A perfect demonstration
Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, May 9th.
The annual 1,000-kilometre race for sports cars, organised by the Royal Automobile Club of Spa, took place on the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit without any bitching and binding from any outside organisations, or complaints from the participants and used the full-scale circuit, ignoring the “safety chicane” put in at Malmedy last summer for the puny little Grand Prix cars and their timid drivers.
The Francorchamps circuit was at its glorious best during practice, which was held on Thursday and Friday afternoons, in order that some of the drivers could nip across to England to drive “mini-cars” on the Silverstone airfield on the Saturday and return to the job in hand on Sunday. The entry for the Spa race was not large, but it had all the necessary ingredients with two JW Automotive 5-litre Gulf-Porsches, for Rodriguez/Oliver and Siffert/Bell, two similar cars from the Martini Racing Team for Elford/Larrousse and Marko/van Lennep, the sole existing flat-12 Ferrari 312P, rebuilt after its Monza accident, for Ickx/Regazzoni, an Alfa Romeo T-33-3 from Autodelta for de Adamich/Pescarolo, and numerous private teams or scuderias, among the better ones being the Herbert Muller team, with a Ferrari 512M for himself and Herzog and a 512S for Kocher/Wiesendanger, the Filipinetti team with Mike Parkes in charge of a single 512M Ferrari for Manfredini/Gagliardi, and the Auto Usdau team from Germany with their yellow 4.5-litre Porsche 917 driven by Kauhsen/Jöst.
The Gulf-Porsches were using the earlier tails, with no fins and an adjustable centre aerofoil, while the Martini Porsches, and the Usdau car had the Monza tails, with fins and no aerofoil. The Ferrari had been rebuilt to its Monza specification and the Alfa Romeo was unchanged and the Gulf team had the luxury of a training car, the five-speed one used in practice at Monza, with the Perspex panel in the roof for use on the Daytona banking.
There were a few English club drivers competing and a fairly amateurish entry of GT cars in Group 4, comprising two Chevrolet Corvettes, seven 911 Porsches, some with engines enlarged to 2.4-litres and two 914/6 Porsches, and they all turned up well-prepared and ready to run, unlike some of the English entries, some of whom arrived late and others failed to appear at all.
Last year the absolute circuit lap record fell to Rodriguez with a Gulf-Porsche 917 in 3 min. 16.5 sec.-258.320 k.p.h. (approximately 160 m.p.h.) and there was no hope of a Formula One car achieving this sort of speed last year for the GPDA caused an artificial corner to be put in the circuit at Malmedy for some spurious reason. The long-distance sports car world accepts conditions as they are and race accordingly, and GP drivers like Ickx, Rodriguez, Siffert, Regazzoni, Pescarolo, and de Adamich take Malmedy corner in their stride on full song, as do other sports car drivers like Elford, Bell and Oliver.
The first practice period, which is always in the nature of a warm-up session, saw Rodriguez fastest at 3 min. 19.2 sec. and Siffert next at 3 min. 20.1 sec., whereupon they took off for England to practise next day at Silverstone as did Pescarolo, who had got the 3-litre Alfa Romeo round in 3 min. 27.1 sec,, not as fast as the 3-litre Ferrari which Ickx got round in 3 min. 24.8 sec. The young Belgian and Regazzoni were supposed to have gone to Silverstone as well, but the Ferrari team showed no signs of setting off and on Friday were still at Francorchamps.
The Gulf team had little to do apart from routine things like fuel consumption checks, tyre wear measurements and a general preparation for the Sunday race, but Bell was really enjoying himself in both Siffert’s car and the training car. He just kept on going faster and faster, looking as happy as the proverbial pig in fertiliser, and eventually put in two laps in under 3 min. 17 sec. and finally recorded 3 min. 16.0 sec., a staggering 258.979 k.p.h. (approximately 161 m.p.h.) average. Elford was well in the groove with a best lap of 3 min. 18.2 sec. in the leading Martini Porsche 917, and Ickx got the little Ferrari round in 3 min. 22.2 sec. Oliver’s best lap was 3 min. 21.8 sec., a fast lap by any standards, but Bell’s performance stole the day.
This was fortunate, for the Filipinetti Ferrari 512M did a lap in 3 min. 24.4 sec., faster than the Muller 512M and the Kauhsen Porsche 917, and no-one noticed that the driver looked like Parkes, though whether it was Manfredini or Gagliardi who went so fast no-one seemed to know!
When Rodriguez and Siffert returned from racing for BRM they found the Thursday positions reversed, with Siffert in pole position thanks to Bell, and Rodriguez in the second row with his Thursday time, Elford having come between them and taken the front row position, the grid being in pairs. From the speeds set up in practice it was obvious that conditions had been perfect, and Sunday was similar but cloudy and overcast.
