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Non Championship Races

Non Championship Races


Back in the day before the World Championship became the be-all and end-all of Formula One there were as many, if not more races held purely for their own prestige, not to mention prize money.

By the time I started following Formula 1 in the 1970s only two traditional non-Championship races had survived. Both were in England, namely Brands Hatch’s ‘Race of Champions’ and Silverstone’s ‘International Trophy,’ normally held as a forerunner to the European leg of the season.

The top teams would usually enter one car and sometimes for commercial reasons, two, whilst others wouldn’t enter at all. The numbers would be made up by those fringe teams and privateers, who might normally struggle to qualify in a fully competitive field, often in ancient machinery and on occasion some Formula 5000 entrants could join in.

Maybe it was because of the reduced number of ‘aces’, the cold and often wet weather, early season teething troubles or just drivers being a little less risk averse without Championship points at stake, but there were some good races and surprise winners.

The 1974 Race of Champions was the first motor race I attended, Formula 1 or otherwise. That cold and wet Sunday in March was life-changing for me but I doubt whether the girl I was with ever set foot near a race track again. She did not seem particularly moved by what would be Jacky Ickx’s last Formula 1 win in the ageing but still good looking John Player Special Lotus 72, nor impressed by his daring overtake of Niki Lauda’s Ferrari around the outside of a streaming wet Paddock Hill Bend.

The following year in even colder conditions, the start being delayed through a snow shower, Tom Pryce scored his only Formula 1 win in another good looking car of that era, the UOP-liveried Shadow DN5.

A few weeks later I made my first visit to Silverstone and the 1975 International Trophy. Being granted two entries did not do the John Player Special team much good as neither Lotus started. Jim Crawford’s car lay abandoned trackside after an accident in the morning warm-up session, and the engine of Ronnie Peterson’s car expired on the way to the grid. After the razzmatazz of the Duke of Edinburgh opening the new pits (non of which we saw from Club Corner) Niki Lauda (Ferrari), World Champion in waiting but yet to win a race that season, beat reigning Champ, Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren) by just 0.1 seconds. This was after the new darling of the British crowd, James Hunt in his white sponsorless Hesketh had lead for much of the race until his engine let go.

The next two year’s Race of Champions were both won by James Hunt, now with McLaren. In 1976 the drama that would see him become World Champion was yet to unfold and Niki Lauda had won the opening two Grands Prix for Ferrari. But Hunt duly obliged his home crowd by taking his first victory for his new team.

My other stand out memories from that day are Giancarlo Martini crashing his Scuderia Everest entered Ferrari on his warm-up lap so becoming a non-starter in his first Formula 1 entry and the circuit commentator raising a cheer from the crowd when he called Alan Jones’s Surtees the ‘Durex’, paying tribute to the team’s new sponsor.

The 1977 race was a landmark occasion for me, as it was my first Formula 1 event as an accredited photographer. James Hunt, now World Champion was there in his title winning McLaren M23, but there was nothing of the pro-Hunt febrile atmosphere of the previous summer’s Grand Prix. All seemed very serene as I wandered around in the spring sunshine before the start photographing the drivers. Vittorio Brambilla was chatting with Harald Ertl who was not actually in the race; Jackie Oliver, temporarily filling the void at Shadow following the recent death of 1975 winner Tom Pryce was being interviewed and Championship leader Jody Scheckter was with the surprise of the season so far, the new Wolf.

Oliver’s fifth place finish was a great lift for his team as was John Watson’s third for Brabham-Alfa Romeo just a few days after their lead driver, Carlos Pace, had been killed in a Sao Paulo ‘plane crash. Two great drivers lost that month.

For whatever reason there was no Race of Champions in 1978 so it was off to Silverstone for what would be the last International Trophy to be run for Formula 1 cars in probably the wettest, most miserable conditions I have experienced at a race track.

Mario Andretti was debuting the new ground-effects JPS Lotus 79 which would take him to that year’s World Championship, but it was his team-mate, Ronnie Peterson, in the older Lotus 78 on pole. Amongst those ‘making up the numbers’ was the Theodore of Keke Rosberg who qualified twelfth. Those of us who followed Formula 2 knew that Rosberg was a talent and future Formula 1 winner but no-one was expecting it to be quite so soon; not in only his second F1 start and certainly not in a Theodore. But win it, he did and fortunately the organisers did have the Finnish national anthem for the podium ceremony. He benefited from a depleted field – no Ferraris entered, several of the stars electing not to start or spinning off early in the atrocious conditions, but even so…

On the eve of the 1979 Race of Champions Brands Hatch, like much of south east England, was blanketed in snow. The race was postponed until late summer, by which time I was attending many race meetings around Europe and so gave it a miss.

I never did attend another Race of Champions and the 1983 event with just thirteen starters would become F1’s last non-Championship race.