THE 500 KILOMETRES OF FRANCORCHAMPS

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SPA, BELGIUM, May 16th.

THIS year the 500-kilometre race run on the magnificent Francorchamps circuit in the Ardennes, and organised by the Royal Automobile Club of Spa, had a class for GT Prototypes as well as the usual GT classes. On the face of things it looked like being a walk-over for Mike Parkes driving the 4-litre Ferrari 330P of Maranello Concessionaires, the only likely opposition coming from LM Ferraris and the Alan Mann Shelby-Cobra Daytona coupes, but as so often happens, things went astray. Whitmore and Bondurant were driving the official Cobras, and Piper and Mairesse were in the faster LM Ferraris, there being two others, one brand new one driven by Franck and one driven by the French girl Annie Soisbault.

Parkes set on at a great pace, completely unchallenged, and Mairesse began to battle with the two Cobra coupes, but it was not long before the wiry little Belgian, now fully recovered from his accident, got into his stride and got away from the two Cobras, but he could not gain on Parkes. During practice Piper was having all sorts of troubles and was badly placed on the grid and in addition he had to start the race with a rebuilt gearbox, so his first few laps had to encompass running-in of the gearbox and learning the circuit relative to the LM Ferrari, and on the third lap he was down in 11th place. By this time most people had got sorted out after the jostling of the opening lap, and Parkes led Mairesse, with Whitmore and Bondurant in close company some way behind; then came Sutcliffe (Ferrari GTO), leading Ben Pon (Porsche GTS) and Salmon (Ferrari GTO), followed by Slotemaker (Porsche GTS) and Gerald Langlois (Ferrari GTO). Among the smaller cars Hegbourne was leading his team-mate Boley Pittard in the lan Walker-Day Alfa Romeos.

At six laps Parkes indicated signs of distress to his pit, but kept going, and kept the lead until his refuelling stop at 17 laps, but when he came in he reported low fuel pressure, the pumps giving trouble. The car was at the pits for 3 min. 45 sec., by which time he was right out of the running and Mairesse was firmly in the lead. Earlier, Whitmore had arrived at the pits with the right front corner of the Cobra smashed in. He had been about to lap Digby in one of the Radford Racing Cobras, when this rather inexperienced driver moved across in front of the fast-moving coupe. Whitmore’s car hit the back of the open car, which was pushed well and truly off the road, and the Cobra coupe limped in to have the bodywork bent away from the tyre. This had let Sutcliffe into fourth place, with Ben Pon behind him, and Piper now going very well and catching both of them. Bondurant’s Cobra suddenly went on to seven cylinders and he came into the pits, but nothing could be found wrong, the malady obviously being internal, and he rejoined the race in loth position, so everyone moved up a place.

Out in front Willy Mairesse was driving splendidly and in complete command of the race, while Piper climbed steadily up to second place. Refuelling stops came thick and fast and Ben Pon got in front of Sutcliffe, so now the order was Mairesse, Piper, Pon, Sutcliffe, Slotemaker and Bondurant. Among the Alfa Romeos the two Walker cars were battling with the Luxembourg driver Koob in a similar car, and Hegbourne was leading, and after they had all refuelled the three cars were in sight of each other. Parkes had rejoined the race but could only cruise round and hope to finish, going comparatively slowly and not bothering to wear goggles. After trying to make up time, Whitmore was forced to retire as a roughness developed in the engine, when the crankshaft damper came loose.

The race ran for 36 laps and Mairesse led all the way to the finish in the yellow Ferrari 275LM of the Ecurie Francorchamps, while Piper in his privately-owned green Ferrari 275LM was in a very fine second place, helped by an efficient refuelling stop. Then came Ben Pon in an orange Porsche 914 GTS of the Racing Team Holland, followed by Sutcliffe in his ex-Piper Ferrari GTO, having driven a fast and smooth race, which he enjoyed enormously. Bondurant was fifth in the slightly sick Cobra coupe, and the rest of the finishers were a lap behind or more.

The furious battle among the Alfa Romeos ended in disaster when Hegbourne’s car went off the road just after Malmedy, for some reason that would appear to be connected with mechanical failure or tyre failure, and the driver was very badly injured, while the Luxembourg car broke down a little later, leaving Boley Pittard unchallenged in the class.—D. S. J.