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When Less Was More in Touring Car Racing: Spa 1974

As a weapons race developed between Ford and BMW in the Seventies, costs spiralled. But the this Belgian invention showed that less could actually be more.

Of course I love the legendary duels between the working man’s hero Capri and the big Bavarian luxury coupés as much as the next man – well, probably more, really. But the downside of spiralling costs is either dwindling entries or growing inequality and ultimately both will be bad for the actual racing.

The early Seventies saw many a magnificent duel between these to arch rivals, and both factories famously threw a lot of money into making their not-that-sporty-coupés into race cars.

Some time ago I used this fabulous photograph below on our Facebook page – as far as I remember with a subtitle along the lines of “Try to pick a favourite”. Obviously because I knew very well that it would be difficult: Just look at the below grid!

Almost no matter which automotive marque you adore, from Alfa to Citroën, it features on this fantastic start grid, which also mixes some big guns with under 1300cc cars. Some of the more inquisitive readers (rarely seen on Facebook, but occasionally they do show up) began to wonder what sort of race it might be as the grid was indeed so varied – and also because of the extra lights the cars featured.

The answer is that it is a so-called “Formula Francorchamps” 24-hour race from 1974, of course run on the legendary Belgian track Spa Francorchamps. The formula means that the regulations of the race did not follow those ordinarily in place during that period, which allowed both Ford and BMW some rather large technical liberties. This was quite deliberate to keep costs down: In the early seventies, BMW and Ford fought a regular arms race in standard car racing, and the cars were rapidly developed to an extent where they really had very little in common with the road car upon which they were based – who doesn’t remember Capris’s 24-valve V6 engine, which had more in common with a Cosworth F1 machine than with the original cast iron lump of an Essex engine? Or the CSL with thinner glass and an aero package that was illegal for road use in some markets? A fascinating period in touring car racing, for sure. But expensive – and you could quite easily question the bit about the cars being derived from “standard”.

The cars here in the picture are much closer to their standard tune, and the formula worked: As it was cheaper to build a car to the Formule Francorchamps, many more did. Ahaaa, how simple and brilliant it is!

Of course the cars were slower too, but a great deal of motorsport is about the battle between the participants, not about the raw speed in itself. The majority, in fact, if you ask me – and if you watched much racing at the Goodwood Revival you’ll probably agree that the Austin A40’s, Minis and Alfa Giulias battled as brilliantly as did the Cobras, Ferraris, Lola and Lotuses.

For the Formule Francorchamps of 1974, Belgian tuner Luigi built two BMW 3.0’s, that with 255 horsepower had almost 100 horses less than BMW’s factory racers in the contemporary European Championship Series. The Ford Capri in the Belgian series managed about 200 horsepower, slightly more than Opel’s Commodore. Pole position went to a real powerhouse, though – a 400 horsepower strong Ford Mustang. It did not finish though and one of Luigi’s BMW coupés won after the grueling 24 hours – ahead of two Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV from Autodelta, an Opel Commodore and a Triumph Dolomite Sprint. Further down the field you’d have found Datsun 120Y’s, Fiat 128, Renault 17, Audi 80 and Toyota Celica, to name but a few.

Now that’s variety and I would love to have seen it – but of course, that time will never come again: Today, almost all standard road cars are much too overweight to even be considered for motorsport purposes. That has in turn led to current day’s “standard touring cars” being so tightly regulated that they in reality have little to do with standard cars, and under the skin they are in fact more akin to a silhouette formula car.

However, instead of allowing myself to sink into deep depression, I came to think that it might be time to head to Spa once again – namely the following weekend for the Spa Six Hours. I’ve visited many times, and Belgium’s premier historic motor race comes pretty close to delivering the authentic experience of that time in the Sixties and the Seventies when amateurs ruled (or at least still stood a chance) the racing. It is in pure numbers at least as big a race event as the Goodwood Revival, although pretty different in character. It’s main race is even a true endurance race of Six Hours and features more than 100 cars on the grid.

The track itself is brilliant, the Belgians have good coffee trackside, and if you arrive in a classic you’ll even have the best parking. Really the only downside I can think of is that it is all slightly addictive: Go at your peril.


6 Responses

  1. Andrew

    @Claus: Historic racing has very much the same issues today.

