Everything seems to be ‘in transition’. Hardly a news story goes by without mention of the British Government, the Royal Family, Brexit, or even Formula 1 as it heads towards a major regulation change in 2021.
The words did not command such favour in the 1970s, but the ‘process of change from one condition to another’ (according to the Oxford Dictionary) meant grand prix racing went through a more profound evolution during this decade than arguably any other.
There was no pivotal point, no single moment which motor sport historians can earmark as the birth of a new era. But if you were to look for an event that typifies change, then the 1974 German Grand Prix carries many hallmarks of ongoing transformation.
The race fell just short of the halfway mark of the decade but defined its evolution. The German round was chosen to be the Grand Prix of Europe, an honorary title usually bestowed on an annual basis when and if the FIA saw fit. But the title was beginning to lose its grandeur. By 1974, five of the 15 grands prix were outside Europe, as was Brasília, which was one of three non-championship races. But the title retained its clout when linked with the Nürburgring Nordschleife, a giant of a track that continued to defy growing unease over its unnecessary risks.
Spa-Francorchamps in its original eight-mile form had gone. The final grand prix there in 1970 had defined the craziness that was accepted as the norm. Chasing Pedro Rodríguez in the leading BRM on the final lap of the Belgian Grand Prix, Chris Amon had steeled himself to take the Masta Kink flat. This was a ‘kink’ in name only, since it was – and remains, as you can see on the N68 today – a distinct left-right, with stout buildings on one side and a fish and chip shop waiting near the exit to batter the slightest misjudgement.
Amon later worked out that he went through Masta at 199mph. The folly associated with such a scary statistic is multiplied several times when you consider he did it in a March 701. Two decades later, he would look at this ‘built to budget’ aluminium chassis car. With sides low enough to completely expose the driver’s shoulders, as well as a rudimentary rollover bar, no wonder Amon gently shook his head. “F***ing mad,” he said quietly, before considering himself lucky to still be around to pass such a disturbing judgement, fashioned by time and reality.
Bruce McLaren had been killed while testing his Can-Am car just five days before that race in Belgium. The day after Bruce’s memorial service, F1 people attended the funeral of Piers Courage following the Englishman’s fatal crash during the Dutch Grand Prix. The shocking catalogue would continue three months later when Jochen Rindt lost his life at Monza. By the end of 1971, the names of Rodríguez and Jo Siffert had been added to this terrible toll. It was no surprise that drivers carried the unspoken belief that they had a high chance of dying in a race car.
Following the loss of four grand prix drivers (not all in F1 cars) in 1968, there had been a grudging acceptance – thanks largely to the efforts of Jackie Stewart – that driver protection was a topic for the tabletop rather than under the carpet. And yet progress was slow and rudimentary due to the basic principle of the time: the show was more important than safety.
“Drivers carried the unspoken belief that they had a high chance of dying in a race car”
At the first grand prix of the decade in South Africa, a crash barrier was introduced to separate the Kyalami pitlane from the race track. A mere two tiers, this was considered radical and sufficient – the sort of attitude which meant F1 duly turned up at the Nürburgring to start practice on the first weekend of August 1974.
The Nordschleife had undergone a face-lift, enough to satisfy organisers Automobile Club von Deutschland (AvD) that it had tipped its cap to the question of risk. The drivers knew better than anyone that it was superficial. The cutting down of hedges here and there merely reduced lap time, as drivers could more clearly see the next myriad of corners. Nothing had been done to address the insurmountable task of marshalling such a monster throughout its 14-mile length. And that seemed to matter even less when 31 drivers, unable to resist the challenge, began to prepare for the 1974 grand prix by lapping the ’Ring as if there was no tomorrow.
Their goal had been set a few weeks before when Niki Lauda went around the Nordschleife in 6min 56sec. The fractions seemed irrelevant when hailing this smashing of the mystical seven-minute barrier. What’s more, as the AvD was quick to point out, this had been achieved during a voluntary test session. Lauda privately acknowledged such madness, but his pragmatism, tempered by the demands of a first season with Ferrari, had yet to harden into ice-cold criticism. That came two years later, ironically just before the race that almost killed him. In 1974, it was business as usual, despite surroundings as perilous as they were evocative.
Such a heady mix of emotion was underpinning a weekend that became a foundation stone to my career as a writer. Seeking a route into motor sport journalism, I had befriended Gary Anderson at Monaco’s Tip Top bar the previous May and explained I wished to write a feature on F1 mechanics. Ideally, I would be a fly on the wall during a race weekend, but the absence of proper media credentials would require the help and approval of his Brabham team. A nod from chief mechanic Bob Dance – followed by his assurance it could be sorted with the team’s owner, Mr Bernard Ecclestone – and I was leaning on questionable skill as a plastic pipe salesman to blag my way into the Nürburgring paddock. Once inside, it was like stepping into motor sport Mecca.
