Probably the craziest race of the 20th century
- Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W Millennium issue
- Mike Hailwood & John Surtees - Mike the Bike & Fearless John, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Roger Williamson - Unnecessary casualty, by Mattijs Diepraam/Raimon Durán
The craziest race of the century? Your votes please!
Well, here's one of our nominees, as the 1973 Canadian GP must come with high credentials. Disqualifications and reinstatements aside, it's probably the only World Championship event that still has doubts cast over its declared winner. To this day, Emerson Fittipaldi claims he is the rightful victor of this curious event, since no-one overtook him on the road. From a man who through Indy racing must have grown accustomed to pit strategy as a means of gaining track position, this takes some believing. Perhaps Emmo is forgetting that today, in Grand Prix racing too, it is the common way to win races. And in the very wet early part of the 1973 Canadian GP you needed pit strategy indeed! Look at Johnny Herbert's amazing 1999 European GP glory. Who needs overtaking when it's raining? The recipe for a wet win is as follows: stay out for as long as you can and while doing so, be sure to keep it on the road. Then throw in a safety car that didn't know what it was doing, the lack of electronic timing and positioning and you have hell on earth for lap chart officials.
A safety car? Oh yes, this was also the first Championship Grand Prix in which the safety car meddled with business - and doing a poor job at it. But let's get to that later.
First we'll go back to the teams arriving at Mosport on Friday. Two weeks earlier at Monza, Jackie Stewart was crowned champion in controversy after Ronnie Peterson refused to let Fittipaldi through into the lead. Emerson was to have none of it and blew his top after the race. In the end, it was all immaterial since JYS drove to a safe fourth. And that was exactly Ronnie's point. He was backed up by Colin Chapman, who allowed his drivers to race once it was inevitable that the Tyrrell driver would be champion regardless of their finishing order. So with nothing at stake, the teams were aiming at two stabs of one-shot glory in the two North American events.
However, what should have been a festive finish to a thrilling season ended in drama and tragedy. In Saturday's morning practice we saw a couple of worrying preludes to the horror of Watkins Glen. First Peterson shot off the track and clobbered the Armco. It was a potentially fatal smack: the guardrails were completely shattered at the point of impact, but Ronnie was lucky his car was half launched over the top of them, onto the Mosport banking. Two weeks later Cevert's tête-à-tête with the Armco proved to be much more horrifying: on impact his Tyrrell broke in two halves leaving the poor Frenchman no chance to survive. Then, a few moments later at Mosport, Niki Lauda had a fox shoot underneath his car. Immediately, his BRM was rocketed into the air and forcefully returned to the ground. The little Austrian had God to thank for merely spraining his wrist. Both Ronnie and Niki had been very lucky.
On Sunday, it rained again and a dense fog descended onto the track. It would be mad to race in these conditions, yet after an hour's delay the field was flagged away with pole man Peterson leading away before throwing away his chanches by spinning out. Then the other protagonist of Saturday's untimed practice took over, as Lauda built a solid 30-second lead from Fittipaldi. The class of the field in those early laps, Niki looked like he was driving the race of his life. Then, after 20 laps, the track started to dry. A total of 54 tyre stops were counted, while the lead changed from Stewart to Beltoise to Oliver to…
Lap 24 seemed to take ages as virtually everyone queued up in the pitlane. Tyrrell, Chapman and Ecclestone were running up and down the pitlane to get the latest positions. On lap 33, the situation was then further complicated by Jody Scheckter (again) becoming involved in car-smashing mayhem, as the young South African took off Cevert at Turn 2. A first in Grand Prix racing, a pace car was sent out while the rescue vehicles were half blocking the track.
The introduction of the safety car had been enforced by the large number of horrific crashes marring the 1973 season, starting with Regazzoni's Kyalami blaze, and culminating in the Williamson disaster at Zandvoort. In Austria, the pace car had done a few practice laps but this time it was for real. Of course, with zero practice, the car was sent out in front of the wrong car: Howden Ganley's Iso-Marlboro, who eventually went on to finish sixth. The trouble was that pace car driver Eppie Wietzes and his passenger, FOCA representative Peter Macintosh, had been focusing on Stewart's Tyrrell, who was leading at the time but went into the pits just as Wietzes and Macintosh took to the track. They waited, and waited, and waved several cars by, while Stewart was stuck in the pits, hit crew messing up his stop to no end. Then the Porsche 914 picked up Ganley, who had come out of the pits just in front of JYS, but Wietzes and Macintosh had overlooked the fact that several of the drivers they had waved through - including Beltoise, Oliver and Revson - had thus effectively gained a lap while Fittipaldi, now stuck behind Stewart, had almost come up to lap the new champion but instead was held up.
