Reflections with Richard Williams: Gurney's golden summer

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Bang in the middle of the Summer of Love, Dan Gurney enjoyed the biggest week of his life. As the hippies gathered in Haight Ashbury, the 36-year-old Korean war veteran won a remarkable double: the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Belgian Grand Prix, a week apart. The first victory came at the wheel of a Ford Mk IV shared with A J Foyt, which you can read more about on page 102. The second made him the first driver from the United States to win a world championship Formula 1 race in a car – the beautiful Eagle-Weslake – built and entered by his own team. 

For my friend Graham Ashmore and me, Gurney’s great week in 1967 had begun on a Friday evening when we boarded a night flight to France chartered by Page & Moy, a travel agency pioneering low-cost package trips to foreign races. Taking off from the grass runway at Lympne airport in Kent, a DC3 carried us across the Channel to Beauvais, where we boarded a coach for the journey to Le Mans and a parking space somewhere on the infield, within walking distance of the paddock.

Graham and I had bought tickets for the Balcon & Enceinte des Ravitaillments, at 70 francs (then about £7) apiece. Beneath us, 54 cars representing 15 marques lined up in the traditional manner along the pits, waiting for their drivers to take position on the opposite side of the road. We were directly above the two sleek new Lola T70 Mk III coupés, big white arrowheads painted on their dark green noses. As 4pm arrived, the crowd hushed and we could hear the patter of the drivers’ feet as they sprinted across the asphalt before the engines burst into life and the field shot off in a confusion of colour and noise.

First away was the pale blue Ford Mk II of Ronnie Bucknum, the former Honda F1 driver, with the white NART Ferrari P3/4 of Pedro Rodríguez on his tail. Looming behind them as they roared away was Gurney in the cherry-red Mk IV, entered by Carroll Shelby with factory backing. Slower off the mark were the two bewinged Chaparral 2F coupés and the trio of works Ferrari P4s.

In the light of Fernando Alonso’s recently expressed desire to add Le Mans and the Indy 500 to his list of victories, it’s interesting to note that, as well as those already mentioned, many other pukka F1 pilots – past, present and future – were to be found among the 108 drivers at the Circuit de la Sarthe that year: Bruce McLaren, Mario Andretti, John Surtees, Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Denis Hulme, Jochen Rindt, Piers Courage, Dickie Attwood, Willy Mairesse, Jo Siffert, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, Lodovico Scarfiotti, Mike Spence and more. 

Surtees’s Lola retired only three laps into the race, with a broken piston. Two British tiddlers, Jem Marsh’s Mini-Marcos and Roger Nathan’s Imp-powered Costin-Nathan, disappeared before nightfall. We wandered up to the Dunlop Bridge, through the Esses and down to Tertre Rouge as the light dimmed, past the fairground and the striptease bars, savouring the spectacle. An hour before dawn three of the Fords would be eliminated in a single accident after Andretti’s Mk IV locked a brake and hit the bank at the Esses.

For those on the pits balcony in the early morning, the highlight was the chance to watch the Chaparral mechanics slaving for three hours to change the entire transmission on Phil Hill’s car, only for it to break again an hour later. Gurney and Foyt – who had won the Indy 500 for the third time a fortnight earlier – took the lead in the second hour and held it securely to the finish, a couple of laps ahead of the P4 of Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes.

When the race was over the coach took us to Paris, where we spent four nights in a Montmartre hotel. As a couple of lads from Nottingham, we were impressed by the parade of elegant streetwalkers on the nearby Place Pigalle and by the price of a Scotch and Coke – the equivalent of 25 bob, five times what we’d have paid at home – in a discothèque on the Rue Balzac, off the Champs-Elysées, where we danced with impossibly cool French girls to Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

At the weekend the coach took us the 400km to Spa in time to watch final practice on the magnificent 14km circuit. The main attractions were supposed to be the new Lotus 49-DFVs of Jim Clark, the winner at Zandvoort a fortnight earlier, and Graham Hill. But on Sunday afternoon Hill’s battery went flat on the grid and Clark, after leading from pole, pitted twice to replace broken spark plugs and could finish only sixth. Gurney swept home to a historic win in the V12-powered Eagle, ahead of Jackie Stewart’s H16 BRM and Chris Amon in one of a trio of Ferrari 312s. 

From our vantage point above Eau Rouge we had looked across the valley and seen the cloud of dust that signalled the end of Mike Parkes’s F1 career after his Ferrari hit a patch of oil at Blanchimont on the first lap, leaving him with severe leg injuries. Just one more indelible memory from a crowded week – but none of them quite as precious as those the double winner took home to California.

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