Saturday, 3 January 2015

1973 Italian Grand Prix - Monza

September 9, 1973

He started practice with a headache from his cholera immunization and carried on with an influenza infection which gave pains across his chest and a hoarse voice on race day. His car was just plain slow through practice in addition to giving obscure braking troubles. On race morning his planned race engine dropped a valve: there was no good reason to think Jackie Stewart was going to end this particular day as World Champion.

When arriving at Monza for the Italian GP Emerson Fittipaldi and Stewart were head-to-head for 1973 title, Emerson still in with a chance if he could take victory at the Autodromo. Prior to the season Lotus team manager Peter Warr promised joint number one status to Ronnie Peterson and Fittipaldi. Coming to Austria, the race before Italy, the season had unfolded in a way that Peterson had been the quickest of the two but Fittipaldi had been more consistent, thus collecting more points than the Swede. Team Lotus therefore decided that only Fittipaldi had the chance of winning the championship and that Peterson would let Emerson ahead should the situation arise. Ronnie duly submitted to team tactics and let Fittipaldi through on lap 16, only to be handed back both the lead and the victory when fuel feed problems caused Fittipaldi to retire six laps from the end. Prior to Monza now only Cevert and Fittipaldi stood a mathematical chance of taking the title from Stewart. In Emerson's case this meant he had to win all of the remaining three races with Stewart only needing a fourth at Monza.

Jackie Stewart - Talent undeniable.
When the Friday practice/qualifying sessions began it was Peter Revson (McLaren) who was setting the pace. In fact he finished fastest in both sessions recording a 1m 36.743s. Nearest to the American was Peterson who finished second fastest at 1m 36.795s. The only other driver under 37s was Carlos Pace (Surtees). The other key players for the weekend, were not entirely happy. Denny Hulme (McLaren) and Fittipaldi were in trouble; the Brazilian's ankles were giving him pain and he had to seek attention from the medical unit. Denny, on the other hand, was having issues sorting out his car set-up. Eventually he decided that it would be better to try to adapt his driving to the car and once he did so, he was immediately up near the front.  

On Saturday there was significant improvement over the times set during the previous day. The magic bracket was the 1m 36s one, and by the end of the Saturday session 10 different drivers entered it. Thus the final session shaped up as one of those stirring last-minute pole position battles. In the end, though, only four drivers had a realistic chance at pole: Revson and Hulme, were steady, smooth and controlled .... apparently comfortably so, both with times in the 1m 35s.  That is until Peterson flashed and ultra-quick lap right past them, posting a lap at 1m 34.8s! Considering how closely bunched the bulk of the rest were, significantly slower than the track record set by Jacky Ickx (Ferrari) in 1972, Ronnie's improvement on the record by the better part of a second was remarkable. The man they called Super Swede was a special talent and this would be his seventh pole position of the season. 

For some reason the Tyrrells weren't impressive at all. Fran├žois Cevert had been in particular strife all day, with his brakes and Stewart was suffering the already mentioned after effects of his cholera shots and also a growing case of the flu. All of this left them 11th and 6th, respectively, on the grid. The Scot's situation was made worse, during the untimed practice on race morning, when his engine went sick with valve trouble. The Tyrrell team had a fresh engine fitted in time for the race but the car still had problems when it came to the line, where brakes had to be bled and the ignition adjusted. It seemed that circumstances were stacking up against him.

As always on race day at Monza the crowd packed in as densely as possible, clambering up every tree and hoarding in sight. What they had all come to see was a motor race that promised plenty. There was the chance of seeing Stewart clinch the World Championship; of a tremendous battle between  Lotus and McLaren and most important of all, to any Italian, the possibility of Ferrari fighting with the best of them.

1973 Italian GP - Stewart started well only to suffer a puncture.
The start, that year, was made on the left of the wide pit straight thus making use of the full length of the main straight, bypassing the first chicane for the opening lap. The smoke and din erupted from the 24 starting cars and they all slashed away with Peterson making a superb getaway. Revson lagged off the line, from his second place grid slot, allowing Fittipaldi to surge up from the second row to slot in behind Peterson. The long, long drag up to the Curva Grande ended in a Lotus one-two, an order that would last throughout the rest of the day. The pursuit was led by Hulme in third and Stewart who had come tearing up from the third row to squeeze into fourth ahead of Revson with Arturo Merzario (Ferrari) right there in sixth place. During the opening laps this first five were already a distinct grouping and it already looked like another superbly close Grand Prix, with plenty of vivid excitement to watch. Tyres smoking and noses darting into gaps as the flood of cars poured into the newly incorporated chicanes.

