Spa 24 hours

A British win at last

July 1st 1979, that is the date the Belgian ministry of public works has set for the completion of the 7 km./4.3 miles track that will replace the current public 14.1 km./8.7 miles of public road that comprise the current Spa-Francorchamps track. With this in mind it seemed as though the July annual 24-hour race for saloon cars had bowed out on a fitting note in 1978, with the racing continuing to the last moments and victory going to the Briton who has tried so hard to win this event in previous years, Gordon Spice. The fact that he was paired with Belgium’s Teddy Pilette made the hosts happy too, and the prizegiving in the Spa casino was an even longer and more emotional affair than usual.

The writer has attended this race over a number of years since the late sixties, and the story each year has been that this would either be the last event owing to the mortality rate or that the new circuit would be ready in time for next year’s edition. Neither uncertainty has stopped the race growing its stature year by year, television coverage a tangible part of the increased prestige that has accrued, along with regulations that have ironed out the most dangerous speed differentials amongst the cars.

So, whether next year’s event is on the shorter circuit or not is something we shall just have to await for proof. Some 85,000 people attended this year’s event and witnessed not only a good 24-hour race, but a good saloon car thrash, regardless of distance. An entry of over 86 cars, whittled down to 60 starters, must make this the biggest as well as one of the longest .saloon car races in the World.

An entry that size might have been filled with rubbish in past years, but 1978 was different. If it was rubbish (and I don’t think it was) most of them came from Britain! There were three classes, the biggest for 2,500 c.c. plus cars providing the main interest and the only machinery capable of winning in such a competitive year.

Chief protagonists were a pair of Dutchentered Chevrolet Camaros, 15 Capri 3-litres (mainly of British origin) and 18 BMWs, most of the latter of 3-litre 5-series 530i persuasion even though the obsolete 3.0 CSi coupe is a faster and more stable car around Francorchamps’ rapid curves.

Fastest time in practice, over 2 sec. slower than they were to go in the race, were the Dutch-persons Lock Vermeulen, Ms Henny Hemmes and Hans Deen in their plastic-nosed Chevrolet Camaro Z28 of 5.7-litres. The second Camaro was rather evil, suffered an engine transplant in practice escallating from the reasonably light 5.7 V8 to the monstrous 7.4-litre unit and lost a rear wheel early on the first night!

The Ford Capris, all substantially the same whether dressed in Mk. 2 or Mk. 3 body panels, dominated the fastest ten positions in practice behind the Camaro, seven out of the top ten times falling their way. Gordon Spice in the car he was to share with Pilette sped around the track in 4 min. 21.6 sec., which was 0.3 sec. slower than the Camaro, though Spice and teammate Chris Craft were troubled by blistering and chunking of their Goodyear tyres. In the event the Goodyears did prove their worth over 24 hours with Spice and fourth-placed Peter Clark; Michelins filled the bulk of the finishing cars’ tyre requirements most of the BMWs thus equipped) while Dunlop’s excellent practice showing was let down by the mortality rate amongst the Capris only two of the Fords finished as opposed to seven BMWs.

Other British teams showing promise in practice were Vince Woodman/Jonathan Buncombe, Craft, Stuart Graham/Brian Muir and Jeff Allam/Gerry Marshall, plus John Fitzpatrick/Holman Blackburn.

Most of these cars were the Capris used in British national Championship events governed by the RAC, who have recently issued an edict tightening up the way in which these Fords are prepared. This applies particularly to the suspension and seeks to stop the Ford people using racing top mounts for the front struts, rose joints in the suspension and so on. This was fortunate for those competing at Spa, for the Belgians have been deeply suspicious of British suspension engineering in what is allegedly “Group 1 and a bit,” feeling that we have “Group 1 and a bit too far!”

In commenting that most of the Capris were similar, it should be added that all Capris are equal, but as with political reality, some are more equal than others. Certainly they all use single carburetter V6 engines, but are persuaded to produce over 220 b.h.p. by many tuners today – Racing Services found themselves challenged by the work of Neil Brown, Alan Smith and Broadspeed. Now capable of reaching 7,000 r.p.m. in reasonable safety, these V6s were hitched (in the ease of the front runners) to a new 2.84-to-1 final drive. On this ratio the Fords were found to be reaching speeds in the 153-158m.p.h. bracket, averaging around 120m.p.h. for a lap that includes a 1st gear hairpin, the 3rd gear Les Combes, and the second gear chicane at Malmedy.

