Up the ladder - the 1977 Formula 2 season

After Patrick Tambay had left Formula 2 in the search for a Formula 1 drive, the place alongside René Arnoux,
who the year before had lost the title of European Champion to Jean-Pierre Jabouille by only one point, was to be given to another young and promising driver. The decision was not a difficult one for Tico Martini as Didier Pironi just came from impressively clinching the Formula Renault Europe title so that the "enemy brothers" of earlier Formula Renault times got re-united in the Elf/Martini-Renault team directed by Hughes de Chaunac. Once again Didier took the number two seat next to René Arnoux.

It was quite obvious that it would not be a season to be easily dominated because there were a number of competitors to be taken serious such as Patrick Nève in one of the strong March’s, the Italian armada with Patrese, Giacomelli or Colombo and not to forget young American Eddie Cheever. Even last year's Martini cars that the German Willi Kauhsen had taken over from the deleted Elf/Switzerland team with the help from Renault and Elf-Germany to have them run by Leclère and Ludwig, were still considered competitive. It's an interesting note that Klaus Ludwig who later on became highly successful in sports and touring cars, left the team at Mugello and was replaced by several drivers throughout the season, among them Alain Prost and Didier Pironi's cousin/half brother José-Louis Dolhem.

The 1977 season started at Silverstone, but for the Martini team it started differently than Hughes de Chaunac and Tico Martini had expected. The rear wing mountings turned out to be too weak and had to be reinforced, the starter on Pironi’s car gave up and as a result of all the problems both drivers didn't get a comfortable set-up together. They even tried to swap the cars between them but without a result.
In the end Arnoux qualified seventh with Didier disappearing into the depths of the grid. The mechanics were up checking the fuel-supply system during the night before the race; the team began to improve as in the last free practice the Martinis were suddenly three seconds faster than the day before. The race started with Patrick Nève taking the lead from Leclère. Arnoux is fourth and Didier had already gained three positions at the end of lap one. Arnoux overtook Mallock for second place and took up the chase for Nève. Meanwhile Didier is caught in a hard battle with Mallock, Cheever and Colombo. He found out very fast that this new F2 world was completely different from what he was used to from Formula Renault. At the front Nève suddenly lost a rear wheel, sliding though a curve sideways but managing to keep the car on the track but managed to get back to the pits, rejoining the race in fourth position. So after a problematic send-off, René Arnoux led and finally won the race. Didier unfortunately left the track due to a flat tyre with only six laps to go. A harsh introduction into the fiercely competitive world of Formula 2.

The second round of the 1977 Formula 2 European Championship at Thruxton is one that Tico Martini does not have happy memories about. Although Didier was rather satisfied with his Martini Mk22's road holding and the resulting 5th place in the first qualifying session, he had some doubts about the Renault engine's reliability. Both qualifying sessions were dominated by the March drivers, this plus tyre problems meant Didier wasn't able to accomplish more than a 7th place on the grid, meanwhile Arnoux who struggled with a 'phlegmatic' engine ended up even 17th. The result in the race was even worse: While Brian Henton drove to the inaugurate victory for Brian Lewis' Boxer - Hart ahead of Eddie Cheever, Didier had to end his race on lap 25 with an engine failure. His team-mate didn't even get that far - he collided with Norman Dickson's spinning March-BMW on the first lap.

Only a week later they met again at Hockenheim for the Jim Clark Memorial race so there were only four days to overhaul Didier Pironi's car completely and to rebuild Arnoux' Mk22 as it was severely damaged in his Thruxton accident. The team soon found out that the latter was impossible given the lack of time and so decided to use the 1976 Mk19 again to ensure they could compete at Hockenheim with two cars. Despite the reconditioning of his vehicle Didier was not able to do a single lap at full speed, the Renault V6 simply refused to do more than 10000 revs, the Renault technicians had no idea what the problem was, checked the fuel system but didn't find the reason for the missing fuel pressure. In the end they worked through the night, changing the engines of both cars. Although this measure didn't change anything Didier and René made up an all Elf/Martini row 3 in the end. After all that struggling Tico Martini and Hughes de Chaunac probably had a smile of relief on their faces when their “Martini Boys” came past the pits in 3rd and 5th places after the first lap of two 20 lap heats. Unfortunately fate treated Didier unkindly once again - another engine failure forced him out of the race on lap four. René Arnoux came home second behind Jochen Mass who also won the second heat, this time ahead of Patrese and Arnoux. Didier wasn't that lucky. Although he had to start from the last row for the second heat due to the breakdown of his car, it wasn't all lost as the team had managed to change the engine once again. But the new Renault V6 had the same fuel pressure problems so that Didier gave up the race in the pits already on lap 4.

