A Race to the Finish
REIMS, FRANCE, July 5th.
With the French Grand Prix having gone to Rouen, the A.C. de Champagne had to think up something new for their meeting on the Reims-Geux circuit, so they revived their 12-hour race. It had last been run in 1958, when it had been for GT cars, but this year it also included Prototype GT cars as well. This meant that it was going to be half a Le Mans race, with many of the same competitors taking part. The Scuderia Ferrari justifiably gave this race a miss, as with Championship events for Formula One and Prototype GT racing coming on top of each other at this time of the year, they had more than enough to do. However, the factory gave support to numerous private teams and agreed to lend the works drivers to anyone who wanted them, so that Ferrari forces were strong. The English Maranello Concessionaires had a brand new 275LM/P, the rearengined GT coupé with 3.3-litre V12-cylinder engine that runs as a Prototype until such time as it is homologated with the F.I.A., and the drivers were Graham Hill and Bonnier, and their GTO Ferrari was driven by Parkes/Scarfiotti. Chinetti’s North American Racing Team had a similar pair of cars, the LM driven by Surtees/Bandini and the GTO by Rodriguez/Vaccarella; they had a second GTO driven by Grossmann/Hudson. The Ecurie Francorchamps from Belgium also had a pair of Ferraris, their LM driven by Langlois/”Beurlys” and their GTO by Bianchi/ Dumay. There should have been a fourth 275LM/P for Maglioli/ Rindt to drive, but the owner crashed it in a hill-climb the week before. Two more GTO models completed the Ferrari forces, these being Piper, with his own lowered green car, with Maggs as co-driver, and Amon and Stewart with Norinder’s blue and yellow car.
Although the entry was divided up into classes the overall winner was obviously going to come from amongst the Ferraris or from their direct rivals. Opposing the Prototype Ferraris were three of the Ford Motor Company’s Lola-Ford V8 coupés, two being cars from Le Mans, for Phil Hill/McLaren and Ginther/Masten Gregory, and the third being a reserve car fitted with a 4.7-litre dry-sump iron-block engine, as against the normal 4.2-litre alloy block Indianapolis engine, and this was for Attwood/Schlesser. The Shelby-Cobra team had their two Daytona-type coupés, as run at Le Mans, for Gurney/Bondurant and Ireland/Neerpasch, and should have had a third car, running as a prototype, with 6 1/2-litre V8 Ford engine in a lengthened A.C. chassis, but time and policy prevented it being ready, for it would have been tremendously fast and the 200-m.p.h. stuff is supposed to be in the hands of the Lola-Fords! The big 5-litre Maserati was making another re-appearance, with Trintignant/Simon, and the Le Mans Iso-Rivolta of Noblet/Berney was also running. Those two Jaguar stalwarts Protheroe and Sutcliffe were running their competition E-types, with Coundley and Bradley as codrivers, respectively, while an A.T.S. 2 1/2-litre rear-engined coupé got as far as practice, only to be written off when a member of the public ran into it on the way back from the circuit.
The Porsche factory entered a lone 8-cylinder version of the 904 coupe for Barth/Davis and a 4-cylinder production 904 for Koch/Miner, and there were eight further 904 models in the hands of private owners. Amongst them was a lone Lotus Elan for Wicky/Collomb, and to complete the entry there were teams of Alpine-Renaults and René-Bonnet-Renaults, with a lone Triumph Spitfire Le Mans coupé in the hands of two French drivers.
As the start was due to take place at midnight, headlights were obviously going to play a big part and the practice sessions allowed a certain amount of running after dark, for electrical tuning purposes. With the present-day GT Prototype cars on the very fast Reims circuit some remarkable lap speeds were put up and the top Ferraris and Lola-Fords were all lapping at well over 130 m.p.h., and for the first time for some years cars were braking hard going into the long right-hand bend after the pits, and some of the slower cars were not reaching a maximum speed equal to the average speed of the faster cars, but fortunately there was only a total of 37 starters, so the speed-differential problem was not as bad as it might have been. The main worry among the fast boys was the Le Mans-type start in the dark, and the opening laps, until they became accustomed to the dark. Under floodlights the start was given at midnight on Saturday and the Porsche 904s were the first to move, but it was not long before an incredible high-speed traffic jam was disappearing under the Dunlop bridge and round the fast right-hander. The opening lap, with the headlights appearing on the Soissons road and streaming down to Thillois, was quite fantastic, and then the flood of light came pouring up the road past the pit area at 160 m.p.h. or more. The whole field sorted itself out very quickly and there began a terrific battle for the lead between Graham Hill and Surtees in the Ferrari LM coupés and Ginther in a Lola-Ford coupé. These three passed and re-passed, ran in line-ahead, ran abreast, passed other cars on either side and sometimes on both sides, disappeared over the hill past the pits side-by-side with the brakes hard on, and slip-streamed each other, all in the dark at an average speed of 203 k.p.h. (approx. 126 m.p.h.). New fastest laps were being recorded all the time and had the three drivers not been sensible and level-headed fellows, whom one could trust not to do stupid things, it would have been incredibly dangerous and would have undoubtedly ended in disaster. As it was, it was one of the finest bits of real motor racing that one could have wished to see, the only trouble was that it was in the dark and you could only see the cars as they passed through the floodlit pits area. However, that was exciting enough and it was easy to pick out the pairs of headlights as they screamed down the hill to Thillois by the rate at which they passed slower cars, and that was most impressive for they were clocking 180 m.p.h. or so. This trio outshone the rest of the runners and also left them all behind, but the Ford team were nicely placed, with Ginther battling against the leading Ferraris and McLaren in fourth place, followed by Attwood in their third car.
