A good race on a fine circuit
Spa, Belgium, May 11th.
The question that puzzled many people after reading about the cancellation of the Belgium G.P. at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, due to various not very convincing reasons connected with safety, was how the 1,000-kilometre sports-car race could take place after all the wild stories of high speed and danger. The answer was quite simple, for the Grand Prix is organised by the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium and the 1,000-kilometre rate by the Royal Automobile Club of Spa. The R.A.C. of Spa were not concerned with the F.1 constructors and the Grand Prix drivers and went ahead with their long-distance race for Prototypes, Group 4 sports cars and GT cars and there were no complaints, demands or threatened strikes and the event was a great success. Indeed, seven Grand Prix drivers took part and one Formula One constructor.
Although this race is in the Manufacturers’ Championship series it has never received full support from everyone, though a good entry is always assured and this year was no exception. The Gulf-Mirage team entered two of their V12 B.R.M.-powered coupés, the car tried out at the B.O.A.C. 500 for Ickx/Oliver and a brand new one for Hobbs/Hailwood. They were virtually identical, with five-speed ZF gearboxes, but the first car had a two-pipe with megaphones exhaust system, developed by Gulf Oil engineers and the new car had a four-pipe system with very big megaphones, developed by Weslake Engineering. Unfortunately both engines were 1968 versions with two valves per cylinder, so they were very much down on power compared to the other 3-litre cars. Having had one car severely bent at Monza, Ferrari could only produce one car and was forced to forfeit his second entry. As Amon was unwell Piper was invited to join Rodriguez in the team, much to the Englishman’s joy. The car was 312P/0870 that Amon and Andretti had driven at Monza. Alpine-Renault entered three of their V8 Renault-Gordini-engined cars, as raced at Monza, including the new one with the ventilated brakes and radiator across the tail, while the wrecked Monza car was replaced by a very old original model. The drivers were: Grandsire/Jabouille, Andruet/van Lennap and de Cortanze/Vinatier. Porsche entered four 908 long-tailed 3-litre coupés for Elford/Ahrens, Stommelen/Herrmann, Siffert/Redman and Mitter/Schutz, though the last two pairs had alternative entries in the new 917 Porsches in Group 4. Three of the 918 coupés had been used at Monza. There were no other works car present, although Matra had two entries, but other work and other interests kept them away. The Porsche team were backed up by the 2.2-litre 907 coupés of the German B.G. racing team, driven by von Wendt/Kausen and Koch/Dechent and they were directly opposed in the Prototype class by the two Alfa Romeo 33 cars of the Belgian V.D.S. team, now both with 2½-litre V8 engines. The V.D.S. drivers were Pilette/Slotemaker, Bougognie/Gosselin. Completing this class were three special Chevron coupés, one the Red Rose Motor’s car with Cosworth FVA engine, driven by Bridges/Lepp, the second the four-cylinder Coventry-Climax-powered car of Beeson/Smith, and the third the Ford twin-cam car of Mylius/Harvey.
The big excitement in the Group 4 category was the entry of two fiat 12-cylinder 4½-litre 917 Porsches, for Siffert/Redman and Mitter/Schutz. There now being 25 Porsche 917 coupés lined up in Stuttgart, all ready to race, the model is homologated as a Group 4 sports car. All it needs is some racing development and 25 customers. There were three T70 Lola-Chevrolet V8 coupés, the red one of Hawkins/Prophet, the yellow and green one of Troberg/Rothstein and the yellow and black one of Bonnier/Muller. There were two Ford GT40 coupés, the nearly brand new one of the I.G.F.A. team for Kelleners/Jöst and Sadler’s earlier model which he was sharing with Vestey. Bradley was sharing his 910 Porsche with Dean. There were five production Chevron-B.M.W. 2-litre coupés driven by Brown/Enever, Edwards/Franay, Burton/Ridgeway, Taggart/Goodwin and Clydesdale/Hunter, a lone Ferrari Dino for “Elde”/de Fierlant and an MG.-B for Dawkins/Eade.
The GT class was very small, with three 911 Porsches, a Ferrari GTB-2 and a Chevrolet-Corvette. Of the Porsches one was a works car for Larousse/Lins, one a Belgian entry for Gaban/Deprez and the third the German entry of Blatzheim/Zanders. The Ferrari was Swiss-owned, Rey/Berney and the Corvette Belgian-owned, Tuerlinckx/Stalpaert.
There was practice during the afternoons of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But it did few people any real good for intermittent rain showers persisted all the time. The Gulf-Mirage cars were not handling at all well and were not going fast enough, the big Porsche 917 coupés were keeping their drivers busy rather than happy and the 908 coupés were in fine form, as was the lone 312P Ferrari. “Elde” crashed the Dino Ferrari badly, being all right himself. The Lolas were handling nicely, but the 5-litre Chevrolet engines were not producing enough power to produce competitive speed down the Masta straight, especially compared with the 917 Porsches. One of the big Porsches had to be abandoned on Saturday with an oil leak and the gear-change was not all it might be. Fifth gear is a super-high top gear positioned out of the H-gate over to the right, in direct contrast with the 908 cars where 5th gear is the top-right branch of the gate and 1st gear is “odd man out” for starting off, being out of the gate to the left. This different arrangement seemed to cause some of the drivers a little difficulty.
