‘Private’ Porsches Dominate
Watkins Glen, July 6/7th.
A visitor driving through the village of Watkins Glen in New York State, U.S.A., might be forgiven for thinking that it was a sleepy American village by an attractive lake. The mellowed clap-board houses with verandah fronts would make a film set for “Peyton Place” and the local beauty spots seem a good reason for stopping at a nearby motel.
To the afficionado, however, Watkins Glen is the heart of road racing in America, as opposed to the oval raceway events performed at tracks like the Indianapolis Speedway. Some three miles from the township is a challenging 2.3-mile circuit set in countryside resembling that of Spa, having some of that classic circuit’s sweeping curves and changes of altitude. It is a circuit in the European style, where spectators can wander from corner to corner to see the changing attitudes of the cars over a variety of terrain.
The whole venture is a community effort with all profits being ploughed back by the enthusiastic local organising body, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation. Incredibly, this small band of devotees was recently able to stage one of the events of the year for the American race follower and organised the ninth round of the World Manufacturers’ Championship for prototype and sports cars, together with the third round of the 1969 Can-Am series for Group 7 cars as a “back-to-back” speed feast on Saturday and Sunday, 12th and 13th July.
The double event was an added incentive to the manufacturers who were able to make a dual entry and run their Group 6 cars to add interest to the Can-Am racers which suffer from a shortage of competitive cars, leaving the McLaren duo virtually unchallenged. Porsche and Matra were therefore able to endeavour to collect some of the 50,000 dollars Can-Am prize money in addition to the 20,000 dollars offered for the 6-hour race.
Having sewn up the 1969 World Manufacturers’ Championship, it would seem at first glance that Porsche had no need to enter the Watkins Glen 6-hours race. Their wins at almost every sports/prototype race in Europe gave them maximum points standing, but the Porsche season started badly with debacles at Daytona and Sebring, and the U.S. Porsche dealers smarted a little at this. Additionally, the Watkins Glen race was another opportunity for the Stuttgart team to do some flag flying for their Austrian branch. The Porsche entry, therefore, consisted of two 908 short-tailed Spyders entered under the Porsche of Austria banner. They were both as used at the Nurburgring 1,000 Kilometres, one for Siffert and Redman being the new, high-sided body shape and the other, with the older body, was for Buzzetta/Lins. Tony Dean also had the benefit of works drivers Elford and Attwood and the works technical umbrella for his private 908 Spyder. This strong German entry was opposed by a duet of the noisy 3-litre French Matras driven by Servoz-Gavin/Rodriguez and Widdows/Guichet, the former being the latest 650 with F1-type suspension which was driven by Beltoise and Courage into fourth place at Le Mans. The other was that driven by Widdows and Nanni Galli to gain seventh place at Le Mans and was the interim 630/650 model.
J.W. Automotive originally entered two special lightweight Spyder versions of the 3-litre F.1-engined Mirages. One, for Ickx and Oliver, had the Cosworth V8 unit and the other for Hobbs and Hailwood was intended to have the 48-valve head 3-litre V12 B.R.M. engine as used at the Nurburgring. That particular engine was only on loan from B.R.M., however, as their promised delivery in April had not been forthcoming. Repeated delivery dates had passed until J.W.A. gave up hope and, declining to use the 24-valve engine which produces 375 b.h.p. against the 450 or so of the 48-valve, withdrew that entry.
The Cosworth V8-engined car as entered was a converted coupé Mirage, lacking the top and integral tail, thus saving some 80 pounds and reducing frontal area. It had a low screen to maintain airflow to the side radiator ducts and an adjustable blade spoiler replaced the upswept tail of the original coupé. The gearbox-mounted extra alternator was discarded and a larger battery assisted the Cosworth V8’s own fitted alternator. This rearrangement saved another ten pounds weight. As the car practiced, the front suspension had been modified to take wider based “A” brackets, dispensing with the anti-dive geometry, but the mounting parts for this new suspension began to crack and it had to be replaced with the old layout just before the race. Unfortunately the time element prevented re-setting the suspension and the car went out to race with only the roughest check of which way the wheels were pointing. Naturally enough this made the handling unpredictable, to say the least.
These cars formed the total works entry, as Ferrari had only a Can-Am car entered for the weekend’s events. The only other Group 6 car was the Porsche 906E (fuel injected) of T.V. comedian Dick Smothers, to be shared with fellow Americans Baker and Sell, Sell incidentally driving for the first time since a bad accident in December during a U.S.A.C. race at Riverside. Only two Group 4 cars were likely to present any opposition to the prototypes. These were the Filipinetti Lola T 70 111B of Bonnier and Muller and the Deutsche Auto Zeitung-entered Ford GT40 of Kelleners and Jost. Grant, Heppenstall and Brown of Pennsylvania also shared a GT40, but as this was rather slower in practice than the two Group 3 Owens-Corning Fiberglas Chevrolet Corvettes of de Lorenzo/Lang and Thompson/Morrison, it was unlikely to be a threat. Three other 906 Porsches, a 904, several 911s, a Camaro, the Healey Sprite prototype and a Unipower completed the field.
