Formula One in the 1970’s was a completely different sport to the one that we have today. Drivers were deified by the danger that lurked around every corner. Throughout the decade, the paddock endured personal loss and glory at the flip of a coin. James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti – The list of drivers that were immortalized by the era goes on. These drivers raced on the edge of the precipice between speed and death, a mistake on track could be and was fatal. This was the Death Race decade.
Where the 60’s regulations had done nothing for driver safety despite regular deaths, the 70’s saw the emergence of the Formula One Driver’s Union, a platform established by Jackie Stewart that gave the drivers an organised voice. This would be the start of a movement that would contest and push the argument for driver safety continually.
The 1970 Formula One season is in many ways symbolic of what would be the status quo for the rest of the decade. Great racing, playboys and rock stars, pioneering design, Cosworth DFV engines roaring, risk and ultimately, death. Jochen Rindt drove the game-changing Lotus 72 for the 1970 season. The 72 model is regarded as one of the most pioneering F1 designs in history and the maverick designer Colin Chapman would go on to rewrite the approach to Formula One car design forever. It wasn’t that a single aspect of the Lotus 72 was vastly superior to the rest of the field, but several minor advancements gave it a clear edge. Its wedge shape was aerodynamically superior to the conventional toothpaste-tube designs elsewhere on the grid, as was the torsion-bar suspension that developed throughout the season. Jochen Rindt found the car so manageable that he declared that “even a monkey could drive the 72.”
For the first race weekend at the Kyalami circuit in South Africa, the Aussie Jack Brabham stormed to victory in his Brabham-Ford; this would be the triple-world champion’s final win after being a key player in the 60’s. From then on, it was a hotly-contested fight between the Lotus 72 of Austrian Jochen Rindt and the popular Ferrari pairing of Belgian Jacky Ickx and Swiss team-mate Clay Regazzoni. The second race in Spain saw Ickx escape a deadly crash with minor burns, and the following Monaco Grand Prix saw the popular Swede Ronnie Peterson make his Formula One debut. Between Monaco and Spa, the first fatality of the decade came. Legendary ex-Cooper driver and founder of his own race team Bruce McLaren lost his life during a test session at Goodwood. He would never live to see the success that his McLaren team would enjoy later on. Bruce wrote this in his 1964 book following the death of a team-mate and friend – what he wrote almost became a self-eulogy.
The news that he had died instantly was a terrible shock to all of us, but who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone. – Bruce McLaren
His words would haunt the decade thereafter.
Only 18 cars contested the following Grand Prix at the 8.7m Spa-Francorchamps circuit, many dropping out over concerns of safety despite new steel Armco barriers and a chicane amendment. Doesn’t do much if you’re driving naked fuel tanks at full-speed, does it? Mexican Pedro Rodriguez utilized his BRM V12 engine and beat Piers Courage by a mere 1.1s. The following race of the season stirred a sense of loss again. Piers Courage had enjoyed a podium last time out, but this race at Zandevoort would be his last. The weekend also marked the beginning of Jochen Rindt’s dominance, the Lotus 72 finally fully operational as he left the pack for dust. His win, the pioneering design, the spectacle of speed and the ballsy heroism of each driver that weekend was unhinged momentarily. British driver Piers Courage crashed during the race, his car was broken up and a tyre killed him instantly on impact. The fuel tanks during this era were largely unprotected, so the Grand Prix resumed whilst Courage’s body sat lifelessly in the car as it burnt out.
Jochen Rindt had lost a dear friend, his victory clearly a secondary thought as he stood on the podium. The Formula One season went on and Rindt would dominate in the superior Lotus 72 for the following three races until the Ferrari’s took the limelight for the Austrian Grand Prix. Next on the calendar was the famous Monza circuit in Italy. Championship leader Jochen Rindt arrived at the event with confidence, the loss of Piers Courage a fading memory as the races had rolled by without incident. During qualifying, Rindt’s Lotus 72 suffered a brakes failure approaching the famous parabolica corner. His car dug violently into the gravel and his seat belt harness hadn’t been secured properly. As a result, the belt buckle came loose and slit his throat open. Formula One had lost its 1970 Champion in the blink of an eye. The race went ahead the following day and Clay Regazzoni won for Ferrari. The Tifosi stormed onto the track in wild celebration as the Italian squad celebrated their home win.
