There sits Niki Lauda’s bright red Ferrari, there the bizarre six-wheeled Tyrell of Patrick Depailler. But second on the grid is something unexpected: a dark-blue-and-gold car emblazoned with the Canadian maple leaf.
If you’ve seen Ron Howard’s Rush, the Formula One biopic charting the battle between the talented, reckless James Hunt and the methodical, driven Niki Lauda, then you already know. You know of the danger for the drivers, the brutality of the cars, the bravery and the superhuman athleticism required to simply survive a race, let alone win one.
You know the story of that hard-fought 1976 series, the clash of champions retold again and again until it becomes legend. This is a different story. It’s the story of the year after the events of Rush, the story of Canada’s first Formula One team.
Jody Scheckter driving for the Walter Wolf racing team in 1977.
Here, in Monaco, the thoroughbreds of the sport of kings are waiting to be saddled and let loose amidst the sharp corners and unforgiving guardrails of perhaps the most prestigious race of the season. Thousands have gathered to watch them run, yachts moored in the bay, balconies crowded with onlookers. Something special is going to happen. Somebody is about to win a bet with Enzo Ferrari.
Born in Austria in 1939, Walter Wolf didn’t come from money. Rather the opposite in fact: his early days were spent collecting scrap metal to keep food on the table for his family. In the aftermath of the Second World War, hardship was commonplace in Europe, and Wolf’s father would not be released from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp until 1954.
A hard life, but one that filled the young Austrian with determination. In 1960, having completed training as an aircraft mechanic, he left Europe for Canada and found himself in frozen Ottawa. Picking up English as he went along, he soon moved to Montreal, where he eventually found employment as a diver with a marine construction company.
A loan at the right time helped Wolf buy a third of the company, and he was able to influence a move into the burgeoning North Sea oil business, with exploratory diving and drilling all over the world. The energy crisis of the early 1970s caused prices to shoot through the roof, and soon he was buying and selling bulk crude oil, importing it out of the Middle East, handling tanker-loads of the stuff.
Profits ran into the millions of dollars, and he was suddenly free to pursue whatever he wanted. And what Walter Wolf wanted was to go racing.
The bullfighter arrives
What Walter really wanted to do was go racing himself, but after a catastrophic crash, the board of directors for his company put the nix on that adventure. Instead, he made do by indulging his need for speed in a succession of Miuras and eventually Countachs; he in fact kept Lamborghini afloat with under-the-table loans.
Blue Lamborghini Countach personally modified for Wolf by Gianpaolo Dallara.
In 1975, Wolf showed up at the Nürburgring in a custom Countach, red with black flares and the first to wear a functional spoiler. He was there with Frank Williams, manager of the eponymous team. Williams was struggling financially, and Wolf had assisted by buying the team Cosworth V8s to compete with.
At the beginning of the 1976 season, Walter bought 60 percent of the Williams team and formed Wolf-Williams, keeping Frank Williams on as manager. Assets from the defunct Hesketh racing were purchased – if you’ve seen Rush, you may remember the flamboyant Lord Hesketh and his eventual financial ruin – and the team set about running a disappointing season. Often the cars didn’t qualify, and while Walter Wolf had front-row seating to the battle between Hunt and Lauda, he was deeply dissatisfied.
Jacky Ickx driving for Wolf Racing during a disappointing 1976 F1 season.
In the middle of the 1976 season, he moved Frank Williams into the role of sponsorship coordinator, hired Peter Warr over from the Lotus team, and formed Walter Wolf Racing, a fully independent Formula One constructor. Harvey Postlethwaite, formerly of Hesketh and then Williams, was kept on as lead designer and engineer, and South African Jody Scheckter was hired away from Tyrell to be the lead driver.
The new team set to work developing an all-new car to be called the WR1.
Luck and Argentina
The WR1 still exists today, and you can go see it at the Canadian Motorsport Museum and Hall of Fame in Milton, Ontario. It’s painted in a very deep blue, almost black, and accented with gold on the nose-cone, a broad gold stripe across the middle, and several maple leaf flags – most notably on the rear spoiler.
Postlethwaite and his team designed the car quickly, using a Cosworth chassis and 3.0-litre V-8. It had an aluminum monocoque with a great deal of titanium in the construction, and an extra-slippery shape for high speed. While the WR1’s 485-hp V-8 didn’t quite have the power of some of the competition, it was extremely light—Wolf jokes that the car only passed the 575kg requirement by grams because Scheckter “accidentally” forgot to take his shoes out of the cockpit.
The Walter Wolf WR1.
Four WR1s were built between 1976 and 1978, and no other car constructed by the Wolf Racing team would ever be quite as competitive. The first debuted in November of 1976, and qualified for the Argentinian Grand Prix in a ho-hum 11th position. Things did not initially look very good.
