Vintage Motorsport editor D. Randy Riggs slides down into the c#ckpit of a 1976 March 761 Grand Prix car for the ride of a lifetime.
Looking very much like an overgrown Formula Atlantic car from the late 1970s—it was designed in an era when great mechanical diversity blanketed every Formula 1 grid. Finished in bright orange Beta Utensili livery, James King’s March 761/08 is powered by a 3.0-liter, 480hp long-stroke Cosworth DFV V8—its rebuilt tub the same one that Vittorio Brambilla drove in a handful of GP races in 1976 before it became the team’s spare chassis.
King is one of the founders of Historic Grand Prix, and competes with his March regularly in that group’s feature events. No stranger to motorsports, King spent the ’70s and early ’80s racing a variety of open-wheel formula cars in Formula B, F3 and in the Formula Atlantic series. He won a national championship in 1982 in his Ralt and then left the racing world to concentrate on his business interests.
During a chance encounter with old friend and former March distributor Doug Shierson at the Monterey Historics in 1992, the two hung around the F1 cars and owners competing that weekend, and Shierson mentioned that he knew where Brambilla’s old March 761 was. The sights and sounds of the historic F1 cars running at Laguna Seca fired up King’s lust for speed once again, and he and Shierson decided to partner in ownership of the March, although he bought out Shierson’s half later.
“The car meant a lot to Doug and I because we thought the world of Vittorio since we had gotten to know him when we raced in Europe together,” King remembered. “He was really a neat guy—totally unpretentious and a real family man.” At age 64 the warm and friendly Brambilla had a heart attack and died while mowing his lawn on May 26, 2001, but not before King had reunited him with 761/08 at Monza a few years back.
Known as “The Monza Gorilla,” Brambilla began racing motorcycles in 1957 and won the Italian national 175cc title in 1958. Vittorio returned to racing in 1968 in Formula 3 and won the Italian title in 1972, by which time he was already racing in Formula 2 with March. He won several F2 races and with backing from Beta Tools, he bought his way into F1 in 1974 with the March factory team.
Vittorio’s best race day came at the Osterreichring in 1975 when he drove to victory in the rain-shortened Austrian Grand Prix in a works March 751. Upon taking the checkered flag, he threw his arms up in the air in jubilant celebration, losing control of the car and crashing. On the cool-off lap and with the nose of his car crunched, Brambilla continued waving madly to the crowd and became an instant Italian hero.
Like many readers of Vintage Motorsport, I’ve always dreamed about driving an F1 car. While meeting with King when I was researching the HGP story for this issue, he was brave enough to offer up the seat in his March so I could experience the thrill of driving a 500hp vehicle that weighs just 1200 pounds.
The opportunity came this past April at Thunderhill Raceway Park, located about two hours north of Sacramento in Northern California, where HGP was running its first 2002 event with the Classic Sports Racing Group. Thunderhill is a fast but safe 3.0-mile circuit, with few barriers for F1 rookies like myself to clobber. We arrived bright and early on Friday morning, CSRG’s practice day, and James went out first in the car to shake it down to test a brake modification that had been made since he’d last driven it. Brian Madden was on hand from Phil Reilly & Co. to look after the mechanicals.
Since James and I are close in size, I was reasonably sure that I’d fit in the tight confines of the March c#ckpit. I love the dance that takes place to get into a formula car. You have to stretch across the sidepods with your legs, stand on the seat, then hold onto the rollbar braces as you slide your legs forward and down inside to stretch to the pedals but releasing your arms at the same time so you don’t wind up stuck at the shoulders. If you’ve done it right you’re not left sitting on the belts.
Once inside, things are extremely tight - just as they should be - and it will get tighter when everything is snugged down by an outside helper. But the car fit me perfectly, and the only thing I had to be careful of was hitting my right elbow on the rollbar brace when I pulled back on the shifter. James and I talked quite a bit about what I might expect from the car, and what he expected of me. I was to pay close attention to the tach, coolant and oil temps, and just take my time in working up to speed, warming the spec Avon tires and getting comfortable in the car.
