1970s

New ideas proliferate on track but the driver toll continues. Tyrrell is blue riband, Lotus goes black and gold and Hunt hits his purple patch
By Alan Henry

There was a certain contradictory symbolism about Jack Brabham winning the opening round of 1970, the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. It was as if the 44-year-old Aussie’s victory run in the Brabham BT33 had been the final full-stop which marked the end of the Swinging Sixties – that unfettered, frothy and colourful decade of psychedelia and excessive consumption. Not that the dour Brabham had been a child of the 1960s, far from it.

That distinction, surely, belonged to Beatle-haired Jackie Stewart, whose brand-new Tyrrell March 701 started the Kyalami race from joint pole position alongside Chris Amon’s similar works car. Stewart, the reigning World Champion, now found himself on the back foot as he sought to defend his ’69 title at the wheel of a car which, almost from his first lap behind its wheel, Jackie knew was not good enough.

Formula 1 at the start of the 1970s bubbled with optimism and new ideas. One is tempted to say it was the same in UK politics, but after Edward Heath’s Conservative government won the 1970 General Election it quickly ran out of steam. From then on it was all downhill to the economic depression and power cuts of the winter of 1973-74. But the F1 environment certainly seemed more optimistic than that at Westminster – to start with at least.

The arrival of March Engineering on the scene rather debunked the notion that there was something magically exclusive about the F1 business. Put simply, a bunch of guys working out of a makeshift factory in Bicester came from almost nowhere to put five cars on the starting grid at most races. The withdrawal of Matra at the end of the previous year meant that Tyrrell, the reigning champion team, had no option but to buy its chassis from these precocious newcomers. More would be heard of Max Mosley, one of these fresh-faced March co-founders, in the future.

Stewart wrestled the Tyrrell March to victory in the 1970 Spanish GP at Jarama, but already Ken was laying plans to build the team’s first car and had employed Derek Gardner to construct the prototype chassis in his garage at home. The first Tyrrell would be ready by the end of June 1970 and enabled Stewart to regain the form he had displayed in the superb Matra MS80 during 1969, when he proved the class of the field on his way to the first of three title crowns.

Of course, by then it was too late to salvage the 1970 World Championship. If March had produced a simple and arguably too straightforward chassis, Lotus design genius Colin Chapman had veered to the other end of the technical spectrum with his sensational Type 72. With side radiators, a thin chisel nose, torsion bar springing and inboard brakes all round, it was fragile but prodigiously fast.

The Lotus 72 carried Jochen Rindt to four of his five victories that year before a brake shaft snapped as he braked for Parabolica at Monza during practice for the Italian GP. Terrifyingly unstable as it was running without wings or nose flaps, the car veered into the barrier at high speed. Jochen never stood a chance and became the sport’s only posthumous World Champion as a tragic result.

Death stalked the F1 pitlanes during the 1970s. In that respect it was a bruising decade and the roll-call reflects different attitudes shaped by differing times. Piers Courage perished in flames when he crashed Frank Williams’s de Tomaso in the 1970 Dutch GP and three years later an identical shunt would claim British rising star Roger Williamson. Bruce McLaren died at Goodwood while testing one of his Can-Am cars.

Peter Revson, who had helped me hugely as a young journalist, died when his Shadow DN5 crashed in 1974 during testing at Kyalami. Three years later my pal Tom Pryce died only a hundred yards from the site of Revson’s shunt, also in a Shadow, during the South African GP. Helmuth Koinigg was decapitated when his Surtees slid under a barrier in the 1974 US GP and the great Ronnie Peterson succumbed after a frightful shunt at the ’78 Italian GP. Niki Lauda, the hero of the decade, went to the edge of the abyss, dreadfully burned at the Nürburgring, but battled back from the near-dead.

The end of 1973 was a miserable affair. François Cevert, Stewart’s dazzlingly talented Tyrrell team-mate, became the sport’s latest victim when he was killed in a frightful high-speed accident practising for the United States GP. The eerie silence which fell over the pitlane and paddock at Watkins Glen as we all took in the magnitude of the tragedy is something which has remained graphically etched in my mind for the best part of 40 years.

