Tag Archives: Porsche 917

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Long Distance Runaround

Here in England it is the ‘Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness’ as Keats put it so eloquently. It is also the time of the final car events of the year before the weather turns dodgy and we stop impersonating the Iberian Peninsula.

It is a case of saving the best till last with the staging of the Concours of Elegance at the regal Hampton Court Palace, a hop, skip and a jump from DDC Towers, saving the travel sick (or should that be sick of travel?) editor from too much exertion. It is one of the highlights of my motoring year.

The Concours of Elegance has something for everyone whatever your automotive peccadillo happens to be this week. The Le Mans 24 Hours has taken a fair bit of my time and energy over the past 40 years, since rocking up at La Sarthe for the first time back in 1978. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, perhaps a closer look at them is warranted.

Entering in to the formal garden at the rear of the Palace (and what a venue that is) I encountered a Porsche 962 that looked, well frankly, wrong.  The outline was that of the distinctive Richard Lloyd Racing 962C but with the famous factory colour scheme promoting Rothmans. Well I figured that Duncan Hamilton/ROFGO would know their onions better than yours truly and so it proved. This car was indeed a RLR machine, and yes the Rothmans livery was authentic, having run in this combination in late November 1987 at the Kyalami 500km. Jochen Mass, on loan from Weissach, grabbed a last lap victory when Bob Wollek ran out of petrol following an epic drive. This car was the rebuilt #106B car that had been incinerated at Le Mans that year. The improvements incorporated into the car clearly worked as in addition to the win in South Africa there were podiums at Brands Hatch and Fuji topped off by victory at Norisring.

Next to the Porsche was another star performer from the Group C era, a Sauber C11, probably the ultimate Group C racer before Bernie and Max hijacked proceedings and sent the endurance side of the sport to its destruction along the V10 3.5-litre highway. I understand the C11 to be #02 that took Jochen Mass and Michael Schumacher to victory in Mexico after their team-mates had been disqualified for a minor violation of the fuel regulations. If this is the case then the car sat out Le Mans in 1991 and was kept on hand as a spare. Too precious to leave out of this ramble though.

This Aston Martin DB3S definitely has Le Mans’ pedigree, bags of it. Based on a coupé that ran in the 1954 event suffering a huge accident at Maison Blanche that totalled the car. DB3S/6 was rebuilt and the following year went on to finish second at Le Mans with Peter Collins and Paul Frère behind the wheel.

Retired from factory duties DB3S/6 enjoyed further success at La Sarthe with the new owners, Peter and Graham Whitehead, grabbing a fantastic second place overall in 1958, the stuff that dreams are made of for privateers.

Nightmares might be closer to the fate at the great race of this still stunning AMG Mercedes CLK LM. Introduced to the world at the 1998 Le Mans Pre-Qualifying weekend in May it was a development of the 1997 FIA GT Championship winning CLK GTR. A V8 engine based on the M119 unit that powered the Sauber to victory in 1989 replaced the older V12. The loss of 80 kilos was the immediate benefit plus the repackaging allowed pushrod suspension at the front with inboard spring/damper units. The lower centre of gravity of the V8 also led to a general improvement of the aerodynamics and overall performance.

The car was quick, taking Bernd Schneider to pole position, even outpacing the Toyota GT-One, plus Christophe Bouchut’s sister car slotting into third place on the grid. For the first hour there was a fierce battle for the lead with Toyota, BMW and Porsche taking on the  Mercedes. However with just 70 minutes on the clock Schneider’s CLK LM came to a halt at the Pit Lane Exit. 50 minutes later and Bouchut’s car also stopped. Both engines had gone bang and the favoured CLK LMs were out before sunset. However, the true cause of this unMercedes-like failure was a little more complicated. A pin in the power-steering pump failed and dumped hydraulic fluid into the engine and that was that. It would be the only time that a CLK LM raced and did not win.

Another car that suffered at the French classic was #25R, a long tailed McLaren F1 GTR. Ray Bellm and Thomas Bscher joined forces in 1997 to establish a three car challenge, Gulf Team Davidoff, in the first season of the FIA GT Championship. At Le Mans, Thomas saw his hopes of racing go up in smoke on the Thursday evening  when his F1 GTR caught fire and was considered too badly damaged to continue.

Three days later saw a repeat of this unfortunate incident when, with about an hour to go in the race and running in the top five, Andrew Gilbert-Scott had to hastily bail out of this McLaren as it went up in flames. To get so far and then fail at the final hurdle is a perfect demonstration of  the fundamental cruelty of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans. #25R then went to Japan, racing right up to 2005. It has now come home and has been restored by McLaren Special Operations.

