The fastest lap of all: paying tribute to a little-known motorsport record.
What's the fastest lap of a road course in motor racing? By road course I don't mean an oval, but a circuit with both left- and right-hand bends. I suspect many people will say the answer is Juan Pablo Montoya's lap of Monza during qualifying for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix. With nearly 1000 horsepower from the BMW V10 in his Williams FW26, Montoya lapped Monza at an average speed of 162.9mph in the pre-qualifying session.
Until a few months ago, I thought this was the fastest-ever lap of a road circuit, but reading Paul Parker's excellent Sportscar Racing in Camera 1970-79, a small caption mentioned that Jacky Ickx had set a pole lap with an average speed of 163.679mph. Even more sensational than the time is that Ickx was not at Monza, but at one of the most daunting and dangerous circuits of all time, the original Spa Francorchamps. He wasn't driving an F1 car either, but a Ferrari 312PB sports prototype.
Equally as impressive as Ickx's pole lap for the Spa 1000km was the race lap record set by rival Henri Pescarolo in a Matra MS670B, barely any slower than Ickx's lap at 163.086mph.
The Ferrari and Matra were the state of the art in sportscar racing at the time. The Ferrari produced around 440bhp from a 3.0 flat 12, weighed the regulation 650kg and had very low drag. At Spa Ferrari chose to run the same low downforce configuration as used at Monza and Le Mans, with a longer tail presumably to aid high speed stability. Compared heir modern equivalents, the cars lacked any form of real crash protection, especially since the drivers legs were out in front of the front axle.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the 312PB would be no match for a modern F1 car like Montoya's Williams, which goes to show just how extreme the old Spa circuit was. At just over 8.7 miles long, the circuit only had one slow corner, the La Source hairpin, which is still part of the modern circuit today. Eau Rouge was there too, but the truly revered corner was the Masta Kink at the top of the circuit. A fearsome left hand bend at the end of the long 1.5 mile straight, Ickx, Pescarolo and their fellow competitors would be approaching it at 180mph.
The video below shows the circuit layout with an onboard camera before the start of a GT race in 1962. By 1973 Armco barriers would have been added but the circuit is basically the same.
As far back as 1939 when British Grand Prix driver Dick Seaman was killed in a Mercedes Grand Prix car, questions had been raised about Spa's safety, and by 1973 the days of the old Spa circuit were numbered. Formula 1 had stopped racing there after 1970, mainly due to the safety crusade led by Jackie Stewart. While the World Sportscar Championship races continued, they were boycotted by drivers who were members of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, since in those days F1 drivers often raced sports prototypes as well. Even in slower formulae, deaths were still common. Three drivers were killed in the 1973 Spa 24 Hours for Touring Cars, and a marshall was killed at the same race the year before.
In light of all this, it must have taken a unique combination of skill, courage and faith in your mechanical equipment to climb into these cars and lap the circuit at speed. Despite their record-breaking efforts, however, mechanical issues that prevented both drivers from winning the race. Ickx retired with gearbox failure and Pescarolo finished third after being delayed by a chunked tyre damaging the bodywork of the Matra. The race would be won by Derek Bell and Mike 'The Bike' Hailwood in a Gulf Mirage M6.
The race would return to the old circuit again in 1974 and 1975, but by then a chicane had been added to the circuit at Malmedy which reduced speeds and added around 10 seconds to the overall lap times. Ickx, driving a Matra, would win the race in 74 and Pescarolo (sharing with Derek Bell) would win in 1975 in an Alfa. After that, only bike and touring cars would race at the old Spa before it closed in 1978.
Today many people complain about the health and safety culture, often with some justification, but in this instance it was correct. Spa was always dangerous and even the cars of the early seventies were too fast for it. Imagine what sort of lap time a modern F1 car could achieve around the circuit, if there were a driver brave enough to take it on.
I hope that this article reminds people that F1 has not always been the fastest formula, and while both Ickx and Pescarolo achieved far greater results in motorsport, these lap records should get the recognition they deserve.
Notes and references
I have researched and cannot find a faster average lap speed on a road course anywhere else. If this is not the case, please let me know.
Some details obtained from the following books;
I tried to find some footage of the race on YouTube but there does not appear to be any available. In order to see Ickx in action in the 312PB, I have added a video to our library of him in the 1971 Nurburgring 1000km. He is driving a slightly earlier evolution of the what would be Ferrari's last works sports prototype.
Photo by the author.