No top-flight sports car series or race would be complete without the likes of Porsche and Ferrari. This year the two of them will be going at it hammer-and-tong in the GT2 category, a vital part of the endurance racing fabric.
There was a time, however, when these two giants vied not for class honors but rather for the overall win. That took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The premier class in international sports car racing from 1968 through 1971 was Group 5. This allowed for five-liter engines in a coupe body with the caveat that 25 identical units of the car must have been built. Thus Group 5 could be considered “production” sports cars. They were in the process of being phased out in favor of Group 6. The latter class limit was at three-liters with no minimum production run. Most of the cars were open-top and the class was in many respects the forerunner to today’s LM P1 and LM P2 classes.
Group 5 was actually a holdover from the previous generation’s regulations. There were quite a few Ford GT40s and Lola T70s kicking about and the expectation was that they could help pad the field while the newer Group 6 cars gained traction. However, there was nothing in the rules that precluded building 25 cars from scratch, and that is exactly what Porsche did, and Ferrari then copied. They even had the required features that would make them “production” cars such as a spare tire and a space for luggage.
Stuttgart built the spectacular Porsche 917, regarded by many as being the ultimate sports-racing machine. Its flat-12 air-cooled engined was housed in back between two purposeful long tails—extended even further at places such as Le Mans with its long straightaway. The chassis underneath the sweeping body was an ultra-lightweight aluminum alloy spaceframe. The 917 was less a technical marvel for its time than it was visually stunning. It was in many ways an evolution of the earlier flat-eight 908, indeed the magnesium crank engine was stretched in order to accommodate the four additional cylinders. A result of having such a huge engine was that the driver’s cockpit was quite far forward.
As for squeezing in the mandated creature comforts, Porsche engineers invented the concept of the space saver spare carried in nearly every road car today.
Porsche spent a frustrating 1969 trying the tame what was initially a very wild beast. It was turned over to John Wyer’s team, the masterminds behind past success in endurance racing with Ford and Aston Martin. They improved the aerodynamics markedly and also brought along Gulf Oil sponsorship, giving the principal Porsche team the famed light blue and orange colors.
Ferrari’s answer, the 512S, was in some respects more sophisticated than the 917. It had a solid proven V-12 motor and a more robust multi tube chassis. Their car came along later than the Porsche and thus Ferrari had the benefit of hindsight in having proper aerodynamics from the start. Their principal drawbacks were a lack of development time and also less interest on the part of the Maranello factory to provide direct support. However, for the 1970 Sebring race Ferrari was there with the 512S as were JW racing with the Porsche 917s. While the 512S appeared very similar to the 917 coupes, in reality two of the Group 5 Ferraris at Sebring were open to the sky above the tall windscreen and rear bulkhead.
The supporting cast of Group 6 cars was more than equal to the task. Porsche’s older but extremely successful 8-cylinder 908 was represented by several private teams, the most famous being Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions entry. It was to be a “research” run for the actor in preparation for his filming of the movie Le Mans.
Ferrari’s answer to the somewhat boxy Porsche 908 was the very sleek 312P. Like its big brother, the 312P had a V-12, but at the three-liter limit for the Group 6 class.
Another great Italian manufacturer, Alfa Romeo, was nipping at the heels of the other two sports car powers. Their 33/3 used V-8 engine housed in a more squarish open body. The very light Alfa was noted for making ample use of titanium in its chassis and engine, but that also made for a fragile package.
In 1970 as today, the subsidiary races in the GT classes were as equally hard fought as for overall victory. Two of today’s great GT cars had their direct ancestors at the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours. Substitute the 2009 Corvette C6.R for the 1970 “Mako Shark Stingray” and substitute today’s Porsche RSR for the proud 911S and you have the makings of much of the GT field nearly 40 years ago. Indeed, it was far richer then as some 68 cars took the starting flag, a fairly average number for the era. Hard times have brought the number down for 2009. The diversity of cars was astounding, and sometimes scary.
In addition to the 917s and 512S there were smaller displacement categories that included Abarths and Chevrons. The winner among that group was a special Austin-Healey Sprite driven by an all-woman team.