Cevert had broken away from his sixth row start into sixth place, but try as he could he couldn't get up in touch with the leaders. Revson, too, showed signs of not being able to mix it with the top four, but he kept them just ahead and was in touch when Stewart began to flag. For one and a half laps the Tyrrell developed an odd behaviour and as they all tore past the pits, to begin lap 8, and lined up for the chicane , Revson saw an opening. He saw it on the outside, underlined on the braking zone and drove for it. A dodgy-looking manoeuvre amid smoke and wobbling race cars, but he pulled it off and scratched by. Next time round Stewart realized that his left rear tyre had picked up a puncture and would require changing. He stopped at the end of that lap, and exited the pits just as Hulme had a big moment at the first chicane. The New Zealander's brakes hadn't reacted quite as expected arriving at the chicane too fast and caught the kerb which launched him into the air. He landed on two wheels sideways across the track right in front of Revson who had to brake sharply to avoid a collision and lost a great deal of time in the process. Thus the two Lotus 72s had disappeared into the distance and, assuming Colin Chapman's cars were to prove reliable, the race was all over bar the shouting.

Things seemed to firmly be going Fittipaldi's way. Peterson and the Brazilian were running in close company, and it seemed certain that Peterson would wave Fittipaldi through to take the nine Championship points. Stewart obviously wasn't going to win anything that day; he was far back amongst the backmarkers after his tyre change had gone rather poorly. He had, however, managed to stay of the lead lap and that was critical. He was now driving as hard as he could, but to expect him to make up such a gap seemed too much.

Fourth Place - Stewart battled through the field.
What he did then was the stuff of legend.

By Lap 20 the order seemed set with Peterson leading Fittipaldi, Revson third some 14 seconds behind, then Cevert fourth with Carlos Reutemann (Brabham) fifth and closing slightly. Mike Hailwood (Surtees) had moved up to sixth place, passing Ickx on Lap 18. But all eyes were on the Tyrrell of Jackie Stewart who, urged on by the crowd, was driving a race that he later described as "second only to my performance in the fog at the Nurburgring." That he could drive had never been doubted and now he was taking more out of the Tyrrell 006 than had ever been taken out of it before. Incredibly the Scotsmen was making back all of the lost ground, whipping by car after car, passing the privateers and the slowest of the works cars. Then he carved through the mass of midfield works cars. By half distance he was back up to eighth place. By Lap 30 Stewart had Ickx in his sights, the Ferrari having lost some of its radiator ducting and the Scot snatched seventh place on Lap 33. He passed Hailwood into sixth on Lap 37, without further ado, but he was not content with that and next in sight was Reutemann, who never did manage to close up on Cevert. The Argentinian was never an easy customer to pass and Stewart trailed him for a lap and a half before moving up to fifth place and suddenly loomed in the mirrors of his team-mate. In a couple of laps he was right there and the loyal Fran├žois let him by readily and watched him close on Revson in third place. As Stewart sliced fractions off the gap that separated him from the American, now in plain sight up ahead, scarcely the length of the Vialone chicane away, all eyes were watching the Lotus pair.

They would definitely have to move Fittipaldi ahead of Peterson if the championship was to be kept alive. If things stayed as they were Stewart's fourth place meant that Fittipaldi would have to win in Italy and repeat the performance in the two North American races with the Scot unplaced to stay in the points race. If this happened Fittipaldi and Stewart would have equal points and the verdict would go to the Brazilian on number of victories. A tall order but still a possibility.

White Flag - Lotus sinks Fittipaldi's title bid.
There it was the 55th lap and Stewart was within five seconds of Revson, already having done the lap record, eight tenths of a second faster than his own qualifying time, on the 51st lap. Surely Emerson would take over and get the extra three points? However there seemed to be no instructions from the Lotus pits for Peterson to give way, apparently he had been told before the race to use his own discretion. Ronnie was the kind of driver who is only interested in winning and, as the two Lotus 72s flashed by the pits with one lap remaining, the Swede was still in the lead. As they came out of the Parabolica for the last time he was still there. As they swept past the pits Chapman, in his traditional manner,  flung his hat skywards to celebrate the first Team Lotus one-two since Kyalami in January 1968. The Brazilian was furious after the race. Some observers had noted some favouritism towards Peterson during the season and at the time this decision was seen as an confirmation of that. In the end Fittipaldi decided it was time to leave Team Lotus and signed with McLaren for the 1974 season.

So 1973 proved to be Jackie's greatest season. Not only did he know it was his last, but he was campaigning a car that was inferior to at least two other marques: McLaren and Lotus. Yet he scratched together his five GP wins, enough to put him ahead of Fangio and Clark in total GP victories. A benchmark which would stand for 14 years. However, perhaps his greatest drive would not be counted amongst this tally. When he was ill and when the fates seemed against him, Stewart rose up, indomitable and indefatigable. Demonstrating to all something far more tangible than victories .. the heart of a champion and proof positive that he belongs among the very best of all time.

Triple World Champion - Stewart would retire at season's end.