A fragile beauty

Ford F3L looked for all the world a winner. The project, however, ended in ignominy after a string of retirements. Paul Fearnley drives it at Spa and explains why it fell short

Jacky Ickx: 23, Handsome and quick, cocksure and confident, reclines low and sleek in his 'lightweight' JWA-run Ford GT40 as it pounds the Masta Straight No-one can touch him around here. Some say he's running a bit crazy, pushing too hard, but he knows he's in total control.

Frank Gardner: 37, not quite so handsome or as quick as Ickx, cautious and not entirely confident, reclines in his even lower, even sleeker, even lighter Alan Mann Racing-run Ford F3L as it skims the Masta Straight. You have to be a bit crazy to race around here. Some say he's not pushing hard enough, but he knows he's not in total control.

It's at this point that Mr Gardner sizzles past Mr Ickx and plants his red-and-gold stunner on pole by 4.6sec.

The Ford F3L (AKA P68) was night-and-day faster than its 1968 sportscar opposition – but the GT40 could run flat out day and night. Come the start at Spa, Ickx jumped into a lead that he and co-driver Brian Redman would hold for the entire 1000 kilometres; Gardner got as far as Stavelot on the first lap before his Cosworth DFV cut out in slashing Ardennes rain.

I'm at Stavelot, too – the new one – 400-plus bhp of Keith Duckworth's finest punching me out of this second-gear (for me) right and back onto the old circuit. 7500rpm. Third. 7500. Fourth. The speed builds remarkably rapidly considering I'm 1500 revs short of the regular limit. With a frontal area of 14sq ft and a drag co-efficient of 0.27, this is a ninja of a car: light on its feet and stealthily fast – the antithesis of those ground-shaking Fords, Henry's 7-litre army, that had pummelled Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966 and '67.

The left at Blanchimont is a taster of what Spa used to be all about: ultra-high speed. Which is exactly what the F3L was all about, too. I imagine Gardner, not exactly a fan of the car (he had done the bulk of its testing), sweeping through here: intense concentration — with perhaps the odd nagging doubt. The car's purist designer, Len Bailey, calculated that it had run 207mph on the Masta; he reckoned it was good for 221. He insisted, too, that Gardner believed the car capable of a 3min 29sec lap; Frank had contented himself with a 3min 36sec — good enough for a slot on the inside of the third row at that year's Belgian Grand Prix.

That should be no surprise, because this was a two-seater grand prior car. The Group 6 regs for 1968 were designed to encourage manufacturers of the new 3-litre F1 engines to dovetail them into concurrent sportscar programmes. Given that Cosworth's DFV was the power unit to beat in F1, it seemed logical that it would prevail in sportscar racing, too. Drop it into the back of a lightweight monocoque, clothe it in a slippery body and, hey presto, an instant winner.

That was the problem with the F3L — it made perfect sense. And it looked the part. Oh boy, did it — from its 'patented vortex-generating tail' to its long-eared, Roman chariot, knock-off spinners. But relationships that go the distance are based on more than just looks and on-paper promises: there has to be a firm foundation, a commitment from both sides, and you have to work at it.

Alan Mann Racing was the foundation. This Byfleet-based operation had set new standards for preparation and planning in touring cars, GTs and rallying during the mid-1960s, and its eponymous boss was highly regarded, particularly by the Detroit big chiefs. That said, the design, construction and running of such an obvious thoroughbred was a big step-up for this operation. Mann and Bailey, and sponsors Castrol and Goodyear, were certainly committed; Ford's European arm was merely willing to give it a go. Walter Hayes, Ford of Britain's director of PR, was unusually non-committal, wary of the investment, time and testing required to make a long-distance racer work. It was his persuasive raising of a £100,000 cheque that had kick-started the DFV; he bunged F3L £15,000.

As for Duckworth, he made it perfectly clear from the outset that F3L was a long way second to his engine's F1 programme. Besides, if Ford had asked for a long-distance engine, he would have built it one! As ever, he made a powerful point.

The resultant shortage of engines put the project on the back foot from the off. By the time of the car's debut at Brands Hatch on April 7, 'car one' had done just 320 miles; 'car two' had yet to turn a wheel. Thus the team had been prevented from 'working at it' and Mann knew that his charges wouldn't finish this six-hour race. In fact, only one started (car two) and it retired after 66 laps, the exhaust having cooked an improperly bonded driveshaft doughnut. It had, though, impressed by qualifying second, by mixing it with a phalanx of Porsches, and by holding a 10sec lead at the time of its first pitstop after two hours of racing (a GP distance) — all courtesy of Bruce McLaren.

In the New Zealander's From the Cockpit column in Autosport, he raved about the car's acceleration and top speed, moaned about its brakes — and tempered this with a sombre review ofJim Clark's fatal accident at Hockenlieim. The superlative Scot had originally been scheduled to share one of the F3Ls at Brands with his Lotus team-mate, Graham Hill. Colin Chapman had other ideas: it was bad enough sharing his engines with a sportscar, never mind his drivers. Their schedules were changed.

