After settling with four honourable final placements, on Sunday 21st July 1968 Gerhard Mitter conquers a wonderful success in the Cesana-Sestriere race, fourth round of the European Hill Climb Championship. Mitter has reached the Sestriere Colle in 4'54"6 at an average speed of 127.088 km/h (78.968 mph). With his white Porsche Spyder he has beaten Rolf Stommelen’s record from the previous year, a 5'02"3 at the average speed of 123.850 km/h (76.956 mph). Stommelen himself finishes third in the 8th edition of this race, right behind the young Austrian racer Dieter Quester and his Bmw. In addition to the overall record, twelve category or class records have been broken, as proof of the enthusiasm and the eagerness with which the competitors have tackled the 10,400 metres between Cesana and Sestriere. The racers’ accomplishments have been contributed to by the sunny day, which has drawn thousands of fans along the racecourse, and by the improved road conditions, newly paved and touched up in a dangerous turn, as a result of the Turin Automobile Club promoters’ interest. Unfortunately, two serious accidents have taken place: a car has swerved and has run over an amateur photographer and a Formula 850 single seater has collided against a bridge parapet. The first one has happened during the +1600-cc class of the GT category.
A driver from Turin, Luigi Verna, carries too much speed with his Alfa Romeo 1750 Spider approaching the series of turns near the Belvedere Hotel, just a few hundred metres away from the finish line. The car lifts off on two wheels, the driver tries to put the car back down, failing. His Alfa Romeo ends up sideways, bends towards the mountain and then flips over. Alberto Calosso, a 27-year-old employee from Turin who has approached the track right then to take some photos, is run over. At the Trauma Clinic in Sestriere, Doctor Camillo Lievre diagnoses him with a suspected fractured pelvis and a wounded knee. Luigi Verna, luckily unscathed, gets off his car on his own and immediately removes the electrical contact. Unfortunately, when spectators don’t respect the prohibitions (it was clearly prohibited to stand near the track), all precautions in place are useless. The Turin Automobile Club, responsible for the race, have done everything possible and have arranged a perfect emergency service. One police officer every ten metres should be on patrol, which is logically impossible. A bit of common sense from the people attending, a bit of caution for themselves and the racers would be enough. Races have a high rate of risk: this should not be forgotten. The 29-year-old Pier Bartolomeo Calò, a driver from Parma, is the protagonist of the other accident. He recalls:
"My foot got stuck between the brake pedal and the gas pedal, I couldn’t slow down, and I went straight against the parapet of the bridge right before the turns of the Belvedere Hotel. I feel sorry, especially for the car, which I bought with a mechanic who’s a friend of mine".
Calò has suffered a slight state of shock and some broken ribs. The prognosis, like for Calosso, is about 30-40 days. On the other hand, everything has gone smoothly in the most awaited race, the one in which Mitter, Stommelen and Quester were involved. Some cars don’t take part in the 1968 European Hill Climb Championship: at the beginning of the season, Ferrari, Abarth and Alfa Romeo have suggested the introduction of a minimum weigh limit for two-seaters race cars, the only ones which can compete to win, but the Commission Sportive International has rejected the request, causing the withdrawal of the three Italian brands. Mitter and Quester have admitted that it’s very challenging to drive such cars. Mitter, 32-year-old from Stuttgart, married with two children, is committed to Porsche since 1964. However, he would also race for another team shortly: Ferrari. The German race driver has had contacts with Forghieri and Gozzi, in charge at the Maranello based team, and he would take part in the German Grand Prix scheduled for the 4th August 1968 behind the wheel of a Ferrari.
"This is a dream come true for me, this is every driver’s dream. For now, I should only be driving at the Nürburgring, but I hope, once behind the wheel of a Ferrari, to be doing other races".
Meanwhile, Mitter has reached the Sestriere Colle in his usual cold and rational style.
"Maybe I could have done it in less time, but I found some oil on track, so I lifted".
These are the words of a man who nearly reached 200 km/h (124.274 mph) in a part of the track. Quester, his main rival, a blond and tall 29-year-old man from Vienna, who is also speed world champion for two-litre inboard powerboats, states fairly after the race:
"Twice I shifted but the gear didn’t switch at the right time, so I lost a bit there. But anyways I wouldn’t have been able to match Gerhard’s time".
