The Year of Ground Effect
IT IS seldom that the lesser racing categories get a complete reshuffle. New cars tend to evolve from the previous year’s designs and, unlike Formula One, there never seems to be all that much technical innovation. However, it is different in 1979. The emergence of ground effect designs has completely changed the look of European Formula Two overnight. When the season got underway with the Marlboro/Daily Express International Trophy meeting, organised by the BRDC at Silverstone on March 25th, it was a totally revamped line-up of cars that appeared. A new generation of scaled down Grand Prix cars reflected the fresh approach being taken by the designers at March, Chevron, Ralt, Osella and Pilbeam. Slender monocoques, wide-track, in-board-mounted suspension and side pods with sliding skirts replaced the conventional chassis. Designers had taken a hard look at the year-old Formula One ground effect cars and there were some promising new designs.
Robin Herd at March was fielding a whole fleet of his works, and customer-run, 792 chassis; Chevron Cars at Bolton were introducing their new B48, which had been designed jointly by Tony Southgate and Paul Owens; and Ron Tauranac unveiled for the first time his all-new Ralt-RT2. From Turin, Enzo Osella’s little team had brought their new FA2/79 design and Englishman Mike Pilbeam was proudly displaying his attractive car, the MP42.
There was renewed confidence in the formula at Silverstone and, with so much change going on, it meant there was the prospect of one of the most wide open championships for some time. In recent years the French have dominated the European championship, but, with Renault and Elf withdrawing to concentrate on Formula One a year ago, March came back into the limelight. Of the constructors currently building cars for Formula Two, March are the only ones that can boast of any real previous success. The Bicester-based factory teams have won the championship four times with Ronnie Peterson, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Patrick Depailler and Bruno Giacomelli. The opposition constructors between them have only won a handful of races, Chevron being the most successful. Ralt had only one championship win and Osella had never won outright. The newcomer was Mike Pilbeam.
Having won the title in 1978, with Giacomelli scoring eight European wins, Robin Herd’s team was the one to beat and at Silverstone there was an impressive line up of challengers.
Unfortunately the weather was appalling and, in a repeat of last year’s rain-soaked non-championship Formula One race, the BRDC meeting was marred by constant showers of rain. Not surprisingly only a small crowd of hardened enthusiasts braved the atrocious conditions to see the first of three European championship races in Britain this season.
With most of the new cars being delivered to customers only a matter of days before the opening round, and the poor weather upsetting many testing programmes, the cars were largely untried. March had taken advantage of the early completion of their prototype to get in testing in Italy and France but a late decision by the FIA to allow complete freedom of skirt design meant a change of heart on the March system. Robin Herd blamed this for the problems encountered at Silverstone.
Everyone had expected March to set the pace from the outset, yet the new 792 was in trouble. It was the Italian Osella of Cheever which claimed pole position in a time of 1 min. 19.81 sec. After four seasons running with Ron Dennis in March and Ralt chassis, and having used both BMW and Hart engine, the 21-year-old American had opted to join Enzo Osella’s team to drive the Giorgio Stirano-designed wing car. Osella were using their own short-stroke BMW engine and also had the distinct advantage at Silverstone of a link with Pirelli for their tyres. With the exception of two privately run Marches, which were also on the Italian radial ply tyres, the rest of the field were running conventional Goodyears. Cheever qualified fastest on the steel and nylon belted slick tyres from Pirelli and he won the race on the company’s wet tyres. It was a major breakthrough for Pirelli because Goodyear have monopolised Formula Two since Firestone withdrew five years ago.
The race only fell to Cheever, however, half way round the very last lap. Having led strongly for most of the way the Beta-sponsored Osella was overhauled by Derek Daly’s ICI March-BMW in the closing stages. Cheever’s engine was losing oil, the brakes were fading and the exhaust had broken. In spite of problems in practice that saw him qualify only sixth fastest, it looked as though Daly would snatch the victory. Then, on that very last lap, the gear linkage on the leading March packed up and Cheever swept by to win by a mere three-tenths of a second. It was a thrilling climax to an amazing race. The event had been stopped after only a handful of laps to clear a stranded car off the chicane and from the restart the racing had been close right down the field.
Englishman Brian Henton qualified the sophisticated Ralt-Hart, sponsored by the British Toleman organisation, alongside Cheever on the front row. In the opening laps of the race he challenged hard and led briefly before falling back to third place. Fourth, after a steady drive, was the talented American Bobby Rahal in the works Chevron-Hart and that meant there were four different makes of car in the first four places.
