Forty years ago this weekend, McLaren’s F1 team transporter rolled through the main gate at Silverstone with a trio of M23 challengers tucked away as precious cargo firmly secured behind closed doors. They would be driven by Denny Hulme, Peter Revson and inspirational new boy Jody Scheckter – all of whom shared the firm aim of winning the British Grand Prix for the marque’s very first time.
Three days later, that aspiration could be confidently slipped in the ‘job done’ category after Revson squeezed home to win ahead of Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus, future McLaren F1 star James Hunt in the Hesketh team’s March 731, and Hulme, who had earlier in the season posted the M23’s maiden F1 victory in the Swedish GP at Anderstorp.
But Scheckter, who was being tutored as a future star by the McLaren management, was poised to hit the headlines in another way altogether after he lost control of his M23 going through the flat-out Woodcote right-hander at the end of the opening lap.
As Jackie Stewart led the pack through the turn in his Tyrrell-Ford, he was already about 10 lengths clear of Peterson and Carlos Reutemann’s Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham BT42. Seconds later, all hell let loose. In fourth place, Denny ‘the Bear’ Hulme suddenly became aware that ‘Baby Bear’ Scheckter was pulling alongside, obviously intending to make up a place even before the pack had completed the opening lap.
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All the F1 hacks, myself included, began whistling through their teeth as Jody’s McLaren started to run wide. Already, it was clear that if McLaren was out to break its British-GP duck, then the winning car was not going to be driven by the young South African!
Sliding wide onto the grass, Jody’s M23 came spearing back across the main body of the pack before slamming into the pit wall on the right-hand side of the circuit. Carnage, understandably ensued.
Understandably, the race was quickly flagged to a halt. When the dust finally settled, no fewer than nine cars, including the entire three-car Surtees squad, were wrecked in a little more than 10 seconds of high-octane mayhem.
Amazingly, there was only one casualty; the popular Italian Andrea de Adamich sustained a badly broken leg and it took marshals the best part of an hour to cut him out of his wrecked Brabham. Frankly, it was a miracle that no fuel leaked from the many tanks brimmed to the top. Had there been a fire, the consequences for the sport would have been utterly catastrophic.
In fact, F1 had experienced a lucky break, but the race was eventually re-started after a long delay, with Peterson’s Lotus doing the lion’s share of leading as the battle got underway again. A brief rain shower played to Revson’s strengths and the American ace eventually nipped through to win by just under three seconds. It was his first grand prix win.
This Silverstone success was a huge morale-booster for the McLaren squad as well as for Revson who seemed to have a rather strained relationship with team boss Teddy Mayer.
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“He was something of a funny guy,” recalled Teddy many years later and long after poor Peter had been killed in a testing accident at Kyalami at the start of 1974. “I had known him for many years, and formed the impression that he’d got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He had a very short fuse and I had a few run-ins with him, but by the end of his time at McLaren he was very quick indeed.
“That victory at Silverstone was really quite impressive. But I remember one argument centred over whether he drove in one particular grand prix or drove the Indy car at Pocono, which he did not want to do. But I pointed out that one of our sponsors wanted him to go to Pocono, whether he liked it or not. In the end he went to Pocono and simply flew.”
Mayer then turned his intellectual firepower on Scheckter, making the judgment that the South African was too accident-prone and consequently not renewing his contract.
This lack of perspicacity resurfaced in the treatment of dazzling new boy Gilles Villeneuve, whom Mayer allowed to slip through McLaren’s corporate fingers at the end of 1977, despite Gilles having showcased his talent driving a McLaren M23 in the British GP at Silverstone. Shame...