It finally came to me in the bar at Seneca Lodge, on the evening of Sunday October 6th 1974 – around 40 years ago.
But, before I tell you what finally came to me that evening, and why, I want to talk a bit about a subject that matters to all of us much, much more. We – McLaren’s PR guys and I – had originally planned that the blog you are reading would be published on the precise 40th anniversary of my Seneca Lodge epiphany. The fact that we did not publish it on that day is probably obvious to you, for on the morning of Monday October 6th 2014 the Formula 1 community was focused on one issue and one issue alone: the terrible accident that had befallen poor Jules Bianchi, at Suzuka, Japan, the previous afternoon.
In truth, we, the Formula 1 community, are still focused on Jules. Of course we are. We are all hoping and praying for him daily. I find myself hoping and praying for him many times every day, in fact. I do not know him well, but everything I have seen and heard of him has caused me to regard him as a very good driver and a very good guy. And, as far as I am concerned, that is just about the greatest pair of accolades I can award a fellow racer. And I know that I speak for you, dear reader, as well as for everyone who works in Formula 1, when I say that.
As I say, our hopes and prayers are still with Jules, of course they are, but above all Jules is a racer, and it seems to me that now, just as the Formula 1 community is revving up to fly to Austin, for the 2014 United States Grand Prix, so also now is an appropriate time for me belatedly to mark my part in the winning of McLaren’s first ever World Championship, won in that country just over 40 long years ago.
So… where was I? Ah yes, Seneca Lodge. Seneca Lodge was the hotel in which the McLaren team always used to stay for the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, and, on that afternoon, just over 40 years ago, I had finished fourth, behind Carlos Reutemann (Brabham), Carlos Pace (Brabham) and James Hunt (Hesketh), and the three points I had thereby scored had been enough to secure the Drivers’ World Championship for me and the Constructors’ World Championship for the team.
After the race, I had done interviews with reporters and TV crews, and I had described the way I had overtaken my principal World Championship rival, Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni, on lap one, and I had paid tribute to the professionalism and enthusiasm of my McLaren team… but only when I walked into the bar at Seneca, or the Lodge, as the McLaren guys used to call our hotel, did I finally realise that, yes, yessir, I had done it. Or, rather, we had done it. We had won McLaren’s first ever World Championships, both Drivers’ and Constructors’, and it felt absolutely fantastic.
We had a brilliant party that evening in the Seneca bar. I have never been a big drinker, so I did not get drunk, but I think it is fair to say that quite a few of the McLaren mechanics did. They deserved it. They had worked so hard and so well for so long. They were such a great bunch of guys. At the end of the night, I presented my championship laurels to the bar tender, which was a very generous thing to do; but I felt so happy, and I wanted to do it, so I did it.
A few years ago I revisited Seneca – and there, in the bar, a little frayed and dried to a crisp, were my championship laurels, hanging in pride of place behind the bar. I left them there, of course. That is now where they belong.
I will not now give you a blow-by-blow account of either the 1974 United States Grand Prix or the 1974 Formula 1 season, because I have done both those things in a previous mclaren.com/formula 1 blog. So what I will do, and what I will write, now, to mark the historic 40-year anniversary of McLaren’s and my success, is to tell you what happened next.
We began the 1975 Formula 1 season full of hope. We had said goodbye to the retiring Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren’s best mate who had won the Drivers’ World Championship for Brabham in 1967 and had then become a pillar of McLaren from 1968 to 1974, he and Bruce winning everything in Can-Am and doing pretty well in Formula 1 too; and my new team-mate was Jochen Mass, another really nice guy. Our car, the McLaren M23, was in its third year, but it was still very competitive.
The first Grand Prix of the 1975 season took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the local media and fans were very excited about what they saw as a cut-throat rivalry between the local hero, Carlos Reutemann, a proud Argentine, and me, a rival Brazilian.
Qualifying went well but not perfectly for either of us, Carlos ending up in P3 in his Brabham BT44B, two places ahead of me in my McLaren M23. The front row had been annexed by Jean-Pierre Jarier in a Shadow (in pole position, which had been a big surprise to everyone) and my old friend (and fellow Brazilian) Carlos Pace in a Brabham; as things panned out, though, neither man would be a factor at the finish, Jean-Pierre retiring as a result of a broken gearbox and Carlos retiring owing to engine failure.
