On October 1st 1967 at Watkins Glen it was the other Ford powered Lotus of Graham Hill that sat on pole position on a beautiful, sunny day in central New York State. Jim Clark was starting from second place and even lost a position on the opening lap to American driver and race winner Dan Gurney. Back then Turn One was actually Turn Eight, and the layout was different as well. The crowd was blessed with names like John Surtees and Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, although 11 of the 18 drivers actually retired from the race. In the end Jim Clark won by six seconds from Hill, and he would go on to win in Mexico as well, but a number of retirements earlier in the season meant third was the most he could manage in the championship. Six months later and Clark would take part in his final race ever at Hockenheim in Germany.
As the sim-racers of the Grand Prix Legends top split lined up for 22 laps of the classic configuration I’m sure their heads filled with the rich history of this track and car combination. As someone who participated in this series earlier in the week I was especially floored by the alien-level qualifying time of 1:08.887 by Mick Claridge. The rest of the field were no slouches, however, with six participants qualifying in the 1:09s. As the engines revved and the lights went green the first game of “one of these things is not like the other” went to Jason Shadd as his Lotus 49 bogged down at the start and he immediately lost position to Simon Hulbert who was starting from P4.
The award for best opening lap would have to go to Matt Pawelski however as he managed a brilliant move around the outside of Jacob Fredriksson at Turn Six, and then as if that wasn’t enough went straight for the inside of Christian Seematter at Turn Seven and then completed the pass at Turn One and moved up two positions into P7.
Just ahead of Pawelski was the battle for P5 between Bill Fraser and Gary Teall. Fraser appeared to be the faster driver but Teall defended the position well. By Lap Eight the battle came to a head as Fraser hounded Teall through the corners, right up against his gearbox.
Up at the front and Claridge was slowly pulling a gap to Michel Dudognon and appeared to be untouchable. Hulbert did his best to get within the slipstream of Dudognon but just couldn’t manage to close the gap. Meanwhile the battle between Fraser and Teall continued to rage lap after lap, much to the delight of Pawelski who caught the duo on Lap 11 and actually managed to pass Fraser for P6 at Turn One of the very next lap.
The battle for fifth was definitely heating up as Pawelski joined the fray, but it got even hotter as Fredriksson had been catching the battle as well. At the end of Lap 12 at the final corner Fraser aimed to retake the position he’d lost the lap before. Pawelski struggled through the corner, taking too much curb, and allowing Fraser to pull alongside. However, Pawelski’s struggles through Turn Seven continued through the exit, and some wheel-spin resulted in a wobble which caused contact with the attacking Fraser and sent him spinning off into the barrier and out of the race with ten laps remaining.
Pawelski came away from the contact without any damage to his Lotus 49, but a different threat manifested in the form of Frediksson who had been sitting behind Pawelski since Lap Five. But with only a handful of laps remaining the Scandinavian was visibly pushing to relieve Pawelski of P6. The American Pawelski had also been catching Teall but struggled to find a way past and on Lap 18 had a small moment with the grass at the inside of Turn Four which allowed Fredriksson to grab P6 on the run down towards the carousel.
Pawelski fought back as best he could, and provided some thrilling wheel to wheel action, but in the end had to be satisfied with P7, less than two tenths behind Fredriksson. Claridge dominated at the tip of the spear, finishing more than six seconds ahead of Dudognon in P2 (the same margin that Clark had over Hill in 1967). Hulbert managed to hang onto the final podium position, but just barely as Shadd finished only half a second behind the Brit, and Teall’s race finished with a bit less excitement than he experienced earlier in the race with a comfortable P5.
In the championship the top four finishers of this 3683 SOF field became the top four contenders in the championship earning 225, 204, 184, and 163 points respectively at the very same race. The top five is rounded out by Mike Dam who finished P1 in a 2473 SOF race from earlier in the week earning 155 points. Week 2 is at the brand new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas and will be the first time the Lotus 49s have raced at the new track.