McLaren is one of only three manufacturers to win at Le Mans on their début, the others being Chenard & Walker and Ferrari. To celebrate this famous victory in 1995 a special edition was produced from Woking, the McLaren F1 LM.

The prototype was on hand at the Concours. It had a number of subtle changes from the road car. It was not a replica of the race car but “follows the specification of the Le Mans winning F1 GTR.” Only five of these amazing creations were built so seeing this car was very special.

The ACO should give thanks every day that the coolest guy on the planet took the coolest car of the time and created a movie immortalising their race. Steve McQueen aka Michael Delaney made the Porsche 917 in the iconic Gulf Oil livery into a motoring mega-star. This example, 917-013, never actually raced at Le Mans but was wrecked there during the making of the film, Le Mans, when David Piper had a tyre issue at speed. The accident was so violent that the 917 was almost cut in two and Piper lost his lower right leg as a consequence.

The Porsche was reborn using chassis 917-034 and went on to score victories at Daytona, Monza, Zeltweg and Montlhéry. Austria’s race witnessed the final victory for the legendary Pedro Rodriguez who turned in one of his greatest performances to beat Ferrari.

Rodriguez and Gulf Oil are linked to this Ford GT40. Originally chassis P/1004 and entered for the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours under the banner of Rob Walker. Like the other Dearborn cars the GT40 retired, this one a victim of a cylinder head gasket failure.

Fast forward to 1968 and P/1004 was retrieved from storage and updated by JW Automotive to the latest spec and renumbered to P/1084. It was raced to fourth place at Spa by Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs and then was retired from the tracks. A few months later a sister car took the top spot at Le Mans in the postponed 1968 event, Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi were the drivers.

The final Le Mans competitor to be found in the Place grounds was the Austin Healey 100 ‘Special’.  It raced at La Sarthe in 1953, finishing a very creditable 12th place overall in the hands of Maurice Gatsonides and Johnny Lockett.

Since it was first held in 2012 the Concours of Elegance has taken its place at the top table of motoring celebrations. Now located at Hampton Court Palace it is a ‘must attend’ event, if you like cars then this is for you.

John Brooks, September 2018

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

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In the movies, and indeed in life, there are the stars and then there is the supporting cast, those of us who do not top the bill but nevertheless are part of the script, without whom the plot would be diminished.

Since the beginning of motor sport there have been the headliners and the grid fillers and also rans. The Porsche 917 was a pure mega-star from the day it was revealed at the 1969 Geneva Salon to the end of its life at the top in August 1975, when Mark Donohue rattled round a lap of Talladega SuperSpeedway at a record breaking 221.160 mph.

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So the question is who was the supporting act that allowed the 917 to display its fantastic talent, the answer is obvious, the Ferrari 512. This racer only had a brief career in 1970 and 1971 but was immortalised in Steve McQueen’s epic movie “Le Mans” where it was the foil for the Gulf 917s, Michael Delaney versus Eric Stahler.

Ferrari 512 S (1970)

 

As if on cue, last week there was a ring at the door, the postman handed me a package from Haynes Publishing and the content was revealed to be a Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual for the Ferrari 512 S/M (all models). I had given some small assistance to the author, my old friend Glen Smale, and he had generously repaid this with a copy of the book, so a review is in order.

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Books on the 512 are in short supply, I could only find one that fitted the bill, part of the Cavalleria set on various notable Ferraris, and the 512 book fetch prices around £250. So this comprehensive account of the 512 represents amazing value at £22.99.

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For those not familiar with the concept Haynes Publishing made their name and fortune on producing a series of manuals aimed at assisting owners repair their own cars. A while back someone with a sense of humour extended the range beyond Mondeos and Allegros to include all manner of things that no one would ever work on, even if they owned the item. So subjects as diverse as Concorde, Titanic, Chickens and even Dads now have a Owners’ Manual.

Ferrari 512 M (1970)

Glen sets the scene with an introduction to the endurance racing scene in 1969 when the attempts by the FIA to limit the speeds and cost of the leading prototype class were utterly defeated by Ferdinand Piëch and Porsche building 25 Porsche 917s thus qualifying under Group 5 rules. Enzo Ferrari followed suit and thus the fabulous Ferrari 512 S was born.

