Matra team repeats the dose in North America
Watkins Glen, July 21st. A medical man would describe the Ferrari sportscar team’s health as “as well as can be expected”, with one round to go in the 1973 World Championship for Makes. At Watkins Glen late in July two Matras and three Ferraris fought out the 6-Hour Race on the Grand Prix circuit and the event ran true to current form: Cevert claimed pole position, was delayed early in the race through a collision, then Pescarolo and Larrousse commanded the race to lead the highest-placed Ferrari by two laps at the finish.
Because the contestants have to drop their three lowest scores at the end of the season, Ferrari will have to claim the top three positions overall when the final round of the Championship is held at Buenos Aires in October (the race has been confirmed by the CSI, despite the uncertain political situation). Third place will be sufficient to earn the Championship for Matra, and on current form little short of disaster will deny the French this reward for the first time.
Following the debacle in Austria, Autodelta withdrew its Alfa Romeo entry and the small field of prototypes comprised mainly the regular works cars. Matra-Simca fielded one MS670B for Cevert/Beltoise, the new type with the Porsche constructed gearbox run at Le Mans, and an older MS670 for Pescarolo/Larrousse who already had four victories to their credit (MS670/01, which they drove at the American race, was in fact the chassis which had been used by Cevert/Beltoise throughout the season, without any luck).
Ferrari sent three cars to America for Ickx/Redman, Pace/Merzario and Reutemann/Schenken, all virtually unmodified since earlier races. The Pace/Merzario car was the Forghieri modified example first raced at the Nurburgring with the oil cooler relocated and a lower tail section, and for the first time the effect was calculable as the drivers estimated they had an extra 400r.p.m. in fifth gear on the main straight. Two Gulf-Mirage M6 chassis with Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engines were available for Bell/Ganley and Hailwood/Watson (these had smaller engine air intakes slung beneath the roll-over bar); two ex-works experimental Group 5 Porsche 911 Carreras, with long finned tails as raced in Austria, were available to Roger Penske’s team for Donohue/Follmer and to Daytona winners Gregg/Haywood.
Jackie Stewart made a rare appearance in endurance events practising in a Ford Capri shared with Scheckter. The Capri, in Group 5 trim with a spoiler on the bootlid, sustained an engine failure at the end of the final practice session and being privately owned, therefore lacking the usual factory resources, a new engine could not be fitted in time for the race.
Last year’s Group 5 record (set by Ickx in a Ferrari) of 1 min. 47.2 sec. seemed unlikely to last very long, Cevert going out early in the first session to record 1 min. 42.27 sec., an average of 118.87 m.p.h. for the 3.77-mile track in New York State. Larrousse was second fastest at 1 min. 43.91 sec., and these times remained unbeaten so the front row of the grid went to the Matras. All six Ferrari drivers tried their best, but clearly their cars were not sufficiently competitive; the more the drivers tried, the more handling defects they found through pushing the Ferraris to their limit. Merzario was the quickest, recording 1 min. 44.2 sec. during Friday’s second practice, with Reutemann and Redman filling the next places on the grid. The Gulf-Mirages were comfortably inside last year’s lap record, but Hailwood’s best practice time of 1 min. 46.0 sec. indicated that the blue and orange cars would have to depend more on reliability than on speed.
Two 2-litre prototypes were next quickest, Buffum/Fisher in a Chevron B23 lapping fractionally quicker than Canadians Kuehne/ Pechmann in a works-supported STP-March BMW, then the two Group 5 Porsche Carreras were clearly too fast for the genuine GT cars comprising mainly Porsches, Ferrari Daytonas, Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros. The hot, humid weather which all the teams had prepared for broke overnight with a thunderstorm, which left the track damp for the midday start. Merzario, always a plucky driver, overtook the two surprised Matra drivers going into the first right-hand curve and, looking rather ragged in places, managed to keep ahead of them. Surprisingly it was Larrousse who kept up with the Ferrari while the remainder of the 3-litre protoypes, led by Cevert, began dropping back.
After six laps Cevert half-spun his car and fell behind Reutemann and Ickx, a costly mistake because a few minutes later the Belgian Ferrari driver had to brake sharply to avoid an errant Chevrolet Corvette and Cevert rammed him hard from behind, damaging the Matra’s nose panel. Ickx continued with a bent exhaust pipe, but Cevert’s pit stop to have the fibreglass taped up lost him three laps.
The Gulf team was not having a good afternoon, and its hoped-for reliability factor disappeared early in the race. Bell headed for the pits at the end of the pace lap to have intermediate tyres changed for slicks, and before he could make up the minute lost his car started to have an electrical problem which persisted most of the race; in six hours the Mirage needed two new batteries and transistor boxes, and both cars started suffering from fuel vaporisation which was only cured by refuelling early.
Hailwood, who remained on intermediate mix tyres on the rapidly drying track, spun in the big turn 1 after ten laps and his Mirage came to the pits late with the front bodywork missing, having kept up well with the Ferraris in the opening stage of the race. Behind him, the two Porsches of Donohue and Gregg were having a spirited duel which ended when Gregg’s car broke a driveshaft, losing ten laps.
When the track was thoroughly dry Larrousse felt able to exploit his Matra’s superior power and roadholding, and once past Merzario he pulled away to a comfortable lead, which was not challenged again. The two Frenchmen, winners at Le Mans, again proved their speed and consistency which is the hallmark of good long-distance drivers.
Before he could climb back into contention, Cevert retired his car on the circuit with an electrical failure which, according to a rather peeved team manager, could have been cured by flicking a switch to the tandem system. The two Gulf-Mirages dropped further back due to heavy brake wear and difficult pad changing operations, so as Pescarolo and Larrousse went further ahead the question was simply, which Ferrari would finish second?
Merzario and Pace missed their chance with two stops at half distance, the first to change brake pads (while the Matra ran through on one set), and then to change a punctured tyre. Reutemann and Schenken then held second place until only 20 minutes from the end, when the drivebelt to the fuel metering unit broke. The car was retired, unclassified, leaving the less competitive than usual 312P of Ickx and Redman to take the runner-up position. – M.L.C.