1972 Belgian Grand Prix race report

Lotus' Emerson Fittipaldi on his way to victory at the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix.

Lotus' Emerson Fittipaldi on his way to victory at the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix

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(Belgian Grand Prix)

Nivelles-Baulers, June 4th

On paper the Belgian Grand Prix took place on June 4th over 85 laps of the new Nivelles-Baulers Autodrome just south of Bruxelles in the flat industrial area near Charleroi. What happened in fact was a nice tidy race for Formula One cars on a standardised, characterless autodrome that could have been anywhere and the race could have been any race in the autodrome series. Some 65,000 people turned out to watch and for a change this season, the weather was fair, but not brilliant. But if it was the Belgian Grand Prix and the shape of things that have come, then we should seriously consider running the British Grand Prix at Mallory Park.


Practice was on Friday and Saturday, in the afternoon, and on Thursday most of the teams had already installed themselves in the paddock and some were doing unofficial practice, including the flat-12-cylinder Tecno, which Galli was driving quite quickly for its first appearance. For some strange reason that I was unable to fathom the racing numbers started at 5, which was Amon’s lone and tatty Matra V12, that was sounding much better than it looked, until the engine blew up before the Friday practice was half-way through. Missing from the scene was World Champion Stewart, who was feeling unwell with an internal complaint, and the news of his non-arrival was announced on June 1st, the day before practice began, which caused one Motor Sport reader to send an urgent note to Belgium asking if it was too late for everyone to move across to Spa-Francorchamps ? Unfortunately it was too late. Another driver unable to take part was Wisell, who had broken a finger when Peterson ran into his BRM at the start of the Oulton Park Gold Cup Race. However, there were still 26 drivers ready to take part, including the courageous Reutemann, who having recovered from a broken ankle rejoined the racing scene in Formula Two at the Crystal Palace and had someone shut a car door on his left hand, crushing a finger. With his hand bandaged and still limping from his ankle injury he was more than ready to go Formula One racing again, especially as the Ecclestone organisation had built a brand-new Brabham for him. There is something very rugged about South Americans.

Apart from the odd one or two drivers who had been to Nivelles-Baulers on tyre-testing sessions most drivers were having to learn the way round, but fortunately there is not enough to the autodrome to tax anyone’s imagination or skill too far. The long (by autodrome standards) straight past the pits is slightly uphill, ending in a fast right-hand swerve leading to a short straight before a long right-handed loop comprising two bends which brings you to a tight left-hand corner and a minimal straight leading into an ess-bend that is in effect a chicane, and rather pointless; then another short straight on a lower level than the paddock area leads into a fast downhill right and left sweep through an ess-bend and at the bottom you stand on the brakes for the very slow hairpin that brings you onto the main straight and the steady drag up past the pits. The only interesting point at which to watch was the fast downhill ess behind the pits and I wondered why the instigator of the autodrome had bothered to build the rest of it. A sort of ski-lift to take the cars to the top of the circuit to let the drivers show their skill and the road-holding of their Formula One cars down through this ess-bend would have been adequate. The average speed round this 3.724-kilometre-(2.314 mile) circuit was in the neighbourhood of 185 k.p.h. (115 m.p.h.), with a fleeting maximum speed reading of possibly 160 m.p.h. While we are re-organising Grand Prix racing we really should alter the name to Petite Prix racing.

Clay Regazzoni in his Ferrari at the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix.

Clay Regazzoni qualified 2nd in his Ferrari

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During the arduous and testing task of learning the new autodrome Gethin went off the road in his P160 BRM and bent it so was given Marko’s P160 and the Austrian doctor took the P153B from Schuppan, who was quietly getting on with the business of finding out more about Formula One racing. The engine in Hailwood’s Surtees gave up and none of the March variations seemed very good. The pattern of previous races was being followed fairly closely, with the Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni looking good, sounding good and going well, setting the pace until the black and gold Lotus of Fittipaldi began to get into its stride and it was the young Brazilian who set the pace by the end of the afternoon, with a lap time of 1 min. 11.6 sec. ahead of the two Ferraris that recorded 1 min. 12.0 sec. Beltoise was still riding high after his courageous Monte Carlo victory and was the only BRM worth considering, being in fourth place only a tenth of a second behind the Ferraris, and full marks for trying just had to go to Carlos Pace in Frank Williams’ March 711 who got round in 1 min. 13.1 sec. to head the March, Brabham, Surtees miscellany as well as the one-offs like the Eifelland and the Tecno, the new Italian car sounding well, but not being too stable in its handling and causing Galli to have an excursion onto the mud and grass on the edge of the track.

