Blue murder and red mist

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Matra had already won Le Mans – now it wanted more. Ferrari was facing a classic duel to remember – especially as it would be their last in sports car racing. The year: 1973
By Paul Fearnley

Twelve outings, 12 victories: Ferrari’s most successful sports car campaign had run perfectly under the calming, multilingual tutelage of Peter Schetty. This 30-year-old, Basle-born economics and political science graduate – and winner, for Ferrari, of the 1969 European Hillclimb Championship – had astutely channelled Fiat’s lire, flowing since its June 1969 buy-in, and kept a star-studded driving squad – Jacky Ickx, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson – happy. Impressive.

But racing is (relatively) easy when you’re winning. The following season, 1973, would prove a tougher test – especially because: Schetty had returned to his family’s textile business; Mauro Forghieri, designer of the dominant 3-litre 312PB Prototype, was (briefly) out of favour and had been shunted to Ferrari’s think tank while road-car bods diluted his racing department; the Agnellis had tightened their money belts in the face of wildcat strikes; and Enzo was ill with unchecked diabetes. In the circumstances, Ferrari’s sports car arm, now under the auspices of Giacomo Caliri, Schetty’s 1972 engineering lieutenant, did remarkably well.

Tim Schenken: “Team morale was still strong. In 1972 we’d won everything and it was all Parma ham and Lambrusco. But we knew 1973 would be more difficult. Matra was Ferrari’s biggest problem.”

These teams had avoided each other in 1972. Le Mans, Matra’s sole sports car objective that year, should have been the showdown, but Enzo sidestepped it. Matra’s MS670 duly scored France’s first win there since 1950, but its thunder, though not stolen, rang hollow. Screaming blue murder and the scent of blood-red Ferraris therefore pervaded the 1973 World Championship for Makes.

Jean-Luc Lagardère, Matra’s dynamic boss, went on an all-out two-seat attack, ruthlessly, but sensibly, canning his Formula 1 programme. For although Georges Martin’s 60-degree V12 had no answer for the punch and package of Cosworth’s DFV in single-seaters, it was a different proposition ensconced in a capacious, enveloping sports car: its good balance smoothed the drivers’ marathon stints and allowed designer Bernard Boyer to hit the 650kg weight limit by dispensing with the belts and bracing deemed de rigueur for long-distance racing.

Tim Schenken: “Ferrari at that stage didn’t have the technology to produce a monocoque. We had a spaceframe stiffened by riveted aluminium panels. Matra, with their aerospace experience, had a proper monocoque. They were more sophisticated.”

Daytona 24 Hours
February 3-4

The Phoney War. Ferrari was absent and Matra sent a singleton car for François Cevert/Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Henri Pescarolo. The French trio were holding a huge lead when a con rod snapped just after midnight.

Vallelunga Six Hours
March 25

Ferrari had done much of its pre-season testing here, and although not many of Brian Redman’s suggestions were acted upon, changes had been made: the 312PB’s wheelbase had been stretched, as of the previous November’s Kyalami Nine Hours, by 3in, by dint of moving the front wheels forward; its rear discs were moved inboard; its tail was shortened and its integral rear wing was made bigger.

Tim Schenken: “The 1972 312PB wasn’t the easiest, being twitchy in the fast stuff. We made the 1973 car better in that respect. It was nervous under braking, though, and I reckon that was the chassis flexing. That cost us.”

It certainly did – Matra wiped Ferrari here. Cevert put his MS670 on pole by almost 1.5sec, and he and co-driver – and brother-in-law – Beltoise romped away in the first half. They were three laps ahead when an oil leak put them out.

Brian Redman: “I think Matra were a little better in terms of aerodynamics. But they probably had more efficient suspension, too: more stable under braking, better traction under acceleration, their better poise at the tighter tracks became clear.”

