Spa-Francorchamps 24 Hours

Déjà vu

Francorchamps July 26th/27th

Late July and the Ardennes forest echoes once again to the night and day chatter of 80-100,000 Europeans watching the survivors of 50 starters in the 32nd annual 24-hour saloon car race. It is an event that has changed a great deal in the last three years, but the result in 1980 is the same as 1979. The same marque, prepared by the same British specialists. also triumphed in 1978.

Thus there are few surprises as less than 30 travel-stained cars and half the original number of starters make it to Sunday morning. Even less surprise when it is recorded that two black BMW 530i four-door saloons, prepared for the Joosen racing team in Belgium, are taking on a trio of 3.0S Capris constructed in Britain by CC Racing of Kirbymoorside up on the Yorkshire moors. At the finish Belgian brothers Jean Michel and Phillipe Martin were winners again, as last year, but this time it was a much closer-run affair. . . .

Back to basics. Regular readers will know that the original 8 miles plus of the Spa-Francorchamps track was constructed entirely from public roads. The last time the 24-hour race was run on the original “long” track was 1978, the year that Gordon Spice became the first Briton to win the event since it has been for saloon cars (it was a sports car event until 1963). Since the Staines-based accessory businessman had Belgian Teddy Pilette with him, it was a victory received with great enthusiasm by both host country and the British “invaders”.

Last year the track emerged from extensive alterations at virtually half length. The trademarks of the circuit from a popular photographic viewpoint — La Source hairpin, the downhill start and finish and the climb up to Les Combes — were intact. A stranger could be forgiven for wondering what all the mystique was about — and where the high average lap speeds went! A winning average was around 110 mph in 1978, this including a first gear hairpin in a 220 bhp Group 1 Capri racing saloon! Now the figure is closer to 70 mph and the Capri has risen to over 250 bhp as regulations on engine tuning in Britain have become more liberal.

Naturally the reason lies in that new circuit. Last year’s version simply provided a variety of mainly downhill swinging curves that included two really quick corners almost in the old Spa Burneville, Malmedy and Stavelot league. Those comers were just as challenging in 1980, but the double apex Dublin and Londres, plus the long hard right that mates new circuit to old, known as Liege, were joined by a new feature for the 1980 season. What else could it be in today’s speed-conscious climate? Yes, a chicane on the run into La Source hairpin. We were privileged to have long pre-race chat with new circuit administration manager Jacky Ickx. He understood that some of the drivers were unhappy with the new obstacle (the British contingent soon named the unnamed, high-kerbed complex “The Bus Stopl”) but felt that a number of factors forced the circuit management to adopt a chicane. Ickx insisted it was not just a question of Formula One safety. “We run with the chicane for all categories of racing this year,” Ickx assured our reporter before furnishing names such as Fittipaldi, Laffite ( who was driving a BMW at this event) and Jarier as having approved, or having been involved in consultations, to produce the best possible chicane.

Ickx also strongly made the point that he felt Spa, the new Spa, was one of the few circuits in the world (he nominated Brands Hatch as the other) to primarily consider the needs of the spectator. “I would rather have 5,000 people happy and safe watching the slow speed cornering fun at the chicane than please a few drivers”, was his outspoken summary.

However, that was not the end of the matter, for the other influencing factor in the design of that Spa chicane is a simple fact. The road down to La Source is still used heavily by normal road traffic. They didn’t want the camions lunging through the chicane, so they were virtually forced to build it off to one side of the road. This left the straight run unaffected (but rather tempting to those who left it too late to attempt the chicane!), with the chicane really as a short sharp layby to that main road.

Hard to compete

Since its revival the Spa 24 hours for saloons has seen some great rivalries and some unlikely competition machinery. In the early days BMW and Mercedes fought some largely unnoticed duels for outright supremacy.

Through the sixties and seventies big American cars like the Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang would be wheeled out to take pole position, probably leading for a couple of laps before steaming into the pits . . . literally!

The real battles moved onto the era of Group 2 Ford versus BMW factory battles. At their height lap speeds in the 130 mph bracket were being recorded with maximum in the 160-170 mph region. Fabulous to watch, especially at Masta kink, where drivers like Hans Stuck and Jochen Mass could be seen putting the big saloons up on two wheels at speeds not far short of their maximum. Heady stuff. . . .

Unfortunately the econornics of the race dictated that the growing interest in the slower, production based Group 1 cars, could not be ignored. The result was a 24-hour race around Europe’s fastest road circuit which mixed everyone from the raw amateur in his 87 mph unlit Simca Rapide De Luxe to the full factory machines, howling through conditions that inevitably included a characteristic Ardennes downpour.

Tragedies were routine. The first year I reported the race — nearly a decade ago — a refuelled BMW turned over just after leaving the pits and went into a spectator enclosure. The driver died, but a major crowd incident was happily averted. In subsequent years there were at least two cases of marshals being killed and, in 1973, three drivers ultimately lost their lives during the night section of the race: the combination of difficult conditions, sustained high speeds, heavy traffic and widely differing driver abilities was not going to go away.