"I wasn't particularly bothered," says Mann today. "I knew we were up against it at Brands, and the last thing I needed was a pair of superstar drivers bringing even more publicity and raising even more expectation. If it had been up to me, we wouldn't have started racing until August — but the Ford PR machine had kicked into action..."

It was planned that the team would contest five or six world championship events that year in preparation for a full assault in 1969. The full-stretched team missed the end-of-April race at Monza, a track perfect for the car, and instead turned up at the Nürburgring in early May. This was a track far less suited to the car — but it was quick there, even so. Team newcomer Chris Irwin set tongues wagging with an 8min 40.4sec on his first flying lap. He crashed on his second. The car, which had been criticised for being marginal in terms of its construction, withstood this impact well: the monocoque was tweaked, but its bulkheads and windscreen remained intact.

"If we'd had better belts and seat, Chris might have walked away," says Mann. "Unfortunately, his head hit the windscreen surround and he was badly injured. Len Bailey was sometimes difficult to work with, but I had no problems with his work in terms of structure and stresses — nothing fell off his cars, none of his castings ever broke. It was on the aero side of things that he was a bit tight. He wouldn't compromise by making the car easier to work on or more comfortable for the drivers. And on a long-distance racer, those things are critical."

The wreck was two months on axle-stands back at Byfleet before a fetid stench led to the discovery of a hare's remains wedged under the pedal box. The theory is that this impact broke the underbody mountings, causing the nose section to flip up and act as a aileron, sending the powerless Irwin into a 120deg roll left. In the immediate aftermath, however, the crash merely hardened Gardner's view that the car was aerodynamically unstable at high speed. At Mike Spence's behest, a 4in spoiler had been fitted to the tail before Brands Hatch, and for the 'Ring, the nose had gained a lower-lip pout in a bid to reduce front-end lift.

"I don't think the car took off," says Mann. "We had the wind tunnel model's nose up at 14deg and still it didn't flip. But understandably Frank and [co-driver] Richard Attwood weren't exactly bubbling with enthusiasm. In contrast, Pedro Rodriguez [Irwin's co-driver] loved the car and turned up on race day with his crash helmet in case either of the others decided to stand down." That they both started is testimony to their professionalism — and perhaps an indicator that F3L was so fast that they felt they stood a chance of victory without pushing it to the limit.

"The cars that you remember are the ones that were head and shoulders better than the opposition," says Attwood. "And F3L was one of those cars. It was a good design and, with that engine, it went like a rocket. If it had been fully sorted it would have made everything else look stupid. It handled very nicely, like a Formula One car — until its aerodynamics took over at high speed. At that point it went light. I'm not sure exactly what caused Irwin's accident, but l am sure that he saw this as a big, big opportunity, and that he was driving it like an F3 car. You couldn't do that.

"The car was let down by its preparation. On the opening lap of that race, the brake pads fell out! Plus I'd smashed the glass in the door at the start. It was a run-and-jump job and the cockpit was so tight, the door so flimsy... It was being held back by lots of little things. It went like hell after my early stops, but it conked out after six laps or so."

This doesn't sound like the meticulous Alan Mann Racing — but it's true, the team was struggling. "It was a big project and we were running out of money and time," explains Mann. "We just weren't good enough to make it all work. Don't forget that we were doing other types of racing at the same time [Gardner was busy winning the British Saloon Car title in the new Escort]."

There was hardly any time to draw breath: Spa was a week after the Nürburgring. With just one car and hardly any drivers to choose from (Irwin was in hospital, Spence had been killed at Indy, Attwood was away making a name for himself by finishing second at Monaco as a last-minute BRM stand-in), the team was at a low ebb. And for the first time in his managerial career, Mann had to inform his lead driver to throw in the towel, to pit at the end of the second lap; it was too risky to send out co-driver Hubert Hahne in the torrential conditions. Of course, Gardner didn't even get that far.

There is no chance of the engine being swamped today: the sun is beating down. And I'm in a greenhouse of a cockpit. This is the hottest car I've ever driven: DFV at your kidneys, water pipes at your left elbow. In the dash there are two vents seemingly procured from a Zephyr, which is apt because they provide no more than that. The huge wraparound Triplex screen (the team could use only one in three because of the distortion some caused) is separated from the side windows by a gossamer pillar. There's even a glazed section above your head — a loophole in the regs that allowed Bailey to call this an 'open' car, and thus build it to the height stipulated for such vehicles. Which means it's low, very low: 35in to the top of the screen. With seat removed and neck cricked towards the centre line, my crash helmet still chips its paint off against the roof. Two hours in here would be tough, even if you were fit — and fitted.

The gearlever is a little too close as well, its linkage diving in at an angle so that the dogleg first requires me to shift my right thigh over before I can select it. The Hewland DG300 five-speeder is fine on the move, although it lacks the confidence-boosting chonk of engagement, instead sliding seamlessly between cogs. This is not a problem if you're used to it, but causes waves of doubts as you get to grips with someone else's precious car.

