When second was best

At its peak, there was nothing to beat Formula 2 for showcasing driver talent. Two men who were there recall their best moments
By Alan Henry & Ian Phillips

They were epic days for international motor racing, no question about it. Formula 2 throughout much of the 1970s and part of the ’80s was a defining cornerstone of the sport that allowed hungry young stars to demonstrate their flair and promise, often in direct competition with the F1 titans of their day.

These were the days when Formula 1 stars competed in a wide range of classes as a matter of course, not simply remaining cosseted within the well-insulated surroundings of the Grand Prix community. They raced sports cars, touring cars and F2 machinery. And such was the equality of the equipment available that the process of cross-referencing talent was remarkably straightforward. You just knew that when the likes of Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson proved themselves kings of the F2 castle they were showcasing dynamic talent that would inevitably lead to Grand Prix glory.

For three seasons in the early ’70s, I travelled with Ian Phillips to most of the far-flung circuits of Europe and beyond reporting on the F2 championship – me for Motoring News and Ian for Autosport. This was at a time when the motor racing community was much smaller than today and access to drivers more straightforward and uncomplicated. I met up with Ian at a recent GP to reflect on some of the closest-fought motor racing in the sport’s history. AH

In the beginning...

Alan Henry “It’s a bit difficult to know where to start, but I think one of the key turning points for F2 was in 1967 when the 1.6-litre rules were introduced and Cosworth came up with the FVA four-cylinder engine as part of the deal to build the F1 DFV for Ford.”

Ian Phillips “That Easter Monday Thruxton meeting was always a really big deal with a huge sense of occasion. It was the place where you really felt that, at long last, the international season was underway.

I remember particularly going there in 1969, before I’d become a journalist, and being swept away by the sight of Jochen in the Winkelmann Brabham and the works Matras with Jean-Pierre Beltoise driving.

“But, having said that, there were two other people who stood out in my mind on that day. One was a bearded chap from Belfast in a private Lotus 48 entered by Team Ireland. It was John Watson’s first real taste of the big time and he climbed steadily through the field up to about sixth place, I think it was, until he slid off into the barrier at the chicane.

“The other guy was the motorcycle ace Billy Ivy, who showed astonishing pace in a private Brabham BT23. He only did a handful of car races before he was killed later that season when he crashed his bike at the Sachsenring in East Germany. Had he lived I am sure we would have seen great things from him on four wheels.”

AH “That’s right and, of course, John’s father Marshall Watson bought him a brand new Brabham BT30 at the start of the 1970 season and he really set about proving his quality that year, even though he suffered a bit of a setback with a big shunt at Rouen. Looking back on it, it seems so wildly improbable that you could do a season of international, major-league single-seater racing with a Brabham towed around Europe on a trailer behind a Transit van. But you could. I don’t know whether things have got better or worse over the subsequent years from that point of view.”

The unforgettable talents

IP “I know that many of Motor Sport’s readers might not agree with me, but although Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart and Ronnie Peterson were right up there at the sharp end of F2 in the heyday of the Cosworth FVA, in terms of huge natural talent, I’ve got to fast-forward to 1983 when a guy called Willi Maurer turned up at the Easter Monday Thruxton meeting with his self-built BMW-engined challenger.

“It was driven by a young German guy called Stefan Bellof and, for me, he was probably the most exciting driver ever to be produced by F2. His career lasted only a couple of years until he was killed at Spa at the wheel of a Group C Porsche sports car, but I rated him as having the potential to be a truly world-class F1 driver.

“Everybody talks about the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix as the race Ayrton Senna would have won in the Toleman had it not been red-flagged due to torrential rain at half distance when Alain Prost was just hanging onto his lead in the McLaren-TAG. But everybody tends to forget that Bellof in the works Tyrrell was carving into their advantage from third place and, had the race run its full distance, it’s probable that he would have won. He had huge talent and I quickly became one of his great fans.”

AH “I can absolutely see why you think that way. Bellof also had huge charisma and might well have been years ahead of Michael Schumacher as the first German World Champion had he lived. He had towering confidence in his own ability, and in that way he was a bit like Senna, although not as complex and often over-emotional as Ayrton.

“But that said, I still give Jochen and Ronnie the edge when it comes to assessing their talent, simply because at the start of the 1970s the F2 business was just so close it was unbelievable.”

Attention to detail

AH “Do you remember going to places like Jarama and Vallelunga where there would be 22 cars on the grid, and then about eight or 10 non-qualifiers who had all lapped within a couple of seconds of the pole position man?”