Even the number two Matra, which was 20kg heavier, featuring a ZF gearbox as opposed to its sister’s Hewland DG300, was too quick for the understeering Ferraris. Pescarolo had run second and led during the pitstops, but co-driver Gérard Larrousse was in third when he crunched the non-detachable nosecone against Carlos Pace’s Ferrari and lost two laps. By the time the now-free Cevert replaced him for a final double stint, however, the remaining blue car was on the tail of the leading Ferrari.

Gérard Larrousse: “It was my first year at such a high level, competing directly against drivers from F1. It was the first time I’d had to drive so hard. And in this race I had problems with my neck. That’s why François took over.”

Schenken, co-driven by Carlos Reutemann, had put up game resistance against Pescarolo – but there was no stopping Cevert.

Tim Schenken: “To be honest, we were happy with second place. I don’t remember the team being despondent.”

Dijon 1000Km
April 15

Ickx waved Redman away. Schetty, back briefly as a consultant, reckoned him “crazy”, but the Belgian wanted to know exactly where he stood, and if that meant a three-hour stint, so be it. He drove his heart out, wore a hole in yet another new-style nose – and finished second. Matras had led throughout.

Brian Redman: “We’d improved the car but found ourselves pushing the chassis harder than in 1972. We had to chuck it about a bit, whereas the Matras looked composed. You discover basic failings when you’re looking for that extra tenth.”

Gérard Larrousse: “I’m not so sure our aero package was better than Ferrari’s. And perhaps our engine was not so powerful. Our handling, though, was much better: we had no understeer.”

Fitted with new exhausts that boosted power by 10bhp to 485, Cevert/Beltoise continued to set the pace – and Pescarolo/Larrousse continued to win. Pesca, among the British press at least, had a reputation of being hard on his machinery, while Larrousse was deemed sympathetic but not fast enough. They proved, however, models of consistency, while their team-mates suffered chunking Goodyears, a misfire and a jammed starter motor.

Monza 1000km
April 25

Brian Redman: “We were still racing on some very fast tracks at that time, and we hoped to be more competitive there. That said, I think the Matra was a bit quicker in a straight line, too.”

This race was a must-win for Ferrari, so it pulled out all the stops: three factory-fresh 312PBs, all with long-tail, low-drag bodies (300rpm more), F1 exhausts (improved top end), and 30lb of lead in the nose. This was an improvement, but still Cevert was untouchable in qualifying. In the race, however, Ferrari ran deep into its reserve fuel in order to push hard and long on light tanks. It worked, Matra cracked. Two front hubs, that is. Ickx/Redman and Schenken/Reutemann gave the tifosi a 1-2 to cheer.

Spa 1000km
May 6

Ickx continued his crusade by breaking Cevert’s run of poles. There were, however, mitigating circumstances. Firstly, the Frenchman wasn’t present, preferring to contest the Pau F2 race (which he won in a John Coombs-run Elf Alpine); Beltoise was also racing in Pau, the pair thus avoiding upsetting their GPDA colleagues who were boycotting the ‘unsafe’ Belgian road circuit. Secondly, Ickx’s 163.9mph lap – the fastest-ever – was a banzai job. This was proved when Pescarolo left him for dead in the early stages, setting a 163mph fastest race lap.

But neither Matra nor Ferrari would win. It was the blues’ turn to be hampered by chunking Goodyears – with one MS670 eventually halted by a holed piston – while fractured unions on gearbox oil coolers did for the reds.

Targa Florio
May 13

Matra stayed away, deeming Sicily too deep into bandit country, and so this race, the last true Targa, should have been a Ferrari gimme. But both 312PBs retired early.

Nürburgring 1000km
May 27

This time Ferrari did not miss an open goal. It did, however, try to trip itself up. Larrousse, whose Matra had been torched by a cataclysmic engine failure in practice at Spa, lost two more V12s here, and the remaining high-mileage spare carried Pescarolo fewer than four miles into the race before breaking a con rod. Beltoise had a similar experience on lap 13 while holding a 25sec lead. Matra was in a slump, the recent splitting of its resources – race team at Paul Ricard, parts and spares from Vélizy – still lobbing the occasional spanner into the works.