With head tilted right back, it's down, up and over the top at Eau Rouge, peering between those curvaceous arches: like heading for the Cotswolds amid the deepest sunset imaginable. These swages make placing the car a bit awkward initially, but they are soon forgotten as you realise that this is a two-seater F1, changing direction nimbly, its DFV booming through the cockpit. It requires a delicate touch; leaden-footed heel-and-toes (ahem), and bicep-curling snatched gearchanges upset the balance. The solid discs and two-pot Girling calipers, which were a bugbear of the original drivers, are more than adequate for my purposes, the pedal firm and reassuring, but not excessively heavy. The clutch is in-out positive. And the steering is pin-sharp in reaction. Its weighting, though, does change oddly as lock is wound on and off. It was Spence who diagnosed a flexing rack-and-pinion mount, but even with this beefed up, drivers were never entirely satisfied with the suspension geometry.

I'm back onto the old section of the track now. A little more gas, and we are slipping efficiently through the air. The Double Four-Valve, which really starts to pull at 8000rpm, begins to vibrate harder, and the paper-thin bodywork shimmies in sympathy. Take it from me, Mr Gardner was a brave bloke. It was one thing to fire a hefty, well-sorted, well-funded Detroit behemoth down the Mulsanne at 200-plus, it was quite another to do those speeds in a lightweight, unsorted, underfunded car built by a small team in Surrey. F3L was revolutionary, pcitentially fantastic, but car and team were stepping into the unknown. Modem wind tunnels have proved that its shape was providing downforce, albeit perhaps not the 600lbs at 200mph claimed at its launch. But what it was generating was very much biased to the front. Get into a slide, see what downforce you had slip off the edge of that rear spoiler, and you had yourself a tense and nervy situation.

Atwood drove the car in the Oulton Park TT – he set pole and led for 10 laps until a rear wishbone failed – and Gardner should have won the Martini Trophy at Silverstone in August, engine failure halting him 20 laps from home, having fended off the stern challenge of Denny Hulme's Lola T70.

And that was that for 1968

Mann and Bailey built a smaller, lighter, bi-winged open-cockpit car (P69) for 1969 – and a new coupé. They turned up at Brands for the BOAC 500 in April, but only the coupé took the start, engine trouble and the lack of a spare (nothing had changed) having sidelined the open-topper. The coupé last just 30min before its engine failed. It then contested Silverstone's Martini Trophy, Gardner starting from pole and stopping on lap one because of an engine flooded by rain. Sound familiar?

And that was that – for good this time.

Stuart Turner, Ford's new competitions boss, put the project out of its misery with a single pithy paragraph in a letter to Mann, dated August 6. In truth, it was already dead and buried!. The CSI's decision to halve the Gp4 homologation number to 25 spawned the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512S. The Stuttgart marque also had the nimble 908 for the 'Ring and Targa Florio – and a sportscar focus unbroken by by F1 ambitions. F3L, in turn, was overwhelmed by Ford's F1 success and the need to prove the Escort's worth in rallying. Plus Ford was cutting $25 million from its worldwide budget...

"I view F3L as unfinished business," concludes Mann. "We were breaking new ground; Brabham had just won back-to-back F1 championships, but they couldn't build a monocoque. We had world-class people putting our car together; that body is one big compound curve and yet there wasn't an ounce of filler in it. But there were lots of other things that were out of our control

"Where we went wrong was not hanging the engine off the back of the monocoque. Neither Len nor I were confident of doing that, and instead we sat in pontoons that ran off the back of the rear bulkhead. Of course, we know now that we could have done that easily, and that would have made the car easier to work on. But we would still have had the engine and money troubles."

The politics of motorsport were a-changing: teams were getting bigger; sponsors were starting to make themselves felt. A. larger team and more capacious budget were exactly what a car like the F3L needed, That it never got them was the price it paid for being ahead of its time

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Technical specification
Engine

Type Ford Cosworth DFV

Capacity 2993cc

Bore x stroke 86.7mm x 64.8mm

Max power 420bhp @ 9000rpm

Fuel injection Lucas, electrical & mechanical

Drivetrain
Gearbox Hewland DG300, 5-speed (NB 'car one' originally had ZF)

Clutch Borg & Beck, twin-plate

Chassis
Type monocoque

Bodywork 003 aircraft alloy

Wheelbase 7ft 3in

Track 4ft 7in

Length/w/h 13ft 10in/5ft 10in/2ft 11.5in

Weight 1480kg

Suspension (f) double-wishbone, coil-over-shock absorbers, anti-roll bar

Suspension (r) reversed lower wishbone, top link, coil-over-shock absorbers, anti-roll bar

Running gear
Dampers Koni, adjustable

Steering rack-and-pinion

Brakes Girling, 11.5in discs, two-piston calipers, 3in inboard (f&r)

Fuel capacity 26.5 gal

Tyres (f&r) Goodyear, 15 x 8/9 & 15 x 14/15