McLaren's 1974 world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, writes the second of his exclusive monthly blog columns for McLaren.
It’s hard to believe that Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was founded 50 years ago this year, because, even now, I tend to think of McLaren as a new team.
I think that’s because I arrived in England to race in Formula Ford and Formula 3 in 1969, by which time McLaren had been in existence for only six years and had been competing in Formula 1 for only three years. And when I made my debut in Formula 1, in 1970, McLaren had been competing in Formula 1 for only four years – whereas the team I’d joined, Lotus, had been competing in Formula 1 since 1958 and had already won plenty of Formula 1 World Championships with my teenage heroes Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
So why did I leave mighty Lotus for up-and-coming McLaren at the end of 1973, you may well be wondering? After all, I’d won the World Championship for Lotus in 1972, and I’d started the 1973 season extremely well too, winning three of the first six Grands Prix of the year, in Argentina, Brazil and Spain, and finishing on the podium in the other three, in South Africa, Belgium and Monaco.
Well, as the 1973 season wore on, I began to have a few mechanical issues and reliability problems, which I’d never had to contend with the previous year. It was terrible, to be frank. Having scored a lot of points in the first six Grands Prix of the 1973 season, I scored just one point in the next six. It was really frustrating – but, in spite of my recent run of bad results, as we arrived at Monza, I still had a mathematical chance of catching Tyrrell’s number-one driver Jackie Stewart for the World Championship. My team-mate Ronnie Peterson didn’t.
So we made an agreement: if I was leading the race within 15 laps of the finish, and Ronnie was running second, he wouldn’t try to overtake me; but if Ronnie was leading the race within 15 laps of the finish, and I was running second, then Colin Chapman, the Lotus boss, would hang out a pit-board to instruct Ronnie to let me pass, so as to keep my World Championship chances alive.
Ronnie had qualified on the pole, and he took the lead early on. I’d started from fourth place on the grid, but I soon worked my way up to second place behind Ronnie. As we reached the 15-laps-to-go stage, I expected Colin to signal Ronnie to let me pass. But he didn’t. So I began to drive as hard as I could, right on the limit, and I caught up with Ronnie, and we began to race flat-out for the win.
Ronnie was a great guy – I didn’t blame him for not letting me pass because Colin never signalled for him to do so – but in the end I finished second, less than a second behind Ronnie, with the result that Jackie, who’d finished fourth, more than 30 seconds behind Ronnie and me, was World Champion. It was ridiculous. I was so angry with Colin, and that afternoon I decided to leave Lotus at the end of the year.
At around that time I was approached by some senior executives at Philip Morris, the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes, with a very attractive offer. “Choose your next team, Emerson,” they said, “and we’ll sponsor it, whichever team you end up choosing.”
I had talks with three teams: Tyrrell, Brabham and McLaren. Tyrrell had been extremely successful in recent years, and had not one but two spare seats because Jackie had announced his retirement from motor racing at the end of the 1973 season, and poor François Cevert, his team-mate, had been killed during qualifying for the last race of the year, the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
As I say, Tyrrell was a very good team, for which Jackie had won World Championships in 1969, 1971 and 1973, so clearly it was an attractive possibility for me.
Brabham was at that time owned and run by Bernie Ecclestone, with whom I’d always got on very well. As I explained in my last mclaren.com/formula1 blog, my Lotus team-mate in 1970, Jochen Rindt, had been a business partner of Bernie’s, and, over breakfast on the Saturday morning of the 1970 Italian Grand Prix weekend, Jochen and Bernie had asked me to drive in Formula 2 for them the following year, combining doing that with driving for Lotus in Formula 1. You could do that sort of thing in those days. I’d agreed – but it never came to pass because Jochen was killed just a few hours later, towards the end of a quick qualifying run, when he crashed on the approach to Parabolica, the long right-hander at the end of the Monza lap. It was a tragedy, and I felt it very badly, because Jochen had been a true friend.
Bernie’s designer at Brabham was Gordon Murray, one of the most creative technical guys in the history of motor racing, and Bernie had already contracted Carlos Reutemann, who was very fast and very professional, to drive the other car. So the Brabham option was even more tempting than the Tyrrell option, and to be honest I got very close to signing for Bernie at that time.
