Mexican Grand Prix
Mexico City, November 3rd, 1968.
The final round of the World Championship Grand Prix season for 1968 took place at the Mexico City circuit in the outskirts of this huge city. The cars had been sent down by road from the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen which took place four weeks earlier. The delay between the United States and Mexican Grands Prix was more than usual this year, due to the Olympic Games finishing on the date traditionally reserved for the final Championship round.
Team Lotus had three cars for Hill, Oliver and Solana. The car Oliver crashed at Watkins Glen had been repaired and on Hill's car the wing had been hinged so that it could be feathered down the straight. The operation of the wing was simple, rubber bungees held the wing in a working position, while a slim pedal beside the clutch pedal operated the wing when the driver rested his clutch foot. The full travel of the wing pedal brought it to just the start of the clutch pedal travel. In the Lotus pit there were some rear wheels with two-inch spacers giving a rim width of 17 in. These were not used and the spacers were removed when it was heard that the tyres designed for them came off the rims at 140 m.p.h.
The two Brabhams for Brabham and Rindt had larger nose wings and no nose spoilers as these had caused overheating. The troubles caused by cam followers breaking up was happily over as a special batch had been made up for them by Alfa Romeo! Ferrari had three cars for Amon and Ickx; the latter now fit enough to drive, although his leg is still pinned and with an external brace. B.R.M. had the same two cars for Rodriguez to choose from, while Parnell had his 126 series car for Courage.
Ken Tyrrell had the two Matra-Cosworths for Stewart and Servoz-Gavin. Neither car was any different from the previous race and the only problem the team had was whether Servoz-Gavin's entry would be accepted. They knew just two hours before the start of the race that it would. The Matra works team had the same two cars for Beltoise and Pescarolo. The engine of the former's now had three oil radiators over the back of the engine, two side by side and the other just behind, and all three linked up in series. The two Coopers were unchanged and Elford and Bianchi were to drive them. Also unchanged were the two McLarens for Hulme and McLaren, but the car Hulme crashed at Watkins Glen had been rebuilt, the bulkheads being undamaged so the chassis just needed re-skinning. The third McLaren for Gurney had new, higher screens to try to enwrap the large Californian.
Honda had two cars for Surtees to choose from; the 301/802 chassis still had the engine which would not rev, but a complete change of ignition was hoped to have cured this problem. The Walker/Durlacher Lotus-Cosworth was the same and with Siffert driving as he has been lately, was more than competitive. The field was completed by Bonnier's McLaren-B.R.M., which now has a nose wing as well as a much higher rear wing.
Last year's race had been completely dominated by the late Jim Clark. He had won the race, setting the fastest laps both in the race and in the two practice sessions. The times that were the targets for this year's race were the record 1 min. 48.13 sec. (166.466 k.p.h.) and the slightly faster practice time of 1 min. 47.56 sec.
First practice was on Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. and McLaren, Surtees, and Rodriguez were off as soon as the track was open. It was not long before Stewart gave some idea of how the lap records would fall, and in under an hour he had broken both last year's race and practice times with a 1 min. 46.96 sec. While setting this time, Dunlops were testing several different tyres and compounds on the Matra-Cosworth, the most successful being CR.84, which is a similar tyre to their normal CR.82 but with only the radial cuts in the tread and no cross-cuts.
Several cars were in the pits with gearboxes torn apart fitting new ratios, but Coopers were the only ones this year that seemed to be suffering from heat and this turned out to be mainly because the radiator blanking fitted at Watkins Glen hadn't been removed. In Elford's Cooper was young Servoz-Gavin, who had turned up in the hope of driving the spare Matra-Cosworth, so when Elford failed to appear for first practice, the Frenchman gladly stepped in and lapped faster than Bianchi.
The third of the team Lotus cars for Solana was without wing or nose spoilers all day and was used by Hill for most of his practising, while his race car did only a limited number of laps with its movable wing in the fixed position. This led to speculation among the other teams and it wasn't long before most teams had removed their wings to see what difference they made to lap times. In all cases the results were similar to sea level with improved speed on the straights, but lap times were down.
