I know it’s been said before (by John Lennon, to be precise), but I’m perpetually reminded that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.
I was always mad on cars but useless at school. Articled to a firm of Essex solicitors for two years, I failed to pass any of the Law Society’s exams. Then I endured another fruitless couple of years in a London bank that shall remain nameless – an experience about which I have no more happy memories than my many subsequent years as one of their downtrodden customers!
At around the same time, I got involved in marshalling at Brands Hatch via the BRSCC. One day, I was moved to write to Simon Taylor, then club editor of AUTOSPORT, advising that I’d been at Brands the previous Sunday and their magazine’s report was rubbish.
Well, not quite rubbish, but something I felt I could definitely have been done better.
Hungaroring: slow route to the fast lane
That frank exchange of views gave me the crucial toe-hold I needed to take the first tentative steps towards becoming a member of the F1 journalistic community. However, that was a task that took me a further nine years.
The first Grand Prix I attended was Great Britain’s round of the 1964 world championship, the first time that the race had been held at Brands Hatch. I was still a few weeks short of my 17th birthday, so had to rely on my long-suffering mother to drive me and a pal from our home in Essex through the Dartford Tunnel – then a single-bore affair with oncoming traffic separated only by a white line.
Actually, I think I drove the family Ford Consul on ‘L’ plates on this ground breaking personal adventure. And if you have to ask what a Ford Consul is/was, then I suggest you click down the page and pick up this narrative a little further along!
Jimmy Clark seemed to be winning everything throughout the early 1960s. From my vantage in the spectator area on the inside of Bottom Bend, I watched with jaw-dropping awe as the Scot’s minimalist Lotus 33, with its dark green paintwork and yellow central stripe, led from start to finish.
Graham Hill’s BRM was less than a couple of seconds behind as Clark swept through Clearways for a final time to take the chequered flag, but, in truth, his longtime rival always seemed to linger tantalisingly out of reach.
It was the story of Graham’s life for so much of his career.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was as much competition between journalists to land a job in F1 as there was amongst F2 racers seeking to make the final step onto the lower rungs of the grand prix ladder. My lucky break came in May 1970, when I was offered a job on the editorial staff of Motoring News. I spent three years covering the European F2 championship – the hotly competitive final pre-F1 ‘feeder’ formula that honed the talents of so many contemporary rising stars.
'Put a lid on it'
When I finally got my big break and was moved up to covering F1, the first race I attended in my new capacity was the British GP at Silverstone 1973 – a scarcely believable 40 years ago, almost to the month.
In those days Silverstone was far from the glossy high-tech edifice that it is today. It was very much brieze-block city, with cramped pits, a narrow pit lane and permanent spectator facilities that always looked somewhat temporary.
It might not have been picture-perfect, but, by any standard, it was quick, quick, quick.
And it was also an absolutely incredible and memorable race.
In the Thursday July 19 1973 edition of Motoring News, I penned the following opening paragraph:
“With an avalanche of shattered Grand Prix cars partially blocking the circuit at the end of the pits, Saturday’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone was brought to a premature halt by the red flag after just two laps.”
It was a race that would become infamous for the first-lap multiple car pile-up at Woodcote that knocked out half the field. It was a day of two halves for McLaren: poor Scheckter had triggered that first-lap pile-up, but, for Peter Revson, it was a day of sunshine – he won his first grand prix, and took the legendary M23 a step closer to becoming one of the iconic cars of the 1970s. Denny Hulme, the third of a trio of M23 drivers that weekend, also finished on the podium.
“All eyes were focused on the Yardley McLarens threesome Hulme, Revson and the promising young Jody Scheckter, all very real threats to the two Lotuses. The team arrived in a brand new articulated transporter.
“In practice, both Stewart and Peterson had to give best to Denny Hulme. Revitalised by his win in Sweden and spurred on by Scheckter’s performance in the French GP, “Super Bear” scorched round in a sizzling 1m16.5s to top Thursday’s practice list quite conclusively on the first day. Revson wasn’t a slouch either, lapping his own M23 in 1m17.5s despite a high-speed spin at Copse, a time equaled by “Baby Bear” [Scheckter] in the third M23 before he ran into fuel-pressure trouble.”
For qualifying, the Lotus of Ronnie Peterson was untouchable, but “the nearest to his 1m16.3s pole position was Hulme, with his best from the previous day, while ‘Revvie’ wasn't going to be left behind and also lapped in 1m16.5s to make it two McLaren M23s on the front row… Jody Scheckter trimmed his best to 1m16.9s to lead the third row from Cevert and Reutemann.”
Of course, it all felt like it was going to plan – and a very good plan for McLaren, at that point – until, on Sunday, fortunes were turned on their head.
For MN’s race entry, I wrote the following:
“Then it all happened. Scheckter, clearly anxious that those he led at Ricard shouldn’t be allowed to get away, came rushing up behind team leader Hulme as they came under the bridge looking for a way past. Hulme saw the speed Jody was making, promptly moved over and waved his young contemporary through as he was more than doubtful about his ability to get round at that speed. On half-cold tyres and full tanks the South African’s M23 started to slide wide as he came through the corner, drifting onto the grass at the exit, from whence it immediately spun back across the track into the pit wall, shedding its rear wing in the process due to a glancing blow from team-mate Revson.
“It was the accident that everyone had been waiting to happen at Woodcote for a long time and the consequences of Scheckter’s error were devastating. Hulme got through, Hunt saw the wing bouncing about, ‘ducked under the instrument panel’ and just got through as it glanced off his March’s airbox. Ganley’s Iso swerved through, but Williamson’s March went into the wall hard, Beltoise’s BRM started to spin wildly and slammed the barrier while the three Surtees of Mass, Pace and Hailwood cannoned into the blockage along with de Adamich’s Brabham BT42 which ended up in the bank on the left of the track.
“Hill braked his Shadow hard, only to be rammed by Follmer’s work car, breaking a wishbone. Follmer was out, but both Ickx and Wilson Fittipaldi just didn’t know how they managed to get through as there appeared to be cars destroying themselves all around them. In fact, Wilson came to a virtual halt before finding a path through the carnage.”
Fantasy McLaren matchups
Also finding a path through the (metaphorical) carnage was Revson, who seized control of the eventually restarted race. The American has been pushing Emerson Fittipaldi hard for half the race, and the pressure finally showed on lap 36, when the Brazilian’s Lotus 72 expired with a failed CV joint.
Revson then surged past Peterson’s Lotus and took the lead, winning the British Grand Prix – his first win in Formula 1, and also my first working race in Formula 1 too!
I summed up the weekend thusly:
“For Peter Revson, who first raced in a British Grand Prix in his private Lotus some nine years ago, it was a great personal victory. For Yardley McLaren, a popular triumph well-won which helped to cheer them up after young Scheckter’s indiscretion.”
Yet, truth be told, McLaren had done much to burnish its emergent F1 reputation in less obvious ways by the end of this particularly noteworthy race. Like all their rivals, not a drop of fuel was spilled during the mayhem of that first-lap multiple pile-up.
It was a thorough and convincing demonstration of the new regulations that had been introduced a couple of months earlier, calling for impact-resistant chassis side structures.
It was admirable proof that technology and performance could make credible bedfellows.
And, of course, for McLaren it was a signal of what was to come.