1977 Belgian Grand Prix report
Lotus show their hand with a maiden victory for Gunnar Nilsson at the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix
Terlamen-Zolder, June 5th
The Days when the Grand Prix de Belgique was a great occasion, set in the majestic countryside of the Ardenne forests, still linger, and by comparison the rowdy, almost bawdy, fun-fair of Formula One and its travelling circus, somehow seems much more suited to something called "De Grote Prijs van Belgie" held in the "mickey-mouse" confines of the artificial track in the woods of Limburg, within sight of the coal mines, canals and motorways of industrial Belgium. The "razz-ma-tazz" and "ballyhoo" of Formula One would be completely out of place in the beautiful countryside in south-east Belgium, around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, while the rubbish, filth and waste left by the "circus" and its campfollowers when they move on to the next "site", would leave a nasty scar on one of the more attractive parts of Belgium. In consequence, perhaps it is just as well that when the businessmen changed "Grand Prix" into "Formula One" their employees did not find the Spa-Francorchamps circuit to their liking and abandoned it after 1970. That the "circus" are not totally happy at their present camp-site, and show no inclination to encourage the revival of the concrete edifice at Nivelles-Baulers, is indicated by continual talk of a smaller and shorter circuit at Spa-Francorchamps, using the pits, paddock and starting area as the basis.
The race organisers and the Constructors Association were quite happy to open the race to "members and a limited number of friends" but quite a lot of non-members and unattached drivers wanted to have a go at qualifying for the 24 positions allocated to the starting grid. Fortunately these "outsiders" had a good "legal-eagle" on their side, who could read clearly the small print in the FIA Yellow Book, where it said that race organisers must allow any reasonable applicant the opportunity to try for a place on the grid. So 32 drivers were ready for practice on Friday morning, the narrow pit lane was hopelessly overcrowded, like Brands Hatch and Silverstone used to be, and the luckless ones did not even have a pit to operate from, but had to camp-out on the grass and sand towards the first corner after the pits. "Like being on Skegness beach" remarked Brian Henton as his mechanics tried to keep sand out of their toolboxes. Others eyed the Armco safety barriers and catch-fences behind them ironically, wondering who had decided to set up the over-flow pits in a danger area. It must have been a danger area, or why have Armco and catch-fences!
While some teams like Lotus and Wolf got straight on with the job, others like Tyrrell did some experimenting with the spare car to start with and others were prevented from getting on with it. One of these was Ensign, for Regazzoni had barely got the tyres and oil really warm before a connecting-rod broke in the Cosworth engine and punched an expensive hole in the side of the block. He continued in the spare car. Of the private owners Arturo Merzario got into the groove very quickly and put in some faster laps than many of the works drivers who were fiddling about. The regulation 10 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. practice session was getting nicely under way, With Andretti fastest, but with John Watson close behind him, when the rain began; light at first, but soon becoming steady with a greyness encroaching from all quarters. Nilsson had been out in the spare Lotus and Depailler in the spare Tyrrell and by the time they transferred to their race cars the track was damp, so they could make little progress. Practice, as such, and starting grid qualifying aspirations all fizzled out well before the allotted time. In the afternoon practice was due from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., by which time it was raining hard and one became conscious of the "new look" in Formula One that has been creeping back since the retirement of drivers like Stewart and Hulme. It was not so long ago that such weather conditions would have seen all the cars covered up, the drivers all huddled together in a caravan and suggestions being made that if the rain went on the race would have to be cancelled. Happily, those "trade union" days are gone and the attitude of most drivers today is "we are here to drive racing cars, wet or dry, so let's get on with it." The result was that there was a remarkable amount of activity during the very wet hour. Some drivers with two cars at their disposal, like Jody Scheckter, and Jacques Laffite used their spare car, others had to make do with what they had and Merzario was prevented from going out as a drive-shaft had broken at the end of the morning and the car was being repaired. Neither of the works McLaren drivers ventured out, the management considering such activity pointless, as did John Watson. Others who did not practise in the rain were Jones (Shadow), Brambilla (Surtees) as his car was being worked on following an engine blowup in the morning, Keegan and Hayje. Lap times were 20 seconds or more slower than in the dry, so the whole practice session was meaningless as far as the starting grid positions were concerned, and as the morning session had been rudely interrupted by the rain, the Saturday practice was going to be more critical than usual. Jody Scheckter was comfortably (or uncomfortably, to be more correct!) fastest in the rain with Peterson, Nilsson and Andretti in a group behind him, followed by the Ferraris of Reutemann and Lauda.