Through this costly mistake Peter Revson - who at the time was sure to be a lap down - made up huge slices of territory, while others, such as Beltoise took advantage by pitting yet again. After five laps the pace car disappeared. So, who was leading? Jackie Oliver was our most probable man, since everyone acknowledged he had gained a lap through the pace-car cock-up. After all, he had been fighting Fittipaldi in the early wet part of the race. But in fact, by virtue of some smart pitting Beltoise had crept up to Oliver, who had to deal with a stuck throttle, and the Frenchman retook his position from the later Arrows boss shortly after the restart, while going completely unnoticed Revson also went by. Fittipaldi immediately set about to set things straight, however. With Emerson on a roll, beating the lap record in the process, the Brazilian took big chunks out of the Shadow's lead and went on to pass Beltoise as well.
Chapman was certain his man was back in charge now, so a minute before two hours the Lotus boss did his customary hat-throwing thing. Even the guys at McLaren came over to congratulate their neighbouring Lotus mechanics. But wait up, where was the chequered flag? To the McLaren crew's amazement it was waved at Peter Revson - a full three-quarters of a minute later.
Everyone had completely overlooked the fact that the American, who had raced the best part of the wet race as a backmarker, had also won a lap and had been consummately leading the race for laps. It took a further five hours before the CASC declared the results as official.
Reader's Why by John Cross
What's this!? A Formula Libre event with a super-tweaked Porsche 914 in the lead? No, not quite - it is the first appearance of a pace car during a Grand Prix. This would have been all well and good except for one thing - it came out in front of the wrong car! Not even the driver of that car thought he was in the lead! Oh well, at least it made for an exciting finish...
The story begins with the awful tragedies at Kyalami and (especially) Zandvoort. At Kyalami Dave Charlton's sideways Lotus 72 hit the back wheel of Mike Hailwood's Surtees which was hit by Ickx's Ferrari knocking it into contact with Regazzoni's BRM. The Surtees and BRM slid to a halt and burst into flames. Mike climbed out of his car with overalls alight, ran across to the fireball in which Regazzoni was sitting unconscious, unbuckled his harness and tried to extricate Clay. The fire re-ignited nine times because fuel had soaked into the sand, a situation almost impossible to counteract. It took five men to lift Regazzoni out of the cockpit, the tub being so crumpled around his hips and legs that he had to be threaded out. A special award, the Prix Rouge et Blanc Joseph Siffert, was created at the race especially to honour Mike for his outstanding bravery, and he was later awarded the George Medal, the highest accolade to a civilian for bravery in the UK.
A few months later at Zandvoort, Roger Williamson's works March suffered some sort of suspension or tyre failure, went off on the outside of a very fast, fifth gear right hander and hit the guardrail on the outside at about a 45-degree angle, left front wheel first. This tyre (and no others) had left peculiar comet-shaped marks on the road suggesting that the tread was either deformed or at some odd angle and was skipping on the tarmac. At impact the guardrail, whose steel posts were simply sunk into the sand, bent back at an angle approaching 45 degrees and formed a spiralling ramp which threw the car into the air and back diagonally across the road. It landed 80 yards from the rail and finally came to a halt 100 yards further on, on the right hand side of the road on the apex of another very fast right hander, upside down and burning.
Amazingly, Roger was hardly hurt by the impact and the flames were not severe at first. David Purley, who had been following Roger closely but was otherwise uninvolved, stopped at the scene and ran into the fire area trying to rescue Roger. He single-handedly tried to heave the whole car over by lifting a wheel and was also seen on his hands and knees at the cockpit, trying to release the belts. However it proved an impossible task without any help - the marshalls, scared stiff, just watched (in fact, some of them tried to restrain Purley's heroic efforts). After a couple of minutes, the fire caught hold and nothing could be done to save poor Roger. A fire-fighting truck was sent from the paddock along the circuit (without any yellow flag warning for at least two drivers) and eventually arrived, while another one, not far away, further along the track from the fire, remained stationary. Many drivers felt the race should have been stopped and Denny Hulme drove close to the pit wall, shaking his fist at the officials.
Clearly there had to be a way to slow cars down in cases of serious accidents like this. So the CSI decided to introduce pace cars, as used for many years in American oval track racing. So three weeks after Zandvoort, in Austria, the pace car was tried out twice during practice.
