It was just before the last sunset. "In a few hours," said Colin Chapman, "all this will be scrap metal." He was standing in the pits at Mexico City, and what he referred to was about $600,000 worth of machinery assembled in front of him, the entirety of the equipment of the stratified sport of Formula I motor racing. Eighteen open-wheel single-seat motor cars. It was the last race for these machines; they are to be replaced next year by 3-liter cars. Some independents want to buy the chassis for future development, but the engines, the 1.5-liter V-8s and 12s, are, said Chapman, "fit now only for giving away with Corn Flakes." He envied only the small tiger decal on the side of Dan Gurney's car; always wanted one, but never let on.
Dan was a victor at this 3.2-mile circuit. He won last year and was determined to do so this year. Gurney is not normally talkative just prior to a race, but this being the moment before sunset, he said, "You know, I'd like to win again, but this being the last race, I'd sort of like to see Richie get the victory too. He deserves it; Honda has had such bad luck."
Honda didn't have any bad luck at Mexico. Richie Ginther, who is, and has been, one of the finest F1 drivers in the world, won his first Grand Prix. First for him, first for Honda, first for Goodyear, with whose tires Honda was equipped. It was a dandy race, with Gurney chasing Ginther but unable to catch him, and several good dices occurring along the way.
The first sign that things might prove interesting occurred immediately at the start of practice. Virtually everyone who was worth noticing ("It has to be Clark. Gurney's car isn't as fast. The Hondas are fast but won't last. Hill and Stewart are worth keeping an eye on. Bandini might do well in the lead Ferrari.") complained at once of serious understeer, much more than they had ever noticed before at Mexico. Hardly anyone knew why, or bothered to ask anyone else. But virtually everyone had a solution: boost front tire pressures 7 lb over the rears, when normally the cars are run with the rears just slightly higher.
The reason for this, it appeared, was the very tight hairpin turn at the far end of the track, which is followed by a long series of slightly banked esses. The 1.5 engines had to be slowed way down to make the hairpin, and couldn`t get up a great deal of speed in the esses. The combination of low speed, loss of horsepower at the 7500 ft altitude of Mexico City, and carefully designed high adhesion characteristics of the F-I tires led to the undesired understeer.
But some had it worse than others. The Dunlop-shod contenders, specifically Lotus and BRM, had the most trouble. Team Brabham and Honda, running on Goodyears, had the least. Dunlop's technicians acknowledged their understeer situation; Goodyears representatives didn't seem to notice a problem existed.
Seven cars broke the 2-min mark on the first day of practice, and gradually whittled their times down to 1:56 . But Gurney and Ginther whittled better than the rest; their times through the hairpin and esses were a fraction faster than their opponents' and, most importantly, they were getting out of the corners with less engine effort and more steering control.
On the other hand, both Clark and Hill had to use every ounce of skill at their command to get around in fast time. Hill's late apex and stand-on-the-throttle cornering technique served him little good here; he made his apexes a bit earlier. Clark was very smooth, but unless he really pushed hard through the esses, his lap times were consistently a second or so higher than Gurney's.
So what happened was that Clark and Hill, both determined to match and best Gurney and Ginther, poured everything they had into practice, taking laps after both black and red flags had been waved in their faces. Clark did well; he got the pole by 0.07 of a second. Hill could do no better than fifth. Between the two sat both the Brabhams and Ginther.
Richie had spent the last day of practice deciding which Honda was the stronger; both were running well, but one was weller than the other. The instant the starter's flag dropped it became apparent he'd picked the right one. He gunned out into a lead, which he never lost, but which, at first, seemed extremely perilous.
Mike Spence, starting sixth, had shot up into second in what Clark had told Chapman was the best of the Lotuses. Jackie Stewart followed. Then came Gurney, Hill, Bandini, and Clark. The pack was very tight and stayed that way for several laps, whereupon Brabham, who had gone into the pits on lap one. with a leaky cam cover gasket, motored out and rejoined the race just ahead of the hurtling Honda, which passed him in a flash.
Clark's car was sick. (on lap eight he blew the engine and retired. Winning the pole apparently had been too much for the I6-valve Climax. Hill, on the other hand, seemed very strong. He passed Gurney, chased Stewart. got by him, and took off after Spence. But Gurney was not sitting still; he followed Hill and shortly both wound up pursuing Spence, who was lying a nice second, 4 sec behind Ginther, by lap ten of the 65-lap race.
The Honda was turning l:59.4 during this opening series, and Gurney knew he would have to stay on the gas hard if he was to keep the leader in sight. This presented difficulties, as he had the understeering Hill in front of him. So two laps later he passed the BRM and got onto Spence's tail. Ginther had opened the gap by another 2 seconds in the same period.
Meanwhile, things were sorting themselves out in the pack, which, understand, was still only 20 sec long at 120 mph from front to back. After Hill, running fourth, came Stewart. followed very fiercely by Pedro Rodriguez and Lorenzo Bandini, in the two lead Ferraris, both flat 12s and both going faster every lap. The crowd cheered. After them came Jo Siffert and Moses Solana, along with Ron Bucknum in the second Honda trying to catch them up and get into contention.