The weather was still grey and cold on Saturday morning when everyone went through the motions of the hour-and-a-half untimed "test session" which Goodyear are reluctant to let the "circus" abandon, even though most teams would like to. Watson went out in the spare Brabham, but it started to boil so he was soon in his regular car, and the Ensign team had another disastrous engine blow-up in MN06 again, so Regazzoni was resigned to using the spare car for the afternoon qualifying hour. In the Lotus pits there was a growing air of confidence, for everything had been going nicely their way before the rain came on the previous day and Colin Chapman was so confident with the condition of the cars that he flew back to England for some family affairs on Saturday leaving it all in the capable hands of his three technicians, Southgate, Bennett and Bellamy: On unofficial timing the two Lotus cars were a pretty convincing first and second before the morning was ended, in team order, but the smiles soon disappeared when both cars were over-due and then Andretti appeared with Nilsson riding passenger on the side of his car. The engine in 78/2 had gone "Bang", of that there was no doubt from the Swede's description, and when the car was towed in it was seen that he had not exaggerated. A connecting-rod was poking coyly out of the side of the cylinder block. The final hour was between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and there was no alternative but to set up 78/1 for Nilsson, while 78/2 had another engine installed. Regazzoni was having to use MN07 and the March team decided that Ian Scheckter should use the 761B rather than the new 771 for this crucial hour as the new car had not done sufficient running and they were still learning about it.
The rather grey weather improved a bit during the afternoon, but it never looked like becoming "blazing June". The final frantic hour began and the confusion in the pit lane mounted, with television crews trapesing about with cameras and cables, photographers taking the same photographs for the umpteenth time, small children trying to get drivers' autographs and people and cars milling about. Amidst it all James Hunt came running down the pit lane, having abandoned M26/2 when the Cosworth engine blew up. Amid all the confusion the McLaren mechanics had to prepare M23/11 for him, in a forlorn hope of keeping the World Champion in the picture. According to the regulations only 24 cars were going to be allowed to start, these being the fastest 24 naturally, but before this final hour of qualifying the organisers were going round with a petition for the team managers to sign, agreeing that 26 cars should be allowed to start, in the hope that this would give the Belgians Neve and de Dryver a better chance of getting in the race.
Andretti was reeling off quick laps with a deceptive smoothness, and Nilsson was not far behind, in spite of being in the spare car, with its longer wheelbase and old-type rear roll-bar layout. Clearly the Lotus 78s had been beautifully "tuned" to the circuit, and while 1 min. 26 sec. and a bit was a good competitive time, Andretti was well down below 1 min. 26 sec. Some quite good driver/car combinations were still trying to better 1 min. 27 sec., when the Lotus pit signals indicated min. 24.9 sec. to Andretti which a lot of people just refused to believe. When 1 min. 24.7 sec. appeared everyone thought the Lotus time-keeper had taken leave of his senses, for the likes of Lauda, Scheckter, Depailler, Watson and so on did not look like approaching 1 min. 26 sec., let alone getting below it; here were Team Lotus suggesting that Andretti was 2 sec. faster than most of the top runners! The fact that Nilsson in the spare car was third fastest rather convinced the disbelievers that Lotus had pulled something out of the technical bag. When the turmoil of the final hour subsided it was seen that Lotus were not fooling, Andretti recorded 1 min. 24.64 sec., well below the fastest-ever lap recorded at Zolder, and the next fastest was John Watson with 1 min. 26.18 sec., one and a half seconds behind the Lotus. In an age when one and a half seconds can cover the first 10 or 15 cars at the end of practice, and pole position is often snatched by 1 1/2 tenths of a second, it seemed unreal that the Lotus should be that far in front. Team Lotus felt confident that if Nilsson had been in his proper car he would have been second fastest; as it was he was third, which was a fine effort on his part.