The start was due at 1 p.m. and at lunch-time the air became a bit oppressive and heavy as if there were thunderstorms in the offing. Everyone was busy preparing for the race of one-thousand kilometres with its refuelling stops, possible tyre changes, driver changes, and tools and pit equipment in case of emergencies. Had it been a Grand Prix about to take place there would have been a lot of trouser-wetting and shop-stewards and union officials running round in circles to get the start delayed, to shorten the race distance or cancel the whole thing. In all there were 28 cars lining up on the grid for a warm-up lap, comprised of the 5-litre sports cars, the 3-litre Prototypes, and the mixed GT cars, and with 15 minutes to go a gentle rain started falling and a hill mist enveloped much of the circuit. There was a bit of a flurry and minds were changed about tyres, the works Ferrari having a set of “wet weather” Firestones put on, as did Elford’s Porsche and the Muller Ferrari.
Many of the lesser lights who had barely gone fast enough in practice to warrant racing tyres at all were juggling about with different types, but the JW Gulf cars sat and waited, confident that the decision to use “intermediate” tyres was the correct one. One by one the cars were sent off on a warm-up lap and as they finished it and lined up on the grid there was more flap because the rain had not developed and it looked set to be a fine afternoon. The Elford car, the works Ferrari and the Alfa were all changed back, as were the Muller Ferraris, and all the while the Gulf cars just sat quietly and waited.
The Alfa Romeo had arrived back with the fibre-glass panel over the near-side door ripped up, and it was stuck down hopefully. During the tyre changing panic the Kocher Ferrari suffered a damaged right front-hub thread and nothing could be done about it so it was wheeled to one side, already out of the race. As the 30-second board was raised everyone was twitching on their accelerators so the flag was dropped and they were all away, except the stricken 512S Ferrari which was then rolled down to the dead-car park.
The pattern of the race was self-evident even before it started, for no-one was going to touch the Gulf-Porsches for speed, but the 3-litre Ferrari and the Alfa Romeo were going to need fewer refuelling stops, so that the JW team’s pitwork could be all-important. Any opposition that the Martini team might have provided fizzled out before the race was properly underway, for Elford stopped at the end of the first lap, unhappy with the high-speed handling of his 917 and had all the tyres changed, restarting nearly half a lap behind the two leading Porsches of Siffert and Rodriguez. All the knowledge of Spa and skill that Ickx possessed was not enough to keep the 3-litre flat-12 Ferarri even in sight of the two blue and orange Porsches, but he held a firm third place, ahead of Marko in the second Martini Porsche 917, Kauhsen in the Usdau Porsche 917, Pescarolo in the lone Alfa Romeo, Muller (512M), Gagliardi (512M) and Pillete (Lola T70), the rest of the entry being way behind.
Elford had rejoined the race behind most of the GT cars and slower Group 5 and 6 cars, but in one lap passed them all and was behind the VDS team Lola-Chevrolet, but his rapid progress did not last and he was back in the pits after seven laps feeling that the engine was not working properly. For nine laps Siffert stayed a few yards ahead of Rodriguez, the two cars running in close company at up to 200 m.p.h. on the downhill run to the Masta ess-bend, pulling 8,800 r.p.m. in top gear, and lapping at new record speeds all the time. On the tenth lap Rodriguez recorded 3 min. 15.5 sec. (259.641 k.p.h.) to get in front of Siffert and two laps later the Swiss driver came into the pits for fuel, the JW mechanics putting in 120 litres and cleaning the flies off the screen in 12 seconds. A lap later Rodriguez stopped for the same treatment in 15 seconds and was back in the race without losing the lead.
The situation was made clear when the Ferrari stopped for fuel after 17 laps, taking the same time as Rodriguez, the extra five laps per regulation-size tankful being insufficient to compensate for lapping in 3 min. 22.5 sec. against the Porsche’s 3 min. 15.5 sec. None of the faster cars were changing drivers at these first refuelling stops, and Muller and Kauhsen were very evenly matched as was their respective pit-work and they finished lap 26 literally side-by-side, racing for fourth place, but already lapped by the Gulf-Porsches. The fibre-glass panel on the Alfa Romeo had come loose again, and was blanking-off the air entry to the left-hand side radiator so Pescarolo stopped to have it ripped off and the pit took the opportunity to fill the fuel tanks at the same time.
With no direct opposition and no indirect opposition, by reason of better fuel consumption, from the 3-litre Ferrari Rodriguez and Siffert could have cruised round, but both drivers believe that easing up is liable to cause loss of concentration, which is when mistakes occur. They continued to run very fast, nose to tail, and though Siffert was given the credit of the fastest lap, at 3 min. 14.6 sec. (260.842 k.p.h.—over 162 m.p.h.), they were both lapping at this speed. For the second refuelling they did not come in on consecutive laps as before, but with a lap between the stops, clearly having plenty in hand on fuel consumption. As Rodriguez left the pit lane Siffert was charging down the hill and, seeing him coming, the Mexican accelerated really hard and continued to lead his team-mate by a few feet, and three laps later David Yorke gave them both the EZE signal board and they settled down to lapping at under 160 m.p.h. instead of over 160 m.p.h.