However, in the stultifying heat of the Argentinian sun, Postlethwaite tweaked the car by moving a heat-soaked fuel-pump to a cooler spot in a bit of last-minute jerry-rigging. When the green flag went, there were ten cars between Scheckter and victory, with defending champion James Hunt in the lead. One by one, they dropped like flies, done in by suspension failures, ailing wheel-bearings, and heat exhaustion. Incredibly, after fifty-three laps, Wolf Racing clinched its first victory in its first race ever.
A bet with Il Commendatore
As the season progressed, Wolf Racing’s luck seemed to have finally changed. While engine trouble forced Scheckter out of the next race in Brazil, he would go on to place the WR1 second in South Africa, and third in both the U.S. and Spanish Grands Prix: three podium finishes in a row. The U.S. Grand Prix, held in Long Beach, California, was a particularly close-fought race. Scheckter led the whole race, only faltering when a slowly deflating tire hurt the WR1’s handling.
“When we can do that well with just three wheels, think what we could do with four!” Walter Wolf, hob-nobbing with other team owners found himself joking with the ordinarily very serious Enzo Ferrari. Enzo predicted a sure victory for his Ferrari Team at Monaco, a never-before seen hat-trick for Niki Lauda in his Ferrari 312T.
The man they called “the Commander” was so confident, he made Wolf an unusual bet. If the Ferrari team managed to win, Wolf would have to buy two new Ferraris; if, on the other hand, the Wolf team’s single car managed to win, then Ferrari would give him a 512 Berlinetta Boxer—free of charge. The two men shook hands.
Wolf was gifted a Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxer by Enzo Ferrari himself after his team won at the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix.
The last victory
When the grid was set up after qualifying, John Watson’s Brabham sat in first place, with Scheckter second, and the Ferrari of Argentine Carlos Reutmann third. Niki Lauda was further back in the pack.
At 3.3 kilometres in length, the Monaco Grand Prix is a twisting maze of unforgiving guardrails and challenging corners. The Grand Hotel hairpin is one of the tightest, lowest-speed turns in all of Formula One, and there’s a flat-out kink taken at speeds above 250 km/h in a long tunnel that plunges the driver into sudden darkness before shooting him out into the dazzling sunshine.
Each of the twenty cars that lined up to race that day were crammed full of fuel, powered by nearly-500-hp racing engines, and weighed in at less than half a first-generation Miata. They were designed with 1970s technology, which meant the handling was tricky and driver safety had yet to become a priority. All these rolling bombs were about to be fired at-speed into a seventy-six-lap pinball machine.
The green flag dropped, Scheckter’s WR1 gunned ahead of Watson, and that was the end of it. Lauda would eventually catch and pass his teammate, but when the checkered flag waved, the cars crossed the line with the two Ferraris still chasing the Wolf.
Wolf still has the car he rode in that day, a Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine. It was, he says, one of the greatest days of his life; a historic win at probably the most prestigious circuit in all of Formula One. In their inaugural season, Wolf Racing now had a driver who was ahead in the championship points by a healthy margin. Not to mention, there was that free Ferrari, too.
True to his word, Enzo shipped Walter a gorgeous 512bb—but there was a bill attached. “He told me, ‘the car is free, but the tires are not.‘” Sounds like the loss rankled Ferrari somewhat. Later, Wolf would ask his neighbour Gilles Villeneuve to take the car in to the Ferrari factory for a minor service. Gilles would drive it so hard on the way back, that almost everything in the car would need replacing—but that’s another story.
After Monaco, the Cinderella story of Wolf Racing began changing back into a pumpkin. Four straight retirements saw Scheckter slide back into the standings until Lauda held a commanding lead. So dominant was the Austrian that his championship was clinched with two races still to go, so he elected not to race.
Thus it was that the final victory for Wolf Racing was only an echo of the glory of Monaco. In the last race held at Mosport before the venue changed to Montreal, Scheckter faced a reduced field with no chance of taking the overall championship, but did still clinch the first Formula One victory for a Canadian team on Canadian soil.
Never cry Wolf
Wolf Racing finished fourth in the constructors standings, just behind McLaren-Lotus and Ferrari. When you consider that points are combined for builders, and all those teams ran at least two cars (and McLaren-Ford as many as five), finishing as well as Wolf did was a major victory.
However, the subsequent two years of racing that followed saw a few podium finishes, but never another victory. Wolf hired racer Bobby Rahal briefly, and then James Hunt and Keke Rosberg after Scheckter went to Ferrari.
By the time Keke Rosberg (sitting on car) was driving for the team, the end was near for Walter Wolf Racing.
By the end of 1979, the adventure was over. He sold the team to Emerson Fittipaldi, and that was that.
Still, Wolf Racing would have other adventures in Formula Three and Can-Am motorcycle racing. Wolf himself would continue his long association with Lamborghini, and today still holds on fondly to a rear-drive Diablo.
As mentioned, the WR1 racing car is tucked carefully away, still liveried in the classic Wolf Racing colours. It’s a part of Canadian motorsports history, a part of our racing heritage. Today, it is shuttered in a museum, safe from the elements. Once though, the wolf ran through the narrow streets of Monte Carlo, hunting for glory, howling in victory.