Forty years ago – a time when running a World Championship Grand Prix in Russia was only marginally more likely than running one in, say, Azerbaijan – Formula 1 staged a three-way shoot-out.
The 1974 season should have been about replacing the retired Jackie Stewart as the sport’s benchmark. Though there were several contenders – Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda, Ronnie Peterson, Carlos Reutemann and Jody Scheckter – in truth none clinched the deal.
There was still a title to be won even so, and Fittipaldi arrived at the Watkins Glen finale tied on points with the consistent Clay Regazzoni. Scheckter, the third man, had to win to stand any chance.
It would have been a four-way scrap, with just five points separating them, had Niki Lauda, Regazzoni’s Ferrari team-mate, not slid (on dislodged stones and earth) from the lead of the Canadian GP a fortnight before.
Regazzoni during the 1974 United States Grand Prix
The constructors’ title was also in the balance and Fittipaldi’s McLaren held a five-point net lead over Ferrari.
It promised to be a humdinger.
But sport can be fickle and life and death cruel.
Helmuth Koinigg had done well in Canada: 10th for Surtees in his first GP start. The Formula Vee star from Vienna, who had tried and failed to qualify a rented Brabham at his home GP, was filling a seat emptied by, among others, a disgruntled Jochen Mass.
It had been a difficult campaign for the Edenbridge outfit: Koinigg was its seventh driver. Of its original line-up, Mass was by now with McLaren, and Carlos Pace, scorer of its only points, courtesy of a fourth place in Brazil, was at Brabham.
José Dolhem, Derek Bell, Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Dieter Quester had tried to plug the gaps, but already Koinigg appeared the man most likely.
Koinigg in the Canadian Grand Prix
On this occasion he scraped a place on the penultimate row of the grid – team-mate Dolhem was the race’s first reserve – and made up a few positions at the start.
Then, on lap 10, his TS16 went missing.
His team noticed immediately, of course, but word was slow to arrive. Dolhem, whose only GP start this was, completed 15 more laps before being signalled to pit and withdraw.
Sadly lessons had not been learned from the recent accidents of François Cevert (at Watkins Glen the previous year) and Peter Revson. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, having aired its concerns and made recommendations, insisted that the governing body’s safety sub-committee had misinterpreted them.
And now Koinigg was dead, too.
Having plunged through layers of catch fencing, he struck the barrier beyond – and concerned – at 90 degrees. The impact might have been survivable had its guardrails held firm and not allowed the Surtees beneath and between: with gruesome consequences.
A white sheet was placed over the car and the butchered body within and the race continued. As races did.
It was, alack, a humdrum affair that Reutemann’s Brabham BT44 led throughout from pole position. His new team-mate Pace set fastest lap to overhaul James Hunt’s Hesketh for second place. And Fittipaldi finished fourth to claim his second – and McLaren’s first – world title.
Once he had squeezed past, two wheels on the grass, the belligerent Clay on the opening lap, Emerson was content to keep an eye on Jody’s Tyrrell – until it suffered a loss of fuel pressure after 44 laps.
Born: 3 November 1948 (Vienna, Austria)
Died: 6 October 1974 (Watkins Glen, New York)
Teams: Scuderia Finotto, Surtees
Races: 3 (2 starts)
Regazzoni, meanwhile, slipped back into the midfield morass and made two pit stops in a bid to cure a handling problem. New front tyres did not do the trick and he slumped to 11th place.
Fittipaldi and McLaren were understandably delighted after a season of calculated toil, plus three victories, but the atmosphere, which had been off all weekend – a Greyhound bus was one of several vehicles burned by a blind drunk and lunatic fringe – was now subdued.
Mario Andretti, star of qualifying in the new Parnelli, stalled on the grid because of a vapour lock and was black-flagged for a receiving a push-start from the second row.
Denny Hulme, his McLaren’s engine blown, removed his helmet sure in the knowledge that this was his last GP. He’d known since attending long-time friend Revson’s crash at Kyalami in March but, Denny being Denny, hadn’t told anybody – and wouldn’t do so until Monday. The announcement would be more understated than even he had allowed for.
Hulme at the South African Grand Prix
What would Denny ‘The Bear’, gruff and tough, have thought about the forthcoming Russian GP? Or the recent Baku announcement? Or the current title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg? Or its looming double-points finale in Abu Dhabi? Or, most pertinently, Jules Bianchi’s violent crash and grievous injury at Suzuka?
Hulme, who briefly headed the GPDA in his retirement, would, I think, in a statesmanlike manner have reminded his sport that its exciting and innovative future can only be enjoyed if it continues to learn the sometimes harsh lessons of its (recent) past.
Koinigg was 25.
Bianchi, another promising talent deemed likely, is 25. And our thoughts are with him.