Race of Champions

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—A climatic catastrophe

Brands Hatch, March 16th

This year the annual season-opener run by the B.R.S.C.C. broke new ground in Formula One racing, for instead of the usual uncontrolled and chaotic practice sessions before the race an attempt was made to produce some semblance of order and provide a more interesting spectacle for the paying customers. Unfortunately the unreliability and poor preparation of most of the Grand Prix teams, coupled with appalling weather conditions, saw the whole idea fall flat, though Graham Hill did a splendid job which saved the day on Friday. The intention was that everyone should practise freely from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Friday and get all their testing and experimenting completed, for few drivers need to learn the way round Brands Hatch, and at 2 p.m. qualifying trials would begin. Each driver would start off from the pits on his own on a clear track, do one lap for warming up and then two flying-start laps which would be timed, and then slow down and return to the pits from the lower part of the circuit, at which moment the next driver would be starting off on his warming-up lap. If a driver felt that all was not well with him or his car during the warming-up lap he could pull into the pits and nullify his qualifying attempt, and try again later. It was expected that this arrangement would produce an afternoon of record or near-record laps, especially by the stars of the meeting, that would be well worth watching. Each driver’s fastest individual lap would count for his position on the starting grid. The order of running for qualifying was decided by the best lap times recorded during the morning free-for-all practice, and this was a bad mistake that the B.R.S.C.C. made. Without question they should have made the qualifying order by ballot so that the fastest drivers would almost be certain to be spread throughout the field. A worse mistake the B.R.S.C.C. made was to give the drivers the choice of going in order of morning practice times, instead of adhering to a rigid and strict schedule whereby you forfeited your run if you were not ready. The plan was to repeat the arrangement on Saturday afternoon after another session of free-for-all practice, and any lap time that improved on Friday afternoon times could be taken for the starting grid.

Friday morning started off badly when thick fog descended on Brands Hatch and Colin Chapman only just managed to get his aeroplane down into the neighbouring landing strip. Graham Hill, who was following, was too late and had to carry on to Gatwick to land. It was 10.30 a.m. before any cars appeared at the pits to start practice, and the first was Rindt in the second of the Team Lotus cars, 49/9 with Cosworth V8 engine, Hewland gearbox and a high-mounted rear aerofoil with the cable-operated foot control to enable it to be “feathered” into the horizontal position, aircraft elastic being used to pull it into the working position. He was followed by Siffert in the dark blue Lotus-Cosworth V8 number 49/7 of the Walker-Durlacher team, carrying aerofoils at the front and rear, the front one causing Siffert to have some “blind spots” in the sharp dips of the Kentish circuit. Once Rindt had set the ball rolling the rest of the runners began to appear and the fog began to blow away. Tyrrell’s Matra-International team brought out two cars for Stewart, the 1968 Matra-Cosworth V8 with Hewland gearbox, number MS10-02, as a training car, this being the one with which he won the South African G.P., and the brand new and as yet unraced MS80-01. This new car bears little relationship to the earlier Matra, the cockpit monocoque being fat and bulbous with fuel tanks in each side, thus doing away with the scuttle tank and seat tank. The Cosworth engine forms the rear part of the car, as on a Lotus, and suspension front and rear is entirely new for Matra. The “rocker-arm” front suspension with inboard spring units has been abandoned and is now double A-bracket layout with external toil-spring units like a Brabham. At the rear a parallel-link lower arm system is used as on the Len Terry-designed B.R.M. of 1968. The rear brake discs are mounted inboard on each side of the differential housing and scoops deflect air on to the inner joints of the drive shafts, from where it is then centrifuged through the ventilated brake disc. A large rear aerofoil is mounted on the suspension and at the front of the car are large nose fins, these being pivoted and connected to the front anti-roll bar by a link mechanism. As the car corners and the front suspension deflects down on the outside of the corner and up on the inside, the link mechanism alters the angle of the fins accordingly. The general finish and detail design of this new Matra was really first class and indicated that the Anglo-French team were out to do battle with all-comers in Grand Prix racing.

