The 1,000 Kilometers of Francorchamps

A Nice Race

Spa, Belgium, May 7th

In spite of the attempts of World Championship Grand Prix driver Jackie Stewart to sabotage the event (see Continental Notes) the 1,000 kilometre sports-car race of Spa-Franchorchamps took place in a pleasant, friendly atmosphere, unsullied by avarice, sponsorship wrangles, trade union activities or boycotts. The result was a very nice day, a win for Ferrari, and an event full of interest and satisfaction, not the least for the majority of the 56 drivers taking part who thoroughly enjoyed an opportunity of racing round the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit, some of them for the first time, and there were the ones who were probably more appreciative than anyone, for it opened up a whole new concept of high-speed driving for them. For drivers like Ickx and Redman, Larrousse or Bell it was a welcome return to a form of motor racing and high-speed driving that not only permitted them to demonstrate their skills but allowed them great satisfaction in so doing.

There should have been a confrontation between Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, with Lola and Mirage joining in, but Alfa Romeo backed down at the last moment, more or less openly admitting that they could not match the speed of the Ferrari, or the driving talent of the team for that matter. Maranello sent three sparkling 312P cars, the trio that had been at the BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch, with Ickx and Regazzoni in the number one car, identified by Belgian yellow stripes across the red bodywork, Peterson and Schenken in the number two car, with blue stripes, and Redman and Merzario in the third car with green stripes. All three were mechanically as raced previously, with the 3-litre flat12-cylinder engines and they were using the medium-length tail sections, with the latest regulation skirts at the rear enclosing the mechanism. Opposition to the powerful red 12-cylinder cars was to come from the Gulf Research Mirage M6 driven by Bell/van Lennep, the Jöst/Kauhsen Porsche 908/3 and the yellow Lola T280, with Cosworth V8 power, of de Fierlant/Larrousse, the former driver having bought the car from Ecurie Bonnier and it was being run by a Belgian team.

Practice on Thursday and Friday was something of a formality for the Ferrari team and Ickx recorded fastest lap in 3 min. 20.4 sec., a speed of 253.292 k.p.h. (just over 157 m.p.h.) which was incredibly fast for a 3-litre car, but nothing compared to the lap record of 3 min. 14.6 sec held by Siffert with a 5-litre Porsche 917 over 162 m.p.h.). Needless to say the Circuit Naionale of Francorchamps was being used in all its normal conditions, with no artificial chicanes to appease militant members of the GPDA. In fact, there were only four members of that troublesome body taking part, so it was difficult to see why Stewart had gone to so much personal trouble to try and stop the event. Had the Alfa Romeo team taken part there would have been four more members involved of which two would have told the Scot where to go in no uncertain terms.

Behind the 3-litre class was a very well supported 2-litre sports car class comprising a row of Chevrons, a Dulon, Daren and Lola, all using 4-cylinder Ford-based engines or BMW. The GT category comprised two De Tomaso Panteras, a Ferrari GTB4, two Chevrolet Corvettes and numerous Porsche 911 coupes, while two Group 2 saloons added to the field, one a 6.8-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz and the other an Alpina-tuned BMW 3000. The Mercedes-Benz, from a German “tune-up” firm was withdrawn after practice and a total of 28 cars assembled in the paddock on Sunday morning. The previous day there had been run the traditional Coupés de Spa for saloon cars and in the Group 2 race Ickx had cantered away to win with a Schnitzer-tuned 3-litre 6-cylinder BMW, putting in the fastest lap at exactly 4 min., an average of 211,500 k.p.h. 131 m.p.h.), which would have put him on the sixth row of the fourteen-row grid for the 1,000 kilometre race! While it was natural that he should win the saloon car race, the real interest lay in the fact that another Schnitzer-tuned 3-litre BMW, driven by a Belgian newcomer, beat the two factory supported Ford Capri 2.9-litre V6 cars.

