After a four-month break, a new Formula 1 season will begin again in March. First stop: South Africa. This is the fourth official Grand Prix to be run on the Kyalami circuit, much appreciated by drivers for a number of reasons. One of these is its dynamism. The track, about four kilometers long and located 1,500 meters above sea level, is perfect for exalting the drivers' skills. After an initial straight, it is necessary to shift down to second or third gear to face the Crowthorne turn and then accelerate from Barbecue Bend for a series of fast curves, including the Jukskei Sweep that few can take without going off the road, ending with the slow Clubhouse Bend. Then begins a downhill course, with the Esses, followed by the Leeukop Bend which, after the semi-curve The Kink, brings the drivers back to push hard on the initial straight, up to speeds of 283 km/h. What impresses most of all, however, is the asphalt's imperviousness to the devastating heat, especially when compared to some European circuits that do not hold up under modest sun and racing tires. First, however, the first round of the World Championship for Makes sees Porsche as the winner; Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen win the 24 Hours of Daytona aboard a 917 of 4.500 cubic centimeters, preceding their teammates Siffert-Redman, on the second 917 of John Wyer's Porsche-Gulf team. In third place was the five-liter Ferrari 512 S driven by Andretti and Merzario (who were joined in the final hours of the race by Jackie Ickx), followed by two other Maranello cars, the 312 prototypes of Posey-Parkes and Piper-Adamowicz. Rodriguez and Kinnunen cover in the twenty-four hours 4434 kilometers, at an average of 184.700 km/h, establishing the new record of the race. The previous one had been established in 1966 by Ruby-Miles, on a Ford Mark II seven liters, with 4151 km to the average of 172.823 km/h. The crew of the Porsche-Gulf precedes of fifty-one laps, equal to about 360 kilometers, Siffert-Redman and Andretti-Merzario, protagonists of an incandescent duel in the last phases of the trial, duel resolved almost on the finish line in favor of the 917 of the Swiss and the English. This represents, for Ferrari, the unfortunate conclusion of a race distorted by the bad performance of the tires. An interminable series of problems with the tires (and, as a consequence, with the front suspensions) hit the cars of the Italian team. And at the end of the race, the anger is great, because engines and transmissions have worked perfectly, giving, at their debut, a superb proof of efficiency. The 512 S's were running at 7,500 rpm, with water and oil temperatures around 85 and 105 degrees.
"It means that our twelve-cylinder offered a satisfactory heat balance, which lets us foresee more exploitation for the future".
For the same reason, in the space of a few hours the cars of Ickx (the Belgian skidded, crashed into another car, managed to regain control of his racing car, but had to abandon it due to damage), Giunti (the Roman driver crashed into a wall, fortunately remaining unharmed) and Manfredini were put out of action. As for Dan Gurney's five-litre Ferrari, it was a gearbox failure that got it out of the way, caused by a very quick manoeuvre that the American had to perform by downshifting gears to avoid hitting a slower car that had suddenly left his lane. So, at a certain point, the Porsche 917 driven by Rodriguez had the green light. The result of Andretti's stops and the withdrawal of his teammates was to put Siffert and Redman's 917 back in the running. The Swiss driver, with a reckless tactic (he also crawled against a low wall), and taking advantage of the acceleration skills of his car - slightly higher than those of the Ferrari managed to prevail after a thrilling duel, conquering the second place behind Rodriguez. From the 24 hours the 908 three liters disappeared, and the same end had the Matra Sinica of Brabham-Cevert and Beltoise-Pescarolo, who could not stand the wearisome rhythm of the test. The next appointment is for mid-March in Sebring, with the 12 Hours. In the United States, they are convinced that Mannello will know how to exploit this month: the world championship has just begun. And it is no coincidence that Enzo Ferrari had declared just before the start of the competition:
"The American race is just a test for us. It will have to tell us what we will have to do from Monday onwards to win the competitions".