The B.R.M. team brought out two cars, one for Surtees and the other for Oliver, with a spare one in the paddock. Surtees had P138-02, the last of the 1968 cars, and it was fitted with the new V12-cylinder engine and B.R.M. gearbox. The new engine, that appeared briefly in South Africa, has four valves per cylinder in completely new cylinder heads with very narrow-angle valve layout, two camshafts per bank of cylinders contained in a single-piece casting, and the inlets from the Lucas fuel injection on the outside of the Vee and the exhaust ports in the centre of the Vee. Various rather optimistic power figures were being claimed for this revised engine, rising as high as 450 b.h.p., but by the way it was going it is doubtful if it had 400 b.h.p. However, it sounded very crisp and is a very neat and compact power unit. The number two driver, Jack Oliver, had an early 1968 car, number P133-01 with 1968-type V12 engine and Hewland gearbox; the spare car, number P138-01, had an early engine but the latest B.R.M. gearbox. Parnell was running his 1968 car, P126-01, which Courage used to drive, now with Rodriguez in the cockpit. The two works cars had B.R.M.-built rear aerofoils, and Parnell had fitted his own design to the rear of his car. Brabham and Ickx were practising with the 1968 Brabhams modified to take Cosworth V8 engines in place of last year’s Repco 4-cam engines, the shorter English engine leaving a large gap behind the cockpit. Both cars were carrying aerofoils front and rear and had reshaped nose cowlings of rather pugnacious but attractive shape. Brabham was driving BT26-2 and Ickx was driving BT26-3.

Eventually Hill arrived and his Gold Leaf Team Lotus car, number 49/6, was brought out, it being identical to Rindt’s car. A fourth Lotus 49 was number 49/11 which Andretti had driven in South Africa, since when it had been painted red and sold to the American driver Peter Lovely, who was running it privately. Some people were confused by the red Lotus as there was a Ferrari entry for Amon, but at the last moment a telegram arrived from Italy to say the car would not be arriving. To complete the contestants on Friday morning were the two immaculate McLarens, both with aerofoils of Chaparral proportions front and rear. Hulme was driving M7A-3, more or less in 1968 form, and McLaren was driving M7A-2 with built-on pannier fuel tanks, this car with its wide low sides and huge aerofoils being one of the most intriguing-looking Grand Prix cars we have seen for some time.

Conditions were not very good during the morning, but the fog cleared away and the track dried. Brabham was on great form, using all the power of his Cosworth engine, and he and Rindt were setting the pace, with McLaren not far behind. Stewart was trying both Matras, Hulme ran into a Press man in the pits, who fell on the front wing and bent it, Surtees was not going as fast as Oliver, and Ickx was in trouble with his Hewland gearbox. Shortly before the end of the morning Surtees and Oliver went out nose-to-tail and next time round the new-engined car was well ahead of the older one. On the next lap Surtees went off the road in a big way as he was leaving Westfield Bend on the far side of the circuit, and hit the earth bank very hard, tearing off the left rear wheel and suspension completely. He was extremely lucky to escape with a shaking-up and minor bruises, and walked back to the pits and took the spare car out for a lap or two, still rather bewildered as to why he had crashed, though there was vague talk of a tyre getting a puncture. As 1 p.m. approached and the sun was shining Rindt and Brabham were lapping at under 1 min. 30 sec., and both got below the existing lap record held by Siffert at 1 min. 29.7 sec., the Austrian driver recording 1 min. 29.4 sec. and the Australian driver 1 min. 29.5 sec. When practice finished Hulme had to be towed in as his Cosworth engine had died with electrical trouble, and Lovely had run out of petrol with his Lotus. The B.R.M. team went and collected the torn-off, rear wheel and suspension of their car and the breakdown teams brought in the mud-covered remains.

