Italy has crowned its first European Formula Two champion. At Hockenheim, in Germany, on September 24th Bruno Giacomelli won the final round of the series in his works March-BMW 782, but the boy from Brescia had actually clinched the title nearly two months earlier at Enna Pergusa, in Sicily. Our review of the series in the August issue of Motor Sport took us up to Giacomelli’s fifth outright win at Nogaro in France. Since then he has added three more because, after settling the Championship with that good win at Enna, he triumphed again at Misano, in Italy, in early August. Giacomelli ended the year with eight wins to his credit from just 12 Championship rounds, so he easily beat the previous Championship best of Jean-Pierre Jarier who won the title for March in 1973 by winning seven out of 17 Championship events.
Giacomelli’s was the fourth Formula Two title for the British March team (winners with Peterson in ’71, Jarier in ’73, and Depailler in ’74) and was also the fourth for BMW, the German manufacturer who built his four-cylinder, production-based engine. BMW have won the title three times with March and once with Jacques Laffite and Martini in 1975.
This year’s Championship brought to an end five years of French domination and ended the two-year reign by the Renault V6 engine. When Elf Martini and Renault quit at the end of last year, having won the series with Rene Arnoux, the way was left clear for March and BMW to resume command, and this they did with a vengeance. Giacomelli was the only driver to win a race in 1978 using a BMW engine yet his record was as near perfect as you are likely to get in the competitive European series. Backing up those eight wins, little Bruno took a second place at Vallelunga, a close third at Mugello, and only failed to finish twice. At the Nurburgring an electrical failure put him out while he was in the leading bunch and at Donington he got involved in a crash. To further emphasise his domination of the season, he claimed pole position at eight races and set fastest lap six times. No one had an answer for this sort of consistency, except perhaps Giacomelli’s team mate, the Swiss driver Marc Surer, who also managed to score championship points at 10 events and eventually finished runner-up in the points table. At five races in 1978 Giacomelli led Surer across the line in 1-2 formation, which was a fine tribute to the efforts of Robin Herd and the March team from Bicester, and Jochen Neerpasch’s engineers from Munich, who were again under the control of Paul Rosche.
The scoring system for the FIA Championship meant both Giacomelli and Surer had to drop their three worst scores but they were still untouchable at the head of the March v. Chevron battle. These two British manufacturers were the only constructors seriously involved in Formula Two all year. Tico Martini withdrew at the end of 1977 to tackle Formula One racing with Arnoux, while Ron Tauranac wasn’t able to capitalise on the second place overall taken by Eddie Cheever’s Ralt last year and there was no serious effort from his company either.
So, the Championship became a straight fight between March and Chevron and, in spite of Irishman Derek Daly taking those two outstanding wins in his ICI Chevron in Italy at mid-season, the final score showed an overwhelming victory for March. Alex Ribeiro won the Nurburgring in his privately-run March chassis to give the Bicester constructors nine wins, while Daly’s bid for Chevron was backed up by Keijo Rosberg’s Chevron victory at Donington. The final score was March 9; Chevron 3.
However, March had an advantage in that they fielded more customer cars at each round. This can be clearly seen by the number of top six finishes by the rival companies. March chassis finished in top six 54 times while Chevron were left with the remaining 18 top six places. No other manufacturer scored points, indeed there were seldom any outsiders in the races apart from a lone Ralt run by a private German team and a few hopefuls trying to qualify outdated cars at the larger meetings.
Similarly the fight for honours between the engine builders was a straight squabble between Britain’s Brian Hart and BMW. Hart again fielded his alloy-block 420R racing engine and it proved during the year that it was every bit as fast as the German four-cylinder. The two wins by Daly and Rosberg’s win at Donington were backed up by Ribeiro’s Nurburgring victory with his interesting March-Hart combination. Although Brian Hart’s engines only won a third of the races, they were clearly a much stronger threat than that result indicates. Britain’s Brian Henton ran a Hart engine in his March chassis and in the later races he was proving consistently quicker than the works cars. Unfortunately Henton was robbed of several chances to upstage the March-BMW alliance because of mechanical failures. This Englishman deserved to win at least three races; he had them within his grasp, only to be put out with silly electrical problems or, as in the case of the Hockenheim finale, a troublesome clutch.
