1968 United States Grand Prix race report: Stewart dictates the pace
Matra's Jackie Stewart puts in an imperious performance to win and claim F1's largest ever winner's purse
Two weeks after the Canadian Grand Prix held in the ski country north of Montreal the Grand Prix “circus” moved south-west into the holiday area of Upper New York State. The village of Watkins Glen gave open-armed welcome to all race-goers, as it does every year, and, as usual, organisation was of the high standard set in previous years. The technical building had been doubled in size, which gave the teams all the space they needed to work under one roof. This year the pits had been lengthened, adding six more pits, and the pit road was considerably wider.
In the week preceding the race, work on the cars at the technical centre went on apace. Lotus had the same three cars for Hill, Oliver and Andretti. Hill’s car had been repaired and the upper engine mounting plates had been changed from alloy to steel. The mounting points on the monocoque had been strengthened and repaired, and all three cars were now fitted with constant velocity drive-shafts, slightly more robust than those used at Monaco earlier in the year.
Oliver’s car was now fitted with wider wings making it the same as the number 1 car. Andretti’s first Formula One drive was in a car with narrower wings and using the older, more flexible, exhaust system, whereas the other two works cars were using the new exhausts. The other Lotus/Cosworth, in the hands of Siffert, was entered by the Walker/Durlacher team. To start with, the drive-shafts on this car were those used by Hill at Mont Tremblant, but new shafts identical to the works cars were on their way.
The McLaren team had the same cars, except that Hulme had a new nose section with properly shaped aerofoil nose spoilers instead of the thin angled strips shaped on to the sides of the nose. Both cars were fitted with the old exhausts. Gurney was still using the third McLaren which, like the works cars, was unaltered.
BRM had flown out two more cars and B Unser was joining Rodriguez for this race. One of the cars from Bourne was the new P138 which appeared at Monza; the other was an older P126 car which had the cockpit’s sides widened to get Unser’s larger shoulders into the narrow space. The P133 car that raced two weeks ago became the spare. Parnell had his usual car for Courage, which made up three BRM entries.
The Brabhams were unaltered except that Brabham had the means of adjusting the angle of his wing, whilst practising; which would save continuous pit stops to get the correct balance between front and back wings. When the balance was ascertained the wings would be fixed in that position and the setting transferred to Rindt’s car.
Coopers two cars for Elford and Bianchi had severely modified fuel systems which it was hoped would have cured the chronic fuel problems experienced at St Jovite.
Surtees had the two RA301 Hondas. The 801 was fitted with the newer of the two engines he had with him, and 802 now had an engine flown in from Tokyo which had been rebuilt after its troubles at Monza. One car was fitted with new solid-centre wheels. Unlike the Cooper wheels, which are hollow, the Honda’s were two half-sections bolted flush together.
Matra had two cars, but only one entry for Beltoise. The second car was practised by Pescarolo, but he would only start if someone else dropped out. The Matra V12 engine has been losing 60 to 80bhp during the course of races, for no apparent reason, but after the Le Mans race the week previously, Matras thought they may have found the reason and had made some minor alterations to the engines.
The two Matra-Cosworths were both for Stewart as Servoz-Gavin had no entry. The older of the two cars had a very narrow escape from being completely destroyed while mechanics were filling it with fuel in the Tech building on its arrival from Canada. A static spark from the mechanic’s shirt fired the fuel in the funnel which set the fuel alight in the monocoque tanks. Quick use of extinguishers by the other teams’ mechanics got the fire out before too much damage was done, but care was being taken as the heat may have damaged the metal.
Another Ferrari, 0007, had been flown out to replace Ickx’s crashed car and Bell had come out to join Amon. Ferraris were the only team not to use the technical centre and continued to tow their cars to a garage in town. The last of the 20 starters was Bonnier with his M5A McLaren-BRM V12.
First practice was from 1 to 5pm on Friday and the warm weather of the pre-practice days vanished with a 30°F. drop in temperature and thundery showers of rain, snow and sleet. Surtees, Hulme and Bianchi were the first away, but before many were out practising a heavy shower sent most cars to the pits until the surface water had drained away.
The Honda was out on the wet track first until it received a puncture and mechanics set off with a wheel and jack to find it. A short while afterwards the crown-wheel and pinion broke up and the newer Honda was wheeled away while Surtees practised with the older car.