So, for 1974, a new formula was introduced to cater for heavily modified production cars, originally drawn from Group 1. A couple of factory Capri IIs, the only ones ever constructed so far as we are aware, appeared. As Ford lost their German competition department that year the days of official fights between Ford and BMW were over, but the private teams gradually brought things back to the boil.

In Europe the 3-litre fuel injection six that BMW only put into USA-bound 5-series saloons was installed and homollogated for competition. This made a very successful competition car — particularly in countries that, like Britain, had 3-litre overall limit for engine capacity.

This supremacy has now been successfully challenged by the 3-litre Capri. In Belgium and France the Capri seems to just the hold the edge, while in Britain the Rover 3500 has now shown winning form in the Capri-dominated races of the Tricentrol RAC British Saloon Car Championship. Unfortunately we had no Rovers at Spa to cheer for, though they were originally scheduled to make the trip. Showing sensible judgement BL management kept the Bracey Price Motorsport Rovers in England to be fully developed in their first season of racing, rather than risk a fiasco in Belgium: incidentally there is also a Rover 3500 in France (for former Dolomite Sprint driver Rene Metge) that is now showing midfield form.

So the Spa battle was essentially distilled over the final races of the seventies, and in the entry for this 1980 contribution, to the 5-series BMWs versus Capris from Belgium and Britain. This year the 132 prospective entries found themselves whittled down to 65 for practice and 50 for the race: Capris accounted for 17 entries and the BMWs eight. General Motors had some influence to bear for last year’s third place was an astonishingly standard-looking Opel Monza 3.0E. This year two such cars were fielded, with Russelsheirn sports boss Tony Fall (he of works Mini fame in the sixties) looking on with interest. Unfortunately the result was not so good — the same crew were tenth, but once again demonstrated an admirable balance for fast, wet weather laps.

These days GM hopes really rest convincingly on the shoulders of former BMW Group 2 preparation specialist Luigi Cimarosti, who now runs a pair of monstrous red and white 5.7 Camaro Z28s, backed by the Belgian cigarette company Bastos. They are driven by men like former Lotus GP conductor Reine Wisell and Luigi’s talented brother-in-law Jean Xhenceval. This is very much the local team and the Belgian saloon car championship this season has seen the Capri’s greater ascendancy over the BMWs unexpectedly hard-challenged by the Luigi Camaros, particularly that of Wisell, who has driven the Chevrolets with verve and enthusiasm for many of the seasons since he disappeared from the public eye.

The 1980 entry was notable for a larger content of current GP drivers than normal. Celebrities have always been a feature of the Belgian 24 hours, with an eye to emulating the fame of its French progenator, but this time cigarette money had brought Didier Pironi and Jacques Laftite together in one of the French Benoit-prepared BMW 530s.

Also in Gitanes colours — the race is also a battle of the cigarette companies — was the pole position-earning Benoit 530i of sometime rallyman Guy Frequelin. After a hectic 71/2 hours of “practice” (for a 24 hour race!) the Benoit BMWs had consumed the most engines and set fastest times, split by one Capri. Frequelin managed 2m 56.50s (142.103 km/h); Jean Pierre Jaussaud managed 2m 56.88s in the Team Willeme Capri he shared with French rallyman Jean Luc Therier, and Laffite was credited with 2m 56.92s in the BMW.

Jochen Mass was also drawn from the current GP scene, but his race in an Audi managed by Vic Elford was curtailed by losing a wheel, shortly after he had taken command of the 1600 cc. class.

Rain on cue

The race did not take long to produce a familiar Spa pattern. Rain fell almost exactly one hour into the race. By then Frequelin’s opening lap burst of glory racing with Wisell’s Camaro was a memory, though recollection was not hard as the Benoit crew replaced the ruptured head gasket and the BMW rejoined. It was not to play a significant part in the race, a major internal failure, probably a piston damaged during the gasket failure, eliminated it.

Just before rain, at the conclusion of the opening hour, the order was headed by the two Luigi Camaros with the rather more familiar British “Caprists” of Messrs Spice, Graham and Rouse: BMWs occupied places six to eight. Laffite was in the back of the BMW procession, Capris completing the top ten. They included the Ford of the eventual winners, who were obviously pacing themselves for 24 hours, not a club sprint. As four o’clock passed and the skies darkened on schedule, the hard basic lesson of water flow across the track, after the Spa pits, was learned the hard way by a good dozen competitors. Some of the more enterprising took advantage of the revised Eau Rouge/Raidillon crash barriers—now well back from the circuit edge. Such drivers simply didn’t move the steering when they felt water lift the front wheels clear of tarmac. The result was a minor bump as they hit the kerb, a spell of loose surface motoring and then a rather bumpy and messy flight back onto the track after the challenge of Raidillon was over!

