XXVII Belgian Grand Prix

The Fastest

Francorchamps, Belgium, June 9th.

The "circus" started arriving in Spa, Stavelot, Francorchamps, and Malmedy on Thursday, but with practice from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, many travelled overnight. The enormous Gold Leaf Team Lotus transporter had only one car in it; that was 49/5, the one with which Hill had won at Monte Carlo. Oliver was ready to practise as the Lotus number two driver, but he had no car. At the beginning of the week there was only one car left at Lotus, but a lot of wrecks. Indianapolis cars, 49/1 from Monaco, Formula Two cars, and the mechanics were on their knees with fatigue. A new car was at this moment on its way on a trailer, probably having been finished off on the boat. This was 49/6, a brand new sister car to the 49B that Hill was driving, complete with nose fins, Hewland transmission and wedge-shaped tail. Walker still had the old 49/2 for Siffert, but if all went well he should have 49/7 to the B-specification by Zandvoort. If Team Lotus crashed a car at this Spa meeting they would have to retain 49/7 for themselves. The two immaculate McLarens were all ready for practice, Hulme in M7A-2 as raced at Monte Carlo, but McLaren had a brand new car, M7A-3. The number one car was too badly bent at Monte Carlo to be worth repairing; so the spare car was built up. It had a narrow rear track, in an effort to cut down frontal area for the huge rear tyres stick out a long way. It also had new, very heavy-duty drive-shafts with sliding spline joints. Hulme's car still had the old type shafts with pot-joints. Both cars had fairings over the engine which run back into a shroud round the oil cooler above the gearbox. They had provision for "spoilers" on each side of the nose and a small one across the tail of the car. Stewart had his right forearm supported in a plastic corset and was prepared to start driving again, and he had the two Matra-Cosworth V8 cars of the Tyrrell team to choose from, the only alterations being to swap the Hewland gearboxes and drive-shafts between the two cars, as compared with the sequence at Monaco. Beltoise had the two 12-cylinder Matra cars, about to be tried at really high speed for the first time, and B.R.M. had three of their 12-cylinder cars, with Rodriguez and Attwood driving, while Parnell had grafted a new cross-member into his B.R.M. and Courage was about to experience highspeed motor racing for the first time. With Scarfiotti away at a hillclimb for Porsche, the Cooper team comprised Redman and Bianchi, with the two T86B cars, the new Alfa Romeo-powered project not being ready. The Brabham team had built a new BT26 model, with 4-cam Repco V8 engine, for Rindt, so that he and Brabham had identical cars, and Surtees had the Honda as at previous races. Ferrari entered Amon and Ickx, the former with 0011 and 0007 as a spare, and the latter with 0003, all three cars to the same 1968 specification. The only private-owner was Bonnier with his McLaren, with a new 12-cylinder B.R.M. engine installed. Missing from the list was Gurney, his self-supporting A.A.R.-Eagle project being without any race-worthy engines.

It is difficult to decide whether the Grand Prix teams over-estimate the Spa-Francorchamps circuit or under-estimate it, but every year someone seems to think his cars are going to do 200 m.p.h. down the Masta straight. It is a fast circuit, but not that fast, and this year everyone seemed to think they were going to become airborne with sheer speed and "spoilers", "fins" and "wings" could be seen sprouting in all directions. Lotus had the adjustable wings on the nose and the downward thrust wedge tail; McLaren had small spoilers on the nose and another one across the tail; the Honda had a sheet of aluminium behind the engine and above the transmission; Brabhams had large fixed Lotus-like wings on the nose and a "wing" mounted on struts above the gearbox, and Ferrari came out with an elaborate aerofoil mounted high above the gearbox like a miniature Chaparral. Whether any of these devices had any real effect is debatable for the results depended entirely on the psychological effect on the drivers. Like contented cows, contented drivers drive well, and a driver convinced of the improved stability of his car would take the fast corners just that bit faster.

Last year Clark made fastest practice lap in 3 min. 28.1 sec. in the then new Lotus 49, and it was a far from perfect lap. In fact, he felt he should have done 3 min. 25 sec. In the race Gurney set a new lap record in 3 min. 31.9 sec., and as the circuit was unchanged it was reasonable to expect 3 min. 30 sec. laps as the order of the day. On the Malmedy corner the flag poles had been removed, and this made the sighting approach a bit difficult, as you come upon the corner blind, but the keen-eyed ones would soon re-adjust their judgement. As most of the entry roared away to begin practice on Friday afternoon, Hill was left at the pits with his Hewland gearbox malfunctioning, and Chapman and the mechanics spent over an hour taking it apart and making it work, the pinion thrust bearing having broken up. Brabham and Rindt were late in arriving and did not go far before they had troubles, the former's engine ruining itself with a recurrence of the valve-seat trouble experienced in Spain. The seat comes loose in the head, clatters up and down with the valve until it breaks up and gets crushed between the valves and piston. An expensive trouble.

