Wednesday, June 17, 2020

LE MANS: Porsche Sweeps to Victory a Half Century Ago

One of the most iconic 917's. The ex-Steve McQueen Le Mans Film Gulf liveried Porsche 917K that sold for $14+ million in 2017 is now the Star of the Brumos Collection's Museum. (Image source:
As Stuttgart finally made good on their ambitions of winning the Sport's most prestigious race...

Last weekend - exactly 50 years ago Porsche finally accomplished its goal of winning the 24 Heurs du Mans outright for the first time, en route to ultimately becoming the most successful Automaker at Circuit de la Sarthe, with a record 19 Overall Victories to Date.

Although as a Wee lad', who at that point knew very little, if Anything? About motor racing, and growing up in Seattle was more intrigued by the unmistakable roar of vintage WW II Airplane piston powered engines Unlimited Hydroplanes! And peddalin' round Thy Neighbourhood on my one speed Sunquist orange banana-seat bicycle towing a Hydro', nee plywood Plank up 'N down our street's Cobblestones; aye Karumba!

Thus as I've scribbled before here on No Fenders, Le Mans was an unknown place to Mwah, before as a teenager I discovered that epic Steve McQueen Le Mans movie poster casually left behind by our previous tenants, for which I Don't feel like changing tyres; Err re-typing again...

Whilst I've also already lamented that if 'Ol Fredrico Suave', aka Fred Alonso can have his mythical Triple Crown, which I'll go out on a medium sized limb and say he Won't Achieve. Then I Bloody Well can have my mythical Triple Crown 'O Motor Racing series, Righto?

Following that epic 1969 Le Mans 24H Donnybrook! Which arguably still ranks as my Numero Uno Le Mans race of All-time, we know that FoMoCo' finally pulled Ye Plug upon it's iconic ford GT-40 programme, leaving thou spoils to Arch Rivals Ferrari and Porsche.

Thus for 1970 JWA, aka John Wyer Automotive Engineering now found itself as the "lead" Werks' Porsche 917 Squad, with a trio of the 917K "short Tail" racecars entered, while a fourth entry wasn't accepted. But more on that mystery fourth 917 later...

JWA's lead car featured Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, as last year's winning Duo of Jacky ickx had departed for la Scuderia, nee Scuderia Ferrari and Jacky Oliver was MIA'.

The team's second car was piloted by 1968 Le Mans winner Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen, Finlands very first Formula 1 Driver. As Kinnunen reportedly Mega' impressed the Powers to Be' during a private test on Austria's famed Osterreichring and was immediately signed to partner Rodriguez.

But the pairing of 'Ol Hobbo', aka HobbsCapp', nee David Hobbs and Mike "the Bike" Hailwood remained intact, swapping Thar '69 Third place Ford GT-40 for a spiffy new Porsche 917K.

Yet as JWA's third Werks' entry they were running the older Spec 4.5-litre Naturally Aspirated Flat 12 cylinder variant, producing a stout 550bhp, with the latest Porsche Air Cooled lump punched out to 4.9-litres rated at a whopping 590bhp!

Whilst Porsche  also funded two other Race Teams, Hedging their Bets A la Ford with its two prong attack of Shelby American v Holman & Moody. As John Wyer was surprised to learn of a second Werks' effort called Porsche Salzburg in Austria, and Porsche  Customer Martini Racing also received Factory support.

The Porsche Salzburg team fielded a trio of 917's, running a Brace of the 4.5-litre lumps mated to 917K Short Tails, and a single 4.9-litre unit propelling one of the more "Slippy" 917L Long Tails.

Martini Racing's 917L (4.5-litre) entry reportedly was the most vibrant Porsche on the Grid, and quickly became known as the Psychedelic Hippie' Car! With David Piper running a Privateer 917K, giving Porsche a total of eight 917's entered - by My count.

Meanwhile Il Commendatore', nee Enzo Ferrari was still licking his wounds after being Dethroned by Ford, albeit having sold Half of his Automotive concern to FIAT in the Summer of 1969.

This in turn funded the construction of the mandatory 25 units for Homologation of his latest Le Mans challenger. The striking Ferrari 512S, which in Ferrari naming parlance stood for Five litres and 12 Cylinders, produced to compete against Porsche.

These 512S vith Thar 60-degrees V-12 lumps were also rated at 550bhp. And  Ferrari also designed its own Long Tail variant known as the Coda Lunga for Le Mans, reportedly with eight versions being produced. Naturally for All four Factory entries, with the rest sprinkled about various Customer teams.

