Three-litre sports-prototypes from Ferrari and Matra will appear on track at 75MM. More than 40 years ago they jostled for Manufacturers’ World Championship glory. Here, we reminisce over Italian red versus French blue.
MAR 01st 2017
Ferrari v Matra, 1973 – one of the great sportscar rivalries
Scuderia Ferrari swept the Group 5 Prototype board in 1972 – bar the big one: Le Mans. Matra won that: the first victory for a French car at La Sarthe since 1950. And never the twain had met. But the 1973 World Championship for Makes would be different: French blue and the red of Italy would be going head to head.
Australia’s Tim Schenken, winner at Buenos Aires and the Nürburgring as co-driver to Ronnie Peterson in 1972, was looking forward to a second season with Ferrari: “Morale was strong. We’d won everything and it was all Parma ham and Lambrusco. But we knew that 1973 would be more difficult. Ferrari’s biggest problem was Matra.”
Jean-Luc Lagadère, the latter’s whip-smart boss, had shelved its F1 programme. For although its V12 had no answer to the punch and package of Cosworth’s V8 in single-seaters, it was competitive in a capacious, all-enveloping sportscar, its smooth power delivery being gentle on car and driver, vital considerations over distances and durations of at least 1,000km and six hours.
Schenken: “Ferrari didn’t have the technology to produce a monocoque; we had a tubular spaceframe stiffened by riveted aluminium panels. The 312 PB was twitchy in the fast stuff. We made it better in 1973 – but it was still nervous under braking; I reckon that was its chassis flexing. Matra, with all its aerospace experience, had a proper monocoque. They were more sophisticated.”
The first clash occurred at Vallelunga in March and Ferrari got a rude shock on home soil when François Cevert put his MS670B on pole – by almost 1.5 seconds – and he and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, his co-driver and brother-in-law, disappeared into the distance. They were three laps ahead when an oil leak sidelined them.
Lancashire’s Brian Redman was sharing a Ferrari with Jacky Ickx: “Matra were a little better in terms of aerodynamics. They probably had more efficient suspension, too: more stable under braking, better traction under acceleration. Their better poise at the tighter tracks was clear.”
Cevert replaced Gérard Larrousse in the sister Matra and double-stinted to victory.
Larrousse: “It was my first year at such a high level, competing directly against F1 drivers. I’d never had to drive so hard, and I had problems with my neck.”
Schenken, co-driven by Carlos Reutemann, finished second: “To be honest, we were happy with that. I don’t remember the team being despondent.”
That changed after Dijon in April: the Matras led throughout despite a mighty effort by Ickx.
Redman: “We’d improved our car but were having to push it harder. You discover basic failings when you’re looking for that extra tenth.”
Cevert/Beltoise continued to set the pace – but the unfashionable combo of Henri Pescarolo and Larrousse continued to win.
Larrousse: “I’m not so sure our aero package was better than Ferrari’s. And perhaps our engine was not so powerful. Our handling, though, was much better: no understeer.”
Monza, also in April, was a must-win for Ferrari. It sent three cars with low-drag bodies, F1 exhausts for its 3-litre flat-12, and 30lb of lead in their noses. Still Cevert was untouchable in qualifying. In the race, however, Matra broke two front hubs and Ickx/Redman led a vital Ferrari 1-2.
Both teams, however, hit trouble in May: a DFV-powered Gulf-Mirage won at Spa and Porsche again embarrassed Ferrari at the Targa Florio. Matra stumbled at the Nürburgring, too, a spate of engine failures being blamed on a recent splitting of resources: race team at Paul Ricard, spare parts from Vélizy, a distance of 500 miles.
But Ferrari was far from unified, too. Told to hold station, Arturo Merzario passed team-mate Ickx, dropped behind him and gave him a couple of taps.
Redman: “It got pretty heated at the Nürburgring. Merzario clenched the wheel and didn’t look up. They had to prise him out of the car, physically. Jacky asked me to take the first stint at Le Mans [in June] because of that: he didn’t want the battle with Merzario.”
Schenken: “We chose a middling pace at Le Mans and Merzario lapped me before the first fuel stop. He locked up, bounced over the kerbs, kicked up some dust – I laughed out loud.”
The 24 Hours was breathless: all three Ferraris led, as did three of the four Matras – before Pescarolo/Larrousse won once more.
Larrousse: “[Team manager] Gérard Ducarouge complained that we were using up our brake pads too quickly. We discovered the problem afterwards: the throttle pedal at maximum rpm was catching the brake. That’s why we were slower. And maybe that’s what saved our tyres.” A blowout had put Beltoise into the barrier and out of the lead.
The hectic schedule continued at the Österreichring at the end of June. Cevert again set the qualifying pace, but a fuel pump problem caused him a pitstop earlier than planned.
Larrousse: “He also had to make an extra stop because he’d forgotten his earplugs! They were much faster than us, but we were more reliable. But we all brought something to the team; Jean-Pierre, for instance, did a lot of the development work.”
Schenken: “Pescarolo/Larrousse were underrated. They got the balance between speed and reliability right.” At Watkins Glen in July, Cevert suffered a half-spin in the damp early laps and became stranded later when a screw fell out of the ignition’s transistor box. He returned on foot. Whereupon Ducarouge angrily reminded him that a spare was carried in the car.
Larrousse: “That was my best drive. I took the lead from Merzario in wet/dry conditions. I’d worked hard all season on my driving and I was much improved.”
There was to be a long wait for the final round – Buenos Aires in October – and we are still waiting: the impending Oil Crisis caused its cancellation. Ferrari pushed for the race to go ahead without it. That way it could have dropped another zero – only the best seven results counted – and kept points for third place at the Österreichring. This would have forced Matra to finish at least second to take the title.
The governing body stood firm, however, and declared Matra champion.
Although there was no official announcement, Ferrari had finished with the category that made its name around the world. Schenken: “F1 was taking increasing effort and budget. It would’ve been crazy to do both types of racing. I reckon that [new signing] Niki Lauda had a hand in canning the sportscars. And I don’t blame him.”
1973 Manufacturers’ World Championship
1. Daytona 24 Hours (USA), Feb 1-2-Peter Gregg (USA)/Hurley Haywood (USA)-Porsche 911 Carrera RSR #59
2. Vallelunga (I), Mar 25-François Cevert (F)/Gérard Larrousse (F)/Henri Pescarolo (F)-Matra-Simca MS670B #5
3. Dijon (F), Apr 15-Gérard Larrousse (F)/Henri Pescarolo (F)-Matra-Simca MS670B #2
4. Monza (I), Apr 25-Jacky Ickx (B)/Brian Redman (GB)-Ferrari 312 PB #1
5. Spa-Francorchamps (B), May 6-Derek Bell (GB)/Mike Hailwood (GB)-Mirage M6-Ford #5
6. Targa Florio (I), May 13-Herbert Müller (D)/Gijs van Lennep (B)-Porsche 911 Carrera RSR #8
7. Nurburgring (D), May 27-Jacky Ickx (B)/Brian Redman (GB)-Ferrari 312 PB #1
8. Le Mans 24 Hours (F), Jun 9-10-Gérard Larrousse (F)/Henri Pescarolo (F)-Matra-Simca MS670B #11
9. Osterreichring (A), Jun 24-Gérard Larrousse (F)/Henri Pescarolo (F)-Matra-Simca MS670B #11
10. Watkins Glen (USA), Jul 21-Gérard Larrousse (F)/Henri Pescarolo (F)-Matra-Simca MS670B #33
Images courtesy of LAT
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