Publish date:


After playing it cool in practice for Sebring, a Ford GT-40 driven by a Belgian and an Englishman nipped the resurgent Italians by a single record-breaking lap

Ferraris are red,
Lolas are blue,
Porsches are white
And will finish one-two.

It scanned, it sang and it promised, but the graffito on the men's room wall outside the Sebring racecourse last week only proved that latrine prophets are as prone to error as all others. The single scarlet V-12 prototype entered by Enzo Ferrari in Saturday's 12 hours of speed and endurance ran quickly but steamily and finished only second. The blue Lola-Chevrolet of Roger Penske, which had won Daytona's 24-hour race (SI, Feb. 10), held the lead briefly, and a sister Lola, Actor James Garner's entry, challenged right on down to an hour before the checkered flag fell, only to end up sixth. A plentitude of Porsche 908 Spyders (five of them, plus another offered up to practice and cannibalization), avoided the camshaft calamities that had wiped them out at Daytona but fell victim to another epidemic: weak rear suspensions. Though they finished third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth, they couldn't fulfill the promise of the men's room wall.

That success—and sugar sweet it was—went to the blue and orange Ford GT-40 of John Wyer, the cool, can-do Englishman whose cars won the International Manufacturers' Championship last year. In the welter and swelter of Sebring doings last week, Wyer's team had gone almost unnoticed in prerace activity—just as he wished. Sebring, after all, is as much show as go—a lot of motorcar noise in a customarily quiet mid-Florida town that both relishes and resents the car people's intrusion.

Going to Sebring is like stepping into a time machine and emerging in 1946. It's all dumbbell-shaped telephones and cuffed trousers and canasta games. Even the racecourse, a converted World War II air base, carries out the motif. According to some of the Porsche drivers, whose cars took the worst beating, the roadbed is worse than the Caucasus was when the Panzerkorps went out of Russia in '43.

Even so, Sebring enjoyed its hottest, closest race since 1955, when Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill ran a Ferrari down to the wire against the D-Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn and Phil Walters. It also attracted kids in helmet liners that read "Born To Raise Hell" and ski bums and lissome chicks in leopard-patterned miniskirts.

And it brought Ferrari back onto the circuit after a year's absence. That alone was enough to guarantee a record turnout well over the 50,000 high of 1966. The car itself was out of the traditional Ferrari mold—a brutish wedge of automotive power, guttural as a rutting stag. The drivers were New Zealand's quick young Chris Amon, 25, darling of the road and formula circuits, and Nazareth, Pa.'s own Mario Andretti, 29, the gimlet-eyed go-getter of Indy and the lonesome roads. Italy's "other" car company, Alfa Romeo, entered a full team for the first time this year, headed by England's former world champion, John Surtees, and Sicily's Nino Vaccarella, a seasoned endurance man.

And if that wasn't enough, last year's Sebring winner, Porsche, had transformed the long-tailed, fully roofed sedans of 1968 (and Daytona) into open coupes. They sacrificed a bit of speed on the straights but handled easily in Sebring's washboard corners and provided more "driver comfort" than at Daytona, where leaky exhausts turned the drivers blue every few laps.

Practice and qualifying revealed that all the major contenders were faster than anything Sebring had seen before. Even the Alfas, which looked a bit tinny on the rough spots approaching the infamous Esses and the Hairpin, were turning the course in close to the record lap time of 111.032 mph set by the late Mike Spence. Penske's Lola zipped around in 116 mph, only to be topped by Amon in the Ferrari. Those who watched Amon negotiate the Esses claim that he cheated a bit—he went straight across rather than wiggling through, but the steam coming from the Ferrari, which was overheating, might have clouded their vision. The Porsches played it safe, driving a good two seconds slower than their chief competitors in order to save the engines and the frailer chassis of the new Spyder coupes. As for the Ford GT-40s, hardly anyone noticed them as they chugged just fast enough to be respectable but not so quickly as to be menacing.

