Silverstone, England, July 19th
During the days before official practising, the Silverstone circuit was a hive of activity, so that at one stage it almost looked as if the Grand Prix had begun. The result of all this was that nearly everyone was ready to go when official practice began on Thursday, with the exception of Team Lotus who arrived at lunch-time. After the very fast practice laps at the International Trophy meeting last March it was no surprise to see the old official lap record of 1min 25.1sec held by Amon since April 1968 being surpassed by everyone who is worth his salt in Grand Prix racing.
As has become the pattern this year Stewart set the pace right from the start with MS80-02, the Matra-Cosworth V8 he normally races, and there was no one out on the first practice session who could even cause him to worry, let alone try extra hard. This was because Team Lotus were not ready and Rindt had no car to drive, for the Austrian is the only driver fast enough these days to cause Stewart any worry. Having set a good standard time of 1min 21.5sec, more than one whole second faster than the next man, Stewart put in some practice with the 4wd Matra MS84 and got down to an interesting 1min 24.1sec. Beltoise was backing the Scot up well with 1min 23.0sec in MS80-01, and the whole Tyrrell team was a model of how to go motor racing and demoralise the opposition.
“Stewart’s right rear wheel struck the concrete and the Matra spun through the 135mph corner, hitting the outside bank going backwards”
Team Lotus should have provided the opposition, but having the technical side trying to change over from obsolete two-wheel-drive cars to 4wd, two drivers who are little help to any team effort, and the sort of unharmonious atmosphere in the whole set-up that one normally associates with the BRM team, the Tyrrell Matra International team were not too worried about the Lotus opposition, though Tyrrell would be the last person to under-estimate Chapman.
McLaren Racing were out in strength, with Hulme (M7A-2), McLaren (M7C-1) and their new 4-wheel-drive car (M9A-1) making its first public appearance, the whole team being in a very pleasant and happy condition and all working for the good of the orange cars. McLaren is a great believer in 4wd requiring new driving techniques and as this was the first time out in competition with the new car he borrowed Bell from the Ferrari team and let him do all the 4wd driving to get the car under way, while he and Hulme concentrated on trying to keep the old cars up with the leaders.
Ferrari at last relented and let Amon have some help in his lonely battle, taking Rodriguez into the team, giving him 0009 an early car, with Amon having the choice of 0017 or 0019, and the Mexican soon justified the opportunity by recording 1min 22.6sec, which put him second fastest in the first practice session.
With Brabham still out of action it was hoped that Gurney would join Ickx for this race, but negotiations fell through so the young Belgian was left with the choice of two cars, BT26-3 the one he normally drives and BT26-4 a brand new one. As Hill was ready to practise and the Lotus cars were not, he had a go in the new Brabham during Thursday morning, clocking 1min 24.1sec, which was faster than Ickx could do with either of the cars! The immaculate Frank Williams Brabham, which used to be known as BT26-4, but is now BT26-1, confusing the number game, had hardly started practice before the Cosworth engine broke and it was rushed away to have the engine changed, Courage having to sit and watch everyone else practise.
The BRM team, led by Surtees, reappeared after missing the French GP and the new car (P139-01), had the monocoque chassis altered, with more bulbous cockpit sides and the outer skin maintaining its width for the whole length instead of tapering inwards at the rear, and the oil coolers had been removed from the sides and replaced by one above the gearbox, blended into the air spoiler. Oliver was still driving the earlier car (P133-01).
Siffert was driving the Walker-Durlacher Lotus 49B and Elford was driving Antique Automobiles Ltd McLaren-Cosworth V8. The interesting new Cosworth Engineering 4-wheel-drive car was entered for Redman to drive, but Porsche commitments prevented him from trying the car before practice began so Trevor Taylor drove it earlier in the week. All was not exactly to the liking of Duckworth, Costin and Hird, the men behind the car, so it was withdrawn officially before the meeting began and work continued to get it right for the Italian GP.
For the afternoon practice Team Lotus arrived with their two 4wd cars for Hill (63-1) and Miles (63-2) and 49B/6 for Rindt. The oil-scavenging system of the gearbox on 63-2 was not functioning properly so Miles never got going seriously, but Hill got on quite well with the other Lotus 63, but not as fast as the 4wd Matra or the 4wd McLaren. With his chief rival appearing Stewart went a bit quicker, recording 1min 21.3sec, but Rindt was soon giving chase and was down to 1min 22.4sec. Without any fuss or bother Hulme was right along with Rindt in the pursuit of Stewart, and the time-keepers produced some magic figures that were down to three places of decimals for these two drivers, giving the advantage to Hulme. With them in their Matra chase were Ickx, Amon, Beltoise and Rodriguez, while Surtees actually had them all in sight. Bonnier was supposed to take delivery of an ex-works Lotus 49, but it did not materialise.
