1973 United States Grand Prix race report

Ronnie Peterson driving the Lotus at Watkins Glen.

Ronnie Peterson took his fourth win of the season for Lotus

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Watkins Glen, U.S.A., October 7th

The most arduous year of racing in the history of the World Championship came to an end at New York State’s Watkins Glen track last month. This was the fifteenth and final round of the series which had started back in Argentina in January. The season ended on a note of tragedy with the death of Francois Cevert in practice, while the race provided Ronnie Peterson with his third victory in four races and thus Lotus won the constructors’ title.

The majority of the cars were already in the North American continent having raced two weeks earlier in Canada. The accidents of Scheckter, Cevert and Peterson had all given their respective teams headaches regarding repair but, come the start of practice on Friday, all three cars were present. Scheckter’s McLaren had been straightened at the McLaren Engines premises in Detroit, Lotus had flown their damaged monocoque section home and this had been quickly straightened in the jig at Hethel and returned to be built up into a car again—thus Peterson had a spare. Elf Team Tyrrell finished building a new chassis in record time and that was flown out and built up as 006/3 replaced the badly damaged 006/1 although, of course, many of the parts came from the damaged car.

Thus the three teams, who have dominated Grand Prix racing all season, were at full strength, excepting that Team Lotus did not have a spare chassis for Emerson Fittipaldi. McLaren were running their trio of M23s (Nos. 1, 2 and 4) respectively for Hulme, Scheckter and Revson while Tyrrell also had three cars for Stewart (006/2), Cevert (006/3), and Amon in the older car which was back in snub nose/front radiator form.

The only other team that has come close to a Grand Prix victory in 1973 is Brabham and their only change since Canada was to install Irishman John Watson in the seat previously occupied by Rolf Stommelen. This, of course, is de Adamich’s Ceramica Pagnossin car and it continued to be entered by, and carry the markings of, the Italian sponsor. It was Watson’s fourth Formula One drive, his second in a World Championship event and his first in a works Brabham since the Race of Champions.

For the first time the UOP-Shadow team were running three of their black Tony Southgate cars—all three in different states of development. Jackie Oliver had the latest long-wheelbase version, George Follmer his usual car while Brian Redman was prevailed upon to drive Oliver’s older car, which is still fitted with the older rear suspension lay-out. Graham Hill had his private Embassy Racing Shadow, which after the race had a very large ‘For Sale’ notice placed on it.

The fun-loving Hesketh Racing team arrived with their March 731 for James Hunt, overshadowing the works entry of Jean-Pierre Jarier and Mike Beuttler’s private “Stockbroker Special” March with several of its sponsors on hand to enjoy their little Grand Prix effort.

Surtees reinforced their line-up by giving Jochen Mass his third Formula One race of the year with the usual white car he last raced at Nurburgring. Mike Hailwood and Carlos Pace were in the two regular cars with their various combinations of associations with Fina, Brooke Bond Oxo and Rob Walker.

The Frank Williams Racing team were far from sure who was driving the second Iso-Marlboro. Gijs van Lennep had driven it in Italy, Tim Schenken took over in Canada and Henri Pescarolo was entered for Watkins Glen. But Pescarolo was later replaced by Danish Formula 5000 man Tom Belso who arrived at the circuit only to be told that Williams had persuaded Jacky Ickx to take over the drive… Belso caught the next plane home while Ickx missed the first day of practice while he sorted out problems with an expired US visa. Ickx was apparently persuaded to drive the car because Ron Tauranac was on hand to help. One factor remained constant and that was Howden Cranley who was in the other Marlboro-backed Iso. The Ford brigade was completed by the Ensign equipe from Walsall with Rikki von Opel’s one-off car. This sported a Hesketh airbox, replacing the one which was integral with the rear bodywork, which has now been discarded.

Of the non-Cosworth V8-powered minority, Ferrari were still running just a single modified 312B3 for Arturo Merzario while BRM had re-installed a confused Regazzoni back in the number one car in place of Peter Gethin. With Niki Lauda threatening to leave the team, most of the attention seemed to be focussed on Jean-Pierre Beltoise on this occasion. So there was a field of 28 drivers with only Ronnie Peterson afforded the luxury of a training car.

Breaking with tradition, the Glen Corporation decided to give the crowd a little extra for their 18 dollar (£7.20) admittance fee and organised a well subscribed and promoted Formula B and Historic and Vintage (well some of them were) races on the Saturday, which went down very well.