The second afternoon or practice was divided into two sessions and seemed adequately long and most people had enough time to do what they wanted, except to beat Emerson Fittipaldi, for on Saturday he stopped messing about and dominated the scene with a cool and almost cold calm that was inspiring to watch. Not only is the young Brazilian learning, but he is learning fast, and beginning to leave everyone else behind. During the final session he took time off to show his team-mate Walker the way round and improve his lap times to 1 min. 12.76 sec., whereas he had got stuck at 1 min. 13.3 sec. on his own. For the last session of practice, the time-keepers reading their clocks to two places of decimals, giving Fittipaldi the fastest time at 1 min. 11.43 sec. and conditions being nice and warm Hulme forged his way up into third place with 1 min. 11.80 sec., just ahead of lckx and just behind Regazzoni, while Cevert did his best for the depleted Tyrrell team with fifth place. Unfortunately the time-keepers either chose to ignore, or did not see, any cars with ‘T’ beside their numbers so no times were given during the three sessions for 8T the spare Tyrrell driven by Cevert, 9T the old original M19 McLaren which Hulme drove, or 29T the latest of the B2 Ferraris which Ickx drove, or 32T the earliest of the three John Player Lotus 72 cars, which Fittipaldi drove and with which he made his fastest lap in the final session. As the starting area and pits lane is so wide the time-keepers are a very long way away from the cars, so it is possible that they could not see the T on the Scalex sized cars, especially the Lotus on which the T was so small as to be discreet. It really is time the CSI took a leaf out of the British Grand Prix book and gave spare cars their own numbers. or race organisers go to Spain for lessons in time-keeping, the Spanish effort this year being exemplary.


The 1972 Belgian Grand Prix gets underway as the cars leave the grid.

The cars race towards the first corner

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There was a time when Team Lotus was being run on a shoe-string, and race-preparation was minimal, but those days are gone and they now run on cigarette packets and race preparation is not only thorough but meticulous and they were so well organised, that on Sunday morning when an untimed session of practice was allowed before the 3.30 pm start, neither of the black and gold cars went out, being all ready to race, as was the spare car, and the whole team had time to wear funny hats to please one of their sponsors, whose money was helping towards this preparedness. The state of the personnel in a team on the morning of a race is usually a good sign of the preparedness and overall morale, and the McLaren team were their usual immaculate blue and orange selves, but the Marlboro-BRM set-up was distinctly split; while the Marlboro side of things were gleaming in red and white and the publicity machine was in full swing parading round the circuit and telling the Belgian public in a deep brown “Far western” voice that “Marrl-borrow” was the cigarette for them, the BRM side of things was a grubby shambles, the poor over-worked mechanics desperately trying to get as many cars ready for the race as possible, and having no time to change their overalls “every hour on the hour” as the McLarens boys do. The biggest joke of the day was to hear the soft, dulcet words of the American Marlboro public voice being translated and spoken in Flemish by a well-meaning Belgian. The French version was funny but the Flemish version was hilarious. But I am getting carried away, this is not an enjoyable circus we are at, it is a serious motor race, a Grand Prix, the Belgian Grand Prix and the highest form of motor racing in Europe. It is more than that, it is a Grande Epreuve, one of the classics in motor racing, won by great men in great cars, like Antonio Ascari, Chiron, Nuvolari, Caracciola, Wimille, Fangio, Farina, Alberto Ascari, Brabham, Clark, Gurney, and Rodriguez, the last named in 1970 at a staggeringly heroic average speed of 150 m.p.h. and our 85 laps today will be won by another great driver following in the footsteps of those who forged the path before him, or least we hope he will win it.

Out of the pits came the 25 cars, either blasting away round the track or being wheeled to the start and after getting everyone lined up they were sent off on an official “warm-up” lap and then got ready for the real start, with E. Fittipaldi on pole position with 72D/R7 Lotus, Regazzoni (Ferrari) in the middle and Hulme (McLaren) on the outside of the front row, The rest were lined up as shown in the starting grid, two worthy places being those of Reutemann (Brabham) in row four and Pace in row five. Revson was in a very honest and clean-cut third row position, alongside Hailwood who still thinks it is all a bit of a lark, and right down the back was Galli with the Tecno, by no means disgraced for a first time out with a brand new car and engine built by the Pederzani brothers in their small factory in Bologna and not with a “production engine” bought over-the-counter from Northampton. That it was there running and in good health was an object lesson to a lot of “would-be” Formula One constructors.

