Endurance Racing Plays Out the Porsche 917 Against Ferrari 512
Endurance racing, once the most important international automotive challenge, even more important than Formula One, is once again riding a wave of resurgent interest both in Europe and the US. This year’s all-out factory Porsche 919 LeMans effort against the long-dominant Audi prototypes injected both drama and history into the classic 24-hour race. For 2016, Ford is planning a comeback with its stunning new GT supercar which will electrify the GT Class in the same way that the 919 lit up the prototypes. Watching it unfold reminded us of one of the most epic endurance racing battles of the past, Porsche vs Ferrari.
Porsche is the car most associated with the great endurance contests of the U.S. and Europe. Hearing the words “LeMans” forms mental pictures; Gulf Porsches, Martini Porsches of the 70’s, Rothman’s Porsches of the 80’s, and now the ultra high tech blunt-nose 919 of today. This association can be traced to one car, which has burned itself into the collective consciousness of anyone who has any knowledge of endurance racing in the epic 1969-1971 period, the Porsche 917.
Photo Courtesy of Gooding & Company auctions.
For 1969, the World Sportscar Championship seemed to be riding on past glories. Unable to compete with Ford’s massive GT40 program, Ferrari had dropped out after the 1967 season to concentrate on Formula One. The standout race of the time, the Le Mans 24 Hour, had fallen to Ford for three years running. For ’69, Porsche had built a winner in the lightweight 908, managing to push aside it’s power disadvantage compared to the big Ford V-8s with a more advanced design and balance. The Germans put up a good fight at LeMans, but when the checkered flag fell, the GT40 had won for the fourth year running.PhoPhoto Courtesy of Solar Productions.
Beautiful and intimidating, the new 917 was a flat-12 powered beast. It looked faster than anything that had torn through the classic tracks of Europe before, and some would argue, since. Power from the air-cooled work of art was at about 550 hp, much more than any other Porsche had ever achieved. The car’s debut at Spa proved disappointing however. The car was highly unstable at speed due to the reliance on a slick shape generating minimal downforce, a concept that had worked well on the lower-powered 908s. During testing, an engineer noticed that the front of the car was covered in dead bugs but the rear bodywork was clean. The tremendous boost in horsepower demanded air pushing down on the rear to create downforce. A redesign corrected the problem and the 917 was ready to show what it could do.
Ford withdrew for 1970, having proven everything they ever needed to prove to the European makers. Porsche pulled out all the stops and would field four factory-assisted teams in a huge effort to win LeMans outright. And to make things better, Ferrari announced their return to World Sportscar competition with their beautiful 512S. Designed quickly, the car would immediately prove to be nearly as fast as the Porsche, but the Germans had a big lead in development time. Enzo Ferrari was a proud man and his cars had dominated LeMans for six years running before Ford had appeared. He wanted these upstart Germans to get a whiff of Italian exhaust. To make matters even more difficult, Ferrari were fully committed to Formula One and factory manpower would be stretched by two major racing efforts.
The first race of the season at Daytona went to the blue and orange Gulf-Porsches. The Ferraris were fast, but unreliable. The next race at Sebring, it was the 917s that ran into trouble. Most of the Ferrari squad was also out and it was up to Mario Andretti to steal the win for Ferrari in the closing minutes from the private Porsche 908 driven by Peter Revson and movie star Steve McQueen. Ferrari was elated and fans thought they smelled a great battle brewing for the rest of the year between the two great car builders.
Back in Europe, the Porsches proved almost unbeatable. Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa-Francorchamps and the Nürburgring all fell to the Porsche domination. For LeMans, Porsche created a special long-tailed version to run alongside their more standard cars. Intended for maximum speed down the long Mulsanne Straight, this special Langheck version would touch an astonishing 240mph. This proved problematic at night, when the headlight technology of the day couldn’t push out light far enough at those speeds for adequate driver reaction in the event of something unexpected. True to the time, Ferrari built their own longtailed version of the 512 and the race went on.
Photo Courtesy of Solar Productions.
Also appearing at LeMans was movie-star Steve McQueen, there to film the epic Ferrari/ Porsche duel as a future feature film release. In reality, most of the Ferrari’s eliminated each other in crashes early during the race. The weather was pouring rain for much of the day as the Porsches raced each other. In the end, the Germans would take the top three spots and the best Ferrari could do was fourth and fifth. Porsche would win the last two races in Watkins Glen and Austria - ending the season with nine wins to Ferrari’s one. In spite of some heroic drives and competitive speeds by Team Ferrari, it really was no contest.
For 1971, the 917 would continue near-total dominance in endurance racing. Ferrari would end factory efforts with the 512 and concentrate on the 3-litre 312 cars for the new rules to come in 1972. But the Ferrari 512 story doesn’t end there. Seeing what he felt was unrealized potential, Roger Penske purchased a 512M and re-engineered the entire car. Sending the engine to Traco, the Can-Am engine specialists transformed it. Tuning and massaging the big Italian V-12, they returned it to Penske’s shop with a solid 600hp that they believed would last the long-distance events. Painted blue, and sponsored by Sunoco, Penske would create a dream team and put his ace driver, Mark Donohue, behind the wheel.
Penske’s numerous improvements paid off when his blue Ferrari snatched the Daytona pole from the Porsche masses. The Penske/Sunoco/Ferrari512M was a player, finishing third despite spending over an hour in the pits repairing crash damage. Next up was Sebring where again, Penske’s Ferrari would grab the pole but be unable to last the race. This would be how the season would play out, competitive challenges by Penske, Donohue and a few Ferrari 512M privateers, but all major victories going to Porsche.
1970 cemented Porsche as the leading sports car racer in the world. The 1970-71 seasons are remembered as a time of giants fighting it out on the dangerous, now mostly extinct or neutered, tracks of Europe. The Porsche 917 dominance was nearly total, and underdog Ferrari could only make mostly futile attempts at bringing down the German powerhouse.
Part of the myth has to do with McQueen’s movie. For dramatic purposes, the Ferrari threat had to be written-in as real. Every fan of classic racing has seen the film at least once and it is spectacular with it’s actual footage shot during the race. The pre-ground effects cars were and are incredible and the massive speed increase of the time made them as dangerous as they were beautiful. The top drivers of the time, many of them Formula One aces, filled out the grids and many of them did not survive the era. Whatever came later, in some way inevitably seems lesser.
Photo (plus title photo) Courtesy of Porsche.
Just as the Porsche 917 was a huge leap in technology, today’s endurance racers challenge each other as much in innovation as on the track. Reliability always plays a part in long distance racing and the mental toughness and focus needed to complete a 12- or 24-hour race hasn’t changed since the beginning of the automobile age. LeMans 2016 is going to be a spectacle, as will all of the events on next year’s racing calendar. Don’t miss out, it’s bound to be some of the best racing and drama on four wheels.
Feel the speed- revisit Steve McQueen’s epic LeMans. Available on YouTube in HD...