Stewart, who had done more than any other man in the quest for improved safety in motor racing, announced his retirement a few weeks later, although he’d made the decision – in private – many months before. He never, ever regretted taking the decision to call it a day at the age of 34.

As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Tyrrell never regained the front-running form it had achieved during Stewart’s glory years. The momentum that had been generated by the Scot’s three World Championships with the Surrey-based team carried it on for a few years, but victories were never achieved again on any remotely consistent basis. A decade later Lotus would start the same sort of slide down the slippery slope after the death of its founder Colin Chapman.

Meanwhile Britain groaned under the crippling burden of another miners’ strike. The lights went out, motor sport meetings were cancelled and there was a mood of unremitting gloom as we faced the prospect of a very thin – or even non-existent – 1974 season.

If you wanted a touchstone for these miserable times you needed to look no further than to Motor Sport’s threadbare editorial offices just off Finsbury Square in the City of London. To describe them as “a dump” would have been flattering on the sunniest of summer days. Working through the winter in our overcoats under flickering lights and with no heating hardly added to the allure.

I well recall thinking that, having been appointed F1 correspondent of its sister weekly Motoring News just in time to report Peter Revson’s McLaren victory in the 1973 British GP, I would now be looking for fresh employment. Back to Barclays Bank, perhaps? Thankfully, things were not quite that bad.

With Stewart retired and Rindt dead, F1 looked to a new generation from the start of 1974, including Emerson Fittipaldi, the 1972 World Champion for Lotus, Lauda newly signed at Ferrari, Jody Scheckter at Tyrrell and the introspective Carlos Reutemann at the newly-revamped Brabham squad. After Jack Brabham’s retirement from racing at the end of 1970 he’d sold the F1 team to his business partner Ron Tauranac, but the hard-bitten Australian engineer now felt a little out of place in a pitlane which had become dominated by a hard-edged business dimension, and so he decided to sell the company on.

The purchaser was one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, a shrewd, compact and well-groomed businessman who never missed a trick and would, over the next 40 years, become arguably the most powerful single individual in global sport, not just motor racing. Bernie knew how to turn a dollar, but he was also a real racer and when Brabham recruited a lanky South African engineer called Gordon Murray, the team’s new owner knew he had found someone special.

“When I arrived I found him under a drawing board,” said Bernie. “Tauranac told me I should get rid of him and keep everybody else, so I kept Gordon and got rid of everybody else!” It wasn’t quite like that, but pretty close. Either way, by 1974 Reutemann at the wheel of Murray’s distinctive ‘pyramid monocoque’ Brabham BT44 was right up there in contention for the World Championship, winning three races but eventually losing out to McLaren number one Fittipaldi, who’d switched from Lotus at the end of ’73.

Ferrari, meanwhile, had bounced back at the front of the pack in a big way during the 1970s, thanks largely to the brilliant 3-litre flat-12 engine developed by Mauro Forghieri’s engineering team at the end of 1969. Chris Amon, a sublimely quick driver who could be relied upon to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, made sure that he left Maranello just as it looked set to turn the corner.

“For three years I’d been driving cars with super chassis that handled well, but couldn’t hold a candle to their rivals when it came to power,” recalled the New Zealander. “But suddenly there was the 312B1 with its flat-12 engine. The moment I tested it for the first time I knew that this was a completely different proposition. But every time I drove it, the thing blew apart. I thought, oh God, I can’t stand another season of this.”

Amon should have kept the faith. Jacky Ickx very nearly won the 1970 title with the flat-12, then Lauda took two championships with it in 1975 and ’77, with Scheckter adding a third in ’79. Looking back, while the Cosworth DFV was the most prolifically successful F1 engine of all time, the Ferrari flat-12 was close behind in terms of sheer competitive longevity.

For British fans the rivalry between Lauda and James Hunt was one of the key high spots of the decade. Close friends from the outset, they had cut their teeth together in junior league F2 at the start of the decade, but while Lauda ended up at Ferrari via March and BRM, Hunt became the home-brewed hero of the effervescent Hesketh Racing operation. In 1973, driving a private March 731 fielded by his Lordship’s team, James finished fourth at Silverstone and a close second to Peterson’s Lotus 72 at Watkins Glen.

