Following the retirement of Jackie Stewart after securing the last of his three World Drivers’ Championships the battle to succeed him in 1974 was wide open. In one of the most competitive seasons in Formula One history seven different drivers, from five different teams, won races over the course of the 15 Grand Prix.
Stewart’s retirement and the tragic events of the 1973 United States Grand Prix which took Francois Cevert gave the Tyrrell team an all-new driver line for the season.
To fill the void Tyrrell brought in Patrick Depailler and Jody Scheckter, a pair of drivers who had only eight F1 starts between them. Scheckter had entered five races with the McLaren team the previous year, mostly as a third driver alongside Denny Hulme and Peter Revson. Hulme remained at the team for 1974, but Emerson Fittipaldi – the only World Champion now on the grid, having won the ’72 title – was signed from Lotus to fill the other M23.
The ripples continued through the grid. Jacky Ickx moved to Lotus to join Ronnie Peterson, while Ferrari, for whom Ickx had raced most of 1973 were another team to change both their drivers with Clay Regazzoni rejoining them with Niki Lauda brought in as his teammate.
Over a single qualifying lap the Ferrari pair were near on unstoppable. The duo claimed ten pole positions, nine of them Lauda’s during the season, but in the races they were not to be so dominant. Both, however, would lead the championship at some point.
Starting what would become his final F1 season Hulme won the season opener in Argentina, before Fittipaldi confirmed his championship winning potential with a dominant home win at Interlagos, though he still trailed Regazzoni by a point as the Swiss driver stood on the second of the Brazil podium, having finished third in Buenos Aires.
For the first two thirds of the season there was nothing that could separate Regazzoni, Fittipaldi and Lauda at the top of the championship, at least once Lauda had claimed his maiden F1 win in the Spanish Grand Prix, the fourth round of the championship.
The following race, the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles Fittipaldi became the first repeat winner of the year (Brabham’s Carlos Reutemann the other driver to take early success in South Africa, though as the checkered flag fell in Belgium he had to score another point). However, with Lauda second and Regazzoni fourth the double victory only translated into a single point advantage over the Ferrari pairing, led by Lauda.
Into the trio was injected Scheckter.
After failing to score through the first three races he arrived he arrived in Europe and embarked upon a fine summer of results. Fifth in Spain was followed by third in Belgium, second on the streets of Monaco behind Peterson after the engine in Lauda’s Ferrari had failed while leading, and then a win in Sweden.
The Tyrrell team thoroughly dominated the Anderstorp weekend. Depaillier earned pole, but Scheckter jumped into the lead at the start, never to surrender it en route to scoring his first F1 win at the fore of a formation finish for the team, ahead James Hunt in third. Both Ferraris were claimed by gearbox failure – though neither driver looked likely to challenge the Tyrrell dominance, but the Scuderia returned to form a fortnight later in Holland to take a 1-2, Lauda winning from pole ahead of his teammate who had started alongside him.
It was the sort of dominance that Ferrari’s pace during the year promised – perhaps deserved too often – but was one of only two maximums scores for the team, the other coming in Spain. The victory put Lauda back to just a point behind Fittipaldi, so when Lauda – despite a vibration that allowed Peterson to score a second Lotus victory of the season in the French Grand Prix at Dijon finished second while the McLaren driver retired with engine failure it was Lauda who was leading the championship for the first time.
It was at that moment when Lauda’s season began to crumble.
At the British Grand Prix a third consecutive pole position – the streak would eventually end at six – for the Austrian threatened that a driver may take a firm grip on the championship for the first time in the year.
That threat was even greater as Lauda led Scheckter into the closing laps. However, Lauda slowed with a puncture, pitting out of the lead, giving the South African a second win. Finishing fifth Lauda lost points to his title rivals, Fittipaldi finishing second, Regazzoni fourth behind Ickx. However, he kept the championship lead, though the top four were covered by only three points.
Lauda, Fittipaldi and Scheckter, each with a brace of wins say on 38, 37 and 35 points respectively, Regazzoni was joint with the Tyrrell man on points, though behind him courtesy of the difference in wins, still waiting to see the checkered flag first at a GP.
That wait lasted no longer than the next race at the Nurburgring. The Ferrari drivers again locked out the front row, but a slow start from Lauda let his teammate take the lead and dropped him into a battle for position that was to end in his retirement on the opening lap.
Having led the championship into Germany – at which point only five races of the season remained – Lauda failed to finish another race in 1974.
Fittipaldi’s title push also suffered on the Nordschleife as he too retired and when he also failed to finish in Austria the following race he was nine points behind Regazzoni, who followed his win with fifth at the Österreichring, a race in which he was only man from the top four to score points.
At the point where the lead was in danger of getting out of hand – Scheckter was five points adrift – a double retirement for Ferrari and Monza was a much needed reprieve for those looking for ways to cut into the lead. For the last time in his streak, and the season, Lauda was on pole and took the lead. His teammate had qualified only fifth but quickly made his way up to second. In front of the partisan crowd the Ferrari pair ran first and second into the final third of the race only for mechanical failures to put both out of the race eight laps apart, Lauda the first to retire offer Regazzoni a chance at a second win that, as Fittipaldi and Scheckter ran third and fourth respectively, may easily have eased him 11 points clear of Scheckter and 14 of Fittipaldi with just the pair of North American races remaining on the schedule.
As it was, when Regazzoni pulled off with a dozen laps of the 52 still to go it promoted Ronnie Peterson to a third win of the year, the Swede the first man to reach such a mark in the year, and pulled both his title rivals onto the podium, Scheckter closing to just a point behind.
Scheckter’s title aspirations took a hit with retirement in the penultimate race of the year as Fittipaldi scored his third win of the year, with Regazzoni in second.
The three point difference in pay out between first and second ensured that both would go into the final race level. On 52 points.
Retirement had set Scheckter back as he sat on 45 points, still – however – capable of stealing the title from under his rivals noses despite not having led the points at any point during the year.
The United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen could have been the scene for one of Formula One’s classic season finales.
It, however, wasn’t.
For the second year running the race at the New York state track was overshadowed by a fatal accident, Helmut Koinigg killed in a horrific accident early in the race.
By that time – in hindsight – the title had already been decided.
Having started on pole Reutemann had taken the lead at the start while Regazzoni, already saddled with starting in ninth battled with terrible handling in his Ferrari, dropping backwards, finding that not even a new set of tyres could rescue his championship bid.
He finished 11th. The race was the only event of the ’74 season in which he finished but failed to score a point.
Regazzoni’s slide down the order left Fittipaldi with the easier task of defending his points lead from Scheckter, and though the Tyrrell was ahead of the McLaren, the single place difference failed to make up the points difference between the two. Leaking fuel Schecker retired 15 laps from the end allowing Fittipaldi to take the three points in offer for fourth to claim the world title.