I sat there for a few moments letting it all sink in, and that’s when I became aware of my heart beginning to pick up its beat in my chest and the damp Nomex clinging to my back. Scared? Not at all, but it was all the responsibility of driving the 761 quick enough to do it justice without making a mistake. I remember Steve Earle telling me, “They’re easy to drive but hard to race.”
We didn’t want any over revs because of a missed shift, so I was to be careful with the 5-speed too. I’d use 9500rpm as redline, though the car is normally shifted at 10,100rpm with King aboard, with the limiter set at 10,300rpm. Cosworth DFVs can rev to 10,500 rpm without difficulty, but service life between the $15K routine overhauls is reduced from 1200-1500 miles to about 800-1000 miles under that extra stress. King’s March runs a long-stroke DFV, because the short-stroke versions weren’t available until 1983 and the 761 is period correct.
The starting routine is not too complicated, so once Madden hooked up the external battery, it was a matter of flipping on the master switch, and holding down two buttons to spin the DFV. As soon as the V8 whoop, whoops into life, you immediately blip the throttle, and even with earplugs and a helmet to mute the noise, that wonderful V8 bark comes alive right behind your head. I mix in with the other F1 cars burbling their way out of the paddock and onto the circuit, and King has let the other F1 drivers know that I’m out there in his car—a rookie without any rookie stripes to warn them - so watch out for the new kid in town, guys.
Immediately the clutch didn’t feel right - like it was dragging even though I had the pedal pressed to its stop. But as I rolled onto the track and began to pick up speed, the shifter moved effortlessly into each successive gear with short, precise action. The DFV exploded to life above 6500-7000rpm, and my head snapped back the first time I mashed the throttle like I’d been jabbed by Evander Holyfield.
Not knowing how the cool tires would react during my first lap, I waved by a couple other cars and tucked in behind them briefly before I felt the car get a little squirrelly, so I elected to be more prudent until I felt more stick from the contact patches. And when that happened I began spooling it up, trying to get my reactions to match the car’s intensity, because the 761’s limits are far beyond anything I’ve ever driven. The speed this car carries into a corner is not to be believed -until of course you do it—and then you wonder how much more is left. For mere mortals like myself? Plenty!
The rush of wind past my helmet becomes a roar and the acceleration reminds me of riding a Ducati 996—the faster you go the harder it pulls - pressing you hard against the seat back until you say, “Uncle!” The 761 gobbles real estate like a shark in a minnow pond and the 3-mile circuit becomes a constantly changing curve - the straights almost non-existent because the car sucks them up in a flash.
Next corners come at you so instantly that braking and turn-in need to happen instinctively because there isn’t time to think about the process, but the car is pinsharp, responding instantly to every input and transmitting what it’s doing to the seat of your Nomex - you really can feel what every corner of the car is doing.
My first session was interupted by a stalled car sitting on the fast section of the track, so I couldn’t whistle off a complete lap at speed, and I was depressed to hear a lap time of 2:10—way slow.
We couldn’t make the next session because the sticky clutch I’d felt earlier was exactly that, and Madden needed time to straighten it out. Next session out it was like a second date with a new flame, knowing where the circuit went and being much more comfortable with the car. But I laughed to myself the first time I really got on the brakes and shredded speed, because I actually felt a nanosecond of lightheadedness - the car stops that hard.
I finally felt like I was beginning to get into a rhythm, the key to quicker lap times, but just then two cars spun off and ended the session prematurely. I learned later than I’d turned a 1:50 lap, about five seconds off the pace the F1 cars would set later in the weekend while racing. I guess I didn’t have to hang my head in shame after all.
The engine silent, slipping off my gloves and squeezing myself out of the March, I pulled off my helmet and head sock and took a long, deep breath. My Sparco driving suit was soaked with sweat and my hands were shaking and I felt totally spent. One of the other HGP drivers walked up and asked me how I enjoyed the experience. I couldn’t think of anything to say but,“It’s almost as good as sex.”
And he just smiled back and said, “At my age is just as good as sex and it lasts one hell of a lot longer!”
Speak for yourself, sir.
I am desperately trying to save the money to go see the Vegas Historic races...with Brambilla's March and Gilles' 1980 Ferrari racing. (fingers crossed)
Edited by Autumnpuma, 01 December 2006 - 07:39 AM.