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There is detailed look at all aspects of the Ferrari’s interior and exterior and matters mechanical. Nick Mason was his usual generous self in letting Glen examine his example, 1026, arguably the most important 512 of them all. It was badly damaged in a fire during the making of the McQueen movie but rebuilt by Mason. Prior to that it scored an amazing victory in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours, regarded by Mario Andretti as one of his greatest ever drives.  It also finished third at Daytona and fourth at Monza that year before being sold to Ecurie Francorchamps.

Ferrari 512 S (1970)

There is a chapter giving the engineer’s view of the 512. Dick Fritz, team manager of Luigi Chinetti’s NART outfit gives an insider’s perspective as does John Woodward of Penske Racing Team.  From the contemporary classic racing scene both Bob Houghton and Ben de Chair describe the challenges of running such a valuable racer, all in all a warts and all tale from the guys behind the scenes.

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The role of being an owner is also chronicled with Kirk White recalling his partnership with Roger Penske and the iconic Sunoco 512, arguably the best known Ferrari never to win a race. Nick Mason tells the reader how he came to acquire his 512 and the experiences of owning such a legend.

Ferrari 512 S (1970)

The drivers are also part of the story with Mario Andretti, Sam Posey and Derek Bell getting a chapter, recalling their races behind the wheel.

Ferrari 512 S (1970)

Finally, there is a summary and brief history of all the Ferrari 512 chassis, whether in S or M form.

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This book is a comprehensive, well researched and well written account of a Ferrari that is often overlooked, especially when compared with the interest in its principal opponent, the Porsche 917. At twice the price it would be a bargain…………buy it today.

John Brooks, September 2016

Photos and illustrations courtesy of Haynes Publishing

 

 

 

 

A Fork In The Road

Pedro

There comes a point in all our lives when we reach a crossroads, the road we take determines our future, rarely do we have the chance to go back. Often we are not even aware that the choice has been made or is really significant. For me this position was reached some 40 years ago and certainly at the time I was oblivious to the consequences. However if I had not taken that course back then, it is highly unlikely that I would be writing for you, the audience, today.

Siren Song

1971 was the year when I really caught the motorsport virus, from that small start I have ended up making some sort of career out of the sport, but it is at that time that I passed the point of no return. I had been following the glamorous and seductive racing scene second hand, reading everything and anything I could about this world, so unlike my own life as a rather dull-witted schoolboy. Some of my contemporaries found their escape in Hollywood, I found it at Le Mans, at Monaco, at Nürburgring, anywhere that racing happened. Autocar, Motor Sport, Autosport and other long forgotten titles were devoured eagerly, I can still remember race results from 1969, when now I get confused about what happened ten minutes ago. I had actually managed to attend the 1970 British Grand Prix, seeing Jochen Rindt score a last lap victory over Jack Brabham but the following year I was geared up for seeing as many races as I could.

Heroes………

Everyone has heroes, especially when we are younger, they are those that we look up to and imagine that one day, we too might acquire some of the qualities that we admire. Back then my heroes were two drivers, Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez, I was inspired by their performances in arguably the greatest sportscar of them all, the Porsche 917. I would read the race reports, especially in Motor Sport, from Denis Jenkinson, Michael Cotton and Andrew Marriott, the last two I would later become friends with. I simply HAD to go and see these guys race that year, the situation was given an urgency by the crazy decision of the FIA (where have we heard that before?) to scrap the 917s and 512s. There was only one solution, as I was too young to drive, I would get the train and bus to Brands Hatch. It was only on the other side of London.

March Hare

The calendar in 1971 had several international races held at the fantastic Kent track. First up for me was the Race of Champions. Back in the dark ages BE (Before Ecclestone), there were non-Championship Formula One races, so you could get to see the Grand Prix circus several times in a season, especially if you lived in England. OK, not all the F1 regulars turned out but that was also the case at some Grand Prix, especially the far flung ones, there was no FOCA package back then. One thing that has not really changed in 40 years is the grim weather, cold, damp and grey, that bit of Brands Hatch in March remains a constant. The front row had Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell on pole with Denny Hulme alongside in his McLaren and completing the line up was Clay Regazzoni in the delicious Ferrari. There were former and future World Champions Graham Hill, John Surtees and Emerson Fittipaldi in the field but my two heroes were missing, both on Gulf 917 duty at Sebring. A couple of things stuck in my mind from that race, the variety of noses on the cars with wild variations ranging from the Brabham BT34 “lobster claw” to the March 711 “tea tray”, did any of them really work? That day also saw the début of the Lotus 56B powered by a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine, one of Colin Chapman’s ideas that worked as an Indianapolis 500 car but was not suited to the Formula One world. I cannot remember much about the race, except that Ferrari and Regazzoni won it.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

