Rewind the clock 46 years ago and Formula 1 almost witnessed one of the most extraordinary upset victories in its history.
Formula 1 in the 1960s was a very different beast to the ultra-competitive, ultra-rich sport it is today. It held a rather amateur spirit – the very notion of sponsorship was still not in play – and it was a time when a host of local racers could get their moment in the sun and compete with the big boys.
One-off privateer entries – often in much older machinery – were commonplace, and their local knowledge could sometimes help them spring a few surprises against the stars of the era.
Forget months of off-season design, fancy launches and pre-season testing. January 2, 1967, would mark the opening event of that year’s Formula 1 championship – just weeks after the 1966 season closed – and it would be the first time the series visited Johannesburg’s Kyalami circuit.
Most teams opted to bring their tried and trusted 1966 machinery along to the first race of the season, while the likes of McLaren and Ferrari didn’t bother to show up at all.
Despite that, the field was still packed with some very talented drivers, including no less than the likes of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Denny Hulme, Jackie Stewart and Dan Gurney.
It is 42-year-old Love who is our focus. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t a local. Love hailed from Bulawayo in South Rhodesia, in what is today known as Zimbabwe.
He’d dabbled briefly in the European racing scene in the early 1960s – including a non-qualification at the 1964 Italian Grand Prix – and this would be his fourth crack at the South African race.
Cooper would enter the 1967 race with an ex-Bruce McLaren Cooper T79 powered by a four-cylinder Climax engine. McLaren had himself taken the car to a win in the 1965 Tasman series, and it was in this car that Love racked up several victories on the domestic scene over the next 18 months before this weekend.
His pedigree was impressive, having won the previous three South African Formula One Championship crowns, and he would go on to win the next three as well.
Being one of the few drivers with any knowledge of the high-speed Kyalami circuit, Love perhaps fancied his chances, and would have fancied them even further when he qualified a superb fifth-fastest, just 1.2 seconds off Brabham’s pole-winning time on New Year’s Day.
As the 80-lap race got underway, Love fluffed the start and fell to tenth by the end of the opening lap, while Hulme skipped off into an early lead, posting the fastest lap of the race on just his third tour.
A spin for Brabham and early retirements for Stewart and Hill promoted Love to seventh, while soon after he managed to claim sixth place from Pedro Rodríguez, whose works Cooper was running with only third and fifth gear.
Retirements for Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt promoted Love further up the order, and once he got past John Surtees, he was lying a remarkable third place at the race’s halfway point!
When Brabham began to lose pace with an engine misfire, that became second place, albeit some forty seconds behind Hulme, who was cruising serenely in the lead.
That was until the New Zealander’s brake fluid began to leak with just 19 laps to go, forcing the burly racer into the pits with two long pit stops, which dropped him into fourth place.
Love was now in a sensational lead. Second-placed Rodríguez tried to rally a counter-attack, but Love responded and the Mexican quickly gave up the cause.
Would a little-known privateer come through to claim the most unlikely of wins against the big-shot stars of the era?
Sadly, it would prove too good to be true. With just seven laps to go, Love’s Climax engine coughed as the last of the fuel went through its pipes, and the hapless Love was forced into the pits for a splash-and-dash, which now put him half a minute behind Rodríguez.
The gap proved too great and the remaining laps too few for Love to stage a dramatic come-from-behind win, although he tried valiantly, posting his fastest lap (and the third-quickest overall) as he tried to chase down the Mexican, who, let’s not forget, was only running with two working gears.
In the end, Rodríguez claimed Cooper’s final Grand Prix win by 26.4 second from Love, who had driven the race of his life, one which sadly too few know about today.
Love would contest his home Grand Prix a further five times until his last outing in 1972, by which point he was approaching his fifties, although he would never match the unpredictable near-triumph that occurred on this day 46 years ago.
After retiring from racing, Love ran his Jaguar dealership in Bulawayo and formed a stock car racing team in the 1980s. He succumbed to cancer in April 2005, aged 80.
1967 South African Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (80 laps):