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One of the traditions of Formula I racing is that the cars run rain or shine, unlike those Indy-type contests where the slightest mist sends everybody scurrying for cover. But even so, there occasionally comes a time when enough is enough, and that time came last Saturday with 11 laps to go in the British Grand Prix. The race was red-flagged in a cloudburst, with cars littering the track and catch fences like so many shiny, broken toys. Officials declared Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi the winner. Survivor would have been just as good a word.
Going in, the race had certain elements that promised to make it special, and the prospects brought 77,000 fans streaming to Silverstone, 70 miles down the road from London. First, there was the chance to see Niki Lauda, the 26-year-old Austrian who has been cutting a record swath through the season in his new 12-cylinder Ferrari 312-T. With four Grand Prix victories behind him and six races to go, Lauda had a 22-point lead in the world drivers championship, the biggest margin since 1965 when the late Jimmy Clark led the pack. Another lure was the race itself: last year Lauda also had been leading the series—by four points—when his fortunes turned at the same British Grand Prix, and he started a disastrous slide that finally landed him in fourth place, 17 points behind champion Fittipaldi. This season's 22-point edge is admittedly harder to erode, but it wouldn't take an absurdly superstitious racing fan to have seen dire warnings in the rumbling thunder and lightning that preceded the events at Silverstone. And finally, there was the prospect of the sort of stirring racing that this all-star series never fails to produce.
The crowd got much more than expected: there was indeed stirring racing while it lasted. But there also was the anticipation that history might repeat itself for Lauda. The storms and smashups came as a bonus.
After practice and qualifying through weather that sank steadily from bad to awful, the race started in a gray drizzle. Taking the lead at the start was a young Welshman named Tom Pryce, who had set a track record of 132.48 mph in practice in his UOP Shadow, while Brazil's Carlos Pace started second, and Lauda third. But in the action that followed, the pole position wasn't worth much. In the next hour or so, three separate storms slashed the circuit, striking randomly at three separate locations. The problem was most of the cars were wearing standard slick racing tires, with their treaded rain tires stacked in the pits. In one of the flash storms, Pryce skidded off the track at a spot called Becketts Corner before he could skitter back home for a tire change. Other drivers alternately ran for the pits or ran for the front, and the lead changed nine times. If that wasn't an outright record it was right up there. "The pits looked like Piccadilly Circus," said ex-world champion Jackie Stewart at trackside. "I've never seen so many changes in the leaders in any Grand Prix."
Somewhere out there was Lauda, tucked into fourth and growing angrier by the lap over the circumstances that were forcing him to run so cautiously. At one point, he figured there were three centimeters of water under his wheels. "Can you believe it?" he said later. "I went into a skid going about 15 miles an hour in first gear. They should have stopped the race long before they did." And also somewhere out there was the coolest head of all, Fittipaldi, who had been sliding along in sixth and seventh, neatly sidestepping crack-ups and spinning cars, waiting for his opening. He found it on the 43rd lap, eased his McLaren into the lead and held it there until the red flags came out on lap 57.
Meanwhile, other racing notables, cautious and otherwise, were in trouble. Eleven cars were involved in crashes of varying severity, and the wonder of it was that nobody was critically hurt. One spectator, stationed at a corner called Stowe Bend, found himself staring into a gray wall of rain. "I couldn't see anything," he said. "All I could hear was the staccato crunch, crunch, crunch of cars colliding." At one point nearby, a track marshal ran to aid a driver whose car had spun to a stop—and suddenly was tossed end over end by another runaway racer. Surprisingly, a broken shoulder and concussion were the worst of his injuries.
Most seriously hurt of the drivers was Jean-Pierre Jarier, who lost control of his UOP Shadow sliding out of the Wood-cote Corner chicane on his 54th lap and slashed into the wire safety fence. Momentum carried him spinning through four more catch fences before the car stopped, and Jarier climbed out with facial cuts and a possible concussion. Others were luckier by degrees: South African Jody Scheckter, who had been among those pushing for the lead through the storms, suffered a sprained wrist; Brabham driver Pace sustained a slight neck injury; Britain's Tony Brise escaped with cuts and bruises. American Mark Donohue, the 1972 Indy winner, escaped unhurt, as did Wilson Fittipaldi, the champion's brother, Vittorio Brambilla of Italy, James Hunt and John Watson of Britain and Jochen Mass of West Germany.
"It was like I was driving on clear ice," said Donohue. "I tried the brakes for 2,000 yards, but I finally went through the catch fence." Mass said, "The puddles were so thick I just floated across the top of them." Into the fence, of course.
Finally, mercifully, officials ended the regatta. Fittipaldi was rolling when the flags came out—but just barely. He had pitted, holding the lead, and was on his way back out. "I saw some yellow flags and some shapes of cars," he said, "but I saw nothing clearly. Then I saw that the race had been stopped."
By the time officials got everything untangled, the day had stretched well into evening, and most of the spectators were sitting in the 10-mile traffic jam that blocked the leafy Northamptonshire lanes, their clothes gently steaming. Fittipaldi had completed 56 laps in 1:22.05, the scorer ruled, averaging a somewhat surprising 120.01 mph. The next three places were awarded to cars that weren't running: Pace was second, Scheckter third, Hunt fourth.