and Arnoux. Patrese’s Chevron was fourth, the Austrian Harald Ertl mat fifth in his Chevron-BMW and Henton was a good sixth. The best Stuck’s troubled Ralt could manage was seventh and Jacques Laffite in an Opert Chevron was down in a lowly tenth.
The second heat again went to Mass from Patrese and Amoux while Cheever, who had dropped out of the leading bunch with a broken driveshaft in the first heat, charged through from the back of the grid to take a superb fourth place. Poor Giacomelli had an engine fail just as he was challenging Arnoux so he was right out of the results.
The overall positions saw Mass winning from Amoux and, because Mass is a graded driver, that meant the Frenchman took maxirnum points for the second time. Patrese was third overall, the Italian Alessandro Pesenti-Rossi was fourth and Henton ran fifth in spite of finishing only tenth in the second part. Stuck retired in the second heat with a persistent loss of fuel pressure and Laffite was seventh, good enough to give the 1975 Formula Two champion seventh overall – M.T.