• Rewind to ... 1967

Love's near miss

Chris Medland
January 13, 2012
John Love entered the race in a modified Cooper T79 designed for the Tasman Series © Sutton Images

As romantic stories in Formula One go there are surprisingly few, especially on home soil. In fact only two drivers can boast a sole grand prix victory that came at their home race. While the South African Grand Prix saw only two drivers born in the country entering, they had another home hero in the form of John Love - a Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) who was a multiple winner of the South African Formula One championship.

Love got agonisingly close to a full-time world championship drive. As with many drivers with aspirations of racing in Formula One, Love moved to Europe and impressed as a member of Ken Tyrrell's Cooper-Austin team in European Formula Junior in 1961. The following year he won the British Touring Car Championship in a Mini Cooper, and appeared destined for a shot in a works F1 car. Unfortunately, a crash at Albi left Love with a badly broken arm, and he returned to South Africa to continue his career.

After two solid displays at his home grand prix in a privateer Cooper T55 Love's big opportunity came when Phil Hill missed the 1964 Italian Grand Prix following a fiery crash in Austria. The newer T73 had already delivered Bruce McLaren one podium that season, but Love failed to qualify and his full-time dreams were over.

Having returned to South Africa once again he duly won the South African F1 Championship, and did so again in 1965, all in the same car he had been entering in the grand prix. In 1966 Love acquired a T79 and - now in his early forties - decided against modifying the car to enter the world championship round as Formula One adopted the three-litre formula.

The difficult Kyalami track surface caused trouble for many drivers © Sutton Images

The pull was too great, however, and in 1967 Love added two auxiliary fuel tanks to allow the car to run a grand prix distance. The field for the opening round of the season wasn't as strong as it could be with Ferrari and McLaren deciding to stay at home and most of the teams running their 1966 cars. Champions Brabham continued with drivers' champion Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme, while Graham Hill was making his debut for Lotus alongside Jim Clark. John Surtees left Cooper for Honda, and Pedro Rodriguez replaced him alongside Jochen Rindt.

Love's Cooper was designed for the Tasman Series, meaning that the 2.7-litre Climax gave him a lighter but less powerful car. Having already made three South African Grand Prix appearances he was well known in the paddock, but not seen as a threat. With the race being held at Kyalami for the first time, however, the Muntu had local knowledge as an advantage and after three practice days he duly put his car fifth on the grid just 1.3s slower than pole-sitter Brabham.

Having outqualified Surtees, Hill, Rindt and Jackie Stewart a large crowd assembled on race day - which unusually was the Monday with the paddock having taken New Year's Day off - to see what Love could produce. The works Coopers were struggling with overheating issues and on another extremely hot day there was a very real chance that Love could beat them in his private entry. The dream seemed to have been shattered on lap one, however, when his lack of top-level experience was exposed somewhat and he slipped back to tenth place.

A large crowd turned out - believed to be the biggest on the African continent for a grand prix - to see John Love challenge the international drivers © Sutton Images

A lap later and the heat was already beginning to take its toll on the machinery of the more experienced drivers. Jackie Stewart found his race cut short as his engine expired, leaving oil on the track which caused Hill to crash and break his suspension. Rindt also spun on the oil, dropping him to fifth behind Hulme, Surtees, Brabham and Rodriguez.

With a heavy rain shower the previous night having washed the track clean of rubber there were a number of spins early on. Surtees began to slip back, and then Rodriguez hit gearbox trouble leaving him to fall away from the leaders. Clark and Rindt both succumbed to the heat with engine failures, and Love was suddenly promoted to third behind Hulme and Brabham.

Hulme's lead was over a minute, but Brabham's car developed a misfire, forcing him to pit. Love was now second, with the ailing Rodriguez in third and unable to pressurise him. False hope was given to the partisan crowd when Hulme pitted, but he rejoined quickly before pitting for brake fluid the following lap. The long stop demoted him to fourth and saw Love inherit the lead.

Rodriguez was unable to challenge, and with seven laps remaining Love appeared to be cruising home. But to the dismay of the fans, the adapted fuel system was not quite sufficient and his car began to misfire as it ran low. Love was forced to pit, and rejoined a full half a minute behind Rodriguez. Surtees was a lap down in third and so no threat, but there was not enough time for the privateer to close the gap and the works Cooper took victory by 26 seconds. While second was still a remarkable result - the household name in South Africa was suddenly appearing in race reports around the world - John Love had come so close to an unheralded world championship victory.