Watkins Glen, NY State, July 22nd.
The only thing that the all-conquering Ferrari sports-car team has failed to do this year is to meet the Matra team on level terms, and win. Ferraris, of course, were conspicuous by their absence at Le Mans but there were high hopes that the French and Italian makes would clash in the 11th and final race of the 1972 World Championship for Makes at Watkins Glen. Expectations were built up, but the Matra team did not after all go to America, and neither did Alfa Romeo, so the way was clear for Ferrari to record its tenth win from ten starts. The only potential obstacles in their way were two Gulf-Mirage’s entered by Gulf Research Racing Ltd. and a lone Ecurie Bonnier Lola T280, both teams having shown speed, but not so much reliability, in recent events.
Far from resting on their laurels (after eight wins they could score no more points) Ferrari sent three 312P prototypes across the Atlantic and two of them, for Ickx/Andretti and Redman/Merzario, had modified rear suspension to reduce bump-steer characteristics. Triangulated struts locating the bottoms of the wishbones had been discarded in favour of parallel bottom links, but the third car for Peterson/Schenken retained the old system.
Weslake’s V12 engine had not completed its bench testing, but Gulf entered two Cosworth DFV-powered Mirages and split the usual driver pairings, Brazilian Carlos Pace co-driving with Bell and USAC driver Tony Adamowicz joining van Lennep in the second car. The sixth really competitive prototype on the entry list was Ecurie Bonnier’s Lola T280 for Wisell and Larrousse, and a supporting cast included Alain de Cadenet’s Le Mans prototype shared with British saloon-car driver Martin Birrane, Tony Dean’s old Porsche 908 shared with New Yorker Bob Brown, and Reinhold Jöst’s rebodied Porsche 908/3 shared with Mario Casoni.
Much of the pre-race preparation concentrated on extra cooling, because even by North American standards the weather was oppressively hot and humid. Track temperatures easily exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the week, and during mid-week testing all the teams realised that brake cooling (particularly) was going to be critical, along with extra cooling for the water and oil radiators, and not least the drivers.
There were no established lap times for the sports-car drivers to aim for, the Watkins Glen circuit having been lengthened and improved since last year’s race, but it soon became clear that the Formula One record set by Ickx last October at 1 min. 43.47 sec, was quite beyond the reach of the prototypes. Two qualifying sessions were held on Friday, the day before the race, and during the morning Bell put his Gulf-Mirage at the top of the list with 1 min. 48.76 sec., although he was not entirely happy with the brake system, and asked for the hydraulics to be bled before he went out again.
More speed was found in the Ferraris simply by raising the-horizontal tail struts about three inches, well clear of the engine cover, so that they acted as wings instead of spoilers. This was found to add another 200 r.p.m. to the engine speed on the straights, and in the afternoon session Peterson claimed pole position with a time of 1 min. 47.38 sec., closely followed by the Ickx/Andretti car on 1 min. 47.86 sec., so that once again Ferraris were at the front of the two-abreast grid. The Bell/Pace Gulf-Mirage was third fastest (the Brazilian only hundredths of a second slower than Bell) from Redman/Merzario, Wisell/Larrousse and van Lennep/AdamowitZ.
The Watkins Glen circuit is more sinuous and undulating than ever now that the new section has been added, and as the heat built up again on race day it was clear that any car lacking in brakes, acceleration or good handling was going to be handicapped out of the results. Two Ferrari drivers, Peterson and Andretti, went ahead from the rolling start to make the pace with Bell tucked in their slipstream, Redman hanging back slightly to run a steady race, followed by Wisell and van Lennep. After threatening the red cars for five laps Bell was delayed on an uphill section by a Chevrolet Corvette, and with another five laps run he began to drop back visibly as his engine overheated badly. A pit stop after 30 minutes to ask whether he should conserve his DFV or retire dropped Bell down one place, behind Redman, and the Ferrari team was looking extremely confident as usual.
Wisell had already retired, rather forcibly when a Corvette rammed his Lola in the back after six laps, de Cadenet’s car had retired with serious misfiring problems and a slipping clutch, Scooter Patrick’s Alfa Romeo T33 had retired with a broken engine, so there was little in the way of opposition for Enzo Ferrari’s prototypes. Andretti, however, ceased to worry Peterson when his engine began overheating in the slipstream, and this aggravated the fuel metering unit to give trouble so that the engine would not run cleanly below 8.000 r.p.m. And when, a few minutes before the end of the first hour, Andretti stopped at the pits with a punctured tyre he and lckx dropped to fifth place, more than a lap behind Peterson/Schenken.
Schenken was able to take over from Peterson without losing the lead, although Redman continued another six laps before handing his car over to Merzario, but Bell lost third place (on the same lap) when a bleed nipple on a front brake caliper unscrewed itself. Pace took the car over two and a half laps behind the Ferraris, and van Lennep’s Gulf-Mirage didn’t seem to be fully competitive either as the brakes were overheating. Soon another brake nipple unscrewed itself on Pace’s car and, unscathed after a spectacular spin at the end of the main straight, the Mirage reappeared at the pits to drop right out of contention, five laps behind.
For the next four hours the Ferrari team was able to put on a convincing show of force, though the display was spoiled when Redman’s engine blew up with little more than an hour to run, moving Bell/Pace up to third place (they were running steadily, handicapped only by a shortage of braking power). Jöst/Casoni were far back in fourth place with their 908/3, followed by Dean/Brown, but these positions were to change in the final half-hour when the German-entered car refused to restart after a pit stop. Van Lennep/Adamowicz retired in the last hour when the gearbox tired of coping with braking strains, moving the GT category winning Ferrari GTB into sixth place (the majority of equally matched Corvettes and Ferrari Daytonas eliminated themselves gradually with brake or engine maladies).
The highlight of the whole race was the final hour, with Andretti And Ickx driving forcefully to catch up the leading Ferrari. Teammates they may have been, but victory was the important thing. Schenken helped the cause by spinning before giving his car back to Peterson, and the Swedish driver was now handicapped by poor brake pressure. Relentlessly Ickx caught up, setting a new Group 5 record on the way, then only 10 minutes before the end the Belgian went ahead, and the dispirited Peterson slowed right down to finish second.
M. L. C.