IP “I do indeed, AH, and more to the point I recall that you and I made it an article of faith not only to find out the chassis number of every car on the grid, but also the engine tuner who had prepared their Cosworth engines. I wonder what readers would make of that now?”

AH “I hate to think. We must have been terminally obsessive about those things!”

IP “That’s true. You could never have imagined that 30 years later, for example, people would be contacting you trying to ascertain whether a particular Brabham BT30 was the one used by Derek Bell to contest the 1970 European F2 Trophy series. Or just how valuable they would become.”

AH “That’s true. As an aside, I’m always impressed by how beautifully some people have restored single-seaters from that period, often to the point where they are in far better condition than they ever were when they were contemporary machines. I remember seeing an ex-works March 712 for sale as a rolling chassis in the early 1980s for around £1500. With the right engine today it would be worth, I don’t know, £70,000 – or whatever you felt like asking – particularly if it was one driven by Ronnie, or Niki Lauda.”

The best and the worst

IP “Ah, Niki. We really should not have been even remotely surprised that he developed into a driver of world-class calibre, because he really shaped up extremely well against Ronnie in equal cars. Remember the Rouen Formula 2 race in 1971? People remember it for the fact it was Ronnie’s first F2 win, but it was Niki who led him for the first few laps in one of the heats and I remember Alan Rees, the March team manager, almost falling out of the pit in his anxiety to signal that Niki should get back behind Ronnie into second place!”

AH “Yes, that was certainly the day when Niki showed his potential for the first time. Of course, after the awful spaceframe March 702 in 1970 – one of the worst cars Robin Herd ever designed, I would think – the new monocoque March 712 was in a completely different league. Better than a Lotus 69, and perhaps almost as good as the Brabham BT36.”

The Bod at Thruxton

IP “Talking of the Brabham BT36, the other thing about Thruxton that sticks in my memory was Graham Hill winning the Easter Monday F2 international in 1971 at the wheel of the Rondel Racing BT36 entered by our old friends Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle. Graham hounded Ronnie for the entire distance and only squeezed past when the March had to take to the grass to avoid a backmarker he was lapping.”

AH “That backmarker was Jeremy Richardson, the former Ginetta club racer, who had bought the ex-Wheatcroft Brabham BT30 which Derek Bell had used the previous year. Why do I remember these trivial pieces of information?

“Actually, I do remember that Thruxton race extremely well as I lap-charted it from the bank at the chicane. I had only been with Motoring News for about nine months and I noticed that Bill Boddy, the editor of Motor Sport, was spectating a little further along from me. Being very much the junior it would never have occurred to me to have the temerity to speak to the Bod without being asked. But as he walked past me at the end of the race he remarked, ‘Very clever of Graham to have let that young Swedish chap think he had a chance of winning!’ I smiled politely and tugged my forelock.”

IP “I think he may have been joking, AH…”

Ron set the standard

IP “But still on the theme of that Thruxton race, it’s worth mentioning that Rondel was the first indication of just what high standards of detailed preparation and turnout Ron Dennis would bring to the sport over the next 30 years, particularly after he took charge of McLaren. In that respect, I think Ron has probably contributed more than any other individual, apart from Bernie Ecclestone, into developing F1 into the high-quality product it has become today. Rondel Racing was just the beginning.”

AH “Goodness, and how things have changed. I remember Ron telling me that Ron Tauranac had loaned him the couple of BT36 chassis which would be driven by Tim Schenken and either Graham Hill or Bob Wollek, depending on clashing fixtures. I’m also reminded that Ron bought the Cosworth FVA engines that powered the Rondel cars from Bernie Ecclestone. They had come back to the UK as deck cargo from the previous winter’s Argentine Temporada F2 series and were rusted to hell. But they still worked pretty well!

“They also had a transporter that had been used by the privateer Ron Harris which had been quietly decomposing behind the premises of Mike Spence Ltd in Maidenhead ever since the end of the 1968 season. Ron and Neil feared that they might not be able to raise the funds to restore it, but they eventually hit on a novel solution. They whipped up all their friends from the local pub and transported them en masse down to the Brabham factory, where they were put to work stripping, spraying and generally refurbishing the truck in return for liberal supplies of liquid refreshment!”

IP “Ron could always think his way through to a clever solution, couldn’t he?”

