In 1970 and 1971 World Championship Sports Car racing saw the brief but unforgettable era of the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512S and 512M prototypes, the most brutal, beautiful sportscars ever built.
The 512S, gorgeous though it was, was a hasty response to the 917 and proved too heavy and cumbersome really to challenge the might of the Porsche works teams. Its only victory came at Sebring 1970 and owed as much to Porsche’s bad luck as any great speed from the Ferrari. Nevertheless the 512S represented the only serious challenge to the Stuttgart steamroller and the signs were that, once properly developed, it would have the potential to meet and even beat the Porsches on an even playing field.
The car that should have performed that role was the 512M, the letter standing for ‘modificato’. It was lighter than the car it replaced, more powerful, possessed better aerodynamics and more stable handling. All the indications were that Ferrari had, indeed, found the answer to the 917. Sadly, the CSI, which governed the sport at the time, issued an edict saying that, for 1972, the 5-litre prototypes, which included the Ferrari and Porsche big guns, would no longer be eligible to race.
Ferrari faced a decision: did it continue with the 512M for 1971 knowing its days were numbered, or did it throw its weight behind developing a 3-litre prototype which at least was guaranteed a future? Understandably, Ferrari chose the latter course, concentrated on the 312P and never provided the 512M with the backing its undoubted potential deserved. This meant that, at the 1971 Le Mans, which should have been the 512M’s finest hour, the Porsches ran away to a virtually unchallenged victory.
In the event, nine 512 variants faced seven 917 Porsches. Practice confirmed Porsche’s aerodynamic advantage with the best Ferrari 512M proving fourth fastest thanks to efforts of the much missed Mark Donohue in Roger Penske’s Sunoco-liveried car. Despite producing over 600bhp from their quad-cam, 48-valve V12 engines, they still proved some 20mph slower on the Mulsanne straight than the Porsches. During the opening hours of the race the Sunoco car was performing strongly with the Escuderia Montjuich 512M which actually led at half distance, but neither car lasted the course. However the two cars pictured here finished third and fourth after various travails. The first, entered by the North American Racing Team driven by Posey and Adamowicz was 12th in practice. It came home despite stopping for low oil pressure, running out of fuel twice and a flat battery.
The 4th placed car was owned and driven by David Weir and co-driven by Chris Craft. It was 9th in practice despite being brand new and unsorted and climbed steadily through the race.
Ferrari’s strategy killed the 512M but it did bear fruit: In the ’72 season, the 312PB won every race bar the one it did not enter: the Le Mans 24-hours.