So now it was on into the “Green Hell”, the Nürburgring, the track that had been rejected by Formula 1 for safety reasons that became obvious in Lauda's horrendous accident the year before. A very fast circuit, a very dangerous circuit, but none the less one that many drivers love. A week earlier the Martini team had a quick test session there but it was less informative than they had hoped and too short to improve the situation for the team with regard to the German Grand Prix. Nonetheless Didier Pironi reached an impressive 7m 17.7s. but Arnoux was one of the drivers who did not feel at all comfortable on the infamous circuit. Both Martini scored some important points in the race with Didier in fourth place ahead of his team-mate.

For the fifth round of the season, the Gran Premio di Roma at Vallelunga, the Martinis came up with slightly modified cars which were, of course, no help for the main problem of the region, the heat. The engines suffered from high temperatures so much that they resigned with valve defects several times. Nonetheless the Martini drivers tried everything to stand up to the fast March cars but Didier especially found it impossible to get a good lap together and ends up on the 6th row. The race then saw Giacomelli take the lead ahead of Arnoux while Didier even lost places though in 14th place after lap one. But after Arnoux had to give up the race in the pits with an oil-leak all French eyes were on Didier who rewarded them with a brilliant drive to a second place behind Giacomelli. It was at this time that Didier decided that he could do with a little boost to help his career and decided to gamble on a Formula 3 race at Monaco. The race was in fact a support race to the F1 Grand Prix and Didier felt sure that he could win here and that it would do his C.V. no harm at all when he came to look for bigger and better drives. Plus there would me many team managers looking on. Where better to put on a good show that in front of them all at Monaco? It was decisions like this that gave people the impression that Didier was rather aloof and arrogant. What on earth made him think that with his less than impressive introduction to F2, that he could just walk into a F3 race at Monaco? Was it arrogance or was he just highly motivated and confident of his abilities? True to form Didier won the Formula 3 race, with a convincing start-finish-victory, almost 12 seconds ahead of Elio de Angelis in the Chevron and the Ralt of Olofsson. Mission accomplished a jubilant Pironi returned to the Formula 2 team.

Anything else than a Martini victory in the streets of Pau would have been a surprise as Laffite (1975) and Arnoux (1976) managed to come home first in the two preceding years. Laffite as well as Didier's predecessor at the Martini team, Patrick Tambay, decided to compete in this race at the wheel of Chevron-Harts. Didier Pironi, still enthusiastic about his F3 victory at Monaco the weekend before, pushed a bit too hard in the first qualifying session thus leaving the track twice and damaging the front of his car. Tambay dominated all qualifying sessions and Arnoux reached the second place on the grid, Didier Pironi had to fight a lot with the balance of his car, most probably as a result of his accidents the day before.
At the end his time was only good enough for a ninth place. Fortunately Didier managed to achieve a comfortable set-up for the race during the Sunday morning warm-up session. Under a dark and menacing sky the field was decimated already at the start when Tambay had stalled his engine and his got rammed by Xavier Lapeyre. As a result Arnoux was able to take the lead, followed by Giacomelli and Laffite who soon collided which promoted Patrese and his "shadow", Didier Pironi up to second and third place. When Patrese got slightly off the line in the hairpin Didier slipped through to take second place. Suddenly amidst all this heavy rains set in. Arnoux was a bit surprised and slid sideways across the track, Didier, having seen Arnoux go off pays heed and slows to avoid something similar. So now the two Martinis were directly behind each other, Arnoux leading Pironi when the race was stopped. René, keeping an eye on the race director, took his foot off the throttle but Didier, blinded by the spray produced by his team-mate's car, was completely surprised, spun and finally ended up in the bales of straw. When trying to restart, he stalled the engine, then fortunately managed to leave the car fast enough to escape Patrese's car that came sideways to ram into the stranded Martini. While Laffite, the next to come along, managed to get around the two wrecks by forcing his car into a spin, Colombo and Zunino did not and added to a very expensive scrap yard. It was reminiscent of a demolition derby with cars scattered all over the place.

Mugello near Florence, Italy, was not a good place for non-Italians that extremely hot weekend in 1977, especially for the two works-Martini drivers it was no laughing matter as they had to go back to Magny-Cours without a single point for the first time since Thruxton. The training sessions with six Italians among the first eight already made it quite obvious that this time the French nationality was not the one to win races with. Neither Didier (10th) nor René (14th) were able to get a convincing set-up together. Anyway Didier once more managed to start sensationally and catapult himself from the 5th row into third position. Although he had to let Patrese pass, his race still looking promising until he dropped out of the race with a broken gearbox on lap 19. René stopped out on the track with an empty fuel tank shortly before the end of the race.