At 1 a.m. Surtees was leading officially, but by the next lap Ginther was back in front and Graham Hill was alongside or behind either or both of them. It was magnificent and the average speed was mounting all the time, but it was also ridiculous, for this was supposed to be a 12-hour endurance race and the three of them were out to break each other up. It went on until 1.25 a.m., when Ginther came to rest at Thillois with a horrible grinding noise from the transmission and no drive to the wheels, but the Lola-Ford had gone out fighting in the biggest possible way, and had the two Ferraris been factory cars they could have sighed with relief and relaxed. As it was they were rival teams, one belonging to the English Ferrari agent and the other to the American agent, so in consequence the battle continued. Mean while there was trouble elsewhere, for Gurney’s Shelby-Cobra coupé had stopped early with the engine boiling furiously, and shortly afterwards the gearbox casing split and put the car out before Bondurant even had a chance to drive. Siffert had retired Schiller’s Porsche 904 before the owner got a drive, the clutch giving trouble, and Beltoise had crashed badly in a René-Bonnet coupe. While the Ford-engined car had been giving the Ferrari Prototypes a bad time all was well in the GT category, for Parkes was well ahead of all the other GT cars, but Ireland was in the running with the second Cobra coupé. Just after 1 1/2 hours of racing, and the leaders were really racing, the time came for refuelling and this put a stop to side-by-side running, for Surtees came in one lap before Graham Hill, and Bandini was on his way before Hill approached the pits. After refuelling Hill went on again, doing two stints of driving, but he was in again shortly afterwards as it was thought that a filler cap was open. It wasn’t, but it was a wise precaution, and the Maranello Concessionaires car was soon gaining on the N.A.R.T. one as Bandini was not going very quickly to begin with. McLaren stopped at the pits for fuel and to hand over to Phil Hill, but the engine cover was up and a long time was spent replacing a broken clutch return spring, so that the Schlesser/Attwood Lola-Ford was now third. The works 8-cylinder Porsche went out when a locking nut in the gearbox came undone and allowed the layshaft to move back and grind a hole in the casing, and all the oil was blown out. The German driver Helmut Neerpasch had taken over the remaining Cobra coupé from Ireland, and Scarfiotti had taken over from Parkes, and as the German driver was faster than the Italian driver the Cobra took the lead in the GT category at the third hour, or 3 a.m., by which time Graham Hill had taken the lead from Bandini in the overall picture. At the second refuelling stops Bonnier took over the leading car and Surtees took over the N.A.R.T. car, and now the situation was reversed, for Surtees gained an easy 2 1/2 to 3 sec. a lap on his rival. The pace was as fast as ever and Surtees clocked 2 min. 21.0 sec., a speed of over 211 k.p.h., as daylight began to appear, but dawn was a bad time for the Ford team as Schlesser made two pit stops with transmission trouble and was retired when it was found that a plug had fallen out and let all the oil out. The remaining Lola-Ford was going all right but was a long way back due to its lengthy pit. stop, but before 5 a.m there was a bang as Phil Hill went by the pits and he returned much later on foot, the engine having blown apart, so that the last of the Ferrari challengers had gone. However, in the GT category the Ireland/Neerpasch Cobra coupé was still leading the GTO Ferraris, whose ranks had been thinned by one of the N.A.R.T. cars having brake failure and the other suffering from icing in the carburetter, as was the Belgian GTO. Just after 5 a.m. Ireland came into the pits to complain of strong exhaust fumes in the cockpit, and it was found that the left-hand pipes had broken away from the silencer. Mechanics slaved away and removed the whole system, replacing it with one taken from the retired Gurney car, but a lot of time was wasted as it did not fit properly. It was after 5.30 a.m. when the job was finally finished and Neerpasch went off in the car, but by 6 a.m. it was in again, this time with a split gearbox casing as on the first car, which must have been heart-breaking for the mechanics as they wheeled it away to the paddock. This left the GT class to the Ferraris of Parkes/Scarfiotti and Piper/Maggs, the privately-owned one going splendidly and leading by a few seconds at the half-way point.
As the clocks recorded 6 a.m., or half-distance, Surtees was leading Bonnier by a mere 56 sec., although in the official results they were a lap apart, due to Surtees completing his 147th lap just before 6 a.m. and Bonnier his 147th lap just after 6 a.m. Therefore at exactly 6 a.m. Surtees had covered 147 laps and Bonnier 146 laps, but to observers in the pits the gap was clearly very small in distance on the road. With so many retirements among the fast cars the Porsche 904 models were moving up into the high places and the Koch/Miner car was fifth and the Nasif/Viannini car was sixth, but they were only 22 sec. apart. The Belgian Ferrari LM coupé had gone out with horrid noises in the rear axle, after having been delayed by a broken fan belt, and the big Maserati had been withdrawn with ignition maladies, after many attempts to sort it out.
