GTA giant killer

Taking a break from F1 and F2, Jochen Rindt sprang a surprise when he took on the tin-top big boys at Sebring in an Alfa GTA

By Paul Hudson

Unlikely results make any sport more interesting, especially those of a David and Goliath variety. At Sebring on Friday, March 25, 1966 few could have contemplated an upset at the inaugural round of the seven-race Trans-American saloon car series, a four-hour race taking second billing to the Florida circuit’s famous 12-hour enduro.

The Trans-Am race was split into two categories: under two litres, and two to five litres, and it was expected that a three-cornered fight would develop between the Ford Mustangs, Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracudas in the larger-engined class. The tiny European cars in the under-2-litre class comprised a bevy of Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GTAs and the Alan Mann-entered Ford of Britain Cortinas, as well as Mini Coopers – including an entry for Paddy Hopkirk/Peter Manton. The lightweight Alfas had enjoyed moderate success the previous year, in their first season of competition, but thus far they had been far from a force to be reckoned with…

Alfa Romeo entered two works cars, for Andrea de Adamich/Teodoro Zeccoli and another driven by young Austrian Jochen Rindt, who was paired with Roberto Bussinello. The Italian rolled the car in practice, however, and Rindt did the whole four hours.

Although Rindt had raced in Formula Junior and had even taken part in the non-championship 1963 Austrian Grand Prix, he burst onto the international racing scene when he won the 1964 London Trophy for F2 cars at Crystal Palace driving his own private Brabham-Ford. His spectacular, forceful style won him many admirers and by beating the likes of Graham Hill and Jim Clark, Rindt found himself propelled into a full season of F1 racing with Cooper in 1965 – a year in which he also won the Le Mans 24 Hours, with Masten Gregory in a NART-entered Ferrari 250LM.

Concurrent with his F1 duties, Rindt became acknowledged as the unofficial world champion of F2 racing. For 1965 he signed an F2 contract with Roy Winkelmann, becoming a team-mate to Alan Rees and driving a Brabham-Cosworth BT16. Jack Brabham introduced the Brabham-Honda that would dominate F2 racing in 1966, yet Rindt and his Winkelmann Brabham were foremost among the chasing pack, although mechanical failures often intervened. And when the Brabham works team missed a race, such as the Eifelrennen, Rindt duly won. At the 1966 season finale at Brands Hatch, Rindt took pole and victory in his heat and in the final, in spite of the presence of Brabham in his Honda-powered car. Despite mixed results in F1 with Cooper, Rindt was unstoppable in F2 in ’67, winning nine races.

The Trans-Am race at Sebring became a showcase for Rindt’s famed tenacity. From the start, the faster of each of the three big American cars pulled clear, with big-name signing AJ Foyt leading in a Mustang. Rindt was tucked in behind in the 1570cc Alfa, the car’s alloy bodywork a mass of rumples after Bussinello’s misdemeanour the previous day.

The clearly faster American cars simply could not establish a sufficient lead, and when they started to make pit stops to rectify assorted troubles, Rindt took the lead and stayed there to the chequered flag. Foyt’s Mustang led the first 32 laps until sidelined with a blown head gasket. The lead was inherited by the Bob Tullius/Tony Adamowicz Dart but a second pit stop demoted it to second at the flag, a lap adrift of Rindt, who pocketed $800 for his win.

The Cortinas had retired early on and at the end it was Alfa Romeo GTAs first, third, fourth and fifth. GTA stalwarts de Adamich and Zeccoli took the final podium position, followed by Paul Richards and Horst Kwech/Gus Andry. 

The works Autodelta cars were sold and that was the end of official factory involvement in the US. But to prove Sebring wasn’t a freak result, the GTA scored top-three placings throughout the 1966 Trans-Am championship, predominantly the Kwech/Andry pairing. Indeed, Alfa won the manufacturers’ title and if there had been a drivers’ title, Kwech would have won that too.

Sebring was Rindt’s finest hour at the wheel of the Autodelta GTA, although he contested rounds of the 1966 European Touring Car Championship for Alfa Romeo, including the 500km race at Snetterton that July.

From then on, his meteoric rise to the very top was assured, culminating in his Formula 1 World Championship in 1970 – but the indomitable Austrian did not survive the season to take the acclaim his talents deserved.

See our Alfa GTA track test on p80