Vallelunga 6-Hours to Matra-Simca
Rome, March 25th.
Last year's onslaught by Ferrari on the World Championship for Makes was impressive, but not entirely without fault, and had there been any strong opposition the Italian team might not have won ten races from ten starts. At the Vallelunga circuit near Rome, for the first European round in the 1973 championship, Matra-Simca sent two cars to oppose Ferrari and dominated the meeting. Cevert going remarkably quickly in practice to take pole position. During the race the car he shared with Beltoise retired at half distance while three laps ahead, but Cevert was then put into the second car entered for Pescarolo and Larrousse and continued to win by a comfortable margin. Without doubt the Ferrari team has been shaken out of any complacency, and the scene has been set for a considerably more exciting season than last year.
Ferrari has sold three of the nine cars used by the team last year, updating the remaining six for this year's championship. Two will be entered in most rounds for Ickx/ Redman and Pace/Merzario, and a third will appear in five or six events for Reutemann/ Schenken. The 312P now has a longer wheelbase and a new nose form, designed to make the cars handle more progressively, and the engines have been uprated to 460 b.h.p. at 11,000 r.p.m.
The two Matra-Simca MS670 models for Cevert/Beltoise and Pescarolo/Larrousse were both raced at Le Mans last year and were in virtually the same form, though the engines were uprated to 475 b.h.p. at 11,200 r.p.m. The lead car was a bit lighter, down to the minimum weight of 650 kilogrammes.
No sign was seen of the new 12-cylinder Alfa Romeos, strikes at the factory apparently having delayed their preparation, but some more opposition to the favoured teams came from Gulf Research Racing Ltd., which ran two Ford-Cosworth DFV powered M6 prototypes for Bell/Ganley and Hailwood/Schuppan. The Australian, Schuppan, was recruited a few days previously after Watson's accident at Brands Hatch, having very limited experience of two-seaters and none of the circuit. The 3-litre prototype entry was completed with a Gitanes-Filipinetti Lola T282 for Lafosse/Wisell, and a pair of old Porsche 908/3 models.
The Vallelunga fixture was added to the calendar in January in place of the Sebring 6-Hour race, but few people would claim that the circuit is ideal for a World Championship event. Four tight corners are found in the compact 3.2 km. circuit, the speed differential between the fast and slow cars is very marked, and there are few places suitable for safe overtaking. A total of 288 laps were covered by the leading finishers, an arduous accomplishment for the drivers and their cars, but an important redeeming feature of the circuit is that the grandstand crowds get a fine view of the action.
Cevert soon beat Emerson Fittipaldi's JPS Formula One (outright) lap record of 1 min. 11.6 sec. during practice, establishing 1 min. 8.55 sec. during the first afternoon. This was far quicker than the Ferraris had ever gone, or could hope to go, and second fastest time was set by Redman at 1 min. 10.2 sec. These remained the fastest times, for the other Matra and Ferrari drivers were closely matched in the 1 min. 10 sec. bracket. Except for Cevert the contest was extremely even, though his presence alone tipped the scales towards the prospect of a Matra victory. The Gulf-Mirages were not at their best at Vallelunga, both cars troubled by lack of rear-wheel adhesion out of the tight corners, Bell being the quickest of the four drivers at 1 min. 11.15 sec.
A good start could be crucial on this difficult circuit, and from the rolling start Ickx forged ahead of Cevert while Merzario, in third place, headed Pescarolo, Schenken, Bell and Ganley. The order was unchanged for the first half-dozen laps but when their tyres warmed up the Ferraris began to understeer more than they had during practice, and on the seventh lap Cevert overtook Ickx to lead the race.
Once ahead Cevert pulled away rapidly, and soon Ickx made the first of four unscheduled pit stops with his left front tyre blistered. Eventually the problem was alleviated by fitting harder compound tyre rubber, adjusting the front and rear anti-roll bars, and eventually changing the rear body panels on all three cars after lowering the transverse aerofoils on the replacement tail covers. The Ickx/Redman car was five laps behind the leading Matra after the first hour of racing, seemingly right out of contention, and when the Matras outran the Ferraris by five or six laps before refuelling, the blue cars were first and second for a while.
