Wind back to 1977...by Rob Widdows on 4th January 2016
We have delved into the Track Torque audio archive and come up with a magical journey back in time to the summer of 1977.
We take you to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix with John Watson, James Hunt, Gunnar Nilsson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and David Purley. Then, to complete our trek back in time, we go to Le Mans with Derek Bell and the Renault team as they strive for a French victory at La Sarthe.
These shows were recorded in the first year of my weekly motor racing programme on Radio Victory in Portsmouth, and they reflect the support I had from Bell and Watson in those early days, both of whom lived down on the south coast of England.
So, thanks to Wattie, off we went to Silverstone in July as guests of Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team which was running the Flat-12 Alfa Romeo engine in Gordon Murray’s all-new BT45.
It seems scarcely credible now that there were 36 entries for the race, with 14 drivers forced to pre-qualify. Among these were Gilles Villeneuve in a McLaren, on his Formula 1 debut, and another of our ‘local’ heroes David Purley in his LEC. Sadly Purley had a horrendous accident in the second session when his Cosworth’s throttle stuck open at Becketts. Fire extinguisher fluid, used after an earlier incident, had solidified on the throttle slides and Purley was a passenger as the car slammed into the bank. He was lucky to survive, albeit with multiple injuries to his legs.
Meanwhile Watson was going well in the Brabham, qualifying on the front row alongside James Hunt, and it was these two who would fight it out at the front of a thrilling race until Watson ran out of fuel while leading with eight laps to go – just as he had in France a fortnight earlier. The Alfa was a heavy and thirsty engine. So, reigning World Champion Hunt won in front of his home crowd for McLaren, followed home by Lauda’s Ferrari and Nilsson’s Lotus.
The race also saw the debut of Renault’s radical new turbocharged RS01 driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille. His race lasted just 16 laps before what Ken Tyrrell called the ‘yellow tea-pot’ boiled over and blew up in a cloud of white smoke.
A month earlier, the Track Torque team (ie. me, a camper van and a tape recorder) had been at La Sarthe with Equipe Renault Elf, which had high hopes for its new V6-engined A442. Jabouille was on duty, as ever, sharing with our ‘local’ man Derek Bell. The Régie had hired Derek after a string of impressive results in long-distance races, not least his victory at Le Mans two years earlier with Jacky Ickx in the Mirage.
What we hoped, of course, was for Bell to win at La Sarthe and Watson to prevail at Silverstone – but neither came to fruition. Renault’s new A442 had impressive speed, the cars dominating qualifying ahead of Porsche, but reliability was always a worry. Bell and Jabouille managed 257 laps before the V6 expired in a cloud of smoke while the sister car of Depailler and Laffite went 32 laps further before it too headed for retirement, leaving Ickx to win again, this time for Porsche.
So, twice in four weeks it was my job to spend the weekend alongside two very disappointed racing drivers, especially J Watson who would surely have won at Silverstone if only that glorious-sounding Alfa hadn’t been so thirsty. That aside, our fledgling radio show had been at the heart of both events and now we can reel back the decades and revisit those two races in the summer of 1977. I hope you enjoy hearing from some of the great legends of our sport.