Rindt was the first and hopefully last driver to become a Formula One world champion posthumously, his early dominance had paid off and he won the title at the cost of his life. Nothing of significance changed for the 1971 season. Safety regulations remained scant and the only thing to be introduced was a new cockpit design that ensured drivers could be rescued within five-seconds. There had been two deaths during the official Grand Prix’ of 1970, but death in this era was expected. As the civilians of Ancient Rome observed bloodshed in the Colosseum for entertainment, F1 fans filled grassy knolls around circuits knowing that fatality made up the fabric of the spectacle. Jackie Stewart won the 1971 championship in his Tyrrell, the season-long battle between the 12-cylinder cars and the Cosworth DFV-powered challengers was a constant theme. After winning the championship, a special race was hosted at Brands Hatch for Jackie Stewart. Most of the F1 grid competed and after finishing the 1971 season without the loss of life, the racing gods intervened.
Jo Siffert died as a result of his fuel tanks bursting upon impact with the barriers. The flames burnt him alive, but the feeling was that a lack of preparation caused his death too. Why weren’t there marshals with fire resistant clothing and extinguishers at every corner? The tone of the commentator defines the sense of dread that dogged the golden era of Formula One. “And it’s a sight we’ve seen on too many occasions.” The sport produced exciting racing at the cost of its participants.
The 1972 season was the first year that all circuits on the calendar would have to pass safety tests. Security foam was introduced around the fuel tank in an attempt to decrease the odds of a crash equating to an uncontrollable fireball. The wider issue was that carbon fibre wasn’t around, so most chassis’ were made out of a magnesium composite that burned intensely when ignited. Emerson Fittipaldi became the youngest Formula One World Champion at the age of 25 in his black and gold Lotus 72, his biggest competitor was Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell, who again had an impressive season. But 1972 provided a much needed sigh of relief. No drivers had been killed after seven consecutive years of death. The new safety inspections going on at the tracks were having the desired effect.
By the time 1973 rolled around, the FIA had introduced fire resistant structures to protect the fuel tank further, but the incidents that would occur later on proved that there wasn’t enough focus on driver protection. The death of Roger Williamson at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort bordered on pure disgusting. Viewed by millions huddled around television sets across the world, a March-Ford engulfed in flames slides 300m across the track upturned. Other drivers whizz by as mild movement in the cockpit is visible on the picture. There are two fire marshals situated at the site of the crash, neither have protective clothing and only have a single extinguisher between them. One of the other Formula One cars stops, Williamson’s friend David Purley does everything he can to try and save his friend. He hears Williamson shouting from inside the cockpit, the marshals look idle and Purley’s body language is one of immense loss and frustration. The race isn’t even stopped, the yellow flags prevent the fire engine getting to the wreckage in any acceptable time. Members of the crowd try and get onto the track and help, but are stopped by security guards with dogs. David Purley tries to lift the wrecked March and free his fellow driver, who is saying “Get me out” over and over again. Williamson is dead by the time the fire engine arrives 8-minutes later. David Purley is a dejected wreck and tarpaulin is put over the wreckage with Williamson’s body still inside. The race goes on as if nothing has happened.
Niki Lauda commented after the race that he was “sick with shame” that no other drivers had stopped to help Purley try and lift the burning March. In terms of racing, the championship was healthy. Ronnie Peterson’s and Emerson Fittipaldi’s JPS Lotus 72’s battled with the Elf Tyrrells of Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert throughout and the Title eventually went to Stewart. The final race of the season was to be the final race for the newly crowned world champion after announcing his retirement back in April. The US Grand Prix was hosted at Watkins Glen, New York, and the qualifying session was over in minutes. Stewarts team-mate, the fast Frenchman Francois Cevert, had lost control of his Tyrrell on a flying lap. His car hit the barriers hard enough to break them, and Cevert himself was cut in half. He died instantly. Again, Formula One was overcast by a fatality and the grid would mourn one of the most promising drivers of the season.