The 512 has been studied at the end of spring 1969; the first sample has appeared in September, while the tests have gone ahead at hiccups, among the difficulties caused by the trade-union agitations (that have delayed the construction of the twenty-five units necessary for the homologation in the Sport category, occurred a few days before the race) and the unexpected bad weather. Now, the powerful car is ready, but at Maranello they warn against easy enthusiasm. Wednesday, March 4th 1970 at 2:30 p.m. the first practice session of the twenty-first World Championship begins. A season full of novelties is inaugurated. Of the twenty-three cars, in fact, fifteen make their debut, while the others make several changes. Ferrari, for example, introduces the flat 12-cylinder engine. There are also new drivers, some with a new team and some, like Stommelen, new to Formula 1. The great absentee of the day is Andretti with his March. The Italo-American driver, in fact, in an unofficial test session overheated the car too much, bending the chassis in the rear area. The new B.R.M. car debuts, but after a while two of the three drivers are forced to stop. The first is Jackie Oliver who, before recording a time, breaks the rear hub. To avoid further possible damages, since it's already the second time in a few days that this happens, the team decides to stop also the single-seater driven by the Mexican Pedro Rodríguez. The only one left on track is therefore Eaton, who is on board of the previous year model. First troubled day also for Rolf Stommelen. The pilot, after having made a good impression, is forced to stop when the anti-tip bar of his Brabham BT33 breaks unexpectedly. Against all expectations, the Jackie Stewart-Tyrrell Racing pairing seems not to be ready, showing great disorganization. In fact, after changing the engine on the March, which had some problems in the morning, the team does not take into account the high temperatures, causing a too low pressure of the fuel pump.
If compared to those of the previous year, these first tests are slow. No driver, in fact, goes below the best time of 1'20''0 recorded by Rindt and Stewart in 1969. Today, the fastest on the track are Hulme and Rindt, despite being quite jet lagged, who set a time of 1'20"1. Different, however, the tests that take place during the afternoon of Thursday, March 5th 1970. The Tyrrell team is certainly more organized than the previous day, allowing Stewart to dictate the pace on the track with a time of 1'19"3. Very good also the results of another March, that of Amon, totally unexpected. This second best time spreads a question not only in the paddock, but also among fans and journalists: was the March an excellent car, or was the level of the drivers mediocre? Remarkable also the performance of Brabham, with the homonymous car, who, even though he missed the first free practice session, was the third driver - and last - to set a time under 1'20"0 (1'19"6). What makes the result even more surprising is the fact that the Australian does not have Goodyear tires, considered a wild card because they are too expensive. A twist in the Lotus Team: Graham Hill's excellent progress is interrupted in the afternoon, when the injection pump transmission breaks down. However, it had already been decided that the driver was fit and ready to race. So, the team decides not to interrupt the programs, reserving for him the single-seater of the reserve driver, Redman, who instead will not be able to participate in the race. Friday afternoon the tests are concluded. Expectations are high, we expect a battle between the best cars and drivers for the conquest of the first row. But expectations are soon to be reduced due to the not ideal conditions of the track, hot and dirty, as well as the tires, the oil lost by Oliver, after the tank of his B.R.M. broke. The B.R.M.'s return to testing, with the previous rear hubs replaced with stronger ones. Although there were problems with the engine, the three cars were surprisingly fast. This, however, was not enough, and Oliver, Rodríguez and Eaton placed only twelfth, sixteenth and twenty-first respectively.