In 1968 Siffert in a Porsche 908 set up a Group 6 record of 1 min. 10.3 sec. on the 2.3-miles circuit, this being the first time that Group 6 and 4 cars had run at Watkins Glen. The fastest time ever stood at 1 min. 04.2 sec. set up by Andretti in a F.1 Lotus during practice for the 1968 U.S. Grand Prix. During the course of the two practice sessions on Friday, Siffert recorded 1 min. 08.47 sec. (120.88 m.p.h.) to put the car on pole position. Surprisingly, perhaps, the second fastest time went to the 650 Matra of Servoz-Gavin/Rodriguez at 1 min. 09.23 sec. In third place on the 2 x 2 grid was Elford/Attwood in Dean’s Porsche at 1 min. 10.26 sec., while Bonnier/Muller earned fourth place with a time of 1 min. 11.10 sec., being easily the fastest Group 4 car. Ickx had put the Mirage in fifth place with a time of 1 min. 11.18 sec., but Oliver did not get any practice during the timed periods due to engine problems, blamed on a head gasket which necessitated an engine change and meant that Oliver could only get a brief spell during the untimed Saturday morning session.
The second Austrian Porsche of Lins/Buzzetta came next at 1 min. 11.62 sec., while the Widdows/Guichet Matra led the fourth row with 1 min. 11.86 sec., some 2½ seconds ahead of the Deutsche Auto Zeitung GT40 at 1 min. 14.35 sec. There was then a big gap between these cars and the Smothers 906E Porsche at 1 min. 17.77 sec. set up by Baker. The de Lorenzo/Lang Corvette shared this time and the fifth row of the grid. Times for the following cars, all of American entrants, dropped rapidly, the next row being on 18s, the next on 21s, the next on 25s and so on.
During the untimed race morning practice the Mirage was tried by Oliver and it was after this practice that the weakening of the new suspension points was noticed, necessitating the reversion to the old pattern.
The sunshine was interrupted by showers during race morning, making life very difficult for photographers as the light oscillated almost faster than lens adjustments could be made. The stiff breeze hinted that more rain could cause a last-minute panic and team managers and drivers tossed coins about rain tyres. The Porsche team manager had no fears, as his cars were light enough to run on the Dunlop “Intermediate” 970 compound, come rain or shine. These, in the CR.82 tread pattern, which can have extra cuts made, are almost universally suitable whatever the weather on the 908s. The heavier Matras could not bank on the universal appeal of these tyres as they would overheat under the extra weight should the weather remain dry. They, therefore, opted for the 184 “dry” compound Dunlops and prayed for the rain to go away.
At noon the grid moved slowly off behind a pace car and reappeared in a couple of minutes, rolling faster towards the start-line as the pace car drew aside. Starter Tex Hopkins, in his lavender suit, bit his cigar harder and did his usual spectacular flag-raising leap, and Siffert put his foot hard down, driving into the downhill right-hand bend which starts right at the grid area. Servoz-Gavin pursued Siffert as the cars disappeared from view. Elford and Bonnier came next close behind the Matra with Ickx in the Mirage leading the third 908 of Buzzetta. Widdows in the second Matra was ahead of the German GT40. The remainder were strung out behind with one or two tail-enders only requiring to complete one lap to regain entry fees, as permitted by the organisers for cars regarded as too slow to compete. Such was Siffert’s pace that he began to catch tail-enders by his third time round and by the 11th lap was in the gap between the slower privateers and the works cars; Widdows and Lins at the end of this queue in sixth and seventh places were indulging in some close racing just behind Ickx, who was struggling with the ill-handling Mirage. The clouds had been darkening since laps 6 or 7 and on the leaders’ ninth lap a steady drizzle wetted the track enough for spray to be thrown. Good as he is in the wet, Ickx could not cope with “dry” tyres and incorrect suspension settings, so he sacrificed ten places for a pit stop to put “wet” tyres on.
Elford was harrying Bonnier now as his dual purpose tyres gave him the edge over Bonnier’s “dry” Goodyears and on lap 18 he splashed past and went after Servoz-Gavin, who was losing ground fast, being also “dry” shod. Six laps later Elford overtook the Matra. Servoz-Gavin was obviously being troubled with the wet road. Only the inherently good handling of the 650 Matra enabled him to continue so fast in the wet. Even so, he was losing two seconds a lap to Siffert. When Elford moved into second place, he was some 40 seconds behind the leader.