At 2 p.m. the qualifying trials were due to start, but there was a slight delay when Rindt elected to go last and Brabham was not ready to take first go. It was McLaren who came out first and his opening flying lap was at 1 min. 31.5 sec. and on his second lap his ignition cut out and he stopped so there was a hiatus. Brabham then did a faultless run, his first lap in 1 min. 30.1 sec. and his second in 1 min. 29.9 sec. Stewart then went out in the new Matra, but drew in at the end of his first flying lap as the engine was misfiring badly. Oliver then recorded 1 min. 33.8 sec. on both of his flying laps, an improvement on his best morning time and a model of consistency. Lovely recorded 1 min. 38.6 sec. and 1 min 37.1 sec., and then Siffert made an attempt with 1 win. 32.7 sec., but his Cosworth V8 engine was not running properly and he went into the pits on his second flying lap. Rodriguez did not even start his first flying lap and then Hulme went out on brand new tyres and recorded 1 min. 33.9 sec. and 1 min. 32.5 sec., to be followed by Brabham making a second attempt with a rousing 1 min. 29.6.sec and then 1 min. 29.9 sec., although the timekeepers had to have three goes at reading the clocks for Brabham’s second lap! Rindt went out but stopped at the end of his “warm-up” lap as the car did not feel right, and rain now started to fall. Lovely made a second attempt, but scrubbed it as the track was now wet, and the qualifying runs now fizzled out.

After a certain amount of indecision it was announced that free-for-all practice would take place and when the track dried anyone who was ready to qualify could have the other cars cleared from the track. By 4.30 p.m. the sun was shining and conditions were good, Brabham having recorded a lap at 1 min. 28.8 sec. in the free-for-all. The track was cleared and Siffert did a qualifying run with 1 min. 30.8 sec. and 1 min. 29.7 sec., to be followed by Stewart in the new Matra with a splendid lap in 1 min. 28.7.sec. followed immediately by a lap in 1 min. 28.3 sec. Hill waited to hear Stewart’s second lap time and then went off with the Lotus in a big power slide with spinning wheels. His first lap was an electrifying 1 min. 28.2 sec. and he did exactly the same time on his second flying lap. The reigning World Champion was carrying his crown well. Siffert made an abortive attempt, stopping at the end of his warming-up lap, and Rindt did not even get on the track as his Cosworth V8 showed signs of losing its oil pressure. Stewart had another go, but could not improve on Hill’s time, recording 1 min. 28.7 sec. and 1 min. 28.4 sec., and Siffert followed with two good laps in 1 min. 28.8 sec. and 1 min. 29.3 sec. Finally Hill went out again with a different set of Firestone tyres on his Lotus and recorded 1 min. 29.0 sec. and 1 min. 28.8 sec., and at that the day’s activities ended as far as the track was concerned. For the mechanics work was just beginning, as the B.R.M. team removed the 48-valve engine from their wrecked chassis and installed it in the spare car, and Lotus had to fit another engine into Rindt’s car as the bearings had failed in his original engine.

Practice started at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday, after the Formula Ford drivers and the saloon-car drivers had practised, but the weather was terrible, the whole circuit being shrouded in a wet and soggy fog which was getting worse all the time. The B.R.M. mechanics had got the new engine into P138-01 and Surtees took it out, but was not too confident of it and the engine seemed a bit off colour, so he decided to withdraw from the race. Rindt went out and came back with the aerofoil collapsed over the back of the car, and two additional runners were Courage with the Frank Williams Racing team Brabham and Pike with Jack Smith’s Brabham. The Williams car was brand new, not the car used in the Tasman series, and was chassis BT26-1 rebuilt better than new and fitted with a Cosworth V8 engine, Hewland gearbox and carrying aerofoils back and front. Finished in dark blue paint the car looked most impressive and worthy of any works team. Pike’s car was a modified Formula Two Brabham chassis powered by a 2.7-litre Coventry-Climax 4-cylinder engine and looked naked and unashamed with no aerodynamic assistance at all. The object of the 40-minute practice session was for teams to get prepared for the afternoon qualifying, but by 2 p.m. visibility was almost zero as a great blanket of fog sat firmly on the circuit and all further activity for the day had to be abandoned and a very large crowd had to disperse without having seen any fast motoring.