In 1974 Hunt won the Silverstone International Trophy driving the new Harvey Postlethwaite-designed Hesketh 308, but would have to wait until the following year to score his maiden GP victory, beating Lauda’s Ferrari brilliantly in the Dutch race at Zandvoort. At the end of the year, with Fittipaldi taking the incomprehensible, but well funded, decision to join his brother Wilson’s Copersucar outfit, a vacancy opened at McLaren and James was the right man to fill it.

Hunt became a major cult figure in a curiously brat-packish way. There was a non-conformist streak prevalent in British society in the 1970s and Hunt, with his upper-class accent, mop of tangled hair and chain-smoking demeanour, tapped into that enthusiasm. He was the self-confessed bad boy of Formula 1 and his lurid roller-coaster ride to the 1976 World Championship monopolised the tabloid media’s attention at the time when the Sex Pistols were also stealing the headlines.

The Queen may have made a rare appearance in the royal box at Wimbledon for Ginny Wade’s successful 1977 onslaught on the ladies’ singles title, but it would have been hard to imagine Her Majesty out on the starting grid at Silverstone as James lined up to win the British GP with the McLaren M26 that summer. We would have to wait a couple of decades for Princess Diana before that unlikely dawn would break.

Technical diversity thrived throughout the 1970s. Lotus enjoyed a place in the sun with the Type 72 which still won three Grands Prix at the end of 1974, but then Colin Chapman’s operation plunged from the high wire into a moribund and disappointing position in the middle of the decade. Lotus battled back with the advent of ground-effect aerodynamics, and the sensational Types 78 and 79 successfully rebuilt the team’s reputation as a winning force in 1977 and ’78. Mario Andretti stormed to the ’78 title, deservedly so as he had been the man who had put so much effort into the team’s renaissance. Tyrrell built a six-wheeler, which was a bit of a laugh, but only a temporary aberration. It won in Sweden, 1976.

Yet if the Lotus 79 was elegant simplicity on wheels, over at Brabham, Gordon Murray came up with what many people still regard as the most innovative and downright clever piece of Grand Prix engineering that decade. I’m talking of course of the Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’, which was evolved to maximise the performance of the Alfa flat-12 engined machine which could not benefit from the conventional ground-effect options offered by the narrow bottom end of the Cosworth DFV.

Murray had earlier experimented with the novel ‘surface cooling’ concept on the BT46, whereby the Alfa engine was cooled by a series of heat exchangers set into the surface of the monocoque. That failed, so Gordon finalised a configuration which employed a large water radiator mounted horizontally atop the engine, the whole engine/gearbox assembly sealed off from the outside air by means of flexible skirts and a large, gearbox-driven extractor fan to suck out all the air from beneath the engine bay.

The Brabham fan car raced only once, in the 1978 Swedish GP at Anderstorp. Murray defended its primary function as cooling the engine, but the rival teams were not so sure, feeling that it amounted to an illegal aerodynamic aid. Niki Lauda, who had left Ferrari in acrimonious circumstances at the end of the previous season, blitzed the opposition to win. But Bernie Ecclestone, showing a shrewdness that would become his calling card, withdrew the car from any other events before it could be banned. The solidarity of the teams in F1 as an emergent power base was more important in his mind than a temporary on-track advantage.

Alfa would produce a hopeless V12 for the 1979 season, but Bernie decided he would backtrack to Cosworth power midway through that year, just as Lauda decided to retire midway through free practice for the Canadian Grand Prix at Montréal. Niki would eventually return, driving for McLaren, at the start of 1982.

There were other key developments, both off-track and on, during the 1970s. From a car performance standpoint the arrival of Renault’s prototype 1.5-litre turbo, puffing and misfiring, at the 1977 British GP would lay the foundations for a new generation of prodigiously powerful forced induction engines which would endure through to the end of the following decade.