The start was really impressive as the 25 cars surged away up the slope, with Regazzoni (Ferrari) leading from Fittipaldi (Lotus), Ickx (Ferrari) and Hulme (McLaren.). On the opening lap de Adamich and Revson had a “coming together” which resulted in them both returning to the pits at the end of the opening lap for a new wheel each, while Reutemann was in with a dis-arranged gear-lever mechanism, which was all his own doing. It only took one lap for the “men’s race” to break away from the “boys’ race”, the decision presumably being made on the downhill ess-bend and late braking for the hairpin. Certainly in practice this was the key point. In Group One we had Regazzoni, Fittipaldi E., Ickx, Hulme, Cevert, Hailwood and Amon, and in Group Two we had Beltoise, Ganley, Pace, Fittipaldi W., Peterson, Walker, Hill and Schenken, the others already trailing, or having been delayed by pit stops. After five laps with everyone nose-to-tail it looked as though the “Minny-Mouse” circuit lacked anywhere for overtaking, and Fittipaldi was finding this out as he badly wanted to get by Regazzoni and get on with the motor race. He had one try while braking for the hairpin, to find that it was too easy for Regazzoni to block the way, so he waited for a lap or two and then on the ninth lap he out-smarted the Swiss and nipped past, which meant taking the downhill ess-bend differently, but it worked and he was in the lead, and that was it.

From then on it was a perfect drive in a perfect car, the young Fittipaldi just drove away from everyone, and lapped most people, and Colin Chapman could be seen looking like the Cheshire Cat. In the beautiful relaxed and smooth style that Fittipaldi has worked away to develop, and which suits the Lotus 72 admirably, he never put a wheel wrong and pulled away from Regazzoni’s Ferrari and all the others relentlessly. When the Lotus 72 first appeared in 1970 and got itself sorted out I regretted the lack of a smooth, relaxed genius like the late Jim Clark to get the best out of it. While I stood in the dusty Nivelles-Baulers autodrome I wondered whether perhaps we had found one ? Fittipaldi had not taken the lead at the start because he was on the inside of the front row on a part of the track that was not normally used, the “line” up the straight being on the outside, so he was on a dusty surface compared to the rest of the front row. Before the start the Lotus lads had swept the start area where number 32 was to be placed and while it had helped, there had still been too much wheelspin in the initial “drag-race”. Other than that Fittipaldi did the perfect race, fastest time in all three practice sessions and winning with ease. Oh yes, there was one other failing, he did not make fastest lap. During the race he was credited with fastest lap on the forty-third in 1 min. 12.6 sec., but after it was all over the time-keepers came up with 1 min.12. 12 sec. for Amon with the Matra on lap 66.

That was the race and the chap who won it, which though some people give the impression of not realising it, is the main object of the exercise, but what of those who did not or could not win ? Two were outstanding, Revson and Pace. The American ex-playboy (if we are to believe his Press-handout) lost a lap at the start through no fault of his own, and after having a new wheel and tyre fitted he then drove an incredibly smooth fast race to climb back up to seventh place and would undoubtedly have been in Group One, and well in it at that, if he had not been forced to stop on the first lap. Fittipaldi’s Brazilian friend Carlos Pace not only deserved a medal for effort, but also for overcoming frustration three times during the 85 laps. At the time that Fittipaldi E. was taking the lead, Pace (pronounced Par-chay) moved into the lead of the second group of runners, and as the Lotus drew away from those behind, the dark blue March 711 drew away from those behind in the second group. More than that, it gradually closed up on the tail of Group One, and by sheer hard driving and keeping-at-it, Pace got within sight of Hailwood’s Surtees by Iap 47. At this point they were lapping the “rabbits” and while Hailwood nipped past Marko’s BRM, Pace got hung up and lost most of the ground he had made up before he could get by. BRM really must fit larger mirrors to the Austrian doctor’s car. Undeterred, Pace started all over again and by lap 65 was once more in sight of Hailwood, but this time they were lapping a furious battle that was raging between Peterson in the March 721X Special and Stommelen in the Eifelland March Special, who were busy racing for nearly last place. Hailwood’s racing knowledge obviously helped him to get by this pair without much trouble, but poor Pace took a long time and lost ground again. Once again he got stuck in and by lap 74 was back to square one, and this time Hailwood and he were being lapped by Fittipaldi in the John Player Lotus, and without knowing what he was doing Fittipaldi caused Pace to lift off early going into the fast bend at the end of the straight, and lose all the distance he had made up. Unlike some young heroes who are in Formula One cars today Pace saw the race leader coming up in his mirrors and dutifully eased off and moved out of the way before the corner, even if it did let Hailwood gain ground again. The race was now nearly over and the Team Williams driver pressed on but could not catch Hailwood and though the results show Hailwood in fourth place on the same lap as the leader, and Pace in fifth place one lap down, they do not tell the full story. While some people enthused and gave Pace credit for gaining two World Championship points I give him a very big “A for Effort”.