But then there was McLaren. In 1973 McLaren had replaced their M19 with a brand-new car, the M23. Straight away, it had been impressive, Denny Hulme putting it on the pole for its very first race, the 1973 South African Grand Prix, at the superfast Kyalami circuit. Jackie won that race for Tyrrell, but Denny’s McLaren team-mate Peter Revson and I spent much of the race dicing for second place. I got close to overtaking Peter a number of times, but in the end I finished just half a second behind him. It was the M23’s speed in the fastest corners that had impressed me most, especially since it was a brand-new car.
My early impressions of the M23 turned out to be correct, because it won McLaren three Grands Prix in the 1973 season – one for Denny and two for Peter. So in the autumn of that year I met the McLaren guys at their factory in Colnbrook (Berkshire, UK) – Teddy Mayer, Phil Kerr, Alastair Caldwell, Gordon Coppuck – and immediately I felt really comfortable with them. Teddy was the boss, and a lawyer by trade; Phil was the operations guy; Alastair was the team manager; and Gordon was the chief designer.
Gordon was from nearby Fleet (Hampshire, UK), but all the others were foreigners to England, just like me. I’d come from Brazil, Teddy had come from the United States, and Phil and Alastair had come from New Zealand, following Bruce McLaren, who’d founded the company but had been tragically killed testing a McLaren M8D Can-Am car at Goodwood (West Sussex, UK) in 1970.
Those guys had a fantastic spirit – as soon as I met them I could see that. They were so motivated, so organised, so keen to win. They were hungry for success. And I liked them. They were a great bunch of guys.
So I chose McLaren – and the Marlboro sponsorship duly followed. My team-mate would be Denny – Peter had signed for the Shadow team – and I had a good feeling about the year ahead. (Tragically, Peter raced in only two Grands Prix for Shadow, since he was killed while testing at Kyalami in the lead-up to the South African Grand Prix, the third race of the 1974 Formula 1 season.)
In December 1973 I drove the M23 for the first time, at a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France, and straight away I felt really comfortable in it. As I’d observed when racing against Peter and Denny throughout that year, it was very good in fast corners: very stable, very well balanced, and very quick.
The following month, January 1974, Goodyear organised a tyre test at my home circuit, Interlagos (Sao Paulo, Brazil). Again the M23 felt both fast and consistent, and, better still, I felt we made good progress during the test, finding a little bit of extra speed every day.
The first Grand Prix of the season was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I qualified my M23 in third position. Denny qualified 10th. But in the race I unintentionally deployed the ignition cut-off switch on the steering wheel – a safety feature that the McLaren guys had developed to prevent accidents in the event of stuck throttles caused by dust entering via the big air-boxes we used to run at that time – so I failed to score any points.
I was frustrated – but Denny took the win, which showed the M23’s inherent pace, so that was encouraging. Having said that, Carlos had led almost all the way, and should have won by rights, but sadly for him his Brabham ran short of fuel on the very last lap.
Clearly, Bernie’s team were going to be a threat all season – but I’d also been impressed by the speed of the new Ferrari, driven by Clay Regazzoni (who’d qualified second and finished third) and Niki Lauda (who’d raced from eighth on the grid to second at the finish). And then there was always Lotus. I knew exactly how good Colin’s team was, and Ronnie was always super-fast.
The next race was at Interlagos, where the M23 had tested well just a few weeks previously. As always at my home Grand Prix, I really wanted to shine. As soon as practice started, it was clear that the M23 would go well again – and, to confirm that, I bagged my first McLaren pole position.
At the start of the race, however, both Carlos and Ronnie went past me, but I managed to hold on to third place behind the Brabham and the Lotus. Carlos’s tyres began to go off very early on, though, so both Ronnie and I soon passed him easily enough. I was now in second place, behind only Ronnie, my old team-mate, driving for Lotus, the team that I’d voluntarily left just a few months before, despite my having been so successful there.
And don’t forget: most people thought I was crazy to leave Lotus. After all, I’d won nine Grands Prix and a World Championship with Colin and his boys, and undoubtedly Lotus had been the dominant Formula 1 team of the past decade, whereas McLaren was a pretty new outfit that had only won a handful of Grands Prix and hadn’t even looked close to winning a World Championship by that stage.
