Friday, 28 January 2011

1976 Italian Grand Prix - Monza

September 12, 1976

By 1976 Niki Lauda had established himself as the premiere driver of the day. Since joining Ferrari in 1974 it was the pairing of the Austrian with the Scuderia that had that unique chemistry which could dominate the sport.  Lauda did just that.  When he came to the team it was as the number two driver behind team leader Clay Regazzoni.  However, Lauda was quickly recognized as the pace setter. He scored his first two GP victories that season and duly went on to capture the driver's title the following year winning 5 Grands Prix and 9 pole positions. His dominance appeared set to continue in 1976, as he won 5 of the first 9 races.  Leading the driver's championship by 31 points over Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell), Lauda seemed set to cruise to his second consecutive driver's title.

1976 GP Season - Lauda dominated the early races
The next round in the championship, however, was the German Grand Prix at the fabled Nordschleife of the Nurburgring. Having been the first and only driver to lap the Nordschleife in less than 7 minutes the previous year, Lauda's confidence had to be high.

Wet conditions prevailed as the grid formed for the race and most drivers, including Lauda, who was starting second, chose to start the race on wet tyres.  At the drop of the green flag Regazzoni took the lead, followed by Hunt, Jochen Mass (McLaren) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier). Lauda made a poor getaway and dropped back.  By the end of the first lap the rain abated and dry conditions began to prevail. Most of the drivers, including Lauda, pitted for slick tyres. When he rejoined the race he was pushing hard, trying to make up for his poor start and bring himself back into contention. Just after the fast left kink before the Bergwerk right hand curve, his Ferrari 312T2 snapped to the right and spun through the fencing and into an earth embankment. The car immediately burst into flames and bounced back onto the circuit. Guy Edwards (Hesketh) managed to avoid the Ferrari, but Harald Ertl (Hesketh) and Brett Lunger (Surtees) both hit it. All three drivers stopped and tried to free Lauda, from the flaming wreckage. They were joined by Arturo Merzario who stopped his Wolf Williams after passing the crash.

Brave Heroes - Edwards, Ertl and Lunger save Lauda
Thankfully, they succeeded, but Lauda was very seriously injured. He had lost his helmet when the car overturned and suffered severe burns to his head, face, arms and hands. His lungs were also severely damaged from the effect of toxic gas inhaled while he was trapped in the car. He was rushed by helicopter to a special hospital where, for several days, he was under intensive care.  The situation appeared very grim.  So grim, in fact, that a priest even administered him his last rites. The crash was so horrific that while awaiting the restart of the race Chris Amon (Ensign) decided to end his career immediately and never raced a Grand Prix again. Death in Formula One was all too common in the 1970s, and few expected the Austrian to pull through.

Miraculously, not only did he pull through, he turned up at the Italian Grand Prix just six weeks later, his head swathed in bandages and ready to race. This surprised even the Ferrari team, and complicated things, since they had hired Carlos Reutemann to replace Lauda.  The Argentinian had even used his own money to buy out his contract with the Brabham team in order to race for the Scuderia. The team had no choice but to prepare a third entry for Niki. 

1976 Italian GP - Lauda, bloodied, but unbowed.
Lauda was still ahead in the World Championship.  However, during his absence Hunt had closed up to within 14 points. Honestly though, what could he truly accomplish? As physically damaged as he was from the crash, psychologically he must have been destroyed.  Surely he could never again attain the speed necessary to regain his status as the top driver.

Niki showed that he still had mettle in qualifying. Jacques Laffite took pole position in his Ligier, ahead of Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell), Carlos Pace (Brabham), Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell), and Lauda an admirable fifth.

At the start Scheckter grabbed the lead from Laffite at the chicane followed by Pace but the Brazilian soon fell prey to Depailler, Peterson, and Reutemann. Lauda started very slow and soon faded to 12th.  To the onlooker, the gruelling demands of the race was to much for Lauda, who must have still been reeling from his terrifying accident. Mass, Hunt and Watson were carving their way through the backmarkers. On the second lap, however, Mass was in the pits with a misfire.

At the front Scheckter maintained his lead ahead but Laffite dropped back to fourth on the third lap as Depailler and Peterson went past him. A lap later Peterson passed Depailler to move into second. Regazzoni was in hot pursuit and had overtaken Reutemann and on lap 11 passed Laffite as well to take sixth place.  On that same lap Peterson, who had closed the gap to Scheckter, moved ahead of the South African to take the lead. Hunt's rapid progress came to an end on lap 12 when he spun off.

The tyres on Scheckter's Tyrrell were deteriorating and he began to drop back, being passed first by Depailler on lap 14 and then Regazzoni on lap 23. Scheckter then battled Laffite, fifth, while Lauda followed them closely, intent on a finish.

With Scheckter's tyre woes growing worse, Laffite managed to get by the Tyrrell driver.  Lauda also found his way past soon after. Ahead of this battle Depailler hit engine trouble on lap 46 and dropped back to sixth. At the checkered flag Peterson scored a welcomed win for the March team, with Regazzoni second, Laffite third and Lauda an incredible fourth.