This unbelievable situation at the front of the grid completely overshadowed the fact that Reutemann was faster than Lauda in the Ferrari team, and that both of them were much slower than Watson's Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Scheckter's Wolf (another embarrassing phone call to the Commendatore). The back of the grid was almost unimportant in the general picture, though very important to those concerned. Patrick Neve had just scraped in with the Williams March, in 24th place, just behind Perkins who had not been shining too brightly with the Surtees. It was agreed that an extra two cars be taken into the race, so this let in Harald Ertl with his Hesketh and Jarier with the Penske. Keegan and Purley were well in, while Riccardo Patrese once again took all the kudos from the "new-boys". Those that were left out were Hayje (March), Villota (McLaren), Anderson (BRM), Ribeiro (March), de Dryver (March) and Rebaque (Hesketh).
Overnight the speed of the Lotus was discussed in all quarters. It was accepted that Andretti was a good driver, but not that good, and anyway Nilsson was well placed, so it had to be something about the Lotus 78 that Chapman and his team had done. It wasn't super-special Cosworth engines, for Andretti was using a John Nicholson prepared engine and Nilsson was using a normal run-of-the-mill Cosworth Engineering prepared unit. Lotus had got a special-development Cosworth engine, but were not using it, it was sitting in the transporter. It could not be special Goodyear tyres, because by the Constructor Association "gentleman's agreement" everyone had the same type of tyre - or had they? It couldn't be that Goodyear were preparing for the appearance of Michelin into Formula One, by letting some special tyres slip out. If they had, they are unlikely to have had them for Andrew and Nilsson. It could not be the special low-percentage slip differential, for Nilsson wasn't using one. The only common factor seemed to be the much-vaunted (at the beginning of the season) air-flow under the side-pods, giving additional down-force. From appearances both Lotus cars seemed to be running with their rear aerofoils at a shallower angle than most people, thus providing little down-force, but more important they were producing less drag. Observers remarked that Andretti was not only much faster round the long right-hand sweep that brings the track along behind the pits; but looked uncommonly steady. Perhaps the inverted aerofoil sections under the sides of the Lotus are now really working, having sorted out the other variables.
When Colin Chapman returned on Sunday morning he was both pleased and angry, for while he expected Andretti to be on pole position he intended that he should have done it by a few tenths of a second, not a whole second and a half. Team Lotus had shown their hand unnecessarily. The race was due to start at 3 p.m. after "mickey-mouse" races for Renault-powered cars, parades and demonstrations and all the fun of the fair. Shortly before mid-day the Formula One cars that had qualified had a last test-session, which allowed Hunt to try out the M26 now with a development Cosworth engine installed, and Depailler to try his 6-wheeler fitted with Tyrrell's special Cosworth engine. The Lotus super-Cosworth stayed in the transporter. The Ferrari team had a mild panic when Reuternann's car broke an oil pipe and he stopped in a cloud of smoke. Just in case any damage had been done and it couldn't be repaired, the Argentinian took the spare Ferrari out. Down at the back of the field there was also trouble, for Lunger's new McLaren developed an incurable misfire so Sparshott and his lads had no alternative but to get really stuck in and change the engine, before the 3 p.m. start. As Boy Hayje was first reserve the F&S team kept their March at the ready, just in case the B&S team ran out of time.
There was a fantastic wind blowing along the starting straight, against the direction of travel and the pits and paddock were full to overflowing with "anyone" and "everyone". As 3 p.m. approached the wind got stronger, the skies got greyer and as the cars left the pits to drive round to the grid the officials on the start-line who had left their waterproof clothing behind were looking very uncomfortable. In the Lunger pit all had been going well until a final petrol pipe joint was being connected up, which refused to connect properly. As it was buried under the car it took too long to cure, so that they ran out of time by five minutes. Hayje was allowed to join the cars in the pits and the gate was closed. In the Hesketh camp Keegan's car was found to have a crack in the front suspension mounting so a mad scramble got Rebaque's non-qualified car out of the transporter and bits of bodywork from Keegan's car were fitted to it. The young Southender had to set off into the race in a car he had barely seen before, let alone sat in before.
