“The era of radical innovations has passed. From now on we will proceed by detail improvements.”
That was Colin Chapman’s view of Formula 1 at the end of 1973.
To be fair, ACBC had plenty on his plate: keeping Moonraker Boats afloat; attempting – but failing – to keep new sponsor Texaco happy with a bespoke Formula 2 campaign (below); launching a much-delayed road car, complete with self-developed engine, at the height of the Fuel Crisis; overseeing the mid-engine prototype that would become the Esprit; and generally steering Lotus Cars from its kit car past to a fully automated mainstream future.
F1 was the least of his worries, particularly as John Player Team Lotus’ contender had, in its fourth season, again proved the fastest in the field. Its successor, therefore, would be an evolution: “A Lotus 72… [only] something like 100lb lighter.”
That was an oversimplification. Central to the 76 of 1974 was the futuristic electronic-hydraulic automatic clutch designed to allow ex-karter Ronnie Peterson to smooth his inputs and the car’s attitudes by left-foot braking using a V-shaped pedal that forked either side of the steering column.
Peterson was keen on the car to begin with – as he had been with the awful and wilful March 721X – but swiftly grew to loathe it. That it had emerged heavier than the 72 didn’t help his mood; neither did the jammed throttle that caused him to crash into team-mate Jacky Ickx’s sister car at Kyalami, scene of the model’s debut; nor the fact that it would remain stubbornly unreliable.
Its only result of note occurred when a tub was mated to the rear end of a 72 that Peterson had crashed during practice at the Nürburgring. That bitsa finished fourth.
The shunted E-spec 72, chassis R8, built for the start of 1973, had already won in Monaco (setting fastest lap) and at Dijon (from second on the grid) in Peterson’s gifted hands. Repaired, it was taken to Monza as a stand-by while the team again chanced its 76s.
Peterson was back in R8 by the second practice session of Friday – and lapping 1.3sec faster than he could in his 76. Though persuaded to give the latter another go on Saturday – he went slower still – he would race R8 and start from seventh on the grid.
Lotus 72 was the car they couldn’t hang.
Though not on the single-lap pace of the more powerful Ferrari 312B3s of pole man Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, nor that of the Brabham BT44s of Carlos Reutemann, Carlos Pace and John Watson – designer Gordon Murray was beginning to tap into underbody downforce and so was able to utilise a shallower rear wing – the venerable 72 was fast in a straight line due to its narrow track and boasted good traction thanks to its rearward weight bias. Though these design criteria were going out of fashion, they would at least keep the warhorse in the race’s mix at slippery-quick Monza, even though the track’s stream had been dammed by a couple of chicanes.
Peterson in the 76 at Monza
Lauda jumped the gun at a typically chaotic start and held a sizeable lead by the end of the opening lap. Peterson was sixth, having picked off the McLaren M23 of Emerson Fittipaldi.
On the next lap Peterson followed Regazzoni past Watson, who was hampered by too strong a rearward brake bias in the works car loaned him after a broken wheel had pitched his Goldie Hexagon Racing-run version into the barriers on Saturday.
The weather was scorching and Brabham’s woes continued when Pace pitted early to replace a shredding rear, this despite Goodyear’s switch to a previous spec just prior to the start. The 72, with its lightly loaded nose and inboard brake discs, struggled increasingly to put heat into its front tyres – it had originally been designed for bespoke Firestones – but this was not a worry today.
Regazzoni had passed Reutemann for second place by the time the latter’s gearbox failed, and the Ferraris circulated comfortably at the front – until Lauda’s flat-12 emitted an ominous puff of smoke at half-distance. The problem was terminal. Regazzoni took the lead and held it for 11 laps, whereupon he, too, began to pipe a contrail.
Alerted to the possibility of a victory, Fittipaldi outbraked Peterson into the first chicane. But he outbraked himself, too, and was immediately repassed. He would not try again. Once Regazzoni, the championship leader, had retired, the Brazilian chose to exert pressure on the new leader rather than risk a pass – for a no-score would have been disastrous in this most competitive of seasons.
A discordant loose tail pipe caused Team Lotus some concern, but Peterson had it under control, even though he won by less than a second in a repeat of the previous year’s finishing order.
His was a victory popular with Motor Sport reporter Denis Jenkinson, who, as always, did not hide his sentiments:
Had the situation been reversed on the last lap, there would have been some do-or-die tactics… with some really desperate stuff on the final corner and up the finishing straight. As it was, Peterson knew he had it made, for Fittipaldi [is not] one to throw caution to the winds and let passion override sound business acumen.
From the day when Peterson started with March he has known only one way to drive, and that is as hard as he can go. He is not one for trailing around at the back of the field, wittering about his tyres, or his engine, or the handling of his car. He is a racing driver of the best sort and earns every penny he gets.
No wonder Peterson was unwilling to accept a pay-cut for 1975 after John Player slashed the budget by 60 per cent; it had planned to withdraw but did not give the team sufficient time to find a replacement.
And so the 72 was pressed into a sixth season of F1 action.
There were no more GP wins – Monza 1974 would be its 20th and last (plus five non-championship victories) – but Ickx finished second in the half-points Spanish GP and Peterson was fourth in Monaco.
Incredibly, on the model’s final World Championship outing, the United States GP at Watkins Glen, Peterson finished fifth, just 50 seconds behind Lauda’s victorious Ferrari.
The latter’s 312T is a potent contender for ‘Greatest Grand Prix Car’ – designer Mauro Forghieri’s masterpiece won 27 GPs in its various guises – but for this scribbler it cannot topple the Lotus 72: Chapman, Rindt, Gold Leaf, Emmo, John Player and, most importantly, Ronnie.
Peterson’s three victories in 1974 must rank highly on anybody’s list.
PS During my research I spotted this piece of VSCC Thruxton reportage by Editor Bill Boddy in the October 1974 issue of Motor Sport:
The opening 4-lap vintage and p.v.t. scratch race was won so easily by Fearnley’s Meadows Frazer Nash that it was over before the chequered flag was waved.
Cor, my Old Man and Superswede! Who’d a thunk it?