GRR

Richard Attwood is the most humble Le Mans-winner | Thank Frankel it's Friday

15th July 2021
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

There are few pleasures greater in my working life than sitting down and talking cars with Richard Attwood. And I really do mean that, and not just because 20 years ago he let me drive his Porsche 917. Richard is not just a fine racing driver who, but for mechanical maladies would have won Le Mans for Porsche not just once, but three times in succession, he also provides the best of company.

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Now in his 80s, Richard is as sharp as ever, as funny too and unlike almost all racing drivers I’ve known, absolutely steadfast in his refusal to over-egg his contribution to the sport. When I pointed out he won his penultimate professional race as a racing driver, sharing a Gulf 917 with Pedro Rodriguez to win the Osterreichring 1000kms in 1971 he was totally dismissive of the suggestion.

"Win?" he snorted as we sat down to lunch in the Porsche Le Mans café at the Festival of Speed, "I barely drove the car." He explains.

"I knew I was quitting at the end of the season, I wasn’t even really a full-time racing driver that year, just filling in when required. And at that level, if you’re not out there all the time it doesn’t take much to go off the boil. In practice, I was three or four seconds a lap slower than Pedro who was driving as only he could. So when I got the ‘In’ board I deliberately stayed out one more lap, just for me, to see what I could do. And in the end, I think I was a couple of seconds off Pedro, which I was actually quite pleased with. In the race, I only drove when he needed a rest. Did the minimum the rules permitted. It was Pedro’s race from start to finish."

But really the reason I’m writing this now is because of a race he did 13 years after retiring from the sport, apparently for good. It happened in 1984 when Richard Attwood was tempted back to Le Mans. Not in a Porsche, but an Aston Martin of sorts. As Aston Martin launched the Valhalla yesterday, I thought it might be interesting to give Richard’s perspective of that rather earlier mid-engined Aston he’d raced all those years ago.

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"Really it was down to Michael," he recalls today, remembering my old friend and 13 times Le Mans competitor Michael Salmon. "They were in the third year of the Aston Martin Nimrod project and he asked me to join him at Le Mans. But I drove the car at the Silverstone Six Hours to get a proper feel for it and didn’t like it at all with its high downforce bodywork. But when we got to Le Mans and low downforce configuration, I was immediately completely at home in it."

Two cars were entered, one to be driven by Attwood, Salmon and dentist John Sheldon, the other by Ray Mallock and American driver Drake Olson.

"It started really well. Michael and Ray were really fantastic drivers – very quick – while taking nothing out of the car. For myself, I just got really comfortable in the car and established a nice, easy rhythm, which was essential for looking after yourself and your car in the days when they were very physical to drive and needed managing if they were to stand any chance of last 24 hours. And the next thing I knew I was being shown boards telling me to slow down!"

Richard was back in the Le Mans groove, driving like he had never been away. "I don’t know if it’s true, and it seems unlikely, but (team manager) Richard Williams reckoned that if we’d been able to maintain that pace to the end, we could even have won the thing."

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Right or wrong, that’s not what happened. As dusk was falling and John Sheldon was driving he had an enormous accident on the Mulsanne Straight, leaving a debris field over 300 yards long and a blazing wreck from which he escaped with severe burns. Staggeringly, Drake Olson managed to drive straight into the wreckage, severely shocking himself and putting the second Aston out in effectively the same accident which left one marshal dead and another seriously injured.

"Why did he not just slow down?" Attwood remains as bemused by Olson’s actions today as ever. It would be Richard’s last outing as a paid professional driver in a contemporary motor race.

Yet he races on and will be back in his Formula 1 BRM P261 at the Revival in September. Be sure not to miss him.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Richard Attwood

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  • Pedro Rodriguez

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