The 1961 Formula 1 season would go down as one of the best ever for Scuderia Ferrari, even if it ended on a heartbreaking note. The Maranello team dominated proceedings, getting to grips better than anyone else with the new technical regulations aimed at limiting car performance, which in recent years had led to an excessive number of accidents.
Normally aspirated engine capacity came down from 2500 to 1500cc and all forms of supercharging were banned. A minimum weight limit of 450 kg was also introduced, fuel had a maximum octane rating of 100, cars had to have a reverse gear and a starter motor. For a second consecutive year, the points system was modified. So that winning counted for more, the winner now got 9 points, rather than the 8 from the previous year.
The opening round of the season in Monaco was won by Stirling Moss driving a Rob Walker Lotus-Climax, but in the Netherlands, Scuderia Ferrari finished first and second with Wolfgang Von Trips and Phill Hill. Round 3 took place at Spa-Francorchamps, one of the most demanding tests of a Formula 1 driver’s ability. The majority of corners on the Belgian road course are a real challenge, requiring every lap to be tackled at crazy speeds, so that it really separated the men from the boys. With the aim of making this the fastest track in Europe, the Eau Rouge-Raidillon uphill esses was created along with the new Stavelot turn around which avoided a crossroad, shortening the overall length by around 600 metres. Other legendary corners included the old Malmedy a long and tricky downhill righthander, the Masta kink, a left-right combination taken flat in the middle of the eponymous village and Blanchimont, which is still today part of the track which is approximately 7 km in length.
Maranello cars made a clean sweep of the front row, with Phil Hill the only one to break the 4 minute barrier on the 14.1 km track, stopping the clocks in 3’59”3, eight tenths quicker than Von Trips and a whopping 3”7 better than Olivier Gendebien, who was driving a works 156 F1, but painted bright yellow, the national colour of Belgium. This was done because the local Ferrari importer had contributed to the costs of entering this car. The last of the Ferraris was Richie Ginther who qualified fifth.
Hill had the quickest reactions off the line, but courtesy of the long straight, Von Trips and Ginther soon got past. Gendebien, who had won the Le Mans 24 Hours a week earlier at the wheel of a works Ferrari, sharing the car with Hill seemed rather intimidated by the wheel to wheel dicing taking place ahead of him at around 250 km/h and chose to hang back. This was understandable, because it wasn’t really in his best interests to get mixed up with the factory guys given this was going to be his only Grand Prix that season with the team.
After an intense three lap battle, Phill Hill managed to pull out enough of a lead not to have to worry about his rivals at every turn, as they dropped out of his slipstream, while Von Trips was able to fend off Ginther. The positions remained unchanged from then on and in the end, Hill could afford to let his German team-mate close the gap.
Hill was first past the flag after 423 km of racing, seven tenths ahead of Von Trips. Ginther was third and Gendebien brought his yellow Ferrari home fourth, thus giving the team a clean sweep of the top four places, something never seen before in Formula 1. The Maranello marque also achieved the Grand Chelem, with pole position, race fastest lap and every lap in the lead, even if it involved more than one of their drivers: Hill, Von Trips and Gendebien.
The result meant that the American’s name was now at the top of the championship leaderboard with one more point that Von Trips, seven ahead of Moss. In the Constructors’ classification, Ferrari led on 22 points, with Lotus second on 12 and reigning champions Cooper behind on just four.