Scuderia Ferrari's four Factory 512S chassis were driven by their two Formula 1 Drivers leading the charge. With the aforementioned Ickx paired with Peter Schetty. And Regga', aka Clay Regazzoni paired with Arturo Merzario, who's claim to fame was later saving Niki "the Rat" Lauda's life at the Nurburgring!

The other two Scarlet Cars were entered for Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti,with Vaccarella having won the 1964 Le Mans outing for Ferrari. along with two young F1 Hopefuls named Derrick Bell partnered by Ronnie Peterson.

Scuderia Filipinetti had three 512S entered, including two Long Tails. North American Racing Team, (N.A.R.T winner's of the 1965 Le Mans had two 512S in the field, including one Coda Lunga, and Ecurie Francorchamps had the final 512S Long Tail version.

While the eleventh and final Ferrari 512S contesting the event was entered by Spain's Escuderia Montjuich, and was the lone Spyder version racing.

With the large contingent 'O Ferrari and Porsche's in the premiere Group 5 (S) Sports Category, All eyes were upon this epic Duel of 5.0-liter Prototypes battling for Overall victory.

While they were "supported" by the 3.0-litre Group 6 (P) Prototype and the Tintop Saloons (GT) category, mostly comprised of the venerable Porsche 911's, albeit a pair of Boomin' 7.0-litre Big Block C3 Corvettes were entered.

This was the very first year of Drivers starting Bolted into their Cockpits, finally disposing of the Dangerous Drivers running Across the Track routine. And the 917's and 512S quickly displayed their Dominance over the rest of the field, encountering Backmarkers as soon as Lap-3!

Yet the race was largely one of attrition due to the most uncooperative weather, which had seen Le Mans caught in Thunderstorms on Friday, signaling what Mother Nature had in store for the race!

And when the Downpour began, naturally visibility became the racer's harshest competitor. Ironically it was Swede' Reine  Weissel in a Scuderia Filipinetti Oil-smeared Windscreen Ferrari 512S trying to crawl his way about that caused the retirements of four 512S including Weissel's, and three being Factory Cars in the blink of a moment!

Meanwhile the Porsche 917's weren't immune to retirement, albeit mostly due to mechanical woes, seeing their numbers dwindling. Yet upon Jacky Ickx's Nasty, Fiery Crash during the Night, when his Ferrari flew into a Corner Worker's station and Killed one Track Marshall. This effectively ended Scuderia Ferrari's chances of victory, since all four of its team cars were now out of the race.

Long story short, as History denotes, Porsche finally won Le Mans outright with its legendous' 917, albeit it was the unexpected Porsche Konstruktionen Salzburg entry of Hans Herrmann and Richard Atwood, as all three of the JWA Gulf 917's failed to finish.

As the victory was Doubly Sweet for Herrmann, who Sports Car Diehards will know lost the previous year's race to Ford when battling Jacky Ickx for the win, coming up just some 20 meters short of overtaking the venerable Ford GT-40. Reportedly after Ickx had Hoodwinked him into being overtaken in order to Slipstream past the Porsche 908 for victory!

Second place went to the Martini Racing 917 Hippie' Car of Gerard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen, with Porsche sweeping the podium when Helment Marco and Rudi Lins claimed third place in a 908/2LH Prototype, claiming their category's first place.

And Ja-Ja! That's the same Der Helmut! Today's Red Bull Racing Advisor who enjoys throwing out Drivers like Luke-warm Bath water! Although Helment Marco was then just a 27yr old aspiring Formula 1 Driver...

Limping home in fourth place was the N.A.R.T. 512S Coda Lunga with Sam Posey and Ronnie Bucknum at its controls, with the Top-5 rounded out by the Ecurie Francorchamps Long Tail Ferrari 512S.

Ironically it was Dr. Ferry Porsche chosen to wave the Green Flag in what was Porsche's twentieth outing, whilst only seven of the 57 competitors were classified as Finishers having covered the mandatory race distance.

Oh yeah, what 'bout that mystery fourth JWA Porsche 917 Y'all may be saying, if you're still reading this? Whale' it was reportedly to be driven by the reigning Formula 1 World Champion, The Wee' Scot JYS, nee Jackie Stewart and his Sidekick; err Co-Driver Steve McQueen! Yet McQueen's personal Insurer refused to cover his life for said event, (Le Mans) along with JWA's entry not being accepted by the ACO.

Also, this was the year that McQueen's Film Company Solar Productions showed up at Circuit  de la Sarthe and entered it's Porsche 908. The same car finishing second at Sebring, as a Camera Car to capture racing footage for the epic film Le Mans, which was released on Ye Big Screen in 1971.