One off Grand Prix winners: Vittorio Brambilla Austria 1975
Former motorcycle racer, Vittorio Brambilla, earned a certain reputation when he began racing cars together with a new nickname “The Monza Gorilla”. Unfortunately this reputation wasn’t for smoothed, polished performances. There was no denying his raw speed, but aggression would often get the better of him and his cars often returned to the workshops as basket cases. Despite all this (or because of a budget provided by Beta tools?) Max Mosely was a Brambilla fan and bought him into GP racing to lead the March team ……. a rookie driver at the tender age of 36! On sheer pace over a single lap, Vittorio could mix it with the best on his day, but doubts still remain over the legality of his pole position for the 75 Swedish GP. The problem came in getting the car to the finish and to be fair, the March was seldom the most reliable car in the field.
For the Austrian GP Brambilla put the orange March on row 4 of the grid. Race day in Spielberg dawned warm and sunny, but both the weather and the happy atmosphere was about to change. During the morning warm-up Mark Donohue crashed his Penske run March into an advertising hoarding following a puncture, mowing down two marshals in the process. The three casualties from this accident were taken to hospital and it seemed that all may be well. Sadly, Donohue succumbed to his head injuries two days later and one of the marshals also did not survive.
With damaged barriers to be repaired and the remainder of the warm-up to be run, the race did not start until 3.30, by which time it was pouring with rain. And if Vittorio was good at anything other than crashing, it was driving in the wet. Within a few laps the race for lead was between Niki Lauda’s Ferrari, James Hunt’s Hesketh and Brambilla’s March, but Lauda had gambled on an intermediate set-up and it wasn’t working. Both Hunt and Brambilla were soon out in front as the local hero fell away. Just four laps later the pair came up to lap Hunt’s team mate Brett Lunger. Hunt hesitated, but Brambilla pulled off the pass of his life to take the lead (in fact it took Hunt another two laps to get past Lunger who’s mirrors had steamed up). As Vittorio pulled out a decent lead the rain began to get heavier and (thanks to the late start) the sky darker. The organisers decided to end the race after just 29 laps and waved the chequered flag at Brambilla’s March. With a mixture of surprise and jubilation, he punched the air ………. and promptly stuffed the March into the pit wall. Saving further embarrassment, Vittorio got the car running again and completed his lap of honour with it’s nose cone hanging off at a jaunty angle.
As the rain eased there was talk of a re-start, but the race had been stopped with the chequered flag rather than a red one, so everyone packed up and went home with half points. By the end of the 75 season Brambilla had achieved three points scoring finishes. He had been 5th when the Spanish GP was stopped following Stommelen’s crash, he was 6th at Silverstone when the race was stopped owing to a sudden downpour which sent nearly every car spinning off the track (except Brambilla’s!) and he had beaten the best in a straight fight in Austria. Proof if it was needed that going the full distance remained his biggest challenge. In the ’76 Japanese GP he found himself once again fighting for the lead with James Hunt in the pouring rain. Hunt would eventually finish 3rd to win the World Championship, while Vittorio spun off the track.
Brambilla moved to the Surtees team for ’77 and was badly injured by a flying wheel at the start of the ’78 Italian GP in the same multiple accident that claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson. He made a GP come-back with the new Alfa Romeo team competing in two Grand Prix in both ’79 and ’80, but approaching 43, the spark had gone. However, if there was one thing that Vittorio did have, it was a massive heart. Sadly, it was that heart that gave out in May 2001 and the Monza Gorilla died whilst tending his garden.