On the starting grid Andretti's Lotus was topped up with petrol, while scrutineers went among the cars with a simple but effective height gauge through which rear aerofoils had to pass without impinging on it. All was well. The race was to be run over 70 laps of the little circuit and before the signal was given to do a warm-up lap the rain started. First as a fine sea-mist in the wind and then as a thick, but soft summer-rain. Mechanics rushed about with rain tyres, jacks, wheel nut tools, and team-managers covered their proteges with umbrellas and the officials who hadn't brought their waterproofs regretted it. The minute signal to the start of the warm-up lap was given and still everyone was on "slick" dry weather tyres. Away they went on the warm-up lap, with Andretti setting the pace, all that is except Hunt, his McLaren taking a long time to start. Eventually he left and caught the others up. By the time they returned to the grid a sign had gone up reading START DELAYED. Everyone sat miserably on the starting grid while minutes ticked by, even though the Omega clock on the control tower sat resolutely at 6.15 (a.m. or p.m.?) Then out came the sign WET RACE, which meant that the race was going to be run, come-what-may, under the existing conditions and there was a free choice about what tyres to use and when to use them. Still no move was made by anyone to fit wet weather tyres, though everyone had their equipment ready. It looked as though everyone was reluctant to start and they were playing for time, but the rain was still coming down. A one-minute warning signal was given that the normal starting procedure was about to be re-enacted. Nothing happened for a moment, and then Watson's crew began to change tyres; he was followed by Scheckter, then Laffite, then Andretti and then everyone was changing over to wet-weather tyres and the "wet race" was on. Amidst all this activity Hunt's mechanics stood motionless, the World Champion had decided to take an enormous gamble and start on dry-weather tyres, in the hope that the rain would soon stop and that he could keep close enough to the race pace, to profit when the others had to stop to change tyres. It was a sporting gamble on the basis of "win it all, or lose it all, no half-measures".
The count-down began with the red light glowering balefully down onto the 26 cars, the green light came on and everyone was away in a cloud of spray, Watson out-accelerating Andretti to the first corner. They all stayed on the road though two back-markers spun and streamed round the long back curve and came rushing down the back straight to the chicane behind the paddock. Suddenly there was a shower of sparks amid the spray and Watson and Andretti spun off the track. The little US-Italian had goofed on braking and punted the Brabham up the rear. Miraculously everyone avoided the spinning car, though Nilsson had to take to the rough momentarily, and then the 24 remaining cars had gone over the small hill and were returning for the end of the opening lap. Scheckter went storming by in the lead, the Wolf looking very good, with Nilsson and Mass following. Already there was a gap before Reutemann arrived leading Depailler, Laffite, Peterson, Lauda, Brambilla, Patrese, Stuck, Regazzoni, Fittipaldi and the rest. Hunt was already down into eighteenth place, from his ninth starting position, but he was still going faster on "slicks" than some aspiring World Champions were on wet-weather tyres. There was little change on the second lap, apart from Scheckter making the most of the clear road ahead of him, and Hunt dropping back to next to last. On lap three the new Fittipaldi car spluttered to a stop beside the track with water in its electrics. While Scheckter was pulling away, Mass was racing wheel to wheel with Nilsson for second place, the two number two drivers putting on a fine show now that the number ones were out of the way. On lap 6 Stuck went off into the sand and dirt and appeared in the pits with a brown front on his red Brabham, and lost a lot of time being cleaned up and put back into the race. By lap 7 it looked as if Hunt had lost out on his gamble, for the rain was still falling and he was lapped by Scheckter, which meant that he was now more than a pit-stop behind the leader. On the next lap the duelling Nilsson and Mass lapped Hunt, and though the rain was easing off the track was still very wet and slippery, as Stuck found out as he spun into the chicane behind the paddock, but kept the Brabham on the track.
By 10 laps Jody Scheckter had a commanding lead, while brother Ian had spun his March off into the dirt, covering the engine with sand and earth so that it would have asked for engine failure to try and restart. In struggling to get the better of Nilsson, Mass had a quick spin, which let Reutemann go by. The Ferrari driver had pulled away from his followers and this allowed Mass to catch the spinning McLaren and carry on in fourth place, before Lane, Brambilla, Lauda, Patrese, Peterson, Regazzoni and Jones came along, the last three running abreast down the straight past the pits. Purley was doing a good job leading all the non-works cars and holding twelfth place overall. With the strong wind still blowing the track dried quickly as the rain stopped, especially on the path taken by the racing cars, but it was still treacherous off the ideal line, as Patrese found out on lap 13, when he spun off into the crash barrier. At this point Peterson came in to change over to dry-weather tyres, while the others kept to the wet patches on the straights to cool their wet-weather tyres which soon over-heated on the dry parts of the track. At 14 laps Scheckter still had a long lead, followed by Nilsson, Reutemann and Mass spaced out, and then Brambilla, Lauda and Laftite, followed by Regazzoni, Jones and Purley. At this point Lauda drew into the pits to change on to dry-weather tyres, and before a lot of people had noticed he was in the pits the Ferrari was up on the jacks, the wheels off, new wheels with "slick" tyres on, the jacks were down and Lauda was gone. The Ferrari mechanics surpassed themselves, for the car was stationary for 16 seconds! He was back in the race in ninth place, long before Hunt appeared so that the McLaren driver's gamble had really failed.
