As a destroyer of racing cars, the course at Sebring, Florida has no equal. Its 5.2 miles of highspeed straightaways and sharp turns torment brakes, gearboxes and engines as no other circuit can.
Still, hardly anyone expected the fearful calamities that befell the most powerful cars and the most gifted drivers in last Saturday's 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance for sports cars at Sebring.
The weather held no threat; it was bright and balmy. The 65 cars were a ribbon of color on white concrete under the morning sun as their drivers awaited the Le Mans-type start.
A count-down sent the drivers off on their short foot race across the track to the cars; then a Corvette, one-third of the only all-American entry, got away first, and the pack boiled into the first turn. With traffic sorted out at the end of the first lap, there was this procession: Britain's great Stirling Moss in an Aston Martin leading 10 top 3-liter cars; his countryman Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari; another Briton, Roy Salvadori, in the Aston's twin; California's Phil Hill, Ferrari; Britain's Archie Scott-Brown, Lister-Jaguar; Belgium's Olivier Gendebien, Ferrari; Illinois' Ed Crawford, Lister-Jaguar; Connecticut's John Fitch, Ferrari; Britain's Ivor Bueb, D Jaguar.
March 31, 1958
The smaller cars completed an engrossing spectacle, a field to remember, but it began to erode with remarkable speed.
Consider the case of Archie Scott-Brown. His Lister-Jaguar was tooling along on the fourth lap when suddenly there was a wheel alongside his right ear, with a Ferrari attached. Gendebien hadn't meant to drive up onto the Lister. It was just that Scott-Brown had slowed suddenly in front of him when a valve spring in the Jaguar engine broke and the engine sickened, and there was nowhere else to go.
Gendebien backed off and drove on (pitting for minor repairs), but the Jaguar valve spring ailment became epidemic. Soon Crawford retired, after his Lister-Jaguar made "expensive metallic sounds"; then the Ecurie Ecosse D Jaguards, victors in the famed Le Mans race, did likewise; and, finally, the D Jaguar of New Jersey's Walt Hansgen perished similarly.
Recently revised to fit the new 3-liter formula for the world championship, the engines had not been fully tested. In fact, the factory cabled its suspicions of the valve springs the night before.
Moss was driving superbly, gaining a solid lead on the second Aston and the Ferraris of Hawthorn and Hill. On the 31st lap he recorded (unofficially) the fastest round of the day—3 minutes 20.3 second. Not only a fine personal feat for Moss, it demonstrated how much the engineers are capable of improving a racing car when required to work to a maximum engine size.
After two hours, quick Ferrari pit work diminished Moss's big 2½-minute lead in a round of refueling stops. Co-driver Tony Brooks, furthermore, was sorely tried by the onrushing Ferrari of fellow Briton Peter Collins, leader of the polyglot Italian team. When Brooks handed the Aston back to Moss at four hours Collins became the leader; more fast pit work kept the lead for Collins' teammate Hill when he set forth again.
Meanwhile Texas' Carroll Shelby had relieved Salvadori in the other Aston, only to have it succumb to a malady in the differential. Moss wasn't happy with the same symptoms in his own car, nor was he much cheered when the small rectangular hood suddenly came loose, tore a large fragment from his plastic windshield, chipped his helmet visor and banged the headrest. "Bonnet gone," wrote his pretty wife Kate on her timing chart.
"Bloody thing nearly tore my head off," said Moss a few laps later, when he also retired with differential ills.
Now all the English cars of the first rank were out. The sun was still high, and Ferraris Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17 led the field in that order. Under an evening sky and the first fragile evidence of a new moon it was still quattordici, quindici, sedici, diecisetti—Hill-Collins; Hawthorn and Co-driver Wolfgang von Trips of Germany; Gendebien and Italy's Luigi Musso; Californians John von Neumann and Richie Ginther.
Private Ferrari Owner Chester Flynn of New York, a General Motors executive for overseas plant construction, had flipped a 250TR and had been flown to St. Petersburg for treatment of a fractured shoulder and a reportedly severe eye injury. Valve trouble cost Johnny Fitch his bid for contention.
There was other bad news. The Hill-Collins Ferrari, No. 14, had hardly enough braking power left by mid-afternoon to retard a kiddie car; later on even that deteriorated. It was pump 'em up and pray, and still the scarlet No. 14 stayed a lap ahead.
And the Porsches, 1,150 pounds of no-nonsense racing machine (Ferraris weighed 1,717), were going well. Eventually most of them became afflicted, however, and only the 1,600-cc. Spyder of Harry Schell and Germany's Wolfgang Seidel remained in a challenging position to the end of the race.
At 7:40 p.m. the second-place No. 15 Ferrari of Hawthorn-Von Trips retired with a broken half-shaft; at 8:30, an hour and a half before the end of the race, the No. 17 Ferrari of Von Neumann-Ginther quit with a broken pinion gear.
That left two Ferraris up front, those of Hill-Collins and Gendebien-Musso, the latter having recovered spectacularly from its ascent of Scott-Brown's Lister. Behind in the first 10 came an amazing array of small sports racing cars and touring cars whose drivers never dreamed of such glory when the big cars were healthy.
Collins and Musso replaced Hill and Gendebien for the last laps. Someone massaged the shoulders of Musso's wife for good luck. Team Manager Oscar Tavoni ignored the noisy swarm of uninvited visitors at his back and kept his eyes open for quattordici and sedici. At last they took the checkered flag, streaking across the finish line side by side, with No. 16 a lap behind No. 14.
For Hill and Collins it was a remarkable victory, considering the condition of their brakes, and a remarkable continuation of their winning streak as a team, following successive championship sports car victories at Caracas and Buenos Aires. Ferrari, of course, increased its lead in competition for the 1958 sports car championship.
By covering 200 laps in the 12 hours at an average speed of 86.7 mph, Hill and Collins erased the Sebring record of Fangio and Behra last year (197 laps). Their 300-hp V-12 Ferrari was 1½ liters smaller and less powerful by 100 hp than 1957's winning Maserati.
Ferrari had still more to celebrate. Two 3-liter touring Ferraris were fifth and seventh over-all, and one-two in class.
And for a real astonisher, the tiny 747-cc. Italian OSCA of Mr. and Mrs. Alejandro de Tomaso placed eighth and won the index of performance, assisted by a third driver, Texas' Robert Ferguson. Mrs. de Tomaso is the former Isabelle Haskell, daughter of Amory Haskell, president of Monmouth Park race track.