1973 Daytona Race Profile – Daytona Returns to 24 Hours
By Louis Galanos | Photos as credited
In the eyes of many who had attended the 24-Hours of Daytona since its inception in 1966 people and events in the early 1970’s were conspiring to make life difficult for this twice-around-the-clock enduro that is now so much a part of the history of endurance racing.
For one thing the ruling body for endurance racing, The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), had changed the racing rules again about engine sizes and this made producing prototype cars in the early 70’s more and more problematic for constructors. At the end of 1971 FIA rules changes outlawed the extremely popular and now iconic 5-liter cars like the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 and mandated only 3-liter engines for the 1972 championship season.
In 1972 the Group 6 Prototype and Group 5 Sports Car classes were both replaced by a new Group 5 Sports Car class. These cars were limited to 3-liter engines by the FIA (a move that some cynics believed was made to benefit the French Matra team), and manufacturers, like Porsche, gradually lost interest. Porsche decided not to participate in the newly renamed World Championship for Makes in 1972. Amid concerns that the 3-liter engines, normally used in shorter Formula One events, wouldn’t last for 24 hours the FIA and Ferrari applied pressure on Daytona’s Bill France to shorten his annual event to 6 hours, which he did. However, Sebring still ran its 12-hour race that year and Le Mans still did their 24-hour classic. End result was that the prestige of Daytona as a world-class endurance racing event suffered badly due to the changes and demands of the FIA.
For 1973 Bill France got permission to return to a 24-hour format but Ferrari decided not to show that year in what some automotive writers said was a manufactured dispute with France over appearance monies. Ferrari was asking for a 1200 percent increase in appearance money from the normal $2,500 to $30,000 and the notoriously tight-fisted France balked at their demands. As a result Ferrari decided to stay home and not compete in the opening round of the Championship of Makes for 1973. Also staying home was Alfa-Romeo but this had nothing to do with appearance monies. It seems that their new 3-liter cars were not quite ready for the February race.
The result of all this turmoil and rules changes within the championship series was a lackluster field of cars on the grid at Daytona on Saturday, February 3, 1973. There were only six pure 3-liter prototypes in the 53 cars to start the race. In that small group of prototypes were two John Wyer Ford Cosworth DFV V8-powered Gulf Mirage M-6 prototypes.
Englishman John Wyer was well-known to Daytona 24 race fans because of his association with the Gulf Porsche 917’s that won the overall trophy at Daytona in 1970 and 1971. To many who attended those races it was a golden era that sadly came to an end at the close of the 1971 championship season.
Wyer and engineer/team manager John Horsman had hoped to race a V-12 Weslake powered Gulf Mirage at Daytona but they experienced gearbox failure on two Hewland DG300 units in a four-day practice session at Daytona in January. Also, the V-12 had a nasty habit of not restarting every time it came in for fuel during the practice session. The only way they could get it going was with a push start. As a result of these problems Wyer and Horsman were forced to abandon racing the V-12 at Daytona in February and instead had to rely on cars powered by the Ford Cosworth DFV V-8. Those engines had been developed six years earlier and were considered an “antique” by auto racing standards. However, it was a proven engine with over 50 Grand Prix wins to its credit. Along with those Cosworth powered Mirages the team brought along one Weslake V-12 racer to see if recent gearbox modifications had corrected the problems experienced in earlier testing. The V-12 was on the Daytona entry list strictly as a training car.
Unfortunately after only a few laps on the Daytona track early Thursday morning of race week the V-12 came into the pits with a gearbox so hot it was about to seize. Gulf team manager John Horsman threw in the towel on the V-12 and turned his attention to the two V-8’s that would start the race. Before those cars could be gridded for the race they had to correct the problem of sagging front body panels.
On the 31-degree high banks at Daytona the downward forces on the cars were greater than they expected and caused the lightweight Mirage body panels to sag, necessitating reinforcement with a steel tube across the front of the car. As Horsman would find out later the sagging was caused by a supplier’s failure to properly cure the fiberglass epoxy when the panels were constructed. Recognizing that the Mirages were far from sorted out the PR man for Gulf, Eoin Young, said to the automotive press, “We’ll run as slow as we possibly can and still try to win.”