After some forbidding practice days race day turned out to be fine and warm, though totally cloudy, and 70,000 people turned up to watch the high-speed battle between Porsche and Ferrari. Siffert and Redman elected to drive a 908 instead of the new 4½-litre 917, as they had not become really conversant with it, and Mitter and Schutz, while agreeing to drive the second 917, kept to Dunlop tyres, whereas the other works cars ran on Firestone. Having just won the Targa Florio on Dunlop tyres their decision was understandable. Siffert has made fastest practice time in a 917 at 3 min. 41.9 sec., but electing to drive the 3-litre car put him on the opposite side of the front row with his time in the 908, which was 3 min. 48.6 sec., behind Hawkins and Ickx, who were on the front row with the Porsche. In row 2 were Rodriguez and Bonnier, followed by Elford, Herrmann and Mitter, followed by the rest in rows of two and three alternately. At the last moment the second VDS Alfa Romeo had engine trouble and failed to start, and the Chevrons of Beeson/Smith and Taggart/Goodwin were also non-starters. After a “warm-up” lap, or “lap of recognition” to be more precise, the start took place right on 1 p.m., but the Alpine-Renault V8 of Andruet stalling in the middle of the pack made it a bit ragged and untidy.
Hawkins led away in his red Lola coupé, with Siffert, Rodriguez and Ickx hard on his heels. The Lola stayed in front for two laps, but then the works Porsche and works Ferrari got by, but Hawkins hung on to them for a few laps. Siffert’s superior driving on the testing Francorchamps circuit began to show and he kept ahead of Rodriguez, but the little Mexican did not give up and these two, with Hawkins in tow, outstripped the rest of the field and were lapping the tail-enders within three laps. Their average speed was 230 k.p.h. or more (well over 142 m.p.h.), and faster than the maximum speed of some of the competitors. The Porsche 917 lasted only a lap and coasted into the pits with a broken engine and even Ickx could not make the Mirage-B.R.M. go fast enough to keep in the picture, while the second Mirage was down among the GT40 Fords. After only five laps Herrmann came in with a punctured left rear tyre, which dropped him way back down the field, while Bonnier had been to the pits with his Lola with a plug lead adrift and Grandsire had been in with an engine oil leak on his Alpine. As the three leading cars started on lap eight they were about to lap von Wendt in the B.G. Team 907 Porsche as they headed for the Eau Rouge bridge. Siffert got his Porsche past but Rodriguez just failed to get through the closing gap and the Ferrari and the 907 collided. Rodriguez maintained control and continued up the hill, albeit slowly, but von Wendt spun and went into the bushes on the left of the road, escaping unhurt but wrecking the Porsche. This incident caused the Ferrari driver to stop at the pits next time round to see if the car had suffered anything more than body damage, and the stop let Hawkins through into second place. The Ferrari was all right so Rodriguez was soon off again, and already a long way back came Elford in fourth place, followed by Ickx, Koch, Bonnier, Rothstein and Pilette; the rest had been lapped but Sadler was keeping with Kelleners and they were both ahead of Hobbs in the second Mirage that was lacking power from its B.R.M. engine. The Red Rose Motors’ Chevron was running well and fast, the Clydesdale/Hunter one was regular if not very fast, but the others were having troubles.
The race was over 71 laps and after only 10 had passed Ickx stopped with fuel feed trouble on the B.R.M. engine. A new pump was fitted, but this was not the real trouble, and he soon stopped again, this time on the far side of the circuit. Just on one hour of racing had passed when the Ferrari had to stop for fuel, Rodriguez continuing to drive, but not before Elford had gone by, and one lap later Siffert stopped the leading Porsche for petrol and Redman took over. This let Hawkins into the lead for a lap, but it was short-lived for a lap later the Lola needed fuel. The Lola stop was very long as they were refuelling from churns, unlike Porsche and Ferrari, who were using pressure hoses. Elford also stopped for fuel and to hand ever to Ahrens, so that when the status quo was regained Redman (Porsche) led from Rodriguez (Ferrari), Hawkins (Lola), Ahrens (Porsche), Pilette (Alfa Romeo) and Kelleners (Ford GT40), though the last two were a lap behind.
During the next hour the Ferrari gradually gained on the leading Porsche and Ahrens caught and passed Hawkins. At two hours Rodriguez stopped again, so lost the advantage he had gained, and four laps later Redman stopped to refuel and hand back to Siffert. This was one lap after the half-way point and the Porsche maintained its lead, but the third place Porsche lost its position to Hawkins when Ahrens stopped for fuel and front tyres and for Elford to take over again. The Stommelen/Herrmann Porsche was running strongly after its early stop and had climbed back through the slower cars and was now fifth overall, but a lap down on the leading Porsche. Hawkins’ third place did not last long as he had to refuel and Prophet took over from him.
