It’s easy to get lost in the current structure of modern F1 and forget that the highly organised, rule efficient race weekends we watch currently are the culmination of trial by error lasting decades. We all know the season starts in March, but what if I told you that January used to be the first month of racing? And that driver in their mid-40s was perfectly acceptable? And, entering a car for your home race – and nothing else for the rest of the season – was a way to get car numbers up? It all seems so alien to what we have now, but that mixture of ingredients nearly produced one of the greatest underdog results ever.
Formula One was still entrenched in amateur values in 1967. Sponsorship was beginning to alter the landscape in colour and spirit, but the opportunity for privateer entries, purchasing chassis and engines from constructors at a small price, was still possible. With the sport moving into newer, richer markets like South Africa, it was common to see local entries appear, looking to couple local knowledge with competitive machinery. This was the case at Kyalami in January that year, when John Love entered a former Bruce McLaren run Cooper-Climax for his home event.
This wasn’t Love’s first entry into F1 – he had competed in other races on this continent in ’62, ’63 and ’65, and had a brief flirtation with Europe where he failed to qualify in Italy in 1964. But he wasn’t a slouch when it came to motor racing, at least not in southern Africa, competing in both sportscars and open-wheeled in Rhodesia – his birthplace – and Mozambique. The car he’d purchased from McLaren had seen him dominate the completion in the region, meaning confidence was high.
With the 1966 season only having finished in late October, most of the teams brought their tried and tested machinery. The grid, however, would miss two teams entirely – Ferrari and McLaren chose not to show up at Kyalami. Champions Brabham arrived with their Repco-powered cars, driven by World Champion, Sir Jack Brabham, and Denny Hulme. Cooper still ran the large, thirsty and cumbersome Maserati V12, and kept Jochen Rindt to partner Pedro Rodriguez.
Graham Hill had signed for Lotus to join Jim Clark, but they had to be content with the Lotus 43 with the BRM H16 motor, as the newly developed Lotus 49 was still on home shores. BRM themselves had chosen Mike Spence to replace Hill, but kept the precocious talent of Jackie Stewart in the other car. Dan Gurney was also running the previous season’s Eagle, and the privateer entries included cars for Jo Siffert, Bob Anderson, Jo Bonnier and a first start for Piers Courage. There were also four locals entered; Sam Tingle, Dave Charlton, Luki Botha, and one John Love.
They home heroes performed admirably in qualifying to become key players on race day. Tingle outperformed Graham Hill to start 14th, Charlton started from 8th on the grid, out-qualifying both the BRMs and Dan Gurney’s Eagle, while Love was the best of the bunch; a 5th quickest qualifying lap saw him start sandwiched between the Cooper of Rodriguez and the Honda of John Surtees, and only 1.2s off the pole position time set by Brabham. The Australian’s teammate Hulme joined him on the front row, with Clark in 3rd.
At the start, Hulme made a blistering getaway to overtake teammate Brabham for the lead. Surtees also managed to get a great start, leaping from 6th to 3rd, as Clark dropped to 4th, and Love losing out and falling to 10th. Hulme would build a substantial lead in the early laps – setting what would eventually be the fastest lap of the race on lap 3 – followed by Brabham, Surtees, Rodriguez, Clark, Rindt, Anderson, Stewart, Charlton and Love.
Rindt’s hard-charging style suited him well in the early going of the race, moving past Clark and Rodriguez in quick succession to move into 4th. Hulme’s pace was too much for Brabham, so much so that the champion spun in attempting to close the gap, dropping behind the Austrian, who duly copied him by spinning on oil left by Stewart’s blown engine, and falling back to 5th. Hill’s miserable weekend ended on the same lap due to the same issue. Hulme continued to race off into the distance, with Surtees steady in 2nd, followed by Brabham, Rodriguez, the recovering Rindt, a struggling Clark, Love and Gurney.
Their earlier transgressions a thing of the past, Brabham and Rindt became the form drivers as the laps wore on. Brabham passed Surtees for 2nd place after 20 laps, followed by Rindt, who had dispatched his Cooper teammate Rodriguez for the second time that afternoon. It quickly transpired that the Mexican’s car had a broken gearbox, leaving him with just two gears. Within 10 laps he had been caught and passed by the pair of Love and Gurney, as Clark’s BRM engine had blown, ending the Scot’s race.
Rindt’s Cooper would be the next car to suffer – the heavy Maserati engine, despite having it’s bodywork stripped down to the bare minimum to help with cooling, finally cried enough. Surtees Honda also began to struggle, meaning Love and Gurney were able to pass the Brit to move into 3rd and 4th places respectively. Love’s car was holding out in the chaos around him, even more so when Brabham’s engine developed a misfire and the Rhodesian swept by into a stunning 2nd place.
Gurney’s chase of Love ended with suspension failure a handful of laps later. Hulme held a commanding lead, and Love’s next rival, Rodriguez, had entered conservation mode to get his Cooper to the end of the race intact. Despite this drop in pace, the Mexican still managed to pass Surtees into 3rd.
With the positions now stable, disaster struck for the dominating Hulme. Brake fluid issues called for a pair of lengthy pitstops, dropping him to 4th behind Surtees, and promoting the home hero Love into a lead that would have been unthinkable a few hours before. Rodriguez upped his pace to try and force Love into a mistake, but he held firm by responding and matching the pace lap after lap. Rodriguez then gave up the chase – a fairytale win for a privateer was all but a chequered flag away from reality.
By definition, it felt too good to be true, and with seven laps to the finish, it began to feel that way. Love’s engine began to stutter and cough as the fuel began to run out – the increase in race distance it needed to cover was higher that anything the car had previously had to endure. Love dived into the pits for a splash of fuel to get to the end and reappeared, now in 2nd place, a full half minute behind Rodriguez.
Try as he might, but Live couldn’t reel in the Mexican and finished the race in 2nd place, despite setting his fastest lap of the race – and third fastest overall – in his chase for that dream victory. The Cooper crossed the line just under 30 seconds ahead of Love’s privateer entry, despite only having 3rd and 5th gear for a large proportion of the race. It was a textbook display of local based knowledge against some of the best the sport could offer at the time. The podium was completed by the Honda of Surtees, albeit a lap down, with Hulme an eventual disappointing 4th. Anderson was the other, less celebrated, home driver in 5th, and Brabham ending the race in the final classified position of 6th.
John Love may not have set the world alight in his career, and it took until his 40s before he managed to mix it at the top of the world stage, but this result was one of the earliest examples of a set of ingredients producing a result that many didn’t expect. Many more have followed, but John Love deserves his place among them.