Sunday was dull and overcast, and though the fog had gone it was replaced by a wind that came straight from the Russian Steppes and cut through the Brands Hatch valley like a razor, freezing everything and everyone in its path. Racing began at 12 noon with a 10-lap race for Formula Ford cars, followed by a saloon-car race for a mixed field of very hot saloons ranging from V8 Ford Falcons to a myriad of multi-coloured Minis. This was a 20-lap race and was actually four events in one, followed after the Race Of Champions by another 20-lap event for those still surviving the turmoil of saloon-car racing, the overall event being decided by the addition of the two results. It was full of action, if not much actual competitive racing, with cars crashing from the start line, others overturning, another catching fire and so on. All rather unruly as a motor race, but what the 35,000 spectators had come to see I am continually being told, though I think most of them came to see Stewart, Hill, Rindt, Brabham and the rest driving properly.

Due to start at 2.05 p.m. the Race of Champions saw 11 cars lined up on the grid, the starting order being decided by the best qualifying lap recorded on Friday, and anyone who did not do a qualifying run, or failed, took their best time from the free-for-all practice session. While the cars were on the “dummy-grid” Courage and Pike were in the pits in trouble. The former had had his mechanics make a last-minute alteration to the gear-lever position, and now could not get all the gears properly, and the latter had his fuel pump fail on his way from the paddock and was having a new one fitted. Hill, in pole position, had a tall aerofoil on his Lotus, while Rindt had a low one. Stewart was in the new Matra, Brabham and lckx had aerofoils front and rear, as did Siffert, but McLaren and Hulme had rear ones only. As the small field moved towards the starting line Courage joined in on the last row and then they were all away, leaving Pike a nonstarter in the pits. Stewart went straight into the lead and as a race it was all over, for he drove away from everyone in a masterly fashion, never putting a wheel wrong or having a moment’s qualm with the well-prepared Matra. The pace he set was truly remarkable, lapping consistently under the old record and his race average was faster than Hill’s record qualifying lap. He drove on and on, outpacing the two Team Lotus drivers and lapping most of the lesser runners more than once during his triumphal 50-lap demonstration of superiority. Three laps before the end there was a moment of worry when the exhaust pipe from number three cylinder on the right-hand bank of the Cosworth V8 split, making the exhaust note lose its crispness, but all was well and Stewart received a great ovation from the crowd when he got the chequered flag. Hill and Rindt ran nose-to-tail for a long while in their vain chase of the Matra and Rindt looked as though he wanted to get by Hill, but there was never any room! The Lotus pit thought the same thing and suggested the idea to Hill, but soon afterwards the two cars lapped Oliver’s B.R.M. on the twisty back part of the circuit and Rindt was held up, losing a lot of ground to Hill. It took Rindt only a few laps to catch up again, during which time he set a shattering new lap record of 1 min. 26.8 sec. (109.91 m.p.h.), but the strain was too much for the engine and the oil pressure began to fail and on lap 38 he pulled into the pits to retire. Brabham had been keeping up with the two Lotus cars and looked like being a serious challenge to them when a blanking union came out of the fuel injection system and his engine died on him on the back of the circuit. The two McLarens were never really in the picture, Bruce McLaren retiring early on with ignition trouble, and Hulme trailing along behind Siffert after a poor start, but eventually waking up and moving up a place, gaining further positions when Brabham and Rindt retired. Ickx was not outstanding and withdrew with a sticking throttle mechanism, but Oliver drove consistently, though not always with an eye open for faster cars, to finish two laps behind the leader. Lovely enjoyed himself in his first 3-litre race and kept out of everyone’s way, and Rodriguez had a bad day with the aerofoil collapsing and then the engine in his B.R.M. going sour on him. Siffert was never completely confident about the handling of his Lotus and could not stave off any challenges, but pressed on to finish fourth. After the start-line panic Courage stopped to have further adjustments made to the gear-change, then stopped again for some clean goggles and at that point it was found that a fuel tank was leaking so the car was withdrawn.

It had not been an exciting race and the icy wind took away a lot of the enjoyment. but Stewart showed very convincingly what he and the Tyrrell-Matra team intend to try and do this season. In past years the Race of Champions has raised false hopes for the following races, but this year I do not think it did.—D. S. J.