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Throwback Thursday: The 1974 Title Decider

Written by Morgan Holiday, Edited by Harshi Vashee

In 2021, the Formula 1 championship title fight is going to the final race in Abu Dhabi, an uncommon occurrence for the turbo-hybrid era. But even more strangely, the championship leaders, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, are going into the final race tied on points. In fact, this has only happened once before in Formula 1 history, in 1974. As we look forward to one of the most exciting title fights the sport has ever seen, let’s take a quick look back at the story of the last time this happened.

From the first race of the 1974 season in Argentina, Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni and McLaren’s Emmerson Fittipaldi were fighting up at the top of the pack. By the tenth race, Regazzoni’s teammate Niki Lauda was leading the championship, but Fittipaldi was only one point behind, and Regazzoni was tied with Tyrell’s Jody Scheckter for third place.

The next race was in Germany, and a collision between Lauda and Scheckter saw Regazzoni win the race and take the championship lead. Then they went to Austria, where Scheckter, Fittipaldi, and Lauda all retired, and Regazzoni finished fifth, adding two more points to his lead. In the next round, Ferrari was close to a 1-2 victory at their home race in Italy, before both Lauda and Regazzoni retired with mechanical issues, leaving the Lotus of Ronnie Peterson to take the win ahead of Fittipaldi and Scheckter.

The penultimate race was held in Canada. Fittipaldi took pole position, but his three title rivals were close behind. During the race, Scheckter had a brake failure and crashed, with Lauda sustaining damage from the debris. With both of them retiring, Fittipaldi came home to win ahead of Regazzoni and thus, the two drivers went into the final race, tied with 52 points each. Scheckter, seven points behind, was also still mathematically in contention for the title, but was an outside bet.

The final race of the season was the United States Grand Prix, which was held at the Watkins Glen International circuit. Carlos Reutemann, racing for Brabham, took pole position ahead of Hesketh’s James Hunt. Fittipaldi and Regazzoni qualified eighth and ninth respectively. Both made up places at the start, and soon were stuck behind Niki Lauda, who did his best to slow Fittipaldi down and help his Ferrari teammate. But Regazzoni was struggling with a defective damper, and began to fall behind.

On lap ten, disaster struck. A young Austrian driver, Helmuth Koinigg, went off in turn seven and suffered a suspension failure. While the crash was low speed into the hairpin turn, his car went through the Armco barrier causing him to lose his life. It was only his third race in Formula 1, having taken part in Round 12 with Scuderia Finotto, and the penultimate two rounds with Surtees.

However, the race went on, and Regazzoni pitted on lap 15 to try to recover some pace despite his problems, but continued to struggle. He pitted once again on lap 24, but to no avail. Lauda went on to retire with a faulty shock absorber, and Fittipaldi was promoted to fifth. Scheckter, running fourth, tried to slow him down, but eventually retired with an engine failure, and Fittipaldi held fourth to the end of the race. Reutemann finished ahead of teammate Carlos Pace, but fourth placed Fittipaldi won the driver’s title by three points ahead of Regazzoni. McLaren also took home the constructor’s championship with 73 points, only eight more than Ferrari.

Both Fittipaldi and Regazzoni were on top form all season, each only finishing outside the points once in races they didn’t retire from. Fittipaldi won three races while Regazzoni only won one, but both finished on the podium a total of seven times each. Their championship battle was one that left an indelible mark in Formula 1, it was one that would be talked about for years to come.

Fast forward 47 years. Formula 1 fans are witnessing history this season as Hamilton and Verstappen’s battle is closer than any championship fight since Regazzoni and Fittipaldi’s. After seven years of Mercedes dominance, Verstappen and Red Bull have mounted not only a successful challenge, but a challenge to rival the days of old. Only time will tell which driver (and team) will come out on top after this weekend’s title decider in Abu Dhabi.

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