Roger Penske is one of the most famous names in American motorsports, but you don’t generally think “F1” when you hear his name.
Most of Team Penske’s success has come in Indy Car, NASCAR, Can-Am and American sports car racing, but in the mid-1970s Penske tried his hands at Formula 1. His team remains the last American team to win an F1 Grand Prix, the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix.
Interestingly, the F1 effort is but only a footnote on Team Penske’s own website. Roger Penske only fielded F1 cars for two Grands Prix in 1971 and from 1974 to 1976, never replicating the success of his Indy and sports cars. On the eve of Haas F1’s entry into the sport, it’s worth revisiting this nearly forgotten team.
The most surprising thing about Penske’s F1 efforts isn’t its successes, but the fact that it wasn’t all that successful overall. Both American teams and drivers have always had a difficult time in F1, but if any American team could break into F1’s elite, European club, it’d be a team led by Roger Penske. In just a few years after Team Penske made its debut at the 1966 Daytona 24 Hour, it became an American racing powerhouse.
“If you’re going to have a private entrant, Roger Penske was your boy,” said legendary driver David Hobbs talking about a Ferrari 512M he raced for Penske, in a Petrolicious video. Penske’s teams were funded well enough and ran professionally enough to compete with factory-backed efforts. F1 is expensive and challenging, but if there was any American to conquer it in the 1970s, it was Roger Penske.
Penske’s first foray into F1 began at the tail end of the 1971 season. For the two final races, the Canadian Grand Prix and the U.S. Grand Prix, Penske sponsored a McLaren, painting it in the iconic blue and yellow Penske/Sunoco livery. Mark Donohue–who in many ways was Penske’s right-hand man–made his F1 debut at Canada, snagging a third place finish. At the U.S. Grand Prix, Penske intended to have both Donohue and Hobbs drive, but a scheduling conflict kept Donohue out of the race.
Hobbs managed a 10th place finish at the U.S. Grand Prix and Roger Penske announced his intention to join F1 competition in earnest. In 1973, Penske purchased a small race car manufacturer in the UK that built Formula 5000. With just six employees at his new facility, Penske made Heinz Hofer–who previously ran Penske’s Porsche Can-Am team–F1 director and directed his new shop to build a new car for the 1974 Candian Grand Prix.
After just a few months of development, the Penske PC1 was complete and sent overseas to race in the Candian and U.S. Grands Prix, just as Penske had in 1971. Donohue had retired from racing and was working Penske’s team manager and engineer. Feeling restless, he helped test the PC1 and convinced Penske to let him race in the 1974 Canadian and U.S. Grand Prix.
Donohue finished in a respectable 12th place in Canda, but was forced to drop out of Watkins Glen due to a failed rear suspension after qualifiying in 14th place, according to MotorSport Magazine. Still, Donohue felt good about Penske’s F1 debut, so he decided to run the complete 1975 season with the PC1.
The Geoff Ferris-designed PC1 was powered by the venerable Cosworth DFV V8, but it couldn’t hope to be competive in 1975. Despite Penske’s big budget, the team remained small too.
“We had only five people going to the races that year,” said Karl Kainhofer, one of Penske’s lead mechanics, speaking to MotorSport Magazine. “There was Mark, Heinz, and three of us working on the car. That was it. The whole F1 team was five guys. Geoff Ferris came to some races, but he worked mostly at the shop.”
Donohue’s impressive driving skill was outweighed by the PC1’s lackluster performance, forcing him to retire from five races. His best result in the PC1 was at the Swedish Grand Prix, where he finished in 5th. For the British Grand Prix, Penske and the boss of sponsor First National City Bank decied to replace the PC1 with a March-Ford 751. Donohue placed 5th at Silverstone, but tradgedy struck two races later.
At the Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue crashed badly in qualifiying and suffered a concussion. He regained conciousness after crashing, but fell unconcious once again at the hospital. An emergecny operation to relive pressure on his brain was unsuccessful and he died from his injuries at age 38.
Team Penske sat out the rest of the 1975 season, returning for the final race at Watkins Glen with Irish driver John Watson and a new car, the PC3. Watson qualified in 12th place with the PC3, but mechanical issues forced him to drive the PC1 and start at the back of the pack.
Penske signed Watson for the full 1976 season who drove the PC3 for the first six races, before switching to a new car, the PC4, for the rest of the season. The PC4’s first race in Sweden wasn’t very successful, but Penske showed up at the French Grand Prix with a modified PC4 and finally had a truly competive car.
Watson finished third at both the French and British Grands Prix and got Penske’s only F1 win in Austria, the same place where Donohue passed away just a year earlier.
After the triumph in Austria, Watson drove his way to a seventh place finish in the Driver’s Championship, giving Penske fifth in the constructors championship. Things were looking up for Penske’s F1 efforts, but they couldn’t manage to secure sponsorship for 1977 and Roger Penske decided to focus more on NASCAR and Indycar. Penske’s UK shop built a long line of successful Indycars, well into the 1990s.
Penske sold the PC4 to a couple of privateers who raced in a handful of 1977 Grands Prix to no notable success.
One gets the distinct impression that Roger Penske didn’t care nearly as much about F1 as he did his American racing programs. Reflecting on the history of Penske’s F1 team asks a number of “what ifs?”
What if Penske didn’t develop his own car and buy a McLaren like he did in 1971. What if Mark Donohue lived to drive the superior PC3 and PC4? What if Penske spent more on F1 and hired a larger team?
We’ll never know, but it’s interesting to reflect on the eve of an American return to F1, thanks to Gene Haas. Watson’s victory in Austria was the last time an American team ever won a F1 Grand Prix: Perhaps Haas could take away that accolade.