Rodriguez was trying both B.R.M.s and was faster in the 138 series car, although he was happier with the 133 series car which he has used most of the season. Amon had 0007 and 0009 out, but was faster and happier in 0009 so the other car was pushed to the garage. Surtees was lapping the two Hondas well and the complete change of ignition seemed to have had the desired effect for the latest engine was now revving well and slightly overheating. Even so, the older chassis and engine were giving Surtees the faster times and the cockpit of the older car did not get so hot, which was an advantage. Siffert's times were right up among the fastest, but his brakes were keeping him from doing a very fast lap. Into the hairpin and at other slow corners the brakes were shaking the car very badly. The mechanics spent some time overhauling the braking system and before practice ended the Swiss driver had set up the fastest lap of 1 min. 45.52 sec. (170.584 k.p.h.), which was half a second faster than anyone else.
Both Hill arid Stewart were in the 1 min. 46 sec. bracket, but could not get near Siffert's time. The third contender for the World Championship title, Denny Hulme, did not seem very perturbed about the lack of practice that he did, nor the fact that his best time was eighth overall and just behind his boss, McLaren, whose engine broke when the timing slipped. Both Brabhams were slow but were not giving very much trouble and the new Alfa cam-followers seemed to be in good order. The second Ferrari was lapping slowly as Ickx began to feel his feet again. Courage had electrical trouble and the transistor box was replaced.
One of the big talking points of the first practice was the difference in times between Oliver and Solana who, because Hill was using the other two cars, both drove the same car. Solana set up the sixth fastest time of 1 min. 47.67 sec., while Oliver had to be content with 13th fastest, 1 min. 50.31 sec. Admittedly, Solana knows this circuit very well, but then Oliver should be more at home with the car. Gurney was not happy nor were his mechanics, for their McLaren-Cosworth had so many little things wrong, they really did not know where to start and 14th fastest time is not where one expects to find Gurney.
On the Saturday the weather was slightly hotter for the four-hour afternoon practice. During the night, Elford had arrived from training with Porsche in Corsica for the Tour de Corse. So Servoz-Gavin was to drive the second Matra-Cosworth, although he would only get a start if someone fell out. As Bonnier had damaged his engine, it looked as if the young Frenchman might get on the starting grid. The second Matra V.12 was prepared overnight for Pescarolo and this was a definite entry.
Again the McLaren team were first out followed by Stewart, Hill and Rodriguez. Both Stewart and Hill were more tense than usual and the strain of who would be Champion was beginning to tell. Hill's speed down the pit road got faster and faster as he was unable to improve on his previous day's time. Lotus were having trouble with their movable wing and also they had to fit stays from the wing uprights to the roll-over bar to stop the whole wing leaning backwards. Solana did a few laps in his own car, while Oliver tried very hard to make up for his disappointing first practice; whilst improving his time to 1 min. 48.44 sec. he spun and tore off the exhaust pipes when he touched an earth bank at the Esses.
Stewart was just getting into his swing when the yoke of the universal joint on the left-hand wheel broke on the 180º slightly banked turn just before the start and finish line. Unable to brake, Stewart coasted down the straight at well over 100 m.p.h. with the wheel leaning in. All would have been well if the anti-roll bar mount had not cut through the side wall of the tyre, but, when it did, the tyre deflated, throwing tread everywhere and causing considerable damage to the suspension. Stewart was soon back in the spare car which Servoz-Gavin had to relinquish and when the wrecked car reached the garage it was hoped it could be repaired.
Ferrari found a bit more power for Amon and with a helpful tow on the straight he was able to get under 1 min. 46 sec., although still a tenth off Siffert's time. lckx was still driving warily and had a long session sitting out on the circuit when he lost all fuel pressure due to a leak. All three McLarens improved their times, Hulme getting within three-hundredths of Hill's time, while both Gurney and McLaren were within a second behind. Brabham and Rindt were both faster, but still not up with the front row times.
Half-way through practice Servoz-Gavin's chances of starting seemed dashed when Bonnier went out in the spare Honda (it really is time he retired and stopped trying to hang on to his position in the G.P.D.A.). After some laps. the Honda engine was heard revving up and down with the change in the car's speed, and next lap it was in with a cooked clutch due to Bonnier resting his foot on the pedal. However, when the plate temperature dropped, all was still well.
Both Coopers ran more than the length of the race without problems, while the Matra V.12s similarly did many laps without any major problems. Just as practice was closing, Siffert went out again to see if he had got the most from the car and on the last lap he improved his time to 1 min. 45.22 sec., which was a little slower than several reliable watches in the pits timed him at. When practice had ended Hill came to the Walker garage and peered at all the settings, wondering, no doubt, why for three races running, he was in the second fastest Lotus-Cosworth.
