Victory at last!
I had been a long struggle, a costly one and, in some people’s eyes, an embarrassing one, too. That struggle was to gain Porsche’s first outright victory at Le Mans. Over the years, Porsches had gained many class victories, including the much-prized Index of Performance, but now it was time to step up to the plate and go for gold.
The year when it came right was 1970, a year that will be remembered for two things: Porsche won the event outright, with Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann taking the win in the Porsche Konstruktionen-entered 917 (chassis number 917-023), ahead of Gérard Larousse and Willi Kauhsen in a ‘private’ Martini-backed 917, resplendent in its outrageous psychedelic paintwork. It was also the year that Steve McQueen and his film crew recorded much of the action for use in his upcoming film Le Mans.
In 1969, Porsche had suffered the ultimate humiliation of not only seeing its new weapon of choice, the legendary 917, fall by the wayside, but also losing by just 100 yards to the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx and Jacky Oliver. Can you imagine the agony? A hundred yards difference after 24 hours of racing?
Salt was rubbed firmly into Porsche’s wounds that year, which represented Ford’s fourth straight victory at La Sarthe, with the elderly Ford GT40, run by John Wyer’s JW Automotive team, crossing the line first, the very same car having also won the event twelve months earlier.
That year’s Le Mans didn’t start well for Porsche, who showed up with three of its new 917 racers, two long-tails (driven by Elford/Attwood and Stommelen/Ahrens) and one short-tail (driven by Woolfe/Linge). Also entered were four 908s, two 910s and seven 911s.
The long-tail 917s featured Porsche’s ‘secret weapon’ in the form of movable flaps at the rear, the angle of which could be adjusted to change the amount of downforce. Porsche was understandably dismayed when objections were raised by the Le Mans scrutineers.
The problem was that the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale) had outlawed certain aero devices at a meeting in May 1969, but Porsche had somehow managed to sidestep the ban due to the lack of detail in the wording.
However, all that changed when, a week later, the CSI issued another statement which went into greater detail: ‘Specifically forbidden is any separate aerodynamic surface which may exert a vertical thrust when the car is proceeding in its normal direction of travel. By “separate” is meant the mounting of such a surface so that there is a gap or moving joint between it and any part of the coachwork.’
Porsche maintained that the 917 had been developed over a period of two years, with these movable flaps being an integral part of the design. Removing them, Porsche argued, would make the cars dangerous, if not impossible, to drive at speed. If the CSI insisted on their removal, then Porsche said it would have no option but to withdraw its entries…
This threat put the race organisers in a bit of a panic – if Porsche withdrew its new cars, then the event would undoubtedly suffer in the eyes of the paying public. It was time for a compromise. It was decided that Porsche would be allowed to practice with the movable flaps and then, after establishing their optimum setting, the flaps would be fixed in position for the duration of the race.
In practice, movable aero devices or not, Porsche’s heavyweights were impressive, with Stommelen putting in the fastest lap of 3m 22.9s, at an average speed of 148.493mph. What makes this result especially impressive is that the lap time was over half a second quicker than that set by Denny Hulme in a 7.0-litre Ford MkIV, which was established before the new chicane had been built. But this wasn’t end of the flap discussion…
In an interesting turn of events, the CSI’s president, Maurice Baumgartner, told Porsche that he believed the movable flaps were a major advance in sports car design and that he would do all he could to promote their acceptance at a meeting of the CSI to be held soon after the Le Mans 24 Hours. He even went one step further, suggesting Porsche wrote to other teams asking them not to put in a protest if the 917s did, in fact, run the flaps at Le Mans.
Porsche continued to protest that the 917 wasn’t safe without the controversial additions and again the possibility of the team withdrawing the cars reared its head. An emergency meeting of the CSI was convened at which it was ruled that, as the 917 had been homologated with the movable flaps, Porsche would be allowed to use them at Le Mans after all.
So, with the fastest lap in practice, the movable flap situation resolved (at least, for the time being) and the principal opposition consisting of fragile Ferraris and ageing Fords, everything looked set for Porsche to dominate the race. But fate was to deal a cruel blow on the very first lap.
Following the last ever ‘Le Mans start’, where cars and drivers lined up on opposite sides of the track until the flag dropped, Stommelen roared off into the lead, followed by his team mates in a variety of Porsches.
As no fewer than five Porsches swept into view at the head of the field at the start of the second lap, all eyes were on a pawl of smoke in the distance. John Woolfe, driving the lone short-tail 917, had put two wheels on the grass exiting Maison Blanche, causing the car to spin and impact the barriers, hard.