    A full season with a GT40 costs at least 250 000€ a year as it will involve 35t trucks, several mechanics, spare engines, gearboxes, suspension, tyres…not to mention details like fuel (probably 70+ litres an hour).

    Obviously this is affordable if you happen to be hedge fund manager or can submit the costs as corporate expenses!

  2. Dave Leadbetter

    Motor racing is expensive, and was ever thus. Belgian club racing of the mid 1970s isn’t my specialist subject so I’m assuming Formula Francorchamps was run to Grp2 regulations, but if it deviated from what was usual at the time, that in itself would have been an expense if your car had to be adapted to meet the new regs.

    Of course, it is possible to go racing on the cheap(ish) but it all depends how competitive you want to be. Our commenter Andrew gives the example of the running costs of a GT40, which I’d say could be a highly conservative estimation for any sort of season. Alternatively, you could have a low profile season of historic saloon car racing in some generic old plodder for about £10k assuming nothing serious goes wrong. Both competitors would be out there having fun, but in their own very separate circles and in different series. Money is a key factor in achieving success in motorsport, but it doesn’t have to regulate how much fun you can have.

  3. Claus Ebberfeld

    I acknowledge the old spoof saying that “Motorsport is dangerous to your wealth”, @andrew and @dave :-). There is some truth in that other saying that it can in fact become just as expensive as you want it to: Trying to squeeze those 12 extra horses out of your already highly strung GT40 will never be cheap – nor will the extra extra engines needed over time.

    However I do know that there are still one-man-shows (or one man and women, one son and/or two friends – certainly none paid team members!) running quite serious machines like E-types, 911’s, Griffiths, Crosslés and for that matter GT40’s in historic racing. Of course they’re not necessarily winning, but then they probably wouldn’t win much more with another 100.000 spent either. Fun? Heck yes!

    I recall my first two seasons in historic racing here in Denmark, which I think I managed to keep below 100.000 DKK (around 11.750 GBP). And that was including buying the car! But then, as Dave said, something went wrong…still have the car, though. In fact, might have a go again to prove the point…

    Regarding the Formule Francorchamp above it was run to local regulations, which was milder than Group 2, Dave (although I am no specialist on this series either). So surely it would cost to adapt a fully developed Group 2 car, but I don’t think anybody did as they were still racing in the ETCC anyway. Great, as ditching your 4-valve CSL-heads would be rather sad.

    Instead it brought the above brilliant variety of cars to the track. Probably because the Spa 24 hours was such a huge event in itself, as I know here from Denmark how difficult it is to introduce a new series or even just to change an old one a bit.

  4. Francisco Cunha

    Great text. Really love how you can synthesize so much in so few (a rare quality these days). Do you think we can ever have the Spa 24 Hours for touring cars back again? Or is it just an utopy?

  5. Andrew Boggis

    @Claus, this article and comments leave me with a few questions:

    – I completely approve of low cost historic motorsport…what were you racing ?

    – Francisco’s point about touring cars is important as costs go off the scale with modern GT cars. Simply put, millionnaires and factories can take part…but the amateur is unable to find the funds.

  6. Claus Ebberfeld

    @fransciso, good question: No, I don’t think it could be repeated today. And there’s an intersting paradox in that: Manufacturers and journalists aside seem obsessed with lap times from Top Gear to the Nürburgring regarding their road cars – but when it comes to actually racing the things they choose something completely different. The TCR-cars are in effect what I call a silhoutte class.

    On the other hand there IS a solution: Historic racing! Yes, it’s really as simple as that. In fact I think historic motorracing is the answer to most questions…

    @andrew, I raced a 1963 Triumph Spitfire to the historic FIA-class-regulations. That was 10-15 year ago, though, and there’s even been a small weapons race here as well. I made do with 85 horsepower back then, but today would probably need another 40! As these don’t come cheap (not at all, in fact!) it would not be possible to be competitive on my budget back then today. But that doesn’t mean you could not take part: Competitivenes aside my Spitifire is a eligible today as it was back then.

    In fact I think racing the Spitfire learned me the lesson that it is not the speed in itself that is exciting – it is the racing. Below a photo of two very different cars that I had great duels with, an A40 and a Big Healey. And yes, I deliberately chose a situation where I was in front!


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