Cosworth founder Keith Duckworth would repeatedly tell anybody who would listen that the turbo engines were illegal virtually by definition as the turbochargers represented a secondary power source. Anyway, the originally so-called parity between the haves and have-nots pegged a 3-litre non-turbo as the equivalent of a 1.5-litre supercharged engine. And since direct- drive superchargers were not really the same as exhaust-driven turbochargers, the debate was never resolved. The FIA wanted turbos, Renault wanted to join in, so turbos we got, opening the floodgates for a succession of major manufacturers to become involved in the sport.

Also down at the back of the starting grid for much of the 1970s was Frank Williams and his team of Cosworth-propelled also-rans. The loss of Piers Courage back in 1970 had been a body blow from which he had taken a long time to recover. In 1971 and ’72 he’d run a succession of private March chassis and then fielded a succession of so-called Williams chassis from a variety of designers. Then during 1975 he sold a controlling interest in his team to Austro-Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf, but working for another person was never going to suit Frank, who valued his independence above all else. This, remember, was a man who conducted his business from a public telephone box outside Reading speedway track on a temporary, if repeated, basis when his own team’s phone had been cut off.

At the end of 1976 Williams decided to go back to basics and start again, running a private March-Cosworth for Belgian also-ran Patrick Neve out of a former carpet warehouse on a trading estate in Didcot. From little acorns…

Former Wolf engineer Patrick Head joined Williams in his new enterprise. For 1978 Williams GPE produced the superb little FW06 for rugged Aussie Alan Jones to drive.

Just over a year later, Jones’s Williams FW07 dominated the British GP at Silverstone from the start, but a cracked water pump casting caused his car’s Cosworth V8 engine to expire in a cloud of smoke and steam. On the pitwall, Frank glanced fleetingly at the stricken machine as it rolled into the pitlane before switching his gaze back onto the track where Regazzoni was now equally well in command.

As Clay clicked off those final miles to the chequered flag, a huge wave of patriotic fervour understandably seemed to envelope the enthusiastic crowd. Perhaps for the first time, Frank would appreciate how much support and respect he had from the ordinary race fans, who seemed genuinely delighted that this outsider who’d struggled against the odds for so many years had at last made the big time.

The FW07 had been Head’s first serious excursion into the realms of ground-effect aerodynamics, much of his knowledge having been gleaned from really close consideration of what Chapman had been trying to achieve with the Lotus 79, but further enhanced with his own ideas and a very brief stint in the wind tunnel at London’s Imperial College. And it had paid off, even though Patrick freely confessed at the time that he didn’t fully understand the intricacies of under-car aerodynamics.

Williams had started the decade with his F1 ambitions held together by hope – and little else. He finished the decade poised on the verge of the big time. It was another example, if one were needed, of how there is always some tail-ender with the sheer guts and determination to drag themselves up by their boot straps and make dreams come true.

It was also a defining moment which marked the first step towards the Williams name becoming recognised right up there with Ferrari and McLaren as one of the great teams in Grand Prix history.

That was the decade that was

1970 Palestinian rebels hijack five aircraft, computer floppy disks are launched, the Aswan Dam is built and The Beatles break up. A bleak year for Grand Prix racing as Bruce McLaren is killed testing at Goodwood, Piers Courage dies at Zandvoort and Jochen Rindt is killed at Monza, being posthumously awarded the 1970 World Championship.

1971 The UK switches to decimal currency, London Bridge is transported to America and video cassette recorders are introduced. Jackie Stewart wins his second title in the first of Ken Tyrrell’s F1 cars, and team-mate François Cevert wins his first and only Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

1972 Terrorists attack the Olympic games in Munich, the Watergate scandal breaks, swimmer Mark Spitz wins seven Olympic gold medals and M*A*S*H premieres on television. Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, in a black and gold JPS Lotus, becomes the youngest Formula 1 World Champion to date.

1973 George Foreman becomes heavyweight boxing world champion, American troops pull out of Vietnam and Pink Floyd releases Dark Side of the Moon. Jackie Stewart wins a third title but there is tragedy when François Cevert is killed at Watkins Glen. Earlier in the year David Purley receives a George Medal after trying in vain to rescue Roger Williamson from his burning March at Zandvoort.

