Quite the most mouth-watering sight in the Spa-Francorchamps paddock during the weekend of the Belgian GP was magnate Albert Obrist’s collection of sports-prototype racing Ferraris. They represented the period in which the marque scored its nine Le Mans triumphs, four at Daytona, eight in the Mille Miglia, nine in the Targa Florio and six in the Tourist Trophy. They brought the past back to date.
On Saturday one photographer watched Obrist who made much of his fortune from licensing his patented bottle top push his cars backwards and forwards, inch by inch, until they were posed in the Jardin d’Hiver of the Hotel Eau Rouge exactly as he wanted them. His exertions over, he stepped back and said with evident satisfaction: “You cannot get better than that.” He was talking about the symmetry of the display, but might just as easily have been speaking of the cars themselves.
As there had been with Obrist’s F1 cars in Hungary, for Ferrari’s 500th World Championship race celebration, so there was a demonstration by the sports-prototypes on Sunday. No setting could have been more majestic.
Former racer, Belgian Jacques Swaters, handled the 1949 166 MM, former Renault team manager Jean Sage his own 1955 750 Monza which was driven recently on the Mille Miglia re-run by Jean Alesi. “Super! Very impressive!” beamed the Ferrari F1 star recently. “The car, very noisy! No brakes! But the engine, not bad. Downforce?” He chuckled. “Absolutely zero!”
His mentor Maurice Trintignant drove the 315S with which Piero Taruffi won the 1957 Mille Miglia, while former Lotus and Ferrari F1 driver Cliff Allison was reunited with the sort of 1959 Testa Rossa with which he and Phil Hill had won that year’s Buenos Aires 1000kms. Pierre Dumay (who lost the 1965 Le Mans through a puncture as he and team-mate Jean Beurlys battled tooth and nail with Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory in NART’s ultimately successful 250LM, which actually broke its differential as it was driven back to the paddock) was in the 1964 330 P, and Jackie Stewart the 1967 Monza 1000km winning 330 P4 Spyder. John Watson was reunited with the 1970 CanAm 712M once driven by Mario Andretti and which Wattie had previously driven for film work at Silverstone. “Quite a quick car,” he observed. Finally, in the absence of Jacky lckx, otherwise engaged in Suzuka with Mazda, Obrist himself stepped aboard the 1972 312 PB.
For Stewart it was a reunion with the P4 for the first time since he shared one with Chris Amon when their second place in the BOAC 500 at Brands clinched Ferrari the 1967 Constructors’ Championship, and though he was worried about safety aspects such as the lack of seat belts he made do with the famous helmet and a Barbour instead of flameproof overalls.
Sadly, Wattie’s dreadful luck struck as the others formed on a ‘grid’ on the old downhill startline near Eau Rouge, the 712M steadfastly refusing to stay on full song due to a suspected fuel pump problem. In true keeping with his appalling fortune, it stayed outside the hotel as the others enjoyed themselves hugely.
Swaters set the scene as he headed for Eau Rouge at deceptively high speed before squealing his way up the famous hill, while Sage and Trintignant were clearly ‘standing on the gas’, and so was Allison. Sage was probably blowing away the memories of a brief outing the previous day in the rain, “when I caught the course car but couldn’t overtake as he was too ‘wide’. I got soaked by all the spray he was throwing up.”
Obrist’s 312 PB was, of course, the fastest car on the track as he stormed by most of his other possessions in the three-lap bash. It’s chassis 0868 which is credited with being the most successful competition Ferrari of all time, with victories at Daytona, Brands Hatch, Zeltweg, Monza and the Nurburgring to its credit in the hands of stars such as Ickx, Mario Andretti (busy racing CART at Vancouver) and Brian Redman.
The man himself must smile perpetually, knowing he could drive a different Ferrari every day for a month without getting into the same one twice, but it was Allison who wore the broadest grin, before and after.
“Gosh, I enjoyed that!” he beamed. And it made such a difference to see a racing driver literally bubbling with the sheer pleasure of driving. “It felt very quick, and in fact was geared only 1000rpm lower than we used to race these at. It was just about right for Spa.”
He turned back to look at the Testa Rossa’s red flanks, perhaps reliving outstanding days of his career, maybe even thinking about the 1958 Grand Prix at the circuit when Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans in their first and third placed Vanwalls and Mike Hawthorn in his second placed Ferrari went into the last lap in varying states of mechanical crisis, and he’d finished fourth for Lotus. Brooks’ gearbox tightened as he crossed the line, Hawthorn broke a piston as he approached it, and Lewis-Evans limped home with a fractured wishbone. Another lap, and Cliff would have won…
“You know,” he said as he stroked the big red Ferrari and the years fell away, “I’d love to race this again…” D J T