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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ecclestone's first manipulation of F1?

Reading the Telegraph article today where Bernie Ecclestone gave out about the imposition of Team Orders by Red Bull and Mercedes in Malaysia last weekend I was struck by the following quote about his time in charge of Brabham:
I had one driver challenging for the world championship – I’m not going to say who it was – and the other guy that weekend happened to be b----- quick. I said to him, 'Whatever you do, you ought to take it easy and let the other guy pass you’. He said, 'I wouldn’t do that.’ So I replied, 'Well, you can stand up in the seat of the car and wave him past, so the whole world can see this if you want.’ But he insisted, 'I’m not going to do it’. So we just made sure he didn’t have enough fuel in the car to finish the race.”
My first and continuing reaction is to ask: Is this where Bernie learnt how to manipulate an F1 race for the first time?

The only reason he would be reluctant to say who the driver is because of two things:
1.  The driver is still alive and well, and
2.  The car never ran out of fuel due to other problems on the car

Now the driver himself must know who he is given that they had a conversation as Bernie sets out above but he won't say who it was.

I'm supposing, no I'm presuming, that the drivers in question were Niki Lauda and John Watson in 1978.  There was no other year where Brabham had two competitive drivers in a championship winning position, (You'll forgive me for not counting Riccardo Patrese as a championship contender when he was teamed with Piquet Snr).

Watson had been with Brabham for 1977, whilst Niki Lauda joined up after winning his second Drivers' Title with Ferrari in 1977.

A look back at the season showed that Wattie was right on the pace of Lauda and, but for the number of retirements suffered by both drivers, they could both have challenged for the Championship that year.

A summary of the 1978 Brabham season is set out below but for my money Bernie must have short fuelled John Watson at either the Belgian or Swedish GP's, before or after Sweden there would have been no point to doing it.

In the first race of the season Lauda came second, inheriting the position from John Watson with 10 laps to go when his engine blew up. In Brazil Lauda was on the pace, but after issues in qualifying Watson had to come through the field and finished 8th from 21st on the grid. In South Africa Lauda Qualified in Pole but the engine failed, John Watson finished 3rd. In America West at Long Beach Wattie retired from 2nd on Lap 9 with engine failure, Lauda inherited the place but retired on lap 28.  Monaco would have been John Watsons but driver error meant he only finished 4th to Lauda's 2nd.

A picture emerges of a very fast team-mate to the newly crowned Drivers' Champion.  Lauda retired in both Belgium and Spain while Wattie also retired at Spa but came home in 5th in Spain.  Theoretically, at this point, Lauda was still in the running for the Drivers' title on 16 points, 20 behind Mario Andretti and 10 behind Ronnie Peterson.  Watson was 7 points behind.  Just so you understand how close it was the scoring in 1978 was as follows:

1st      9 points
2nd     6 points
3rd     4 points
4th      3 points
5th      2 points
6th      1 point

So a couple of good results could put Niki Lauda right back in the running for the title, whilst John Watson, were he ahead, would have a pretty serious impact on proceedings, particularly if he were in first place.

And so to Sweden, Round 8 of the Championship, the halfway point of the season.  Brabham brought a new car, the BT46B to the race.  You may know it as the "Fan Car".  It only raced once, and would probably have sailed home to the title but Bernie withdrew it in order to get the agreement of the other team owners to allow him seize control of F1's commercial rights with FOCA.

Watson qualified the car in second, ahead of Niki Lauda.  It's accepted by most of those in the know that the qualifying was deliberate so as not to show just how much speed and grip the car had over it's rivals.  In the race Lauda got ahead of Wattie at the start and they continued in second and third until lap 20 when John Watson's car suffered a throttle failure.  Lauda overtook Mario Andretti for the lead and went on to win by over half a minute.  Andretti went out with engine failure on lap 40 and Lauda moved to 11 points behind him and only 5 behind Ronnie Peterson who came home in third.

In France Lauda failed to finish and Wattie came home 4th with 3 points and in Britain Lauda and Watson came home 2nd and 3rd in that order.  It was not inconceivable at this stage, Round 10 that Niki Lauda could not catch Andretti for the title, however retirements in Germany and Austria effectively ended his title chances with Andretti taking another win in Germany, pulling out a lead of 23 points over Niki Lauda.

In Austria the only person who could really challenge Andretti was Ronnie Peterson who won there in order to close the gap to 9 points.  After Round 13 in the Netherlands that gap became 12 points, Andretti taking the win with Peterson second and then, in Italy, the championship race was effectively over after the death of Ronnie Peterson.

Even though Lauda was now second in the championship, he was 20 points behind with only 2 rounds remaining.