24 Hours de Francorchamps: a hardy perennial

Although much younger than its 24 Hours sister at Sarthe, the Spa-Francorchamps race through the equivalent of a day and a night has fast established its own traditions during 28 editions. Until 1974, when a diversionary loop around a traffic island at Malinedy was introduced, the average speeds set by the participating saloon cars were astonishing—the fastest Spa 24 Hours went to Jochen Mass/Hans Stuck (2.9 Ford Capri RS 2600) in 1972 at an average 116.46 m.p.h. 'Ihis car's winning speed for the sole surviving entry in the big-car class was fractionally over 105 m.p.h., set by the privateers Jean Marie DetriniCharles "Chavan"/ Nico Demuth, in their 3.2-litre BMW CSL coupe.

Sadly the chicane at Malmedy is no guarantee of a safe race, last year's event being marred with two deaths in a manner that must honestly be described as a part of the Francorchamps 24 Hours in recent years. Having personally participated. and completed, two of these Belgian 24-hour marathons, it is worth recalling what makes people, particularly the keen British amateurs and contracted professionals, take part in the event.

The answer is a challenge. A blunt question, "have I got what it takes to drive around the World's fastest public road circuit in all conditions, knowing what the risks are?" This question may be differently phrased in many people's minds. Of the British drivers, both Gerry Marshall and Gordon Spice seem to revel in the speed of the corners and the unexpected rain. Australian Brian Muir quietly gets on with the job, despite having suffered the death of a co-driver in the event's nastiest accident in 1973. Muir was back this year, sharing a British-entered Capri 3000 GT 2 with Belgian GP hopeful, Patrick Neve. The feeling of the event comes from the unremitting pace of the fast corners. So long as you are in a car capable of 120 m.p.h., the demands for precisely judging each corner, all the time, with a swarm of vehicles fighting for the same space every 10 laps or so, make up the character of the event. Although the corners are long and fast the saloon cars, still with primitive handling by single-seater standards, often need considerable manhandling to make them point accurately through a bend. A driver's judgement may often have to assess the speed of a six-cylinder BMW/V8 Chevrolet Camaro, hauling up at 145 M.p.h. astern, then switch to the dramas being enacted by an errant 95 m.p.h. Simca 1300: all as part of his cornering line.

Mix in the penchant for rainfall in the Ardennes, an 8.75-mile lap, and the call for considerable night driving skills. Then, imagine being pursued by a 130 m.p.h. version of a lighthouse emitting full candlepower on your rear bumper (some Italians never seem to find the dipswitch!) and the challenge begins to lose a little glamour.

This year there were 59 cars on the starting grid, the remnants of over 80 who had entered, and 66 who had practised in the two sessions (one at night) and a lot of British interest. Despite the seemingly inevitable absence of the Broadspeed-Leyland Jaguar 5.3 coupes (which have reportedly overcome a complete change in the front braking system, but still have more development needed to add reliability to obvious speed potential) interest from Britain was the highest, and most Competitive, for many years.

Alain Peltier took the 3.2 BMW CSL he was to share with Bernard Carlier to pole position in 4 min. 9.4 sec. (over 124 m.p.h. average-).

Alongside on the front row was Cheshire's former Honda motorcycle GP rider Stuart Graham, sharing his 5.7-litre Chevrolet Camaro V8 with Yvette Fontaine and Reine Wisell.

Farther back we could find Holman Blackburn/Rend Tricot/Mike Crabtree (3-litre Group 2 Capri, 8th overall); Gordon Spice/ Peter Clark (Capri 3000S, Group 1, 13th fastest); Muir/Neve (Group 1 Capri) were 16th quickest; John Markey/David Palmer/Peter Ochs (Group 2 Mazda RX3, 2.3-litres, 19th) and Gerry Marshall/Tony Lanfranchi. These stalwarts of British club racing were a tidy 26th overall in their Vauxhall Magnum, which appeared to be .prepared to a Group 1/1/2 specification.

The race proved that the British-entered people could certainly tackle Spa with gusto and enjoyment, but that enthusiasm was not matched by mechanical reliability. The Camaro was first to retire, just before five hours had elapsed. The Markey Mazda nearly made it until midnight (the start is at 3 p.m. Saturday) before an avalanche of problems arrested its by-then-erratic, 1-lap-per-hour progress. Muir and Neve were out shortly before 9.30 p.m., when Neve was said to have taken on fuel. The Capri had been missing for five laps to suddenly re-appear in apparent good health! Both Blackburn/Tricot/Crabtree and Marshall/Lanfranchi were eliminated with less than two hours left to run on Sunday morning. Having survived the early and late morning rain, the Capri broke its crankshaft, while the Vauxhall's clutch failed: a shame as the car had been a model of crisp performance during the race. Both teams had been inside the top ten prior to retirement.

Aside from the privateers' victory, very much against the odds with a team of three 350 horsepower Luigi BMWs entered as victors of the preceding four rounds of the European Touring Car Championship, the other outstanding performance came from Autodelta Alfa Romeos,

While the Luigi BMWs retired (two with piston ring failure, one when a wheel fell off!) the four-car Alfetta GT squad demonstrated 2-litre/180 horsepower agility to provide a surprisingly effective outright opposition. One of the Alfettas succumbed to head gasket failure before midnight, and rally drivers Claude Ballot Lena/Jacques Frequelin in a sister car also had the same problem. However, the latter car kept going to finish fourth, Spartaco Dini/Jean Claude Andruet took second overall. A third car, sprayed in white rather than the familiar Autodelta "rusty-red", was sixth in the hands of Joe Bigliazzi/ Teodora Zeccoli/Claude Crespin. That result was enough to net the Autodelta Alfas the Coupe du Roi (three-car team prize) for the sixth successive time.

It is also significant that the BMW win was the fourth in succession. So the time is ripe for Jaguar and Mercedes to turn this 24-hour epic, watched by an estimated 60,000 this year instead of the normal 80,000, into a real battle once more. - J.W.