At midday everyone was ready and a warm-up lap was permitted preparatory to the 1 p.m. start and though there were some ominous grey clouds lurking about, the circuit was dry and in parts the spectators were actually in sunshine, a strong crowd of spectators having come from neighbouring countries as well as Belgium itself. Ferrari enthusiasts had painted “Forza Ferrari” across the road above the Eau Rouge bridge and on paper it was going to be a neat and tidy 1-2-3 procession for the Ferrari team except for the small unknown factor that invariably upsets such certainties. Last year the JW Gulf Porsche team gave one of the finest demonstrations of high-speed motor racing and pit work that had been seen for a long time with their two 917 Porsches and this time it was up to Ferrari to go one better with a three-car team. The Gulf team, now called Gulf Research Racing and with only one rather new and fragile Mirage M6 was something of a shadow of its former self, but at least the Cosworth-powered Len Bailey-designed car was showing promise and improvement, this being the first time it had been out on such a fast circuit. The yellow Lola T280 had been going well in practice, but unable to match the speed of the Ferraris. As the flag dropped to release the fourteen rows of cars, assembled in pairs, the Swiss Porsche 911 of Haldi/Chenevriere was being pushed-started in the middle of the grid and as the 28 cars roared off down the hill the two mechanics became air-borne and fled to the side of the road. Up at the front everything went according to plan and the three Ferraris disappeared over the hill towards Burnenville already in command. The order settled down to Ickx, Redman and Schenken, followed by Larrousse in the yellow Lola, Jöst in the 908/3 Porsche, Bell in the Mirage and Hine in the yellow and green 1.9-litre Chevron of Red Rose Motors. Then came Lepp and Migault in two more Chevrons, followed by the two Panteras with Fitzpatrick driving Kremer’s car leading all the Porsches.

By the third lap it was becoming obvious that while Redman could match the pace being set by Ickx, Schenken could not, and the third Ferrari was being left behind. While this in itself was not serious, it soon became an embarrassment to the Maranello team for Larrousse was overhauling the lagging Ferrari, and there is nothing like the sight of a weak link in a scam to encourage others to try harder. Larrousse was in great form and soon had the yellow Lola snapping at the tail of Schenken’s Ferrari, and on lap 8 he got by to take third place. He was not going to do anything about Ickx and Redman, who were way ahead and 13 seconds apart, but the Ferrari procession was already spoilt and the Maranello feathers were ruffled.

One thousand kilometres round the Francorchamps circuit means 71 laps, with pit stops for petrol, oil, driver changes and possibly tyres as well, so even though the situation had stabilised by 10 laps it was only temporary. Ickx was revelling in his home circuit and had lapped all the 2-litre cars and GT cars and was untouchable, though Redman was by no means put to shame and was firmly in second place. Larrousse was third, Schenken fourth, Bell, fifth, Jöst sixth and Hine seventh, while Muller was leading the GT class in the French entered Pantera, and was ninth overall just behind Lepp’s Chevron, and the May/Humble Chevron was tenth. Some of the other private-owners had already been in and out of the pits, and the Fitzpatrick 911 Porsche was a very even match for the French-owned Ferrari GTB4. At 14 laps the Mirage was first to stop for refuelling, followed by the 908/3 Porsche and at 17 laps the Ferrari pits were all keyed up to receive all three cars in quick succession. Ickx drew in to the appreciative applause of the crowded grandstands, the car was refuelled, the rear wheels changed and Regazzoni roared away. Meanwhile Redman had arrived, had the tanks filled, but no tyres changed, and was away with him, and then Schenken was in and Peterson took over. As the dust settled an anxious-looking Peter Schetty was seen heading for the hairpin at La Source with the cryptic signal “Box” in his hand. In the panic of the wheel change on the Ickx/Regazzoni car one of the mechanics felt he had not tightened the left rear wheel nut sufficiently so Regazzoni was being called back for a check. Redman went by in the lead and then Regazzoni drew into the pits, the hub nut was re-tightened and he was back in the race, still in second place. The gallantly driven Lola had lost third place when it stopped for petrol and for de Fierlant to take over, the Belgian pit equipment not being up to the works teams, and Bell had moved the Mirage up into fourth place behind the three Ferraris. Regazzoni was making no ground up on Redman, and Peterson was not really gaining on Regazzoni, so the situation neutralised itself with the three Ferraris 1-2-3, but in the wrong team order, followed by the Mirage nearly a lap behind, with the Lola already lapped. Hine was still going splendidly in the 1.9-litre Chevron, his speed, consistency and reliability being a shining example to all aspiring long-distance non-works teams. He refuelled at 22 laps and continued driving, holding an excellent sixth place overall and unchallenged in the 2-litre class, as well as leading the 5.7-litre Pantera of Herbert Muller.

