Lightning failed to strike Ferrari

Though many fell by Sebring's wayside, two of the great Italian cars stayed the course to win an unprecedented one-two victory
April 02, 1962

As baseball has its Yankee haters, auto racing counts fans who are not partial to the mighty Ferrari cars. Those who love to loathe have in common a desire to see the high and lordly reduced a notch or two, and for a time last Saturday during the rousing 12-hour endurance race at Sebring in the Florida midlands it looked as though Providence had taken sides against the world-famous Italian factory, builder of the championship sports and Grand Prix cars last year and a mighty good bet to repeat in 1962.

In fantastic succession, through Sebring's long hours of bright, balmy sunshine and on into the starlit evening, Ferrari after Ferrari sickened mechanically or suffered some other setback. In the last two hours just a pair of topflight contenders for major prizes remained. But, despite warm pleas from the disaffected, lightning did not strike these cars, and first across the finish line was the long-nosed red racer of Sweden's bearded driver, Joakim Bonnier, and Italian-born Lucien Bianchi, who sports a mustache. All in all they traveled 1,071 miles at an average speed of 89.142 mph.

The car-babying touch

Ten laps behind but still ahead of any other contenders came the elegant, gray Grand Touring Ferrari co-driven by America's world champion, Phil Hill, and his longtime sports car sidekick, Olivier Gendebien, the suave and courtly Belgian. Men who make their own lightning and shave their faces clean, Hill and Gendebien are the reigning masters of the light, car-babying touch; they had each won the Sebring race three times before.

The overall victory of Bonnier and Bianchi added, of course, to the great stature of shrewd old Enzo Ferrari as a builder of racing cars. This year, however, the remarkably high GT finish of Hill and Gendebien gave him something of greater value. Under the new rules of the Fédération Internationale de l'Auto-mobile it was the Grand Touring car, not the prototype sports racer, that won points toward the manufacturers' world championship.

Thus the Hill-Gendebien triumph was the more important one on paper, but there was no question where the greater drama lay. The fact is, the public prefers sports racers with the driver plainly visible, not obscured by a roof, and with a full-blooded exhaust roar rather than GT's muted thunder. And on Saturday, when the 65 cars lined up for Sebring's Le Mans start, the situation was dramatic indeed. Two new rear-engined V-12 sports racers from the works of Ferrari's archrival, Maserati, and a British Cooper with a rear-mounted four-cylinder Maserati engine were ready to do battle with six violent Ferrari prototypes. This was the kind of high-blooded scrap the public came to see.

America's Walt Hansgen and Dick Thompson manned one new Maserati, entered by the Connecticut sportsman Briggs Cunningham. An Italian pair, Nino Vaccarella and Carlo Abate, took the other. The Cooper-Maserati, also Cunningham's, was given to America's Roger Penske and New Zealand's fine Grand Prix driver Bruce McLaren.

The Ferrari assets were decidedly sounder. Bonnier had tried out one of the Maseratis and admired its great speed, but elected in the end to put his faith in the Ferrari's proved staying power. Britain's Stirling Moss and Scotland's Innes Ireland drove an identical V-12; they had first been assigned a rear-engined Ferrari—one with the firm's new V-8 engine—but rejected it as unproved. The hard-charging Rodriguez kids from Mexico, Ricardo, 20 (SI, March 26), and Pedro, 22, drew a rear-engined V-6; the American Bob Grossman and Allen Connell a front-engined V-6; the American youngsters Peter Ryan and John Fulp, both 21, the new V-8. Finally, there was the older V-12 of the rugged George Constantine, stout, gray-haired but still a leadfoot at age 43.

Among the other sports racers adding to Sebring's color were two homebred Chaparrals, Corvette-powered and built by Texas' Jim Hall, reduced in displacement from six to four liters to fit Sebring requirements. While they were a treat to American eyes, running in the top 10 early in the race, they could not challenge the top Italian cars. Both Chaparrals suffered mechanical trouble, but in the end one of them finished handsomely in sixth place. Nor did the seven American Corvettes in the field have a prayer against the all-conquering Ferrari GTs.

Go-go-go from Mexico

The race evolved into three main phases. The first belonged to the go-go-go Rodriguez boys. For five glorious hours Pedro and Ricardo were out in front more often than not, putting on a spirited show—perhaps too spirited for an endurance grind. Moss and Ireland in their Ferrari took the lead from time to time, and McLaren and Penske in their Maserati-powered Cooper appeared to be successfully working a strategy that aimed at jumping way out ahead by taking fewer refueling stops than the Ferraris. The theory was sound; the trouble was that the Cooper-Maserati spent ruinous amounts of time having brakes and generator repaired when it did come into the pits. It ultimately finished a remarkable fifth despite all the time lost, which bespeaks superb driving.

The first Ferrari to be stricken, in this Rodriguez-dominated phase, was George Constantine's veteran V-12—it broke an axle. The new V-12 Maseratis—as brittle as Bonnier feared they might be—bowed out, too. Then the Ryan-Fulp Ferrari ran out of fuel on the course and went hopelessly behind. And in midafternoon, when Pedro was driving, the engine in the Rodriguez Ferrari suddenly seized up. The valiant Pedro tried pushing it for 1,000 yards or so, but it was a hopeless case.

That ended phase one of the race; there were now three Ferraris left, with Moss and Ireland commandingly in the lead in one of them. Bonnier and Bianchi, who had been tooling along quietly all day up close to the leaders, were a mere two laps behind in second place in theirs. And Ricardo and Pedro, as ready to race as ever, took over the third-place Grossman-Connell Ferrari—only to have the hard-worked engine in that car blow two hours before the race's end.

A flap with the stewards

Like two red Indians left of the original six, the Moss-Ireland and Bonnier-Bianchi Ferraris sped along—until Moss's finest chance to triumph at Sebring since his 1954 victory (in an Italian OSCA) evaporated in a rancorous flap with the pit stewards. The race was in its eighth hour when it was definitely established that an inexperienced mechanic had refueled the car illegally during a stop made merely to have the brakes adjusted. Sebring's rules stipulate 20 laps between refueling, and the stewards stuck to them. That left Bonnier and Bianchi with nearly five hours to go and clear sailing, but they still had to sweat out a clutch that had been slipping since the very first lap. "I never thought," said Bonnier afterward, as well-wishers milled around him, "that we'd make it."

Hill and Gendebien, although they appeared to be floating along with not a problem in the world as they moved toward their GT victory, actually were sweating, too. The legs of their bucket seat had snapped in the third hour, and from then on they skimmed through by cinching extra tight a shoulder harness that kept the seat precariously in place.

"It was nothing," said Gendebien as he sauntered toward the finish to watch Hill soft-shoe the good, brave GT car home. "The way we were driving, we could go for another 12 hours."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)