In total the were were three practice sessions for the Grand Prix, opening with a four-hour thrash on Friday which commenced at 10 a.m. However several of the teams had already put some unofficial practice both earlier in the week and the week before that.


Francois Cevert driving for Tyrrell at the 1973 United States Grand Prix meeting at Watkins Glen.

Francois Cevert was tragically killed in a fatal crash during qualifying

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Ronnie Peterson usually sets the practice pace these days but after only two laps his regular John Player backed car ground to a halt with a rear wheel hanging off. A hub had come loose and Peterson was lucky to bring the car to a halt without serious damage, although he did clip the Armco slightly so there was quite a job list on the car for that evening. Unabashed, Peterson stepped in the spare car, which he has never really liked, and he was soon at the top of the times with 1 min. 40.492 sec., fractionally slower than Stewart’s pole position time of last year and 1.6 sec. slower than Mark Donohue’s best with his turbo Porsche earlier this year.

Stewart himself was only fractionally slower, while team-mate Cevert, despite having his ankles strapped up following his Mosport crash, was third fastest at the track where he had previously won his only Grand Prix. Carlos Reutemann, the still improving Argentinian, was fourth fastest ahead of all three McLarens which practised within 0.1 sec. of each other.

Chris Amon was next, settling down well with his Tyrrell, Emerson Fittipaldi was reasonably placed despite various problems and Merzario had the Ferrari going strong and was slightly quicker than Brian Redman who showed the other two Shadow drivers what it was all about. However, earlier in the year, Redman had lapped Watkins Glen faster in his Formula 5000 Lola T330 which is food for thought.

James Hunt, who was to go so fast later on, was struggling with the handling of the car which was fitted with the special nose first seen in Austria. Mike Hailwood had the rear suspension collapse, but brought the car under control while Graham Hill had a very close shave when a wishbone broke. He was close to the same spot where he crashed so disastrously in 1969. The car spun and some light damage was sustained although this was easily fixed. Most of the others struggled with various problems of one kind or another.

On Saturday there were two sessions and Peterson was determined to set a fast time with his race car 72/6. He lost no time in putting the JPS on pole position, his ninth this season. We have also become used to seeing a South American on the front row of the grid and this race was no exception. But this time it was an Argentinian not a Brazilian. Carlos Reutemann was out there winning all the prizes for opposite lock motoring and in the early part of the session setting the pace. He finished up with a best time of 1 min. 40.013 sec., and this was to assure him of a front row grid position, his first since his Grand Prix debut in Argentina two seasons ago.

While Peterson is making most of the headlines these days, Emerson Fittipaldi is far from being overshadowed. Despite his ankles still giving him considerable pain, Fittipaldi was third fastest. As it turned out the first ten positions were all decided in this session.

After the frustrations of the previous day and, in fact, the previous three Grands Prix James Hunt was back showing his Silverstone form. Running with the conventional nose, Lord Hesketh’s driver was making tremendous progress and finished up with a very smooth and regulated 1 min. 40.520 sec. This was just a fraction slower than the times being recorded by Francois Cevert, who was the fastest of the three Tyrrells. But with only five minutes of the session remaining drivers started to filter into the pits looking very ashen-faced.

Immediately the word spread around that Cevert had crashed in the Esses. He had, apparently, clipped the Armco barrier on the left going in, hit the rail the opposite side of the road a violent blow at 130 m.p.h. + and then the car had cannoned back across the road in the air into the Armco on the other side. This impact killed Cevert, and the car was virtually split in half. Naturally the session ended there and then. Drivers acknowledge that this particular section of Watkins Glen is the most difficult and the track is narrow in the middle of the Esses where it forms a bridge over a road into the circuit.

There were no explanations as to the cause of the tragedy but it had certainly robbed France of her number one driver and motor racing in general of a charming and dashing personality with a tremendous skill.

Jackie Stewart had been lapping slightly slower than his team-mate and had not improved on his previous day’s time which nevertheless was good enough for the third row. Mike Hailwood was now much happier with his Surtees and clipped his time down to 1 min. 40.844 sec. The McLaren team were not quite as competitive as they had been earlier in the season although it was fascinating to note their close times. Revson proved fastest at 1 min. 40.895 sec., next up was Hulme at 1 min. 40.907 sec. while Scheckter, complaining of the handling, recorded 1 mm. 41.321 sec, Pace broke up the McLaren formation with a time of 1 min. 41.125 sec.