Jackie Stewart didn’t compete on Sunday but the show did go on. A hotly contested battle between Ronnie Peterson and James Hunt saw the Swede win by the slight margin of 0.7s. Nobody felt like celebrating too much after the events of Qualifying and the season ended once again in darkness. By the time 1974 came around, the Championship looked a bit like more modern times in that McLaren fought Ferrari throughout the season. Lotus and Tyrrell fell down the order as Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari took on Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren-Ford. Jody Scheckter was in with an outside chance of the title for the final race in his Tyrrell but it never materialized. Regazzoni would have won the 1974 WDC had it not been for a handling problem that saw the Swiss driver slide down the order and in turn, hand Fittipaldi the championship with a steady drive to fourth. This marked the first year of many in which McLaren would be the team to beat in the constructors standings.
But what would the golden era of Formula One be without fatality year after year? It was becoming an inevitability that a driver would pay the ultimate price at the end of each season. Helmuth Koinigg is probably not a driver you’ve ever heard of, but that’s because he died at the wheel of the Team Surtees TS16 in his first year of Formula One. The young Austrian had started the season in the lowly Scuderia Finotto Brabham, but he’d impressed and was duly promoted to Surtees’ team. He was poised to become an emerging star for 1975 but again, another driver would never fulfill their potential. At Watkins Glen (again), a poorly secured Armco barrier killed him. The speed of the impact should have warranted Koinigg uninjured, but the barrier was broken on impact and decapitated the young Austrian. It was starting to become clear that everything that those in charge of Formula One were implementing for safety was being rendered obsolete because the organizations that owned the circuits weren’t taking their end of the deal seriously.
1975 was pivotal in that a spark of resistance was ignited between the circuits organizing committee and the F1 collective at the Spanish Grand Prix. Although Montjuic Park was a great circuit, it never got onto the calendar again after such a shameful event. Concerns over safety were highlighted when the Drivers’ Association Safety committee inspected the track on the eve of Qualifying. A large quantity of Armco barriers were loosely bolted together and many mounting posts weren’t embedded into the ground properly. As a result, the drivers rightly agreed that they would not take to the track until the above issues discovered by the Drivers’ Association had been rectified. Instead of addressing the issues, the organizers threatened the constructors and pointed out that if no race took place, they would be in breach of contract and the Spanish police would impound every car on the grid. The ensuing court case would have taken months, so there was little choice for the teams.
Essentially, the F1 collective were blackmailed into racing. Fittipaldi protested during the race, completing three slow laps and retiring. His brother Wilson and Arturo Merzario followed suit. Can you guess what happened next? Rolf Stommelen was leading the race for Graham Hill’s team after the Ferrari’s of Regazzoni and Lauda crashed out. In the closing stages, one of his wing struts snapped and the car flew over the guardrails. In the subsequent impact, a fireman, a photographer and two members of the crowd were killed. Stommmelen broke his leg and shamefully, despite corpses lining the outfield, the race continued for four laps before being stopped. McLaren’s Jochen Mass was declared the winner, although understandably he was on the brink of assaulting the organizing committee that waited to hand him the winners trophy.
The season saw Niki Lauda dominate and claim his first world championship in the technically superior Ferrari 312T with four victories and a big margin to Fittipaldi in second. But the champagne remained slightly diluted at the end. At Niki’s home race in Austria, the penultimate round of the season, American driver Mark Donohue passed away two days after a crash during practice. Donohue was Brabham-esque in that he was renowned in other racing series for possessing the ability to set-up his own car and race it. A fast mechanic. He was also nicknamed “Mr Nice” by his racing peers. Donohue arrived in Austria after successfully breaking the speed record at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. He was a celebrated American race driver at the time despite his anonymity in Formula One. His promising racing career was cut short when his March flew into the catch fencing after a tyre failure, the debris from the incident killing a marshal instantly. Donohue appeared unhurt but was suffering from a bad head. He was taken to the local hospital and never came out of the coma that followed.
In 1976, there were no deaths in Formula One. Maybe this is partly the reason why this season and this rivalry of titans is remembered the most. The film “Rush” offers a dramatized account of James Hunt’s battle with Niki Lauda in what is considered one of the greatest fights in Formula One history. In a way, the season in the context of the decade is a flower blooming amidst a bloodied battlefield. It’s the season that holds truest to the 1970’s being the golden era of Formula One despite going against the grain of the decade. Niki Lauda was dominating the 1976 championship before his crash at the 14-mile Nurburgring in West Germany. The opening nine races had seen Hunt’s McLaren struggle, winning twice but retiring on four occasions. Lauda on the other hand had been consistent by securing five wins and remaining in the podium positions throughout.
