Sebring, Saturday, March 20th.
The entry for the 12 hours of Sebring was an improvement over the previous Sports Car Championship round, the Daytona 24 hours, for Ferrari had entered their exciting 3-litre flat-12 312P prototype which had been beefed-up since its first race in the Argentine and was now about 100 lb. heavier. Andretti and Ickx comprised the very powerful driving combination. Also reappearing after their Daytona absence were three Autodelta Alfa Romeo T33/3s for Vacarella/ Hezemans, Galli/Stommelen and de Adamich/Pescarolo. The Group 5 protagonists were as at Daytona, the two Gulf Porsche 917s for Siffert/Bell and Rodriguez/Oliver were little changed but using five-speed boxes. The Martini Porsche team had not yet rebuilt the two Daytona cars so entered just the one spare car for Elford/Larrousse. Once again Roger Penske Racing Enterprises had entered their Ferrari 512M and, as usual, it was immaculate, all the scars from Daytona were completely gone. Donohue and Hobbs, as predicted, set up fastest practice lap and the team were definitely the favourites for the race.
North American Racing Team had entered their usual gaggle of assorted Ferraris but unfortunately they had hardly any mechanics with the result that permanent panic reigned in their pits.
Practice was dominated by the Penske Ferrari 512 with Donohue setting a fastest lap of 1 min. 31.65 sec. (123.44 m.p.h.), even though his ankle was swollen and strapped following a bad strain. A slight surprise was the practice time of the 312P Ferrari which set up second fastest time with Andretti at the wheel, and Stommelen’s very quick lap which put his Alfa Romeo fifth on the grid ahead of the Siffert/Bell Porsche. Rodriguez set third fastest in the last session, while Elford was fourth.
Race day was warm and dry and it was Donohue who immediately went into the lead followed by Rodriguez, Siffert, Elford and Andretti. At the end of the first half-hour Donohue led Siffert by five seconds, who in turn was six seconds ahead of a third-place quartet of Rodriguez, Elford, Andretti and Revson in a NART 512S, a further 30 seconds down came Stommelen in an Alfa. The first change in the leadership came when Elford, dicing closely with Rodriguez, was shunted by a Lola T212 and he limped to the pits for some body taping and a change of wheel. From then on the steering was slightly odd, but not enough to put the car out or even slow it by much. As the leaders came in for refuelling J.W. had their first setback when Siffert, ignoring the warning light, ran out of fuel and then accepted a lift to the pits to collect a can-full. Other than losing 19 laps before he was away again the stewards imposed a further penalty of four laps. Just before this fuel incident Siffert set a record fastest lap at 124.43 m.p.h.
With the Group 5 cars making more pit stops it was not long before Andretti/Ickx had the little Ferrari in a comfortable lead and, by the fourth hour, they were over one lap ahead. It was about this time that an unfortunate incident occurred which spoiled the race and left a lot of hard feeling. Rodriguez was about to be lapped by Donohue when, according to the Mexican, he was dangerously chopped going through Websters and he hit the Ferrari, while Donohue said he was rammed three times quite unnecessarily in the Webster chicane. Whatever the cause, the Porsche lost a chunk of right front wing and lights which had to be partly replaced, while the Ferrari damage was to the very sophisticated fuel filler neck and this caused two tank breathers to break away, so these had to be sealed off to stop fuel surging out on cornering. The damage also slowed the fuel stops considerably.
The works Ferraris’ comfortable lead was not to last for long because, during the fifth hour, the F1-type gearbox, which is not designed for long-distance racing, broke and Alfa Romeo took over the first two places with Elford’s Martini Porsche catching up after a long pit stop to remedy a sticking brake pad. The Porsche went into the leading place when the de Adamich/Pescarolo/Vacarella (the Sicilian moved to this car when his own retired with fuel-metering problems) Alfa Romeo had to have the alternator replaced and, at six hours, Elford took the Martini 917 into a lead which it was never to relinquish.
However, the two Alfas held very creditable second and third places and were helped by the increased efficiency in the pits. The two delayed Gulf cars were next just ahead of the Penske Ferrari. During the last hours there were three protests about the Gulf cars, which unfortunately kept the final results in abeyance for some time. The 21st Sebring race is the last on the present circuit and unless the money is found to build the new track nearby, it may be the last Sebring for some time.—M. J. T.