A dull start to the season
Daytona, Fla., February 3rd-4th
When the F.I.A. changed the regulations in the middle of last year governing sports prototype racing, it didn’t give a fair chance to the two long-distance races early in the year at Daytona and Sebring to obtain a very good entry. So, as was expected, the 24-hours of Daytona was only a shadow of the battle between Ferrari, Ford and Chaparral that took place during the 1967 race.
With the demise of the giants the Porsche team were prepared for an outright win to start the season. A new 907 prototype arrived in December and did a series of tests, only to finish in pieces when Neerpasch crashed in a spectacular way, but without much personal injury. This car, and three others completed since, were to be driven by Siffert, Herrmann, Elford, Neerpasch, Mitter, Stommelen, Buzzetta and Schlesser. The new 907, as the car is called, is long, like last year’s Le Mans cars. The engines are flat-eight 2.2-litres, giving 270 b.h.p. The engine is a development of the ones used in hill-climbs and annually at the Targa Florio. The Bosch fuel-injection inlets have been moved to the very lip of the downdraught air intakes from the original position of right into the manifold. The oil radiator has been moved further forward until it is now right in the point of the wide nose, the hot air ducting out over the nose. The cars weighed 1,353 lb., which is lighter than the 2-litre flat-six, one of which was entered by Steinemann/Spoerry.
Another factory team, although doubtful as outright winners, were the Alfa Romeo T33s. The two-litre V8s had been drastically facelifted, using the same “H” layout large-tube frame that had been fitted with a completely new body. The oil and water radiators had been moved from the front and were now placed either side in front of the rear wheels in a-similar manner to that of the Chaparral. More power had been obtained from the engine, which was giving 260 at 9,200 r.p.m. Ing. Chiti fixed a race rev. limit at 8,300 r.p.m., which he hoped would give him some finishers from his drivers, Andretti, Bianchi, Schutz, Vaccarella, Zeccoli, Cavoni and Galli.
An F.I.A. change in regulations last December, now makes it possible for turbine cars with the right size air intake to compete for points on equal standing with ordinary piston-engined cars. This enabled the Howmet turbine, using an 11.6.sq. in. intake to an experimental Continental TS325-1 free turbine engine, to compete as a prototype and not as the original entry, experimental demonstration. The inlet gave the McKee-designed car just under the 3-litre limit. The power equivalent was 330 b.h.p. at a shaft speed of 6,700 r.p.m., which was stepped down from the power turbine speed of 44,000 r.p.m. via gears. The free-running two-stage axial flow, gas generator turbine ran at 57,000 revs. To stop this compressor turbine slowing with the power turbine as the car braked for corners, a waste gate, which let the gases run free while the car was braking and the foot was off the throttle, was fitted. When full throttle was given coming out of a corner, the response to the wheels was almost instantaneous as only a few thousand revs. were lost instead of tens of thousands. The two drivers, Thompson and Lowther, are both competent drivers in conventional cars, but neither seemed to make as much use of the car as was potentially possible.
Before the new 3-litre prototypes with Ford, B.R.M., Matra, Porsche, Alfa and, perhaps, Ferrari engines are ready, there was always a possibility that a Group 4 sports car could beat all the prototypes available early in the season, and two such cars were entered by J.W. Automotive Engineering. One of these was a brand new Ford GT40 for lckx and Redman and the other was a Mirage brought back to GT40 specifications for Hawkins and Hobbs. Other entries of interest were two cars from N.A.R.T., a Ferrari Dino for Rodriguez/Kolb and a 275LM for Gregory/Piper. Both of these cars were fast but both were also well raced and as such were unlikely to finish. World Champion motorcyclist Mike Hailwood was teamed with Nelson in the latter’s Ford GT40 which recently did so well in South Africa.
In the GT class a group of Corvettes were by far the fastest, but these American cars are much more suitable for one-hour sprints than 24-hour grinds. The TransAm classes over and under 2-litre were a race within a race for the prize money for the winner of this class was as much as that for the outright winner. The battle in the big class was between the two Shelby Mustangs of Bucknum/Titus and Moffat/Fullmer and the Camaro, the two most potent being entered by Roger Penske for Donohue/Johnson and Smokey Yunick for McLaren/Hall. The latter car had been so bent away from what the regulations allowed that there was not enough time, nor the inclination, to change the car back to the rules governing TransAm racing. The rest of the field was made up of a cluster of Porsche 911s, Alfa Romeo GTAs, Lancia Fulvitts, Triumph Spitfires and TR4s, and, last an aging Morgan Plus Four, which was to be driven single-handed, the driver taking an hour’s rest in the pits after every four-hour spell to comply with the regulations.