Before the race at the Nurburgring, Lauda called upon his fellow drivers to boycott the race as he wasn’t satisfied with the safety of the circuit. The majority of the grid voted against the boycott, so the race went ahead. On lap 2, Lauda’s Ferrari swerved off into an embankment and burst into flames. He was trapped in the wreckage whilst several drivers stopped their cars to help him out. By the time they’d rescued him, Lauda had suffered immense burns. He walked momentarily before collapsing and was rushed to hospital. James Hunt won the race. Had Lauda not survived the accident, the 1976 season wouldn’t be propped up as one of the best seasons in F1 history. James Hunt continued to dominate in Lauda’s absence with another win at the Dutch Grand Prix. When Lauda returned, he had a special helmet made so that his burns would be less irritated. His head bandages were regularly bloody by the end of a race. How he endured such pain whilst maintaining enough concentration to compete is remarkable.
The life-threatening injury haunted Niki Lauda for the rest of the season, but his steely determination to return to racing is emblematic of a true racing driver. A handful of modern Formula One fans are ignorant to infer some form of bias at his current role at Mercedes in his non-exec role, but those quick to criticize him should recognize Lauda as one of the greats. This is a guy who was back in the Ferrari cockpit 33 days after being given his last rites. It’s called balls, kids, and none of the current crop of drivers will ever have the opportunity to show that level of testicular fortitude in Formula One. James Hunt was a man of the time and was loved dearly by the British following. He’d been given a drive in the McLaren after Fittipaldi’s shock decision to leave for his brother’s team. The Brit was an incredible racing driver and he won the championship by a whisker. These were two drivers that couldn’t have been more opposite in personality. One was a reserved tactician, the other a charming playboy. What they lacked in similarity as individuals was made up by a likeness in pace and racing talent, which is why the pair were respectful friends alongside being fierce rivals.
On Lauda’s return, Hunt endured immense pressure and kept himself in contention with great wins in Canada and America leaving the World Championship wide open for the season finale at the Fuji Speedway, Japan. Going into the weekend, Lauda’s lead had been reduced to three points. Qualifying set up a mouthwatering race with Mario Andretti’s Lotus on pole followed by James Hunt’s McLaren in second and Lauda’s Ferrari in third. For race-day the rain was torrential as the cars lined up on the grid. James Hunt got a great start and overtook Mario Andretti for the race lead. After a few laps, visibility was so poor due to the rain that Niki Lauda retired. It was then up to Hunt to score the points he needed. By the mid-point of the race, Hunt led from his team-mate Jochen Mass with the German providing a protective buffer. This worked well until Mass spun out with a suspected puncture. Tyre wear was an issue on the wet circuit, and Hunt found himself having to pit only 11 laps remaining. He stormed through the field against all odds to claim third place and the Drivers title of 1976.
The romanticized season of ’76 was slapped back into reality for the following year. 1977 was marred by one of the most horrifying incidents in Formula One history. During the South African Grand Prix, Renzo Zorzi’s Shadow-Ford stopped at the side of the track with an engine issue. He was quick to get out of the car as it caught fire and two marshals were alerted on the other side of the track. As the marshals cross the track, Tom Pryce in the sister Shadow-Ford emerges at full-speed and hits one of them. Both Pryce and the 19-year-old marshal are killed instantly. The video is below and viewer discretion is strongly advised…
It was a devastating tragedy that wouldn’t have happened with stricter safety regulations on the track. Marshals today are briefed and trained extensively to prevent things like this from happening again. The race continued despite the incident and Niki Lauda won for the first time since his horror accident the year before. In terms of racing, 1977 saw Renault enter the championship with the first ever turbocharged engine. It wouldn’t be successful for a while, but would pave the way for the future. Another technical revolution occurred in the form of the Lotus 78. This car was a game changer in that it was the first to utilize ground effect aerodynamics. It would change Formula One design forever. Niki Lauda secured his second championship and parted ways with Ferrari with two rounds to spare due to a disbelief that the team could safely manage the running of three cars with the addition of a young Canadian called Gilles Villeneuve. Jody Scheckter’s Wolf Racing Ford was the runner up after finishing consistently and Mario Andretti finished third in the revolutionary JPS Lotus 78. The American won the most races in 1977 with five victories.
