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.
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.