According to the official result, the 1975 British Grand Prix had 19 classified finishers. Only six, though, had four wheels – or at least, four that pointed in the right direction…
The 1973 British Grand Prix started chaotically when Jody Scheckter spun at the end of the opening lap, hit the pitwall and triggered an eight car accident. The following year, at Brands Hatch, the race ended in confusion when Niki Lauda, who had been leading, made a late stop to replace a punctured tyre, only to find he was unable to rejoin the track because the pit exit was blocked. So, in 1975 things had to run more smoothly, surely?
To minimise the risk of Scheckter – or anyone else – taking out half the field before the race got going, a decision had been taken to reprofile the classic, very fast, right-hand sweep at Woodcote, where the trouble kicked off two years earlier. Drivers still approached incredibly fast, but now they had to back off significantly before they re-emerged on the pit straight.
The race began calmly enough with pole position qualifier Tom Pryce (Shadow) leading from fellow front-row starter Carlos Pace (Brabham). By lap 17, however, rain had begun to fall on parts of the circuit – notably Stowe and Club.
Gradually, though, drivers began to come in for wets. Tony Brise (Hill) was first and several others soon followed. Pryce, leading by lap 19, opted to stay out, but paid the penalty when he left the track at Becketts on lap 21. Pace now led again, from Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren) and James Hunt (Hesketh). The top three stayed on slicks and Scheckter’s wet-shod Tyrrell swept past them to take the lead on lap 27 – but by then the sky was definitely clearing.
On lap 30 another round of stops began as those on wets came into the pits for dry rubber. The result was that Hunt took the lead from Fittipaldi and Pace, but then the Englishman’s car began to misfire and he slipped to third. His exhaust had cracked and, once again, the weather was about to do the same thing.
The race was scheduled to last 67 laps, but with about 20 to go, the rain was back. “It wasn’t particularly fierce,” says Watson. “It was just light drizzle. The circuit was slippery, but not enough to make you think about stopping for slicks. Suddenly it began raining heavily. I was about two thirds of the way along the Hangar Straight, which had been perfectly driveable, when I spotted a deep film of water just in front of the braking area. I just had time to realise I had no way of making the corner and the next moment I was spinning.”
By the time he came to a rest in the catch-fencing, so had almost everybody else. With 11 laps to go and conditions worsening, leader Fittipaldi decided enough was enough and dived for the pits for a change of tyres. Almost simultaneously the rain began to wreak havoc, a multi-car pile-up seeing James Hunt slide off and into the stranded Surtees of David Morgan and the beached Tyrrell of Scheckter.
“The pits look like Piccadilly Circus!” said race commentator Jackie Stewart on TV as the remaining drivers took on new tyres. Meanwhile the accidents kept on coming. When Watson skidded his Surtees into the catch-fencing, he was rapidly followed by Jochen Mass’ McLaren and Mark Donohue in a March.
That was enough for the race controllers to call time and the race was red-flagged leaving Fittipaldi to drive past Tony Brise in the Hill-Cosworth, and be declared the winner. “It was a curtain of rain,” said Fittipaldi, on what would be his last grands prix victory. “You could see nothing. Cars were off all over the place. I managed to get back to Woodcote – I don’t know how – saw the red flag, and stopped.”
The Brazilian took the flag ahead of Pace, Scheckter, the misfiring Hunt and Mark Donohue. These four had crashed heavily in the deluge, but crucially had completed their 55 laps ahead of Brambilla, who was credited with sixth. A trifle harsh, but those are the rules.
Brambilla got his revenge one month later in Austria, when he scored his only F1 win in a race shortened by similarly wet conditions. He was so happy that he lost control and crashed into the guardrail while celebrating victory, but at least he’d actually passed the chequered flag.