March built almost 1,500 racing cars across motorsport’s gamut between 1969 and 1992. Its IndyCar successes made it a go-getting model of Thatcherite Britain and on 6th April 1987 it became the first such company to go public. A mistake, as it turned out.
How Niki Lauda’s money saved March Engineering
Within a year of its launch it had put two cars on the front row for its Grand Prix debut. It won a GP at its second attempt, courtesy of reigning champion Jackie Stewart. And in 1971, it had not only guided Ronnie Peterson to second place in the Formula 1 world championship – behind Stewart (now driving a Tyrrell) – but also to the European Formula 2 title.
Yet it almost didn’t see its third birthday. Key to its survival was a young pay driver from Austria: Andreas Nikolaus Lauda.
“His money was extremely important to us,” says March co-founder Max Mosley. “It enabled us to keep going over the winter.
“Making racing cars is like selling ice cream: there’s a season. From a point halfway through a season there’s a lack of money until people start putting down deposits on next year’s cars.”
Lauda had two years of single-seater experience under his money-belt: Formula Vee in a Kaimann and Formula 3 in a McNamara (March’s quixotic German equivalent). It’s fair to say that he had failed to set the racing world alight during this time.
His first March ‘investment’ was £7,000 for a season of F2 in 1971. He topped this up in order to make his F1 debut: he qualified next to last for his home GP and retired because of poor handling. Undeterred, he went all in for 1972.
“£42,000 [for F1 and F2],” says Mosley. “A huge amount.
“The deal was agreed and signed, but then the bank wouldn’t give him the money because his grandfather, a big figure in Austrian business, had told it not to.
“Niki called me: ‘I’m having a bit of trouble. But don’t worry. I will go to another bank.’ I was a bit dubious, but he duly provided a letter of guarantee from his father. Probably I should have enquired further.
“Anyway, he did produce the money.” Not that it did him much good. The disastrous 721X F1 car negated Lauda’s strong start in F2, which included a win at Oulton Park.
“Ronnie always told me that the long-wheelbase 711 [of 1971] was the easiest F1 car he ever drove,” said March co-founder and chief designer Robin Herd, now sadly no longer with us. “So I decided to go the whole hog: ultra-low moment of inertia.” Reducing the ‘dumb-bell effect’ of weight at the extremities.
Ideologically buoyant March had adopted the fashionable Colin Chapman-esque view: it was (only!) a technological breakthrough away from becoming world champion.
Its ongoing relationship with Alfa Romeo provided the gearbox/differential (in that order) that Herd desired. The result was acute understeer.
“The change in weight distribution was partly to blame,” said Herd. “But we could’ve got around that. What screwed us was that Alfa transmission.
“We’d heard that its gear-change wasn’t so hot, so I got Ronnie a sports car drive with Alfa at Watkins Glen [in July 1971]. Bless him, he came back and said it was fine, lovely, fantastic. He’d won, of course.
“I shouldn’t have listened. It was slow and baulky.
“Plus we only had one spare set of ratios. Niki was a lovely bloke, good company, but it wasn’t easy convincing him that the ratios that Ronnie had just discarded were precisely the ones he needed.
“But the biggest problem was the diff. It was tiny and therefore permanently locked. Niki said that he gave up on March when he saw me pouring STP into the diff. But all I was trying to do – and he accepted this later – was loosen it up.
“Ronnie and I had built ourselves up into this untouchable team and we were blind to 721X’s problems. Niki wasn’t. He came in after two or three laps, said it was bloody rubbish, and went off in a huff.
“He was right.
“It was an inconvenient truth. Ronnie looked like a racing driver, whereas Niki looked like a rat. Plus he was a rent-a-driver. I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to him.”
After the Belgian GP in June, however, even Herd admitted defeat: “We didn’t have the money or time to do X properly. People were starting to get edgy. It was easier, faster and cheaper to build a completely different car.”
The replacement was simple, practical, realistic: a backward step to go forward rather than a giant leap of faith.
The first Formula 2-based 721G had been built in just nine days for Mike Beuttler, a handy gentleman racer funded by City stockbrokers. At Monaco, he finished 13th in torrential conditions – two laps ahead of a despairing Lauda. Two more were built in time for the French GP at Clermont-Ferrand. Peterson qualified ninth, ran as high as third, and finished fifth despite a broken rollbar. He also agreed a deal with Lotus for 1973.
Lauda, in contrast, was miles off Peterson’s pace and his career seemed in terminal decline.
“The poor sod, we almost destroyed him,” said Herd.
“He was quick. At the Rouen F2 race, we had to slow him down and get him to let Ronnie past.
“In F1, though, he gave up. He had every justification to do so. But he was better at set-up than Ronnie was and should have used that strength.”
721X would be March’s last blue-sky attempt at F1.
Herd: “Jochen Neerpasch [boss of BMW’s new M division] took Max and I to dinner at Monaco and asked us to become his works F2 team. Stability we badly needed.
“F1 had never made commercial sense; we only stayed in it because we loved it.”
Mosley: “Our sponsor STP kept saying, ‘Why can’t we have Graham Hill? And who the hell is Niki Lauda?’ It just wouldn’t have worked.
“It was my job to tell Niki.
“There is an awful account in one of his books of him leaving the factory afterwards thinking, ‘Maybe I will drive straight into a brick wall.’
“Luckily, he overcame that and got a drive with BRM [in 1973], where his talent shone through.”
“Had we been able to keep him for 1973 I think that March would have been very different.”
Images provided by Motorsport Images.
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