The pairing of Gilles Villeneuve and Eddie Cheever was exactly the spark a lacklustre World Championship of Makes required
By David Philips
The World Championship of Makes in 1977 was a rather disjointed affair, consisting of nine events including classics such as the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 1000Km of Nürburgring and Brands Hatch and the Six Hours of Watkins Glen. Conspicuous by its absence was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest choosing to go its own way on a rules package that encouraged ‘pure’ sports cars in contrast to the ‘silhouette’ racers favoured by the Makes Championship.
Yet the season still produced its share of memories, especially the Canadian round at Mosport, where a pair of young lions put a Falz Racing BMW 320i turbo on the podium: Gilles Villeneuve and Eddie Cheever, the former fresh from his F1 debut with McLaren at the British Grand Prix and the latter en route to second place in the European F2 championship in a Ralt-BMW entered by Ron Dennis.
At the sharp end of the Mosport grid was the Porsche factory’s lone 935/2 (2 as in twin turbos) piloted by Ickx and Manfred Schurti on pole in 1min 20.123sec, two seconds quicker than the fastest of the single-turbo ‘customer’ 935s driven by George Follmer and Brett Lunger. The second row featured a BMW North America 320 turbo driven by David Hobbs and Ronnie Peterson and the controversial Porsche 935 of Peter Gregg and ‘guest’ driver Bob Wollek – controversial because the fifth fastest qualifier, Canadian Ludwig Heimrath, was involved in a running battle all season with Gregg over the legality of its bodywork.
Cheever and Villeneuve were 11th after suffering a broken driveshaft in qualifying. The two chargers had been more focused on beating one another than playing the dutiful team-mates in practice, as Cheever, then a member of BMW’s junior team with Marc Surer and Manfred Winkelhock, relates.
“I had never raced at Mosport, but Villeneuve knew the place like the back of his hand,’’ he says. ‘‘And the car was not exactly fun to drive. It had a big turbo – you had to accelerate on Monday to get something to happen on Thursday.
“Nevertheless, after I got to know the place, we really went at it. Neither of us really gave a s*** about the race. We only cared about being quicker than the other guy. It was great because I would do the fastest time I thought I could do, then they would put Villeneuve in and he’d go better, then I’d go better, and so forth.”
The race turned out to be a battle of attrition, with early leaders Ickx/Schurti retiring with a blown head gasket after an hour, the Follmer/Lunger Porsche succumbing to a broken valve rocker and the Hobbs/Peterson BMW slowed by fuel system gremlins and an unquenchable thirst for oil. Into the breach came the Gregg/Wollek 934 with Heimrath and Paul Miller second, and the Falz BMW third, its drivers evidently putting their rivalry aside.
“Believe it or not, the car was running so well I had to take my foot off the gas on the straights and then still deal with that turbo lag in the corners,” says Cheever.
What’s more, an exhaust leak dumped noxious gasses into the closed cockpit – not for the first time, as Surer was nearly overcome by fumes in the same car at the Nürburgring. Like the Swiss, though, Villeneuve made it to the finish – only to pass out on the third step of the podium.
It should have been the second step, for Heimrath lodged another protest against Gregg’s car. The protest (heard by the Canadian Automobile Sports Car Club rather than the Sports Car Club of America, which had sanctioned previous Trans-Am events in which the wrangle had developed) was upheld and the Gregg/Wollek car was disqualified. Gregg appealed and it wasn’t until several months later that Heimrath’s victory – and second place for the Cheever/Villeneuve BMW – was confirmed.
By then, of course, events had pushed the Mosport race into the background. Villeneuve had signed a Formula 1 contract with Ferrari and Cheever was recuperating from a massive crash at Vallelunga, one that had a lasting impact on the careers of both of BMW’s Mosport chargers, to say nothing of F1 history.
“I was invited to test for Ferrari that summer,” said Cheever. “After I tested for Ferrari, I raced that orange BMW at Vallelunga. On the second lap I crashed and broke my hand and my shoulder, and that almost put an end to everything. I lost the Ferrari contract as a result. There was an Italian journalist who used to work with Ferrari all the time – he was Il Commendatore’s guy – who invited Villeneuve to test and he got the drive.”