But, over the long bumpy corners of Interlagos, the circuit I knew so well and loved so dearly, my M23 was feeling good – very good in fact. And gradually I realised that I was catching Ronnie, and soon I began to think about how I might pass him. On lap 16 I managed it – a great feeling. It was my second Grand Prix win in Brazil, and my first Grand Prix win for McLaren. I was elated.
The 1974 season was, and remains, one of the closest-fought World Championships in Formula 1 history. Four teams were right on the pace – McLaren, Brabham, Tyrrell and Ferrari – and all of them won Grands Prix.
The next two races, in South Africa and Spain, were won by Carlos and Niki respectively. Next up was the Belgian Grand Prix – but the race was held not at Spa-Francorchamps, nor even at Zolder, but at Nivelles, which was a new-ish, flat, smooth circuit that had only ever staged one Grand Prix before, in 1972, which it so happened that I’d won.
I thought the M23 would go well there, and it did. But so did the Ferrari. Clay took pole position, and Niki qualified third. I was fourth on the grid – but the surprise was Jody Scheckter, whose Tyrrell hadn’t really shone so far that year but which he’d managed to qualify on the front row alongside Clay. In the race, though, as I’d suspected, the M23 came into its own. Clay finished fourth, Jody third, Niki second and I, just three-tenths of a second ahead of Niki at the finish, was the happy winner.
Next we went to Monaco, and the race was won by Ronnie, who was always super-quick there. Then, at Anderstorp (Sweden), Jody won. Then Niki won again at Zandvoort (Holland), Ronnie won again at Dijon (France), and Jody won again at Brands Hatch (England). I’d been picking up points pretty steadily – I was fifth at Monaco, fourth at Anderstorp, third at Zandvoort and second at Brands Hatch – but so had Clay. And Clay won the next Grand Prix, at the Nürburgring (Germany), where I retired owing to suspension failure on lap two.
Throughout the 1974 season, except at Interlagos for some reason, the M23 had been a handful on bumpy circuits. For instance I’d won at Nivelles, which was very smooth and flat, but I’d struggled at Dijon, with its ups and downs and twists and turns. But the McLaren guys had a plan, and they designed some suspension geometry developments for Brands Hatch, which was notoriously uneven and hilly, and as a result I’d finished second there. As I drove away through the pretty Kentish lanes that afternoon, I remember thinking, “If the M23 can finish second at bumpy old Brands, then I reckon it’ll be fine everywhere else from here on in.”
But, as I say, at the next race, at the Nürburgring, I failed to finish. I failed to score points next time out too, at the Österreichring (Austria), where my engine failed and Carlos won again. Next up was Monza (Italy). Niki put his Ferrari on the pole, with Clay fifth on the grid, but the Ferrari-mad Italian fans were to be disappointed, because both the red cars’ engines failed, Niki’s after 32 laps and Clay’s after 40. Ronnie won again, I finished second, and Jody was third.
As we flew to North America for the final two Grands prix of the season, I still felt that the World Championship was winnable, but Clay and Jody were both ominously close. Jody was a naturally talented driver – ‘sideways Scheckter’ they used to call him – and was the youngest of the three of us, at just 24. I was 27, while Clay was 34. Off the circuit Clay was great – a fun guy – but once he pulled on his helmet he changed. He was an incredibly aggressive driver, and he wouldn’t give you an inch.
That kind of behaviour is more common in Formula 1 today, now that racing is so much safer than it was 40-odd years ago, but in the 1970s it was rare. With Jody, Niki, Ronnie and Carlos – to name the principal contenders for the 1974 World Championship alongside Clay and me – you felt confident to race wheel to wheel. With Clay you didn’t.
The next race was the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport – a fast and bumpy circuit that rewarded bravery – and McLaren was used to winning there. Peter had won the Mosport race the previous year, in an M23 – but, more important still to the huge numbers of fans who flocked to the circuit for the Grand Prix weekend, McLaren had won five Can-Am races there over the past seven seasons.
Did my M23 somehow know that Mosport was a place where McLarens were expected to win? I doubt it – but it might as well have done because it felt superb all weekend. I took the pole and won the race, despite the bumps, which showed that what I’d suspected at Brands Hatch had been true: the McLaren guys had fixed the M23’s inability to ride uneven surfaces really well.
The only setback for us was that Clay had finished second – which meant that, going into the season’s finale at Watkins Glen (United States), he and I were tied on 52 points, with Jody on 45 points, still able to beat us both as long as he won at Watkins Glen and Clay and I both fared badly.
