On the face of it, there was little to be decided last Sunday at the United States Grand Prix. Niki Lauda of Austria had locked up the world driver's championship a month earlier at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix, giving the venerable marque of Team Ferrari its first Formula I title since John Surtees turned the trick in 1964. That left only the distribution of $350,000 in prize money at Watkins Glen up in the air. Or so it seemed. Actually, though, there were two new wrinkles—on the face of it.
The freakiest was an automobile revealed by Team Tyrrell just a few weeks before the race, a six-wheeled Grand Prix car for next season. Though the weird contraption did not appear at the Glen, the very thought of it left race buffs gasping (or gagging). Six wheels? O.K., so the tiny front four are intended to reduce aerodynamic drag and thus increase speed, a commodity devoutly to be wished by the outfit that had won three world championships under the subtle foot of Jackie Stewart but only three races in as many seasons since his retirement. Still, six wheels? Could Owner-Constructor Ken Tyrrell, the heretofore sensible English lumber baron, be serious? Right-o. In fact, $70,000 worth.
The other and more sobering wrinkle was exactly that—a new bend in the 3.37-mile Glen circuit. Installed at the foot of the notorious uphill esses on the course's northeast corner, it quickly came to be known as the One-Lane Car-Devouring Chicane. The bend, a sharp righthander, was intended to slow the speeds of the cars as they climbed the esses, topping out in fourth gear at 140 mph. An error at that point had killed Stewart's teammate, Fran√ßois Cevert, two years ago and may have contributed to the death of Team Surtees driver Helmuth Koinigg in a farther bend last year. By slowing cars to 80 mph through its kinky length, the intent of the chicane was to defang the snakey esses. Instead, it began gobbling up machinery in its own right, though at lower and thus less disastrous speeds.
First to get munched was Vittorio Brambilla, at 37 the oldest and perhaps the wildest Formula I driver extant. You remember Vito—he's the dude who won the rain-shortened Austrian Grand Prix last August and then, in his excitement, lost control of his car while waving to the crowd on the victory lap and crashed. This time he merely stacked his Beta March into the chicane's catch fence, nearly totaling it, but emerging uninjured. No one was terribly surprised. But the next day when Brett Lunger, an American not recently noted for recklessness, did the same thing in his Hesketh, with no traffic around, people began looking askance at the chicane. Lunger was philosophical. "It's irrelevant," he said. "The chicane is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It's just there and you have to drive through it."
The Glen's management was not so nonchalant. To ensure no horrific pile-ups in the chicane during the first lap of the race, when 24 race cars would be trying to squeeze through the one-lane bottleneck, it was decreed that the first transit of the bend would be conducted under a yellow flag, no passing permitted. Whether the drivers would obey remained to be seen.
With a strong west wind snapping the flags and the flaxen hair of pit kittens, the race got under way nearly half an hour late—a delay occasioned in part by the chicane decision—and by golly the boys behaved themselves, for a while at least. Pole-sitter Lauda won the drag race up the esses, with Emerson Fittipaldi, last year's world champion, right and tight behind him. It was a disappointing start, though, for some of the sentimental favorites. Leila Lombardi, the only woman Grand Prix driver, blew her engine on the warmup lap and was out. John Watson, a young Irishman filling in for the late Mark Donohue on Roger Penske's team, developed engine woes in the faster of his two machines and was forced to start with the slower. Mario Andretti, in the only all-American driver-car combination, had qualified his Parnelli in fifth spot and made a good race of it for 10 laps, but sprung an oil leak while running fourth and retired.
There were shunts and bunts enough in the early going to satisfy even the greediest of the body-shop owners. Tony Brise, the promising young Englishman who had enlivened the Long Beach Formula 5000 race a week earlier, lost a rear wheel on his Embassy Hill when he slid into a turn behind a couple of entangled rookies. Patrick Depailler, in a Tyrrell, and Carlos Pace, in a Brabham, bumped tires on a backstretch corner and smacked a fence—out but unhurt.
But the real excitement, for the first third of the race at least, involved the nose-to-tail pursuit race between Lauda and Fittipaldi. They quickly opened up a 12-second advantage on the pack, with Lauda holding on to a scant one-second lead and feeling the pressure. Through traffic Fittipaldi was clearly quicker, yet could not get past the new champ. Then, on the 19th of the race's 59 laps, Lauda's teammate, Clay Regazzoni, forced his way into the act. As the leaders came up to lap him, Regazzoni cannily inserted himself between Lauda and Fittipaldi. There ensued one of the finest examples of blocking since Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston were leading the Green Bay power sweep. As the track announcer put it, "Regazzoni is now driving the widest Ferrari ever built." Fittipaldi tried every wile in his considerable racing bag, but to no avail. Regazzoni was clearly in violation of the rule stipulating that when cars are not in direct contention the slower-moving must give way. Eventually, each time Fittipaldi swept past the pits the usually mild-mannered Brazilian was reduced to shaking his fist at the Ferrari crew, the fans, the officials and, mainly, Regazzoni. Finally the course marshals ordered in the blocker, but even then Regazzoni cruised leisurely to the pits.
And when he did, with Fittipaldi now more than 12 seconds to the rear, who was brazenly standing at the head of pit row but the Ferrari team manager, a 26-year-old Roman attorney named Luca Montezemolo. When Chief Steward Berdie Martin remonstrated with Regazzoni, Luca took a swing at the official who, laudably, swung right back. "The important thing is not the blocking," screamed Montezemolo as he exited. "The important thing is we win, we win!" Now we know where Vince Lombardi got the philosophy, if not the slogan.
The rest was anticlimactic. With victory assured, Lauda stroked it through the remaining 36 laps, allowing his margin to erode slowly but steadily to only 4.9 seconds at the finish. His average speed at the checkered flag was a creditable 116.10 mph for this, his fifth GP victory of the season. The only sour note in the performance was the blocking-punching incident. But the tides of passion in racing are as quick to subside as they are to rise. Lauda, of course, claimed complete incomprehension of his teammate's antics, smiling his clever chipmunk grin. Team Manager Montezemolo was all shy winks and shrugs. "An unfortunate misunderstanding," he averred. "The steward, he did not realize I am Ferrari manager, he thought I was just some sort of crazy Italian." As for Berdie Martin, he not only won the fight but was vindicated when Regazzoni was disqualified. Only Emerson Fittipaldi retained anything resembling rancor. "I'm sorry it had to end that way," he said. "I could have given Niki the race of his life."