1976 Italian GP - The last ever F1 victory for March 
At the start of the weekend, It was simply amazing that Lauda was in the car and willing to compete. His determination and grit was even more remarkable considering that the fire had burnt off part of one ear and his tear duct mechanism was severely damaged which affected his vision during the race. The amount of pain he had to have endured to qualify fifth must have been unimaginable, but to have the fortitude to not only race, but to overcome it all and fight to a fourth place finish left me absolutely speechless. 

At Monza in 1976 Lauda defined what a true champion should be. He made no excuses, and hid behind nothing.  He simply came to Monza and with this performance showed his rivals that he was the defending World Champion. If they wanted to take the title away from him they would have to beat him on the track. At a moment when we were supposed to be pitying him, he came back, with the heart of a lion, to confirm his place as one of the very great champions in Formula One history.

Monday, 24 January 2011

1972 German Grand Prix - Nurburgring

July 30, 1972

The Nurburgring (Nordschleife) is one of those legendary circuits that brings a smile to the face of enthusiasts whenever it is mentioned. Unparalleled by the F1 circuits of today it was given the nickname "Green Hell". Those drivers that won at the Nurburgring were immediately set apart from other drivers and the honour was well deserved for the Ring truly was the ultimate test of consistency, skill and courage.

Ferrari's venerable 312B had served them well in 1970 and 1971, but with the 312 B2 version used in 1972 it was clear that Ferrari had been unable to meet the development progress of it's rivals (Lotus, Tyrrell and McLaren). However, at the Nurburgring Ferrari had one key advantage over the competition ... Jacky Ickx.

1967 German GP - Ickx at the Flugplatz
The 27 year old from Brussels, Belgium was one of those immortals who had won there before (In 1969 while driving for the Brabham team). He was never short on talent or courage at any circuit, but he always had a knack for running well at the Nurburgring. In fact, he made his debut in F1 there in 1967 driving an F2 car run by Ken Tyrrell. He made an immediate impression.

Despite the lack of power his Matra F2 possessed in comparison to the F1 cars Ickx managed to outqualify all of the regular F1 drivers, save two (Hulme and Clark). It was an incredible achievement, however the separate F2 class cars were mandated to start behind the F1 cars regardless of qualifying times and so Ickx started from the 18th grid position. 

Ickx lost none of his qualifying pace during the race and within four laps of the start he had overtaken 12 cars and was up to fifth position.  Unfortunately fate stepped in and a broken suspension on lap 12 brought his brilliant showing to an end. Despite this, he clearly demonstrated that he had a natural gift for driving the Nurburgring and this was only the first of many great performances there.

In 1972 the Ring belonged to Jacky Ickx. He qualified on pole with a time of 7:07.000, an astounding 13 seconds faster than the existing qualifying record at the time set by Jackie Stewart in 1971. Stewart (Tyrrell-Ford) was starting beside Ickx on the front row followed by Emerson Fittipaldi (Lotus-Ford), Ronnie Peterson (March-Ford), with Fran├žois Cevert (Tyrrell-Ford) rounding out the top five.

1972 German GP - Ickx leads through the Karrusell
On race day the Belgian led away from the start. He took a lead he was never to give up. Behind Ickx the battle was between Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni in the second Ferrari. Stewart, who had been squeezed out at the start, was fourth but fighting back. Ronnie Peterson in a March that was finally worthy of his talent was also in contention. Ickx's Ferrari was in superb tune and he was matching the car with driving skill that had been honed in long-distance sports car racing at this circuit. He was gaining around 3 seconds a lap on his pursuers. Smashing Ceverts lap record, set the previous year, by almost 7 seconds. He covered the 22.9 kms (14.2 miles) in 7:13.6, an average of almost 190 kph (118 mph). For the purists, this was motor racing at it's best.

Then, on the 10th of the 14 laps, Fittipaldi's gearbox seized and caught fire right behind the pits. The toughest course in Grand Prix racing was beginning to take it's toll. Not long after, Stewart began coming to grips with Regazzoni's Ferrari in the battle for second place behind Ickx, and it was no holds barred.  However, on the very last lap the two cars tangled at Hatzenbach. The Tyrrell went off the track and destroyed it's suspension against the Armco barrier, it's driver raising his fist furiously as he got out of the car. There was no doubt about who Jackie blamed for the incident.

But for Ferrari, first and second was a great result and the team was justifiably jubilant. Ronnie Peterson and March was happy with third too, but the big loser was Jackie Stewart. To lose second in a race where his nearest championship rival had retired was a bitter blow. To see Regazzoni, the man he blamed for his retirement on the podium in the place that could have been his must have made it worst.

Grand Chelem - Ickx, Regazzoni and Ferrari celebrate
For Ickx, this would be his 10th and final Grand Prix victory. It would also be the only Grand Chelem (led the entire race from pole and recorded the fastest lap of the race) he would score in his F1 career. One of the first races I remember watching on television and one of the reasons I fell in love with Grand Prix racing. 

