Ferraris dominate Sebring

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Sebring, March 25th.

It is a strange quirk of the International calendar that two of the World Manufacturers Championship events for sports cars happen within just over a month of each other in the same state of the USA. The state is, of course, Florida and this year the second of the two races came as a welcome relief after the State Primary for the Presidential election. Indeed, the papers had been full of little else for weeks and the victor, Senator George Wallace, had his campaign managed by Bill France Snr., who owns Daytona. This is the circuit that had hosted the sports car circus a few weeks earlier and, when it moved across the State to the old airfield circuit of Sebring, the entry was much the same but with the interesting addition of the new Len Bailey designed Mirage M6-Cosworth from the Gulf Research Racing (formerly JW Automotive Engineering) team.

Ferrari, winners of the two previous rounds, arrived looking stronger than ever, with three of their impressive 312Ps for the regular driver line-up of Ickx/Andretti, Redman/Regazzoni, Peterson/Schenken. These were the three cars raced at Buenos Aires (Chassis 082, 084, 086) and completely re-built at the factory since then while the Daytona cars were back in Italy receiving the same treatment in readiness for the BOAC 1000, The Sebring cars were fitted with larger rear-brake calipers and all had the later gearbox which enabled quick gear ratio changes, which previously had only been tried on one car. Ferrari are now the only major sports car team running on Firestone tyres.

Autodelta hoped to come to terms with their Italian rivals by weight of numbers for the Alfa Romeo racing division had brought along six of their tubular steel chassis TT33 models, two as spares. Three of these cars were fitted with re-located radiators mounted much lower and fed with air from side rather than top ducts. Revson/Stommelen and Elford/Marko were in their Daytona cars, modified to the new specification, while there was a completely new car for de Adamich/Hezemans. A fourth unmodified car was entrusted to Galli/Vaccarella, this being the machine Galli had put into the wall at Daytona in practice and subsequently re-built. The lowering of the radiators enabled a lower frontal area and Autodelta technicians were claiming a 6-mile increase on top speed. All the Alfas were now running on Goodyear tyres.

The opposition to the two Italian teams was sparse indeed. Equipe Bonnier failed to come to a financial settlement for both their Lola T280-Cosworth V8 and thus brought along just the later of the two cars to be shared by Wissell, Larrousse and Bonnier himself, Britain’s Chris Craft having to stand down on this occasion. The car was little changed since Daytona although some bodywork modifications had been made. The Bonnier team do not appear to have sufficient funds to really challenge the might of Ferrari, which is hardly surprising, although with the right organisation and back-up the British car is obviously capable of doing so. But Ferrari have such an impressive sports car effort in terms of machinery and personnel it seems unlikely that anyone can compete at present, let alone a private team with limited resources.

The long awaited Gulf Research Racing team (formerly JW Automotive Engineering) made their welcome return to the sports car scene but it was not on the scale of their previous Porsche 917 effort. They brought just the single new Gulf-Mirage M6 for drivers Bell/van Lennep. The fine team of mechanics built up last season have largely disbanded, one going to the Ferrari sports car team, another to Tyrrell, another to McLaren and so on and, of course, team manager David Yorke is now with the slow to start Tecno Grand Prix effort. Now John Horsman is in overall comand and it will be interesting to see if the Gulf team can re-capture some of their former glory.

The Gulf-Mirage only just made it to Sebring in time having very little prior testing in England before being shipped to Florida. The M6 has been designed to accept either the Cosworth V8 or the new 3-litre Weslake V12 engine which is presently being developed. Externally the distinguishing feature of the car is the rear aerofoil, beneath which is a specially shaped engine cowl and this arrangement is said to give very good high speed stability. The wing is adjustable to suit different circuit conditions.

The chassis is a monocoque section in 18-gauge L72 aluminium alloy sheet reinforced by mild steel sub-structures. The length of the projected V12 engine is such that, in order to accommodate the driver, a conventional front bulkhead cannot he used. Thus mild steel fabrications drilled for lightness tie the side pontoons together. The monocoque terminates behind the driver although the side pontoons are extended to provide mounting for ancillary equipment. The rear bulkhead is of 20-gauge steel. At present a Cosworth engine is fitted and a 6 in. spacer fitted between the engine, clutch assembly and the Hewland DG300 gearbox, makes up for the difference in length between this and the V12. The team have two entries at Le Mans so, presumably, will build a second car and by then the V12 should be operational. Suspension is “British Standard Formula One”, uses Koni dampers and 13 in. diameter wheels front and rear. Unlike the other major contenders, the Mirage has a front-mounted water radiator.

The only other car in the 3-litre Group 5 category was an old Porsche 910 with a 2.3-litre engine but in the 2-litre category there were three Chevron B19s and a pair of Lola T212s, all but one powered by Cosworth FVC engines. The fast 2-litre Abarth had returned to Italy. In addition there were classes for GT cars, and various saloons, some only conforming to SCAA rather than International regulations. Of the GT cars there were four Ferrari GTB4s including cars for David Hobbs/Skip Scott and Posey/ Adamowicz and there were also several less sophisticated but more powerful Corvettes.