1974 President Nixon resigns over the Watergate affair, Stephen King publishes Carrie and Muhammad Ali beats George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Emerson Fittipaldi takes his second world title, this time in a McLaren, but another tragic year sees the deaths of Peter Revson in testing at Kyalami and Helmut Koinigg at Watkins Glen when a safety barrier fails.

1975 Arthur Ashe is the first black man to win Wimbledon. Margaret Thatcher becomes Conservative party leader, the Microsoft firm is founded and Pol Pot becomes Communist Dictator of Cambodia. The F1 World Championship is dominated by Niki Lauda in his Ferrari 312T, the Scuderia’s most competitive car for many years. Tom Pryce becomes the first Welshman to win an F1 race, the Race of Champions.

1976 Russian gymnast Nadia Comaneci achieves perfect tens in the Olympics, Harold Wilson steps down as British Prime Minister, the first commercial Concorde flight takes off and James Hunt wins the world title after a season of disputes. At the Nürburgring Lauda suffers severe burns, only to return six weeks later. At the final race in Japan, in monsoon rain, Lauda retires and Hunt takes the title.

1977 Elvis Presley dies, Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Silver Jubilee and the first Star Wars film is released. Niki Lauda comes back strongly to win a second world title, only to fall out with Ferrari and be replaced by Gilles Villeneuve. Renault reveals its turbocharged engine at Silverstone and Tom Pryce dies in a freak accident at Kyalami.

1978 John Paul ll is made Pope, the first test-tube baby Louise Brown is born and Britain struggles through the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson dominate the F1 season in the ground-effect Lotus, while Brabham’s controversial ‘fan car’ is withdrawn. Andretti takes the title at Monza but tragedy strikes when Peterson dies following an accident at the start of the race.

1979 Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher becomes the first female Prime Minister of Britain, Ayatollah Khomeini returns as leader of Iran, Mother Theresa wins a Nobel Peace Prize and Sony launches the Walkman. Jody Scheckter wins the World Championship for Ferrari, Clay Regazzoni wins the first Grand Prix for the Williams team at Silverstone, and a turbocharged Renault wins its first GP.

DSJ on...
1972 French Grand Prix, Motor Sport, August 1972

…At 20 laps Stewart appeared in the lead, and 50,000 Frenchmen groaned as Amon headed for the pits with his left-front tyre flat. With a ring of nuts to undo before the wheel could be changed it was 50 seconds before Amon could rejoin the race, and not only Stewart, but Hulme, Ickx, Fittipaldi, Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood and Schenken went by. In a slightly angry mood Amon screamed back into the race, in ninth, making the Matra V12 give all it had, and it sounded wonderful… Amon passed Hailwood on lap 25, setting a new lap record of 2min 54.7sec. He was really wound up and the Matra was responding beautifully, revving to its absolute limit, and twice more he set new lap records. He was gaining rapidly on Peterson, who had been passed by Cevert, the combination of one sick driver in a healthy car equalling out with a healthy driver in a sick car. Behind them was a very healthy driver in a very healthy car, and the Matra was right behind Peterson’s March as they started lap 35.

In one lap Amon disposed of Peterson and Cevert, passing them as if they were not there, and on a circuit that is noted for its lack of passing places. It was fantastic and almost unbelievable. Not content with that he continued this terrific drive and lopped four seconds a lap off Fittipaldi’s lead, but the race was one lap too short for the courageous New Zealander.

As Stewart cruised home to a well-judged and cautious victory there were some ‘well done’ cries, but when Amon arrived, in third place, just four seconds behind Fittipaldi and still going like the veritable hammers of hell, there was a thunderous roar of applause and the grandstands, and even the pits, vibrated with the enthusiastic appreciation of everyone for the ‘drive of the year’. With only third place to his credit, after looking like a certain winner, Amon stood higher in everyone’s estimation than if he had won the race. As one French newspaper headline put it: ‘Bravo Stewart, but thank you Mr Amon’.