Sunday, 23 January 2011

1973 British Grand Prix - Silverstone

July 14, 1973

Outside of motor racing Peter Revson led quite a privileged life. He was the nephew of Revlon Cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and heir to a fortune of over one billion dollars. Young, handsome and single he definitely fit the glamorous image of an F1 racing driver. However, Revson was not in Formula One to bolster his image, nor was it simply a hobby to him. He was very serious about racing and worked very hard to find his place within the Grand Prix circus.

After establishing himself in America racing one of Roger Penske's McLarens at the Indianapolis 500 Revson found a place with Team Yardley McLaren in Europe for the 1972 season. He performed admirably, alongside former World Champion Denny Hulme, becoming a reliable points scorer with a pace that surprised many.  When the McLaren M23 was made available to him in 1973. Revson was ready to prove that he was not happy just scoring points.

Free Spirit - Peter Revson 1973
At Silverstone the pre-race betting was on either Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell) who had thus far dominated the season or Ronnie Peterson (Lotus) fresh from his victory at Paul Ricard a couple of weeks earlier. However Revson bet on himself, actually placing a wager of 100 British Pounds on himself for victory.

Peterson made it look like he was indeed the odds on favourite by duly taking the pole position with the elegant Lotus 72. The Swede was to share the front row with the McLarens of Denny Hulme and Revson. The fourth and fifth grid positions, on the second row, were occupied by Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi (Lotus). The third row was led by fast, but wild Jody Scheckter in the third Mclaren entry.  Scheckter drove superbly in France and despite it being only his third F1 start led most of the race before an incident with Fittipaldi forced him to retire. At Silverstone, McLaren was ready to give him another chance to shine and Scheckter was eager to impress.

Peterson made an excellent getaway at the start to take the lead. However, he was not to retain the lead for very long. Stewart had his Tyrrell directly behind the Lotus and going into Becketts he timed a truly brilliant overtaking maneuver down the inside of Peterson.  With the pass complete Stewart began to build a sizable lead and the die appeared cast for the afternoon. Peterson now coming under pressure from Carlos Reutemann (Brabham) followed the Tyrrell through to complete the first lap. Then came Scheckter, who had just moved past team-leader Hulme, going into the ultrafast Woodcote corner, but he was off-line and drifted wide, looping into a spin. He came back across the track, narrowly missing those immediately following him, one of whom was Revson his other McLaren teammate, before colliding with the pit wall and collecting the midfield runners. Eleven cars including Scheckter, Roger Williamson (March), Follmer (Shadow), Beltoise (BRM), and all three of the Team Surtees drivers, Carlos Pace, Jochen Mass and Mike Hailwood, were eliminated in an instant. Incredibly only Andrea de Adamich (Brabham) was hurt, though not seriously. Unfortunately, he would never race in Formula One again, mainly due to injuries sustained in this accident, he would however, spend several years competing in saloon car racing.

Andrea de Adamich
The race was red flagged and halted for over an hour. When the race was restarted, Peterson led from Niki Lauda (BRM), Stewart, Fittipaldi, Hulme and Revson. Stewart, who looked set to dominate the race before the red flag, dropped back after gearbox trouble forced a spin at Stowe and Lauda began to struggle for pace and slipped down the order. Revson moved up to third behind Peterson and Fittipaldi. He was relaxed, his McLaren was handling superbly and he was on the right tyre compound.

Revson closed on Fittipaldi and together they were catching Peterson, whose handling was deteriorating. However, with 30 laps to go, Fittipaldi retired with a transmission failure. To add to Peterson's woes a light rain began to fall making a difficult task impossible. Within two laps Revson was past. But while he might have been expected to pull away, he didn't and, although he was in control, he found himself only a second or two ahead of a titanic scrap between Peterson, Hulme, and James Hunt who was for the first time bringing himself to the notice of the fans with a stirring drive in a privately entered March.

1973 British GP - Revson withstanding the pressure at the front
Hunt managed to get by Hulme, who was experiencing a degrading tire issue, but with 12 laps to go the New Zealander closed again on Hunt.  With the added pressure Hunt, with Hulme in direct pursuit, found his way to the tail of Peterson's Lotus. Ronnie, in turn, was scarcely more than two seconds from Revson in the lead. Hulme sliced by Hunt with just over ten laps to go, and began pressing Peterson.  Though, in the end, he could not find a way past the Swede it was not for want of trying. Into the last corner, the trio was absolutely together. Peterson went wide and came frighteningly close to duplicating Scheckter's accident. Hulme dipped for the inside, hoping to take advantage of the mistake, and Hunt was looking for a way past both. At the line it remained Peterson-Hulme-Hunt. The three were separated by a mere 0.6 seconds. Revson in the lead, was only 2.8 seconds ahead of the intense battle, but he had captured his first F1 victory. Another win followed in the confused and wet Canadian race of that year. 

McLaren signed Fittipaldi on for the 1974 season. With the 1967 and 1972 World Champions on the McLaren roster, Revson found that he was offered only a third car that year. He decided to leave and switched to the Shadow team. Regrettably, he was killed at Kyalami, during practice for the South African Grand Prix, when the front suspension failed and his car struck the Armco barrier. Fittipaldi went on to win the Championship that season.