Stommelen, the previous year’s winner, is still suffering due to the Rossfeld accident (on that day, Saturday 8th June 1968, Ludovico Scarfiotti died while training for the same race, and in Sestriere many have remembered melancholically the great driver and his Ferrari Dino) and he’s forced to drive with a special steering wheel, because after a few kilometres the fingers of his right hand become sore and can’t grip the wheel anymore. This is the reason why his performance isn’t as brilliant as usual. Gerhard Mitter conquers therefore his third success in the European Hill Climb Championship and is on his way to win the title again thanks to his car, which costs the German manufacturer 200.000 German marks. This is not due to the lightweight but strong metals used but rather to the expensive installations required and the specialised personnel employed. Moreover, it needs to be emphasised that such lightweight cars aren’t good models from a safety point of view. The bodywork, for example, is just a layer of plastic material, 0.2 to 0.5 millimetres thick, weighing only eight kilos. The chassis, made up of rather fragile tubes, is just about 23 kilos. The total weigh is around 400 kilos. To make up for it, the direct injection eight-cylinder engine delivers 280 hp at 9.200 rpm. At the same time, the British Grand Prix takes place in Brands Hatch. However, the event begins in a particularly unusual way: on Thursday, 18th July 1968 the first free practice session is scheduled for 10.30 am but there’s no driver on track.
As a matter of fact, all cars are in the paddock but none of them seems to be ready to take part in the practice session. Inside Rob Walker’s van the mechanics are tightening the last bolts on the brand-new Lotus 49B, driven by Jo Siffert: the car is equipped with a Hewland gearbox, with front and rear suspensions updated to 1968 and with front wings and rear wing profile painted in blue. The previous car, number 49/2, was returned to the factory and was used to replace Oliver’s car that had been destroyed in Rouen. The 49/2 model is still equipped with a ZF gearbox and 1967 suspensions, but it has a new nose, with adjustable wings, a high wing on the rear and its livery is red, white and gold, like Graham Hill’s car. Both cars’ rear wings are fixed twelve inches higher than the set-up used in Rouen, and both cars have small spoilers at the tip of the nose to break the airflow through the large flat surface in front of the windscreen. Nearby, John Surtees bolts a quite large wing to the rear of his Honda, whereas Dan Gurney’s Eagle 104 features a wing which seems to be able to bend the exhaust pipes if any downwards thrust were created. The BRM Team carry out some aerodynamic tests and have removed the nose deflectors, making the cars look naked. All the Grand Prix participants are in the paddock, including Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren with their orange McLarens, Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx with three Ferraris, Jack Brabham and Jochen Rindt with their cars equipped with double overhead camshaft engines and extra cars equipped with single overhead camshaft engines.
Jackie Stewart has the two Matras at his disposal, equipped with V8 engines, and Jean-Pierre Beltoise has the second French car available, equipped with a V12 engine. Vic Elford and Robin Widdows are racing with their Cooper-B.R.M., Piers Courage with Parnell’s B.R.M., Silvio Moser with Vogele’s Brabham and Jo Bonnier with his McLaren V12. Absent are Lucien Bianchi, because Autodelta wouldn’t give the 3-litre Alfa Romeo V8 race engine to Cooper, even if it has reached 380 bhp, Lanfranchi, who seemed to have entered with a non-existent B.R.M., and an unknown Tom Jones, who has bought the short and flat 1967 Cooper-Maserati. When the drivers start to leave the paddock and the free practice session begins, with about ten minutes delay, in no time Jackie Stewart and Dan Gurney get very close to the track record, set by Bruce McLaren at the Race of Champions in March 1967 with a lap time of 1'31"6, followed by Surtees, Attwood and Amon. Soon after, Graham Hill sets the lap time record of 1'29"8. He then further improves his lap time, setting a fantastic 1'29"5, with the front wing furiously shaking on the rubber supports while he drives his Lotus with incredible determination. Chris Amon, who is wearing many protective clothes, making him look very uncomfortable and hot, chases after the fastest time, reaching the limit of 1'29"8. In the meantime, however, Jackie Oliver takes advantage of all his knowledge about the Brands Hatch track and listens to Colin Chapman’s advice: relax and do not try so hard. So, with an old Lotus 49, Oliver sets a 1'29"9 lap time. Jo Siffert becomes familiar with his brand-new Lotus 49B cautiously, whereas Robin Widdows is trying to adapt as best as he can, given that this is his first time on a single seater, when he hears a nasty noise caused by a big-end bolt breaking, which creates a hole in the floorpan.