Ferrari should have been the more unified, given that its Fiorano test track had not long been opened. Its drivers, though, were not happy campers: Arturo Merzario and Pace, poles apart on set-up, were not on speaking terms; and Merzario and Ickx, F1 team-mates, would be at loggerheads after this race.

With Matra out, the Ferraris were to hold station. Yet Merzario speeded up, passed Ickx, ignored two ‘Pit’ signals, dropped behind Ickx – and gave him some taps up the gearbox. He eventually stopped – because he needed fuel.

Brian Redman: “It got pretty heated. Merzario clenched the wheel and didn’t look up. They had to prise him out of the car, physically.”

Le Mans 24 Hours
June 9-10

The Big One was breathless. All three Ferraris led, as did three of the four Matras. This race had it all.

Tim Schenken: “We didn’t do Le Mans in 1972, so we had some catching up to do. It was a big effort. We did a lot of long-distance testing at Monza.”

Brian Redman: “We ran on the autostrada at night to check our top speed!”

The upshots were an even longer tail, outboard rear brakes for ease of access and a 10,500rpm limit. Ferrari’s efforts, however, paled next to Matra’s: its three new B-spec chassis featured a longer, lower rear body profile, courtesy of 13in rims, and a Porsche-made gearbox that cost £5000 a pop. This trio was supported by a normal MS670. Surprisingly, Ferrari sewed up the front row and, less surprisingly, Merzario went on the attack from pole.

Brian Redman: “Jacky asked me to take the first stint. He didn’t want the battle with Merzario.”

Tim Schenken: “We chose a middling pace. At Tertre Rouge on the first lap, Brian pulled over. I thought he’d blown up, but he wanted the other Prototypes to go past. Merzario lapped me before the first fuel stop. He locked up, bounced over the kerbs, kicked up dust on the exit – I laughed out loud.”

Merzario’s charge ended after two hours when a split collector tank tipped fuel over Pace. Now Cevert/Beltoise led. But two hours later a Mulsanne blowout bent a front wishbone and damaged bodywork, dropping them to 10th. They charged thereafter, but another 200mph+ tyre failure stuck Beltoise in the barriers after 12 hours.

This meant Matra was down to two cars, Patrick Depailler/Bob Wollek, leaders during the fifth hour in their MS670, having suffered an engine seizure in the eighth. Ferrari, too, had lost one of their number: Schenken/Reutemann. They’d led for four hours when a piston punched through a block.

Ickx/Redman led for the next seven hours, but Pescarolo/Larrousse, who had been delayed early on by gearbox bothers, were hauling the Ferrari in, especially when it began to run rough because of a cracked exhaust header. This was changed in eight minutes at 9am, enough to let the Matra through and away – briefly. A cracked rear brake pipe brought Larrousse in just one lap later, putting them back on the same lap. More drama followed at 11am when a split fuel collector tank cost the Ferrari 25min. All seemed lost – until an overheated starter motor halted the Matra for 23min. The ‘end’ came with 90min remaining, when the Ferrari’s valve gear, cooked by that split manifold, failed. Matra’s ‘go to’ men had prevailed again.

Jean-Pierre Beltoise: “I think they were luckier than us. For instance, at Le Mans their car was slower – they couldn’t go over 330km/h, whereas the other Matras were doing 335 – but that’s what caused our tyres to fail.”

Gérard Larrousse: “You always need luck. [Team manager] Gérard Ducarouge complained that we were using our pads too quickly. We said we weren’t doing anything differently. Only after the race did we discover the problem. When we were flat out, the axle of the throttle pedal was catching the brake, pressing the pads very gently onto the discs. That’s why they were wearing out. That’s why we were slower. And maybe that’s what saved our tyres.”