The car broke into pieces, the fuel tank rolling down the road like a flaming tar barrel to come to rest against the Ferrari of Chris Amon, which in turn burst into flames. Although Amon was able to get out of his Ferrari, sadly Woolfe died in his 917.
Despite this tragic setback, everything was looking good for Porsche. The two long-tails held the lead, with the works 908s in the next three positions. The 908 of Siffert/Redman briefly headed proceedings before retiring with gearbox problems, allowing the Attwood/Elford 917 to retake the lead, ahead of three other team cars. But then it all started to go pear-shaped.
The Stommelen/Ahrens 917 retired with a broken oil pipe and clutch failure, leaving the way clear for the Attwood/Elford 917 and the Links/Kauhsen 908 to head the field for eight hours. Ickx/Oliver’s GT40 moved into third place, followed by a 908 and then another GT40 of Hailwood/Hobbs.
This was the way things remained until noon on Sunday when the leading Porsche 917 retired with a broken clutch, and the gearbox on the second-placed 908 gave up the ghost. This put the Ickx/Oliver GT40 in the lead, hotly pursued by the 908 of Hermann/Larrousse. And that’s how the order remained until the fall of the flag at the end of the 24 hours, with just 100 yards separating the first two cars.
For Porsche, the whole event was a devastating disappointment in so many ways. Firstly, of course, the death of one of its drivers was a tragedy nobody could have predicted, although many have said in hindsight that Woolfe lacked the necessary experience to tame the wayward 917. A fatality is, naturally, very hard to swallow but from the engineers’ point of view, the mechanical failures which brought about the demise of the front-running Porsches would have been a massive disappointment. Clearly the drivetrain was the weakest link, with gearbox and clutch problems dogging the Porsches.
Porsche returned to Stuttgart, tail firmly between its legs. Things had to change or there would be questions asked at the highest level. To bring about this change, Porsche did something which many would have believed unthinkable: they called on the expertise of John Wyer, the man responsible for spearheading the victorious Ford effort at Le Mans in 1969. Along with his cohorts David Yorke and John Horsman, Wyer was asked to run what was effectively the ‘works’ entries – except they weren’t official Porsche entries at all.
By the time Le Mans came around, Porsche had already won the World Sports Car Championship for 1970, but that Le Mans victory still eluded them. As the JW Automotive/Gulf team had clearly demonstrated its talents while running the GT40s, surely it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility for them to wave their magic wand over the 917s?
The number of Porsche entries at Le Mans was the highest ever. Indeed, of the 51 cars that started the event, no fewer than 24 were Porsches – not one of them a ‘works’ car as such.
However, it was obvious that certain teams enjoyed special privileges, among them the Austrian Porsche-Konstruktionen AG of Salzburg entry and, of course, John Wyer’s Gulf-sponsored team. Seven of these 24 Porsches were 917s, the remainder comprising a pair of 910s, another pair of 908s, a single 907, eleven 911s and a solitary 914/6GT. It was by all accounts quite a line-up.
Ferrari had taken a leaf out of Porsche’s book by building no fewer than 25 examples of its new 512S model, thus qualifying it to run at Le Mans as a sportscar, as opposed to a ‘prototype’. There were 11 of these entered at Le Mans, with the men at Modena clearly planning to gatecrash Porsche’s hoped-for victory party.
It was to be an interesting build-up to the race, with the normally ‘easy does it’ practice periods on the Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the event being used by both Porsche and Ferrari to demonstrate the performance of their respective entries in shows of bravado clearly intended to put the wind up the opposition.
On Wednesday evening, Pedro Rodriguez drove the short-tailed Gulf 917 to an unofficial lap record of 3m 21.9secs, bettering Stommelen’s 1969 lap record by a whole second.
Not to be outdone, Vacarella went out in his Ferrari 512S and shaved nearly two seconds off Rodriguez’s time with a cool 3m 20secs lap. Beat that Porsche, muttered the Italians – and so they did. Vic Elford headed out in his long-tail 917 and calmly reduced the ‘record’ to 3m 19.8secs, hitting close to 230mph on the Mulsanne. By way of contrast, the short-tail 917s could ‘only’ manage 205mph, while the Ferraris were timed at around 220mph.