While Scuderia Ferrari carry out testing with exhaust manifolds of different lengths, Chris Amon breaks the tank. Accidentally, the driver from New Zealand spills from his car a yellowish liquid on the tarmac, which however causes no trouble to the other rival competitors, since all the drivers whose cars have aluminium wings, spoilers, deflectors, rectifiers or just aluminium parts are busy straightening, bending, twisting and adjusting them, in the same way they adjusted anti-roll bars or shock absorber settings. Denny Hulme decides to take off his wing, but after one or two laps he stops and puts it back on, convinced it will benefit him. At 1:30 p.m. the weather is glorious, and the previous lap time record is not important as a reference anymore, since nine drivers are way below it, confirming therefore that the standards of the Race of Champions from March were quite low. At 4:30 p.m. the second free practice session takes place. At around this time, while Attwood’s mechanic drives the B.R.M. from the paddock through the crowds around the gate, all the fans at the track step back, but the gate dividing them doesn’t open and the rear tyre suspensions tear on contact with it. Therefore, Richard Attwood won’t be able to get on track to take part in this second practice session. During the afternoon Chris Amon decides to try the spare car, Pedro Rodriguez drives both the spare B.R.M. and his own, Dan Gurney moves his wing forward, over the engine, whereas Hulme’s and McLaren’s practice times show an impressive equality of driving, despite Hulme seeming to be anything but in shape, with a swollen and unhealthy-looking face. The Cooper Team, having no spare car, cannot take part in the second free practice sessions.
Friday morning, 10:30 a.m.: time to start. Attwood’s car has been repaired, like Rodriguez’s one, which suffered the breakage of the left front suspension towards the end of the free practice on Thursday afternoon. Widdows has a new engine in his Cooper, the McLaren Team feature in their boxes their M7A-1 repaired original car, and, to replace the previous car, Jack Brabham decides to use the 1967 car. All contenders get ready to take on the second practice day, and they are impatient to conquer the pole position and to receive a hundred bottles of champagne as prize. Graham Hill’s time, 1'29"5, is still unbeaten, but Chris Amon seems to be able to challenge the British driver. This until the Repco V8 twin-cam engine starts to function properly, allowing Jochen Rindt to set a 1'30"0. Bruce McLaren improves too, setting a 1'30"4 with is spare car, meaning that all three McLarens have set the same lap time. Graham Hill doesn’t sit back while Amon nearly matches his time, and he sets a fast lap with the Lotus 49B of 1'28"9, making Colin Chapman happy and the Firestone technicians taking great satisfaction in the new Y-front wet and dry tyre type. Chris Amon matches Graham Hill’s previous time, but then Jackie Oliver sets a wonderful 1'29"4, allowing the Lotus team to get first and second place on the grid. While the free practice draws to a close, at 12:30 p.m. Graham Hill is dressed up and ready to get back on track in case Chris Amon were to beat his time.
Unfortunately, the official announcement of Graham Hill’s fastest lap is given to the public only after ten or fifteen minutes after the exact moment in which it was set, allowing only a few spectators there to fully appreciate his effort. In the last minutes, Chris Amon makes another attempt, in vain. This is how the second free practice day ends and Graham Hill celebrates both pole and winning the hundred bottles of champagne. Jacky Ickx hasn’t really been able to practise during these two days, and Jackie Stewart has tried the V12 Matra, which however hasn’t allowed him to score a time worth more than the seventh position on the grid. Denny Hulme has broken a drive shaft inner universal joint, Jean Pierre Beltoise has run out of ELF fuel in his V12 Matra, which now features a small wing astride the engine but fixed on the chassis. The B.R.M. team has ended its practice session early and Moser and Bonnier haven’t qualified. While all eyes are on Graham Hill, Jackie Oliver and Chris Amon, Jo Siffert closes an excellent lap, setting a surprising 1'29"7. Differently from what happened in Rouen, there’s plenty of time to carry out practice, and at the end of Friday afternoon there’s an hour to make the last adjustments, during which the McLaren Team test some Goodyear wet tyres on dry track, while Jo Bonnier tries his V12 McLaren-B.R.M. and Scuderia Ferrari test the two single seaters to use in the race. John Surtees gets back on track as well, but only for a short time.