A few weeks later and I was back at Brands Hatch for the BOAC 1000 Kilometres, now I would get to see both Siffert and Rodriguez and the Gulf Porsche 917s. These guys would see off the opposition for sure, but as I would find out, life is not that simple. The weather was similar to the previous race and near freezing point. I thought, perhaps it is always like that in Kent. The field was a bit thin, frankly. The pair of Gulf 917s were backed up by two Martini & Rossi cars  and  privately entered 1970 spec 917. Against this line up was a lone Ferrari 312P and a brace of Alfa Romeo T33/3s run by Autodelta. Even I could see that the rest of the field of upgraded 512Ms and 2-litre prototypes would have real chance in the race.

T33/3

Midday saw the race get underway and immediately my version of the script was proved wrong, with Ickx and the Ferrari taking the lead with the two Blue & Orange 917s in pursuit from the Alfa Romeos. Soon the natural order of things was restored as the Ferrari disappeared for several laps leaving the Mexican star leading his Swiss team mate, this was more like it. Then after an hour or so I went tramping around the track and  noticed that the #7 Porsche was missing, after a while I found it parked up at Dingle Dell. I read later that the fuel filter had been clogged up with debris from an experimental pit refuelling system that the team were trying for the first time. Siffert too was having problems with changing tyres, an new alloy hub had expanded meaning that getting the nuts undone and done became almost impossible. JW Automotive had comprehensively shot itself in both feet. The upshot of all this was to hand Alfa Romeo its first international motorsport victory in 20 years. It looked as if Rolf Stommelen and Toine Hezemans, with a lap advantage over Andrea de Adamich and Henri Pescarolo, would be the heroes for Autodelta but the race had one final twist. A suspected piston failure halted the leading T33/3 in a cloud of smoke. Some 30+ years later I was enjoying the company of Hezemans, father and son, in a bar, where else? I happened to mention to Toine about seeing him all those years before at Brands Hatch. His answer was a stream of invective directed at Carlo Chitti, who he blamed for all the car’s problems, the competitive fires still burn. Of course being Toine this was also very funny, being almost paralysed with the combination of beer and laughter is the only thing I can recall from that evening. Long may he go on.

Champion

I had seen the Men and the Machines but there had been no fairy tale victory. Indeed things would take a very dark course for the rest of the year. The British Grand Prix was due to be held at Silverstone and I had persuaded a neighbour to let me come along with him. The BRMs that both Rodriguez and Siffert drove were competitive that season, arguably the last year that could be said. So I was really looking forward to seeing them take the fight to Jackie Stewart. Of course that did not happen, Pedro had decided to accept a drive the weekend before in Herbert Müller’s Ferrari 512 at the Norisring. Early in the first race a front tyre punctured, the Ferrari went out of control and hit a concrete wall. The impact destroyed the car and Pedro died soon after from the injuries received in the accident. Back then there was no internet, no TV news channels, so I did not hear anything about  the death of the Mexican till a few days later when I was back at school, it was very unreal, unbelievable. Of course it was very real and all too believable. Two BRMs lined up at the Grand Prix instead of three and I had almost lost interest in the proceedings. It was a dull race dominated by Jackie Stewart but at least it was a proper summer’s day at Silverstone. No Pedro though.

P160

Later that summer the news arrived regarding the cancellation of the Mexican Grand Prix due to be run in October. A replacement event was put together, The Rothmans World Championships Victory Race, to be held at, yes, Brands Hatch. Another chance to see Formula One, in my back yard, this race was to be held in the honour of the new World Champions, Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell. Jo Siffert had stepped up to the plate after the death of his team mate and had won the Austrian Grand Prix, as well as taking the lead role in Porsche’s Can-Am campaign. So he was one of the favourites for the last race of the year and indeed started from pole position. My mate James and I made another journey by train and bus to arrive in time for the race. We wondered over to South Bank to the point where the cars head out of the stadium onto the Grand Prix loop. It was a beautiful sunny day, generally a good way to sign off a difficult season. When the cars reached us on the first lap, a BRM was leading but the helmet was a dark blue and not the red and white of the Swiss flag, it was Peter Gethin not Jo Siffert.  The Swiss driver had a problem at the start and was down in 9th place. Gradually he climbed through the field up to 4th, then on lap 15 he accelerated away out our sight and never came back. It is thought that the rear suspension had failed at Pilgrims Drop, pitching the car into a bank where it rolled and collected a marshals’ post and then it exploded in flames. Attempts to rescue the unfortunate Siffert failed and he was asphyxiated in the delay, his only other injury was a broken ankle.
From our viewing point at the bottom of the circuit we could see nothing but it was clear that something was very wrong. We were advised that racing was done for the day (it was not) and to go home. So we trudged to bus stop and joined the queues, over 40,000 had turned out that day.  I still had no idea what had happened until arrived back at my house, my father broke the news to me. Another bad day.

