A British Champion?
Although the 1979 European Formula Two season is one of the shortest on record, it has also been one of the toughest. A dozen races isn’t a long season for a FISA championship, but the racing throughout the year has been exceptionally close and six drivers have vied for the title. In the build-up to the finale at Donington there had been seven different race winners, while the battles between BMW and Brian Hart; Ralt, March, has taken Osella and Chevron and Goodyear, Pirelli and M&H had kept the contenders in suspense.
Before the BRDC Donington race, scheduled for August 19th, Englishman Brian Henton had pulled out a slender one point lead over his season-long rivals Eddie Cheever and Marc Surer. Henton, driving a Hart-engined Ralt RT2 for the Toleman Group, had build up 33 pts. With two outright wins, a second (in a March 782!), a third, a fourth and a fifth. Pending were nine more points for a disqualification in the race at Enna Pergusa in Sicily. Henton won on the road but was subsequently disqualified, so his team have appealed and the crucial decision is expected “later this year”.
Unfortunately, that dispute could have a bearing on the outcome of the championship and it is quite likely the ultimate fate of the F2 title will be decided in a Paris committee room, long after the Formula Two circuits have packed up, sold off their cars and are looking towards the next season . . .
Cheever has won three races in his Italian-built Osella-BMW while Swiss driver Marc Surer, who was runner up to Giacomelli in 1978, has taken two wins in his works March-BMW. Our last review, in the May issue of Motor Sport, covered the three early rounds of the championship that had seen Cheever win at Silverstone in the wet for Osella and Pirelli, Keijo Rosberg take a fine win for the ICI March-BMW team at Hockenheim and Rad Dougall score a surprise victory at Thruxton in the Toleman team’s year-old March-Hart 782. Since then the championship has seen even more variety and Henton and Surer emerge to join Cheever in the title chase.
After Thruxton Dougall had been leading the championship as the teams headed back to Germany in early May for the fourth round at the magnificent Nürburgring. In practice Rosberg, who was again standing in for Derek Daly in the ICI March, took pole with an impressive 7 min. 6.9 sec. lap. However, race day was overcast and the start of the race saw the 14-mile track still damp after rain. It was a gamble on tyres but most chose wets – and subsequently had to stop and change to slicks at some stage during the nine laps. Surer bravely decided to start on slicks and his shrewd ploy won him the race. As others slithered about and crashed, including ICI team-mates Rosberg and South who went off at the same corner, Surer’s March worked steadily through to take a well judged win.
As the track dried, the Politac March-BMW streaked away from the field, giving Surer a superb win in the classic Eifelrennen race. Henton had reverted to his year-old March-Hart 782 for this race while his Ralt was further developed, and after his early stop to change tyres, the Englishman stormed back through to second place. Third fell to German driver Manfred Winkelhock, who had raced all the way on slick M & H tyres on his Ralt-BMW RT1. Fourth and fifth were the Chevrons of Siegfried Stohr and Huub Rothengatter while Dougall, still in a March, was sixth.
Surer followed up his Nürburgring win with another soon after in Italy when his March triumphed at Rome’s Vallelunga Autodrome. However, his win in round five was at bitter cost to Henton, who punctured a tyre while leading strongly in the March, and later crashed into the wreckage of an abandoned car that was partially blocking the track. Also out of luck was South, who qualified on pole only to tangle with Cheever during the first lap and both cars ended up in the catch fencing. There followed a whole string of accidents and it was Stohr in his Chevron who picked his way through to take second place with Maurizio Flammini third from Bobby Rahal’s works Chevron, Dougall’s Ralt and young Italian driver Andrea de Cesaris, who was standing in for Daly. After five races the championship lead was shared by Dougall and Surer. Poor Daly, after missing three rounds to try and qualify the Ensign for Grand Prix, wasn’t even in the picture.
Henton was back in his Ron Tauranac-designed Ralt for the next Italian round at the modern Mugello circuit north of Florence a week after and he scored a runaway win after starting from pole position. It was the first win for the sleek RT2 chassis.
Daly, back in the ICI March again, had qualified alongside Henton but was eliminated in another of those all too prevalent first lap collisions. This time it involved Henton, Regazzoni and Surer too, and only Henton carried on! Henton sprinted away to take over the series lead while Beppe Gabbiani brought this works March home second ahead of Eje Elgh and Teo Fabi, both in March-BMWs, Derek Warwick’s March-Hart and Rahal in the Chevron.
The only French race of the year, following the cancellation of the Rouen Les Essarts and Nogaro rounds, was at Pau and it turned out to be another wet race. From a lowly twelfth on the grid Cheever took advantage of the clearly superior Pirelli wet compound tyres to lead home the seven survivors.
Once again there were many incidents in the atrocious conditions. Henton slid off on the very first lap and Cheever punted off Daly, after the Irishman had led for 30 laps. It was Stohr who lasted the distance to take second place from Surer with Gabbiani fourth and Frenchman Patrick Gaillard fifth in a Chevron. The only other finishers were the Marches of Guerra and Colombo.
It was back to Hockenheim in mid-June and, after Henton faded early with gearbox trouble, no one had an answer for a very press-on Stephen South as he took a decisive win in his March-BMW. The Londoner was comfortably fastest in practice and simply romped away from his pursuers.
South won both 20-lap heats and the overall placings saw his team-mate Daly take second from Gabbiani, Gaillard, Surer and Rahal. Surer had dropped back after overshooting a chicane and Hans Stuck, who had challenged for the lead in the first heat, went out with a blown engine.
After a lengthy lay-off the teams travelled to Holland for the first Formula Two race there since the old FVA days. The Zandvoort race gave Cheever the chance to prove his Pirellis didn’t only work in the wet because he took a fine win at the Dutch seaside circuit. Teo Fabi’s works March hounded the Osella to get second and Surer had to settle for third. Colombo was fourth and Henton – the early pace setter – slipped down to fifth after tyre problems. Elgh’s March was sixth.
That win gave Cheever the lead in the series, with Surer then second and Henton third, but it might have all changed in that tenth round at Enna Pergusa in Sicily. Indeed, it might still change with that appeal pending. Henton was on pole but overshot the first corner and was then thrown out of the results for the way in which he rejoined the circuit.
The gruelling race developed into a fight between Henton and Elgh and the Ralt only narrowly beat the Swede’s March on the road. Daly had been delayed by a spin during the confusion at the first corner, so he did well to get back up to third, and South made a superb recovery to fourth after to stop to change a damaged nose section. With Henton disqualified, everyone moved up a placing, giving Cheever fifth and Dougall sixth.
Henton shrugged off his mistake in Sicily by winning the most recent race at the Misano circuit on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Again he started from pole and after Daly ran into gear linkage problems and retired, the way was clear for Henton to pick off another win. The track broke up badly at this race, causing many problems, although Gabbiani kept going to take second from team-mate Surer in the closing stages. Cheever was left with a lowly sixth behind Juan Traverso’s March-Hart and Stohr who had switched to a March.
With the showdown at Donington to come Henton had edged fractionally ahead of rivals Cheever and Surer. March had taken six wins, to the three notched up by Osella and the two for Ralt; while Brian Hart’s engines had been credited with three wins over BMW. However the final position still depends very much on the outcome at Donington – and probably the later appeal about the Enna results. In spite of the messy Sicilian affair, it promises to be an exciting showdown. – M. T.