Britain’s Stephen South was selected to drive the second ICI March-BMW on the eve of the race and he showed well, qualifying third fastest and eventually finishing fifth after tangling with back markers and twice being put off at the chicane. The final championship point went to the Pirelli-shod March of Italy’s Alberto Colombo. Fastest lap went to Daly at 1 min. 30.01 sec.
For the factory March-BMW team, fielding five cars at Silverstone, it was a disastrous start to the year, especially as team leader Marc Surer, having qualified only fifth fastest, then slid off on the wet warm up lap. Just as he was rejoining the track his team-mate Beppe Gabbiani came skating across the same section of muddy ground and rammed him heavily. Both Marches were badly damaged.
British interest is running high in Formula Two this year and one notable effort at Silverstone came from young Derek Warwick who qualified seventh fastest in a new March-BMW that is being sponsored by BP. The newcomer ran boldly in fourth place at one point, before his enthusiasm got the better of him and he spun helplessly off the greasy track.
A fortnight later the teams were in much better shape when they arrived for the Jim Clark Memorial race at Hockenheim. This was a two part event, held over 20 lap heats with an aggregate result. Daly was committed to drive for Mo Nunn at Long Beach so Keijo Rosberg was drafted into the ICI team to drive alongside Stephen South.
Rosberg had been overlooked in the reshuffle for the new season, and, with no other drives under offer, he leapt at the opportunity to get back into Formula Two. The Finn has spent four years racing with American entrant Fred Opert in a Chevron during which time he has surely proved his skill. Yet, before Hockenheim, he had nothing at all on offer.
In practice Rosberg was third fastest behind the March-BMWs of Surer and South but in the racing he was never headed. He shrugged off an early threat from Surer and raced ahead to win both heats comfortably.
With the March problems overcome and the latest side pods and skirts working very efficiently, the cars were flying. Surer and South both recorded 1 mm. 56.9 sec. laps in practice nearly two seconds faster than last year’s times and Surer was desperate to assert himself. In the frantic opening laps he hounded Rosberg but then one of the side skirts fell out and, with the down-force drastically reduced, the Swiss driver spun out of control at one of the chicanes and hit the barrier. South’s hopes were dashed by a puncture and Henton fell back with a broken rear suspension pick-up.
The South African Rad Dougall eventually claimed second overall on aggregate after a fine drive in the Toleman Team’s March-Hart 782. Dougall is awaiting a new Ralt, although in the meantime he is showing considerable improvement in the older car. Third overall was Argentinian Angel Guerra in a new March and Henton had to settle for fourth in the Ralt. Cheever admitted he had made the wrong choice of tyres at Hockenheim and ran fifth, while sixth was the young Italian Teo Fabi in yet another works March-BMW. A puncture delayed Rahal’s Chevron which finished seventh overall in spite of an impressive drive into third place in the second heat.
A six car crash within yards of the start marred the third round at Thruxton on Easter Monday. This pile-up eliminated Englishmen Brian Henton, Stephen South and Derek Warwick and also put out the works Marches of Italians Beppe Gabbiani and Teo Fabi.
The BARC’s Philips Car Radio International was won by South African Rad Dougall in his Toleman March 782, one of last year’s chassis that he only raced because his new Ralt RT2 wasn’t ready. This Hart-engined car qualified on pole position at a very quick 1 min. 7.97 sec., and led every lap, so Dougall was a worthy receipient of the Jochen Rindt Trophy.
In the early laps Cheever’s Osella led the pursuit but, as at Silverstone, he was to have engine trouble, only this time his Osella-BMW didn’t last the distance and the American retired soon after half distance. That left the works March of Surer in a distant second until he too succumbed to BMW engine trouble and went out with only six of the 55 laps to run. These retirements allowed Daly’s ICI March to inherit second place, albeit 42.9 sec. behind the flying Dougall.
Alberto Colombo, in another older March 782, was third and the March 792 of Guerra claimed fourth. The other championship points went to the Chevron-Harts of Bobby Rahal and Huub Rothengatter.
In practice more than half the field were under the outright record set by Lees’ Formula 1 March-DFV last year at 1 min. 10.41 sec. and Dougall was averaging 125 m.p.h. when he did his pole position lap. In the race Surer lowered the outright record for the Hampshire circuit to 1 min. 9.11 sec. (122.73 m.p.h.).
With the championship at quarter distance, Dougall had taken over the lead with 15 pts. Daly was second on 12 pts. and then came Cheever on 11 pts., Rosberg on 9 pts, and Heaton and Guerra tied at fifth place on 7 pts.