In spite of his stiff arm Stewart was going well, and Courage was faster than the works B.R.M. cars, so he was encouraged to stop and let Rodriguez and Attwood catch up. For a long time it seemed that 3 min. 30 sec. was not going to be reached, more due to the lack of Hill, Brabham, Gurney and the unfitness of Stewart, than anything else. It was finally Amon who got things under way, and the fitting of the aerofoil over the tail seemed to give him confidence and he got well below the bogey-time and half a second off the best-ever, with 3 min. 28.6 sec., but he was the only one to impress, even though the overcast conditions were ideal for high-speed driving. With the pits being just beyond the timing line a driver could go off, do the whole 14.1-kilometre circuit before the time-keepers would record his passage, and then do a fast lap and stop at the end of it. His lap time would be slower than anticipated as it would include the slowing down in the pit lane. If he did a full flying lap he would then have to do another full lap before returning to the pits. In other words, three complete laps to get one timed flying lap. This is a perfectly normal procedure, but on a short circuit it does not seem to matter, but 3½ minutes round Spa at an average of 145-150 m.p.h. and most drivers feel they have done a complete motor race. Consequently not many of them do more than one flying lap at a time during the first practice period, which often accounts for the seemingly slow times recorded. With adjustments to shock-absorbers, tyres, suspension, engines, brakes and so on, more than one flying lap in succession means that the team are well advanced with their circuit tuning. As practice ended the second Lotus 49B arrived on a trailer and Brabham was preparing to fly home for another engine. Beltoise was not over-confident, not knowing the circuit, and Oliver had never driven round it before in a single-seater.

On Saturday the rains came and cast a gloom over everything, nobody showing much enthusiasm for practice and certainly not for any high speed. Hulme did not go out at all, nor did Courage, and Stewart was content with his position on the middle of the front row of the grid. Brabham was away dealing with Repco engines and Oliver was in at the deep end, with a brand new car on a circuit he did not know, but he got on with the job very well. Surtees and Rodriguez were going round in an impressive fashion, spray flying in all directions, but most people seem to feel that if it rained on race day nobody was going to do any serious motor racing. As a practice session Saturday was completely wasted and the starting-grid positions were drawn up on the rather false Friday times, when a lot of people had been in trouble and only Amon had really got under way. As the weather forecast for Sunday was unsettled the entrants got together amicably with the organisers and it was decided that if it was raining at 3.30 p.m. when the race was due to start, it would be delayed for up to one hour. If it was still raining then the cars would start at 10-sec. intervals and the race would be run on a time basis, in the manner of the Targa Florio or the Isle of Man motorcycle races, all of which sounded good sense.

Although Sunday was dull and overcast the rain held off, so everything went ahead normally. An enormous crowd came from all parts of Europe and every stand and enclosure was packed to capacity. The drivers were taken round on a parade lap in various open cars and then the Grand Prix cars were brought out in front of the pits. Graham Hill elected to run without the nose fins and minus the complete tail, whereas Oliver had everything on 49/6, including the additional strip of aluminium tacked on the extreme edge of the tail during practice. At the last minute the rear view mirrors on Hill's car were being mounted on struts well away from the windscreen, and neither Lotus was using the latest type of rear wheel. The McLarens had reduced the size of the rear spoiler on both cars, and Stewart was driving the first of the MS10 Matra cars, while Beltoise was driving the first of the V12 Matras, still with its oil radiator hung out on the left side of the car. B.R.M. had not had to use their spare car, and all were well prepared and ready to go, as were the two Coopers, Redman's car having the oil cooler removed since practice, but Bianchi's car still retaining the cooler, mounted upright over the gearbox. Both Brabhams had been got running after much all-night work and they both had yellow fins on each side of the nose and the yellow "wings" across the tail, Brabham's carrying a GULF advertisement on the upper surface, and Rindt a Goodyear advertisement. The two Ferraris, 0007 for Amon and 0003 for Ickx, were equipped with nose deflectors on each side and the aerofoil wings across the tail, but after the warm-up lap Ickx demanded that all his appendages were removed, which was done, but Amon kept all his on.

The race is described in detail, and with some difference to the normal pattern, in the following pages, but briefly and for the record, Amon led away and for the opening lap Surtees took the lead and Amon lay second until a flying stone split his oil radiator, and Surtees led until the rear suspension of the Honda broke up. Meanwhile the engine in Ickx's Ferrari went on to eleven cylinders and he dropped steadily back, but drove very determinedly and stayed with much healthier cars by dint of slipstreaming. Hulme and Stewart had a race-long duel, for fourth place to begin with, and took over for the lead after the retirement of Amon's Ferrari and the Honda. Hulme retired with a broken drive-shaft and Stewart was all set to gain the first victory for Matra when he ran out of petrol at the end of the penultimate lap. The Matra-International team had miscalculated on fuel consumption, and though he took on more petrol the stop dropped him to fourth place. Stewart completed his 28th lap, but including the pit stop it took 8 min. 53 sec., which was more than twice the time of the fastest lap, set by Surtees, so it did not count and he was officially only credited with 27 laps. All race long McLaren had been duelling with Rodriguez (B.R.M.) and they started the last lap racing for the lead, having been in more than halfway down the field in the opening laps. At the finish they thought they were second and third, not having seen Stewart in the pits, so it was a pleasant surprise for McLaren to find that he had won. Oliver started a last lap but failed to complete it and was classified fifth at 26 laps, having been lapped by the leader before he stopped. Redman crashed his Cooper when the front suspension collapsed and he suffered a broken arm. Siffert's Lotus ran out of oil and the engine broke rather expensively.

D. S. J.