The marque’s first foray into racing’s top rank brought fresh thinking, but only one major win. Keith Howard talks to the man who scored it
Although the change to a 1.5-litre engine capacity for Formula One from 1961 could hardly be described as a popular alteration to the regulations, it did have the effect of persuading newcomers to raise their sights to motorsport’s pinnacle. One of them was Porsche, whose successes in Formula Two tempted it to become the first German F1 team since Mercedes had prematurely bowed out following the Le Mans tragedy of ’55.
Mercedes and Porsche were very different — and yet curiously similar. Porsche’s financial and technical resources were a fraction of those of its Stuttgart neighbour, yet it too was determined to design the car in its own inimitable, even cussed, way. Not for the inheritors of the Ferdinand Porsche legacy the ignominy of imitating the British garagistes — buying-in engines and transmissions and relying on your wit and invention to utilise them more effectively than competitors. Admire its ambition or question its arrogance, Porsche was determined to do the job the old-school way by making everything itself: car, engine (air-cooled in the Porsche manner) and transmission.
In its choice of drivers Porsche was less inward-looking, partnering Jo Bonnier — who’d enjoyed success in its F2 cars — with the emerging Dan Gurney. Of the two, it was Gurney who would flower over the two seasons of Porsche’s works presence in F1.
Porsche’s F1 car for 1961 was the 718 — a derivative of the previous season’s F2 car; with trailing-arm suspension, drum brakes and an uncompetitive four-cylinder engine. An ‘improved’ derivative, the 787, was supposed to supplant it but proved inferior. But the 718 at least had the asset of being reliable, something for which Gurney — who provides his comments on the 804 overleaf— had cause to be grateful: “I finished every race except the first one at Brussels. When that happens, why, you can learn how to drive. I was very appreciative of that even though, yes, the car was a tad off the pace.”
Porsche’s real F1 car was supposed to be the 804, whose flat-eight powerplant would, in theory anyway, allow Gurney and Bonnier to play hardball with the wide-angle V6 Ferrari and upcoming V8s from BRM and Coventry-Climax. But its arrival on the grid was badly delayed by the engine’s initial poor performance. It ran on the dyno for the first time as early as December 1960, when it reputedly delivered only 120bhp — a good 60bhp shy of what Porsche knew was needed. It took major head revisions and a lot of development time to find the missing grunt. So long, in fact, that the 804 didn’t turn a wheel in testing until March 1962, two months before its debut at Zandvoort.
In histories of the marque, including Ferry Porsche’s biography, Porsche’s F1 interlude is typically treated as a temporary aberration, a diversion that really shouldn’t have happened. And yet Porsche’s race record for 1961 and ’62 doesn’t read that badly. In its first year it came third in the constructors’ standings and Gurney was similarly placed in the driver’s rankings. Team and driver were both fifth the following year. For any other new kid on the block it might have seemed like a modest success, but the Porsche family’s winning habit lay heavily on it.
When it withdrew from F1 at the end of 1962, Porsche’s stated reason was to concentrate its limited financial and human resources on its road cars and sportscar racing. Less charitable observers dismissed this and concluded that Porsche simply couldn’t hack it in F1. It seems a harsh judgement, and yet perhaps there’s some truth in it. Certainly, it must have been a wake-up call to the furious pace of F1 development that the 804 actually fared worse than the stop-gap 718. And watching the Lotus 25 circulate in ’62 must have brought it home to even the staunchest Porsche supporter that it would have to run very hard to catch up.
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Porsche’s reason for adopting a flat-eight wasn’t only one of company heritage — its also ensured the lowest possible centre of gravity. But to prevent the engine being too wide, its stroke had to be limited to 54.6mm (bore 66mm), a factor which may have contributed to its reputation for poor torque (113Ib ft at 7450rpm). Peak power was around 185bhp at 9300rpm. Many have blamed the engine for the 804’s relative lack of success, but Gurney didn’t find it a handicap: “I think the power was okay, on a par, really. I’d say it was probably hurting a little on torque, but if you kept it buzzing with that six-speed gearbox it was alright.”
In the search for more power, Porsche’s engineers eventually fitted the engine’s cooling fan with an electronically actuated clutch so that it could be temporarily disengaged by the driver. Supposedly, this was worth nine extra horsepower, but Gurney found this elusive: “Watkins Glen, I think, was the only time I ever used it. There I was draughting someone and I thought, ‘Now’s the time to flip the switch.'” But the hoped for power surge never came. “Nothing! It didn’t seem to make any difference at all.”
The lanky Gurney had to insist on changes being made to the 804’s seating arrangement: “The way I was forced to sit for the Zandvoort race, I looked like a giraffe. I was up in the airflow big time.” Porsche made the necessary changes, but Dan had already unwittingly encouraged Lotus to go much further. “I’d bought a Lotus 19, and when I went to have a fitting in the car, again I looked like a giraffe. They said the seat was as for back and as low as it could go, so I asked them to take it out. I got in and slid my backside forward: my knees were up in the air but now I was down in the car. At that moment Colin Chapman stepped into the compartment where we were working, and his eyes sort of popped out. Then he turned round and started designing the 25.”
Gurney’s initial experience with Porsche’s transmission was less than happy — on lap 47 of the season’s first race at Zandvoort, the gearstick came away in his hand. But he leamt to appreciate the six-speeder, which unusually was fitted with Porsche’s synchromesh system. “It was bullet-proof if you could figure out how to use it. I see there’s a gate on this drawing, and it looks to be four-speed. Well, there was no gate and it was a six-speed! The lack of a gate meant you had to be as precise as possible, but you could work it. And if you brutalised the synchro system, it was about as quick as any other.”
The 718 used trailing-arm suspension, but for the 804 Porsche took the conventional line and developed a neat double-wishbone layout. To minimise drag the springs and dampers were inboard, with torsion bars instead of coils. Koni twin-tube and Bilstein monotube dampers were both tried, as Gurney recalls from a back-to-back test — the only development driving he did — on the Nurburgrings south loop: “I was driving with Herbert Linge, Porsche’s development driver. I was very impressed with his abilities — he could easily have been in the hunt in an F1 race, I had to really hustle not to be embarrassed. The Bilsteins definitely ate up the bumps better, but their lap times were slower; the Konis were harsher but faster.”
Gurney might have scored a second win in 1962 at the Nurburgring (the first was at Rouen) — and this time not because better cars had retired; the race was wet, he made a poor start from pole and was then delayed by the battery breaking loose by his feet: “Since I hadn’t a lot of experience in the rain, I didn’t touch the set-up — the car was balanced as close to perfection in the dry as I knew. Graham Hill, and probably John Surtees, too, unhooked the anti-roll bars. When the battery came loose and started sliding around in the cockpit, I was very concerned it would short on a fuel tank, but I found I could wedge it off to one side with my clutch foot and hold it there. In the meantime I’d lost, I think, 17 seconds. I clawed that back relatively easily, but I couldn’t get past them. I was making up time in the corners but, because of my dry set-up, they could put the power down better coming out. If I’d got past, I think I could have left them.”
Having postposed the move to disc brakes even longer than Ferrari — the 718 ran drums — Porsche gave in to the inevitable and equipped the 804 with discs. But it couldn’t resist adding a twist, partly to make use of existing components. Instead of the disc being bolted to the wheel hub at its centre, in Porsche’s ‘inside out’ arrangement the rotor was an annulus, bolted around its periphery, with the caliper bridged across the hole in its centre. Gurney was not enamoured with the result: “There was a large amount of pad knock-off on bumpy surfaces so they used various means to keep the pads close to the rotors. That essentially meant you had the brakes on most of the time.”