An uninspiring start
IF YOU thought last year’s World Championship for Makes was more than a shade uninspiring, you should have seen the first European round in this year’s endurance racing series. The opening round of the championship had taken place amidst the bare expanses of the Daytona Speedway in early February, but it was the six hour race at Mugello, near Florence in Italy’s Appenine Mountains, that had the more representative entry and a very depressing sight it was. Only 18 cars came to the line, and four of those were ineligible for World Championship points, leaving the privately entered Porsches with yet another insipid walkover. Yet “sports car racing” prospects are now taking a distinct turn for the better. In spite of that lack-lustre start to the World endurance racing championship, there is every likelihood of interesting grids and close competition in this month’s six hour race at Silverstone, next month’s long distance classics at Nurburgring and Le Mans (only a week apart how’s that for bad planning?), July’s Watkins Glen fixture and the Brands Hatch event in August. But to begin in that most logical of places, the beginning.
Sponsored for the first time by Pepsi-Cola, the Daytona 24 Hours on February 3rd/4th was not a race with much “fizz”. Hawaii’s sometime Formula One driver Danny Ongais, America’s Porsche exponent Hurley Haywood, and car owner Ted Field together steered their Interscope Porsche 935 to victory by all but 200 miles – despite the fact their engine virtually expired ten minutes from the finish, leaving Ongais to play out time sitting a mere hundred yards from the finish until the chequered flag appeared. Trickling forward, he crept across the line, a lucky winner. Yet the race had not been that dull throughout.
Fastest in practice had been a Porsche 935 shared by Italian industrialist Martino Finotto and his veteran compatriot, Carlo Facetti, who cut his competition teeth in such events as the Male Miglia. At the start, however, it was Germany’s Rolf Stommelen who snatched an early lead, in the Porsche 935 he was sharing with Volkert Merl and entrant Reinhold Joest. Facetti gave chase, pursued by the only other European entries, the two Gelo Porsches driven at various stages by Jacky Ickx, John Fitzpatrick, Bob Wollek, Manfred Schurti and Peter Gregg.
After less than half an hour, Facetti’s car needed a change of turbocharger; it later retired with engine failure. Then, little more than an hour into the race, one Gelo Porsche also suffered turbocharger failure, while the other retired with a spent engine, leaving Stommelen/Joest/Merl with a commanding lead. For five hours they clung to their advantage before Ongais captured the initiative, Joest’s Porsche retiring shortly afterwards when the drive to its fuel injection pump broke. Its demise left Ongais/Haywood/Field under great pressure from another American entered Porsche 935, driven by England’s Brian Redman, filmstar Paul Newman and car owner Dick Barbour. Throughout the night the rival teams circulated seldom more than a lap apart, often less, but Barbour withdrew his car at dawn when a dropped valve damaged a piston, handing the leader a huge, unassailable advantage.
The surviving Gelo Porsche of Ickx, Wollek and Gregg had succumbed for similar reasons shortly after half distance, having recovered to third place since its earlier change of turbocharger. So a very distant second place eventually fell to an old Ferrari Daytona 365GTB, a car contesting its seventh Daytona 24 Hours and driven this time by John Morton and Tony Adamowicz. Equally distant third and fourth positions fell to further American entered Porsche 9355, the former driven by USAC (now CART) star Rick Mears, Monte Shelton and Bruce Canepa, the latter by Don and Bill Whittington and Jurgen Barth. Then came a pair of “2.3-litre” rotary engined Mazda RX7s that were making their international racing debut at Daytona, the Japanese driven works car finishing fifth, an American entered example finishing sixth.
Less fortunate was a trio of extensively rebodied, Group 5 Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxers. As the quicker Porsches fell by the wayside in the race’s opening stages, the 460 b.h.p. machines climbed to seventh, eighth and ninth places by nightfall. They were then withdrawn, alas, following massive accidents on the high banking during both practice and the race. Both incidents were blamed on suspected tyre failure.
The six hour race at Mugello on March 18 proved much less interesting, despite one important novelty. For the first time since 1976, when the CSI (as it then was) restricted the World Championship for Makes exclusively to production based machinery, organisers may this year eke out small fields of Group 4 and 5 cars with the sports-racers officially labelled Group 6 two-seater racing cars. It was one such Group 6 car, the 2-litre Osella-BMW PA6 shared by Giorgio Francia and Lelia Lombardi, that started the Italian race from pole. But these Group 6 cars are still not eligible for points in the championship, and the event immediately became a three horse race, once again pitting Facetti/Finotto against the two similar Gelo Porsches of Fitzpatrick, Wollek, Schurti and Ickx.
The Italians put up a valiant struggle against the powerful Gelo team, contesting the lead in the opening laps and lying a strong second for most of the first hour. But then Facetti ran into the back of a slower car that had just emerged from the pits, after which the race degenerated into a tour de force for the Gelo cars. Fitzpatrick, Schurti and Wollek all took turns at handling the winning car, and when torrential rain brought the race to a halt 45 minutes before the intended finish, they were two laps ahead of the sister machine shared by Ickx, Wollek and Schurti. Facetti/Finotto trailed home three minutes later in third place, and the Francia/Lombardi Osella came a class winning fourth.
Yet it is that Group 6 category that makes the future of long distance racing look a little brighter for the rest of this year. In addition to the Osellas and other swift 2-litre machinery, we should see the Cosworth DFV devices of Alain de Cadenet and Ian Bracey at several rounds and at Le Mans, full works teams from Porsche and Mirage, a Group 5 BMW M1 coupe built in England by March Engines, and a 700 b.h.p. Ferrari 308GTB with twin turbochargers that has been built by Facetti for himself and Finotto.