Everyone studied the skies on race-day morning, for rain would have required the installation of bilge pumps in the Porsches and the open-top Ferrari, and neither team was so equipped. Rain also would have turned the race into a regatta (the drainage of the Sebring course is about as effective as that of the Gulf Stream).

Blissfully, the day broke clear, calm and concordant with everyone's wishes. There were a few foul-ups, to be sure. Alfa's John Surtees suddenly withdrew, possibly because of conflicting tire contracts (he's a Firestone guy, and the Alfas were wearing Dunlops), or maybe because he could see what was coming. Alfa's mechanics failed to tighten the left rear wheel lugs on one of their cars, with the result that the wheel came off after one lap.

Porsche had problems, too. Moments before the Le Mans-style start, the 911 of Maryland's Jim Netterstrom was up on blocks, mechanics probing into its engine. That was bad news, since it was Netterstrom who, at Daytona, inadvertently wiped out the French Matra—and who might have done the same this day to its Italian counterpart. Still, Netterstrom made it onto the track, along with the rest of the field of 70.

After the starting scramble the Porsches led for 30 laps and then the Penske Lola took charge. Subsequently, what with pit stops and traffic and rubber pylons at the corners eddying up against some cars, each of the contenders had his turn. Rico Steinemann, Porsche's team manager, sent his quickest driver, Switzerland's Jo Siffert, into an early lead, holding back the gentler duo of Joe Buzzetta and Gerhard Mitter in hopes of coming on strong toward the end. Penske's drivers, Mark Donohue and Ronnie Bucknum, who customarily don't fall for such bait, charged right after the Porsches, as did Ferrari's Amon and Andretti. However, Wyer's drivers, Belgian Jackie Ickx and Englishman Jack Oliver, hung back and kept their car healthy. As the sun skidded down toward the timing pits, the wear on the rest became evident.

Porsches began failing with broken suspension arms. (The Germans are swift to remove their dead; soon two cars, draped in see-through plastic, were lying in state beside the big Porsche van.) No sooner had Ronnie Bucknum given way to Donohue in a midafternoon pit stop than the husky Lola cracked—its suspension stricken by the wrenching, wriggly course. By this time the Ferrari had begun to smoke like Vesuvius and was pulling in frequently for symptomatic treatment—gallons of water into the car and quarts more over the steaming windshield and hood. On one stop Andretti looked parboiled, and his engineers quickly scissored a vent in the sizzling fiber glass over his feet.

The GT-40s were having their own troubles. Wyer's second car went out just before sunset, having lost a door and broken its front suspension. Oliver and Ickx had to perform like Houdinis in changing places, since their own door only opened about eight inches. Fortunately both drivers are as small as they are steady.

After dark Ferrari was solidly in the lead—until Andretti pulled in for 10 minutes and 50 seconds of watering. Only three Porsches were left in the race, all with rebuilt rear suspensions, and Jo Siffert—now earless—came up to commiserate with the cooking Mario. By the time Andretti got back out and running, Oliver had surged ahead in the GT-40. Sensing a potential need for his presence in victory lane, Wyer sipped a cool glass of milk and donned his blazer, while his Ford crewmen donned miner's lamps against possible emergency work within the car's innards. Well into the 11th hour, Oliver whipped in for a pit stop, Ickx took over, and from then on Ferrari never had a chance.

Though the quick red Ferrari closed on Ickx at a rate of five seconds each lap, it was not enough. Still, when the flag came down and the champagne flowed—some of it over Oliver's head, making him look like something out of Dickens—as much of the crowd's applause was for Amon, Andretti and the new Ferrari as for the winners. Both cars had bettered the Sebring single-lap speed record, and the Ferrari had equaled the record of 238 laps, but the Wyer Ford had gone it one better. Its 239 laps over the 5.2-mile course came to 1,242.8 miles at a record speed of 103.363 mph.

And so Wyer had another sip of milk, the graffiti artists departed and Sebring returned to 1946.


Winning co-driver Jackie Ickx is framed by window in Ford GT-40's upturned rear deck.