Saturday 9 July 2011

Looking back: 'A typical English summer's day', the 1975 British Grand Prix

Rain and the British Grand Prix are reasonably familiar acquaintances. This has been the case this weekend, with each session for the F1 cars being disrupted by rain showers to some extent. However, whatever happens this weekend, or indeed at any other F1 race, it's very hard to imagine any being as rain-affected as the British Grand Prix of 1975, which was then as now at Silverstone.

After two days of rain-interjected practice, the race pivoted on two rain separate storms sweeping over the circuit. The second of which was of such force that it accounted for thirteen cars (compare that to the six that left the track via the Nurburgring river in 2007), leaving only six cars running as the race was terminated ten laps ahead of time. In between, the drivers did their best to put on a diverting motor race, with seven different leaders, and nine changes of lead, and a top order that swayed this way and that.

The F1 circus gathered at Silverstone for the 1975 race, and the large and enthusiastic crowd present across the three days (practice was Thursday and Friday, and the race on the Saturday - not unusual at the time), and the fact that everyone who was anyone in British motorsport was in attendance it seemed, ensured a jamboree atmosphere. This was despite the persistently iffy weather, storms intermingling with bright sunshine throughout.

Ronnie Peterson prepares for the start
Credit:  Lawson Speedway
The 1975 British Grand Prix was also one of watersheds (perhaps appropriate given the weather). First of all, Graham Hill had finally announced his retirement from driving, after a then record 176 starts, to concentrate on running his F1 team. I say 'finally' partly as the decision wasn't exactly unexpected, his previous attempt to qualify an F1 car was back in the Monaco event over two months earlier, but also because his performances had been far short of his former majesty for a number of years. Still, Hill threatened to bring the house down when he did a demonstration lap just before the race start, smiling, waving and minus a crash helmet, in one of his latest Hill GH1s.

The meeting also effectively marked the death of one of F1 history's most famous constructors. Twenty fours years almost to the day after their F1 debut, the one BRM entry (for Bob Evans) was withdrawn, ostensibly to cure oil system problems in their V12 engine. The team did make it to a couple more rounds later that season, but then died quietly at the season's end (despite a fleeting and unsuccessful attempt to revive the team in 1977).

And another watershed was that 1975 marked the first British Grand Prix to take place post the 'classic' Silverstone layout, as a chicane had sprouted at the previously fast and daunting Woodcote corner. This was the age that the Formula 1 Association (later known as FOCA) under the leadership of Bernie Ecclestone took control of the sport, and they recognised that bad accidents, and fatalities, were bad business. Therefore, they started to insist that fast corners with barriers close be eliminated from the F1 landscape as far as possible. Chicanes were usually the weapon of choice (being the easiest/quickest/ cheapest solution in most cases), and Silverstone was the latest in a succession of tracks to have a chicane added, under a month prior to the race. That Woodcote had witnessed a mass pile up on the last visit here in 1973, and a car had gone into the crowd earlier in the season at the Montjuic circuit, concentrated minds. Many drivers and fans thought the new chicane a travesty, though that the previous corner was a 160 mph sweep with grandstands close on one side and pits close on the other, meant that its sterilisation was pretty much inevitable. And the replacement chicane, while adding around four seconds to the lap time, didn't seriously disrupt the circuit's rhythm.

There was a surprise in qualifying, with young Welshman Tom Pryce claiming a popular pole position in his Shadow - it remains the only pole in F1 history for a Welshman. It was certainly a worthy effort from Pryce, demonstrating his undoubted talent, though he was helped by the odd conveniently-timed rain shower after his fastest time was set (Pryce was never to fulfill his great potential, as he was to die tragically colliding with a marshal who was running across the track in the 1977 South African Grand Prix).

