Photo Gallery: The First Silverstone 6 Hours 1976
This year’s Autosport Silverstone 6 Hours marks the 35th anniversary of Britain’s premier endurance racing event; an occasion which is set to celebrate the best of the past, present and future of international sports car racing. While the battle is set to rage between the contenders for this year’s Le Mans Series and Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, we cast an affectionate look back at the inaugural race with its winning driver, John Fitzpatrick.
In May 1976 the people of Britain would awake to listen to Noel Edmonds presenting the breakfast show on BBC Radio 1 – with The Brotherhood of Man bestriding the charts. James Hunt was losing badly to Niki Lauda early in the Formula One title race but Rocky was breaking box-office records at the cinema while Barry Sheene was already looking unstoppable in the motorcycling world championship.
Those very different days saw Silverstone as a flat-out blast with just eight corners and astonishingly high average speeds. Only the tight parabolic turn at Becketts and the Woodcote chicane interrupted the high-speed layout, making this very much a power circuit that played straight into the hands of the ‘big two’ of the series – Porsche and BMW.
At the start of the season Porsche revealed its blisteringly fast 935, bringing turbo engines to prominence a year before they reached Formula One. These cars were wild but, in the right hands, unstoppable – arriving in Britain after dominating the first two rounds of the championship, the Daytona 24 Hours and Mugello 6 Hours.
Porsche’s works entry for Silverstone was driven by Formula One stars Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass, with a raft of new privately-owned 935s arriving in Britain for the inaugural 6 Hours. BMW had responded by producing the mighty turbocharged 3.2 CSL coupé and this car debuted at Silverstone with ‘Superswedes’ Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson at the wheel.
Against these mighty German works cars stood a new British team established by the bullish young charger Tom Walkinshaw, who shared driving duties with former British touring car and European GT champion, John Fitzpatrick. Armed with the BMW 3.5 CSL, the prospect of appearing on home ground was something special from the outset.
“When it appeared on the calendar Tom and I were particularly pleased about it,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “I seem to remember that in the UK everybody thought it was a wonderful idea and we had terrific crowds there for the whole weekend. It was a really big event and it stayed big on the calendar – of course it still is a big event today.”
Qualifying saw the turbo cars rampant, with Ickx/Mass taking pole position for Porsche alongside the Peterson/Nilsson BMW. Nevertheless the might of the new turbo engines took a heavy toll on the transmissions of the faster cars, turning the race into a ‘hare and tortoise’ race in which Walkinshaw and Fitzpatrick pitted their local knowledge and the BMW’s reliability against the bursts of raw speed that their rivals could manage.
“Tom had actually got another race at Thruxton on the same day,” Fitzpatrick remembers. “So he started the 6 Hours and then left me to do the last two thirds of it! It was a small band of brothers because the team was made up largely of ex-Broadspeed mechanics who I knew very well and we had raced together for years and years.”
Fitzpatrick and his band of brothers were pushed to the limit in the closing stages of the race, when the Porsche 935 of Bob Wollek and Hans Heyer recovered from its earlier delays and began to reel in the British entry. Crossing the line for the 218th time, Fitzpatrick took the chequered flag just 1.18 seconds ahead of the mighty Porsche, setting a tradition of tension and excitement for which the Silverstone 6 Hours is renowned to this day.
“If I had to pick one favourite racing car from my career it would be that BMW,” says Fitzpatrick. “It won the first race at Silverstone, it was a very British team effort with Tom and myself and the Broadspeed boys. It was a pleasure to drive that car and to win such an exciting race.”
Both John Fitzpatrick and the BMW 3.5 CSL will be present at the 2011 Autosport Silverstone 6 Hours on September 9-11 as part of the 35th anniversary celebrations of the event, at which a ‘Hall of Fame’ will be inaugurated for the event.
Although a British ‘band of brothers’ is unlikely to steal the thunder, the championship battle for this year’s Le Mans Series and Intercontinental Le Mans Cup titles will see 2004, 2005 and 2007 winner Allan McNish head Audi’s challenge, against last year’s victor Anthony Davidson, driving for the works Peugeot team.
Buy tickets to the 2011 Autosport Silverstone 6 Hours on September here
Images: LAT Photographic (many thanks to Tim and the guys)