The “circus” started arriving in Spa, Stavelot, Francorchamps, and Malmedy on Thursday, but with practice from 5pm to 7pm 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.
“Stewart had his right forearm supported in a plastic corset and was prepared to start driving again”
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 BRM had three of their 12-cylinder cars, with Rodriguez and Attwood driving, while Parnell had grafted a new cross-member into his BRM and Courage was about to experience highspeed motor racing for the first time.
Stewart was driving despite having his right arm in a cast
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.
“It is difficult to decide whether the Grand Prix teams over-estimate the Spa-Francorchamps circuit or under-estimate it”
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 BRM engine installed. Missing from the list was Gurney, his self-supporting AAR-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 mph 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 3min 28.1sec in the then new Lotus 49, and it was a far from perfect lap. In fact, he felt he should have done 3min 25sec. In the race Gurney set a new lap record in 3min 31.9sec, and as the circuit was unchanged it was reasonable to expect 3min 30sec 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.
Oliver heads out onto the track
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.
“Courage was faster than the works BRM cars, so he was encouraged to stop and let Rodriguez and Attwood catch up”
In spite of his stiff arm Stewart was going well, and Courage was faster than the works BRM cars, so he was encouraged to stop and let Rodriguez and Attwood catch up. For a long time it seemed that 3min 30sec 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 3min 28.6sec, 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 145-150mph 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.
Both Brabhams were suffering with engine troubles
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.