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The 1968 Belgium GP saw the return of the Ferrari’s after missing the Monaco GP, with Chris Amon’s V12 now sporting rear aerofoils.  Also, both Brabham’s donned rear wings but mechanical problems meant that little of their cars were seen in practice.

Wings on Porsche Spyder 500 in 1956

The Ferrari team had already been experimenting with rear wings, putting one on the 246SP in 1961, with little effect at the time.  Michael May, an engineer who consulted for Ferrari in 1963-64 on its adoption of Bosch direct fuel infection for its racing engines, had pioneered the use of an enormous mid-mounted wing on his privately entered Porsche 550 Spyder, at the 1956 Nurburgring 1000 km race.  His car was so fast in practice that the Porsche factory team manager supported those who argued successfully for the removal of its wing. May mentioned the function and success of the wing to Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri.  It was Forghieri, who combined talking to May about the wing he had used previously and using the information given him about the Lotus wing experimented within New Zealand, then engineered, built and mounted an aerodynamically sound wing on the 312F1 Ferrari and tested it in 1968.

312F1 Ferrari

Belgium GP 1968

Amon’s pace at the first practice on Friday morning clearly showed the effectiveness of the Ferrari’s wing.  At Spa, the high speeds mean that any extra rear down-force could add significantly to the stability of a car, without upsetting its overall balance.  Bruce McLaren had his mechanics fabricate a small spoiler in time for Friday afternoon practice session.  On Saturday, there was so much rain that McLaren was not able to do any more fine-tuning of his hastily constructed spoiler, and so it was not used for the race on Sunday.

Chris Amon took pole position with a lap time nearly four seconds faster than the next fastest car of Jackie Stewart.  To put that in perspective, in Q1 of the 2013 Grand Prix qualifying, (barring Charles Pic) the entire field was separated by four seconds.

Amon fought a high-speed battle with John Surtees for seven laps before Amon retired after a stone punctured his radiator.  Four laps later, Surtees retired after his suspension collapsed.  Stewart was then in front with a commanding lead but on the second to last lap had to stop for more fuel because of a miscalculation of his fuel consumption.  McLaren was then in the lead and won the race unaware that Stewart had had to pit.  It was McLaren’s first win, and Stewart came in fourth despite his late pit-stop.

Bruce McLaren thought he had only finished second until he pulled up on the exit of the La Source hairpin to save himself the strain of another 14km warm-down lap. Rival BRM team chief mechanic Cyril Atkins ran up to him shrieking, “You crossed the line number one,” Atkins shouted. Bruce was momentarily confused as his M7A was carrying race number five. Then he got the point as Atkins continued to bawl; “You’ve won, didn’t you know?

BRM M7A

British GP 1968

By the time the cars arrived at Brands Hatch for the seventh race of the season, the majority of the cars were sporting the rear and front wings.  Race footage from the day shows the numerous varieties in the heights and sizes of the rear aerofoil.  The only two teams that were not sporting them were BRM and Cooper, who employed the system of ducting air through the nose to hold it down, believing this would be sufficient.  Lotus and Honda were attaching their struts directly to the suspension uprights.  The infamous Team Lotus designer, Colin Chapman, reckoned that he got 400 pounds of down-thrust on the rear wheels.  Everyone else attached them to the chassis somewhere with the result that the springs were being compressed and there was much less shock absorber action. Always one step ahead of everyone else, Chapman had raised his wing by a further foot to a height of 5ft so that it would be out of the turbulence of other cars.  Beltoise had a self-adjustable spoiler on the Matra, but he didn’t think it helped very much.

Graham Hill had dominated qualifying, with his pole, setting a new lap record. He was leading the race until engine failure on lap 26 forced him to retire.  Jackie Oliver was forced retire on lap 43, leaving a closely fought duel between Chris Amon’s Ferrari and Jo Siffert’s Lotus, entered by the Rob Walker Racing Team. The Swiss driver held off Amon to win the race by four seconds as well as breaking the previous lap record.  This is regarded as the last Grand Prix victory by a genuine privateer (though that all depends on your definition of a privateer…and what makes them genuine!) and was the first victory by a car carrying the new high aerofoils.  Colin Chapman was there to congratulate Siffert as he left the car when he arrived in the pits after the race.

This was the Rob Walker Racing Team’s first year using the Lotus, but Siffert had wrecked his Lotus 49 in his first race with it.  He had crashed while practising for the non-championship round, the Race of Champions, at Brands Hatch in March. He had been driving the late Jim Clark’s car, the same chassis Clark had used for his win in South Africa.  This car was shortly afterwards destroyed by a fire at Walker’s racing workshop where it was being repaired.

The British Grand Prix was Siffert’s first race with the 49B. The car wasn’t completed by the beginning of first practice although three mechanics had worked all night at Lotus to try to get it ready. Siffert managed to get some laps in with ten minutes to go and set the eleventh fastest time and after qualifying was fourth on the grid just behind Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver in the works Lotus team, and Chris Amon in his Ferrari.

Jo Siffert in the Lotus 49B

The logic behind the wings was to generate down-force.  However, the engineers made it up as they went along. They tried them big and small, high and low.  They were made out of all kinds of materials.  The effect on the car was all guesswork, a far cry from the supercomputers and wind tunnels of today. They were often attached directly on top of the suspension uprights because that’s where the downwards load was needed to force the wheels onto the track.  It all made sense at the time.

Graham Hill went on to win the title in 1968, and the Lotus 49 continued winning races until 1970. It would be inaccurate to say that it was due to its wings that Lotus won the 1968 championship.  It won because of its Ford-Cosworth engine that Chapman had the foresight to make a stressed member of the chassis.  However, the Lotus 49B marks the divide between the pre-aerodynamic era of the sport and F1’s modern age.

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