I’d always loved the Glen. I’d won my first Grand Prix there, for Lotus, in 1970, and I’d always thought it was a fabulous racetrack. McLaren had won four Can-Am races there, too. But this time our Can-Am form meant nothing – for, as hard as I tried on Friday and Saturday, I just couldn’t find a set-up that felt either quick or comfortable.
Fortunately, my World Championship rivals were struggling, too. Jody qualified sixth, I qualified eighth, and Clay qualified just behind me, ninth. Carlos took the pole, from the surprise duo of James Hunt in the Hesketh and Mario Andretti in the Parnelli.
James’s and Mario’s presence up front might help me, I reckoned, because it would make it that bit harder for Jody to beat Carlos for the win he needed to overhaul Clay and me for the World Championship. But, even so, I was worried. In fact I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never felt as much pressure in my life as I felt, lying sleepless in my hotel room, the night before the 1974 United States Grand Prix.
But, more than just feeling pressure, I had a real sense of responsibility, too. All year the McLaren guys had worked so hard, and so well, and now they were within reach of the ambition they’d strived so hard for together: their first Formula 1 World Championship. I simply had to win it for them, I said to myself. But my car didn’t feel good enough. And I couldn’t get to sleep.
Sunday morning passed in a blur, but I remember the start of the race as though it was yesterday. As I pulled my McLaren up to its P8 grid slot, and as Clay pulled his Ferrari up to its P9 grid slot, I couldn’t look at him. He couldn’t look at me, either. We were both too nervous, too focused, too intent. And I saw that my mechanics couldn’t look at the Ferrari mechanics either – and neither could they look at us. The atmosphere was incredibly intense.
As the flag waved, Clay got a better start than I did, rounding Turn One, a 90-degree right-hander, just ahead of me. But, on the long uphill run towards Turn Two, I managed to slot into his slipstream, and I felt that wonderful feeling that all racing drivers know so well: a draft, sucking my car forward.
As we were both hammering along the straight towards Turn Two, another 90-degree right-hander, my McLaren’s nosecone began to creep closer to Clay’s Ferrari’s gearbox, and I remember thinking to myself, “I think I may be able to pass him here, and if I do I’ll win the World Championship.”
But Clay was Clay. He wasn’t like the rest of us. The rest of us often described Clay’s Ferrari as “the widest car in Formula 1”, and that was because he’d swerve all over the road in front of you rather than let you pass. Now, as I followed him, feeling all tensed up inside, I could see his distinctive red-and-white helmet bobbing from side to side, as he looked in his mirrors, clearly ready to execute one of his famous chops whenever I made my move.
His Ferrari drifted towards the middle of the track in front of me. I followed in its wheel-tracks. I was only a couple of metres behind him now, and I was still gaining on him, and very soon we’d both have to brake for Turn Two. But on which side should I try to pass him – left or right?
I feinted left – and, watching his mirrors like a hawk, Clay saw me and did the same. I’d expected exactly that – so, as soon as he jinked his Ferrari left, I immediately jinked my McLaren right. I’d done it. I’d sold him a dummy. I was nearly alongside him now, on his right-hand side, and gaining, and I had the inside line for the upcoming right-hander.
But, as I say, Clay was Clay. He veered to the right, even though I was almost level with him by now, and I had no option but to do the same. I was on the extreme right-hand side of the tarmac now, but Clay kept coming. He got closer and closer, and I had to move even further to the right, putting two wheels on the grass.
I looked over, and he did the same. I wasn’t going to back off now, because I’d won the corner fair and square, and I think he suddenly understood that. So, as we both stood on the brakes, he moved ever so slightly to the left, to avoid a shunt, and I scrambled around the inside of the corner, got the power down well on the exit, and pulled ahead. Through Turns Three and Four I increased my advantage. “If my car doesn’t break, I’ll win the World Championship,” I remember saying to myself.
It didn’t break, I finished fourth, and Clay slipped back to 11th. Jody failed to finish. I was World Champion – my second World Championship and McLaren’s first. It was one of the best days of my life.
As I sprayed the champagne on the podium, and then did the post-race interviews, I considered saying what I thought of Clay’s tactics, which had been dangerous. There’s no other word. But I decided against it.
After all, I’d just won the World Championship. I’d done my talking on the track. What more did I really need to say?