Is it not passing brave to be a King, and ride in Triumph through Persepolis?

The year ended with death of my two heroes and the end of the endurance career of the Porsche 917. I have to admit that my interest in the sport dipped for a while as I struggled to understand the events of 1971, but motorsport is like a drug, once you are hooked you never really get over it. The year had seen the release of the film “Le Mans” which of course I had to see, and I did several times. The 917s and 512s, the stars, Le Mans, and some of the greatest action footage ever shot. The ACO should thank Steve McQueen every day that the sun rises, the coolest guy on the planet made the coolest movie about the coolest race. Even the sparse dialogue contained some philosophy that helped me to understand the motivation of drivers like Siffert and Rodriguez, in the face of almost certain death or injury.
“A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after… is just waiting.”
Michael Delaney’s words struck a chord with me, perhaps such a simple statement could explain why I am still chasing the sport some 40 years later. On balance I think I took the right road back then, there has been no looking back.

Seppi

 

John Brooks, February 2012

Speed Merchants

The few of you who read this blog regularly will know of my enthusiasm for the work of Michael Keyser. Aside from anything else he has the good taste to purchase images from me. Michael had a pretty handy record as a driver, including an outright win at Sebring, he has published many works which capture the essence of endurance racing in the early 70’s. So as the Sun is on its way towards Daytona Beach to herald another 24 Hour race, it is perhaps appropriate to look back to 1970 with the aid of his pictures.

1970 saw a brilliant, if brief, struggle between Porsche and Ferrari with the 917 and 512. The first encounter of the year was on the banking in Volusia County. Five Ferrari 512 entries took on two Gulf JWA 917s, add to this two NART Ferrari 312P coupés, two Matras, another 917 from Porsche Salzburg, and let’s not forget the Volvo 122S. I somehow doubt that in 42 years time the contemporary grid will inspire as much affection or interest………..

Much is made this year of the line up of driver talent that will be on display at the 2012 Rolex 24 and rightly so. However I think that the crop in 1970 was every bit as good, if not better………in no particular order.

Pedro Rodriguez/Nino Vaccarella/Jacky Ickx/Mark Donohue/Peter Revson/Vic Elford/Gijs van Lennep/Dan Gurney/Jean-Pierre Beltoise/Henri Pescarolo/Francois Cevert/Jack Brabham/Jo Siffert/Brian Redman/Mario Andretti/Arturo Merzario to name but a few……….F1 World Champions, Grand Prix Winners, Le Mans Victors, Indy 500 Champs…………what a line up

The race was a triumph for the Rodriguez/Kinnunen/Redman Gulf Porsche who had a winning margin of 45 laps. The crowd were kept entertained by a right old dust up for second place with the Siffert/Redman 917 just shading the 512 of Andretti/Merzario. Gianpiero Moretti made his Daytona race debut and had to wait another 28 years to win the race he coveted above all others. As if to reinforce the cosmopolitan nature of the event a Ferrari 250LM, at least 5 or 6 years old at that point, finished seventh overall and the Volvo retired.

One thing is certain, the 2012 race will be much closer…………….

All the images are courtesy and copyright of Michael Keyser and more can be seen HERE

John Brooks January 2012


Taming Porsche’s 917

Time, circumstances and money often are the mother of compromise. Such was the case of Porsche’s iconic 917, a 12-cylinder, 230 plus mile-an-hour monster that transformed the German manufacturer from a supporting cast member to the star of the sportscar racing in the first years of the 1970s.

In sum, the 917 was a car that shouldn’t have existed, but it did; that it did so was because the men of Porsche exploited the unintended consequences of a rules loophole made by the Federation International de L’Automobile, the overall governing body of the sport to revamp its prototype arena.