Amongst the BMW flotilla – none full factory cars, but four run by BMW Belgium and tuned either by Juma or Serge Power (-sic) Derek Bell shared a car with last year’s winner Eddy Joosen. However the fastest BMW in practice was the elderly CSi of former GP lotus driver Reine Wisell and Claude Bourgoignie, the Belgian who now makes a living selling English quality cars to his countrymen.

Also of interest in the entry, but of little actual impact in the event, were Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman, who had been reunited by Marlboro in a VW Scirocco with many team-mates, mostly financed by the Belgian importer. The presence of 140 b.h.p. would scarcely daunt Redman after Porsche 917s and the like, yet he had more trouble in adapting to the tricks of FWD than the Porsches ever seemed to inflict upon him. By the end of the weekend Brian had suffered two accidents in the car, neither with any injury, thankfully. Of course the smiling Lancastrian was not blaming the car (which was actually quite a handful without the large rear spoiler that the scrutineers rightly removed) and was quite disappointed after the success he has had with Dick Barbour’s private Porsches since his happy recovery from his massive American accident last year.

Accidents were a feature of this year’s race, but this time there were no driver injuries. TYre deflations were common owing to the pace amongst the big cars and Continuous fine weather throughout the event, most unusual for the Ardennes. Both Craft and Derek Bell fetched up in the Armco at Burnenville.

Craft had a front tyre go down suddenly and Bell was caught out by cold tyres fitted after an earlier spin at Esui Rouge: “it’s the first time in eight years I have failed to finish an endurance race because of an error on my part,” he said looking appropriately downcast.

This 24-hour race has striven consciously to acquire some of the glitter of the French annual classic and nowhere could this be more clearly seen than on the grid awaiting the 3 o’clock start on Saturday afternoon. Skate board demonstrations made doubly hazardous by the incline on which the cars rest before entering Eau Rouge and climbing away up the hill faded to insignificance as parachutists poured from the heavens to land in front of the grid. At the head of 58 competitors Lock Vermeulen sprawled inside his Chevrolet, while Spice tensed himself for the off in the red and white Capri.

As the Belgian flag dropped promptly the Ford horde overpowered the Camaro, which Was locked (Loeked?) in second gear and was never a contestant for the lead thereafter. However the Chevrolet did set fastest lap at an average 121.95 m.p.h. and did reach the top three during the night. Gordon Spice steered his Capri carefully around the wounded Camaro and his opponents to lead as the cars disappeared from sight toward Les Combes. It really was a colourful parade and with TV coverage and international prestige at stake the train of red, white, yellow, green and black saloons linked for positions as they thundered downhill toward Burnenville.

Spice’s machine held on in front, the cars peeling off into the long righthander like an enormous squadron of fighter planes, many literally skipping into flight over the bumps. Back at the start the enormous pall of yellowish dust from the dried mud, kicked up by those using the grass, was slowly settling to earth.

Some 4 1/2 minutes after the start the noise of engines changed from a remote drone, like that of war-time air raid film clip, to the sharp crackle of Capris fighting off the now challenging BMW contingent. Past the press box for the first time they poured like the contestants in a British Championship round. Spice, Rene Tricot (the former Opel driver appearing in a British-prepared Capri, confusingly sprayed in the same Belga livery as those of Spice and Craft), Fitzpatrick, Craft and, at a slight distance, Woodman. The first BMW was the Luigi prepared 530i, one of four BMWs entered by the local BMW specialist, driven by former Alfa Romeo works saloon car pilot Spartaco Dini. Luigi persuaded three of his BMWs, including one on five cylinders for most of the event, to finish, winning the Coupe du Roi.

The British were well up, for behind the Italian-piloted BMW came Graham, Allam and the second best BMW, that of Reine Wisell. In the torrent of cars that cascaded down from La Source hairpin past the pits and the start/finish line, we could pick out a promising dice between the Rene Metge/Guy Pirenne Dolomite Sprint and the surprisingly effective KWS of Koblenz Escort RS 2000 for Hartmut Bauer, Ruedi Doetsch and Manfred Mohr.