In the final session most of the drivers were, not surprisingly, subdued, and only Arturo Merzario, Wilson Fittipaldi and Mike Beuttler improved. Merzario’s time of 1 min. 41.455 sec. made him eleventh fastest just ahead of Chris Amon. In fact towards the end of the session the two remaining Tyrrells practised briefly, Ken deciding that it would he better for everyone to get on with the job for the time being. However, that evening he decided, after lengthy discussions, to withdraw both Stewart and Amon from the race and gaps were left on the grid. On the seventh row were Redman and Beltoise with times from Friday’s session, Redman wasn’t particularly impressed by the black car, then came Regazzoni and Mass, Jarier and Hill, Ganley and Follmer, Lauda (after umpteen problems) and Oliver and then Ickx and Watson. The Belgian only practised on the Saturday and settled into the Iso without showing any fireworks. He was having a lot of braking problems and never managed a fast lap. Watson, who has shown so much promise in Formula Two, was troubled with what seemed an incurable mis-fire. Wilson Fittipaldi, Mike Beuttler and Rikky von Opel completed the grid.


The cars pull away at the 1973 United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen.

The race starts for the final round of the season

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Thus 25 cars came to the grid for Sunday’s race, and out to watch them was a record crowd. As usual many had camped for the previous two nights and fortunately the weather had been kind. After one warming-up lap the field rolled forward from the dummy grid up to a new starting position further down the pits straight than before (and not coinciding with the finish line). Then the Stars and Stripes was waved with exuberance. Almost everyone made a good start apart from Revson who felt his car creeping forward and threw it out of gear, just as the flag came down. He put his hands in the air and everyone steered round him, and he managed to get away last. But Revson soon passed Brian Redman and Rikki von Opel who were both stuck at the first corner with their throttles jammed shut. The number of times his has happened over the last two years is smazing. Some teams coat the inside of their airboxes with grease to catch the flying grit while others cover them with a stocking. Redman finally restarted his car many laps later with the help of his mechanics. He did few laps before pulling into the pits with he engine sounding dreadful and was then told he was disqualified for receiving outside assistance.

Peterson had charged into an immediate lead with Reutemann second while James Hunt drove round the outside of Fittipaldi at Turn One to take third spot. Hailwood was fifth, then came the McLarens of Hulme md Scheckter followed by Beltoise, Pace, Mass, Regazzoni, Merzario, Ganley (after an excellent start), Follmer. Jarier, Watson, Lauda, Beuttler, Oliver, Hill, W. Fittipaldi, Ickx with Revson last but not for long.

Peterson seemed unlikely to lose the lead and started to pull away although it wasn’t long before Hunt plucked up the courage to pass Reutemann and set off after the Lotus. Undoubtedly the Hesketh team had their March set up extremely well and the little car was particularly fast on the straight. Behind there was further shuffling of position, with Fittipaldi quickly dropping back, worried by a vibration in the front wheels. Hulme quickly established himself, with Scheckter his shadow, while Hailwood dropped back to sixth place ahead of Fittipaldi. By lap five this group had opened out a considerable gap over the rest with Pace and Mass the next two up followed by Merzario and Ganley. The New Zealander made a pit stop on lap 12 to complain that the handling had sudden deterioration on right-handers. A quick inspection revealed nothing was broken and Ganley drove back into the race. Meanwhile John Watson was already out due to piston failure.

It seemed inconceivable that Hunt would actually pass Peterson but he was undoubtedly hanging on extremely well and was never more than a second behind. After the race Hunt said that, in fact, his car had so much straight line speed that he could have passed Peterson but decided to conserve his energy and learn as he went, he planned to make a challenge in the later stages. Even so, with these two so close together the crowd were loving every minute of it.

Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) leads James Hunt (Hesketh) at the 1973 United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen.

Hunt chases down Peterson

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But behind it was processional with the order Reutemann, Hulme, Scheckter and Emerson Fittipaldi, once Mike Hailwood had started to run into problems with the handing, which later led to two pit stops, a new front tyre and finally collapsed rear suspension. The two McLarens had mounted a challenge on Reutemann but by half distance he had shaken them off, after finding a quicker way through a gaggle of back markers.