In the early part of the seventeenth lap Scheckter lost control on a wet patch and spun off the track, damaging nothing more serious than the Wolf's rear light, but before he could get going again, aided by the marshals, he had dropped to eighth place, just ahead of Lauda. While Lauda had been in the pits Reutemann had spun off on the treacherous surface and hit the Armco, as had Keegan, who had been unable to keep up with his fellow Hesketh owner Ertl. Scheckter's slip let Nilsson into the lead for the rest of that lap, but the Swede was already easing off to come in for a tyre change, so it was Mass who actually led at the end of lap 17. Nilsson's tyre change went as wrong as Lauda's had gone right, for the left-front wheel nut jibbed at going back on and the luckless Swede was over a lap behind Jochen Mass when he rejoined the race, now in thirteenth place. Regazzoni and Jones stopped to change tyres on lap 18, so everyone behind them moved up two places and then Mass made his pit-stop and this let a surprised Brambilla into the lead, followed by Laffite and then Purley, who had profited from everyone's stops and troubles. When Laffite stopped for a tyre change after 21 laps, Purley moved into a glorious, but tenuous second place. On the same lap Scheckter stopped to change tyres, having been passed by Lauda and Mass. Poor Hunt was still a lap down on whoever led the race, with no hope of improving his position. One lap more and Brambilla was heading down the pit road for "dry" tyres, and then Purley followed him, so that Lauda now went by in the lead, followed by Mass and Jones. If David Purley had carried on for one more lap before coming into the pits he would have had the moment of glory of actually leading the race! Unfortunately his pit-stop was a disaster, for he stopped the engine while the wheels were changed and then had trouble with the starter motor and lost a lot of time before he got back into the race.
By lap 25 all the excitement of pit-stops and tyre changing was over and the race order stabilised itself. Lauda was leading comfortably, thanks to his mechanics, with Mass second, Jones in a worthy third place, followed by Brambilla whose pit-stop had been very good. Then came Scheckter, still making up for his misdemeanour, Laffite and Nilsson, who were now on the same lap as the leader. The track was dry, everyone was on "dry" tyres and a new race was in progress. Lauda looked to have it all made for victory, he was well out in front, driving smoothly and efficiently and the Ferrari sounded perfect. Neither Mass nor Jones were going to give him any trouble, nor Brambilla for that matter, though Scheckter, Laffite and Nilsson were on the same lap but too far back to be a danger or so it seemed. When Mass had a spin on lap 29, without leaving the road, Lauda's lead was even more secure, though Scheckter and Nilsson were closing rapidly on Jones and Brambilla. On the next lap, as Regazzoni's Ensign blew up its third Cosworth engine of the weekend, the Wolf was in third place and Nilsson was all mixed up with Jones and Brambilla, and was joined by Peterson and Laffite. On lap 32 it was Lauda's turn to have a spin, for the track was still slippery in places where intermittent rain showers had started again, but not all over the track. This spin did no harm and did not jeopardise the lead that Lauda had and on the next lap the Matra engine in the Ligier blew up and Laffite coasted onto the grass. The light rain was now spreading to all parts of the track, but not heavy enough to cause a panic for "wet-weather" tyres. Although Scheckter was securely in third place he did not know it, for in the confusion of pit signals he had not read his correctly. The Wolf pit was at the far end of the row, among Lotus and Tyrrell and almost on the braking point for the sharp left-hand bend, and in the gloom Scheckter had been unable to grasp the situation and thought he was nowhere in the race. Thinking he had nothing to lose and not enjoying the wet track on "slick" tyres he went into the pits and changed to "wets", which elevated Nilsson into third place, the Swede having got the better of Jones and Brambilla, though Peterson was unable to do the same. When Scheckter rejoined the race he was down in seventh position, nearly a whole lap behind Lauda.