At the heart of the matter was the FIA’s overriding desire to rid itself of the American interlopers from Ford and Chevrolet, which trounced their European opposition at Le Mans and elsewhere during the mid 1960’s. After Ford’s second straight Sarthe triumph in 1967 with its seven-liter V-8 Mark IV GT40, the FIA, with less than six months’ notice, summarily slapped a three-liter displacement cap on the sports racers running in the World Manufacturers Championship.

This may have made the governing body happy, but not its promoters, who feared the wouldn’t be enough of the topflight entries to attract the public. To alleviate those fears, the FIA added a second tier prototype division which permitted engines of up to five liters, the caveat being that at least 50 examples of any particular car had to have been built.

What the FIA had in mind were the older, original Ford GT40s which used Dearborn’s small block V-8, and there Lola T70 coupe counterparts, likewise with small block Detroit power. The plan would have worked if Porsche, which was producing between 40 and 50 racers per year, hadn’t taken a closer look at the regulations and decided it wanted in.

As with anything, though, the devil here was in the details, as Hans Mezger, the head of Race Car Design at Porsche then, explains. “There were two choices for us: to build a three-liter car, or a five-liter car. With the minimum set at 50, we decided it was too costly, and therefore pursued the three-liter option which resulted in the 908 that won our first World Manufacturers’ title in 1969. However, after the FIA cut the requirement to 25 in the late winter of 1968, we changed our minds and went to work on developing what became the 917.”

Like all of its predecessors, the new 917 was evolutionary, not revolutionary, building on what had gone before. Indeed, in terms of its body shape, and tubular frame structure, it was nearly identical to the three liter 908, with the exception of having the driver’s compartment moved slightly more forward in order to accommodate the extra length of the new 180 degree V-12, with its unique central power pick up arrangement.

With nearly 600 horsepower on tap almost from the day it first went on the dyno, Mezger’s engine was a huge success. Indeed, such was its output, that the initial version had a displacement of four and a half, not five liters. Unfortunately, if the 12-cylinder was an award winning piece, the same could not be said for the rest of the pumpkin seed shaped car.

The basic problem was the aerodynamics of its low drag body which produced high speed instability, an issue which had likewise plagued the longtail streamliner versions of the 908, and the earlier 907. Using spoilers and winglets as Band-Aids, Porsche had cured much of the problems, making them competitive at Le Mans, which was the one race Porsche so desperately wanted to win.

However, those two latter prototypes were 190 mile an hour vehicles, while the new 917 could push past 230 mph with ease. At that speed, the Band-Aids didn’t work. In fact, about the only factory driver who liked the 917 was Vic Elford, who, as he put it, “knew from the moment I first saw it that I wanted to run it at Le Mans because, in my mind, it truly had the potential to win.”

Even so, Elford was not unaware of the 917’s aero issues. “Going through the ‘kink’ on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans where you were doing well over 230, you had to be very careful getting off the throttle and onto the brake, lest the back start steering the front.” And, make no mistake about it: Porsche’s primary intention for the 917, like Elford’s, was to claim the company’s first outright victory in the 24 Hour classic.

Again Mezger:
”The most important thing for us was to win Le Mans. We believed that the longtail was the correct way to go if we were to accomplish that. And I think the fact that Elford and (Richard) Attwood had a commanding lead when they retired after 22 hours in 1969 proved we were correct in maintaining the same basic shape of the earlier cars.”

That was the good side of the equation. The bad was that unlike the 907s and 908s which came in a distinctly different short tail body for the lower speed circuits found on the World Manufacturer’s schedule, the 917 would enjoy no such luxury, a fact vividly remembered by the Porsche engineer.

“Because we were concerned that if we did what we had done with the 907 and 908 using separate long and short tail bodies the FIA might make us build 25 of each, something that was too costly for us to do, we made the longtail a detachable. Section that bolted onto the 917’s short tail decklid. Because of that the decklid had to slope down towards the rear, which we knew was not the optimum for the speeds it could attain on the slower tracks. But, we had to live with it that way even so.”

Moreover, Mezger’s boss, Ferdinand Piech, who was trained as an aeronautical engineer, wanted to keep the 917’s drag as low as possible, despite the fact that its horsepower, unlike that of the 907 and 908, made this unnecessary in its case. In fact the solution was simple: raise the rear portion of the short tail to form a downforce producing wedge. This curative measure had been demonstrated in July, 1969 when Jo Siffert had tested his new 917 Can-Am Spyder at Weissach.

Featuring a slightly raised, open rear tail, similar to the ones found on the McLarens and Lolas then competing in the North American championship, Siffert’s Spyder proved far easier to drive than the short tail coupes with their sloping rear decks. The problem for Mezger and his engineers was that Piech didn’t want to hear any of this.

