2 rivals, 1 race to go, 0pt difference: how the 1974 F1 title was decided


The last time that two Formula 1 title rivals went into the final race of the season level on points, Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni were fighting for the 1974 championship and preparing for a showdown at Watkins Glen

Clay Regazzoni and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974

Regazzoni (left) and Fittipaldi went to the final 1974 GP at Watkins Glen level on points

Getty Images/Grand Prix Photo

The older head rested on the younger shoulders in the neck-and-neck Formula 1 showdown of October 1974.

Emerson Fittipaldi was 27 and Clay Regazzoni 34 when they arrived – equal on 52 points – at Watkins Glen in autumnal Upstate New York.

This first season since benchmark Jackie Stewart’s retirement had been a cagey, with nobody able to assume the Scotsman’s mantle.

Niki Lauda and Ferrari had been its fastest combination – nine poles including a streak of six – but had won only twice as the victories were shared among five teams: Brabham, Lotus, McLaren and Tyrrell being the others.

The Austrian – recently benefiting from an after-the-fact bestowal of two points from July’s confused and chaotic British Grand Prix – had been leading the penultimate round in Canada when he slid off on debris of which he had received no warning.

But for that he, too, would have arrived at Watkins Glen with a shot at the title.

Ferrari of Niki Lauda at the 1974 Swedish Grand Prix

Lauda, seen at Anderstorp, lost his chance to win the 1974 title when he crashed out at Mosport

Indeed, had not Tyrrell’s Jody Scheckter also crashed out at Mosport – due to brake failure – when lying third, two points would have covered four title contenders: Clay, Emerson and Jody each with 49 points; Niki menacing on 47.

As it was, Scheckter, with 45 points, retained an outside chance – he needed to win while the other pair pretty much tanked – but Lauda, with 38, was out of the running now.

Fittipaldi and Regazzoni finished first and second for McLaren and Ferrari in a Canadian Grand Prix exhibiting an edge earlier rounds had lacked.

The jockeying had stopped.

Emerson Fittipaldi ahead of Jody Scheckter in the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix

Victory for Fittipaldi in Canada put him level on points with Regazzoni, going into the decider

Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Fittipaldi’s surprising pole position was arguably the lap of the season – and his first since Brazil in January – and Regazzoni had seemed on the brink of disaster on this marginal, fast and bumpy circuit throughout practice and the race.

The former had been a quick study since arriving in Europe as a trailblazer in 1969. By 1970, he was scoring his first GP win – for Lotus at Watkins Glen – at only his fourth attempt. And by 1972, he was F1’s then-youngest world champion.

An enthusiastic and fastidious tester, the Brazilian’s was a smooth and understated style that had been once too often overlooked at Lotus during 1973 – Colin Chapman being blinded by Ronnie Peterson’s blazing speed – but which perfectly suited the ordered environment of McLaren.

Determined to prove doubters wrong and backers Marlboro right, Fittipaldi neatly set out his stall and picked his moments carefully and wisely in an M23 that was as stable and consistent as he had assessed it would be.

McLaren of Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1974 South African Grand Prix

Stable McLaren suited Fittipaldi’s smooth style perfectly

Regazzoni was a very different fish, whose reputation as an uncompromising charger with an ability to shrug off accidents that would cause others to quail rather overshadowed a knack for consistency: the Swiss had won only once in 1974 compared to Fittipaldi’s three.

His rise through the junior formulae had been more tortuous than had Fittipaldi’s – although ultimately successful with Tecno in European Formula 2 in 1970 – but he, too, had arrived in F1 as though born to it, scoring his first GP win – at Monza for Ferrari – at only his fifth attempt.

It’s just that Fittipaldi didn’t entirely trust him. He wasn’t alone in that; Stewart, too, had expressed misgivings about the otherwise delightful Regazzoni’s on-track methods.

Unwritten rules are the most important. They are also the most difficult to apply and to police – and Regazzoni’s stanch defending of his position, including a willingness to weave on a straight, was the thin end of the wedge.

He had crossed a line.

Side view of Clay Regazzoni Ferrari in the 1974 South African Grand Prix

Erratic defending made Regazzoni’s rivals wary

Grand Prix Photo

Both Fittipaldi and Regazzoni struggled in practice at Watkins Glen, neither able to find a happy balance.

But still they were in the same boat, less than a tenth of a second apart in eighth and ninth respectively on the grid.

Fittipaldi, feeling pressure like never before, couldn’t bring himself to glance over his shoulder at his fierce rival. He didn’t need to: Regga’s presence was strong.

Clay’s starts were a strength, too, and he got the jump on Emmo.

From the archive

The latter had by most estimation been playing the long game. But as he gathered momentum and resolve in the Ferrari’s slipstream on the run to Turn Two, he calculated that it was time to act swift, decisively.

He feinted to the outside, then dived to the in- as Regazzoni drifted wide to cover the initial move. The Ferrari jinked the other way in response. Though now alongside, Fittipaldi found himself increasingly crowded towards the track’s inner edge and beyond.

A collision seemed inevitable.

But it was Regazzoni’s turn to sense his rival’s powerful presence. He ducked out at the last second.

They had sorted it out on the track – albeit with two wheels in the grass – without the need for DRS or consent via two-way radio.

Clay Regazzoni ahead of John Watson and Patrick Depailler in the 1974 US Grand Prix

Regazzoni fell back into the clutches of John Watson and Patrick Depailler after losing out to Fittipaldi

Grand Prix Photo

Fittipaldi wasn’t to know that a continuing incurable handling deficiency would soon send Regazzoni into the pits and tumbling down the order. (He eventually finished four laps in arrears in 11th.)

He had slain his dragon – and only thereafter was he content to shadow Scheckter, until fuelling issues ended the South African’s distant hope.

Simpler times for an F1 not yet clogged by information and regulation and so clinging still to its mystique.


Fittipaldi celebrates: US Grand Prix and 1974 championship winner

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

There was, however, too higher price to pay for this to continue unabated. By the side of the track, within a damaged Surtees covered by a sheet, lay the body of Helmuth Koinigg, killed in a crash on lap 10 that had mowed two rows of catch-fencing and parted two layers of Armco, with grisly consequences.

From the archive

F1 had to change and continue to do so to reflect the mores of the time. (Bear in mind, however, that dozens of drunken spectators marked this particular GP by setting fire to vehicles, including a Greyhound bus, on the infield known as the bog.)

Forty-seven years later, it is where it is. Though it wouldn’t hurt were its drivers to reappraise themselves before Abu Dhabi of those unwritten rules – only they can apply them (the edifice crumbles when others try to police them) – and why the governing body must heed their concerns about the Jeddah track before somebody gets hurt.

Of course, F1 should not have gone to Saudi Arabia in the first place – not all things being equal.

All we can do now is look forward in hope that this latest showdown will not be decided by penalties.