It was at Spa-Francorchamps, 30 years ago, that a Grand Prix car first raced with a wing, and you might reasonably assume, given the innovative reputation of Colin Chapman, that it was a Lotus. In fact, although the team had experimented in that direction, it was Ferrari in those days considered technically hidebound – who set the trend, on the car of Chris Amon at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix.
“We used to call it an ‘aerofoil’ back then,” Amon smiled. “Actually, it’s surprising that wings took so long to appear in Formula One, because Jim Hall had been running them on his Chaparral Can-Am and sportscars since ’66, and they obviously worked.
“I think when Ferrari turned up with this ‘aerofoil thing’ at Spa, it surprised a few people. The irony was that we had our wing at the back which was the right place, of course but later on Mauro Forghieri insisted on moving it to the middle, where he said it would do most overall good. Took me a whole year to talk him out of that…”
Look at Ferrari’s first wing now and you can see what a pretty crude thing it was, small, with a very shallow angle, and mounted to the bodywork, rather than the suspension on what look like flimsy struts, with extra ‘stays’ to keep the whole lot from blowing away. Amon said that he never worried about that, as he might have done in certain other teams: if it had been built by Ferrari, it might not work very well, but assuredly it would be properly engineered.
On the first day at Spa – the ‘old’ Spa, of course – both Amon and Jacky Ickx did back-to-back tests, running first without, and then with, the new device. Neither was too sure how much good it was doing, but Amon felt it was worthwhile, in terms of adding stability to his car’s handling at this quickest of all Grand Prix circuits.
“That ’68 Ferrari was a gorgeous thing to drive, in that it was a car you could over-drive; you steered it with the throttle, really. What it lacked, though, was horsepower. Because it was a V12, it sounded as if it had all the grunt in the world, but we had a lot less than the Cosworth V8 or Honda’s V12, and at Spa that was very apparent.”
It was, however, a circuit at which Amon always excelled, and in practice that day he lapped four seconds faster than the rest, who were led by Jackie Stewart in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra-Cosworth, then Ickx in the second Ferrari, and the Honda of John Surtees.
“In terms of driving pleasure,” Chris said, “a fast lap at Spa was a fantastic sensation. Although we were down on power, and Spa was very quick – my pole lap was well over 150 – the car was working beautifully. On that lap, as I came down the Masta Straight, after the kink, I caught up to Brian Redman, and I can remember going by him on the inside, at the entry to Stavelot, with my foot buried right in it, while he was having to brake in his Cooper! The thing felt tremendous.”
All in all, though, the drivers were glad to have the day over. “It was that ‘seventh of the month thing,” as Amon called it. On April 7, Jimmy Clark had been killed at Hockenheim, and May 7 Mike Spence replacing Clark in the Lotus team at Indianapolis had lost his life in a testing accident. “Beforehand, no one talked about the fact that June 7 was the first day of practice at Spa, of all places,” Chris said, “but it was certainly at the back of our minds…”
The relief was short-lived, however. Redman was in at Cooper only because regular Lodovico Scarfiotti was committed to Porsche at the Rossfeld round of the European Mountain Championship; on Saturday came the news that Scarfiotti had been killed in practice. The nightmarish sequence would end, finally, on July 7, with the death of Jo Schlesser in the French GP at Rouen.
It poured down at Spa on the second day, so the grid was already set: Amon, Stewart, Ickx, Surtees, the McLarens of Denny Hulme and Bruce himself, then the BRMs of Piers Courage and Pedro Rodriguez. On Sunday morning there was more torrential rain, and the atmosphere in the paddock was jumpy, apprehensive. By the late start time of 3.30, though, the track had dried out.
“Looking back,” said Amon, “we really knew so little about aero-dynamics then, but I decided to use the wing for the race, whereas Ickx went the other way he couldn’t make up his mind whether it was doing any good or not, and took it off right before the start.
“There’s no way I shouldn’t have won that race. I got a good start, and had more than 150 yards’ lead at the end of the first, with Surtees behind me in the Honda. I thought I was going to open up the gap, and quietly disappear, but on the second lap at Burnenville I came up on Jo Bonnier, who was tooling along at about 10mph, with a wheel hanging off. I had to back right off – which allowed Surtees to get a tow on the long climb towards the end of the lap. He came by me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
“I guess nowadays someone in that situation would just block the other guy, but we didn’t do that sort of thing back then; it would never have occurred to any of us. Leaving aside any question of ethics, if you touched wheels with someone at most of the tracks we raced on, chances were you were going to hit trees or a house or something…”
Once in the lead, Surtees was set fair, for the Honda easily had the legs of the Ferrari on power, and every time Amon pulled out of the tow, he fell back. All he could do was keep the pressure on, and hope eventually to benefit from his car’s superior handling. “That was when I began to appreciate what a wing could do; it wasn’t that I had loads more grip as much as the fact that the car felt so stable.”
Sixty miles into the race, Surtees and Amon, still tied together, had 10 seconds over Hulme and Stewart, but on lap eight Amon’s legendary ill luck struck once again, a stone flicked up by the Honda piercing the Ferrari’s oil radiator.
“It happened at the Masta Kink, of all places, which was pretty well flat. Immediately I got oil on my rear tyre, and what happened next was one of the most horrific bloody experiences I ever had. I came out of the kink sideways at close to 180mph, I suppose and I’ve absolutely no idea how I ever got it back. After that, all I could do was park the thing. I was furious that day! If it hadn’t been for Bonnier, I really don’t think anyone would have seen me…”
Surtees himself didn’t last a lot longer, the Honda breaking a rear suspension bracket on lap 11, which left Hulme and Stewart at the front of the field, well clear of McLaren, Courage, Rodriguez and Ickx. And for many laps Denny and JYS disputed the lead, overtaking back and forth which Grand Prix cars used to be able to do back then.
This, in fact, was one of Stewart’s greatest drives. For all that he felt Spa unacceptably dangerous as an Fl venue, he was invariably brilliant there, just as Clark, another who detested the place, had been. By force of circumstance, Jackie even became adept at handling Spa one-handed; in 1967, he had led much of the way in the BRM H16, holding the gear lever in top, and now having had to miss Monaco he was driving with his right wrist in a splint, having fractured a bone at Jarama a few weeks earlier.
Once Hulme had retired, with a broken driveshaft, Stewart was left with a huge lead, but at the beginning of the last lap he coasted into the pits, engine dead for want of fuel. The mechanics sloshed some Elf into the Matra, but for several minutes the engine refused to start; yet again Jackie was denied victory at Spa.
At the end of the race, the winner didn’t know he had won, for he hadn’t seen Stewart in the pits, and his own crew had not had time to let him know.
That was the other thing about Spa 1968: as well as being the race in which wings came to F1, it also marked the first Grand Prix victory for a McLaren, appropriately driven by the proprietor. Although Bruce would never win another, the McLaren total, thirty years on, stands at 114.