Despite indications of a comeback by their opposition, the McLaren Racing Team of Hulme and McLaren swept the final two races of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series and finished first and second in this international championship for Group 7 cars. The result continued the monopoly the team established in 1967—when Hulme won the first three races but ran out of luck in the western half of the series and McLaren overtook him for the championship. This time it was Hulme’s turn, and his victory in the final race gave him the Can-Am title by 35 points to McLaren’s 24 points.
The last two races of the series were the Times Grand Prix, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and run at Riverside International Raceway, and the Stardust Grand Prix at Stardust International Raceway in Las Vegas. The Riverside course is set in the desert some 60 miles east of Los Angeles and in a striking contrast to the monsoon-like weather for the fourth race at Monterey, the weatherman cooked up Southern California’s best heatwave in half a century—producing a temperature of 102 degrees for the first day of practice. John Surtees and Mario Andretti rejoined the series, Surtees having missed Monterey to sort out myriad development gremlins in the 7-litre all-aluminium engine he had developed in conjunction with Harry Weslake. These problems, largely with the valve train and the pistons, left no time at all to sort out his Lola TS car, and when they cropped up again at Riverside (the lobes were worn off the camshaft as a result of insufficient clearance in the damped valve springs), Surtees wisely decided to cut his losses and skip the Las Vegas race.
Mario Andretti had missed both the Klondike Trail 200 at Edmonton and the Monterey Grand Prix in a successful attempt to overhaul Bobby Unser in the U.S.A.C. national championship. He returned to Riverside with a brand new car (a Lola T160 instead of the older T70 he had been using) and found himself involved in a major last-minute push by Ford to come up with a winner. For the first four races Ford’s flag was carried mainly by Peter Revson, who was the only driver with one of their 7-litre all-aluminium engines in his Shelby-prepared McLaren M6B. (Of the other Ford adherents, Ronnie Bucknum and George Follmer had an all-iron 7-litre in their Lola T70, Andretti had a 5-litre version of Ford’s 4-camshaft Indianapolis engine in his T70, and Dan Gurney, Swede Savage and Canadian George Eaton had engines of 5-, 5.3- and 5.7-litre capacities in their McLaren M68, Lola T160 and McLaren Mk. III respectively. All three engines had Gurney cylinder heads, but they could not hope to match the massive all-aluminium 7-litre Chevrolets that were dominating the series.)
For the Times Grand Prix four more of Ford’s rare all-aluminium engines (a project that was cancelled when the firm stopped prototype racing) were prepared by Holman and Moody and supplied to Andretti and Gurney. Like so many last-minute programmes, however, this one was fraught with frustration. Andretti’s engine was only installed in his T160 by the third day of practice and after 11 laps it developed an oil gusher. After repairs and four more slow laps Andretti parked the car with the oil pressure again vanishing. Since he had not obtained a qualifying time he did not start the race. Gurney fared only slightly better. He installed his engine in the A.A.R. Lola T160 and turned over the McLaren M6B he had been driving to his protégé, Swede Savage. (A.A.R. had modified the McLaren so extensively with titanium that they rechristened it a McLeagle.) Gurney, too, only made the last practice session, but he managed to qualify sixth fastest, before the engine destroyed itself. Ford’s misfortune was complete when Peter Revson broke two engines in as many days, one with a well-ventilated block, in the process of qualifying fifth fastest.
The McLaren team, on the other hand, had everything going their way for a change. They had damaged several of their 7-litre all aluminium Chevrolet engines early in the series and it wasn’t until after Bridgehampton, where both cars retired, that the trouble was traced to poorly-seated rings, which caused excessive blow-by and its attendant problems of detonation and pressurisation of the lubrication system. In a search for reliability the compression ratio of the engines was lowered from 13½ to 1 to 12½ to 1—but this also reduced their power output well below the 600 h.p. they had started with. After Monterey, however, the team finally got back to their U.S. base in Los Angeles and their first real chance to put the engines on a dynamometer. In a week of careful tuning, engine man Gary Knutson and chief mechanic Tyler Alexander recovered 30 to 40 h.p. at the top end (6,900 r.p.m.) and as much as 70 h.p. more down at 5,000 r.p.m. They also raised the torque to an astonishing 570 ft. lb. at 4,500 r.p.m.
The net result of their work was that the McLaren team regained all their power losses (and then some), and McLaren promptly showed his appreciation on the first day of practice by lapping Riverside’s 3.275-mile “long” course in 1 min. 39.1 sec.—two-tenths of a second below the record time with which Gurney won the pole last year. McLaren always gets “switched on” at Riverside (he has raced there since 1961 and won the Times G.P. last year) and on the second day of practice he quickly wrapped up the pole position with a time of 1 min. 38.51 sec. (119.683 m.p.h.). Team-mate Denny Hulme recorded 1 min. 39.36 sec. before all that new torque broke up an output shaft in his transmission (the same trouble that eliminated him in the U.S. Grand Prix), but the next day he joined McLaren on the front row with a time of 1 min. 38.71 sec. Once again, Mark Donohue in the Roger Penske M6A McLaren-Chevrolet and Hall in his 2G Chaparral-Chevrolet provided the closest opposition, Donohue just edging Hall by 1 min. 39.20 sec to 1 min. 39.31 sec. It was 2 sec. back to the Ford-powered cars of Revson and Gurney, and they in turn were 1 sec. ahead of the 7-litre Lola-Chevrolets of Chuck Parsons and John Surtees.
