DEC 09th 2015

Doug Nye – Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 Go Head‑To‑Head

NART Ferrari 512M 'up the wall' at Daytona '71

Doug Nye

Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.

While great racing drivers inevitably grow old and fade away, their great racing cars face a cherished and immortal future. Certainly two great racing car designs enjoy enormous stature today, and both will be celebrated at Goodwood at the 74th Members’ Meeting in March. One is German – the Porsche 917K – the other Italian – the Ferrari 512S. Both are essentially tube-frame chassised competition coupes. Both carry their 4.5 to 5-litre engines behind the cockpit. Both have 12-cylinder engines with twin overhead camshafts and fuel injection. But the Porsche 917’s power unit is an air-cooled flat-12, while Ferrari’s finest 512 is the last of that great marque’s classic water-cooled endurance-racing V12s.

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These two magnificent cars date from 1970-71 – an era which many modern enthusiasts hold in awe as marking the truly charismatic high tide of endurance racing. In period these two machines were stupendous supercars, driven in battle by supermen…

These wonderful machines were built to World Championship of Makes regulations, which had been remodeled for the three seasons 1969-1971. The rule-making body of the governing FIA had moved in September, 1967, to limit an explosive acceleration in speed and power. The American Ford and Chaparral companies had developed immensely powerful 7-litre V8 engines from mainstream production concepts for their Mark II, Mark IV and Type 2F cars. To combat such Detroit muscle, Ferrari ran its highly sophisticated 4-litre 4-cam 36-valve engines in its latest 330P4 sports-prototypes.

Then for 1968 the rule makers slapped an immediate 3-litre capacity limit upon the World Championship of Makes, but announced that from January 1, 1969, they would permit one-off 3-litre racing-engined ‘Group 6 Sports-Prototype’ cars to be matched by minimum 50-off, 5-litre ‘Group 4 Sports Cars’. The rule makers’ intention was to equate purebred racing engine performance with production-based ‘iron engine’ capability. The intention was good, but the rule makers reckoned without the world-dominating ambitions of Porsche’s contemporary technical director, Ferdinand Piech and his financial backers.

Gulf-JW Porsche 917 Daytona pit stop - Jackie Oliver looking on (left -  Gulf orange jacket)

Gulf-JW Porsche 917 Daytona pit stop – Jackie Oliver looking on (left – Gulf orange jacket)

During 1968 Porsche’s policy of manufacturing brand-new 3-litre factory team cars for almost every race meant that they had completed a huge fleet of their 3-litre Typ 908 sports-prototypes. When pressure upon the CSI succeeded in reducing 5-litre Group 4’s minimum-production limit for 1969 from 50-off to only 25-off, Porsche promptly funded manufacture of 25 new Typ 917 Coupes, powered not by 5-litre production-based engines, but by a matching purebred racing engine. The new Porsche 917 first emerged in 1969 with a 4.5-litre power unit, but for 1970 it would grow rapidly to 4.9-litres, and quickly to a full 5-litres.

Meanwhile, Ferrari was in agony during 1969, failing in Formula 1, faltering on the sports car scene and in desperate straits financially. To ensure Ferrari’s survival, The Old Man then did his famous deal with Gianni Agnelli – head of Fiat – to fund Ferrari’s future, protecting Italian national prestige. Porsche’s exploitation of its technical and financial muscle to attack the World Championship of Makes series could not be ignored. Fiat-Ferrari consequently announced its own 5-litre purebred racing-engined WCM programme – and within 12 weeks from a blank sheet of paper, the V12-engined Ferrari 512S entered production for factory and private team use – to confront Porsche’s new 917s.

The scene was set for a motor racing era as Homeric as the Mercedes-Benz v. Auto Union ‘Silver Arrows’ period of the 1930s. The new designs’1970 racing season began against a background of continuing Italian industrial troubles and only with great difficulty were Ferrari’s new V12 cars prepared in time for the Daytona 24-Hours at the end of January. Preparation was hasty but the Ferraris appeared to have better roadholding than the big Porsches, power was comparable, but fuel consumption higher.

