Tell me your favorite formula one racing car, I’ll counter with mine, then you’ll pose another suggestion and the conversation will continue so on and so forth until it’s well past kicking out time at the local drinking hole. I think it’s maybe an impossible question to answer for those of us that love racing machines, but I bet more than a few of us would site the Ferrari 312B3, made famous by the likes of Lauda, as being high up the list. I wouldn’t mind betting the McLaren M23 or 26 are contenders as well? What about the Hesketh 308? The thing that all of these cars have in common is that they contested in the FIA Formula One World Championship between 1973 and ’76, the latter season in particular providing both triumph and tragedy played out across an especially tumultuous year of racing. Appropriate then that the main act at the Monaco Historique Grand Prix, Serie F, examines the machines of this period.
It’s not just the cars that stand the test of time in this particular era, the liveries as well were some of the best in my opinion. The cars of the Scuderia always look resplendent in red, crowned as they were in the ’70s with the Tricolore. Hesketh designs were also simple yet fabulous, with cars synonymous with James Hunt’s first successes in the top tier series. The tobacco firms also produced wonderful racing colors as we all know, like the famous JPS Lotus, the Marlboro McLaren, and the Embassy Hill gang too. Cars bearing sponsorship was becoming very much part and parcel of running a modern Grand Prix team in this decade, some more salacious than others, with the Surtees TS19 decked out in Durex ads for instance.
The action on track was colorful as well, with a host of wonderful personalities involved in the sport. James Hunt, although possibly not the most wholesome example for the younger fans, has always been a favorite of mine from this era. Whilst my earliest memories of “Hunt the Shunt” are of his straight-talking commentary exploits next to national treasure Murray Walker, he often left Murray speechless: “I expect Tambay will be thanking Jarier for that move after the race, probably with a knuckle sandwich.”
I’ve always enjoyed reading about his exploits on and off the track, as well as the watching excellent film When Playboys Ruled the World, documenting the exploits of both himself and top motorcyclist Barry Sheene. They were far from alone, and there was positively a phalanx of drivers with flair in this period. Emerson Fittipaldi, the wonderfully talented Brazilian; “Super Swede” Ronnie Peterson; Italian-American hero Mario Andretti; pre-organic farmer Jody Scheckter, John Watson, Chris Amon, and of course, Nikki Lauda, among others—imply put, there was an absolute raft of talent of which there are too many drivers to list.
Thanks to the now-well-established Cosworth DFV engine, there were also a stupendous number of constructors in the sport at this time with access to competitive gear, and Grand Prix racing had now become relatively (and I mean relatively) affordable thanks to this lightweight, powerful and, by today’s standards, cheap power plant. The Serie F grid at the Monaco Historique this year numbered 36 cars with no less than 18 different constructors represented, and spread out over a four-year period this perfectly displayed the variety within the sport at the time.
As the machines lined up to take to the track for their first practice session they looked menacing even under the warm sun. A mixture of different-sized wings and side-pods, coupled with huge air-intakes funneling oxygen down the throats of the carburetor-fed engines. Then there is the noise and the smell, engines fire up one after the other until a great big gurgling mass of cylinders pulsates through the air and asphalt.
The quivering atmosphere is punctuated by stabs of accelerator pedals as the cars warm up, and as the moment to start rolling arrives the revs rise in anticipation and my nostrils are soon singed with the stench of burning clutches and spent high-octane. My Dad used to tell me about this smell when I was young, “Nothing,” he would say, “smells as good as a 1970s grand prix car getting off the line.”
Despite sunshine throughout the weekend, come the race time the heavens opened up. Monaco in the wet in such a powerful sight, but fairly rudimental cars in such slip are not for the faint of heart. Thankfully even in the historic event these drivers want to let cars get some exercise. The action is fiercer than I expected if I’m honest, and as I observed the cars careering up and through the kink of Beau Rivage my heart is in my mouth, the scream of the engines reverberates off of the hotels and high-end shops on this particular stretch of the circuit and the spray kicked up by the ultra-wide rear tires of these beasts fills the air with an almost impenetrable veil.
It’s remarkable and brave racing on offer here, with overtaking moves happening everywhere imaginable on a circuit that is notoriously difficult run two-wide on, even for a second. As a drier racing line starts to appear, it becomes a two-horse race at the head of the field, with the Jet-Black Ensign N176 of Alex Caffi doing everything to find a way around Michael Lyons and his beautiful McLaren M26. The M26 may not have had that much success back in the day, but here in the sodden streets it takes a victory after a mistake in the Nouvelle Chicane, followed by a further misdemeanor in Tabac which costs Caffi his suspension, and the race.
As the rain settles the podium is enjoyed in earnest, and despite, or perhaps in spite of the weather, the fans who haven’t fled to the shelter of Monaco’s bars have been treated to a humdinger of a race. 45-year-old cars? They can’t be, not the way they’ve been thrown around this circuit all weekend.