Until the next refuelling stops for the leaders were due, the race settled down in a nice fast rhythm, and at 35 laps all three Ferraris were in for petrol, tyres and driver changes. Redman’s lead over Regazzoni had remained static at around 35 seconds, but the pit stops and the standing lap by Ickx in car number one compared to Merzario in car number 3 meant that one lap after the pit stops was sufficient for Ickx to go back in the lead, followed by Merzario in Redman’s car and Schenken in the third car. The Mirage had been refuelled and van Lennep took over and a second pit stop by the Belgian Lola had let Hine through into fifth place, his beautifully prepared Chevron humming away very healthily. There were some rain showers hovering around the hills and occasional sprinkles of dampness, but nothing serious, though everyone was keeping a wary eye on the skies. The Mirage suddenly arrived at the pits with the throttle linkage on the engine awry, even though it had been built extra solidly. The high frequency vibrations in the Cosworth V8 engine, which do not trouble Formula One cars in their short sprint races, had taken their toll and a lot of time was lost effecting repairs to the deranged linkage. The 3-litre Lola had recaught the 2-litre Red Rose Chevron just as their respective refuelling stops were due, Larrousse taking over the Belgian entry and John Bridges taking over from Hine, but a lap afterwards and the Lola was back with no brakes. A sizeable stone thrown up by another car had gone clean through the fibreglass nose and in a thousand-to-one chance had struck and split the brake-fluid reservoir mounted on the front bulkhead. The race officials would not permit a temporary bodge with “goo” and there was no spare so the reservoir had to he removed and soldered behind the pits, replaced and the system filled and bled, so that a lot of time was lost, Larrousse sitting patiently in the cockpit all the while. The little Red Rose Motors Chevron was now firmly in fourth place and the Mirage was back in the race in fifth place, the good thing about proper length races being that team work by mechanics and pit staff as well as the drivers can get a car back into competition, for at this point there were still 26 laps to run, or more than a full Grand Prix distance.

Nothing could hold Ickx now, and he was building up a terrific lead from the two slower Ferrari drivers, reeling off the laps in immaculate style, all at an average speed of over 243 k.p.h. (151 m.p.h.), and lapping Schenken in the process. At 53 laps the three red cars were in for their final pit stops and the leading car was filled and all four wheels were changed, Regazzoni taking over for the final session. Redman took over the second-place car and Peterson the third one, all the pit work going very smoothly. Regazzoni went by in the lead on the next lap and a few moments later the circuit telephones reported that he had stopped! Then he was reported to be going again, but travelling slowly, and the Ferrari pit became rather agitated. Redman appeared in the lead at the end of lap 55, followed by Peterson, and then Regazzoni arrived, limping down the pits approach lane with no tyre on the left rear wheel, the alloy rim bouncing and graunching along the ground and the fibre-glass tail in shreds. In an incredibly short time the tattered tail was whipped off, a brand new one produced from the pit (such is Ferrari’s preparation these days), and it was clamped in place. Meanwhile a new wheel and tyre were put on and Ickx had got back into the cockpit ready to rejoin the race. It was then found that the tyre burst had damaged the oil-tank, which is situated just ahead of the left rear wheel and a few more moments were lost while a handful of plastic metal was slapped over the split and the leak bunged up. Ickx was back in the race and all wound up to break all records in an attempt to regain the lead, but the task was hopeless for he was two laps down on Redman. As all this excitement died down rain showers began drifting across the valley from the top of the hill at Burnenville and Redman skated onto the wet part of the circuit, his sixth sense avoiding disaster, but just behind him Peterson slithered off course, seeing the changed road surface too late, and bounced the Ferrari all along the steel guard rail and out of the race. The Ferrari pit gave Redman and Ickx the slow sign and Schetty shook his head and said “Will we never achieve a 1-2-3 finish?”. The Hine/Bridges Chevron was now third, and had sufficient in hand for Bridges to stop and have wet-weather tyres fitted, and the Mirage was now fourth and still going well. Larrousse had finally got the Lola Cosworth V8 back in the race and was going impressively quickly on the wet roads in fifth place. Muller’s lead in the GT category, co-driven by Frenchman Chasseuil, dissappeared when the Ford V8 engine of the Pantera blew up and the second Pantera, of the Belgians Jacquemin/Deprez, held the class lead from the Fitzpatrick/Kremer Porsche 911 by the skin of its teeth.

Redman finished the 71 laps a well-deserved victor, having driven for three quarters of the race and a philosophical but disappointed Ickx followed him home into second place, one lap behind. The Hine/Bridges Chevron, powered by an Alan Smith prepared 1.9-litre Cosworth FVC engine, not only finished third overall and won the 2-litre class, but set a shining example to all the British teams who venture abroad to compete in the long-distance classic sports car races. Another well-prepared and well-run race was that of the privately owned and entered Chevron of Peter Humble and Nick May, their reliable and consistent running netting them sixth place overall. — D. S. J.