The battle for the lead was going on unabated and the average speed had risen to over 204 k.p.h. with continued new fastest laps, and just after 7 a.m. Surtees clocked 2 min. 19.6 sec. 213.778 k.p.h. (approx. 133 m.p.h.). Pit stops were playing a vital part in this remarkable battle, every second gained or lost by mechanics when refuelling was counting in the overall picture. Although the two leading Ferraris were apparently identical, the N.A.R.T. one was understeering heavily and wearing out its left-hand front tyre and the Maranello Concessionaire’s car was oversteering and wearing out its left-hand rear tyre. At 8.15 a.m. Surtees handed over to Bandini, but before he could set off again Graham Hill had gone by into the lead, but at 8.45 a.m. Hill stopped for fuel and a new rear tyre and Bandini went by and retook the lead. At this point the Maranello Concessionnaires tactics paid off for Graham Hill went off again for another stint and rapidly reduced Bandini’s lead, but after a while the young Italian began to go faster and held the gap at just over 50 sec. as the ninth hour approached. The Piper/Maggs Ferrari had dropped back to fourth place as it was losing brake fluid from an undiscovered break in a pipe-line and had to make additional stops to take on brake fluid, but Parkes was not too secure in third place as his car was having clutch bothers. Shortly before to 10 a.m. the N.A.R.T. car stopped for fuel and had the left front tyre changed and Surtees took over, but while the car was stationary Graham Hill went by and retook the lead, there still being only the time of a fast pit stop between these two cars. It was just 27 sec. after Graham Hill passed that Surtees set off back into the race, and by the time he was in his stride the gap was 40 sec. With full tanks Surtees could not gain on Hill, but he knew that his rival would be making another stop soon. The gap opened to 49 sec., for Hill knew that every second he could gain before his next stop was going to be vital, and he set a new lap record in 2 min. 19.2 sec., and at 10.30 a.m. he came in to the waiting and eager mechanics. Fuel was pumped in, but the N.A.R.T. car went by, and so equal were these two teams of drivers, cars and mechanics, that it was just 27 sec. after Surtees passed that Bonnier rejoined the race, as the position had been at the previous pit stops. When Bonnier was in his stride the gap was 40 sec., as before, but instead of opening as it had previously, it stayed pretty constant, for Surtees was running out of brakes. At 10.40 a.m. he shot into the pits and had new pads fitted to the front brakes, as well as having the tanks topped up, and the stop took over 2 min., so that Bonnier had gone by into a strong lead. With good brakes once more, Surtees now began to pour on the steam and Bonnier’s lead of 1 min. 44 sec. was whittled down at 4 or 5 sec. a lap; 1 min. 35 sec., 1 min. 21 sec, 1 min. 17 sec., and it was 11 a.m., with only one hour to the finish.
At this rate Surtees was going to retake the lead about10 min. before the end of the 12 hours and it seemed impossible that this fantastic pace could have been going on for so long, and the average speed was mounting all the time, it now being 204.345 k.p.h. (approx. 126 m.p.h.). It was just possible that the Maranello car might be called to the pits and Graham Hill put back in, but it was unlikely that he could make up for the stop and hold off Surtees, so that the result of this 12-hour battle was now left to fate and at 10 minutes past eleven fate stepped in. Surtees was overdue and he was seen limping in with his left front tyre flat. It had not been changed at the last pit stop, there apparently being enough rubber on it to finish the race, but whoever had made the decision had been wrong, and it was a bitter Surtees who set off again when a new wheel had been fitted, for now Bonnier had a whole lap and 40 sec. lead, and though Surtees continued at unabated speed and got himself back on the same lap as Bonnier he could not hope to catch the English-owned Ferrari, and at 12 noon on Sunday the two Ferrari LM coupés finished running as strongly as ever, having between them vanquished all the Ferrari challengers and raced against each other in a flat-out 12-hour battle, won and lost through driving, pit control, mechanics, tactics and team work; in fact, the perfect long-distance motor race.
As if the excitement between the leaders was not enough, in the closing stages of the race the Nasif/Viannini Porsche 904 passed the Piper/Maggs Ferrari due to its brake troubles, but frantic signals from the pits made Maggs press on unquestioningly and he regained their fourth place overall in the last ten minutes of the race. There were twenty finishers out of the thirty-seven starters, and the French Alpine team thoroughly vanquished the rival René-Bonnet team, the three streamlined Alpine coupés finishing the 12 hours in line-ahead formation in correct number sequence, 49, 50 and 51, although their actual finishing order was the reverse way round. Once again the standard Porsche 904 showed its reliability, eight out of the nine finishing, though they did experience troubles with throttle cables, clutches and brakes.
As at Le Mans, the threat to Ferrari supremacy in Prototype and GT racing was there for all to see, and it was a strong threat, but the years of experience at Maranello are going to be hard to beat.