Unfortunately Triumph versus Ford did not last long with the Dolomite jacked up forlornly and destined for retirement when the axle location brackets absented themselves from the axle itself. The Escort, one of six RS2000s to appear at the event with the twin carburetter engine, was the only one destined to finish allowing Bauer the lead of the Trans Europe Diners Club Championship – a series of Group 1 plus cars that could eventually develop into a championship with contestants from all over Europe.

During the opening hour Spice and Craft gradually began to tow their way clear of the pursuing Capris, Reine Wisell firmly establishing the Maubert-prepared BMW CSi as Munich’s fleetest representative. One could sense that the sher number of BMWs and their varied preparation could mean a different story after a hard night’s racing, something that the Belgian teams were a lot more conscious of than their British rivals.

The first Capri to run into trouble was that of Fitzpatrick, who had a puncture on the second lap. This Hermetite-backed Ford overheated pretty persistently in the daylight too, but it was eventually eliminated not long after midnight when a tyre deflated at the front and sent the hapless Blackburn off into the crash barriers on the Outside of Les Combes’ lefthand sweep. Tricot also suffered a little bit of bother with his Capri early on, the dipstick waggling free and allowIng a spectacular plume of blue smoke to uulow his progress: much later on he did the job properly and blew the engine up comprehensively.

The Spice Capri was not to have a trouble-free run either, and was hiccuping for fuel after 14 laps instead of the planned 17/18. This left Craft with an ever-increasing lead in his regular RAC Championship mount, averaging 116 m.p.h. after three hours racing and leading Wisell/Bourgoignie’s BMW, Graham/Muir and Allam/Marshall/Patterson in Capris, ahead of the recovered Camaro. Le Mans winner Jean Pierre Jaussaud drove a Capri for his second ever racing encounter with saloon cars, but the rented Ford expired soon after the close of the first hour.

Bell had his accident after two hours’ racing or so, Craft an hour and forty minutes later. Just after the four-hour mark we found that Gerry Marshall was just leading but he encountered a Camaro “competing for the tricycle award,” in his words, as a rear wheel fell off. Marshall did miss the Camaro, which had stewed across the track. Unlike after the Craft accident the contestants were not asked to line up behind the pace car, the race carrying on unabated as the haze of smoke drifted away. Unfortunately Allam’s nicely prepared Ford which had run away with the supporting event at the British GP a week earlier suffered brake and wheelbearing damage and subsequently had to be withdrawn when the seat collapsed as the final straw! Marshall, who finished second in the race last year (the previous best British performance) had a little compensation in seeing the Vauxhall Magnum which he took to second place in 1977 finish this year’s event 12th, crewed by Jock Robertson/Andrew Majors and Richard Jones.

Ford’s lead and British competition manager Peter Ashcroft was visiting Francorchamps in the hope of seeing the first win by the company since 1972, BMWs having proved victorious ever since was then the property of Muir/Graham until to that night. While the Goodyear airship glided overhead, blinking down results and pleasantly silly pictures of palm trees as a distraction from the cold creeping into the press stand, Muir and Graham had their fair share of incidents. During the night Muir actually lost a front wheel and contacted a BMW, which subsequently rolled out of the way, in separate incidents. All this drama let Wisell/Bourgoignie into the lead, which they held from nine until one in the morning in the rented CSi.

It was only after quarter-distance that we lost the Woodman/Buncombe Capri when the engine blew, this despite the undeniable care this crew (who finished third in 1977) had been taking with the V6. Things did not look so good for Ford until, at two o’clock, the Spice/Pilette Capri had clawed its way back to a lead it was to hold until 9.15 the next morning. By then we had seen the trees change from spiky black silhouettes to their naturally dark green in the rather bleak and grey dawn, and with that the Stuart Graham Ford limped into the pits with a poorly engine. For nearly an hour the immaculate Faberge-sponsored black and green Capri sat with bonnet agape, the burly chief mechanic Ted Grace and two assistants replacing a broken camshaft follower. Sadly that Capri lasted only a few more hours before the apparently then-healthy engine tightened up, doing itself a power of no good before the driver could switch off.