Vallelunga victories

IP “Of course, Rondel wasn’t the only good team running Brabham chassis that year. The Automovil Club Argentina had a couple of BT36s for Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Ruesch, run by that tiny little guy called Hector Staffa, who always seemed to be wearing a thick tweed sports jacket no matter how hot the weather. I also remember that at the Vallelunga series final he inexplicably ran Reutemann on grooved intermediate tyres as he thought the slicks that Ronnie was running on the March might blister and cause him trouble. As it turned out, Ronnie dominated the race, clinched the F2 title and wiped the floor with Reutemann’s Brabham.”

AH “You’ve just reminded me of another thing. They had back-to-back races at Vallelunga with a non-title event the following Saturday, which I remember going back again to cover. It was won by the late Mike Beuttler, who we all nicknamed ‘Blocker’ Beuttler because of the way he repeatedly baulked his rivals at a time when such tactics were new and unexpected. Nice bloke, but not a top-league driver, I didn’t think.”

Not to mention...

IP “Of course, the other guys we’ve missed talking about in connection with that incredible early 1970s period were Jackie Stewart and François Cevert. Remember it was Jackie who tested the first F2 Matra at Goodwood back in the mid-1960s and was one of the first alerted to just how good the French chassis really were. And, of course, remember that Johnny Servoz-Gavin won the 1969 European F2 Trophy crown in a Matra.

“Then in 1970 Jackie won the Crystal Palace Whitsun F2 international in John Coombs’s Brabham, but only after Jochen Rindt’s Winkelmann Lotus 59 retired while leading. Cevert was driving a Tecno in that race and shunted it quite heavily into the sleepers which lined this tight little track. But this was also the race at which Stewart and Ken Tyrrell concluded that he was the right man to replace Servoz-Gavin as Jackie’s team-mate in the Tyrrell F1 squad. So it was certainly a weekend well spent for François.”

AH “Quite right, and of course François stayed in the works Tecno team, backed by Elf, through 1971 and was highly competitive everywhere he raced. Frankly he was in a different class to both Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Patrick Depailler, who shared the second car for much of the time. I’d been impressed with Tecno’s ability ever since Clay Regazzoni drove one of their cars to win the 1970 European F2 trophy. The most impressive drive I saw from Clay came at Enna-Pergusa, that sweltering flat-out blast around a snake-infested lake in central Sicily, where he saw off the BMW 270s of Jacky Ickx and Jo Siffert in a lurid three-way fight which still gives me goosebumps to think about. They were three tough old boys, no question about it.”

Hail to Hailwood

IP “Talking of slipstreaming, let’s recall that Brian Hart won both at Enna and Hockenheim in the 1960s before developing a reputation as one of the ace tuners of the Cosworth FVA engines. He went on to build the production-based 1850cc four-cylinder that Mike Hailwood used to win the 1972 F2 championship.”

AH “Yes. Mike was a lovely guy who never abused his celebrity status. Just a natural guy who was totally committed inside the cockpit of a racing car and totally committed to having a good time when he was out of it. As you and I may remember…”

IP “Yes indeed! I don’t think Mike’s professionalism as a driver could be faulted, although he probably came to front-line competition a little late in the day. He also had this curious bond with John Surtees, which was strange in the sense that they were very different individuals, although I suppose the fact that they had both been motorcycle racers gave them an affinity.”

Bavarian works

AH “Once Surtees had enjoyed their moment in the sun, it was time for BMW to take over and build their race-winning and commercial partnership with March. They kicked out Lauda at the end of ’72 and went for Jean-Pierre Jarier, who drove the March-BMW 732 really very well indeed to take the championship.”

IP “Yes, I remember that he and Beltoise were running one-two in a class of their own at the season opener at Mallory Park, only for Beltoise’s engine to blow up so spectacularly that debris from a piston shattered the glass in the window of the timekeeper’s office. Jarier was one of those drivers who only really drove well when he had a slight performance edge, and that’s what Max and Robin were able to give him in 1973.”

Did you know...

AH “By then, I’d moved on to F1 reporting and did not cover many more F2 events, but most of the guys who’d starred in the early ’70s carried their careers through into the World Championship arena and the paddocks I frequented continued to have a familiar feel to them. I think the final F2 race that I reported was the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring in 1973, which was won by Reine Wisell in a Hart-engined GRD entered by Team Pierre Robert. It was the second F2 race I saw Reine winning, having watched him take a lucky triumph at Pau in the LIRA-Team Lotus 69 back in 1971.”

IP “And since you are a reservoir of trivial information, what was special about Wisell’s GRD on that rainy day at the Nürburgring?

AH “I haven’t the faintest idea!”

IP “It was running Goodyears on its front wheels and Firestones on the rears.”

AH “I’m afraid I’m just going to have to take your word for that. Even though I was the one who was there!”