The rain did not develop into anything serious and by "pussy-footing" they were all keeping on the wet road in spite of being on dry-weather "slicks". That is until lap 40 when Mass "lost it" and spun the McLaren off the track and out of the race. This now left Nilsson a comfortable second place, but a long way behind the leading Ferrari, with Peterson now third, having passed Jones and Brambilla, though Jones was now down on power due to a broken exhaust manifold pipe, and the Shadow was sounding very rough, but still going. Scheckter was now a remarkable sixth, but with the drying track he was in trouble with his "knobbly" wet-weather tyres overheating and throwing bits of tread. The nice drying wind was still doing its stuff and as things improved Nilsson's Lotus came into its own and the Swede began to reduce the gap on the leading Ferrari at an astonishing rate. Within ten laps on the dry road the Lotus was right up behind the Ferrari and on lap 50 the Swede out-braked the Ferrari into the chicane behind the pits, as if he was overtaking a back-marker, and was gone over the hill into the lead, just like that. There was nothing Lauda could do about it, and with all respects to Gunnar Nilsson's driving ability, it just had to be a case of a vastly superior car. Behind them Brambilla had elbowed his way past Peterson, into third place, but then overdid it on a corner and got all crossed-up, so that the sixwheeler went back into third place.
Poor Scheckter had finally been forced to return to the pits and change back onto "dry" tyres and was now well over a lap behind everyone that mattered. Hunt was still in the race, but almost unnoticed, though actually in sixth place, more than a lap behind the leader and he was followed by Depailler, who had been delayed by two pit stops. Closing on them was Stuck, who since his earlier mistakes had been going well, and when Peterson lapped his teammate the Frenchman hung on and got "towed" closer to Hunt, for the Swede was in flying form.
Once away from Lauda, the younger Swede was able to "roll it off" and cruise home untroubled, revving to a mere 9,500 r.p.m. in the gears, instead of the normal 10,800 r.p.m. The Lotus was just remarkable, and Nilsson was doing a great job of work with it. Scheckter's unhappy day ended with only seven laps to go when his engine spluttered and died, for what seemed like an electrical fault somewhere, and Nilsson cruised round to complete the 70 laps. Never was there a happier winner, his first Grand Prix victory, and a well-earned one; the Lotus had run perfectly throughout "... and was just fantastic". It was best summed up by the sight of Colin Chapman struggling through the crowds surrounding the winner's rostrum and Gunnar Nilsson standing amidst the mob, looking happy but a bit bewildered by it all. Suddenly, they came face-to-face, and the spontaneous way they threw their arms round each other and hugged one another from sheer emotion and mutual satisfaction was wonderful. There was no need for words, that embrace said it all. - D.S.J
Stuck was officially classified sixth, though how he made up a whole lap on Hunt with a very long pit-stop and a spin, is difficult to see.
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Harald Ertl made a very workmanlike drive into ninth place, and Patrick Neve pleased his compatriots by keeping Frank Williams' March on the road and finishing tenth. After his drive in the opening phase of the race, David Purley's lowly thirteenth finishing position did not reflect on how well he had gone. A long first pit-stop and then another for a front tyre, dropped him a long way back.
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After the race Scheckter's mechanics "fired-up" the Wolf with no trouble at all, the Cosworth V8 sounding quite healthy! There was no question of "firing-up" the Ensign's Cosworth V8. It had a big hole in the side.
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The Ford Motor Company made a big song-and-dance about "their" engine winning 100 Formula One races recently. As a French newspaper remarked "they didn't tell us about the 100 engine failures".
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With seven cars derelict on the edge of the track, due to driver errors, and many more spins, those who finished the race faultlessly could feel well pleased with themselves.
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After the race Nilsson said "It was very tricky at one point in the race because it was raining at one end of the track and not at the other." That used to be the main criticism of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the days of Stewart and Hulme and the GPDA, and one of the reasons they forced the Belgian race to be moved to Zolder. Where can they go now; surely not back to Spa!