What the Porsche men needed was for someone else to “discover” the solution and act on it. That someone turned out to be John Horsman, the chief engineer of John Wyer’s Gulf team that was contracted to race the 917 for the factory in 1970 and ’71.

In October, 1969, Horsman and company were introduced to their new car at a test session at the Austrian Zeltwig circuit where, ironically, a 917 coupe had scored the 12 cylinder’s debut triumph the previous August. Led by Mezger’s deputies, Peter Falk and Helmut Flegl, the Porsche delegation arrived with its Can-Am spyder and a truck filled to the brim with all the materials needed to revise the tails of the two coupes Zuffenhausen had brought for the session.

Horsman, who claims he ignored the Spyder completely, discovered that while the noses of the coupes and their windscreens were covered in bugs, their tails were mint, carwash fresh, with no bugs at all on the surfaces. This led to the obvious conclusion that the tails and their spoilers were not in the air stream, and that the only way to correct the problem was to raise their profile.

When the Englishman approached Mess Falk and Flegl, they were only too happy to “accept” his conclusion, opening the doors of the truck to reveal all the materials he and his mechanics would need to transform the tails. The rest is history, the revised coupes whose lap times had been several seconds down to those of the Spyder, now becoming its equal.

The next day the Porsche camp received the brass from Zuffenhausen, who may not have liked the fact that the 917’s drag had been increased, but who accepted the fact that its road holding qualities had been considerably improved. The beast had been tamed, and in the process was to become the dominant car on the Makes tour for the next two years before the FIA banned it at the end of 1971 much to the detriment of sports car racing itself.

Born amidst politics, the 917 thus became a winner through deviousness and intrigue, not to mention the curiosity that has led mankind to improve its lot in life.

Bill Oursler, October 2011

Remembering Seppi…………..

Seppi

Forty years ago today I got on a couple of trains, then caught a bus on a journey to Brands Hatch. The Rothmans World Championships Victory Race was due to take place, a non-Championship Formula One event celebrating the World Titles of Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell. There was an Indian Summer back then, much like this year. So 40,000 or so flocked to the fabulous track on Kent’s border with London, all anticipating a grand finale to the 1971 season.

A Champion’s performance

After the death of Pedro Rodriguez in July, Jo Siffert had assumed the mantle of team leader at BRM. Their Tony Southgate designed P160 was running at the sharp end by the end of the year. Siffert’s dominant victory in Austria was followed by Peter Gethin outfumbling the rest of the pack at Monza, perhaps BRM would repeat their glory days of the 60’s. It was no surprise to see the Swiss ace on pole position, maybe he could round off the year with another win. Siffert made a poor start but was recovering well till on lap 15 his BRM left the road suddenly at Dingle Dell, one of the fastest parts of the track. The impact and consequent fire were severe, Siffert was asphyxiated in the delayed rescue, his only other injury was a broken ankle.

Immortals

I had managed to see both Jo and Pedro race the awesome Gulf Porsche 917 earlier that year, though that day belonged to Alfa Romeo. Now both were gone.

RIP Jo Siffert

Today at 3.00pm there will be a memorial ceremony at Fribourg Cemetery, as there has been for many years. Friends and family will join his son Philippe in remembering one of the purest racers ever.

God Speed, Jo.

John Brooks, October 2011

40 Years Gone

 

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1971, I was eagerly anticipating the British Grand Prix. It was to be held the following weekend at Silverstone. In particular I wanted to support my heroes, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert, team mates at BRM and JW Automotive.

I had been lucky enough to see them both racing the Gulf sponsored Porsche 917Ks at Brands Hatch earlier in the year.  A great day, seeing both drivers and the Porsches in action.

Having said that there was no repeat of the legendary 1970 performance from the Mexican. Despite damp conditions that Pedro usually revelled in, it was an Alfa Romeo T33-3 driven by Andrea de Adamich and Henri Pescarolo that took honours that day.

However for Silverstone it would be an BRM P160 for both Pedro and Seppi. The Tony Southgate designed car was realising some of the enormous, and usually wasted, potential of BRM.

Except that Pedro did not make it to the British Grand Prix. He accepted a chance to race a Ferrari 512M at the Norisring and was killed in this minor event. It seemed inconceivable to me but back then motor racing was a blood sport, it killed its heroes.