“Rindt then had his rear wing come adrift and it flapped even more violently until mechanics rushed on to the edge of the track and waved him down”
Brabham worked out the wing-setting and both Brabhams were set up in the same way. Rindt’s car was over-heating badly and every time it came to the pits steam was pouring from the overflow. Rindt then had his rear wing come adrift and it flapped even more violently until mechanics rushed on to the edge of the track and waved him down. There is no sign for the sign-boards which says “wing falling off”.
In the third hour things began to speed up and Hill was the first driver to get down to the lap record set by himself last year, 1min 6.0sec. Unser overdid things in the BRM, spun and wrote the car off against a barrier. Fortunately there was a spare which could be widened for his shoulders. As usual, the last hour saw the greatest activity and the previous year’s fastest practice lap (1min 5.48sec) was soon broken.
The needle match developed between Stewart and Amon, both getting down to under 1min 5sec. Stewart eventually won when he got both his Matra-Cosworths faster than anyone else; the newer car running with a “T” on the side was fastest at 1min 04.27sec. Amon’s time of 1min 04.87sec was 0.05sec slower than Stewart’s second time but still the only other car under 1min 5sec.
Hill was having a tremendous go to improve his time, but something was not quite right with the car. The McLaren team had been doing nothing spectacular, Hulme was fourth fastest at the end of practice without looking as if he was unduly straining. McLaren, however, had engine trouble and was one of the slower cars.
The tech building, two hours after practice, looked as if a bomb had dropped. Lotus had all three engines out waiting for a batch of new Cosworth V8 units due during the night. They also had Hill’s clutch in pieces showing the broken centre, and all the constant velocity drive-shafts were in pieces being examined. Brabham’s engine was out being changed, as were both McLarens, the engines due to be refitted to the latter cars were the Canadian race-winning engines, which had been flown home for overhaul.
Both Matra V12 engines were out of the chassis as Beltoise wanted the engine from the “T” car moved into the other chassis. Stewart’s engine was being routine-changed to the race engine, while Honda had the back end stripped down on one of the cars to replace the broken crown-wheel and pinion.
Second practice was dry, cold and sunny. BRM had prepared the new P138 car for Unser as Rodriguez was told to drive his usual chassis. Both Stewart and Surtees had switched training cars overnight. Beltoise was away first with Amon, Bell and Surtees just behind. Then there was a lull, as no one was keen on wearing out their cars unnecessarily until the “last hour” dice for the $1,000 and trophy for fastest practice lap.
After an hour things began to get under way. Both McLarens improved on their previous times, then practice was suddenly stopped. Oliver had just started improving on his previous times when a left rear wheel collapsed on the right-hander at the start line. The Lotus hit the outside guard rail twice before stopping, and, though the monocoque was still intact, the damage to everything else was too much to get repaired before the race. Oliver was very lucky to be able to step out unscathed and he was speaking to Innes Ireland over the loudspeaker system only minutes later.
Colin Chapman, who had just arrived from Europe, complained bitterly that the cars were practising with old wheels when he had specifically said the Canadian wheels were not to be used and new halves had been sent over as replacements. In their defence, the five mechanics (one was sick) were reeling with fatigue after an all-night session and, with practice having started, they pushed the cars out without making up the new wheels. Before either Andretti or Hill were allowed out again new wheels were fitted.
No sooner had practice started than it stopped again when Courage clipped a kerb, spun, and rammed an earth bank, damaging the rear suspension, but not enough to stop the mechanics being able to repair it for the race. McLarens both switched to new exhausts, but McLaren did not like the power limited to the top end and changed back after only a few laps.
Unser did only a few laps before he broke the BRM engine, and so again he was out spectating while work was started to change engines. Siffert and Hill both had punctures within a short time of each other and from Siffert’s rear tyre was pulled a roofing nail which was all shiny and new. There was some speculation as to how it got there, but with a certain irresponsible element that seems to frequent American circuits within throwing distance of the road, it seemed certain that some young man was laughing at what he thought was a very funny joke.
As the last hour got under way, Stewart broke the stub axle on the left front wheel and coasted to a stop, the wheel held in place only by the disc calipers. This meant he was unable to defend his previous day’s time.
“Andretti, everyone agreed, was a ‘natural’”
Hill was getting very close to the Matra-Cosworth time and finally finished up just on a hundredth of a second behind. Amon improved his time but not quite enough. Hulme was under 1min 5sec but he could not get those last few tenths off and so it looked as if no one would wrest the prize from Stewart; that is, until the second lap from the end of practice. Andretti, everyone agreed, was a “natural” and was going very well, cornering fast but with that same assurance of absolute control one saw in Clark’s driving.
