On This Day in #F1 : 4th October 1970 – Watkins Glen

Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Cassius42

US GP, Watkins Glen

Emerson-Fittipaldi-Lotus-72-Watkins-Glen-1970On this day Emerson Fittipaldi won his first Grand Prix after only four starts, the first of 14 victories in his career, which included championships in 1972 and1974. This event was significant in that Emerson was replacing, as team leader, Jochen Rindt who had been killed one month previously, and the result meant that Rindt couldn’t be caught for the championship and so becoming Formula One’s only posthumous champion.

Team Lotus had withdrawn from the Italian Grand Prix after Rindt had been killed in practice and also missed the following Canadian Grand Prix. It was thought that Rindt’s fatal accident at Monza was caused by a faulty brake shaft on his works Lotus 72. The team decided not to race again until they had re-designed and installed new parts. They returned in Watkins Glen for the US GP with a new team of Emerson Fittipaldi and Reine Wisell, who replaced Rindt’s team mate John Miles. Miles had been shocked by Rindt’s death and retired immediately. The return resulted in first and third places for the team, with third turning out to be his best result of his career.

TN_Watkins_Glen-1970-10-04-001The race was dominated by Jackie Stewart in the new Tyrrell in only its second Grand prix, and its third race outing. He was in the lead by nearly 20 seconds after 17 laps and had built this up to a 1 minute lead by lap 76. Stewart was in a class of his own that day, but then the engine started trailing smoke and eventually seized on the 83rd lap putting an end to a commanding performance. The car had also been very quick in the previous grand Prix in Canada but reliability was proving to be a problem for the new car.

This left Pedro Rodriguez in the lead, 20 seconds ahead of Fittipaldi, but with seven laps to go Rodriguez coasted into the pit lane with a dry tank and the BRM mechanics quickly poured in a few gallons of fuel. They had been hoping the thirsty engine could go the distance without stopping, but it was not to be and Fittipaldi swept by into the lead he had been lucky to inherit. Fittipaldi had made a poor start from the second row of the grid and had fallen as low as 8th place before climbing back through the field as people ahead of him pitted or retired. One of those was the other championship contender, Jacky Ickx, who was fighting back after pitting to mend a fuel leak. He rejoined in twelfth place and began a heroic drive back up the charts to a well-deserved fourth place, and set the race’s fastest lap just three laps from the end. Rodriguez had lost 38 seconds to Fittipaldi but rejoined comfortably in front of Wisell for second place.

The result meant that Ickx could not overhaul Rindt’s points total even though he had won the previous race in Canada and would go on to win the final race of the season in Mexico. This latter race was notorious for the huge crowd of 200,000 which proved almost uncontrollable, moving to the edge of the track and almost forced the cancellation of the race. In the end it started an hour late as it was felt that a riot might have broken out. Ickx wasn’t at all eager to steal what he felt rightfully belonged to Rindt and is quoted in a 2010 Motor Sport magazine article “that he did not want to win against a man who could not defend his chances”.

It seems strange now to think that Jochen Rindt had only won his first Grand Prix at the previous years US Grand Prix, as he had been driving in Formula One for several years. Rindt first came to everyone’s notice by some excellent performances in Formula 2, particularly at Crystal Palace in 1964 when he beat many of the established stars of the day.

jochenrindt5He first drove in Formula One in the Austrian GP of 1964 held at the Zeltweg Airfield, where he retired. That drive was in Rob Walker’s Brabham-BRM but he was signed by the works Cooper team for the following year 1965. He stayed with the Cooper team for three years but they were a team who were passed their peak and did not seem to adapt as quickly as others to new technology although they were the pioneers of the rear-engined revolution in motor sport.

Rindt’s best results for Cooper were a couple of second places at Belgian and US Grand Prix of 1966 in the overweight Maserati engined T81. The following year was even worse, despite a lighter slimmer chassis, with no podiums and Rindt is reputed to have deliberately blown the engine in the penultimate race at Watkins Glen, resulting in him being dropped for the final race in Mexico.

Rindt was still a driver in demand as he was known as the king of Formula Two, being very much the man to beat and had many wins in the category. When the European F2 championship was started in 1967, graded drivers (successful Formula One drivers and recent Formula Two champions) were ineligible to score points; otherwise it is a championship he would have won. He had an aggressive style, looking to be on the verge of being out-of control, which did happen, but he had superb car control and reflexes. He also had mechanical sympathy; shown most notably by his win in the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1965, which he won in the NART Ferrari 250LM he shared with Masten Gregory.

woohooRindt moved to the Brabham team in 1968, replacing Denny Hulme who had left to join fellow New Zealander Bruce McLaren. However it was to be another wasted year as the car was unreliable. After winning two championships Repco had produced a more powerful version of their V8 to maintain competitiveness with the new Cosworth DFV. The car was fast, however, and Rindt set pole position twice during the season, but Brabham and Rindt finished only three races between them, with Rindt’s pair of third places the best results.

imagesIn 1969 he moved to Lotus and his career took off once he had a car equal to his talent. At first he was fast but unable to finish a Grand Prix until mid-season, and then a sequence of podium finishes culminated at Watkins Glen in his maiden victory. Colin Chapman built fast cars and the Lotus 49 was a classic, but the season was not without its troubles owing to Chapman’s desire to innovate. In the Spainish GP, Rindt’s second race for the team, his rear wing supports failed at high speed and he crashed into the sister car of Graham Hill; which had suffered exactly the same problem.

It all came good in the 1970 season with the Lotus 72. Initially the car wasn’t ready and he started in the updated 49C. At Monaco he was only able to qualify in 8th place but a series of retirements promoted him from fifth to second, behind Jack Brabham. He then got the bit between his teeth and quickly reeled Brabham in with a serious of record-breaking laps, which resulted in the Australian making that famous mistake at the last corner of the last lap to take a memorable victory.

The Lotus 72 was a difficult car initially and it only came good after Chapman’s innovative anti-dive and anti-squat geometry for the suspension was removed. Suddenly equipped with a car that matched his talent, Rindt produced a string of four consecutive victories in the Netherlands, France, Britain and Germany. It looked to be more of the same in Austria where he took pole position but succumbed to engine failure in the race, leaving victory to Jacky Ickx who was starting a late season challenge in his Ferrari.

At that race Ferrari’s had proved to posses a much higher top speed and so in practice for the next race at the home of slip-streaming, Monza, some drivers chose to take the wings off their car in order to reduce drag on the long straights in order to compete. Chapman took off the car’s wings in the pursuit of straight-line speed, with the result that it was difficult to drive, to the point that it completely spooked Rindt’s team mate, John Miles. In the final practice on Saturday Rindt was approaching the Parabolica and hit the brakes, but a brake shaft failed and his car speared left in to the barriers. His accident was at the same place on the track where his hero von Trips had been killed in 1961 whilst also fighting for the championship.

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So with Fittipaldi’s win in Watkins Glen, Rindt became motor racing’s only posthumous World Champion and his trophy was presented at the end of the year to his Finnish widow Nina.

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