GRR

Meet the quiet Porsche legend

04th June 2018
Paul Fearnley

He won the 1966 BTCC – or rather British Saloon Car Championship – for Ford in an Anglia prepared by Ralph Broad. He was victorious in the ETCC in Escort and Capri as well as for BMW and Jaguar, and in 1976 he won the Daytona 24 Hours in a BMW CSL and the James Hardie 1,000 at Bathurst in a Holden Torana.

john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061810.jpg

But John Fitzpatrick is a ‘Porsche guy’ – even though he missed a mid-1970s opportunity to join the Martini-backed works squad because he’d signed already for a satellite outfit.

“I’m not complaining; I just lucked out in that respect,” he says. “But Porsche provided me with much of my success and the end of my career was all Porsche. Probably I drove more races for them than for all my other manufacturers added together.”

More than 200 starts from 1972-’83 yielded more than the 30 victories for ‘Fitz’, in 911S, Carrera RSR, 935 and 956, run by the Kremer brothers, Georg Loos, Dick Barbour and his own team.

He wore the European GT crown in 1972 and ’74 – lifting the Porsche Cup both years –secured the 1980 IMSA GT title having won that year’s Sebring 12 Hours and thrice won his class at Le Mans.

“It’s possible to build a rapport with Porsche,” he says. “They’re a little bit conservative – a trait of that part of Germany – but also they are very thorough.

When you bought a car from them you knew you were getting the best. They were all equal. No doubt about it. And so reliable.”

Normally.

john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061802.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061803.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061805.jpg

Fitzpatrick was leading his first race in a Porsche – the 1967 Nürburgring Six Hours – from pole courtesy of Dutch owner/driver Ben Pon, when their 911’s suspension fell prey to the bumps and yumps.

The following year he shared Midlands neighbour Bill Bradley’s 910 – John’s first racing car minus a roof! – with Alan Rollinson and finished second at Barcelona’s Montjüich Park on the April day that Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim.

“Those early 911s were very tail-happy but I did okay in it and enjoyed it,” he says. “And the 910 had fabulous road holding. But I didn’t race a Porsche again until 1972.”

The meat of this Porker story begins with a conversation at the Daytona 24 Hours with the Kremers: “Manfred was the engineer, very quiet and kept in the background; Erwin was the frontman who did a bit of driving. Their cars were always good and they paid me more than Ford Germany did.

“Erwin could be a bit tricky; I had to learn how to deal with him, put it that way. But they were angels compared to Loos.

“The RSR was great. It did everything right. Not difficult to drive, it was the ultimate non-turbo 911.

John Fitzpatrick

The rivalry between these Cologne-based teams was a clash of cultures: the Kremers were self-sufficient whereas Loos relied on Zuffenhausen’s customer department. Fitzpatrick experienced both sides not least during a fraught but successful 1974.

“I started with Loos but had a barney with him over something and decided to stop,” he says. “Then I rejoined Kremer, for whom Paul Keller was leading the championship – but now I was beating him at various races.

“It would have been fine had they told me they wanted Paul to be champion. Instead they fiddled and gave me a bad car for a couple of races. That pissed me off. So I went back to Loos.

john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061807.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061806.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061808.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061811.jpg

“The RSR was great. It did everything right. Not difficult to drive, it was the ultimate non-turbo 911. We did well with it at Le Mans against the prototypes in 1975: we won our class and finished fifth overall.

“In contrast the 934 Turbo was a real handful and Loos and Kremer weren’t keen on it. Not until 935 was developed could it cope with the power.”

Six seasons with the latter were Fitzpatrick’s most successful – on both sides of the Atlantic – as he vied with Messrs Ludwig, Stommelen and Wollek to be Herr 935.

“I raced with and against Bob and he was a good friend,” he says. “But he was introverted and sensitive and Loos used to upset him. A lot. Bob was the last of the late brakers. You knew that he wouldn’t brake if you didn’t and that you would both fly off the road

“But the fastest I drove with and against was Rolf Stommelen. He worked really hard on every little bit of the car and was never satisfied – and unbelievably fast. If you were driving with him you had to be on your best form.

“At Le Mans in 1968 he made fastest lap, in the wet, at night. Unbelievable. And Porsche will tell you that he was the quickest in the early 917.

“His being killed in one of my cars was the worst moment of my career.”

Stommelen’s fatal crash at Riverside, California in April 1983 also marked the beginning of the end of Fitzpatrick’s driving career.

“My wife was very hard hit by his death and she became increasingly nervous and stopped coming with me to races. Plus we had two very young kids…”

john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061809.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061804.jpg
john_fitzpatrick_porsche_05061801.jpg

Victory in September’s Brands Hatch 1,000km would be Fitzpatrick’s last – and most satisfying.

“I had driven powerful cars with wings but never with ground effect,” he says of the Group C 956. “I had practised a 917/10 for Loos at one of the German airfield circuits when [contracted Interserie] driver Tim Schenken was delayed. That had a 1,000bhp and was awesome.

“And the 956’s turbo lag was less than that of the 935’s, so that wasn’t a problem. It was the g forces.

“When we got our 956 we took it straight to Riverside; [Porsche’s chief engineer] Norbert Singer had flown over to stay with us for a few days to help me learn the car. But after 10 laps in a row I couldn’t hold my head up. I had to work like hell on my neck muscles.

“The key to Brands – where we beat the Rothmans works cars fair and square – was how quick [co-driver] Derek Warwick was in the rain at the start of the race. He won that race for us. No question. He pulled out a lead so massive that only a complete idiot would have lost it.

“And I drove better than I ever had. Derek inspired me.”

Had the unassuming Fitzpatrick won Le Mans he would have become a household name: “That’s my biggest regret. I never had the luck. I was on pole in 1980 in Dick Barbour’s 935 and basically we led until we got a misfire in the early morning. That was my best chance.

“Again, I’m not complaining. I’m proud to be known as a Porsche guy.”

Photography courtesy of LAT

  • Porsche

  • 911

  • 935

  • 956

  • John Fitzpatrick

  • porsche_norbert_singer_05071826.jpg

    Historic

    The genius behind the Porsche 917, 935, 956, 962 and GT1

  • porsche_935_moby_dick_28092018.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: The 935 is the most intimidating car in the world

  • group_5_special_production_goodwood_21021806_list.jpg

    Members' Meeting

    What made Group 5 "Special Production" so mad?