The debonair Carlos Pace lined up alongside Pryce on the front row in his Brabham, but it was to row two that most looked for likely winners. There lurked two Ferraris, Niki Lauda ahead of Clay Regazzoni. Ferrari, under the stewardship of one Luca Di Montezemolo, had dominated the summer, Lauda winning four of the previous five races, and coming a close second in the other. The 312T's flat 12 engine and transverse gearbox gave it a low centre of gravity and subsequent fine handling and nimbleness, adding to the undoubted straightline speed. This was all to eventually add up to the Scuderia's first championships in eleven years at the seasons's end.

Highlights of the 1975 British Grand Prix, Part 1

The start of the race was witness to another watershed, as for the first time in a Grand Prix a green light was used to start the race rather than the national flag. At the said green light Pace managed to jump Pryce to lead (perhaps also jumping the starting signal ever so slightly). As anticipated, the Ferraris soon started to make their move, but less widely anticipated was that it was Regazzoni, not Lauda, looking the more menacing. Clay, always inconsistent, was having one of his good days, and his flat 12 engine seemed to be offering more urge than that of his team mate.

Clay had outdragged Lauda off the line, on the tenth lap had slipped by Pryce, and then on his 13th tour neatly outbraked Pace at the new chicane to take the lead (as an aside, fears about the new chicane were such that a yellow flag had been shown there on the first lap to prevent overtaking). Clay then eased away from the rest of the leading group in short order, being 2.2 seconds ahead three laps later. But any thoughts of the race settling down thus were, almost literally, rained on.

The first rain storm then arrived, blown by a bracing wind from Club corner. On lap 18 Regazzoni was caught out by the very same rain at the very same corner, slid sideways and bent his rear wing on a barrier. He was able to continue after repairs, but this dropped him out of contention having lost him upwards of a lap. This meant that Tom Pryce now led, as by this time he had also overtaken Pace. But the rain intensified and spread over more of the track, and barely sooner than had the Welsh flags in the crowd started to be unfurled Pryce too was heading for an accident. On an increasingly slippery surface he put in a tank slapper at Becketts on the 21st lap and next thing you knew he was being spat off the track into a bank on the outside. He got a large bang on the head for his troubles from a catch fencing post (catch fencing was another innovation for this race, but looking back I always wonder how anyone ever thought it was a good idea), but was otherwise uninjured.

This resulted in the race having its fourth leader in ten laps, as Jody Scheckter in the Tyrrell now inherited the lead. He'd shown the most aggression in the treacherous track conditions, and had moved past Lauda and Pace in double quick time in the previous laps. But barely a lap after taking the lead he dived for the pits to change to wet weather tyres, putting Pace back where he started, at the front.

The assumption was that everyone else would have to follow suit and change tyres, as the rain came down in rods and the cars emitted visible plumes of spray. But Pace and the following Emerson Fittipaldi, the world champion in his McLaren M23, and James Hunt in his Hesketh did not stop next time around. Nor the next time around. Nor the time after that. It quickly became clear that the three were gambling on staying out on slick tyres. This made sense for a couple of reasons, one is that the weather seemed to be clearing, the sky above Club, where the weather was coming from, looked brighter than before, and the brisk wind seemed to be clearing the storm as quickly as it had brought it. The other reason was that, back then, pit stops were not part of the average F1 team's standard drill, and could be very lengthy. Indeed, Scheckter's stop had left him stationary for 43 seconds! Therefore, although the trio circulated at what seemed like walking pace, their strategy had a lot going for it.

It was around this point that Lauda had also dropped out of contention, having experienced his Ferrari team showing a touch of old form with a Keystone Kops pit stop. It initially involved a wheel falling off as he left the pit, a scramble by his mechanics to reach him to re-attach it, then another stop the next time around to sort the problem properly.

Scheckter, on his grooved tyres, tore chunks out of the the leading trio's lead lap on lap, and sailed past all three on the 27th time around, such was his tyre advantage. However, by this time the sun had broken through again, the rain long stopped. Indeed, it was very much a track of two halves, as the far side of the circuit had much more moisture on it than than the half containing the pits. Scheckter quickly built a lead of upwards of 30 seconds, but by lap 32 had to dive back into the pits to change back to slicks. The stop was quicker than before, 'only' 30 seconds this time, but it was sufficient to drop him down to sixth place.