WOW factor 1 - Porsche 917 launch - Geneva Salon 1969

WOW factor 1 – Porsche 917 launch – Geneva Salon 1969

Frantic Maranello development trimmed some 50kg weight and improved fuel consumption, while two cars were converted to open Spider bodywork. Berlinetta ‘1026’ weighed 10kg more than the Spider. In the Sebring 12-Hours, Nino Vaccarella/Ignazio Giunti/Mario Andretti shared the only 512S survivor – and, as the Porsche 917s faltered – it won outright. Ferraristi worldwide were elated.

Thereafter, the Porsche 917s dominated, with the Ferrari 512S cars chasing hard but generally just picking up the crumbs. More promisingly, by mid-September the 512M – Modificato – engine was producing some 616bhp at 8,600rpm on the test bench. The revised new 512M model for 1971 made its debut in the 1970 Osterreichring 1,000Kms and then won the Kyalami 9-Hours in South Africa, driven by Ickx/Giunti.

The new 1971 World Championship season opened in January at Buenos Aires with the Argentine 1,000Kms. Four Ferrari 512s ran there – and finished 5-6-7-8 as the Porsche 917s again dominated.

WOW factor 2 - Ferrari 512S  launch - Ferrari factory, Maranello, end of 1969

WOW factor 2 – Ferrari 512S launch – Ferrari factory, Maranello, end of 1969

The British Gulf-JW Automotive team headed by John Wyer had also dominated the 1970 WCM season with its pale-blue-and-orange quasi-works Porsches and its two star drivers Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. The organisation had begun its second Porsche 917 season in 1971, Siffert and his co-driver Derek Bell winning in Buenos Aires.

Round two of that year’s World Championship followed at the Daytona 24-Hours where Gulf-JW ran its two Porsche 917K Coupes for Siffert/Bell and Pedro Rodriguez/Jackie Oliver. Fastest Ferrari was the highly-modified Sunoco-Penske team 512M ‘1040’ co-driven by Mark Donohue/David Hobbs. This blue and yellow car was described by Ferrari chief engineer Mauro Forghieri as being the best-made Ferrari he had ever seen. It was ferociously fast. Donohue qualified it on pole position, a full 1.2 seconds faster than Pedro Rodriguez’s best lap in Porsche 917K ‘013’.

‘Captain Nice’ – Donohue – had hacked fully nine seconds off Mario Andretti’s year-old Daytona qualifying record with the factory 1970 512S, his 1min 42.42 time representing an average speed of 133.919mph, 11mph faster than Mario’s best.

 Ferrari 512S at Le Mans 1970

Ferrari 512S at Le Mans 1970

After initial flair, the Penske car struck trouble. After three hours the twin Gulf-JW Porsches dominated, first and second. But it would not last… as Bell took over from Siffert at 113 laps oil gushed from the car’s engine onto the pit lane, and the car retired. Derek recalled this was, in some ways, a relief: ‘There was no back chicane then… we used to come down the back straight around 205mph and then just go flat into the banking. It was a pretty nerve-wracking experience, particularly when you watched your team-mate doing it, and then realised you were going to have to do it. I was watching Jo from the infield when we were testing and thought, “I can’t possibly do that”, but of course I did. But I do have to say I was very relieved I realised the engine had gone.’ Jackie Oliver thought much the same: ‘So when I was invited back to Daytona for the 40th anniversary of the 917 I politely declined – saying I’d survived the experience once, why should I want to do it again?’

Just before dawn, rain began to fall. Jackie Oliver spun the leading Gulf-Porsche and immediately came in to hand over to Pedro – the wet-weather King – who promptly spun in the same place. The sun then rose, and by 8am the track was almost dry.