Austrian 1000km
June 24

Luck plays its part in long-distance racing, but not as much as teamwork, preparation and tactics. Even Beltoise would admit that he and Cevert had failed to capitalise on having the quicker Hewland car for the earlier ‘sprint’ races. And although he plays down the dissatisfaction picked up on by the reporters of the day about a Cevert set-up bias, and refutes their concurrent suggestion that his partner was gung-ho in traffic, it’s not hard to imagine which side of the Matra garage was happier. In what was by any measure a stable team, Pescarolo/Larrousse seemed a better match in terms of status, stature – Cevert was tall, Beltoise short – and strategy.

Tim Schenken: “They [Pescarolo/Larrousse] were underrated. They got the balance between speed and reliability just right.”

Cevert again set the qualifying pace, despite both Matras now featuring Hewlands, but a fuel pump problem caused his Matra to make more pitstops than planned, and earlier.

Gérard Larrousse: “He also had to make an extra stop because he’d forgotten his earplugs! François and Jean-Pierre were much faster than us, but perhaps we were more reliable. I’m sure they were worried about not winning, but the ambience was good. We all brought something to the team; Jean-Pierre, for example, did a lot of the development work.”

Indeed, Matra was going from strength to strength.

Gérard Larrousse: “Ducarouge was a great track engineer and a big personality. He had a lot of charisma. He was strict, organised and did a very good job. We had engineers with more diplomas, but he was the one pushing us on. Lagardère, too, gave the drivers, engineers and mechanics a lot of motivation. He was really a leader, more so than any other boss I worked with.”

Ferrari, in contrast, was in disarray. A longer-chassis 312PB, extended at the rear, had run at Fiorano, but the congested calendar made its full implementation impossible. Instead, more nose and tail variants were thrown at an understeer problem that appeared fundamental. The gap to Matra had never been bigger.

Watkins Glen Six Hours
July 21

The concrete apron told the story: opposite the Matra pit it was virginal white; opposite the Ferrari pit there was a weave of thick black lines. Cevert, running a 670B fitted with 15in rears, clocked his sixth pole and sixth fastest lap, but again showed his fallibility, a half-spin in the damp early laps dropping him behind Ickx, whom he then shunted when a Corvette turned across their bows. Later he was stranded when a screw fell out of the transistor box, Ducarouge tersely reminding his charge, who returned on foot, that a spare was carried on the car. Pescarolo/Larrousse, meanwhile, were flawless.

Gérard Larrousse: “That was my best drive. I took the lead from Merzario in wet/dry conditions. I’d worked hard all season on my driving and I was much improved.”

Merzario, whose Ferrari had since the Nürburgring featured a number of Forghieri-inspired mods – F1-type airbox, dished bodywork between the rear wheels, lower and flatter wing – pressed the Frenchmen but slipped to third with a slow puncture. Schenken/Reutemann lost second when the alternator/fuel-metering drive belt snapped, and so it was Ickx/Redman who took the runner-up spot.

Buenos Aires 1000km
October 21

There was a long wait for the final round. We’re still waiting. The impending Oil Crisis caused the CSI to cancel the event. Ferrari had wanted it to go ahead without them. That way it could have dropped another zero score – only the best seven results counted – and kept the 12 points for third at the Österreichring, boosting its total to 127. This would have forced Matra to finish at least second in Argentina to take the title. The CSI stood firm, however, and declared Matra the champions. It was messy, but it was correct.

Epilogue

New Scuderia recruits Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni tested its next-iteration prototype late in 1973. Yet when the 1974 season started at Monza on April 25, it did so without Ferrari.

Tim Schenken: “F1 was taking an increasing effort and budget. It would’ve been crazy to do both types of racing. I reckon Niki had a hand in canning the sports car. I don’t blame him.”

There was no official announcement – but a dust sheet had been drawn over a chapter of Ferrari history.

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