The season’s fortunes for BRM were showing no improvement and Beltoise made a pit stop on lap 15 to complain the engine was rough. No fault was diagnosed but it seemed to go much better after that. In fact he did not lose much time and was soon up with Regazzoni who was plodding around near the back. From then on the two ran in convoy, regularly swopping positions. Lauda meanwhile made the first of several stops on lap 17 and his trouble was finally traced to a faulty mechanical fuel pump. It took twenty laps to fix but the game Austrian finally rejoined the race.

Surtees’ hopes faded further when Carlos Pace retired with broken rear suspension front seventh place and then Jochen Mass, who inherited that position, also stopped only three laps later with an engine failure. Thus all the Surtees team were out of the running. Merzario had a nasty fright at the corner before the pits when the central mounting for his rear wing broke off completely, causing the whole assembly to literally flyaway. The little Italian was sent into a spin but he collected it all up and carried on. After a few more laps the team gave him the “Box” sign and he came in to have the front wing removed, too, in a bid to balance the car up better.

Hulme and Scheckter were still in close company, the South African losing remarkably little ground when his fire extinguisher went off and froze his leg for a while. But his luck didn’t hold and on lap 40 he suddenly spun wildly at Turn One. This time no blame could be placed on him for a rear wishbone had snapped, an unusual occurrence on a McLaren, and he skidded to a halt. In the process he was very nearly collected by Emerson Fittipaldi who had to lock on everything to stop. This put flats on the two front tyres and the Brazilian made a pit stop to have them changed which surprisingly, thanks to smart Lotus pit work, lost him only one position. The man that sneaked by was Peter Revson who had been working his way up the grid in superb style.

By threequarters distance it was still Peterson with Hunt only feet behind and Reutemann, if anything, closing up slightly and about nine seconds down. Hulme remained fourth, Revson was now fifth ahead of Fittipaldi. The rest were way behind with Jarier seventh. Behind him quite a battle had raged with Mike Beuttler keeping behind the likes of Jacky Ickx in the Iso, and the two BRMs of Regazzoni and Beltoise. All three tried to pass the yellow March but, like Hunt, Beuttler was very fast on the straights. lckx finally managed to squeeze by when the group lapped Graham Hill, and the two works Shadows which were in a little knot towards the hack of the field.

By now Hunt. had given up any chance of beating Peterson, for the car was proving a handful on its light fuel load and the Englishman wisely decided that he would be pleased to finish second. Reutemann was now some twelve seconds back so was no challenge while Hulme was even further behind, having slowed when a strong vibration started. However Hunt was still driving hard and fast and on the last but one lap he recorded the fastest lap of the race. On the very last lap the car spluttered, ominously low on fuel, but Hunt quickly switched on the electrical pump and he finished just 0.6 sec. behind Peterson. For the Swede it was his third win in four races but for any biased Englishman that was around, Hunt was the hero. The Brabham team held their breath until Reutemann arrived in third place, for he too was running out of fuel and this lost him ten seconds on the closing lap. HuIme, Revson and Fittipaldi completed the point scorers.

Jean-Pierre Jarier had the misfortune to crash on the very last lap, he thought a wheel had fallen off at first but wasn’t sure, and thus Ickx took seventh place. Regazzoni finally passed Beltoise for the last time on the final lap so they took eighth and ninth places, while Beuttler, who had been pressured into a spin in the closing stages, was tenth. Jarier was classified 11th ahead of pit stoppers Ganley and Hill. Follmer’s first season of F1 finished dismally in 14th place, he said the handling was diabolical and so did Jackie Oliver who stopped to replace a chunking tyre. Merzario was finally 16th while Wilson Fittipaldi had a poor race at the back, made a couple of pit stops, and completed the finishers along with Lauda.

Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) smiles on the podium at the 1973 United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen.

Ronnie Peterson is all smiles after taking his fourth win of the season

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So 1973 ended with the Lotus 72 still the car to beat. Next year Colin Chapman will have a new car for Ronnie Peterson and there should he quite a few other changes too. The result had given Lotus, or John Player Special as they are officially registered, the constructors’ title thanks to four wins from the Swede and three to the Brazilian. Jackie Stewart also won four on the way to his championship title while the only other race winners were McLaren drivers Peter Revson with two and Denny Hulme with one. At the other end of the scale Mike Haillwood went through the year without picking up a single point and so did Graham Hill, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Mike Beuttler amongst the regulars.—A.R.M.