The Ferrari made its second stop after 33 laps, refuelled, had the left rear tyre changed and Regazzoni took over, all of which took 49 seconds, and put the car a lap behind the leaders, but still in an unchallenged third place. At 35 laps Siffert handed over to Bell and oil as well as petrol was put in, the stop taking 26 seconds, and at 37 laps Oliver took over the leading car from Rodriguez, with fuel and oil, in 24 seconds. With Rodriguez doing two regular high-speed laps extra, while Bell was doing a relatively slow starting-off lap, Oliver had 23 seconds’ lead when he took over car number 21, and during the next 11 laps Bell reduced this to 8 1/2 seconds before stopping for a refuelling in 13 seconds. A lap later Oliver stopped for fuel in 15 seconds and the two second-drivers continued to keep things on the boil in team order.
The co-drivers of the Muller Ferrari and the Usdau Porsche were not so evenly matched so the battle for fourth place subsided, with Jöst getting the advantage, and the Alfa Romeo getting between them, even while de Adamich was driving, he being slower than Pescarolo. The Filipinetti Ferrari was not going anything like as fast as the practice lap it did, but was holding seventh place, and the VDS team’s Lola-Chevrolet had fallen behind with an oil leak and a puncture. On lap 51 the Filipinetti Ferrari threw a connecting rod out of the side of the engine just as Muller was lapping it, and while the little sandy-haired Swiss was smiling to himself, in sixth place, his engine blew up as well!
Elford had long since given up struggling with the Martini Porsche, after having the fuel pump changed and being unable to diagnose the instability, and a broken chassis frame was suspected but not actually discovered. The second Martini car, driven by Marko, had disappeared after only six laps, and when the race was more than half-way through it arrived at the pits. A fuel leak had caused it to run dry and eventually Marko had scrounged enough petrol to creep back to the pits, where it was withdrawn and disqualified anyway.
The Kauhsen/Jöst Porsche was in fourth place, but not very securely for their pit equipment was not as sophisticated as the works and works-supported teams, and refuelling took them quite a time. The Autodelta team put Pescarolo back in the Alfa Romeo at 54 laps, in an attempt to catch the yellow Porsche and fourth place, but one lap later it was third place that was at stake! Regazzoni was still driving the 312P Ferrari and going into the long, fast Stavelot bend he caught up with two English club-type specials that were running one behind the other. These were the cut-about Chevron converted into an open Group 6 car, of Goodwin/Cowan and the Dillon, with flat-6 Porsche engine and gearbox of Ridehalgh/Taylor and driven by the former driver.
As Regazzoni went to pass them the Dulon pulled out and was hit by the Ferrari, the two cars spinning down the road and crashing into the Armco barriers, demolishing the left-front of the Dulon and the right-rear of the Ferrari. Both cars were out of the race and both drivers were lucky to escape unhurt. It was the third successive accident that the Ferrari has had, and the second with the Dulon, it putting Ickx off the road in the BOAC 1,000.
The Alfa Romeo was given third place when Kauhsen had the left rear tyre burst on the yellow Porsche, ripping a great gash in the bodywork. He limped the car slowly back from Stavelot, another wheel and tyre were fitted and he rejoined the race, but with no hope of recapturing third place. With one more refuelling stop to make everyone assumed that Rodriguez and Siffert would take over the Gulf-Porsches for the last stint, and the outcome of these two fiery drivers nose-to-tail for the last 12 laps provoked a certain amount of speculation. However, David Yorke and John Wyer had other ideas and on lap 61 Bell stopped, took on 100 litres of petrol in 11 seconds and went off again. One lap later Oliver took on the same quantity, the JW mechanics surpassing themselves with the car being stationary for a mere nine seconds. As the two cars finished lap 63 they were one behind the other in the order Oliver, Bell and they were given a signal which merely said ROD SIF, indicating the desired finishing order, and obediently the number two drivers reeled off the remainder of the 71 laps, crossing the line almost side-by-side, while the number one drivers stood around in the pit road, shuffling their feet and no doubt wishing they were out in the cars having a final fling round the glorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
The JW Automotive Gulf-Porsche team had given a truly outstanding demonstration of long-distance racing, with perfectly prepared cars that did not suffer from a single fault, team control and race running that was an example to all, and pit-work by the mechanics that was perfection at every stop. If this team have to drop out of racing next year, as is rumoured, it will be a sad day for long-distance racing, but they will have left behind a standard for all to aim at.—D. S. J.