And so we come to Mosport - the race that had everything: wet conditions, dry conditions, tyre changes by every competitor, a collision, a stirring last-minute pursuit, two "winners" and the first use of the pace car in ernest. During practice Ronnie Peterson was the class of the field in his Lotus, taking pole by over 1 second from the McLarens of Revson and Scheckter and Reutemann's Brabham. Race day morning saw lots of rain and the start was delayed by almost an hour. Lauda's BRM made the best start and by lap 4 he was in the lead (from 8th on the grid!). On the next lap he pulled out 4 seconds, then another three. On lap 15 he was leading Peterson by 23 seconds and surely the race was in his pocket. Except that the track began to dry! On the next lap Peterson's tyre deflated and he smacked the guardrail a glancing blow. That left Fittipaldi chasing Lauda and he was gaining at such a rate that on lap 20 Lauda pulled into the pits to have intermediates fitted, rejoining in 8th.
With the track drying, a Great Traffic Jam built up with driver veering into the pits to change tyres, the established order altered by wholesale amounts, and within a couple of laps almost everyone's lap charts had "blown up". This was the point at which most people threw their charts away. Those who didn't had only a few more moments to carry on. On their 33rd laps, having both stopped for slicks and rejoined to rush around in company, Scheckter and Cevert came together side-by-side in the 2nd turn - the same place where Ickx collided with Stewart in 1969. The results were a bit more harsh this time, with damage to both chassis from crunching into the rail. François pulled himself out of his crumpled footwell and went running along to where Jody was standing brushing himself off, and their confrontation lacked enough cordiality that marshalls felt it necessary to step between them...
There was debris on the road and two ambulances on the track, so clearly the pace car had to come out. Three lap later it did - in front of the wrong car! Suddenly Howden Ganley found himself running behind a yellow Porsche 914. He hadn't reckoned himself the leader (nor did anyone else except the officials!) and gave a couple of amazed "who, me?" signals. Peter MacIntosh in the passenger seat radioed back to the startline officials three times, but each time the answer was the same, "Stay ahead of number 25."
Quickly everyone else ran around the track and joined the queue. Some stopped at the pits and rejoined again, complicating with finality any attempts at keeping an accurate lap chart. Nobody agreed on the order, not the teams, nor the officials, not the comentators, not the puzzled workers high above the tower who were putting numbers in slots to "inform" the spectators of the first four places. They changed their minds about as often as the pace car came round!
"But as they thought I was in front I decided perhaps I'd better try and stay there," said Howden later, and when the green flag finally unleashed the race again the Iso in front of Stewart and Fittipaldi stayed there. It stayed there for another lap, and another, and another... "I've never driven so hard in my life," said Howden. "I began to puff so hard I was having trouble breathing!" Emerson did make it by, followed by Stewart, but Emerson pulled away, driving with the same incredible energy as in practice. Some thought that Oliver was now in the lead, the Shadow tyre change having quicker than the Lotus's. Since Oliver was behind Fittipaldi in the queue, this meant that Emerson was the best part of a lap behind. There were still nearly 40 laps to go and perhaps a tremendous effort would salvage it for Emerson.
That was the thing to watch and watching it captured all attention. The Lotus was gaining ground, but not by much - except for a couple of intermittent problems with the Shadow. Some time was lost in traffic, especially as Jackie tried to get past Beltoise (who was actually leading at the time!) and another was a case of stuck-shut throttle. On one crucial lap Oliver came past the pits practically crawling, trying to free his pedal, and a couple of cars blasted past, one of whom was eventual winner Revson's McLaren. Without these delays the Lotus would never have made it. But Emerson, every lap a triumph of full-blooded slides, was carving off whole seconds. With just 1 and a quarter laps to go Emerson blasted past on the long uphill straight. Jackie fought back and the pair went into what they thought was their last lap nose-to-tail. As Emerson led Jackie over the finishing line by a coupel of seconds, Colin Chapman threw his cap high into the air to celebrate a great victory. But there was no chequered flag! The official was looking up the track as Colin's cap lay on the track, being pummelled by the onrushing racing cars.
A tight cluster of cars shot into view. It was Stewart ahead, still only 2 seconds ahead of Howden's Iso, then Hailwood's Surtees, Revson's McLaren and Hunt's March. These four had been slithering around in a furious scrap ever since the pace car pulled off, and here they went down to the line as close and hard as ever. They blasted as one under the bridge and the official waved the flag at one of them - Revson. Half a minute later he waved it again as Fittipaldi and Oliver completed another searing full-racing lap. Their 81st? Or not?
It was late in the evening before the officials finally confirmed the results - Revson from Fittipaldi, Oliver and Beltoise. The Shadow team entered a protest at this point, but rechecking again convinced them they had missed a lap of the McLaren and they withdrew their protest. So, many hours after it was due to begin, the "Grand Prix Silly" was declared ended. These days we have electronic time keeping so it is difficult to imagine the problems of doing it by hand. Just ask those who were trying to do it on that day!