The Italian-American Mario Andretti also returns to the track, but his performance is not memorable. For the entire duration of the qualifying session, one has the impression that the March driver, who finishes eleventh, is competing against his teammate Siffert, who manages to set the ninth fastest time. Charlton's clean driving is good, but the Lotus driver needs more power to stay behind the others and at the end he gets the thirteenth place on the grid. Redman is given a few test laps on his Lotus, so he can take Hill's place in case the latter cannot run the whole race; although he seems very comfortable on the car. The most powerful cars on the track reach speeds of 280 km/h, and in the last half hour the most competitive drivers show great skills, but the adverse conditions do not allow them to improve further. Only Rindt manages to lower his best time, recording 1'19"9 and securing himself the fourth place on the starting grid. Saturday, March 7, 1970 is the long-awaited day. Around 80.000 spectators are present around the Kyalami circuit to watch the first race of the season. Although during the night a storm has broken out, the temperatures are high. After a short and final morning test session, some clouds appear in the sky allowing the air to cool down a bit. At 3.00 p.m. the twenty-three drivers taking part in the South African Grand Prix are on the starting grid, ready to tackle the eighty laps scheduled. This is the starting grid first row occupied by Stewart (March), Amon (March), Brabham (Brabham); second row Rindt (Lotus) and Ickx (Ferrari); third row for the McLarens of Hulme and Surtees and the Matra of Beltoise; fourth row Siffert (March) and McLaren (McLaren); fifth row Andretti (March), Oliver (B.R.M.) and Charlton (Lotus); sixth row for Miles (Lotus), Stommelen (Brabham); from the seventh row Rodríguez (B.R.M.), Servoz-Gavin (March) and Pescarolo (Matra); from the penultimate row Hill (Lotus), and Courage (De Tomaso); and, finally, from the ninth row de Klerk (Brabham), Love (Lotus) and Eaton (B.R.M.).
At the signal of the mover, the drivers start all in a block. Only the Brabham of Peter de Klerk remains behind the group. At the entrance of the first curve, Stewart and Brabham are side by side. And the twists and turns are not long in coming. The race - which was expected to be magnificent - is suddenly upset, when Rindt, going on the attack from the outside, hits the wing of Amon's car, hitting Brabham violently and starting to spin on himself, ahead of everyone except Stewart. Shortly after, the Lotus driver has to retire because of the mistake made at the start. After the crash, Rindt is quite convinced that the fault is Brabham's, who, according to the Austrian, would have pushed him off the road. Of a different opinion, however, are the other drivers and the spectators who witnessed the scene. Thanks to the good reflexes of the drivers, a big accident was avoided. But this episode meant that all the drivers who were on the left were stuck, while those on the right managed to avoid the melee by passing on the inside and continuing to chase Stewart. This is how some drivers considered less competitive, such as Ickx, Oliver and Beltoise, found themselves in front of competitors such as Brabham, Hulme and Amon who, the way the tests had gone, should have challenged Stewart. After recovering and making sure that his single-seater was not damaged, Jack Brabham began his comeback. The Australian overtakes Oliver, Beltoise and Ickx and, at the end of the sixth lap, approaches threateningly and with determination Stewart's March that seems to be winning the race, just as he had done the previous year with the Matra. But this is unthinkable, and the Briton is aware of it: the gap with the Brabham is reduced, just like the one with the McLarens of McLaren and Hulme, who in the meantime are recovering their original positions, which have been upset by the collision at the first corner. Stewart is fast, but he is unable to produce the same results that, in similar circumstances, Moss and Clark would have produced. The Scotsman then takes the view that he must finish the race, even at the cost of losing his position.