As if to drive this point home, three months later I was back at Brands Hatch for the Victory Race, celebrating Jackie Stewart’s second F1 World Championship. A few laps into the race the whole place went quiet, there had been an accident, that was all I knew. I took the train home to learn from the evening news that Jo Siffert had been the latest victim of the dangerous occupation of driving racing cars. Both heroes were now gone, the 917 was a thing of the past, it was the end of an era for me and for many others.

John Brooks, July 2011

 

 

La Route Est Dure…….Une

Birthdays, anniversaries, memorials. Who knows where the time goes?

From the Fans

There is something in our wiring that makes us reconsider events in an orderly, time related  fashion, I suppose some of it has to do with our annual trip round the Sun. Maybe the concept of decades came from having eight fingers and two thumbs. Whatever, ten years seems to be significant period, perhaps because we know that we will only experience a handful of such landmarks in our brief time here on earth, it us gives pause to stop and reflect.

Ten years ago tomorrow, St. Patrick’s Day 2001, I stumbled into Sebring International Raceway in the dark. Our American cousins love their early morning photo meetings. So we assembled grumbling, the collective noun for a bunch of photographers is a Moan. Sheriff Rick Dole tried to instil some sense into us, giving details of the reserved spots for the turn one opening lap scramble and reciting the dos and dont’s.

Then someone, I can’t remember who, asked had I heard about Bob?

Bob?

That could only mean Bob Wollek.

What?

He’s dead, killed last night in a road accident.

Brilliant

This seemed impossible, Bob Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now as he contemplated retirement he was killed in a pointless traffic incident.

Tribute

Just how pointless was soon evident when the circumstances emerged. Bob was a keen cyclist and would use that method of transport to get to and from the circuit. In fact he would ride to Le Mans every year from Strasbourg. So on Friday afternoon he left the Sebring paddock en route to his lodgings, west along Highway 98 towards the small town of Lorida. An 82 year old local resident driving a van collided with the Frenchman killing him instantly.

The Florida Highway Patrol reported “Wollek had been riding close to the edge of the pavement marking and the van, traveling in the same direction behind other traffic, hit the back of the bicycle.
Wollek was taken to Highlands Regional Medical Center with fatal injuries.”

Spirits

To say the paddock and the whole crowd were shocked would be a gross understatement, as evidenced by the signs posted up around the pits and the respect shown on the grid of a minute’s silence. The Petersen/White Lightning Porsche that Bob was scheduled to drive was also withdrawn from the race.

Kremer 917

I am not about to try and write a feature on Bob Wollek’s career, that requires a book, in fact one has just been completed by Jean-Marc Teissedre. Rather I have looked through the small archive and using a few shots will post some recollections in my personal tribute to the man.

Back in 1981 Bob was already a top line sportscar driver and champion, I could not even get media accreditation at that year’s Brands Hatch 1000kms. However with a bit of effort from the spectator area this modest effort was possible. A Kremer 917? Yes the brothers from Cologne built up this fibreglass kit car, based around the original iconic design. It failed to impress at Le Mans but ran respectably at Brands, dueling for the lead till suspension failure.

936C

Another year, another adaptation, this time the 936C. For 1982 Joest Racing was aware that getting a customer version of the Porsche 956 would have to wait till 1983. So adapting their ‘customer’ 936 chassis and sticking some bodywork allowed them to be in the pack. In fact they were best of the rest after the Porsche and Lancia factory efforts.

Joest Porsche 956 at Brands Hatch

1983 saw Joest get hold of a Porsche 956 , chassis 104. Wollek used it to good effect with WEC wins at Monza and Mugello (both with Stefan Johansson) to bag the WEC European Drivers Championship. The DRM title too with three wins.

1984 saw Wollek join the Martini Lancia team, an odd choice given the reputation for chaos that the Italians had. The LC2s were fast and fragile.

Too Little, Too late

The following year the problems persisted, though there was a win at Spa. No one cared though, Stefan Bellof had been killed during the race, the result was irrelevant. Of course it would not have escaped Wollek’s attention that had he stayed with Joest in ’84 and ’85, he might well have been a double winner at Le Mans.

Pole at La Sarthe

1986 came and Lancia left Group C and Jaguar joined. Wollek returned to the factory Porsche team, in place of Jacky Ickx who retired. Pole at Le Mans meant nothing after co-driver Jochen Mass clouted the barriers after encountering an oil spill.

I was at Brands Hatch to see Mauro Baldi and Bob defeat the other privateer Porsches and the TWR Jaguars, in the Richard Lloyd 956 GTI.

More tomorrow.

 

John Brooks March 2011