The 1981 24 Heures de Francorchamps will he remembered for its relatively incident free progress and a superb battle for the lead which went on all through the night and into Sunday afternoon. The weather certainly had a lot to do with keeping accidents to a minimum as, although wet for the first couple of hours, the night was dry and visibility good. Sunday morning dawned rather grey and foreboding but the sun soon perforated the cloud cover and warmed the place up nicely. There were a couple of funny things about this year’s race as well, like the start and finish! Your reporter had always thought it was a rolling start at Spa so he was a bit surprised when, after one slow lap behind the pace car, the huge field of saloons stopped on the grid and then disappeared towards Eau Rouge at a flourish of the Belgian tricolour!
As the spray dispersed, the Bastos Chevrolet Camaro of Claude Bourgoignie reappeared at La Source followed by Michel de Deyne’s similarly beefy, 5.7-litre monster. As at Le Mans where he came fourth in a Porsche 935, Bourgoignie shared his car with Briton John Cooper and former Grand Prix driver Reine Wisell. The Camaro led for about 50 minutes before stopping to have the fan and alternator replaced after a blade came off and smashed its way out through the front. The car was stationary for about half an hour before Wisell rejoined many laps behind the leaders. The Camaro ran reliably after that although it was unable to make up much ground because of the low rate of attrition and good conditions. Then the car stopped out on the circuit on Sunday morning with what the Bastos team described as a starter motor failure!
The Eminence Capri of Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Alain Fritter held the lead for the next two hours but double Le Mans winner Jaussaud was out of luck this time when the Capri first picked up a misfire caused by dirt in the tank, and finally succumbed to engine failure in the early hours of the morning. The second Eminence car driven by Gunther Steckonig/Marquet and three times world champion Jack Brabham was hobbled soon after the start with brake problems but slogged away for the duration and came home in 21st place. For Brabham it was his first Gp 1 appearance since the British Grand Prix in 1980 when he drove a Renault 5 turbo and was offered a place in the French team at Spa, at behest of Goodyear.
Gordon Spice’s Belga Capri took the lead for 90 minutes or so just after 7.00 pm, chased by another Camaro this time in the hands of Ray Van Hove/Cromer and Martino Finotto. Spice was sharing his car with Belgian Marlboro F3 driver Thierry Tassin who was there really only to please the sponsors and declared that he “wouldn’t like to make a habit of these races”. Spice’s Tricentrol team manager Keith Greene was overseeing two other cars at Spa for the Martin brothers Jean-Michel and Phillip, winners in 1979 and 80, and another Capri for Alain Semoulin/Dany Snobeck and the pseudonymous “Alain Dex”, actually Semoulin’s fat and excitable brother. All three cars fell further and further behind as the race went on, suffering half shaft failures, landing Greene to suppose he’d received a duff batch of oil seals. Spice and Tassin finished best in sixth place.
The Esso Capri of Vince Woodman/Jonathan Buncombe/Pete Clark moved into the lead just after 9.00 pm, making steady progress through the field having qualified tenth. The three Englishmen have been regular visitors to Spa for a number of years. Woodman and Buncombe competing in the same tram in the Tricentrol Gp 1 series. Clark is less often seen behind the wheel and is better known as the director of CC Racing Developments, who prepare both Woodman’s car and those of Gordon Spice, among others. The same trio finished fifth at Spa last year and Woodman went on to come first in Gp 1 at the Silverstone Tourist Trophy. They deliberately adopted a conservative pace which meant lapping around the three minute mark throughout and by lunchtime their attitude looked to have paid off when the leading BMW of Eddy Joosen/Jean-Claude Andruet ran into trouble. As the hobbled BMW staggered on leaving the Mazda RX7 of Tom Walkinshaw/Pierre Dieudonne in a comfortable lead, one hoped that the British Capri would respond and capture second place, but time ran out for them and left them still a lap behind at the finish.
Van Hove’s Camaro lost a lot of time in the pits being straightened out after Cremer had shoved it into the armce barrier, but by 11.00 pm the battle for the lead, which would last for another 14 hours, was beginning to develop. The Juma BMW of Joosen/Andruet had lost time at the start with a certain amount of indecision about tyres, but led throughout the night in confident style. Joosen and Andruet are very experienced long distance campaigners, although Frenchman Andruet is probably more familiar as a rally driver having won the Ypres 24 Hours only a couple of weeks previously in a Ferrari. Eddy Joosen is almost a household name in Belgium but was still searching for that elusive first win at Spa, and having survived those ghastly hours of early morning without missing a beat, appeared to have the Mazda threat well under control.
With the final scheduled pit stops approaching, both teams psyching each other out by being deliberately hazy about how many stops they actually had left to make, but Dieudonne eventually made up his mind and came in at 12.40. Some years ago a great future was foreseen for this former journalist who was backed in Formula 3 by the Belgian hi-fi concern, Bang and Olufsen. However, despite showing promise nothing really ever came of it although the Belgian has kept his hand in with the odd race here and there. His co-driver Tom Walkinshaw is well known in this country for his often-controversial saloon exploits, as his choice of car can be relied upon to be something different. A former Atlantic competitor, Walkinshaw has cornered a fairly large proportion of the Gp 1 market by running the works Rovers, Audis and Mazdas in the British Tricentrol series, and ironically enough found himself next door in the pits to his greatest rival in the UK, Gordon Spice Racing.
With Walkinshaw at the wheel, the Mazda began to rapidly chisel away at the BMW’s advantage and the Bastos team, sensing that Joosen was perhaps tiring, brought him in earlier than expected in an effort to preserve their lead. But Walkinshaw had caught up with Joosen and passed him before he even made the pits, which left Andruet with everything to do. It then became apparent that all was not well with the BMW’s engine which was sounding decidedly rough, and Andruet stopped twice for about five minutes in the space of two Iaps. It transpired that a rocker arm had broken but despite the consequent loss of power the Bastos BMW managed to retain second place.
After the sustained excitement through the night and Sunday morning, the last 90 min or so were rather an anti-climax with the little Mazda, now relieved of pressure, just droning on round to the finish. As at Le Mans, the crowds swamped Walkinshaw only seconds after he had crossed the line, presenting the following cars with a real hazard to avoid, and in view of the spectators reaction, the organiser’s conduct during the prize giving ceremony was prejudiced to say the least. Despite there being a British driver in the winning team, the RACB played only the Belgian National Anthem and when it came to the third placed Britons, Woodman, Buncombe and Clark, there was still no God Save the Queen even then! ACM.
1st: P Dieudonne/T Walkinshaw (2.3 Mazda RX7) 23 hr 57 min 56.6 sec. (132.734 kph) 456 laps
2nd: E Joosen/JC Andruet (3.0 BMW 530i) 454 laps
3rd: V Woodman/J Buncombe/P Clark (3.0 Ford Capri) 453 laps