Hardly a classic
Most motor races usually have some highlight which, when looking back, bring the event into perspective. The 1968 Sebring 12-hour race lacked anything at all outstanding. This didn’t mean that it was a dull race, for there were some moments which held the interest, but these were predictably short.
The Porsche Team, who were obvious favourites for an outright win, had four new cars to the same specification as those used at Daytona, except for shorter tails and the driver cooling systems now fitted. The “driver cooling” relies on a large ice block let into a receptacle beside the left headlamps, and an electric pump that forces the water into a suit of underclothes threaded with fine plastic capillary tubes which carry the coolant to all parts of the body. On the hot practice days the drivers were very enthusiastic about this latest luxury. The Porsches were driven by Siffert/Herrmann, who were fastest in practice only 0.8 sec. slower than Spence’s record lap last year in the Chaparral 2F, Elford/Neerpasch, Mitter/Stommelen and Scarfiotti/Buzzetta.
There were three different makes of car capable of competing with the Porsche team. Unfortunately they lacked the reputation for reliability. The four Lola-Chevrolet Mk. 3s had been entered by private individuals, and this was their first race since being homologated into Group 4. In practice the Patrick/Jordan car was going quickly and was very stable. Bonnier/Axelsson were having teething troubles which kept their times down. The third car was driven by d’Udy/Dibley and after minor troubles put in ninth fastest time. Last of the Lolas, and very late to practice, was the car to be driven by Guldstrand and Lesley and due to lack of practice was down in about the middle of the field.
The GT40s were the second line of main opposition to the Porsches. The two J. W. Engineering cars driven by Ickx/Redman and Hawkins/Hobbs were fast and were not being dogged by any serious problems. Ickx was reported to have put in some very fast unofficial times early in the week, but at qualification the Ford was a second slower than the Porsche to take second place in the line-up. A third GT40 was entered by E. Nelson for himself and Piper. Although completely rebuilt there were minor problems which kept times down and eleventh fastest was the best it could do.
Third team of the possible opposition were the two Howmet TX Turbine cars. Of these two, only one materialised, as the other car was in some exhibition elsewhere in the States. This attitude to racing unfortunately will keep this car from getting on its feet. However, Thompson put in some very good times with third fastest overall, 0.2 sec. behind Ickx’s GT40.
The rest of the field were a mixture of Trans-Am cars and a few semi-serious entrants after class places. One car to appear again was the V8 3-litre Alpine which made its debut at Montlhéry last year. There has been no development on this car and it was unable to get within 10 seconds of the faster cars.
The race was run in cool overcast conditions which benefited the turbine and made the Porsche driver cooling system unnecessary. Siffert made a perfect start. Across the road into the driving seat, fasten seat belt (this was scrutinised by an official stood by each car), engine starts, and away with 50 yards lead from pole position in 100 yards. The Porsche domination was not quite complete. The lead went to the Patrick/Jordan Lola early in the race until they were put out of the running with a broken front suspension. The lead also went for a time to the Hawkins/Hobbs Ford and the Porsche team let themselves down when two cars went out due to over-revving.
The two J. W. Engineering GT40s held station just behind the leaders in the early stages. But before the Ickx/Redman car got going really well Redman spun off and damaged the clutch, which put the car out. Hawkins, while in the lead, had the misfortune to hit a Porsche 911, which was avoiding a Javelin driven by a woman. The resulting damage to the lights dropped the car from the lead, and more time was wasted later switching the whole nose unit for that from the retired car. But before lighting-up time, everything was set and Hawkins was at that stage of the race not far behind. Then, while braking for one of the fastest curves on the course, something broke and the car shot over the grass towards a marshals’ post, missing them by inches. Hawkins finally got the car back under control and drove slowly to the pits where an upper front wishbone was found to be broken.
The Howmet challenge was not very serious, for when the auxiliary fuel tank failed it meant a pit stop every 13 laps for fuel, which kept the Turbine well back. Finally, after one or two excursions over the grass the engine mountings gave up and when two finally broke the car was retired. As the retirements came thick and fast, international interest waned when two Chevrolet Camaros, beautifully prepared and their team well organised by Roger Penske, were third and fourth on the overall leaders board.
Just before the end it looked as if the Camaros might move up another place when Elford came to the pits with front wheel bearing trouble. However, the Porsche mechanics removed the complete upright from this car and replaced it by one cannibalised from the two retired cars. So it was a Porsche victory, if a rather hollow one, which the small crowd witnessed on this desolate airfield circuit in the middle of Florida.
M. J. T.