In the meantime, for the British team B.R.M. the race ends prematurely, as Oliver is forced to retire, during the 22nd lap, due to a problem with the gearbox, while Rodríguez has to stop at the pits to change the ignition system. On the twentieth lap, Brabham does not struggle too much to take the position from Stewart, just as Hulme has no problem stealing second place from him on lap thirty-eighth. Now it is expected, therefore, that McLaren, who has kept up with his teammate Hulme, will also take the third position. But before this happens, the Cosworth engine of his car explodes. Stewart can rest easy. Brabham is steady and spectacular in the downhill dive through Barbecue Bend; not as safe and fast is Stewart. Trying to follow the Australian's pace means driving at the limit, but Stewart is cautious and not ready for that. He prefers to settle for a certain finish, rather than risk losing precious championship points. At the end of the eightieth, and therefore last lap, Brabham drives to the end with doggedness but smiles proudly, demonstrating spectacular driving, an example for many youngsters, right up to the finish line. The now forty-four year old Australian driver wins the South African Grand Prix. Despite the fact that the fuel system of Hulme's McLaren suffered from the heat, the driver can be satisfied with the performance of his car, which takes second place in this first race. Third place for Stewart, who drives until the very end with caution, careful not to fatigue either the car or the engine and staying 500 rpm below the limit. Not as spectacular is the race of the other March: the only one to win a position - the tenth - is Siffert, who although never close to the leaders had an interesting battle with the Ferrari of Ickx and the Matra of Beltoise for the sixth place, and then for the fifth place, when McLaren retired. During the climax of the race, however, he spun, crushing the right exhaust pipe against the tank. The driver then had to stop at the pits, where he lost a lot of time and where they cut the flattened part of the pipe.
The March of Amon (at lap fourteen, for engine overheating), Andretti (at lap twenty-six, again for engine overheating) and Servoz-Gavin (at lap fifty-seven, for engine problems) were retired. Conditioned by the accident at turn one, Amon was soon forced to stop the race, due to the rupture of the water system tank, followed by engine overheating. Andretti's car had a similar problem, even though it was more spectacular: the filler neck and the filler neck were blown off, creating a cloud of water and steam. Servoz-Gavin has to deal with an engine problem that, due to a water leak, overheated and then broke down. It is a race to forget also for Jacky Ickx; the Ferrari has suddenly started to lose speed. All of a sudden, then, a cloud of blue smoke rose up, causing the car to arrive at the pits with the engine off. The driver was forced to retire 18 laps from the end of the race due to an oil pump failure, ensuring an excellent fourth place for Beltoise's Matra, whose 12-cylinder engine, however, never lost a beat. The race went smoothly also for the Matra driven by Pescarolo who, despite not being satisfied with the general behaviour of the car, won the seventh position. The South African driver Dave Charlton was the author of an impressive race, staying ahead of more competitive cars for a long time. His Lotus would have easily conquered a sixth place if it were not for the fact that, shortly before the end of the race, a piece of tread came off the left rear tire and the driver was forced to return to the pits to change it. The situation was made worse by the lack of qualified personnel, as the mechanics started to turn the wheel nut key in the wrong way. By the time they realized their mistake, the Lotus' Cosworth engine was boiling, and Charlton was forced to shut it down. But the biggest problem arose later, as the engine would no longer restart. In the end, the South African had to settle for twelfth place.
More fortunate is John Miles, on the other Lotus. The British driver, initially disadvantaged by a gasoline leak that threatened to fill the cockpit, managed to preserve, staying on track with Servoz-Gavin and Charlton. As soon as the leak diminished sufficiently, the Briton took the opportunity to get rid of the two and leave them behind, gaining fifth position. In its debut race, the De Tomaso did not look very competitive. During the thirty-ninth lap, the exhaust butterflies of the Ford engine of Pierre Courage's car did not close properly, causing the driver to go off the road, which in turn damaged the suspension mountings on the right side of the car. Finally, during the race the Ford-Cosworth engines of Surtees' McLaren (during the sixtieth lap) and Stommelen's Brabham (during the twenty-third lap) break down. Of the seventeen Ford-Cosworth engines, after this race, five will be brought back to the UK for repair. Interestingly, the top five positions are occupied by five different cars. This says a lot about what the championship will be like. The prize giving takes place the next day, Sunday 8th of March 1970, with a garden lunch at the home of the Grand Prix race director, Francis Tucker. The best moment of the day is, as popular as Brabham's victory was, that of the awards ceremony for Graham Hill's sixth place finish. A moving applause welcomes the driver who walks with great difficulty. The Briton, after his 1969 Watkins Glen accident and fractured legs, demonstrated what makes Formula 1 drivers so special: determination, courage and stubbornness.