When I look back at my two seasons in Formula 1 with McLaren, we had many great races, and the first that comes to mind is the 1974 Brazilian Grand Prix.
We had done a lot of testing before the start of the season and really improved the car, the M23. Then, at the first race of the season – in Argentina – we had a problem. I don’t know how many of you know this but I switched off the engine by mistake. In those days the airboxes were critical and they would draw in dust from around the circuit, occasionally making the throttles stick open… and you didn’t want this to happen at the end of a long straight. So we had an electrical master switch on the steering wheel. I never expected to touch it but I did.
That was a pity because the old Buenos Aires circuit had the fastest, longest corner in Formula 1 and the M23 was extremely good in that corner. The fastest McLaren driver through there was Mike [Hailwood] – Mike the Bike! I followed him round to see how he went so quickly there. And of course my other team-mate, Denny [Hulme], won the race, which was another reason for me to be confident that the M23 was a quick car.
Finishing tenth in my first race for McLaren meant extra pressure coming into the second race, in front of my home crowd in Brazil. My sponsors and I had chosen McLaren together and now there were questions from the media, the public: had we made the right decision?
The Brazilian Grand Prix answered all these negative questions. Everything fell into place. The car was fast and we had an excellent race, a very good win from pole position. The timing was perfect for us because it was McLaren’s first win in Brazil, and my second in a row. To win at home was very special. Believe me, when you can sleep in your own bed – rather than in a hotel – and then win the grand prix, it’s a very different feeling!
Interlagos was where I started racing when I was 14 years old. I had my family and friends nearby, so many good memories. The old Nürburgring was, in my opinion, the most challenging track in the world, but it was also a joy to race on the old Interlagos. It was 8km long (5 miles) and had every type of corner: downhill, uphill, slow, fast, off-camber, with camber… You had to set up your car with some compromises, for the best average for each corner, and by the end of the lap you were the fastest. It was a very technical circuit both for the drivers and for the teams, who were making all the adjustments to the cars. The circuit is much shorter now but when you look from above you can still see some of the old layout.
It was great for Brazil to have a home winner, but it was also good for the team because it gave them confidence and enthusiasm for all the races that followed. Interlagos was such a technical challenge that winning there really demonstrated McLaren’s potential.
The team were always looking to improve the car, planning ahead for the following races. The British Grand Prix in 1974 is an interesting example. We had been having some problems at bumpy circuits so Gordon [Coppuck] had designed a new rear suspension with different geometry. This helped us a lot at Brands Hatch because it had lots of bumps, and also that huge compression when you go downhill after the first turn and then straight back up again.
What a race! I didn’t win but I finished second after starting from eighth on the grid. Niki [Lauda] had been leading but he suffered a puncture right near the end, and the tyre let go before he made it back to the pits, which paved the way for Tyrrell’s Jody [Scheckter] to take the chequered flag.
The last two races of the 1974 season were very important because there were four of us in contention for the championship: me, Ferrari’s Clay [Regazzoni] and Niki, and Jody. Mosport Park in Canada was very bumpy, so this was another track where we might not have been so competitive if the team had not had the foresight to change the M23’s rear suspension. We got it working really well and I set pole position.
Mosport was a small circuit, not very long, but it was extremely challenging to drive and to set up the car because as well as the bumps there were hills and blind-entry corners. Niki took the lead at the start but I wasn’t too worried. I had great confidence in our car, that it would still be fast once the fuel load had gone down. Then, as now, we did not refuel during the race so you had to set the car up knowing that the weight distribution would change. Strategically you had to find a compromise between the full tanks and empty tanks, and I always liked to set the car up to be fast when it was light on fuel in the second part of the race.
In the same way I placed great importance on physical fitness, because grands prix were very demanding. You could see some drivers losing performance during the race as fatigue took its toll on their strength and concentration. I wanted to still be strong at the end of the race, so I trained with the attacking coach of the Brazilian football team. Following his programme helped me to be prepared, and I think I was very fit compared with most of the other drivers.
I was second for most of the Canadian Grand Prix, behind Niki but ahead of Jody and Clay. In the second half of the race it all changed as both Niki and Jody crashed out. I was still in great shape and my M23 was getting better and better as the fuel load came down. I won by 13 seconds and that put me in the lead of the championship – by a single point from Clay.
So, to Watkins Glen for the last race of the 1974 season. This was the only time in my entire career in motor sport that I only slept for four hours the night before a race. Even the night before the Indianapolis 500, or when I was closing in on the 1972 championship with Lotus, I had a good eight hours. I’d never had a situation going into the last race where the points were so close.
There was tremendous pressure on me and the team. It was a critical atmosphere. The sponsors had great expectations. I was eighth on the grid and on the first lap Clay was ahead of me, so I set myself up on the esses going up the hill so I came out of them right on Clay’s gearbox. I slipstreamed the Ferrari down the straight and pulled out to the right of him – and he pushed me on to the grass in a straight line!
I knew to expect this from Clay. He was a great driver but I never felt confident next to him. He did things that were not the most ethical. It was ‘do or die’ – I said to myself, “I will go back to the asphalt and if the two cars are going to crash then they will crash.” I put my front wheel against the Ferrari, right next to Clay’s cockpit. My car was bouncing but I pushed him back. If he didn’t change direction we were both going to crash. He was never expecting to get this reaction from me. He thought I would back off. I had taken him by surprise.
He moved away, I put my car back where it belonged – on the asphalt – and we went into the braking area side by side, with me on the inside of the corner. I got through first, opened the gap on him, and that was the championship right there. Afterwards the media came and asked questions, I just said “No comment”.
I had a lot of good battles with the Ferrari drivers. At Monaco in 1975 I’d started ninth on the grid, on a wet track, but as usual I had set the car up to be quick in the second part of the race. I got up to second place, with Niki in front, but it was very difficult to pass. Over the last 10 laps I was much faster but the Ferrari was very wide. He knew how to defend his position! Niki was one of those guys – every time I had a dice with him, it was always very fair. Not easy, but fair. He was the number one rival because he was an excellent driver and he had a very good car. Jody, Ronnie [Peterson] and James [Hunt] were all quick, too, but their cars weren’t as consistently competitive.
And then there was always Jackie [Stewart], who, alongside Jim [Clark] and Graham [Hill], was one of my heroes when I was a teenager in Brazil, and who was always super-fast and super-consistent when I finally worked my way up to Formula 1. But he'd retired the season before I'd arrived at McLaren, of course.
Another race that gave me a lot of satisfaction was the Italian Grand Prix in September 1975. I didn’t win but I finished second, sandwiched by the two Ferraris. This was a big achievement because the Ferraris always had powerful engines – Mr Ferrari placed great importance on this – which gave an advantage on a circuit like Monza. Ferraris usually dominated there, and indeed they were strong for the whole race, but we had a very well-balanced and aerodynamically trimmed car. I was able to put pressure on them all through the race and I beat Niki, and nearly beat Clay.
When you have such strong rivals, and you have to maximise everything you have in order to put them under pressure, to finish with them on the podium is a great result. That’s why I enjoyed my time at McLaren so much: they always had a plan, even when the opposition had more horsepower!