Andretti’s form would continue into 1978 as the Lotus 78 stuck to the track like a magnet in comparison to its rivals. The American and his Swedish team-mate Ronnie Peterson were unstoppable in the aerodynamically advanced Lotus. This season would be another in which a key driver was killed, but the elements that would improve driver safety were starting to build traction. Bernie Ecclestone made one of his most important appointments during his reign at the top of the sport in 1978. He approached Sid Watkins and offered him the position of Formula One’s official race doctor. Watkins would develop a close relationship with Formula One drivers for the coming decades, but his initial appointment was met with extreme hostility by circuit officials. His presence was a personification of their inability to make the circuits safe enough, and Watkins first major involvement unfortunately involved an incident with Ronnie Peterson at the Italian Grand Prix. Peterson had been impressive up until this point, securing seven podiums including two great wins in South Africa and Austria, but the start of the race at Monza would prove to be fatal. There was the familiar sight of Mario Andretti on pole with Gilles Villeneuve pleasing the Tifosi with his Ferrari in second and Jabouilles Turbo-powered Renault was third. The start of the race was chaotic. The race was started before most of the cars had lined up in their respective grid slots, causing a big bottleneck in the midfield. Ricardo Patrese’s Arrows veered wide onto the grass and as he tried to rejoin the track without letting off the throttle, James Hunt was forced left to avoid contact and crashed into the Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72.
Peterson’s car burst into flames and James Hunt was quickly onto the scene to pull the Swede from the wreckage, kicking in the steering wheel so he could be pulled out. Peterson’s leg was broken and he was clearly shaken up. Elsewhere, Sid Watkins was desperately trying to get to Peterson so that he could medically assess the situation. Italian police blocked him from doing his job and Peterson was left in bad shape for a further 18 minutes before an ambulance arrived. The Swede died the next day. After the race, Sid Watkins demanded that Ecclestone provide him with better medical equipment, an anesthetist, a medical car and a medical helicopter. All of these things were introduced for the following race in the States. James Hunt blamed Patrese for the incident and would pour vitriol and scorn onto the Italian driver regularly, but the sad truth is that the lack of clinical regulations killed Ronnie Peterson. If the race had been started with all cars in their grid slots, the crash could have been avoided. If Watkins had been given instant access to the track or the ambulance had arrived sooner, Peterson might have survived.
Peterson was the last driver to die in the golden era of the 1970’s and the following decade would see a reduction of 66% in driver deaths, largely thanks to the work of Sid Watkins, or “the Professor” as the drivers would start to call him. Twelve men died doing what they loved and their deaths don’t reduce the excitement of the era, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. Death in any industry immortalizes and martyrs the deceased. If Jimi Hendrix hadn’t died in a pool of his own vomit at the peak of his musical career, he could be playing the interval at the Superbowl alongside Madonna today. Who knows? The point is, these drivers sacrificed everything and the sport has learnt lessons as a byproduct. Safety in all motorsport is heavily organized and efficient today and it takes a freak accident to cause a fatality whereas in the 1970’s era, death was expected. We have large areas of the Formula community today calling for a devolution to a purer form of racing. New safety technology (such as the halo protection system) should be embraced by these people. Having more safety regulations doesn’t sanitize the prospect of purer racing at all. If anything, improving safety would allow a more aggressive take on the current regulations.
The playboy culture around the sport in the 70’s will never return simply because society has become more regulated. It’s a can of coke instead of a line. Instead of having drivers with the freedom to express their true selves, we have soundbites looking over their shoulders at the scrutiny of a boardroom of sponsors. Formula One in the 1970’s was a spectacular contradiction of glory and death, which is why it is looked upon as such a unique era. There is always more emotional investment with higher risk and this is the longing that followers of that era still feel today. This was the Death Race of the 1970’s.
To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone. – Bruce McLaren