Wednesday Wonders: 1977 British GP, ‘Superhen’ and some Goodyear hari-kari!

It was perhaps the Grand Prix equivalent of the Isle of Wight festival in 1969. When 8 years later several seismic events all took place during the same weekend, F1 was truly blessed with a pivotal few days. Legends were born, technology began to shape the next dozen years of the sport and the reigning World Champion, James Hunt had peaked. The summer was hot, punk was shaking up the music scene and Francis Ford Coppola was just beginning an astonishing 15-month post production ordeal on Apocolypse Now. Yet still, Silverstone somehow seemed to be the centre of the world that July weekend.

The Isle of Wight 1969 feeling persisted all weekend in rural Notrthamptonshire. If Renault were Bob Dylan making a comeback after a long period in exile, then the firebrand that was Gilles Villeneuve, could well have been Joe Cocker: all natural, stunning aptitude for finding the limit and then redefining the laws of physical and metaphysical splendour to smooth over it , all with lightening lap times in the first sumptuous pronouncement of his searing talent.

Down at the other end of the pits were a collection of hopefuls, who would gulp nervously as the humid summer air hit their nostrils. For 26 places on the grid, 34 had registered entries, meaning a pre-qualifying session had to be negotiated even before an attempt at getting on to the grid. Astonishingly this took place at a near deserted Silverstone on the Wednesday before the race weekend. Fourteen had to be whittled down to four. If pre-qualifying had have been employed at Crufts, it would have been banned for cruelty by the RSPCA!

Two colossal accidents that Wednesday afternoon cast a dark shadow. Mikko Kozarowitsky in a RAM run March reduced his machine to component form against the Woodcote sleepers. His engineer, Howden Ganley no less, was exasperated with Kozarowitsky, who was immediately jettisoned from the team despite suffering a broken hand in the incident.  David Purley was not so lucky. His attempt ended in a dreadful shunt at Becketts that broke almost every bone in his body from the ribcage down. The doughty Purley somehow survived the wretched injuries and drove again. The man redefined the term ‘hardman’.

Among those that scraped their way through to the weekend itself,was a strong willed, council-house raised, Castle Donington-born Brian Henton. After making his Grand Prix debut for Colin Chapman in 1975, Brian ‘Superhen’ Henton, had decided to field a March 761 run by the simply named British Formula 1 Racing Team, that Brian had formed earlier that year. After negotiating Pre-Qualifying, he had a chance of making the grid, especially when to the surprise of his team he produced, seemingly from nowhere, a very ‘special’ set of tyres. That chance looked even more tantalising to make it on to the grid now, surely didn’t it?

‘Superhen’ takes a breather as a ‘calm’ Chris Witty stays atuned! – Photo courtesy of Chris Witty

“They were a set of super softs Brian had acquired in return for something, probably some dodgy deal with the late Bob Howlings,” recalls Chris Witty, who was helping run the operation that summer, while also working simultaneously at Autosport magazine and who can be seen in the image above with ‘Superhen’. “Bert went nuts as they were not approved by Goodyear for F1 use. Brian argued he would use them anyway so Bert physically punctured one of them! Their replacement qualifiers weren’t as good and we failed to make the race. Brian was not a happy bunny,” concluded Witty.

Also among those not to make the grid for the race was Brian McGuire in a 1975-spec Williams that he raced in the British Shellsport (combined F1 & F5000) Series the previous year. McGuire was very close to Alan Jones and they raced together through the junior categories when they first arrived in the UK from Australia in 1969. Indeed, both financed their racing with real life Arthur Daley schemes, flogging cars and second-hand VW Camper Vans from a dealership, of dubious repute, in Brentford.

The direction their careers were taking at the time could not have been different. Jones replaced Tom Pryce after the Welshman’s fatal accident at Kyalami in March of ‘77 and McGuire persevered with the Williams, renaming it the McGuire BM1. Five weeks after Silverstone, on the August Bank Holiday weekend, McGuire suffered a brake failure during the morning warm up for a Shellsport round. The car vaulted the barriers at Stirlings corner, tragically killing Brian and a marshal. Jones was devastated. Just a fortnight after he won his first Grand Prix at the Osterreichring in the Shadow DN8, one of his oldest and best pal was gone. Triumph and tragedy, so often follow each other in motorsport in the most apalling way.

As ever, there were layers below the layers from that weekend almost 36 years ago. Also in attendance, at the behest of British Formula 1 Racing Team’s sponsor, Swan Lager, was then Australian wicket keeper, Rodney Marsh. The ace-stopper had good reason to relax as earlier in 1977 he played the innings of his life, becoming the first Australian wicketkeeper to score a Test century against England. An unbeaten 110 in the second innings of the Centenary Test at the MCG was perhaps the highlight of his momentous career behind the stumps. However, it wasn’t enough for victory that day, as a typically obstruent Geoffrey Boycott dug in and rescued the tourists with an unbeaten 128……which of course took almost six hours for the Yorkshireman to accomplish!

Time was as ever the determining factor for those who served up such a rich Formula One soap-opera that weekend. It was perhaps the last time that such a rich entry list of privateer variety would ever assemble on an F1 weekend.

Just like the Isle of Wight in 1969, those leaving Silverstone knew that perhaps life in F1 would never be the same again. Hunt had peaked, Lauda and Enzo were barely on speaking terms, Jones, Villeneuve and 3rd placed Gunnar Nilsson had the world at their feet while Renault had swung a bright yellow lamp over the future direction turbo technology would take the sport. For ‘Superhen’ and Chris Witty they embraced a new exciting era where opportunities in F1 were just around the corner. The next chapter for both came in the shape of transportation magnate, Ted Toleman. The 1980 F2 title fell to Henton and with it came an unlikely crack at F1. Oh and by the way, if ‘Superhen’ and Chris Witty had been at Isle of Wight in ’69 they would have to have been Daltrey and Townsend, I reckon anyway!

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