Race morning was hot and sunny. Overnight B.R.M. had switched the engine from their 138 chassis to the 133 car as this engine ran cooler and Rodriguez preferred the handling of his usual car. A row in the Lotus garage after last practice had resulted in Solana being given Oliver's car, which he wanted, and Oliver taking over a car he had not driven. The race organisers did not realise this and so he kept his position on the grid instead of starting from the back. Brabham's mechanics had replaced the Cooper rings on one bank of the Repco V8, but when they started up on race morning, the other side was found to be gone and a panic operation was started to replace the faulty ones. On Rindt's car the engine had been changed and when this was started there was no oil pressure which started a rush check, resulting in the discovery of a sticking return valve. Fresh weld marks on the left rear sub-frame of Siffert's car were due to a crack, which was discovered after Lotus mechanics had found and repaired a similar crack on Hill's car. After much arguing Servoz-Gavin's entry was accepted only two hours before the start.
In the hour before the start, the 21 cars were wheeled out and the drivers were presented to the personal representative of the Presider of Mexico. Then came the warming-up lap and the cars were lined up on the dummy grid. After a longer delay on the proper grid that most drivers liked, the flag fell and the 7th Mexican Grand Prix and the deciding race in this year's Driver's Championship was under way.
Siffert and Amon both made poor starts, and the rest of the field began to stream by before they were properly under way. Hill led into the first corner, but Surtees passed him on braking to take a momentary lead, then the Honda water pump packed up and the temperature was off the clock as Hill re-passed down the next straight. By the end of lap 1, Hill led from Surtees, Stewart, Amon, Hulme, Rodriguez, Rindt, Siffert, Brabham, Gurney, Oliver, McLaren, Beltoise, Servoz-Gavin, Solana, Courage, Ickx, Bonnier, Pescarolo, Elford and, some way behind, Bianchi.
As the second lap started Stewart was trying to get by Surtees for he was not going to let Hill get away, and during the lap he did so, getting right into the Lotus slipstream. Hulme got by Amon on the second lap and the Ferrari didn't look at all happy. Rodriguez' good start was short-lived and, after two laps, he had dropped three places to Rindt, Brabham and Siffert. Servos-Gavin showed his style in these opening laps by moving up two places, McLaren and Beltoise on lap 2, and two more places next lap. Rindt was the first retirement and during his third lap the engine suddenly cut, out on the circuit, and Rindt walked back to the pits.
Stewart was now shadowing Hill and looking for an opportunity to get by. This came on the fifth lap when the Matra-Cosworth outbraked the Lotus-Cosworth and Stewart dived through into the lead. Surtees' overheating was beginning to cause trouble and on lap 5 he dropped two places to Siffert and Hulme. Siffert's bad start had him in eighth place in the opening lap, but then he really started to get into his stride and make amends. He was sixth on lap 3, fifth next lap, then fourth and third, and ahead he could see the blue Matra leading the red Lotus. Hulme at this point was lying fourth and keeping the leaders just in sight. Amon was beginning to drop back and the car was nothing like as fast as it had been at St. Jovite.
The next retirement was Ickx in the second Ferrari. The car just cut dead, indicating a spark failure, and the Belgian parked out on the circuit, and then as he did not want to walk far with his bad leg, he sat on the bank with the spectators, who had climbed over the new fences all around the circuit, and were sitting in places which made some experienced observers cringe. Stewart's lead was short-lived and after only four laps Hill was back in the lead, while in third place and closing fast came Siffert. Hulme was lying comfortably in fourth place, while Surtees was dropping further back with overheating problems. Solana drove several laps with part of the wing hanging down by the side of the car, the rest having broken off and fallen on to the road. When he pulled into the pits, the Lotus mechanics cut away the upright, levelled off the nose spoilers and sent him off in last place.
On lap 10 Hulme had the top of the left-hand damper/spring unit break at the rear while he was taking the 180º banked curve before the pits. This shot him up into the barrier, wrecking the front suspension and setting the car on fire, so for the second Formula One race running he careered the full length of the pits out of control, and this time stopped right by the fire tender at the pit exit. The reigning World Champion was unhurt, but the car was damaged. On the same Beltoise retired when his left rear wishbone broke at the outer pivot point. On lap 11 Surtees came slowly into the pits with a puncture and the mechanics checked the overheating, only to find that the water pump had seized. It was only a matter of time before he would have to retire and, in fact, he completed six more laps in last place before he did so; while Surtees was in the pits Bianchi also came in to retire with a broken piston.