On Saturday 20th July 1968, at 2:40 p.m., some raindrops begin to fall on the Brands Hatch track, while the starting area is full of mechanics and cars ready to start. In a second, the mechanics run to get wet tyres. Once the warm-up lap is over, the drivers line up on the grid, with Bonnier and Moser at the back of it. As 3:00 p.m. nears, the cars are moving up to the starting grid, except Elford’s car, since its engine doesn’t start, and the British driver’s car must therefore be pushed on the grass. When the national flag is shown, the drivers on the front row go off to a steady start, whereas the Eagle engine of Dan Gurney’s car suffers a power loss, obliging the American driver to move rightward to avoid contact with the cars behind. Siffert follows the two official cars of the Lotus Team and so three Colin Chapman’s cars occupy the first three positions, with Amon, Stewart and Surtees chasing them. Oliver is in front of Hill and Siffert, but during the first lap smoke comes out from the rear end of his car. Meanwhile, the V8 Repco engine in Jack Brabham’s car breaks, forcing him to retire. Vic Elford manages to start at last but follows the group from the last positions together with Dan Gurney, who is affected by a fuel pump problem. The drivers spilt in two categories from the beginning: some mount dry tyres, others wet tyres. At this moment, drivers who have opted for dry tyres have an advantage, since there aren’t so many puddles along the track. Moreover, even if the sky is cloudy, it’s not raining anymore. Jackie Oliver maintains the lead in the first two laps, taken then by Graham Hill.
Despite the smoke coming out of Oliver’s car, the three Lotus continue to lead the Grand Prix, while Amon, Stewart and Surtees are closely behind them. In the second stint of the race, both Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme cannot catch up: the former due to the wet tyres, the latter due to a poor physical shape. Jochen Rindt needs all his quick reflexes to control his Brabham with wet Goodyear tyres and Rodriguez is in a similar situation with his B.R.M. Gurney’s Eagle slowly but surely gives out, to the point that the driver is forced to retire during the eighth lap of the race due to a fuel pump problem, whereas Jo Bonnier DNFs during the sixth lap after his McLaren’s B.R.M. engine breaks. Ten laps into the race, Lotus keeps on impressing: Graham Hill, Jackie Oliver and Jo Siffert lead the race undisturbed, followed closely by Chris Amon, who’s putting on a tenacious drive, differently from Jackie Stewart, who slowly loses contact with the leading drivers following a breakage of his left exhaust pipe, which then falls off and ends up on the side of the track. Stewart losing speed results in John Surtees losing contact with the leading group too. On lap eleven the V12 Matra engine suddenly starts seizing, so Jean-Pierre Beltoise must stop quickly. At the same time, Richard Attwood retires as well because of cooling issues caused by his broken radiator.
John Surtees manages to overtake Jackie Stewart, however he’s not able to catch up to the four leading drivers, who are now too far ahead. Chris Amon is barely keeping up and can’t therefore challenge any of the three Lotus drivers. Piers Courage boxes during the fourteenth lap because his B.R.M. engine has overheated, while Pedro Rodriguez boxes too to change the wet tyres with dry tyres. Denny Hulme therefore leads the second group, even if his poor physical condition has written his advantage on Bruce McLaren off, secured by using the dry tyres, in favour of Jackie Ickx. Jochen Rindt is quite far behind the Belgian Ferrari driver, and he is in turn followed by the two Coopers of Elford and Widdows. The pace of the Team Lotus cars is impressive, although not incredibly fast. Nevertheless, Jackie Oliver sets a new lap record thanks to a 1'30"9 lap time. In the meantime, Jo Siffert is enjoying himself following the two official cars with is new Lotus. The race gets monotonous up until, during the twenty-sixth lap, Graham Hill takes the service road behind the pits and retires after his right-hand drive shaft and his suspension break, handing Jackie Oliver the lead of the race. Oliver’s only worry is the smoke briefly created from the oil spill. For his luck, the spill seems to have stopped by itself. With the track clear in front of him, Jackie Oliver lowers the lap time record to a 1'30"8, followed by a 1'30"3, slightly pulling away from Siffert.