Ferrari had practice well sewn-up while all the challengers suffered set-backs. Two of the Alfas were involved in minor accidents, as was the sole Lola, while the Mirage had various “new car” problems particularly with the fuel system. Stommelen just averted a complete Ferrari 1-2-3 in practice by putting his Alfa Romeo in third fastest position behind Ickx/Andretti (2m. 31.44 sec.) and Regazzoni/Redman (2 min. 33.04 sec.). The Stommelen/Revson car was 0.8 slower while Peterson/Schenken, being new to Sebring, lapped in 2 min. 35.37 sec. Then came two more Alfas, the Mirage which was nine seconds off pole position time, and then the Lola which had done very little practice. Rounding off the top ten was the final Alfa and the Chevron of the Mexicans Junco/van Beuren which was fitted with a Hart aluminium block BDA engine.

The race attracted a large crowd who spilled onto the track just before 11 a.m, as the 61-car field set off, two by two on the pace lap and they all had to go around again before the marshals got everything under control. When the green flag came out Stommelen made a spirited attempt to lead the Ferraris, but with a lap gone and 12-hours to go, the top sports car team in the world were in a one-two-three formation in the order Andretti, Regazzoni, Peterson. Behind came Stommelen, Elford, de Adamich, then Larousse, Bell and Vacarrella. After only two laps Larrousse slowed in the Lola and was soon in the pits where the right rear lower wishbone was broken, the legacy of the practice incident and a part which should have been discovered as faulty before the race. The Lola returned to the race, after half an hour, in last place. Soon the Ferraris had pulled away from the rest but, at least, there was some spirited racing amongst the 2-litre cars.

The Gulf-Mirage debut did not prove particularly auspicious for Bell soon brought the car into the pits, from eighth place, complaining of a bad rear-end and vibration. After several more pit stops, and suggestions it was out of balance rear wheels, a shattered flywheel was diagnosed and the Gulf mechanics set about replacing it and the clutch, a task accomplished in just under three hours. With the first hour still not over the leading Alfa of Stommelen slowed, and then stopped, with a faulty mechanical fuel pump which was replaced. After an hour and a quarter the first routine stops were made which gave Ferrari an even greater advantage with their slick stops. Then the flagging Alfa team suffered another setback when two of their cars were black flagged for allegedly passing under a yellow flag. Both Revson and Galli were reprimanded by the Chief Steward, and something of a comedy situation ensued in which Revson tipped the gentleman’s hat off and Galli was reprimanded through an interpreter. although he speaks better English than many Americans. At the end of the second hour the Ferrari demonstration looked as impressive as ever, the three cars running only seconds apart. The Marko/Elford and Hezemans/Vacarrella Alfas were fourth and fifth, while two Chevrons contested sixth place. The de Adamich Alfa was out of the running after Galli, who had switched to this car after practice, crashed with a puncture. De Adamich then joined Stommelen taking over Revson’s place as the American had been disqualified from the meeting for the hat pulling incident.

With three-hours gone, all three Ferraris were still in the same order and on the same lap but, in the fourth hour, the Ferraris started to experience trouble as Peterson ran out of fuel on the circuit due to a faulty collector tank and all three cars seemed to he losing oil. Ickx then made an unscheduled stop to complain of his car weaving on the straight and a punctured tyre was replaced which put Redman/Regazzoni into the lead, while the Schenken/Peterson car lost time with a broken brake pipe and dropped several places down the field. With six hours gone, Ferrari still looked good with Regazzoni/Redman leading Andretti/Ickx by two laps, while the Elford/Marko and Hezemans/Vacarrella Alfas held the next two places ahead of the third Ferrari. The third Alfa had now dropped out with clutch failure, the Lola was still running in fits and starts, the rough and rustic old Sebring track playing havoc with the chassis, while the Mirage finally retired with a damaged differential.

Redman/Regazzoni further increased their lead over their teammates when Ickx brought the car in with a burned-out battery lead which took time to replace. The Alfa ranks were reduced to one when the Elford/Marko car blew its engine and by now the faster Corvettes and Porsche 911s were showing well in the results, as all the 2-litre cars were out of the running.

With ten hours gone there was excitement when Regazzoni passed the pits with flames licking from the back and he stopped and abandoned the car further down the track where it really blazed fiercely. ‘The Sebring fire-fighters did little to stop the whole car burning out. This put the oily Ickx/Andretti car back in the lead while Schenken/Peterson had now moved up to second and the pair were intent on taking the lead, but Team Manager Schetty gave them slow down instructions which they rather reluctantly accepted reckoning that they had been robbed of victory at Daytona. Thus Ickx/Andretti cruised home to a second successive victory keeping their fingers crossed in the closing stages that the oil-leak would get no worse. Peterson/Schenken took their second successive second place, just two laps down, while the Hezemans/Vacarrella Alfa struggled home to third position despite various troubles in the closing stages after nightfall. Fourth place went to the Heinz/Johnson Corvette and fifth to the Haywood/Gregg Porsche 911S, both of which had already shown good long distance form at Daytona. The Lola managed to make it to the end, finishing in sixth spot and on the same lap the Minter/Pechman Porsche 910 while a NART Ferrari GTB4 finished eighth.