The practice sessions were a clear case of chest-thumping on the part of Porsche and Ferrari, and proved to all that any one of their cars could take the chequered flag. But how reliable would they be? After all, neither manufacturer had a clean sheet as far as, particularly, drivetrain breakages were concerned.
Added to this was the large number of punctures suffered by teams during practice – Porsche had no fewer than 10, while Ferrari suffered six and Alfa Romeo, four. This was believed to be the result of debris left on the track by contractors responsible for erecting the temporary Armco barriers and, as a result, the entire track was swept ahead of the race.
Sharp on four o’clock, at the drop of the flag (there was no more traditional Le Mans start this year, on safety grounds), five of the seven 917s took off in the lead, headed by Jo Siffert, all hotly pursued by Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari 512S. By the end of the first lap, Vic Elford had taken the lead, with Siffert second, Pedro Rodriguez third.
By the third lap, the race leaders were already starting to lap the 911s and that solitary 914/6GT, such was the speed differential between classes. But slow tail enders would soon be the last of the race leaders’ problems.
Within a few hours of the start, the weather took a turn for the worse. Steady rain began playing havoc with tyre choice and several cars were forced to make unscheduled stops.
But it wasn’t the weather which caused Porsche problems, so much as mechanical gremlins, once again. Rodriguez’s 917 lost its cooling fan, Siffert’s engine blew... Whereas Porsches had still held the top five places by the end of the fourth hour, by midnight, Ickx’s Ferrari had snuck into second place, only to crash out of the race at 1.35am. Mike ‘The Bike’ Hailwood hit the bank at Mulsanne Corner hard, wiping out his JW-entered 917. It was becoming a war of attrition.
By the midway point in the race, Herrmann and Attwood’s red and white scalloped 917 had taken the lead, followed by the 917s of Larousse/Kauhsen and Elford/Ahrens. In fourth was the 908 of Lins/Marko, followed by an Alfa Romeo 33/3 and a Ferrari 512S.
The rain came and went – and then came again, catching everyone out as it soaked the track just after midday on the Sunday. And then it stopped again, causing further panic as once again teams struggled to change tyres to suit the conditions. With just four hours to go, Porsches held onto the first three places, with three Ferrari 512Ss in hot pursuit.
But by the time the flag finally came down on this incident-packed race, Porsche had taken its first outright victory, with further wins in the Index of Performance and GT classes – the latter thanks to that solitary 914/6GT. Porsche was ecstatic, but the race fans felt cheated, for rather than allowing the usual anarchistic free-for-all which traditionally saw race fans mobbing the victorious cars and drivers, Gendarmes ushered the winning vehicles out of harm’s way, leaving the crowd baying for blood.
Whatever happens this year, we’ll not see any finish-line parties like those of old, with drunken fans mobbing equally inebriated team members as they pushed cars off the circuit.
But hopefully, while drivers are helicoptered off site to recover and glad-hand sponsors, the Porsche fans will still have cause to celebrate in their own unique Le Mans fashion – but we don’t envy them their hangovers on Monday morning…
So what happened to the supposedly all-conquering 917s in the 1970 race?
Porsche 917 #3: Driven by Gérard Larousse and Wili Kauhsen, the psychedelic Martini-backed long-tail finished second overall, and a worthy first in the Index of Efficiency.
Porsche 917 #18: Driven by David Piper and Gijs van Lennep, and entered by Piper, retired from 20th place after 11 hours following two accidents.
Porsche 917 #20: Driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, this John Wyer Automotive-entered car retired in the twelfth hour while in the lead, after the engine was over-revved. A costly mistake!
Porsche 917 #21: Driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen and entered by JW Automotive. Retired after four hours with a broken cooling fan, having run as high as second place.
Porsche 917 #22: Driven by Mike Hailwood and David Hobbs, this was the third John Wyer-entered car. It crashed out of 20th position in the fifth hour of the race.
Porsche 917 #23: Driven by Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood. This Porsche-Konstruktionen Salzburg entry was the overall victor.
Porsche 917 #24: Was withdrawn from the event prior to the start. It was also entered by Porsche-Konstruktionen of Salzburg but failed to take part when a full driver line-up could not be found. The entry forms showed the car was to be shared by ‘Rico’ Steinemann and Dieter Spoerry, although Vic Elford, Hans Herrmann and Kurt Ahrens were also named!
Porsche 917 #25: Driven by Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, this long-tailed version was the quickest in practice but was to retire in the 17th hour with a broken valve while lying in second place.
Photos from author's collection and Porsche Archiv