Trans-Am cars such as the Camaro and Mustang also competed. The GT classes included some quite small cars as well…..
….It was not atypical to see a Porsche 917, capable of well over 200 miles per hour, sweep past a lowly MG Midget, hard pressed to top 100.
There was drama well before the start as Steve McQueen broke his ankle in a motorcycle accident. He would drive his stints in a cast. While McQueen garnered much of the press attention, the real driving work on his 908 was being done by another man with movie star good looks, Pete Revson. The Revlon heir was at the peak of what would be a tragically short driving career.
There were other racing luminaries at the wheel of the competition. Mario Andretti would start one Ferrari 512S with Jacky Ickx in the another. Ickx would go on to win Le Mans six times.
And yes, there were French prototypes on the grid in 1970 too. There were a pair of Matra-Simca V-12s. Unlike today’s very successful Peugeot 908s, the Matras were still early in their racing career. They would go on to win championships a few years later but in 1970 they were still unreliable and broke at Sebring. They were not bereft of driving talent, however, as one car was driven by Henri Pescarolo—the constructor today of the prototype bearing his name, and the other was piloted by an American icon, Dan Gurney.
Today, nearly every race starts with a pace lap. Prior to 1970 most endurance races began with a “Le Mans start” where drivers ran across the track and hopped aboard. The colorful but arcane and unsafe method had been abandoned for Sebring and Andretti made the most of it. Being used to paced starts from Indianapolis he surged forward in the No. 1 Ferrari 512S.
Endurance races are often won in the pits and the JW team’s work was near perfect, allowing the 917s to move past the Ferraris. There were also Porsche Group 5 and 6 cars from rival teams, but they were falling by the wayside. One broke an engine and the other was disqualified for a push-start. Sam Posey crashed a 512S and then Vic Elford hit a 911 with his Porsche 917.
Porsche racing stars such as Brian Redman and Pedro Rodriguez were having problems. Both of their 917s had relatively minor delays but Sebring was no longer an endurance race. It had become a 12-hour sprint and a few too many minutes in the pits might as well have been eternity.
The Alfa Romeos simply weren’t fast enough. Their only hope was to keep steady and wait for others to fade. It paid off enough that one of the 33/3s finished third overall.
On paper, one would have expected this to be a race for the Porsche 917s, but Sebring is not raced on paper. The Florida race may only be once around the face of a clock, unlike twice at Le Mans, but any competitor will tell you that Sebring is more than half as long as the French classic. Twelve hours of pounding on the rough surface is more than most could take and only Rodriguez’s delayed car was left among the 917s.
At half distance it was all Ferrari, with Andretti leading a 1-2-3 for the 512S model. That soon crumbled. A head gasket blew on one and the suspension was damaged on another. That car did make it back for repairs but it seemed hopeless. But there was little fear for Ferrari as Andretti was in a solid lead.
Some distance behind was the McQueen / Revson 908 and then the remaining 917. That car was driven by perhaps the greatest duo ever in sports car racing, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. Flinging the tail out on nearly every turn they took second from the actor turned race driver.
With less than two hours to go, Andretti noticed that gearbox was making noises. His co-driver, Arturo Merzario, took over for the finish but returned to the pits—on foot. Ferrari team manager Mauro Forghieri, made a snap decision. He called in the remaining Ferrari 512, now in fourth, and installed Andretti into the cockpit. He soon caught the Alfa Romeo for third, but ahead of him were the two Porsches, the Solar Productions 908 and the Rodriguez / Siffert 917 that had inherited the lead.
For the next half-hour Andretti fought a searing battle with Revson, shaving as much as 5 seconds per lap from the smaller Porsche. Years later Mario would describe it as his greatest drive. He took second place and then the Porsche 917 pulled in with a failed wheel hub. It was quickly replaced but they were out of the running. Andretti was in the lead but it was not over. The Ferrari had not been driven this long and this hard on a single tank of fuel. Forghieri called Andretti in with three laps to go. He managed to scream back out (no pit speed limits back then) and remain in front of Revson for one of the wildest finishes in Sebring’s storied history.
It will be quite a feat if the Audi vs. Peugeot battle tops that, but you never know. Stay tuned.