Cobra History: "The Chase"
Olthoff about to overhaul
The 2.6 mile track at Zolder is fast - high speed straights and big sweeping bends. It is nestled in the forested rolling hills of Belgium 60 miles outside of Brussels. On July 19th, 1964, it was the setting for what Autosports magazine called "The Chase", another battle in the heated competition between the Ferraris and the Cobras.
The cars were a study in contrasts.
Works driver Lucien Bianchi was driving the new works Ferrari 250 LM (Le Mans), a replacement for the legendary 250 GTO and designed specifically to capture the GT Manufacturers Championship.
The Ferrari was more sophisticated than the Cobra, with a more modern suspension design and better aerodynamics. It was a mid-engined coupe powered by a 300 horsepower, 2953 cc (180 cid) single overhead cam V-12. The engine was fed by six dual throat Weber carburetors. Power was transferred by a five speed transmission. The car weighted about 2100 pounds with driver. It was painted red with white circles carrying the number "21".
The English Willment team entered the new Shelby FIA Cobra piloted by the South African champion Bob Olthoff. Although the FIA resembled the 427 S/C with its bulging rear fenders, hood scoop and side vents, it was in fact the ultimate development of the older, smaller, lighter, leaf spring (small block) chassis. The FIA roadster and the Daytona coupe were designed specifically wrest the GT Manufacturers Championship away from Ferrari.
The FIA CSX2130 was delivered directly from AC to Willment where Bob developed it into a Le Mans prototype. The FIA Cobra was of course a front engined roadster. The engine, though less sophisticated than the Ferrari, was a larger and more powerful 375 horsepower 289 cid pushrod V-8. The engine was fed by four dual throat Weber carburetors. The transmission was a four speed. The car weighted about 2200 pounds with driver. It was painted the Willment team colors, white with the red triple narrow-broad-narrow Willment stripe and red circles carrying the number "1".
The stage was set in practice on Friday. Both cars were well suited to the fast Zolder circuit. Olthoff set the pace at 1 minute 46 seconds while Bianchi set a time of 1 minute 46.5 seconds, the two fastest practice times.
Dawn broke to a hot clear July Saturday with temperatures climbing toward 100 degrees. The drivers took a pre-race dip in a nearby lake to cool down before the big event. At the start, Bianchi jumped into the lead pursued closely by Olthoff. Olthoff pushed Bianchi around the track for 20 laps and on the 21st lap Olthoff powered past Bianchi. Now unimpeded by the Ferrari, Olthoff set a blistering pace and quickly built up a 10 second lead. In the process, he posted a fastest lap of 1 minute 43.3 seconds (145.812 kph, 90.6 mph).
Certain victory was snatched away by a failed distributor. A temporary repair put the Cobra back in the race, but 9 laps down. Bianchi went on to win.
There was a victory, however, for the Cobra forces. The Cobra demonstrated that it was more than a match for Ferraris best. The 1 minute 43.3 second lap set by Bob Olthoff was the fastest lap of the day and still stands to this day, 34 years later, as the fastest lap ever set on the Zolder circuit. Later changes to Zolder virtually insure that it will stand for all time.