The race at Rouen would have been a black day for the French if Didier had not saved the day for France by accomplishing a third place. With three Frenchmen among the first four on the grid the expected result was a different one but pole-setter Tambay and fourth-placed Arnoux collided right after the start and found themselves in the role of spectators earlier than they wanted. So it was the turn of the second-fastest qualifier American Eddie Cheever who dominated and achieved his first ever F2 victory with Patrese second ahead of Didier.

The trip to Enna - Pergusa in central Sicily also didn't start well as Didier qualified only ninth with his team-mate in 4th. At the start to the first heat Patrese catapulted himself in front of Cheever and pole-setter Rosberg but soon after that spun off falling victim to the fine Sicilian sands permanently blown onto the circuit by the wind. After a short pit-stop he rejoined the race to finish fourth. While Didier drove his own race, being handicapped by a defective cooler and ending up 8th, Arnoux fell back to 14th place after having left the track and having to pit to have the front-cowling repaired, he then fought his way up to seventh again with the bit firmly between his teeth. With Arnoux's' victory in heat two resulting in a second place overall behind an impressive Keke Rosberg and Didier finishing fourth after a 5th place in the second run the team was rather satisfied. Arnoux was now leading the Championship by 14 points and the result was also much better than what was expected after all the Martini problems during qualifying combined with the menace from the BMW- and Hart-engined cars. On the other hand Didier was now practically no longer among the title candidates as he (as well as Bruno Giacomelli) were already 23 points behind Arnoux with only three more races to go.

The first of these three remaining weekends was spent at Misano - Adriatico on August, 7th. Another “double header” event of 30 laps each. Arnoux managed to drive the third fastest lap, but poor Didier was only 11th suffering from a defective shock-absorber causing irregularly strong wear of the tyres and thus disastrous road-holding. However, Arnoux was out of the race after one lap due to a collision with Alberto Colombo. So it was up to Didier’s again to uphold the Martini colours while Elio de Angelis lead the field. Didier decided that the best game plan was to try to avoid dangerous duels and hope the others made mistakes. And they did. At the end of the first race of the day Didier was sixth while the race was won by Eddie Cheever leading the surprising Italian Lamberto Leoni in the Ferrari-powered Chevron. It was quite obvious who would be the leading actors in race two. Leoni took his chance and the lead at the start and stayed there until the end of the race thus accomplishing a sensational win for the Ferrari-Dino engine that was often laughed at. Didier drove a discreet race ending up 9th and fifth overall so gathering another two points. With Cheever's second place behind Leoni though and Arnoux going home with empty hands the gap between the two championship contenders had decreased to only nine points, so it was not over yet.

In opposition to the preceding race at Misano the Grande Premio do Estoril on October, 2nd was to become a complete triumph for the Elf / Martini team. They had already tested at Estoril the Tuesday before the race giving them a slight advantage over their competitors. Didier took pole-position four tenths ahead of Giacomelli with his team-mate and title candidate Arnoux in third place on the grid. Eddie Cheever, Arnoux’ rival for the championship, was in fifth place, directly behind Arnoux. Didier had a perfect start and pulled away with only Giacomelli being able to follow. On lap eight Giacomelli made a little mistake, slightly left the track, spun and then damaged a fixture of the front cowling when he hit the Armco. The enforced pit stop left Bruno without a chance for points. Meanwhile Didier had increased his lead upon his team-mate permanently and crossed the finish line 17 seconds ahead of Arnoux who drove a tactically clever race and always held Cheever in check until the end. So Didier got his first and only F2 victory while René captured the title of the 1977 Formula Two European Championship. A perfect weekend for the Martini team.

The last round of the F2 European Championship at Donington Park was completely dominated by Italian Bruno Giacomelli. He, who had been so unlucky at Estoril, drove the all new March 782-BMW and achieved a start-finish win from pole-position as well as the fastest lap of the race. Didier Pironi who once more started sensationally from 8th place on the grid to fourth after lap one had an eight lap battle with Riccardo Patrese and finally managed to overtake him in the chicane after a minor collision. Patrese who had already suffered from severe clutch and gearbox problems gave up the race in the pits shortly after that. Arnoux who had started only 10th decreased the gap to Didier in the further course of the race and finally tried to out brake him. He failed and damaged a front tyre instead. The resulting vibrations let him drop back to sixth while Didier stayed third behind Giacomelli and Rosberg. These final four points eventually lifted him up to third place in the championship, pushing the unfortunate Patrese back at the last minute.
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