These qualifying times did not portend a close race—and it wasn’t. Within seven laps McLaren and Hulme were 5.8 sec. clear of Hall and Donohue’ with Surtees 28.5 sec. behind the two Americans and losing ground at the rate of 2 sec. a lap. Revson retired after one lap with fuel pump failure, Gurney was out with an oil leak and vapour lock, and Parsons had fallen to last place when a water pipe came adrift. Just on the half-way mark in the 62-lap race Surtees, too, left the scene when his water pump pulley failed. At this point in the race McLaren was still leading at an average speed of 114.86 m.p.h. (1.4 m.p.h. faster than the first half record he set in 1967) and had opened a gap of 11 sec. over Hulme, 28.2 sec. over Hall, and 40 sec. over Donohue, who was the only other driver he hadn’t lapped. In the second half of the race this already feeble challenge to McLaren collapsed entirely. On the 38th lap Hall fell to fourth place when a leaking brake fitting forced him to the pits (a repeat of his Edmonton problem) and on the 50th lap, with only 12 to go, Hulme’s McLaren suffered extensive nose damage when he deliberately drove off course to avoid another driver who was in trouble. Two pit stops to repair the damage dropped him to fourth, and on the 54th lap he vacated that spot to Motschenbacher, who had steadily worked his 7-litre M6B McLaren-Chevrolet up from 21st on the grid.
At the front, however, McLaren had never put a foot wrong and he eased up to win by a comfortable 36 sec. over Donohue’s M6A. Hall’s Chaparral was third, one lap down, followed by Motschenbacher’s M6B McLaren, two laps down, Hulme’s M8A, three laps down, and Monterey winner, John Cannon, who nursed his old 6-litre Mk. II McLaren to sixth place, five laps in arrears. McLaren’s second consecutive victory in the race (and his first in this year’s series) brought him $21,610 in prize and accessory money, but even more in personal satisfaction. “I drove as a driver this time, not as a constructor. . . . The Penske crowd was under the impression they could race with me but not with Denny. I guess they know better now.” McLaren certainly showed that he could turn on the tap when it became necessary and it is a moot point whether even Hulme could have beaten him on this particular day.
As it was, Hulme gained only one point, for a total of 26, and his seven-point lead going into the race was trimmed to three points by McLaren and Donohue, who were now tied in second place with 23 points each. Since Hall was a distant fourth with 12 points, only Donohue stood between the McLaren team and their second Can-Am championship. The gambling centre of Las Vegas seemed an appropriate setting for the showdown, and except for John Surtees all the leading drivers turned out for a final go-for-broke effort. There was also a significant addition to the series in the form of Ferrari’s first car designed specifically for modern Group 7 racing. (The Ferraris driven by Chris Amon and Jonathan Williams last year and by Pedro Rodriguez in the first two races this year were modified versions of the P4 prototype.)
The new car is known as the Ferrari 612—for 6-litre V12—although it actually has a capacity of 6.2 litres. The engine is the largest ever made by Ferrari and is fitted with double overhead camshafts to each bank, four valves and one plug per cylinder and Lucas fuel injection. It is producing over 100 h.p. per litre now and with development is expected to deliver close to 700 h.p. Chris Amon said the power begins to come in as low as 3,000 r.p.m. and does not fall off until 7,500 r.p.m. With such a wide power range a 4-speed transmission has been found quite adequate.
The car itself is much bigger than the modified P4s and matches the M8A McLarens in both length and width. The chassis is essentially a tubular space frame with stressed aluminium panels adding rigidity in the centre and forward sections. The suspension and brakes follow standard Ferrari Formula One practice with the exception that the rear brakes are inside the wheels instead of inboard next to the transmission. The car was on the heavy side for its maiden outing (1,750 lb. compared with 1,480 lb. for the works McLarens), but Ing. Forghieri said they hoped to save 200 to 250 lb. with a new body and by casting the engine in magnesium and elektron instead of aluminium. (The present aluminium body is actually the master mould for the future plastic one.) The most striking features of the car are a dual-purpose wing, attached to struts on the seat-back bulkhead, and a nose-mounted air brake. The wing measures 69 by 14 inches and has in its trading edge two smaller flaps measuring 23 by 4½ inches. These flaps and the one on the nose are raised automatically by hydraulic cylinders whenever the driver applies the brakes. The main wing itself has a separate hydraulic circuit, controlled by a button on the steering wheel, and is used to provide increased adhesion in the turns.