On Friday there was an untimed practice session at midday to encourage experimentation without prejudicing starting grid battles, and Stewart took the opportunity to have a real go in the 4wd Matra, his opposite-lock slides through the corners being fascinating to watch. He was lapping in the 1min 23sec bracket. Team Lotus produced 49/8 completely rebuilt and brought up to 49B specification and Hill took it out, but the front-wheel bearings fell apart in one lap, and that was that! Rindt’s Lotus 49B did not even leave the paddock, for a fuel bag sprung a leak as someone had left an odd rivet in the bottom of the monocoque bay and it had chafed through the rubber bag. Team Lotus were not a happy smiling group.
Friday afternoon practice was serious stuff, for it was a two-hour session, divided into four continuous half-hours, and at the end of each one there was £100 for the fastest lap during that 30 minutes. It was the racing driver, not the Scottish blood, that made Stewart go round in 1min 21.1sec and then sit back and watch Rindt, and it was the lion-heart in Rindt that made him force his Lotus round in furious pursuit. Even for those people who did not already know, it now became very obvious that Stewart and Rindt were head and shoulders above everyone else, and a needle-match developed between these two that was as exciting as any real motor race. In the second half-hour Stewart was out again and set a shattering 1min 20.6sec (130.7mph average), but Rindt was after him and down in the 1min 21sec bracket. It was two rounds to Stewart.
In the third half-hour the cocky Scot went out in the 4wd Matra for a while, and it was Rodriguez with 1min 22.7sec who was fastest for a time. Rindt was soon out again and did 1min 21.4sec and was reaching out for his £100 when Stewart went out in his MS80 Matra. Going through Stowe corner he was well and truly wound up, using all the road and some of the grass verge, and at Woodcote he was right on the limit of adhesion when he saw that a piece of the inside kerb at the entrance to the corner had been dislodged and was out of place. He was committed to his high speed line, and struck the piece of concrete with his right front wheel, and that made him lose control. The right rear wheel struck the concrete, the tyre burst, and the Matra spun through the 135mph corner, dissipating its speed remarkably quickly and hit the outside bank going backwards. Stewart was unhurt, but the car was wrecked. Practice was stopped while the wreckage was cleared away and when it was resumed Stewart got into the earlier MS80 Matra that Beltoise had been driving and roared back into the battle, but the £100 went to Rindt.
In the final half-hour Team Lotus were at last getting a hold of themselves and Rindt tried all he knew, getting so close to Stewart’s performance that it was virtual equality. The Austrian tried and tried, recording 1min 20.8sec, but he just could not beat Stewart’s best of 1min 20.6sec, though he did win the final £100. Stewart drove the older Matra, just as it was set up for Beltoise, and lapped in 1min 21.8sec, reducing this by some inspired cornering to 1min 21.2 sec.
As the Cosworth engine in the Beltoise car was a 1968 series, Stewart was limited to 9,500rpm as against the 10,000rpm he had been using with his own car. This needle-match between Stewart and Rindt overshadowed the efforts of everyone else, but Hulme, Ickx and Amon had been doing some powerful driving and Surtees had not been far behind. In fact the pace had been so furious that even the slowest of the two-wheel-drive cars, which was the BRM of Oliver, was well under the old lap record. With Stewart taking over the remaining MS80, Beltoise had to use the 4wd Matra, and with Hill driving the Lotus 49B/8, which Bonnier should have had, the Swede was loaned the first of the 4wd Lotus 63 cars.
While practice days had been bright and sunny, race day was grey and overcast, but still warm, and a huge crowd lined the Silverstone circuit. The Grand Prix cars were given a half-hour test session, and then a Formula Three race and a saloon car race opened the proceedings. A parade of historic racing cars presented a pageant of Grand Prix racing through the ages, another parade of old Bentleys took the Grand Prix drivers for a lap of the circuit and then the serious business began.
Practice had indicated that there was only one issue at stake and that was who was the fastest driver in Grand Prix racing today, Stewart or Rindt. The winning of the British Grand Prix or World Championship points seemed to be of secondary importance. Although Stewart had made fastest practice lap he could not take pole-position on the starting grid as he was driving the earlier Matra, the crashed one being irreparable in the time available. Also there had been no time to change engines. Tyrrell preferring to make absolutely sure that MS80-01 was 100% fit for Stewart, even though he would be 500rpm down on other Cosworth engines.
This meant that Rindt took pole-position with Stewart alongside and Hulme on the outside of the front row. The grid had been laid out with positions for every car according to practice times, but it was reshuffled for the start with Stewart in MS80-01 and Beltoise in MS84, as well as Hill sticking to 49/8 and Bonnier having the Lotus 63. At the last Grand Prix there was one 4-w-d car on the back of the grid, now there were four of them. It was reminiscent of the influx of the mid-engined cars not so long ago.