During the twenty-sixth lap, the number of cars on track decreases, since Vic Elford stops at the back of the track when the V12 B.R.M. engine of his Cooper makes a loud bang, marking the third B.R.M. engine failure in two weeks. At the same time, the B.R.M. engine on Widdows’ car stops working due to fuel ignition problems and the British driver goes off track. After that, Jackie Stewart, who still has an injured wrist, starts slowing down visibly, allowing Jacky Ickx and Denny Hulme to catch up with the Matra V8. With a Lotus driver out, Chris Amon starts putting under pressure Jo Siffert, following him closely on track. Behind them John Surtees is alone in fourth place: he loses more ground when a wing comes off his car. Shortly afterwards Jackie Ickx and Denny Hulme catch Jackie Stewart, but the Ferrari driver has a moment at the Hawthorn turn and exits it behind the Matra and the McLaren. Chris Amon makes a great effort and manages to overtake Jo Siffert during the thirty-seventh lap. Afterwards, on a clear track, the driver from New Zealand scores a new lap time record of 1’30”0, and during the fortieth lap he makes it a 1'29"0. Jo Siffert is able to maintain contact with Chris Amon and initially scores the same time, which he then improves, making it a 1'29"7 in the forty-second lap. This is a time that Chris Amon cannot match.
This little battle makes the two drivers stay close to each other, while for the whole time Jackie Oliver leads the race undisturbed. At forty laps the drivers are halfway through the race, with Jackie Oliver (Lotus) as leader, behind him Chris Amon (Ferrari), Jo Siffert (Lotus), Jacky Ickx (Ferrari), John Surtees (Honda), Denny Hulme (McLaren), Jochen Rindt (Brabham), Pedro Rodriguez (B.R.M.), Silvio Moser (Brabham) and Piers Courage (B.R.M.). In the second half of the race Jacky Ickx makes up for his small initial mistake, while John Surtees and Jochen Rindt struggle to keep up, the former because of broken wings on his car. When Jackie Oliver goes through the South Bank turn and then underneath the bridge during lap forty-three, a cloud of smoke comes out of his car and its ZF transmission fails. While this happens, Jo Siffert manages to get ahead of Chris Amon and, unexpectedly, becomes race leader. To secure his position, he leaves no open gap through any turn, and so for Chris Amon, who is shadowing him, there’s nothing to do but stay behind the Swiss driver. Both cars end the race without any problem, with Jo Siffert in front of Chris Amon at the finish line, just after lapping Jackie Stewart in the seventy-sixth lap; Jacky Ickx ends in third place.
Denny Hulme is fourth, behind him John Surtees and Jackie Stewart; Bruce McLaren is seventh, followed by Piers Courage. Jochen Rindt is forced to stop on lap fifty-four because the left side of his gearbox goes up into flames as the result of a fuel pipe rupture. During the following lap the left side is still burning, so Rindt stops, allowing the firefighters to step in before the flames cause any more damage. During his eighth season in F1, Jo Siffert, at the wheel of a private team’s Lotus, obtains his first Grand Prix win, succeeding at the Brands Hatch racetrack, in Great Britain. After two hours racing, Siffert wins with the lap time record of 1'20"3 at an average speed of 168.670 km/h (104.806 mph). While the British Grand Prix takes place, at the German racetrack of Hockenheim, two spectators are severely injured in an accident during the practice session for an international motor race for sports cars. The English driver Brian Muir loses control of his Ferrari and goes off track. Two wheels come off the car and hit two people watching the practice, injuring them severely. Muir, on the other hand, is unscathed. German drivers Kauhsen, Kelleneers and Kremer, driving a Porsche 911, win the 24 Hours of Spa: they do 284 laps, covering 4004.877 km (2488.515 mi) at an average speed of 166.867 km/h (103.686 mph). Kobb, driver from Luxemburg, and Labaume, driver from France, get injured when going off track: Kobb ends up with some fractured ribs, Labaume with a fractured collarbone.
Translated by Chiara Cavina