Wolf: the Canadian team that rocked F1 with just one car
In 1977 a wealthy Canadian entered Formula 1 with one car – and almost won the world championship. Here’s how the Walter Wolf Racing story unfolded
In Formula 1 it takes a lot of money and people to make a race-winning car. The last team to buck this trend was Brawn GP, which in remarkable circumstances won its first race and then the 2009 Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
Yet even Brawn GP had a head-start, having inherited Honda’s extensive set of resources – but it did prove that you don’t need to be one of the established teams to win big.
Only three other teams have ever won their first race – and two of them were essentially nationalist operations. The exception to this is Walter Wolf Racing. In its short three-year existence the team ran four drivers: two who went on to become world champions, another who already was, and a young American who eventually became one of the best IndyCar drivers of all time.
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The team’s funding came from Canadian Walter Wolf, who made a fortune at the start of the 1970s in the construction and oil business, and wanted to start his own F1 team. Having failed to entice Lamborghini involvement, his way in was Frank Williams Racing Cars – a team that had taken three podiums over seven years before Wolf came in at the beginning of 1976 and bought 60 percent of the company.
Three top-ten finishes and 15th in the constructors’ standings was the result, despite Wolf purchasing assets from folded rivals Hesketh and Embassy Hill. The Wolf-Williams partnership lasted only one season, with Wolf using his majority ownership to sack Frank Williams as team manager. The move prompted Williams to leave the outfit altogether and start another F1 team, which competes to this day.
Lotus man Peter Warr replaced Williams as manager, and the team was named Walter Wolf Racing after Wolf bought the remaining 40 percent. Harvey Postlethwaite acted as chief engineer, and was tasked with designing the team’s first F1 car.
Wolf’s ambition was big – so much so that he started engaging in discussions to hold a grand prix around Montreal’s Olympic Park. He also used the skills of Adrian Newey and Patrick Head, putting the team in good stead for its first season. He believed he had ‘the best team of people in the business’, and at least CAN $1 million (around £10,463,755 in today’s money) was spent on developing the first car, which was upgraded three times and raced over two seasons.
The Wolf WR1 was designed around a 3-litre Cosworth DFV engine, and was tested and raced by Jody Scheckter. With Tyrell, the South African had finished third in the standings twice, and his move to Wolf was not expected to bring an improvement on that. Scheckter’s signing came at the stipulation of Wolf’s talented engineers, who realised there was no point in creating a competitive car without a fast driver to pilot it.
Canadian flags proudly displayed the team’s origins, even though it was based in Reading, Berkshire. Wolf was a global man, and he hosted Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau in his Austrian apartment, along with numerous other dignitaries and politicians in Quebec. Alongside the one-car F1 effort, a sports car was designed with the help of Dallara to field promising Canadian Gilles Villeneuve in the Can-Am championship. The intention was to then run him in F1, before Ferrari pinched him.
The 1977 Argentinian Grand Prix was held in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere summer, on January 9. This gave the teams little time to prepare, and when Wolf turned up its car misfired with fuel pick-up problems on right-hand corners – unhelpful at a track that ran clockwise and had a 0.5km-long right-hand bend. The engine was replaced, but it still proved troublesome; ultimately, Scheckter qualified 11th.
He overtook four cars on lap one, and had gained another two spots when misfortune struck those ahead. As the race went into the late afternoon, temperatures surpassed 37 degrees and it became clear that Scheckter’s Wolf was the fastest and most reliable car. He tracked down and overtook the remaining drivers ¬– one of whom was struggling with a faulty gearbox – and took the lead with six laps to go.
After each driver was demoted, they dropped their pace as they were desperate to finish. Only five cars completed the race, with second place 40 seconds behind Scheckter. Walter Wolf Racing took an unexpected championship lead, which it conceded in the next race – but it took a further five races to lose a further spot.
During that time the team also took victory at the Monaco GP. This time Scheckter even looked odds-on for pole, despite a rear-end-destroying crash in qualifying, before John Watson bettered him late on.
At the start Scheckter drove straight past Watson – an action that was outlawed at the time – and led the field at the end of lap one. With the tight confines of the street circuit restricting overtaking, all Scheckter had to do was look after his car. He did just that, and admitted he was ‘cruising’ late in the race when Ferrari’s Niki Lauda closed in.
The team’s crowning moment of the season, though, was at its home race, held at the fearsome Mosport circuit rather than at Wolf’s desired urban location or the proposed Toronto track eventually realised for IndyCar. Scheckter qualified ninth, and at one point was lapped during the race. However, he fought back and after regaining a lap ended up in prime position to take victory when leader Mario Andretti’s engine blew up with three laps to go.
A pointless last race dropped Wolf to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, with Scheckter finishing runner-up in the standings. No other one-car team has since beaten its results, although Stirling Moss finished third in 1960 and ’61 for Rob Walker Racing, and Honda was fourth in the 1967 standings.
In 1978 there were no more wins, although Scheckter did well to finish seventh and take the team to fifth in the constructors standings. Bobby Rahal became a team-mate for the last two races, but was fairly anonymous.
The team quickly lost competitivity as rivals made gains with ground-effect cars, and it started its final season by signing 1976 world champion James Hunt. This proved erroneous, with Hunt unable to fit in the car – which had to be redesigned – and then leaving after seven races and just one finish.
Finnish sophomore driver Keke Rosberg took his place, and also finished just one race. With no results, Wolf cut the funding and sold all assets to Fittipaldi Automotive for 1980.
Wolf remained involved in cars, bankrolling Lamborghini’s development of the Countach as a thanks to old friend and Lamborghini designer Gian Paolo Dallara.
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