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The best of the Hatch
Brock Yates
September 11, 1972
Emerson Fittipaldi proved himself the fastest there was at Brands Hatch, which would mean a lot more if he had not also been all there was
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September 11, 1972

The Best Of The Hatch

Emerson Fittipaldi proved himself the fastest there was at Brands Hatch, which would mean a lot more if he had not also been all there was

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While Emerson 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.

When Rothmans 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.

Then reality 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 affairs.

The monster 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.

Fittipaldi 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.

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