Alfa Romeo takes Championship Lead
AFTER THE relatively new, modern autodromes of Mugello and Dijon, the stage scenery for the fourth and fifth rounds of the World Championship for Makes was changed to two long-established, classic circuits: Monza and Spa. Both are steeped in tradition, having an ambience that the new tracks can hardly hope to have attained yet, and both are very, very fast, even though there is now a permanent, tricky, third-gear ess-bend where Monza’s old Curva Vialone used to be. By the time the Group 5 prototypes had arrived at the ancient Italian royal hunting park, Claude Le Guezec, Secretary of the CSI, had confirmed that the Daytona 24 Hours would, after all, qualify as a round of the championship. IMSA, the American organisers, had apparently moved a handful of Group 2 saloon cars from the touring car category into the prototype division, and technically they had therefore complied with FIA regulations and included a Group 5 class. The result was that, when the proper sports-racers turned up at Monza, Porsche still led the World Championship for Makes.
The entry in Italy resembled very closely the field at Dijon a fortnight earlier. Willi Kauhsen’s team once again had three Autodelta prepared, flat-12 Alfa Romeo 33TT12s to choose from for their two crews: Arturo Merzario and Jacques Laffite and Derek Bell with Henri Pescarolo. Ranged against them were a single works Alpine-Renault, the turbocharged six-cylinder A442, for Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Gerard Larrousse; one of Georg Loos’s privately entered Mirage-Cosworth DFVs, for Jochen Mass and Tim Schenken; a lone Gitanes-sponsored Ligier-Cosworth DFV, this heavy “genuine” GT prototype driven by Jean-Pierre Jarier and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and a pair of turbocharged, 2.1-litre Porsche 908/s for Herbert Mueller/Gijs van Lennep (in the Martini Racing entry) and Reinhold Joest/ Mario Casoni.
In gloriously sunny weather, the field went away in a torrent of car-splitting noise with Merzario drawing ahead of Mass. But as they peeled out of the Parabolica and back onto the main straight at the end of the first lap, Larrousse took the yellow Alpine into the lead with Merzario second, Mass third and Bell some way down behind Brambilla and Jarier.
The battle for the lead was warming up nicely, and after nine laps Mass was suddenly in front with Merzario very close to the leaders in third place. Next time round Larrousse was back in the lead, and hung onto it after that, albiet, by only a second or so at times. Very slowly the Alpine began to extend its advantage, but having stretched it to around 10 seconds Larrousse held station all the way to his first scheduled pit stop after 35 tours. Jabouille returned to the race in third place, regaining second place when Laffite relieved Merzario a circuit later. By making its first stop later than the others, the Mirage took over the lead for ten laps, but then it lost several places with a longish delay while its battery was changed. While the second Alfa lost a lot of time having its shock-absorbers replaced – it eventually retired when the oil pressure sank – Jabouille pulled out over a minute’s advantage over Laffite, maintaining that distance until the second refuelling stops fell due. Soon afterwards, the Alpine’s challenge was dashed when Jabouille collided with Pianta in the Italian-entered Lola, now lying third.
Now the Mirage took over the challenge to the leading Alfa of Laffite and Merzario. Schenken reeled it in, but had to refuel before catching up, and the Mirage’s gearbox began to play up. Then the rear wing stays broke, costing it twelve minutes, and just after that the transmission packed up altogether when all the oil flowed out. This left Merzario and Laffite an easy run to victory three laps clear of anyone else despite an unplanned delay while the brakes were bled. Mainly by avoiding the mechanical pitfalls that befell their rivals, Joest and Casoni brought their turbocharged Porsche into an undramatic second place. Already deprived of the Grob/Hine Chevron, the 2-litre class lost another leading runner after only a few laps when the works March lost its oil pressure. The Osella-Ferraris broke its engine nearing half distance after disputing the class lead for some way. This left Lombardi and Beaumont miles ahead of anyone else and a fine fourth overall at the finish. Second-in class looked certain to fall to Alan Jones and John Sheldon in Stuart Chubb’s Ford BDG-engined Lola T294, but its front suspension collapsed a dozen laps from the finish, leaving their class position to Robin Smith and Richard Robarts.
Whatever you may think of modern artificial circuits, when it comes to motor racing, Spa just has to be the real thing. Too real, indeed, for one or two drivers, for Georg Loos had to withdraw his Mirage when Mass declined to drive the car there and no suitable substitute driver could he found. The Alpine was another non-starter. The two Alfas had no real opposition at all. Jacky Ickx had been brought into the team in place of Laffite, but Bell was quickest in practice with a first day time of 3m 20.4s, an average speed of almost 160 mph.. with Ickx next best. Inclement weather coming in from the North Sea persuaded the organisers to cut the race to only 54 laps, or 750 kilometres, instead of the full 72.
Right from the start the Alfas were in charge – after only 100 yards the remaining 30 starters looked to be in a different race. Pescarolo was in front first time round, but he and Ickx changed places regularly for the first eight laps, putting on an exciting spectacle for the crowds if nothing else. After that Ickx began to break away, and when the circuit was drenched with a torrential deluge after 35 minutes’ racing he pulled even further away, driving brilliantly and very bravely on intermediates in the soaking wet conditions as Pescarolo pitted to switch to rain tyres. After that sunshine and heavy showers alternated every few minutes, and as the track got wetter and the drivers changed over, Bell’s wet-tyre-shod Alfa overhauled Merzario’s, passing him on lap 28 and rapidly losing his Italian team-mate. When Merzario stopped to hand over to Ickx again, a local rule stipulating a minimum one hour’s rest delayed the second Alfa by another minute, and as a result Bell and Pescarolo won the race by a full lap from Ickx and Merzario. The win, Alfa Romeo’s third in four races, gave them the lead in the World Championship.
Just before the rains came, Mueller had dropped out of a distant third place when his Porsche’s gearbox had failed. The other Porsche turbo, Joest’s, lasted even less long, dropping a valve on the first lap. The lone Ligier of Migault and Lafosse inherited third place, but then it fell down the order with black box problems and water in the electrics. Third position therefore finally went, quite remarkably, to a saloon car, the well driven 3.5-litre Group 5 BMW CSL of local ace Alain Peltier and Siegfried Mueller. This pair made up most of their places during the first squall of heavy rain when, for several minutes, almost the entire entry tried to change tyres at once and blocked up the entire pit road. The downpour decimated the 2-litre ranks, which up to that point had been led by Martin Raymond’s ingeniously suspended, Hart-engined Leila T390. This car retired with electrical troubles, and most of its rivals were struck down by an epidemic of misfiring, so that only two teams got through unscathed. Then an hour from the finish one of the healthy survivors, the Lola T294 of Richard Scott and Nigel Clarkson, lost ten minutes when it refused to start after a refuelling stop, so the class fell to the FVC-engined Chevron B23 of Pete Smith and John Turner. The GT category provoked a very close battle between rival Porsche Carreras after John Fitzpatrick’s had dropped back by being perpetually on the wrong tyres. Eventually both the class and fourth place went to Claude Haldi and Bernard Beguin by just 0.6s from Claude Ballot-Lena and Jean-Claude Andreut.-J.C.T.