GRR

Thank Frankel it's Friday: Ferrari 312 PB – the best sportscar never to win Le Mans

01st June 2017
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

At this time of year many of us will be turning our thoughts towards Le Mans and because my mind is odd and works that way, it often turns not to the cars that won, but those that did not.

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Of them all and to me at least, the greatest sportscar never to win Le Mans is Ferrari’s 312 PB not least because, failure in France notwithstanding, it was Ferrari’s single most successful sportscar design.

Yet you could at least argue that success was the result of a mistake. Anyone who’s watched the Steve McQueen Le Mans movie will know about the battle that raged throughout 1970 between the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512 S. Regulars on this site will know also that the Ferrari never beat the Porsche in a championship round save at Sebring where, unusually, all the works 917s had reliability issues. Ferrari’s mistake was not to pursue the project. Porsche had had a full year’s head start in developing the 917 yet by the end of 1970 the 512 S was transformed into the car it should have been from the start, the 512 M (for ‘modificato’) duly trouncing the Porsches at the season finale (but non-championship) nine-hour race at Kyalami. But Ferrari knew these big bangers would be banned from 1972 onwards so chose instead to focus developing the 3-litre car the new regs demanded.

The result was to hand the 1971 season on a plate to Porsche: there were 11 rounds and Porsche won eight, Alfa Romeo the remainder. Ferrari was left scratching around for minor places on the podium.

But what this did mean was that by 1972 it was Ferrari that now had the fully developed prototype and, because Porsche had marched off in a huff at the new rules to vent its frustrations to game-changing effect in the North American Can-Am series, its principal opponent was removed. It was called the 312 PB, not for ‘prototipo Boxer’ as some imagined, but as the evolved ‘B’ specification of the previous season’s 312 P. Actually, in accordance with Ferrari nomenclature, it could well have been the 312 BP, though I imagine lead sponsor Shell would have had a word or two to say about that.

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At the start and even without the factory Porsches, the season was not expected to be a walkover. The Alfas that had outperformed the Ferraris in 1971 were still around, there was a brand new Mirage with former Gulf-Porsche boss John Wyer at the helm, and a new Lola as well.

But the 312 PB was a pearl of a machine, and it came powered by Ferrari’s still new flat-12 Formula 1 engine which offered the kind of power of which the Autodelta engineers tending to the Alfa’s elderly V8s could only dream. Even in detuned long distance specification, it gave 440bhp at, by its standards, a very leisurely 10,600rpm. Even in 1972, it was reliable to 12,500rpm in F1 trim, way beyond the reach of any competitor engine including the Cosworth DFV. Each titanium conrod cost £1000, which is around £13,000 today. And there were a dozen in each engine. 

Not only that, but Ferrari drew upon literally the finest talent pool in racing at the time: during 1972 the 312 PB would be raced by amongst others, Ronnie Peterson, Jacky Ickx, Brian Redman, Clay Regazzoni, Arturo Merzario and Indy 500 winner and future F1 world champion Mario Andretti.

The result was total dominance as Andretti once made clear, commenting on rival teams, ‘they were just there. We never considered them opposition. The only competition was within the team. We gave [team manager Peter] Schetty grey hairs. The only pit boards he ever held out were ‘slow’ and ‘hold’. We would never obey…’

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So the 312 PB won every single place it went from Buenos Aires to Brands Hatch, from Daytona and Sebring to the Nurburgring and Targa Florio. Its dominance was such it made the Porsche 917’s performance the previous season look positively patchy. 

And yet it did not win Le Mans, because it was not entered. Despite Ickx setting the fastest time at the test weekend in March, Enzo withdrew the entries to the race itself and for two reasons. The publically quoted one was concerns over the longevity over 24 hours of an engine designed for Formula 1. (If you’re interested, Daytona had been reduced to a six-hour format partly to ensure some of the 3-litre prototypes actually finished). Privately, Ferrari was also looking over his shoulder to the Matra team that had done the exact opposite and that season would enter Le Mans alone. 

So in the end, both Ferrari and Matra won every round they contended, the difference being that was 10 races for Ferrari and just one for Matra.

The 312 PB was so good that, despite having made its debut during 1971, it raced on little changed into 1973. But not only had Matra made big strides, Ferrari had lost Peter Schetty – one of the most under-rated team managers of all – and was facing financial cutbacks that meant just two cars would be entered for most races, instead of the three that went to every round Ferrari contested in 1972. But the pickings were slim, with wins coming only at Monza and the Nurburgring as Matra took control of the series. Ironically the 312 PB did race at Le Mans that year and for a long time looked like winning it until the car of Ickx and Redman retired in the final hour. Perhaps the most notable achievement that year was Jacky Ickx recording what will stand for all time as the fastest ever lap of the old Spa-Francorchamps, at a barely believable average speed of over 163mph in a 3-litre car 44 years ago. And, yes, that does include F1 cars.

Photographs courtesy of LAT Images

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