This paddock was unique insofar as it was a purpose-built quadrangle with each team allocated at least one garage; unaccustomed luxury in 1974. Typically, Ecclestone was ahead of the game. He had bought an articulated truck, numbered in their hundreds for each European Grand Prix today. But 45 years ago, it was the vanguard of F1 transport as the rest made do with rigid-chassis lorries. Brabham’s transporter had been a Trust House Forte exhibition vehicle in a previous life, bringing the unexpected proviso that a side door needed to be secured before the three Brabhams (two race cars plus a spare) and kit were loaded. Otherwise, the sag in the chassis frame would prevent this door from closing.
Ecclestone had gone further by hiring a two-berth caravan in which Stella Murray (Gordon’s wife) could cook. Apart from the black John Player Lotus motorhome and a Marlboro unit, this was the only haven of team hospitality, even if it did mean mechanics and drivers (Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace) sitting happily on either a bench or stacked wheels, eating their plates of spaghetti.
I had been introduced to Ecclestone as Dance tentatively explained my mission. The story – my future – hung on what happened next. Bernie looked me up and down, touched my arm, nodded, and then moved off without saying a word. Talk about the Silent Seal of Approval. He had plenty to say to those who mattered, of course…
Transition applied to Ecclestone more than anyone else in the F1 paddock. The other team bosses were too busy going racing; a trait that Bernie was relying on as he weighed up the future and all its potential riches. Ecclestone’s acquisition of Brabham had brought direct experience of haphazard methods that did the teams no financial favours when dealing with race organisers on an individual basis, one team played off against another. The formation of the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association (F1CA, later to become FOCA) was the first move towards collective bargaining. Ecclestone kindly offered to take care of the detailed negotiations that team owners such as Ken Tyrrell, Colin Chapman (Lotus) and Teddy Mayer (McLaren) had no time for. One leading light, however, was following Ecclestone’s moves with a mix of bemusement and respect.
As a former barrister and a founding member of March, Max Mosley’s sharp intellect brought an acute appreciation of the challenge ahead and Ecclestone’s astute method of dealing with it. Together, they made a formidable team; the erudite lawyer and the streetwise former motor trader benefiting from each other’s skillset.
The pair had tested the water at Monaco in 1972 by negotiating on the teams’ behalf when the organisers, having agreed to allow 25 starters, suddenly decided to limit the number. Mosley and Ecclestone persuaded the teams to stand firm and work on the basis that paying spectators would indirectly apply pressure when faced with an empty track. No organiser had ever been put in such a position before, thanks to this blatant removal of the opportunity to divide and conquer. Twenty-five starters were duly allowed.
“Team bosses were too busy going racing; a trait Bernie was relying on as he weighed up future riches”
At the Nürburgring in 1974, as had been the case at every grand prix, each team’s paddock and track passes were handed out at the organiser’s whim. One month later at Monza, FOCA produced and distributed its own passes, thus instigating another stand-off that the teams would win thanks to being the weekend’s principal players.
The momentum gathered further pace going into 1975 as Mosley and Ecclestone went to Brussels to negotiate the prize fund for the European races. They came face to face with Jean Marie Balestre who, as a successful businessman and president of the French Federation, was intent on showing fellow organisers and the FIA how to deal with these British upstarts. When Ecclestone and Mosley suddenly threatened to leave to catch an imaginary flight, Balestre could not prevent his associates, desperate to sort their budgets, relenting and accepting a demand for an increase in fees. Canada later refused to play ball, but the teams stood their ground and forced the race to be cancelled. The Canadians were furious – but impotent.
This set the tone for a confrontation that would run until the end of the decade and beyond, Mosley and Ecclestone gaining the upper hand in small steps. In terms of F1’s overall structure, however, it was a giant stride into a very different world.
“The 1970s was a pivotal decade,” recalls Mosley. “We wanted to expand the sport and increase its importance, but we kept coming across the militant old guard who wanted things to stay exactly as they had been in the days of Fangio. They failed to understand that everything must evolve and change, become more professional and modern, or else face the prospect of declining to the point where the money available is insufficient to maintain the sport.”
Ecclestone was quick to realise that F1 could help maintain itself through revenue from television rights. The decade started with coverage limited to brief updates during the Monaco, British and Italian grands prix, considered classics and worth inclusion in any television company’s sports roster. Further restrictions were generated by the mistaken belief that a promoter should not allow its race to be broadcast nationally as potential spectators would watch on television rather than buy tickets. Not only did Bernie change that notion, but he also persuaded promoters to include television rights as part of the deal. Having done that, he then refused to hand the rights to a broadcaster unless it was prepared to show all of the race. From there, it was but another turn of the screw to have them show an entire season.