While he was scurfing away in mid-field, Hailwood wasn’t doing all that badly either, staying with the leading group for quite a long time, holding seventh place in the opening stages and moving up as others ran into troubles, and there were quite a few of them in front of him. After leading for 8 laps Regazzoni sat in second place until lap 31 when Cevert took his Tyrrell past the Ferrari, having annexed third place when Ickx went out of the race when his accelerator linkage came adrift. Regazzoni had Amon’s Matra and Hulme’s McLaren with him for most of the time, until on lap 58 when he was coming up to lap Galli in the Tecno. Galli was involved with another car at the hairpin and got crossed-up and Regazzoni hit the Tecno and bent his Ferrari too badly to continue. The Tecno limped back to the pits to retire, which was unfortunate as it had been going quite well, but a good thing, for Regazzoni was all for thumping someone as he climbed out of the bent Ferrari, and little Nanni Galli would have been a suitable candidate. Amon was going very regularly in the Matra V12, now in third place and looking all set for actually achieving something, but it was not to be. On lap 76 the French V12 seemed to be running out of petrol so he shot into the pits for a couple of gallons and screamed off back into the race, but the stop had dropped him back to sixth place, where he finished.

Francois Cevert in his Tyrrell at the 1972 Belgian Grand Prix

Cevert finished 2nd for Tyrrell

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The battle between Peterson and Stommelen fizzled out when the Eifelland had gearbox trouble, but it had reached its climax when the red March was seen going into the fast top bend at the end of the main straight, with all the wheels locked up and smoke pouring off the tyres. Peterson had thought Stommelen would give way, but he didn’t and the Swede had no option but to go somewhere else, and quickly. There was plenty of room, so nothing happened, apart from a frayed temper. Hulme had a nice tidy race into third place, his McLaren running as cleanly and smoothly as Revson’s, and the BRM lot got nowhere at all which was more in keeping with their performances this season, rather than the splendid Monte Carlo victory. Walker in the second Lotus 72 stopped on lap 30 to have a chat about the handling, and again on Iap 45 to ask if he ought to go on as the oil pressure was not happy, and eventually finished fourteenth and the last to be classified, giving the Lotus team a neat first and last. Neat, but not what Chapman really wanted, though better than two retirements.

Schenken retired his Surtees with engine trouble after 11 laps, Beltoise his BRM after 15 laps, Wilson Fittipaldi his Brabham after 28 laps with gearbox trouble, Beuttler out on the circuit on lap 32, Ickx his Ferrari after 55 laps, after having his accelerator linkage fixed up at his first stop, but failing again, de Adamich out on the circuit after 60 laps with engine trouble, and Hill retired his Brabham after 74 laps with the left front suspension damaged. Gethin and Pescarolo spent most of the race in and out of the pits and were not classified, nor considered to be retired although, in fact, Gethin had given up.

It was all over in less than-an hour and three-quarters and even before the dust and debris had settled people were asking where the 1973 Belgian Grand Prix was going to be held. Could it be that the Grand Prix “circus” without Stewart there to tell them what was right and proper, were a little discontented or were they perhaps a little disillusioned and feeling that they had not done a job of work worthy of going down in the history of Grand Prix racing. They cannot go back to Spa-Francorchamps for that circuit is only suitable for sports-car racing or saloon-car racing, even though the sports cars averaged over 150 m.p.h. for a lap and the saloons averaged over 130 m.p.h. for a lap. The Belgian Grand Prix can only go to Zolder I suppose, for I am sure that Chimay or Mettet don’t want it, they are happy with club-racers and motorcyclists, respectively.

I wonder if I ought to start writing the complete history of the Belgian Grand Prix ? If it wasn’t for Barcelona, Monaco, Nurburgring, Osterreichring, Monza and Clermont-Ferrand and Watkins Glen I could start thinking about writing the complete history of Grand Prix racing. When I start thinking, Grand Prix racing is not all that bad, it is just that it could be better. During a dull moment at Nivelles-Baulers I made a little list of “enjoyments”. It read like this, “The sound of that Matra V12”; “The passion for racing of Ickx”; “The demeanour of Reutemann”; “The shape of the 1972 Ferrari when it wears its narrow nose cowling”; “The smoothness of Fittipaldi’s driving”; “The new bright boys on the horizon”; “The return of Lotus to the front”; “The . . .” and then someone asked me what I thought of the new autodrome.

Emerson Fittipaldi celebrates his 1972 Belgian grand Prix victory on the podium.

Fittipaldi celebrates his second win of the season on the podium

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The day of gaiety and excitement ended with the Marlboro advertising parade setting off on another tour of the circuit and that dark brown American voice telling us we were in “Marrl-borrow Kun-tree”. In the background was a small black and gold voice saying “Ahem! Excuse me, but the John Player Cigarette Special won the race you know”, and while Marlboro cigarettes may be bigger and louder than John Player, it was those in the black and gold box that had won the race. If cigarette smoking gives you cancer and makes you die then Grand Prix racing’s days are numbered. But perhaps they are anyway.

To the inevitable question “Did you enjoy Nivelles ?” the answer is simple—NO. To the second question “Did you enjoy writing about Nivelles ?” the answer is equally simple—YES. — D. S. J.