At 9am – three-quarter distance – the leading Porsche No.2 had completed 557 laps despite having leaked oil and for hours and sounding odd with a split exhaust. Second – at 514 laps – was the Bucknum/Adamowicz 512S. “Sturdy Ron” explained: ‘My hands are trembling. The back body blew off as I was flat-out down the back straight and since I was concentrating upon my line into the following banking I just didn’t notice. The instant I turned-in to the banking the car had no rear downforce so it spun like a top. The sister Ferrari 512M blew up under Sam Posey on the banking during the night, so we took the rear body off that car and Tony continued with it on ours.’

917 Langheck prototype at the Le Mans Test Weekend, 1971

917 Langheck prototype at the Le Mans Test Weekend, 1971

Round and round they blasted. At 11.30am Pedro brought the leading Porsche 917 into the Gulf-JW pit for an unscheduled stop – jammed in top gear. Changing the gearbox was forbidden, so the mechanics had to strip the transmission, easing out the seized gear-wheel with pullers, millimeter by millimeter. Simultaneously the spare gearbox was being stripped and its internals prepared for installation in the car’s hot casing.

So great was the Porsche’s lead over the second-placed NART Ferrari – itself sounding very sick with electrical and valve-spring problems – that it took more than an hour before ‘1006’ matched the Porsche’s total of 628 laps, to inherit the race lead.

But by then the gearbox job in the Gulf-JW pit was almost complete. At 1:05pm the engine cover was slammed shut, Pedro was aboard and he exploded back into the race. Despite cold engine, cold gearbox, cold brakes and cold tyres – he was hard on it from his opening lap.

The Bucknum/Adamowicz Ferrari was three laps ahead – with the Donohue/Hobbs Penske-Ferrari third, six laps behind. Rain resumed, Pedro hurtling round in the sliding 917K, flickering from kerb to kerb, ripping huge chunks of time out of the NART Ferrari’s lead. ‘He was unstoppable,’ recalled Luigi Chinetti. At 1:49pm Pedro was back into the lead. Heavier rain then looked to last longer than the previous showers. Both Pedro and Donohue stopped for rain tyres, only for the track to dry and force them both to change back onto dries.

Jacky Ickx in the long-tailed ('Coda Lunga') Ferrari 512 at Le Mans

Jacky Ickx in the long-tailed (‘Coda Lunga’) Ferrari 512 at Le Mans

These stops allowed Ronnie Bucknum to retake the lead, but passing the pits on each lap the NART Ferrari sounded off-song… Broken valve-springs were costing it 1,000rpm – then a fuel pick-up problem forced the team to make frequent ‘splash and dash’ pit stops to keep the tanks full. Pedro re-passed into the lead, but in the closing stages his flying Porsche 917K began trailing another thin plume of smoke. A sump oil gasket had split, leaking a spray of Gulf’s finest onto the hot exhausts. With 25 minutes to run the Penske Ferrari developed a similar fuel-feed problem to NART’s and the race was effectively over.

The final few laps ran out with the three leading cars in close company on track, with just one lap between the Gulf-Porsche and its now more healthy-sounding NART pursuer – the Penske car 13 laps adrift. Pedro later admitted: ‘When catching the lead Ferrari we were making ten seconds a lap, but I didn’t really know how many laps we were behind…’ He added: ‘The racing was more competitive this year.’ His leading Porsche and the second-placed Ferrari shared their troubles as they ground towards the chequered flag, the heavily smoking Porsche trailed by the sick-sounding flame-spitting Ferrari.

And then the 24 hours ticked out, and the Rodriguez/Oliver Porsche 917 had won, completing 688 laps, 2,621.28 troubled miles, at an average speed of 109.203mph. The NART Ferrari 512S finished second, one lap behind, and the battered Penske-Ferrari a distant third.

There would be more battles fought, more epics endured, but for all of us who saw these great cars race – and for those who survived driving them – long-distance Championship racing has never, ever, been better…

Photography courtesy of The GP Library

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