Even so, it came as quite a shock when in an effort to catch Surtees, he clipped 0.17sec off Stewart’s time to get pole position. Andretti was still learning the car from his short experience with it at Monza but, more important, he was learning a circuit he had never raced on. One prominent entrant was heard to say: “This should jolt the young gentlemen of the GPDA into realising what a mediocre driving standard there has been since the demise of Jim Clark.”
Except for Andretti, there were few surprises on grid positions. Gurney never really got going. Bell was being very careful in the second Ferrari. McLaren was half-way down the field as his engine was smoking and not quite 100 per cent. The last four places on the grid were predictable, Unser, Bonnier and the two Coopers.
A crowd of 15,000 slept at the circuit in tents, cars, caravans, etc. This year with temperatures at near freezing, there were no riots as most of the young trouble-makers got in their sleeping bags to keep warm. Race morning was sunny, and with a good forecast, and a popular hero on the front of the grid, a huge crowd was expected and the organisers were not disappointed for 93,000 was the figure quoted.
Overnight, engines were changed in McLaren’s car and Gurney’s car, also Siffert’s engine was changed back to the first day’s practice engine as the race engine sent from Cosworths was not giving anything like the right power. The engines for Unser and Rindt had also been changed, so the 19 cars were taken down through the crowds of spectators to be immersed in a dense crowd of hangers-on with sundry passes on the starting grid. After the parade, two warming-up laps; a quick refuel in a “nose-up position” in the pit-road and all was ready.
“As the flag fell Andretti leapt into an immediate lead”
As the flag fell Andretti leapt into an immediate lead and as they went out of sight on the first lap the American was leading from Stewart with Hill just behind, but at the “loop” Stewart dived inside on braking and took the lead. Hill braked hard and the steering column shot forward, pinning his fingers to the dash. In removing them the switches got knocked off and before the Lotus was out of its dilemma Amon had slipped by.
For the rest of the race there was some movement on the column, which was slipping in a slightly oversized collar. At the end of lap one Stewart was first with Andretti right on his tail. Then a slight gap and the rest followed with Amon leading Hill, Rindt, Hulme, Gurney, Surtees, McLaren, Siffert, Rodriguez, Brabham, Beltoise, Unser, Courage, Bonnier, Bell, Bianchi and, last, Elford.
Courage crossed the line without his nose cowling. This had been knocked off when he touched the back of Beltoise’s Matra in the last corner. The circuit was slippery and before long several drivers were to find just how slippery; Beltoise spun on the second lap dropping back to last place, while in the first 12 places only Hulme and Rindt swapped positions.
Over the next three laps the two leaders clung together with Andretti driving superbly and not giving an inch to Stewart. The gap to Amon was now two seconds and Hill was a further 1.5 seconds behind. The field was beginning to stretch out, Hulme, Gurney, Rindt, with Surtees pushing hard were in the next bunch, with the rest spreading out to last place, Bianchi.
Lapping at around 1min 06sec the laps go by very quickly and five laps or 5.5min later Andretti went by with the lower part of the Lotus nose section dragging on the ground, at speed this was being pushed down by the aerofoils attached to it. On the 11th lap Amon, lying third, spun violently in front of the pits and before he got going six cars had passed him.
On lap 13, Andretti was given a pit sign ordering him in and one minute later he was in like a shot. Mechanics taped the nose up after they found a support bracket broken and the American was out again in 13th place, just ahead of Stewart, but almost a lap behind. On lap 13, Bell’s Ferrari engine blew up and he coasted to the pits to retire.
Hulme was the next car to spin off. Officials at the end of the back straight were trying to point to an oil streak before they got the flag out and the McLaren touched the oil and spun on to the grass verge. From third place Hulme dropped to ninth on lap 16 and next lap he went to the pits with no brakes. The stones had torn off a rear brake line and the mechanics nipped the pipe, refilled with fluid and bled the three remaining brakes.
On lap 20 Stewart led Hill by 14.5sec, behind a further 8sec came Gurney, Surtees, Rindt, then 2.5sec behind was Siffert, followed closely by Amon. McLaren was next, 7.5sec behind, with Rodriguez a further 5sec down. The only two other cars on the same lap were Brabham and Andretti 1min behind the leader, and in his sights for being lapped.
One lap behind and now spread out were Unser, Beltoise, Courage, Elford, Bonnier and Bianchi. While four laps behind was Hulme. Courage’s position altered next lap, his 20th, when he came into the pits and had the transistor ignition box replaced, which put him into last place.