Because of logistical difficulties imposed by its length, the Nordschleife was never likely to be part of any broadcasting schedule in 1974, which was perhaps just as well as five cars shunted on the first lap. Lauda made an impetuous error at the second corner and Denny Hulme, involved in a startline collision, almost casually climbed into the spare McLaren and rejoined after six minutes. He was still on the lead lap, of course, but due to be black-flagged.
After 14 laps, Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari finished almost a minute ahead of Jody Scheckter, the Tyrrell cruising home 33 seconds in front of Reutemann. This was a welcome result for Brabham, being only its second podium of that season. The momentum would gather pace with a win two weeks later in Austria and a one-two in the final race at Watkins Glen. Murray’s nascent ingenuity would reach extraordinary heights in 1978 with the so-called fan car, the South African’s answer to the Lotus team’s ground-effect revolution that was increasing downforce ten-fold.
The Brabham BT46 was never actually declared illegal, but it would be a sign of Ecclestone’s grasp of the bigger picture that he chose to withdraw the car rather than upset the team bosses he was trying to unite. The British teams maintained a strong sense of family; no surprise considering their intimate method of working.
In 1974, Dance accompanied the team’s truckie on the return from the Nürburgring. The rest of the mechanics (only a receptionist had been left at the factory) followed in a Ford Transit. There was enough room for Murray to join them and share the fun as he adjusted the windscreen washers to spray bemused pedestrians in towns along the route to Zeebrugge.
Ecclestone had flown home, taking team manager Herbie Blash with him, and they were surely discussing further ways of moving other aspects of F1 under the FOCA umbrella, no doubt moving closer to the all-important, unifying Concorde Agreement in the next decade. It would open the door to Ecclestone and Mosley’s ascent to power over F1 and the FIA respectively.
“The BT46 was never declared illegal, but was a sign of Bernie’s grasp of the bigger picture”
I was to discover the reach of Bernie’s tentacles as the 1970s headed towards a conclusion. In 1976, Long Beach had become a welcome addition to the calendar, not least because the teams worked in the civilised surroundings of the city’s Convention Centre. It was in this atmospheric paddock in 1979 that I met Alan Woollard after being neighbours on the flight to California. Woollard’s responsibilities as freight manager had grown as the result of Mr Ecclestone crushing smaller businesses previously making a living from handling F1’s specialised needs at the flyaway races. The shipment of this expanding circus around the world had the potential for a fascinating story. Alan somewhat reluctantly agreed to an interview.
My recorder had only been running for a few minutes when the door of a nearby Winnebago (the only motorhome inside the arena) burst open and Bernie stormed down the steps. “Who are you?” he snapped, while roughly inspecting my (bona fide) credential. “What d’you think you’re doing?”
I hadn’t spoken to Mr E since that moment at the Nürburgring five years before and didn’t expect him to recognise me. But neither did I expect this. Naively, I thought I was doing him a favour. Bernie was apoplectic and the hapless Woollard got an earful.
In mitigation, I tried to explain this was an interesting story. “None of your bloody business,” came the terse response. The boss then turned on his heel, slammed shut the motorhome door, and returned to a world that, by now, was not so much in transition, but careering on a lucrative and powerful trajectory towards a world beyond everyone’s imagining – except his own.
1970s as it happened
1970 Points leader Jochen Rindt killed while practising for the Italian GP; he would become F1’s only posthumous World Champion. 1971 In Tyrrell’s first full campaign as a chassis manufacturer, the team and Stewart secure a title double – the only time Tyrrell will be the champion constructor. 1972 Aged 25, Emerson Fittipaldi becomes the youngest F1 champion. Stewart forced to rest because of a stomach ulcer, but he misses only the Belgian GP.
1973 Stewart decides early on to retire, but he keeps it quiet. He gets his third title at Monza but saves announcement until after the season. America would have been his 100th and final GP, but he withdraws after team-mate François Cevert’s fatal accident during practice.
1974 Ferrari resurgent, but Clay Regazzoni loses out at the final race to Emerson Fittipaldi (now with McLaren, and the team’s first World Champion). 1975 Niki Lauda finally ends Ferrari’s title drought which stretched back to 1964. 1976 A film script on wheels. Early-season pace-setter Lauda is read the last rites after Germany accident, but is back five weeks later. He and James Hunt go the Fuji finale split by three points. Lauda pulls off early on, feeling the wet conditions are too dangerous. Hunt recovers from a puncture to win the title. 1977 Lauda back on top, then walks out on Ferrari once the title is secure. Renault introduces turbocharging to F1 from mid-season. 1978 Colin Chapman had started to rewrite the rules in ’77, with his ‘wing car’. The new Lotus 79 takes ground-effect principle further and Mario Andretti mops up, with team-mate Ronnie Peterson riding shotgun. Peterson dies from injuries sustained at Monza. 1979 Lotus falls back. Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve end the year first and second for Ferrari. Williams scores its first GP win (Clay Regazzoni, Silverstone) and so does the Renault turbo (Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Dijon).