So far as influencing race order was concerned we lost Laffite/Pironi in this changeable second hour. At one moment there would be lightning and the next one would be looking for the rainbow formed by the sun chasing another rapid down-pour. Such conditions led to Laffite being trapped out on slicks in the Spa slipperiness and he succumbed with what rallyists might term “a fairly minor off.” Unfortunately it took over ten minutes to limp the battered BMW back to the pits, and another nine minutes or so to reunite exhaust and manifolding, and tidy the front body panels. Pironi then took the car out and, just into the third hour, set the fastest lap of the race at 2m 58.5s ( just a matter of laps later than the Benoit BMW engine expired steamily too. Now we could get back to Spa 24 hour reality.

By the third hour the race pattern was set. The night would be primarily dry and the race contenders had spread out so that only two, instead of the first hour’s 22, contenders were on the same lap! Former 24 hour winners for BMW, Eddy Joosen and driver-cum-joumalist Pierre Dieudonne, were fighting for supremacy with Spice and Alain Semoulin’s Capri. Average speed was now around 76 mph instead of the opening hour’s 86 mph. Rouse was third, Wisell fourth, the Martin brothers were up to fifth and another British Capri combination — Vince Woodman/Jonathan Buncombe/Peter Clark — were sixth, this despite an opening lap incident that had bent a steering arm. In former years we might have shuffled off at this point, possibly to Burnenville or Stavelot, there to consume liberally sauced Pommes Frites and contemplate what pleasure drivers were getting from those long, swooping, curves. There are still some good watching points on the new track, but the pit dramas brought about by the mechanically more demanding new layout, make one want to stay in and around the pits. It was worth it, if only to see the next driver arrive waving arms and trying to communicate with a baffled crew through layers of balaclava fire protection and a full face helmet.

In between times you could contemplate the pine trees disappearing into the dusk, the pain inflicted by Mazda RX-7 exhausts and the gradual switch-on of powerful overhead arc lights, their swirling moth attendants bent on suicide.

The race itself was a good one through the night this year.Though the Joosen/Dieudonne BMW dominated the hours of darkness. In fact Joosen did not drive at all during the night — owing to what was described as a heart condition by one of my contemporaries (which means the RACB must be a little more lenient that the RAC Medical!) — but returned to put in his normal capable performance in daylight. Thus Dieudonne had the job of surviving their nocturnal problems with the alternator at 1 am, a problem that also manifested itself for the sister BMW of Dirk Vermeesch/Daniel Herregods and Daniel Rombauts.

The Capris had an eventful night too. Rouse suffered a major fuel tank leak that required a replacement long range (25 gallons plus) unit be fitted in nearly 40 minutes, while Spice’s co-driver Semoulin lost 7 minutes off course, and also broke the gear lever in the excitement.

However, at 2 am the Martin brothers were leading for the first time: this by the enormous margin of 8.9s.

The Fords found that halfshafts were a problem on the tighter course and changes were made on all three of the quickest CC Racing/Belga Capris, including that of the winners. Vince Woodman’s team ran reliably save for a mysterious electrical fault that flattened the battery out on the track. They lost over 25 minutes but CC Racing founder/partner Clark eventually got the car back to the pits: the team did extremely well to recover fifth position by the finish, while Rouse’s rugged night resulted in seventh overall with Belgianie seater hope for the future Thierry Tassin.

Traditionally the Sunday morning run into the 3 p.m. finish can be sleep inducing, especially if you’ve survived the inevitable pre-dawn showers and are thinking it would be nice to pack up nearly a decade’s attendance at the same race and take up a sensible sport like speedway, where the distances are not excessive, either for competitors or spectators intent on reaching creature comforts. Spa on Sunday provided ample proof that the BMWs were also running into structural problems on the tighter course. Both the loosen 530s had to come in for front strut repairs, the stub axle nominated as the weak link. This was at 10 am, but you could also have spent some happy minutes watching, and sympathising with, the dirty and exhausted Spice team pit crew as they coped with a gearbox change on Gordon’s car in under half an hour (made more difficult by the wire-locking of securing nuts and bolts for extra security), and the 11 am Sunday halfshaft change for the Martin brothers.

After that things did settle down a bit at the front. The fight remained between the Joosen BMW, abetted by the similar cars of French rallyists Claude Ballot-Lena/Jean Claude Andruet and Lucien Guitteny/Guy Bleynie, versus the British Capris. A constant interloper — and one that had run embarrassingly high in the overall order at odd occasions — was a German-crewed Escort RS2000, which eventually finished sixth to split the best British Capri driver placings.

The prestigious Coupe du Roi team prize went this year to the VW club of Belgium, but I confess I don’t know why as the three British-prepared CC/Belga Capris were first, seventh and ninth! There must be a mathematical equation complicating such a result, for the VWs were well back amongst the 22 survivors. — JW.