On lap 22 two cars went to the pits, Bianchi with a slipping clutch and Amon with overheating due to a split radiator. Ferrari mechanics replaced the radiator and topped up with water and sent Amon on his way in 17th place. For a few laps positions remained unaltered, Gurney spun in front of the pits but continued, losing one place to Surtees, which he regained seven laps later.
Then on lap 32 Andretti again came into the pits, with clutch slip; he had obviously mentioned it on his last stop for the mechanic had Pyrene ready to squirt into the clutch housing and water to cool the hot casing. However, the trouble could not be cured and after one more lap Andretti retired. Three laps later the other American, Bobby Unser, retired out on the circuit when he broke yet another BRM engine.
By lap 40 only six cars were on the same lap as the leader. Hill was now 26sec behind Stewart, who had the suspicion of oil smoke beginning to appear on hard acceleration. Gurney and Surtees were 10sec behind and very close together. Then came Siffert eight seconds down and Rindt 53 sec. behind him. The next cars to have trouble were Bonnier with ignition troubles and Beltoise with brake problems, both stopped on their 44th lap. Beltoise only completed one more lap when the splines in the left rear hub stripped and he stopped out on the circuit.
Up till the 60th lap things settled down, Stewart lapped no more drivers, Rindt got by Siffert to take over fifth place. Stewart’s pace was not diminishing, although neither was the slight blue haze. He now had over a lap’s lead, and on lap 52 set a new course record of 1min 5.22sec, 126.96mph.(214.326kph).
On lap 60 Amon retired with water pouring from under the car; the trouble had been it broken water pump which, when the heat really built up, was pressurising the system. The first time it was the radiator which gave way, but this time it was the main hose to the engine which burst.
Bonnier also stopped again on his 60th lap with ignition trouble and only three laps later he retired with oil in the distributor. Rodriguez was the next to go, whilst on his 67th lap. The right rear suspension collapsed and the Mexican found himself backwards off the track at the top of the hill after the start.
“Stewart still maintained his domination”
Then came three more retirements in rapid succession. First Elford broke a camshaft in the Cooper-BRM engine on lap 72, then two laps later Rindt’s Repco engine blew up in a big way, putting a large hole in the side. On lap 78 Brabham retired in the pits with a cam follower broken up. This brought the race to the 80th lap with only nine cars running and only four cars on the same lap.
Stewart still maintained his domination with a lead of 39sec over Hill. Third and fourth were Gurney and Surtees, the third just a few yards ahead of Stewart on the road. Siffert was one lap down, with McLaren another lap behind. Then came Courage seven laps down, Hulme nine laps down, and Bianchi 17 laps behind.
Stewart’s pit put out a worried sign near the end saying “OIL PRES” but there was nothing to worry about for the Matra-Cosworth V8 was going perfectly and the oil pressure was quite steady.
As the last laps slipped by, Hulme had the drive-shaft to the left wheel break inside the differential casing as he went into the turn before the pits. As the McLaren came on power the back whipped round and he went backwards down the shallow ditch opposite the pits until it hit the bank where the service road crosses. The car leapt into the air and crashed down on its wheels, but with the monocoque and suspension bent.
On the same lap Courage limped in with the bolt missing which holds the top left rear link to the chassis. A new bolt was put in and just before the chequered flag Courage was off again only to run out of fuel when the pumps were unable to pick up fuel from the under-seat surge tank. In these last minutes Siffert came in for fuel when the engine started to splutter; his starter would not function but no one objected when he roll-started down the pit road incline. Also in for fuel came McLaren; it was probable that there was enough fuel in the car but the breather was blocked and the extra side tank had collapsed with the built-up suction. Siffert lost his sixth place to McLaren when he stopped only to regain it when the latter pulled into the pits.
In the very last laps, Gurney was slowing and Surtees slowly overhauled him until on the last but one lap, the Honda moved into third place. Gurney discovered later that he had a slow puncture which developed in the last laps of the race. Stewart crossed the line in just under two hours, 24sec ahead of Hill, whose engine faltered on the slowing-down lap, and when he checked there was only a pint of fuel left. A lap down were Surtees and Gurney, then Siffert, 105 laps, and McLaren 103 laps. One other car was still running, although it was a non-qualifier due to not covering the required distance. This was Bianchi, who covered 88 laps.
Again a very large retirement because of mechanical troubles which is not good for the sport. In the last few laps both Stewart and Surtees had to swerve to avoid spectators running over the circuit; last year the same thing happened and still no adequate fences have been erected to keep the irresponsible where they belong.