Hulme led the first day qualifiers at Las Vegas with a time of 1 min. 29.98 sec. that was 2½ sec. under his own 1967 lap record of 1 min. 32.5 sec. and almost 1 sec. under McLaren’s 1967 qualifying time of 1 min. 30.8 sec. McLaren recorded 1 min. 30.48 sec., but the next day came back with 1 min. 29.63 sec. (120.49 m.p.h.) to again win the pole position. Following the usual script, Hall and Donohue were third and fourth fastest at 1 min. 30.80 sec. and 1 min. 30.91 sec., and behind them, in the fiercest qualifying battle of the series, only 22/100 of a second separated the next four cars. Posey (Lola T160 with 7-litre all-aluminium Chevrolet) nosed out the Ford brigade by a whisker when he recorded 1 min. 31.47 sec. Andretti’s Lola-Ford was next at 1 min. 31.60 sec., followed by Gurney’s similar car at 1 min. 31.67 sec., and Revson’s McLaren-Ford at 1 min. 31.69 sec. Despite the myriad problems found in any new car, Amon qualified the Ferrari ninth fastest at 1 min. 32.20 sec. (which he later lowered to 1 min. 31.8 sec. in an untimed practice session). Titus led the 6-litre contingent by qualifying his M6B McLaren-Chevrolet tenth fastest at 1 min. 32.67 sec., and he was followed by Motschenbacher’s 7-litre McLaren-Chevrolet at 1 min. 32.81 sec.
Despite this close qualifying battle, however, the 1968 Stardust Grand Prix must be recorded as the most disappointing in the three years of Can-Am racing. The trouble began on the grid. In the cruellest blow of Donohue’s racing career, the engine in his M6A McLaren refused to fire. Penske and his mechanics swarmed over the car and McLaren deliberately delayed the start to give them more time, but it was to no avail. The trouble was later diagnosed as a faulty coil or low tension lead and, like Hall’s starting line failure at Monterey, it meant in effect that the race had ended before it began. The Can-Am championship belonged to the McLaren team and it remained only to decide whether the title would go to McLaren or Hulme.
Less than 30 sec. after the rolling start, that question, too, was answered when McLaren and Andretti made contact in the first turn and almost the entire field caved in on top of them in a wild kaleidoscope of spins and avoidances completely obscured by a swirling cloud of dust, sand and rocks. It was an all-too-graphic replay of last year’s first-corner, first-lap crash and, as happened last year, the Ferrari was one of the victims (sand down the air intakes). With Donohue out before the start, Amon out 30 sec. after the start and McLaren, Andretti and Hall all forced to the pits for stops that dropped them well down the field, the race had almost completely collapsed.
Gurney kept it alive at first by hounding Hulme, but when he retired on the 15th lap with a broken universal joint Hulme was left unchallenged and 30 sec. ahead of Motschenbacher in second place. For the next 45 laps of this 70-lap race the chief interest was provided by a good dice among Posey, Titus and Follmer’s Lola-Ford for third Place and by the great recovery of Hall, who climbed from 22nd place to sixth in 27 laps. The dice for third was resolved in Follmer’s favour when Posey and Titus were slowed by low fuel and oil pressure respectively. Then, with only 10 laps to go, this already crash-marred race almost produced a tragedy when Motschenbacher, the bottom of his McLaren on fire, suddenly slowed abruptly in the first turn with Hall right on his tail. Hall, trying to catch Hulme to unlap himself, had nowhere to go. The Chaparral smashed into the McLaren, vaulted over 20 feet a the air and landed upside down with Hall pinned inside. The car caught fire briefly, but Hall was pulled clear with both legs broken, one knee severely damaged and a broken jaw. Motschenbacher escaped with superficial burns to his left leg. The definitive reason for his sudden slowdown was not established when this was written, but after the race the left front wheel of his McLaren was found to be split down the middle.
After leading all 70 laps over the three-mile desert course, Hulme then swept under the chequered flag to win the Stardust Grand Prix and wrap up the 1968 Canadian-American Challenge Cup championship. Follmer drove a well-paced race to bring his Lola T70 home second, 40.3 sec. behind Hulme, and score the highest finish by a Ford-powered car in the series. Titus was 22.1 sec. further back in his 6-litre M6B McLaren-Chevrolet, Parsons was fourth, one lop down, with Posey fifth in his similar car and Bruce McLaren sixth in his M8A. On his way to his great recovery from 26th place, McLaren lowered Hulme’s lap record by 1½ sec. to 1 min. 30.9.5 sec. for an average speed of 118.74 m.p.h.
Hulme’s victory brought him the championship by a decisive 35 points to McLaren’s 24. It was the reverse of their finishing order last year, but the team again took home the lion’s share of the prize and accessory money. Despite the fact that they did not finish the last race, Donohue ended up third in the standings, with 23 points, Hall was fourth with 12 and Motschenbacher was fifth with 11. Cannon, the expatriate Canadian who now lives in California, finished sixth with 10 points.—D. G.