At 9.15 Spice had a tyre blow out when “I must have been doing 150 m.p.h.” Luckily Gordon kept the steering straight and the car’s suspension was not damaged but he still lost their lead (to Wisell/Bourgoignie) and nearly six minutes in the pits. The Staines-based accessory purveyor then went out and slashed away at the cushion of time built by the old BMW, passing it right its front of the pits. That was at 10 a.m. or so, but the big BMW expired some 40 minutes later. An honourable old soldier which had led the event last year and was actually manufactured in 1974, almost a veteran by international saloon standards.

Just after 11 a.m. Spice produced another fine twist in the plot, the engine fats having disabled the water pump pulley after a bearing had failed. This was to be the longest halt yet; altogether the Capri spent nearly an hour of the 24 hours in the pits throughout the race. At 11.35 in the morning, with the sun just breaking through, the BMW Belgium-backed black 530i of Eddy Joosen/Dirk Vermeesch/Raymond Vanhoe went by into the lead.

Pilette was put into the Spice Ford, Gordon haying completed the four hours’ unbroken driving that the regulations permitted, now needing one hour off before he could resume. Although he received a particularly good ovation from the sporting crowd, Pilette could not make any impression on Joosen, and after his hour stint the gap was very much the same as when he had climbed aboard: around 190 sec.

Then Spice took over, initially taking between four and five seconds a lap away from Joosen. Still the BMW could win, even at this deficit, though two fuel halts were planned for the German machine and only one for the British Capri.

When Joosen stopped for fuel he had to surrender the wheel to the young and comparatively inexperienced Vermeesch. The gap was just 48 sec. whets Vermeesch regained the road, but Spice slaughtered his lap times, for on the next lap the gap was 18.4 sec.! Spice is a great one for such challenges, and the stocky little driver really charged round the magnificent Ardennes roads to appear on the next tour just 1.4 sec. in arrears, so it was just a question of where the Ford would overtake.

Sure enough Spice did appear in the lead from La Source, quite comfortably, but he headed straight for the pits where fuel was splashed in to complete all but the last couple of laps. The gap was 1 min. 10 -sec. to the leading BMW when Spice re-emerged, but this time there was little doubt in our minds or (as he later confessed) in Spice’s as to the outcome. On the first flying lap he trimmed 10 sec. off the lead, then the gap was successively lowered to 48.5 see. 36.7 sec. 22 sec. and 16 sec. With 50 minutes to go Spice regained the lead he held until the end, stopping for four gallons of fuel with 12 minutes to go and reappearing with a 106 sec. lead.

BMW Belgium team manager Hughes de Fierlant made the gesture of putting Joosen back in the car with 20 minutes to go and the crowd stood and clapped madly. All down the hill and up the other side one could see arms waving and programmes fluttering in the humid sunlight, but Gordon Spice was going to achieve what he has set out to do each year since he first participated in 1973: to win the 24 Hour’s du Francorchamps.

After winning by some 24 miles, and covering nearly 2,700 miles at an average speed approaching 112 m.p.h., the fair-haired “Geordie” was understandably jubilant and very grateful for the unstinting efforts of those in the Pit crew, including engine builder Neil Brown and to one half of CC Racing who prepare his Capris, Dave Cook. The other C, Peter Clark was out in his blue Capri finishing fourth, so it was a marvellous result for all concerned.

In the BMW Belgium pits they were very sporting about the whole thing, an attitude the organisers could have copied, failing to play Rule Britannia at all at the circuit, though they made amends at prIzegiving by playing it for a very long time! However the BMW homologation expert and de Fierlant could be seen debating the case for the 635 CSi coupe’s immediate homologation. The factory are not keen, but de Fierlant recognised that this may be the only way to quell those Ford upstarts from Koln and the preparation specialists of Britain. The 530i is lacking power and too fat in its square-rigged four door suit. Clever homologation of the two-door coupe would tip the balance BMW’s way once more.

If that was the last long-circuit 24 hours, it went out on a fitting note. Next year they may not be able to hold the event at all while the circuit alterations are under way, but I expect I will make the pilgrimage to see the site of the World’s fastest and most challenging saloon car race, wiping back a tear for “progress” but remembering with respect toll that the race has taken in the past. At least D.S.J and company will be able to watch more interesting formula car racing while I, and thousunds of other saloon car spectators, will continue to lap up Nurburgring and Brno. – J.W.