Reflections in the Finger Lakes

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From the point of view of the Watkins Glen organisers it was a good thing that the World Championship struggle went all the way to the final round although it is unhappy to report that a large faction of the spectators at the American circuit seemed more content to wreak havoc with other people’s property than actually watch a motor race. The 3.7-mile circuit is picturesque and quite demanding to drive really competitively, but few of the races over recent years have been desperately exciting for one reason or another. In 1972 Jackie Stewart led from start to finish, in 1973 Peterson led from start to finish and the race suffered from the absence of the Tyrrell team while this year it was Reutemann’s turn to dominate the proceedings. Somehow, it is difficult to pinpoint just what was wrong, for though the organisers are supremely obliging and courteous, there is a shortage of real atmosphere or charisma about the place.

Perhaps the reason is that there is no great sense of road racing tradition in North America even though the races round the streets in Watkins Glen village back in 1948 were responsible for sparking off the interest which resulted in the permanent circuit being built.

Most European countries have some deep-rooted enthusiasm for a certain brand of driver or name of car; Italy has its Ferraris and has enjoyed a great number of brilliant drivers, Britain has Lotus, BRM and a whole host of other teams, France has its long-distance epic at Le Mans and the wailing Matra V12s while Germany has the Nurburgring and BMW. The situation in America seems slightly different. The passionate response which the Europeans afford their heroes is reserved in the United States for Indianapolis and the brash, extrovert but clearly extremely exciting NASCAR “stockers” which race nose which race nose to tail round banked ovals at speeds around the 200 m.p.h. mark. That seems to be the real racing heritage in North America and one senses that 3-litre Formula 1 road racing is regarded with just a little bit of benevolent tolerance. They don’t quite regard it as “kinky car” racing as they did the old 1½-litre Formula One, but they don’t exactly get wildly responsive about the whole affair. Even the injection of Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue into the Formula One scene failed to arouse the rapturous response that one experiences when European stars do well in front of their home crowds. Perhaps it is that the enthusiasts realise that the cars were designed by Englishmen and the Penske was actually built in Britain. Anyway, I’d like to think that some of the spectators at the Glen are sufficiently enthusiastic to know a little about their “home heroes”, although the way in which the “lunatic fringe” spent most of the weekend burning out cars and even a Greyhound coach while they were blind drunk leads me to believe there were a far higher proportion of “hangers on” to “real enthusiasts” in the crowd than at most Grand Prix races this year.

Turning to the two American teams once more, it’s a pleasure to record the progress they both made in their second race. Andretti had moved the Parnelli up to almost the very front of the grid while Donohue had moved to tilt. centre of the grid (where Andretti had been in Canada) from the back. Now, Andretti cannot move much further forward, so the next step will be to see how Donohue copes in bridging the crucial gap from being a competent mid-field runner to a runner capable of staying in the front half-dozen or whether he manages to do it. Another very valid point made by one of Andretti’s rivals was the fact that he was racing in front of his home crowd and this might have brought out that little extra “plus” which marks the distinction between a good and an outstanding performance. Looking back over this season in retrospect, this might well be the case, for Reutemann at Buenos Aires, Fittipaldi at Interlagos, Mass at the Nurburgring and Lauda at Osterreichring and Monza (where his Ferrari was on home ground!) all put in quite outstanding performances. That is not to say they failed to do so elsewhere, although Mass’s performances were conspicuously below his home showing elsewhere and he shed a little bit of light onto the row with Surtees, perhaps just a little bit more than he ought to have done!

Nonetheless, praise and encouragement for the Parnelli and Penske effort is deserved after their first two races. They have got off to a promising start and now all they’ve got to do is to handle Buenos Aires, Kyalami, Interlagos, Montjuich Park, Zolder, Monaco, Clermont-Ferrand, Silverstone, Nurburgring,, Osterreichring and Monza just as well next year to establish themselves as competitive teams. As we have said before, there’s a lot more to being competitive than shining brightly in a couple of races, but at least you are travelling in the right direction if you improve like the two American teams have done over the last couple of events in 1974.

Finally, it is worth considering the merits of the 1974 World Championship. We have often felt that the FIA system is lacking in many ways and there have been years where the choice of World Champion is obvious, disregarding any points system which may be in force. In 1969 there was no denying that Stevvart was a worthy World Champion and the same goes for 1971, while Rindt in 1970 and Fittipaldi in 1972 both deserved their titles without doubt for they had simply won more World Championship Grand Prix races than any of their rivals. But in 1974 we have a different situation with Fittipaldi, Reutemann and Peterson taking three wins apiece, Regazzoni starting the final round on equal points with the eventual World Champion and only losing out by virtue of that unusually dismal final event. Of course there is a school of thought which considers that consistency is the meritorious factor by which Championships should be won, but we have equally often thought that there should be years that the Championship title should not have been awarded at all. This year perhaps, with Stewart’s retirement, a void has appeared at the very pinnacle of the sport and none of the current drivers has yet moved ahead to fill the breach. Perhaps we have a situation similar to that when Stirling Moss was forced out of racing in 1962 and it seemed as though Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and John, Surtees were all drivers of equal stature and ability. Time showed that Clark moved ahead of his contemporaries and became the next mark by which others judged their own performances, so perhaps one of Fittipaldl, Peterson, Lauda or Scheckter will pull away. from the other three in the years to come and succeed Stewart as the “top dog”. That’s not to say Stewart was invincible, far from it, but he was consistently competitive, so much that he was a yardstick by which to judge the achievements of his rivals.

Nevertheless, the record books show that Fittipaldi is World Champion for the second 811 time after what might be described as uninspired season, or more politely as “strategic” season. This is in no way to detract from, the Brazilian’s achievement, but it must be said that he drove with an old flair of his 1972 Championship Year US GP Depailler to finish in strong fifth and sixth places, Merzario having stopped his Williams when an electrical fault which discharged the car’s fire extinguisher into his face and then caused the engine to cut out, while Mass had driven very hard from near the back of the grid to take seventh place. It was an excellent result for the works Brabhams, Reutemann having maintained the tremendous form he has shown throughout the second half of the season, but somehow there was a feeling of anti-climax over the way in which the Championship contest had fizzled out. Fittipaldi had driven a conscientious and “strategic” race into fourth place, but it was hardly the stuff of which legends are made, while the failure of Ferrari to maintain their competitive edge proved a rather disappointing footnote to the last race of the year. – A.H.