“The race was over 84 laps, but it could have been over 5 laps for all the difference it made to the way Rindt and Stewart leapt into battle”
The incredible tension that has been building up between Matra and Lotus, and Stewart and Rindt, throughout the season seemed to be at bursting point and Silverstone was electrified by it, oblivious to all else, which was a pity in some was as some of the other teams were doing great things, but they just were not great enough.
The race was over 84 laps, but it could have been over 5 laps for all the difference it made to the way Rindt and Stewart leapt into battle. The Lotus just beat the Matra to the first corner and in one lap these two were in a class of their own, the rest of the seventeen starters merely making a back-cloth to what Grand Prix racing is all about. Surtees made a terrific start from row three and was in third place coming out of Stowe corner, but that was the end for the front suspension broke and the BRM limped ignominiously back to the pits to retire. Rindt led Stewart by mere feet for six laps and then the Matra got by under-braking before Stowe and Stewart led, but by no more distance than Rindt had led.
Hulme could not hope to keep up with them but he could outpace the rest of the field, and did so in a lonely third place, with McLaren leading the rest of the pack. Ickx made a poor start, as he so often does, and was way back in tenth place in the opening laps, but he then steadily passed Siffert, Hill, Courage, Amon and Rodriguez and set off after McLaren at lap 10.
The 4-wheel-drive cars were not having a good day, though Miles was going well, passing Oliver’s BRM and keeping pace with Elford’s McLaren. Bell had part of the rear suspension break and spun at Beckett’s Corner, and then limped round to the pits to retire, while Bonnier retired on the following lap with a broken engine. Beltoise could only run quietly along at the tail of the field, having had little experience with the 4wd Matra. As the two leading cars lapped Beltoise, on lap 16 there was some sharp dodging about and Rindt was leading once more, and a dead-lock seemed to have arrived. Both drivers and cars were on the limit and it was an inspiring sight to see the two circulating at around 128mph average, each waiting for the other to make a hair-line mistake or suffer a split-second of relaxation.
Behind them Hulme was a comfortable third, except that McLaren was driving splendidly to keep Ickx at bay, and the two of them were gaming on Hulme. When they swept by the ex-World Champion on lap 21 it was clear that all was not in order, and at the end of lap 26 Hulme was in the pits with faulty ignition. Oliver’s BRM had quietly expired after 19 laps with no more drive between the engine and the back wheels and the BRM team scored yet another miserable failure, in spite of their reorganisation. Behind the McLaren/Ickx duel Courage was leading Hill, Siffert, Amon and Rodriguez, but only just, for Hill was giving him a bad time, trying desperately to outbrake Courage into corners, but the curly-headed young Brabham driver was not impressed, nor was he intimidated, and continued to hold fifth place with Hulme going out.
When the leaders lapped this lot, Rindt made the most of the traffic and extended his lead from a few yards to 1½ seconds, but once clear of the traffic, stale-mate settled in again. This was at half-distance, and Ickx was now third. McLaren fourth, everyone else having been lapped. The battle between Hill, Courage, Siffert and Amon still raged, with Rodriguez holding on to them; Hill got the lead, then Siffert, then Hill again, but it was anyone’s race, until Amon fell out with gearbox trouble, and later Siffert was handicapped when he could no longer get into fourth gear on his five-speed Hewland gearbox. This let Rodriguez join in the battle, but not for long for his engine broke.
Around two-thirds distance Stewart began to pile on the pressure and even though he and Rindt were lapping at well under 1min 22sec the Matra began to close the gap down to mere feet once again. On lap 62 Stewart was in the lead once more, but Rindt was in trouble, for one of the end plates of his rear aerofoil was coming adrift and he shot into the pits. Amid some cut hands it was ripped off and he was away, still in second place but over half a minute behind now. Just before this happened Rindt had clocked 1 min. 21.4 sec. but Stewart had put in two laps at 1min 21.3sec. It was now all over; with more than 30 seconds between them dead-lock settled in again, and there was nothing that Rindt could do.
Everyone else had been lapped, Ickx was third, McLaren fourth and Hill and Courage were still at it, even though the Brabham had clouted a marker and broken the right side nose fin. Rindt’s troubles were not over, for he came out of Stowe corner on lap 76 weaving from side to side as he was running out of petrol. The engine cut-out briefly as he passed the pits and next time round he had to stop tor petrol, which dropped him to an unhappy fourth place. He was so dejected that Courage passed him before he realised it, but woke up in time to regain fourth place on their last lap. This was not the only Lotus trouble, for Hill ran out of petrol, as did Siffert, and they both had to stop in the closing laps, while lckx ran out as he finished his eighty-third lap, which luckily was his last, Stewart already having completed 84 laps to win yet another victory for Matra and the Tyrrell team, but this time only after one of the hardest battles he has ever had.—D. S. J.