In April 1971 Derek Bell and Jo Siffert, in JW Automotive’s Porsche 917K, won the opening round of the World Sportscar Championship at the Autodromo Oscar Alfredo Galvez in Buenos Aires. The victory in Argentina would be Bell’s first in sportscar racing – and his only success in the iconic 917. Porsche went on to dominate that year’s Championship of Makes for the wonderful Group 5 sportscars.
For Bell, who won his first-ever motor race at Goodwood in 1964, the 1971 season was something of a breakthrough, having completed just two endurance events in 1970 when he shared a factory-entered Ferrari 512S with Ronnie Peterson at Le Mans, and drove for Ecurie Francorchamps at the Kyalami Nine Hours.
‘I’d done Formula 3 and Formula 2, and by 1968 I was on the grid at Monza for my first Grand Prix with Ferrari,’ the man from Pagham explains. ‘So I thought I was looking at a career as a Grand Prix driver, and I scored my first, and only, championship point at Watkins Glen in 1970 when I came sixth in the Surtees TS7. That season was a turning point for me because I finished second in the European F2 Championship in Tom Wheatcroft’s Brabham BT30, became involved in filming Steve McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’, and got the call from Ferrari to race the 512 with Ronnie Peterson at Le Mans that summer. During the filming with Steve I’d been lucky to get away with minor burns when my 512 caught fire, so my earliest memory of the car is not the best. In fact the car was rebuilt and I’m looking forward to being out in the Ferrari again at the Members’ Meeting in March. It began life as a 512S but was later updated to the 512M spec we see today. Le Mans in ’70 wasn’t a great race, we only managed 39 laps, but I was sixth at Kyalami in the Francorchamps 512, sharing with the Belgian Hughes de Fierlant. So, going into 1971, this was the start of my career with Porsche and a whole new chapter for me in sportscar racing.’
The Porsche 917, which had been a difficult beast to tame in its first couple of seasons, was by now an extremely effective weapon, especially when fettled by John Horsman, the legendary chief engineer at John Wyer’s Gulf-sponsored JW Automotive team.
‘You know, everyone talks about the 917 as being a frightening car, even a dangerous thing, and nobody wanted to race it, but by ’71 it was a really great sports car and John Horsman had made it much more stable at high speed. The tubular chassis was just so compliant, it turned in so sharply, you could do anything with it, especially in the wet. Compared with most big sportscars it had this forgiving chassis. The car’s remarkable straightline speed was also a big strength at places like Spa, Monza and Le Mans, where we were seeing up to 240mph on the straights. The long-tail version was superb at places like that, too.
‘The Ferrari 512 was like a lorry compared with the Porsche. It didn’t give you any feel, the handling was a bit soft, a bit vague, although that 12-cylinder engine was great, very powerful. In ’71 the 512 was simply out-classed by the 917. Ferrari was trying to focus on Formula 1 at the same time, and there was very little, if any, development on the car. As a result of spreading their resources they didn’t win a single race in that last year of the 5-litre formula for sportscars. Porsche took eight wins from those eleven races, with the Autodelta Alfa Romeo T33 winning the other three – at Brands Hatch, the Targa Florio and Watkins Glen, where the Alfa, with its 2-litre V8, was perfect for those twisty and hilly circuits.’
Looking back on the 5-litre formula, arguably the greatest era in the history of sportscar racing, the Porsche 917 steals all the headlines, but there was so much more to enjoy as the teams travelled the world from January to July in 1971.
‘Yes, the 917 is the iconic car, isn’t it?’ says Bell. ‘But the series was such a colourful, spectacular and dramatic show for the fans, whether you were in Argentina, America or Austria, in stifling heat or torrential rain. You had the red of the Alfas, the scarlet Ferraris from Maranello, the yellow ones from Belgium, the N.A.R.T cars with their American flags, the Porsches in their Gulf liveries, or the Martini stripes, and then all the privateers with their various colours. And the sounds… You had the flat-12 Porsche, the V12 Ferrari, the torquey V8 of the Alfa, and rumbling Chevy V8s in the Lolas. All this will be celebrated at the 74th Members’ Meeting on March 19-20, when we’ll see the cars back in action round Goodwood. It will be fast, and it will be fun, so make sure you take your seats for what was once one of motor racing’s greatest shows.’
The 74th Members’ Meeting will feature daily demonstrations of a staggering horde of Group 5 sports-racers from a highly evocative period of the International Championship of Makes – the World Sportscar Championship by any other name. The years 1969-1971 produced incredible battles between the fastest and most beautiful, purpose-built endurance weapons ever seen, including Porsche’s flat-12 917, Ferrari’s V12 512S – and later 512M – and British brawn in the shape of the V8-engined Lola T70 Mk3B.
Interview by Rob Widdows
Images courtesy of LAT and Blackbird Media