The 1971 season got underway in South Africa at the beginning of March. The teams turned up early at the beautiful Kyalami circuit with its climbs and drops in the hills of the prosperous Gauteng region, which literally means “where the gold is.” Kyalami is the local dialect for “my house.” It is halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria and a centre for tourism, with plenty of luxury hotels which make it the perfect place for a holiday at an altitude which means one escapes the heat that usually goes with being on the Tropic of Capricorn.
Scuderia Ferrari arrived in South Africa with four cars for three drivers, Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni and Mario Andretti, the latter signed up following the death of Ignazio Giunti in a stupid accident at the Buenos Aires 1000 Kilometres. There were three 312 Bs and one 312B2. The week before the race, Regazzoni did a back to back test, driving both versions in quick succession so as to see if the modifications brought the expected improvement. However, when at the wheel of the new one, the Swiss driver lost control and hit the barriers, damaging the car. Therefore all three drivers would race the 1970 312B.
The race would be run on Saturday so qualifying began on Wednesday in very hot conditions so that the track was at its best around 5pm. It was at that time that Jackie Stewart set a time of 1’17”8 in the Tyrrell that would prove unbeatable. A day later Regazzoni did a 1’19”0. Then, right at the end, Chris Amon posted a 1’18”4 in the only Matra to go second, relegating two of the Ferraris to the second row. Ickx was not on form in the third car and only on the final run did he managed to do a reasonable time of 1’19”2, to secure eighth place on the grid.
On Saturday afternoon, once the cars were all on the grid, the starter lifted the South African flag and lowered it almost immediately, which caught the front row by surprise. Getting away best of the rest of them was Regazzoni who went into the lead on the first time across the stripe, ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi in the Lotus, Ickx, who had an amazing opening lap, Denis Hulme in the McLaren, Pedro Rodriguez in the BRM and Andretti, who had dropped back several places.
On lap 7, Hulme passed Fittipaldi and ten laps later the New Zealander also dealt with Regazzoni to go into the lead. Ickx however was particularly unlucky given that he had to pit with a puncture that put him out of contention for the win. As for Andretti, having been passed Surtees in the eponymous car, was fighting with Rodriguez in the BRM and Jo Siffert for fourth place.
At two third distance, Regazzoni began to suffer with vibration under braking and cautiously slowed his pace. In no time he was passed by Surtees and Andretti but the Englishman’s TS9 went out with an oil leak.
With 9 laps to go, Hulme led Andretti by just under 10 seconds and by 30 seconds over Stewart, who had got past Regazzoni who was struggling more and more with his car. The order seemed set in stone, when one of the suspension arms on the McLaren began to fail, making the car almost undriveable for the 1968 world champion. Andretti closed in and then took the lead.
Mario, a three times USAC champion was considered to be a star in the making in Formula 1 and was first past the chequered flag ahead of Stewart and Regazzoni. Ickx was eighth. The American was born in Montona in Istria when the area was still part of Italy. His family emigrated to the United States when he was still a kid. That day he became the third driver to win on his debut with Scuderia, joining Juan Manuel Fangio who did it in 1956 and Giancarlo Baghetti who did it in France in 1961.