The Buzzetta-Widdows duel had also been resolved by the rain, the Porsche getting steadily away from the Matra. This put Buzzetta up into fourth place on lap 30, when Bonnier tired of struggling on “dry” tyres, and lost three places in the pits changing to “wet” ones. Servoz-Gavin’s struggle against the Porsches came to an end on lap 33 when his fuel pump drive sheared. Fortunately he was able to get to the pits, but the repair took a frustrating 27½ minutes, and when Rodriguez brought the car out again it was in 20th place, last but one to a 904 Porsche, which soon retired, leaving him at the tail of the field. Soon after, Widdows brought the other Matra into the pits with water in the electrics. This stop lost him only two places but subsequent stops to effect a complete cure put the car down to 16th place, only four laps ahead of Rodriguez, who was still in 20th and last place, but making up time fast, through the tail-enders.
With an hour of the race gone the Porsches were in first, second and third places with Bonnier fourth, having passed Ickx easily, now that he had the rain tyres on. Widdows’ first brief stop with the wet electrics had lost him two places and he was behind Ickx, but was soon to go into his pit again. The Kellener/Jost GT40 was next but some way back, followed by the Smothers 906E Porsche.
The worst of the rain was over now and Ickx brought the Mirage in for fuel and handed over to Oliver. Porsche were not too sure of fuel consumption on this circuit, and calculated that the race could first be done on three pit stops for fuel. Just to check, they called in Buzzetta ten laps earlier than necessary to refill tanks and do some sums which would be relevant to the other two cars. The results showed that it would be possible—just. Buzzetta lost his third place to Bonnier as a result of their stops. Lins had this place to make up when he regained the race, but the Lola had a pit stop to make which would rectify the situation. Having done the fuel checks Porsche called in Elford, refuelled and sent out Attwood, then they called in the leading car and sent Redman out in it without changing positions. Muller then replaced Bonnier which put the Group 4 car down to fourth place behind the three Porsches.
Nine laps later Oliver brought the Mirage to the pits after a rather frightening “moment” and complained that the car was handling even worse than before. A change to dry tyres was made as the surface was drying off now that the rain had stopped. This seemed to make matters worse and he returned one lap later when it was discovered that the left front damper was completely useless. These stops cost the car seven places and put the steadily-running Kellener/Jost GT40 into fifth place, with the Smothers’ Porsche sixth. Widdows had been working hard to climb back through the field now that the car was running properly and was in seventh place, but beginning to worry about some clutch slip.
Oliver’s struggle with the recalcitrant Mirage ended on lap 113 when the oil pressure on the engine suddenly ebbed and he brought in the car and retired it. It was an unfortunate happening since up until that time the engine was working better than the rest of the car.
Rodriguez’ efforts were starting to show results and he had regained 13th place by the 130th lap, aided by the Mirage retirement. He then handed over to Servoz-Gavin. The position stabilised now and remained static until beyond the half-way mark. Widdows came into the pits on lap 135 to hand over to Guichet, but had had to nurse the clutch a little to prevent further slipping. Guichet regained the place lost during the stop within three laps, but only 20 laps later the clutch lost all friction and the Matra was out, much to Widdows’ annoyance after working so hard. Bonnier brought the fourth-placed Lola in on lap 162 for fuel and Muller made a fierce start down the pit road and maintained the fourth place, but only four laps later there was a nasty noise in the engine and he coasted back into the pits to find a hole in the sump caused by a broken con.-rod, so the only Group challenge was over and the German GT40 inherited fourth place.
Servos-Gavin had been tearing up through the field and the Kellener/Jost GT40 was only a couple of laps ahead when Servos-Gavin handed the car back to Rodriguez on lap 172, with only two hours left to catch the Ford. Rodriguez settled down to the task and steadily whittled down the gap over the next 60 laps, while the leading Porsche trio wound their unchallenged way onwards with no problems and only routine pit-stops. On the 234th lap Rodriguez took the Matra into fourth place but had to stop for its final fuel load soon afterwards, when the GT40 grabbed the place back again. Servos-Gavin replaced Rodriguez and took only another 15 minutes to push the reliable GT40 back into fifth place. Had the GT40 been driven by Ickx he might have held off Servoz-Gavin, but it would have taken a feat like that at Le Mans to do so. Servoz’s magnificent drive through the field earned him the B.O.A.C. VC10 trophy and 1,000 dollars as the “Man of the Race”.
The position remained unchanged to the end of the race and the three Porsches were able to formate during the last few laps and arrange things so that the Elford/Attwood car led Siffert’s over the line to keep it on the same lap as the leader in the results sheets.
The two leading Porsches were so unstressed by their victory, even though Siffert led from start to finish, and Elford claimed a new Prototype lap record at 1 min. 09.13 sec. (119.77 m.p.h.) that they were able to dispense with engine changes before taking part in the following day’s Can-Am event. The victory was particularly significant for the house of Dunlop, whose tyres ran the whole race without change on the three leading cars and also shod the next two cars.—L. A. M.