Once Jean-Piere Jarier, also on wet tyres, had cleared himself out of the way by pitting for slicks we were again left with the Pace-Fittipaldi-Hunt leading trio, none of them having pitted at any point. In the meantime though they'd reversed their order, with Hunt now leading and Fittipaldi second. Once again a popular home win, for driver and team, appeared to be on the cards, Hunt 2.5 seconds clear of Fittipaldi and looking comfortable. After a number of laps of looking likely to add to their debut win in Zandvoort two races earlier, Hunt suddenly had Fittipaldi all over him on the 44th lap, and the Brazilian slipstreamed past on Hangar Straight, thus becoming the seventh driver to lead the 1975 British Grand Prix. On the next lap Pace was also through. It transpired that Hunt's exhaust had broken, which initially lost him power and then, by blowing hot gases onto a CV joint, caused grease to leak onto a rear brake. He fell back from Fittipaldi and Pace and was also passed by a recovering Scheckter a few laps later.

Highlights of the 1975 British Grand Prix, Part 2

But just when you thought that was pretty much that, the rain inevitably had the final say. Gloomy looking clouds again raced towards Club corner with around 20 laps left, and while it was initially only drizzle, it intensified rapidly. Jarier crashed out at Woodcote on the greasy surface, but no one knew the extreme carnage that this was just the start of. Leader Fittipaldi takes up the story: 'I remember seeing a very black cloud heading towards us and I knew for sure it was going to cause trouble. It was a typical English summer's day; one cloud here, another one there - and this one was coming towards Stowe. When it arrived, it was like you had turned on the shower just over that corner. Everywhere else was 100 per cent dry.

'As I went down Hangar Straight, I could see it. I braked and went through the corner very slowly, in second gear. I got back to the pits, put on my wet tyres and went back out. Now it was really bad down at the far end of the circuit. The safest place was to stay in the middle of the track because the car could have spun off in any direction at any time.'

Choosing to pit for wets for Fittipaldi's second inspired call of the day, because as he did so the whole field it seemed was coming off at Club corner, including the cars placed second to fifth, as the turn now had a river running across it. Scheckter, who'd moved past a wayward Pace a couple of corners earlier, slid helplessly straight on into the barriers and catch fencing, and was joined by Pace and Hunt, as well as by the lapped Brice, Wilson Fittipaldi, Henton and Nicholson in the blink of an eye it seemed, creating something resembling a scrap yard. Fortunately, the drivers' injuries that there were were minor, though a marshal sustained broken bones after being hit by one of the cars. And further up the track, at Stowe, Donohoe, Mass, Watson and Depailler slid off in similar circumstances. In all, 13 of the 19 runners were accounted for.

Carnage at Club corner

Even though officials had briefed drivers before the start that the race would not be stopped for the weather, a red flag did appear at the start line, some ten laps short of the planned 67. It wasn't clear whether this was down to the extreme weather or that there was now barely anything left on the track aside from wreckage.

Fittipaldi stopped on the start/finish line next time around, and some confusion ensued as the RAC deliberated over what the result should be. There was little doubt that Fittipaldi would be declared the winner, and eventually the RAC decided to confirm Fittipaldi as the victor and award him 56 laps, the one Fittipaldi had completed going into the pits. And second to fifth places were awarded to drivers in cars encased in the Club catch fencing: Pace, Scheckter, Hunt and Donohoe, in that order, each of whom had completed 55 tours. Brambilla in the March was only awarded sixth place, even though he was still running and had actually also completed 56 laps, officials decided he'd only done so after the red flag had been shown. Max Mosley of March (not sure what became of him) did protest, but the same result was declared some three days later.

So a crazy, and confused, end to a crazy race. And while no one knew it, it was to be Emerson Fittipaldi's last ever Grand Prix victory. At the end of 1975 he shocked everyone by leaving McLaren to join his brother's fledgling and struggling Copersucar team. It was a disastrous career move and Fittipaldi was never near to being an F1 front runner again.

Race results

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