So, as the race reached its climax, the protagonists were Carlos Reutemann (Argentina, Brabham), James Hunt (Great Britain, Hesketh) and me. At half-distance we were circulating at the head of the field, in that order. Carlos and James were both great drivers – naturally talented, scrupulously fair and supremely brave – and as the race entered its final phase I began to prepare for battle.
Carlos was leading, but James was harrying him close behind, and soon he began to look to overtake. I sat behind their tussle, allowing them to fight it out, hoping that I would be in a position to capitalise in the final laps.
On lap 26 James passed Carlos and began to edge away into the lead. I realised that, if I was to have a chance of challenging James for the win, I too would have to overtake Carlos.
A few laps later I did just that, and began to race flat-out in an effort to get my McLaren’s nose-cone within striking distance of James’s Hesketh’s rear wing. My trusty M23 was handling beautifully. I was able to hold it in beautiful four-wheel drifts through the faster turns of that famously flat-out Buenos Aires circuit, and soon I had caught James and began to plan my overtake.
On lap 35 I pulled it off. I was elated. I reeled off the remaining laps, and took the win six seconds ahead of James in second place; Carlos finished a further 11 seconds back, in third.
The second Grand Prix of the season was run on my home circuit, Interlagos, in my home city, Sao Paulo. I felt very confident. I was the reigning World Champion, and I had won the previous Grand Prix. I was at the top of my form, my car was among the quickest, and my McLaren team knew how to win.
Sure enough, in qualifying, everything went well. I ended up in P2, behind Jean-Pierre Jarier’s pole-winning Shadow again. At the start, though, I got too much wheelspin, and dropped a few places. But Jean-Pierre failed to finish again, and I managed to work my way back up to second place at the flag, beaten only by my old friend Carlos Pace (Brabham), a deliriously happy winner of his home Grand Prix.
I will not take you through the 1975 Formula 1 season in blow-by-blow race-by-race style, but I hope I have given you a taste of how it began. I was leading the Drivers’ World Championship after two rounds, and I felt that McLaren and I had a very good chance to win back-to-back World Championships.
In truth we should have done – but what happened next was that we began to encounter reliability issues. In the next Grand Prix, in South Africa, my car stopped with a cracked plug-lead while I was challenging Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell for third place.
In the next, in Spain, I refused to race for safety reasons, as I have explained at length in a previous mclaren.com/formula1 blog.
Next up was Monaco, where I finished second, but the race after that was less successful for us: I qualified eighth and finished seventh, losing my World Championship lead for the first time that season, to Ferrari’s Niki Lauda.
Niki would never lose that World Championship lead, becoming World Champion for the Scuderia with five fine Grand Prix victories. I won two Grands Prix, and finished second to Niki in the Drivers’ World Championship, but, had I not failed to score points in South Africa, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Germany and Austria, things might have turned out very differently.
In the last two Grands Prix of the year – at Monza and at Watkins Glen – my M23 was fast and reliable once again, and I finished second both times.
In the last of those two Grands Prix, at Watkins Glen, I was beaten by Niki, ending up just over four seconds behind him at the finish, but more than 40 seconds ahead of the third-placed man, my team-mate Jochen Mass. Niki and I had qualified first and second, and I have to say that I could and should have won that day, had I not been thwarted by my old bête noire, Niki’s Ferrari team-mate, Clay Regazzoni.
At the start, Niki and I powered off the line in first and second positions, he slightly ahead. For lap after lap we circulated nose to tail, and soon I began to work out where I might overtake. But my plans were scuppered when we came up to lap Clay, who had qualified only 11th and was having a pretty poor race.
Clay let Niki through immediately, but, thereafter, for lap after lap, he blocked me again and again, ignoring the marshals’ blue flags despite his being a lap behind me. I tried again and again to get past him, but every time I did so he chopped across my path. It was dangerous – and infuriating – and many times I waved my fist at him. But still he continued to block me. It was disgraceful driving on his part, to be honest.