Solana was not happy. The car, in his opinion, was not going well and he retired on lap 14, out of temperamental frustration, for the mechanics could find nothing wrong with the car. While Siffert had been closing on the two leaders, the rest of the field had been holding positions. On lap 16, Siffert was right on Stewart's tail and only two seconds covered the first three cars, while back in eighth place Amon gave up when the differential began to break up, which, in turn, knocked off the pads of the inboard disc brakes and he had a "moment" out on the circuit. At the end of lap 16 Siffert was by the Matra and beginning to pressure Hill for the lead. The Lotus pit gave the O.K. to their driver and on lap 22, Siffert took the lead. From the Championship point of view, Hill would be as happy with a second place as with a first as long as Stewart was behind him. Stewart was really the only one worried because he had to gain a nine-point win if Hill was one place behind, for he needed the three points for an outright win.
Behind the three leaders, the field was opening up. Gurney, in fourth place, had dropped to 23 sec. behind with Brabham just holding him, then came McLaren, 8½ sec. down, with Servos-Gavin just about keeping in his slipstream. Twelve more seconds had opened up to Oliver, who must have been very happy Solana had insisted on driving his car. Siffert pulled out a second and a half very quickly, but this was not his lucky day and on lap 25 the nipple at the end of the throttle cable jumped out of its socket and the Swiss driver coasted into the pits. It took nearly four minutes to find and rectify the fault and two laps down Siffert rejoined in last place. On the same lap, Courage's B.R.M. started trailing smoke in a dense cloud as a piston collapsed and he retired as he reached the pits. So by lap 30 the order was Hill and Stewart with only a car's space between them. Next was Brabham, 49 sec. down, with McLaren 4.5 sec. behind him. Then came Servos-Gavin, driving exceptionally well, 8½ sec. down, with Oliver a further 15 sec. behind, while just in his sight 5 sec. down came Rodriguez in the works B.R.M. These seven cars were the only ones on the same lap. The remainder of the field were one or two laps behind in the order Bonnier, driving the Honda very smoothly, Elford, Pescarolo, whose hands were full trying to keep what looked a very unstable Matra on the road, and, last, was still Siffert.
Siffert's last place had not slowed him up, in fact it had the opposite effect for he lapped faster and faster until he was consistently in the 1 min. 44 sec. bracket, leaving the lap record eventually at 1 min. 44.23 sec. (172.695 k.p.h.) a second and a half faster than Hill or Stewart were able to lap at. For the next few laps the order remained the same, then suddenly Stewart was no longer right behind. In one lap he had dropped 7 sec., next lap the gap was 16 sec. and it was obvious the Matra was in serious trouble. In fact, the fuel pressure had dropped for no apparent reason, causing the engine to cut on the straight and also at the hairpin. In addition, the car began to handle peculiarly, which later was discovered to be a cracked frame which put the rear suspension out of alignment. While this was happening Brabham lost first gear and McLaren began to overhaul him, until on lap 39 he went into third place and began to pull away.
The gap between Hill and Stewart went on opening up until by lap 47 it had reached 1 minute and still Stewart was in second place, but McLaren was closing fast, and on lap 57 Stewart was fourth behind McLaren and Brabham. Then, lap by lap, the rest of the field caught and passed the sick Matra until eventually he was lapped by the four leading cars. In the closing laps Servoz-Gavin had his engine cut with ignition trouble and then Brabham retired just beyond the pits when his falling oil pressure vanished with the last of his oil.
A last-minute excitement for the Mexican crowd came when Rodriguez got by Oliver four laps from the end. In their dice for third place these two drivers had caught up Hill, who was now slowing, and were about to un-lap themselves. When the three cars appeared next lap they were un-lapped with Oliver just ahead of Rodriguez and both were now ahead of Hill on the road. Rodriguez was unable to re-take Oliver and so finished in fourth place with Oliver third. Hill's victory was well deserved as was his Championship win, which he got after dominating the race. McLaren was a worthy second, alter keeping much to himself during the race.
So the season is again closed until the Grand Prix circus get together again at Kyalami on March 1st, 1969. Let's hope that next year reliability creeps back into F.1 racing, as the rate of attrition in the last four races has been far too high. Mexican hospitality and the weather being what it was, much of the wet, dull racing earlier in the year is easily forgotten, and 1968 will be remembered as the "Year of the Wing".—M. J. T.