Porsche's flirtation with Formula 1

22nd May 2018
Paul Fearnley

A summer cold left him feeling/reeling as though he had raced already. Plus, he reckoned the track to be rougher than it looked – and it looked pretty rough.


Yep, “We should be in pretty good shape by the end of the race,” croaked a glass-half-full Dan Gurney. The next day he celebrated – somewhat gingerly – his first world championship Grand Prix victory. It was Porsche’s first, too – and also its last as a constructor.  Single-seaters are a footnote to this Stuttgart marque’s sportscar magnum opus yet it contains several notable feats nevertheless – plus a dramatis personae including Stirling Moss and Graham Hill as well as Gurney. 

It began in summer 1958 with the car that had just a fortnight previously finished fourth overall to win the 1500cc class at Le Mans. Porsche had already met with Formula 2 success using mildly modified two-seaters – most notably at the 1957 German GP with Edgar Barth – when it converted this 718 RSK to central-seat specification. 

Driven by feisty Frenchman Jean Behra and still fitted with its enveloping body, complete with rear-fender fins and wheel spats but minus headlights, it outran the open-wheelers of Cooper and Lotus, as well as a Ferrari, in the category’s most important race: La Coupe Internationale de Vitesse at Reims.

This victory by 20 seconds set motorsport boss Huschke von Hanstein a-thinking – and this was before the governing body announced that Formula 1 would be for 1.5-litre cars from 1961. Behra had had similar thoughts. His Porsche F2 single-seater for 1959, adapted by Modenese Valerio Colotti from an RSK purchased at mate’s rates, was narrower and more rakish (less bulbous?) than the works effort.

It was the latter, with input from engineers Helmuth Bott and Hans Mezger and driven by Wolfgang von Trips, that shone at Monaco, however, qualifying amid the F1s in 12th place. Unfortunately, the German aristocrat spun out on oil on the second lap.


Behra’s car showed promise, too – Hans Herrmann finishing second to Moss’s Cooper-Borgward at Reims – but sadly its creator would be killed within weeks when his Porsche RSK Spyder flew over the rim of AVUS’s towering brick banking. 

The following season saw a full-scale F2 assault from Porsche – and Moss was onboard albeit in a 718/2 in the privateer colours of Rob Walker; von Hanstein knew which side his pretzel was buttered. So, too, was Hill, who wrote of the Porsche: “It was entirely different from the normal run of British cars. I am not sure that its road holding was as good as the British cars, but it felt solid and always seemed as though it was one unit and not a collection of parts.” 

Yet 718/2 was undeniably an odd-bod: a six-speed synchro gearbox with rubbery change; drum brakes within steel wheels; Beetle-derived trailing-link front suspension; and a long-in-the-tooth air-cooled flat-four that sounded like a gaggle of racing motorbikes. Moss reckoned the latter “unburstable” – until it burst while leading the Syracuse GP in Sicily in March. Gearbox problems then cost him victory in the Heysel GP at Brussels – he finished second to Jack Brabham’s Cooper – and Innes Ireland’s Lotus 18 beat him fair and square in Goodwood’s Lavant Cup. 

He would, however, head a Porsche 1-2-3 in April’s Aintree 200 and another in September’s non-championship Austrian GP at Zeltweg airfield. He also won a brace of end-of-season races in South Africa, at Killarney and East London. But it was Jo Bonnier who scored the model’s most important victory, heading a 1-2-4-5-6 results in a very wet German GP run for F2 cars only on the Nürburgring’s Sudschleife. Porsche meanwhile was developing a flat-eight for F1 in 1961. Delays, however, forced its continued reliance on 718 – still on drums, still on carbs.

Bar a nifty piece of slipstreaming that belied Ferrari newcomer Giancarlo Baghetti’s inexperience, Porsche’s new signing Gurney would have won the French GP at Reims. Gurney also finished second at Monza and Watkins Glen and was fourth – equal on points with Moss – in the championship, the American admitting to learning a lot thanks to rugged Porsche reliability. With the new engine in a new steel-tube chassis ready at last, there was reason for hope for 1962.


Whereupon Lotus’ Colin Chapman unveiled his secret weapon: the stressed-skin bathtub monocoque Type 25, fitted with a Climax V8 on fuel injection, at the Dutch GP – a race won by Hill in a sorted BRM P57 with a new V8 that promised reliability as well as power. 804 was ungainly in comparison. Necessarily wide – despite a short stroke (54.6mm) that left it short of torque – and flat – its cooling fan now horizontal – the lanky Gurney jutted from it “like a giraffe”. 

Porsche was doing things its way: a strength and a weakness for a marque new to the category and isolated from Britain’s cluster of specialised suppliers. It had gone the wishbone route albeit with longitudinal torsion bars and now had disc brakes albeit of an inside-out arrangement, the caliper clamping the disc, which was more of an annulus really, from within rather than without. The car was well made and technically interesting if a little staid. 

Gurney ran third – behind Clark and Hill – for a time at Zandvoort before pitting because of the first knockings of the gear-selection problems that would cause his eventual retirement. He was wiped out at the first corner in Monaco. Porsche skipped the Belgian GP in order to regroup, tested at the Nürburgring and returned with a revised car – front radius arms and a more reclined seating position that required a removable steering wheel – for July’s French GP at Rouen.

As Gurney had predicted, it was in pretty good shape by the end of the race and although his eventual victory relied on the unreliability of others’ – Clark’s front suspension broke and Hill’s fuel injection went awry – clearly 804 had been improved. Gurney won the Solitude GP the following weekend – a vital home success despite the race’s lack of world championship status – and might have won the German GP at the Nürburgring had not the battery come adrift – he had to brace it using his clutch foot – having started from pole and led the first two laps. 

Instead he finished third. Though able to recover quickly time lost, he had neither the traction nor opportunity to pass leader Hill or the Lola of John Surtees in the streaming wet. 


He had also run third in the British GP at Aintree before slipping to ninth because of a slipping clutch; he was holding third at Monza when the cwp failed; and a misfire dropped him from third to fifth at Watkins Glen. Gurney’s brilliance might have been the best thing about the project but Porsche was genuinely vying to be best of the rest. That, though, was insufficient for Ferry Porsche. Already wary of the disconnect between the category and road cars, he surmised correctly that his company was as yet too small to contest F1 as well as sportscar and GT races.

That it was on the verge of vastly increasing in size via the acquisition of Reutter coachworks would initially compound that problem rather than ease it. So, Porsche the constructor absented itself from the title-decider in South Africa – held on December 29th! – and has stayed away since.

Footnote 1: Privateers Gerhard Mitter and Carel Godin de Beaufort scored three and two points respectively in 1963 in venerable 718s run by the latter’s Ecurie Maarsbergen.

Footnote 2: Porsche returned to F1 as the creator for McLaren of the TAG turbo. This V6 would win 25 GPs from 1983-’87 and secure three drivers’ and two constructors’ titles in the process.

Footnote 3: Porsche’s atmo V12 for Footwork in 1991 was an unmitigated disaster.

  • Porsche

  • Formula 1

  • Dan Gurney

  • dan-gurney-f1-1964-brands-hatch-brabham-lat-mi-main-goodwood-18062021.jpg

    Formula 1

    Dan Gurney is an overlooked legend | Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • dan-gurney-celebration-revival-2012-goodwood-06072020.jpg

    Goodwood Revival

    Video: Celebrating Dan Gurney at Goodwood

  • dan_gurney_goodwood_02_15011831_list.jpg


    Dan Gurney: A racing career and character in pictures