Practice took place on Wednesday and Thursday, with qualifying on Friday. The prophets were correct, and it was the ex-Mirage team which made the best times with Ickx’s 1 min. 54.91 sec. (192.106 k.p.h.) being faster than Gurney’s practice time last year in a works Mk. 2 Ford. The next four cars were the whole 907 Porsche team followed by the Turbine, which had a sticking throttle some of the time. Thompson must have the dubious “first” of blowing up a turbine engine. In practice on the first day a bearing began to break up, causing the compressor shaft to slow; this in turn fed in more fuel, which resulted in a loud blow-back. Fortunately there were two cars and, by cannabalising them, a complete runner was prepared.
The Alfa Romeo T33s came next, interspersed with the two N.A.R.T. Ferraris, then over the next full minute the “also-rans,” finishing up with the Morgan at 3 min. 0.01sec., a speed which meant being lapped every second lap it completed. So to race day, and again the crowd was quite small, as two high-schools bands played alternately as the cars were wheeled into two-by-two grid order. The weather was good, warm and clear, with a light breeze. At 2.50 p.m. the engines were started and the cars went off on their 1½-pace laps. (The flag drops on the back straight before the fastest banking.)
When it fell the GT40s pulled away slightly from the Porsches but the leaders kept their formation. For a full minute the cars streamed by the pits completing the first half-lap. Some of the tailenders had not been able to keep up with the pace car. On the third lap the first misfortune struck the GT40s: Hawkins went to the pits with misfiring and before the loose plug lead was replaced he had lost just one lap. This is not much out of 600 plus and at the end of the first hour the two cars, still together, were first and-sixth, with the four 907 Porsches between them. An early retirement was the Howmet Turbine which ran into the wall where the road part of the circuit meets the banking. This was a disappointment and didn’t show the car’s potential to its best, for though a sticking throttle was the reason given for retirement it was seldom on the same line in the corners.
Just as darkness fell the leading GT40 failed to complete the lap and Redman walked back to the pits to report a gearbox failure. The Hobbs/Hawkins GT40 took up the lead at this point and began to pull out a good lead. Several of the cars on wide tyres were coming in with punctures caused by sharp sea shells which were thrown on to the road from the hard, sandy, verges. In all, over 50 flat tyres were changed in the pits. It was a slow puncture which caused the only serious accident. A Mustang dropped a swathe of oil when its engine broke on the shallow banking opposite the pits. Mitter arrived at the braking point halfway round the banking and started to lose control due to a soft tyre. Touching the oil completed the lack of control and the 907 Porsche tore on to the grass in front of the pits. The tubeless tyre was torn off and when the wheel dug in, the car rolled and continued towards the corner on its roof. As it regained the circuit clouds of sparks and burning magnesium marked its progress. Gregory, in the 275LM Ferrari; seeing the fireworks, braked extra hard right on the oil. As he spun he hit the 2-litre Porsche driven by Spoerry, which shot the Ferrari high into the air at 160 m.p.h. and it bounced and rolled along the track. Elford was driving the next car to arrive and as he braked and tried to get above Spoerry’s spinning car he was lucky to keep off the oil. At the last moment, as Spoerry hit the wall and stopped, Elford cut down and missed all the wreckage. By now, the yellow lights were on and everyone was on the lookout for trouble. Each of the three drivers stepped from their wrecked cars uninjured and seemed less shocked than the pit staff who saw the whole thing.
The GT40 held its lead until midnight, when a long pit-stop to remove brake backing plates which had burred after being worn down to the metal, dropped it to third place. In the early morning, Hobbs/Hawkins began to pull back the lost laps but all in vain, for at just after 6 a.m. when the car was refuelled a puddle of fuel was found on the road as it pulled out. Team manager David Yorke signalled the car in and it was retired with a split fuel tank. This left the three remaining works Porsches in an unassailable position. At dawn, Elford was lying third and would have remained there but for long pit stops by the two leading cars, for a broken throttle link and a burnt-out dynamo. However, to make the winning car carry the full team, von Hanstein had all five drivers out in the closing laps, the exception being Mitter who had been slightly shaken by his overnight experience. This made a slight nonsense as Herrmann and Siffert both won and came second.
Another nonsense was the formation driving during the last half-hour when the Porsches lined up abreast with the fourth car, the TransAm Shelby Mustang just behind. The Alfas, which came fifth, sixth and seventh, lined up with the two GTAs just behind and cruised slowly round, a dull finish to an uninspiring race. What a difference to last year’s exciting event!
Among the 30 finishers there were eight 911 Porsches, one of which was the winner of the under-2-litre TransAm class. Penske’s Camaro had both cylinder heads changed, which put it well out of the running; although 64 laps behind the Mustang it was still second in class. One of the Corvette teams changed five axles during the race which should give someone at the General Motors Technical Centre food for thought.
It is doubtful whether there will be any new entries before Sebring on March 23rd, so this class of racing won’t get really worked up until later in the season, perhaps starting with the B.O.A.C. 500 at Brands Hatch in April.—M. J. T.