Rodriguez could do nothing about Siffert, even though the Ferrari was running splendidly and sounding magnificent and the Porsche was not handling as well as it might. The average speed was only a little under 230 k.p.h. (over 140 m.p.h.) and Siffert had a lead of three quarters of a minute, and lapped the third place Porsche of Elford on lap 45. After 2 hr. 55 min. of high-speed driving the tough little Rodriguez made another fuel stop and Piper took over. There was no question of him catching Siffert, who was driving brilliantly, and he merely had to keep the Ferrari going steadily in second place, ahead of Elford, while Rodriguez had a rest. For an hour Piper drove the Prototype works Ferrari just as team manager Parkes wanted, lapping only a few seconds slower than Rodriguez and keeping ahead of Elford, but since Siffert had lapped Elford the Englishman was using his Swiss team-mate to get a slipstreaming tow and was keeping up, this bringing him closer to the Ferrari than was desirable for Maranello. The better fuel consumption of the Porsches meant that they stopped later and later than the Ferrari each time, so that when Siffert refuelled on lap 54 and Elford on lap 55 they could now go through to the finish, whereas the Ferrari needed another stop. Just on the hour Piper stopped, a small quantity of fuel was put in and Rodriguez was back in the cockpit and the Ferrari was back in the race in 37 seconds, but it was nearly a whole lap behind Siffert in the leading Porsche. What was more serious was that Elford was still with Siffert and, although on the lap charts Siffert and Rodriguez were on the same lap and Elford was a lap behind, in actual fact the third place Porsche was only about 20 seconds behind the Ferrari. Siffert and Elford were working splendidly as a team, doing some intelligent slipstreaming and passing and repassing, or “leap-frogging”, so that Elford was lapping faster than he could on his own and as it result was closing on the Ferrari. In the closing laps the gap was down to 11 seconds and the Ferrari pit were keeping Rodriguez closely informed, but a few laps from the end Elford got held up by some slower cars at Stavelot and lost the rhythm with Siffert, and by the time they got together again it was too late and the 71 laps were completed with the Siffert/Redman Porsche winning by nearly a lap from the Rodriguez/Piper Ferrari; a lap behind the winner, but only seconds behind the Ferrari came the Elford/Ahrens Porsche, followed by the Herrmann/Stommelen Porsche.
While the excitement of the Ferrari/Porsche chase had been at its height the Chevrolet engine in Hawkins’ Lola had broken and he stopped out on the circuit when in fourth place, but was classified 8th on distance. The Pilette/Slotemaker 2½-litre Alfa Romeo finished 6th, behind the Bonnier/Muller Lola, which won the Group 4 class when the Hawkins/Prophet Lola broke down. The Hobbs/Hailwood Gulf-Mirage was never competitive but kept going to finish 7th, eventually getting ahead of the two GT40 Fords, and the Sadler/Vestey GT40 had a very good run into 9th place, betting the German Ford GT40, whose driver had never driven the car on the circuit before. Bradley and Dean with the former’s 910 Porsche were the first 2-litre car home, Dean driving for 50 laps, and the Chevrons were not really competitive, though they presented a nice turn-out worthy of an International race. The little MG.-B ran well, but the drivers never did learn the proper way to approach the pits and it was surprising that they were not black-flagged for their approach over the demarcation line, especially bearing in mind the speed of the passing cars. Enever spun the yellow J.C.B. Chevron off the road in the closing laps, at the top of Eau Rouge, but managed to push the car back on the road and get going again to finish. The three Alpine V8 coupés were beset by engine oil leaks, but went well between stops, though the old car of Grandsire/Jabouille was also troubled by loose body panels and finally had to retire when the oil leaks proved incurable.
It had been a good race, the weather conditions were ideal for racing and the only incident was that of von Wende’s Porsche 907. The success of the Francorchamps 1,000-kilometre race must be making the Grand Prix of Belgium organisers have second thoughts.—D. S. J.
When someone gets a chance of a works Ferrari drive there are usually a lot of sour-grapes from aspiring contestants. When Parkes offered Piper the spare place in the 312P everyone seemed pleased, feeling it was just reward for all the good work Piper has done for Ferrari in the past.
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Lola-Chevrolet drivers invariably seemed pleased with the Lola performances and displeased with those of Chevrolet.
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What a pity there is not a British engine that can do justice to the Chevrons. The BMW, unit is just not powerful enough for serious racIng.
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At the end of the race Elford’s eyes were still sparkling with enjoyment at having had a wonderful motor race on a wonderful circuit. And what a splendid season Redman is having, and how deserved it is. Siffert has never been driving better.
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Porsche may have built 25 917 coupés but that is only half the battle towards success. It is an exciting machine, reminiscent of Professor Porsche’s record-breaking Auto-Union of 1933. Old man Porsche would surely have approved.