Fittipaldi was cruising his stovepipe-black Lotus Grand Prix car over the
hummocks and through the hollows of Brands Hatch toward an effortless victory
in the Rothmans 50,000, the race's sponsors were clustered in their grandstand
suite, puffing away like a gang of expectant fathers. Being members of the
Rothmans firm—Great Britain's third largest cigarette manufacturer—they are
expected to smoke with manic regularity as a matter of course, but this
particular session was prompted by an authentic crisis, a regular nicotine fit,
for heaven's sake!
Their race, which
was unfolding across the lush Kent countryside, had been a major undertaking;
involved was a budget of �100,000 sterling, of which �50,000 was outright prize
money. This made it the richest race in European competition history, far
surpassing any Grand Prix purse, or the rich and rococo 24 Hours of Le Mans.
What's more, Rothmans had planned that its event would be a monumental
confrontation, a shootout between the world's best cars and drivers—Grand Prix
vs. Indy vs. Can-Am vs. Grand National stock cars vs. "run what you
brung," as they say in the South, or Foyt vs. Stewart vs. Donohue vs. Ickx
vs. Petty. At last, the answer to that nagging question: Who or what is the
fastest, the best of the best?
But now, with
Fittipaldi unwinding a steady string of laps, far in the lead, the Rothmans
lads' dreams of a milestone race was floating away as steadily as their
cigarette smoke. Fittipaldi had turned out to be the only superstar on the
track, and he was, for all intents and purposes, racing alone, assured of
victory in—oh God, this is the bad part—a racing car decked from pointed prow
to spoiler in the funereal plumage of John Player, Britain's leading tobacco
company and Rothmans' arch rival! Smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Fittipaldi had
set the fastest qualifying time, started on the pole, had squirted into the
lead the moment the flag dropped and, 312.7 miles later, ambled home a relaxed
and unchallenged winner. He had briefly faced but three serious rivals.
Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Howden Ganley had broken their BRMs early and had
posed no threat (a small blessing for the harried Rothmans contingent since
those cars were sponsored by Marlboro—and we all know what they sell) while
Brian Redman straggled in second with his McLaren Formula I machine nearly a
full lap behind. Henri Pescarolo finished third in his thoroughly outclassed
March GP car.
The remainder of
the 30-car starting field was a lackluster collection of lightweight Formula II
cars, heavy and comparatively ungainly Formula 5,000 machines and a single
sports racer. They were manned for the most part by a game but relatively
unknown squad of drivers who had shown up to nibble at the crumbs of the vast
Rothmans purse. Some capable men were on the track; probable all-stars of
tomorrow such as Scotsman Gerry Birrell, the Australian Tim Schenken, New
Zealander Graham McRae, Argentinian Carlos Reutemann, etc., but they hardly fit
into the early Rothmans vision.
What went wrong?
Where was everybody? Surely somebody must have been around who could have
contested Fittipaldi for the victory. Surely 50,000 quid should have provided
sufficient incentive for someone other than a scattering of Grand Prix teams to
appear at Brands Hatch. That was not the case, however, and in the explanations
lie the reasons why the kind of race the Rothmans 50,000 was supposed to be
will probably remain in the realm of fantasy.
announced plans for the event some 18 months ago, the tightly organized Grand
Prix car constructors stated that they would participate. Only Ferrari rejected
the idea outright. Thus buoyed by the knowledge that most of the great Formula
I stars—Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, John Surtees, etc., all box-office winners
at Brands Hatch—were on their way, Rothmans went in search of added novelties.
Team McLaren, the owner of the all-winning Can-Am sports cars driven by Denis
Hulme and Peter Revson, was invited. Americans Roger Penske and Andy Granatelli
were asked to bring anything they pleased from their vast and spectacular array
of racing machines. Some illusions were harbored that Penske might arrive with
one of his turbocharged Indianapolis cars, while Granatelli, the consummate
promoter, came to England and did little to discourage the notion that he might
dust off his legendary turbine-powered Indy cars. Meanwhile, dreams continued
to blossom that several of the Southern stock-car teams might be attracted to
the race by the vast sums of prize money.
intervened. As race time approached, it became obvious that practically nobody
was going to show up. Why? Well, mainly because there really wasn't all that
much money, at least not enough to interrupt long-established schedules. In
today's climate of big-time motor racing, prize money, per se, has very little
to do with the economics of running a successful operation. Sponsorship
provided by major tire and petroleum companies, accessory manufacturers (and
cigarette companies) is anted out in six-figure sums to the various major teams
prior to the beginning of each season. Contracts are signed that the teams in
question will participate in all Indianapolis-type races, Grand Prix events,
Can-Ams or whatever, and budgets are created around a firm schedule of races.
Prize money won is then added to the pot really as no more than a bonus.
Therefore practically everyone invited to the Rothmans 50,000 had full-season
commitments that did not include participation in oddball, one-shot
Can-Am cars—the 800hp sports machines that had the only serious chance of
competing with the Grand Prix racers on Brands Hatch's twisting countouts—were
out almost from the start. A Can-Am was being run at Elkhart Lake, Wis. the day
before, meaning that the series' stars, Hulme, Revson, George Follmer, David
Hobbs, etc., would be in America when the Rothmans flag dropped. At the same
time the European contingent of Can-Am-type machines would be far away in
Finland for a regularly scheduled race. With the mega-dollar Indianapolis car
race set for Labor Day at Ontario, Calif., hopes for any of those automobiles
had long since faded. In the end even Andy Granatelli confirmed what should
have been clear all along: his wonderful turbines could not be brought out of
retirement and made race-ready without extensive development—a costly and
difficult process for a single event.
That left the
Formula I constructors, many of whom are based in England. But they wanted the
traditional appearance money that is doled out front before the race begins.
This is common practice in Europe, but Rothmans balked, arguing that the
$125,000 pot would amply reward anybody who chose to come. Not enough, said
most of the GP teams, who then summarily slammed their garage doors. In the end
only two Formula I BRMs and a single McLaren appeared to contest Fittipaldi.
They came at the behest of their prime sponsors ( Marlboro in the case of BRM,
Yardley's men's cosmetics for McLaren), simply because they did business in
Great Britain and wanted every opportunity to showcase their machines before
the home audience.
himself almost didn't appear after a mixup with his own sponsors. Players was
asked by Lotus if it were interested in competing in the Rothmans race—for
extra money, of course. Players declined, as did Texaco, another prime Lotus
sponsor. Finally Fittipaldi's extensive Brazilian contacts produced a major
coffee retailer that was willing to foot the bill. A one-race sponsorship fee
was arranged, and his Lotus was in fact painted in Brazil's yellow and green
for the race. Then Players changed its mind, and within hours of the start
(reportedly while a charter planeload of Brazilian coffee tycoons was in
mid-Atlantic on the way to the race) gently pressured Lotus into daubing the
car with a coat of the original black and entering the race under the Players
name. "Now all we've come for is to take some of Rothmans' money," said
a Lotus crewman rather ruefully.