At the end of the Formula Two year, with the teams preparing for two non-championship races in Argentina, we can therefore reflect on a crushing victory by March and BMW. Even with his score adjusted to drop his three worst results, Giacomelli had totalled 78 pts. and Surer had 48 pts. Third place had been claimed by Daly’s Chevron-Hart with 27 pts. and Eddie Cheever, with 22 pts., was fourth overall in his March-BMW. In spite of missing five races because of his North American Atlantic commitments, Rosberg was fifth overall, with 16 pts., and sharing sixth were the March-BMWs of lngo Hoffmann and Piero Necchi with 13 pts. Poor Henton, who had claimed pole position at two races and led three of them strongly, ended the year with just 3 pts . . . .
The turning point of the season came in that Sicilian race at the lakeside Enna Pergusa track. Daly had snatched pole position for the only time all year and Giacomelli was back on the second row. At the start, however, Daly completely misjudged the turn into the first chicane and went straight on, followed by Ingo Hoffmann’s March. Miraculously the rest of the field avoided this wild incident and Giacomelli was quickly in control. By the time he had rejoined the track Daly was right back in 15th place but he made a brilliant recovery and almost re-caught the leading March. However, in the closing stages, Daly’s tyres went off badly on the rough Enna track surface and he slipped back to third place behind Cheever’s March. Daly’s chances of catching Giacomelli for the Championship were over and he was left with only a new outright Enna lap record as consolation.
Piercarlo Ghinzani’s March-BMW was fourth, ahead of the semi-works March-BMW of the Argentinian Riccardo Zunino. Henton’s March-Hart was sixth in only his second finish of the season. Surer qualified unusually far back at midfield and was out after a crash on lap 5. It was the only time all year he failed to finish.
A fortnight later, on Italy’s Adriatic coast near Rimini, the Misano circuit hosted the penultimate round of the Championship. This time it was Henton on pole with Giacomelli alongside. From the start the Scaini Batteries-sponsored works March leapt straight into the lead with Henton chasing hard but, after only 15 laps, the gap widened as the Hart engine in Henton’s car began to misfire. The electrics were playing up again and slowly the Englishman began to fall back. Surer came through to follow his team leader across the line at the finish, and the promising young Italian Elio de Angelis scored his best result of the year by finishing third in his ICI Chevron-Hart, which was running on M & H tyres for the first time.
Britain’s Geoff Lees, a late arrival on the Formula Two scene, put in a steady drive to take fourth in his Chevron-Hart, fifth was Arturo Merzario in one of Fred Opert’s Chevron-Harts and sixth went to Cheever in his March-Hart.
The finale at Hockenheim wasn’t until seven weeks later and after this unnecessarily long lay off it was again Henton who emerged as the challenger to the factory March team. Surer was given pole position for the German race although most people had timed Henton fastest. Anyway, Henton it was who set the pace and won the first 20-lap heat comfortably from Giacomelli and Surer. However, at the restart, the clutch on Henton’s car gave trouble and by the first corner he had slumped down to 15th and his time advantage from the first heat had been lost. Henton made a brave attempt to fight back and had caught right up to sixth place, when he was involved in a controversial coming together with Cheever’s March. The impact sent Henton’s car flying through the air in a horrifying series of rolls which totally destroyed the car. Fortunately Henton escaped without serious injury but it was a sad end to his frustrating season.
March were left to go one better than their string of 1-2 finishes throughout the year because at Hockenheim Manfred Winkelhock, the young German driver, who was in his first season of single-seater racing, came through to claim third overall behind Giacomelli and Surer – a 1-2-3 for the European champions and a fitting end to their all-conquering season. – M.T.