With all the first pit stops completed Beltoise led the race by 35 sec. from Pace, Larrousse and Reutemann, the Gulf-Mirages holding fifth and sixth places a lap behind. Pescarolo had shadowed Merzario very closely for 59 laps without finding a way past, and now Larrousse had exactly the same problem with Pace—after five laps he managed to overtake, but had made contact with the Ferrari and needed a pit stop to tape the damaged nose section, losing two laps.
Soon before half distance all three Ferraris had lost a little time in the pits having their tail covers changed, and at the three-hour mark Cevert/Beltoise had completed 148 laps, Pace/Merzario and Schenken/Reutemann 145 laps, Hailwood/Schuppan and Pescarolo/Larrousse 144 laps, and Ickx/Redman 142 laps.
A change in race order was imminent, for on his 149th tour Cevert went slowly to his pit with blue smoke hanging in the air behind the Matra. All the oil had escaped so more was put in and Cevert was sent out again, but he didn't complete the lap.
With the half-distance pit stops completed Schenken, Hailwood and Pescarolo were on the same lap, in that order, with the Matra gaining ground and visibly handling better in the tight corners.
The Gulf-Mirage lost its transmission, joining in retirement the Bell/Ganley car which had been side-swiped by a Chevron and sustained broken rear suspension. At 200 laps Pescarolo caught Schenken, but the Australian wasn't going to make it easy for him to overtake and for several laps the two cars ran nose-to-tail.
Matra team manager Bernard Boyer brought his car in and put Cevert into the driving seat, and when the leading Ferrari made its pit stop the French car went into the lead, Cevert leading Reutemann by 19 sec. and pulling away. Merzario's car had dropped a lap needing another change of tyres, Ickx and Redman were still making up time, but the contest was now between Cevert and Reutemann as the race went into its closing hour. The Matra established a lead of 38 sec. then held steady, Cevert being far too experienced to throw the race away unless something happened to his car, and it was Reutemann who had a last-moment upset when his Ferrari needed more fuel only three laps from the finish dropping him to 60 sec. behind.
Naturally the French team was overjoyed to have beaten Ferrari at the first encounter for more than two years, and the result can only be good for the somewhat tarnished image of long-distance racing.—M. L. C.
Vallelunga 6 Hours – Groups 4 and 5 – Autodrome Vallelunga – Dry – March 25th
1st: H. Pecarolo/G. Larrousse/F. Cevert (Matra-Simca 3-litre V12) – Grp 5 – 929.63 kms. – 154.94 k.p.h.
2nd: C. Reutemann/T. Schenken (Ferrari 312P 3-litre flat-12) – Grp 5 – 927.06 kms.
3rd: J. Ickx/B. Redman (Ferrari 312P 3-litre flat-12) – Grp 5 – 926.16 kms.
4th: C. Pace/A. Merzario (Ferrari 312P 3-litre flat-12) – Grp 5 – 922.04 kms.
5th: R. Joest/M.Casoni (Porsche 908/3 3-litre flat-8) – Grp 5 – 871.62 kms.
6th: R. Wisell/J-L. Lafosse (Lola T282-Cosworth 3-litre V8) – Grp 5 – 858.69 kms.
7th: G. Follmer/W. Kauhsen (Porsche 911 Carrera 2.8-litre flat-6) – Grp 4 – 804.66 kms.
8th: G. van Lennep/H. Müller (Porsche 911 Carrera 2.8-litre flat-6) – Grp 4 – 803.27 kms.
9th: C. Haldi/J. Fernandez (Porsche 908/3 3-litre flat-8) – Grp 5 – 731.56 kms.
10th: C. Morelli/M. Nesti (Chevron B21-FVA 1.6-litre inline 4) – Grp 5 – 725.10 kms.
Fastest lap not given – 22 starters – 12 finishers