In the end he was black-flagged – in other words ordered to stop racing and be disqualified – but by that time Niki had made good his escape. I was angry, and tried my best to catch up, clocking fastest lap on my way, but Clay’s unsporting behaviour had ruined my chances and I had to settle for second.
I was livid – and, in truth, I knew that Clay had been desperate to get his own back for my having beaten him to the 1974 Drivers’ World Championship, also at Watkins Glen, the previous year.
And that is where I started this blog. I said I would describe what happened next – and, in terms of outlining the highs and lows of my 1975 season with McLaren, I have done that.
As you doubtless know, I ended up leaving McLaren during the winter of 1975-’76, joining my brother Wilson’s Copersucar-Fittipaldi team instead, and driving for it in Formula 1 until 1980. I will tell you more about that in my next mclaren.com/formula1 blog, but today I just want to make clear that many of the reasons that at the time were cited in the press for my sudden decision to leave McLaren and join Copersucar-Fittipaldi were inaccurate. It certainly was not a financially motivated move, as some of my detractors wrongly assumed. No, it was born of a simple love of my family and my country, and a passionate desire to help both of them attain Formula 1 glory. We did not succeed, as I will explain next month, but even now I am glad we tried.
Leaving McLaren was a very difficult decision. In the autumn of 1975 I had spent a lot of time testing my McLaren M23, mainly at Paul Ricard, and we had made very good progress. We had found lap-time. We had been very, very quick.
So, when I made my decision to leave McLaren, I knew that the M23 would be faster in 1976 than it had been in 1975, and I felt sure that I would have had a fantastic chance of tasting World Championship glory again. And history shows that I was right – because, when I left McLaren in the winter of 1975-’76, my replacement for the 1976 season was James Hunt. And in 1976 James won six Grands Prix in the McLaren M23 that I had so painstakingly developed, and the World Drivers’ Championship with it.
I do not resent James’s success, because he deserved it; he drove superbly. Besides, I had voluntarily chosen to leave McLaren. So, no, that is not my point. No, my point is that, in terms of success, it cost me dear to join Copersucar-Fittipaldi, but I did so for reasons of patriotic altruism, and I had to forego the opportunity to win a third Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship in so doing.
But I love McLaren. I have loved McLaren for more than 40 years. I love writing this blog for mclaren.com/formula1. And I loved what I did with McLaren on Wednesday 24th September 2014, too.
What did I do on Wednesday 24th September 2014? I drove at Spa for the very first time in my life, that is what I did.
Okay, I won the Belgian Grand Prix twice, in 1972 and 1974 – but during my Formula 1 career (1970 to 1980) the Belgian Grand Prix was held at either Zolder or Nivelles, never at Spa. To be precise, after Pedro Rodriguez had won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in 1970 in a BRM, in which season I made my Formula 1 debut three Grands Prix later (at Brands Hatch), until Alain Prost won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in 1983 in a Renault, Spa had languished unvisited by Formula 1 cars, and that has always been a great regret of mine.
What kind of McLaren did I test at Spa on Wednesday 24th September 2014, you may be wondering? The answer is a McLaren P1, the company’s awesome new production supercar.
It is an absolutely fantastic machine. Its powertrain is incredible – 903bhp of hybrid power – and it grips like a true race car, prodigious downforce assisting its ultra-tenacious roadholding.
It has three dynamic modes, and I immediately selected ‘Race’. As I did so, the car lowered itself, the rear aerofoil raised itself, and the suspension stiffened itself.
As I drove out onto the track, it felt just like a race car.
And, guess what, it drove just like a race car, too.
And so, although I never drove a Formula 1 car at Spa in my heyday, on Wednesday 24th September 2014 I did the next best thing. And in many ways driving a 2014 McLaren P1 at Spa was even better than driving a 1974 McLaren M23 at Spa would have been, had I had the chance to do so all those years ago.
Why so? Because the P1 is quicker, that is why; much, much quicker.
So thank you, McLaren. Thank you for 1974, and thank you for 2014. Thank you for everything.