“I made my race debut on the Targa”
Vic Elford explains how he built his formidable sports car reputation in the Madonie road race
After an initial approach to try to get them interested in rallying and a third place on the Tour de Corse in 1966, I was able to drag Porsche kicking and screaming into the European Rally Championship in 1967. Robbed of victory by a snowfall catching me with the wrong tyres, I finished third on the Monte Carlo Rally, whereupon Huschke von Hanstein immediately decided that I should start serving my apprenticeship for the World Sportscar Championship.
My first real race in a real race car was therefore the Targa Florio, sharing a Porsche 910 with Jochen Neerpasch. Learning the 44-mile track was obviously the first priority since all the Porsche team drivers were there in Sicily for the first time, and we started lapping in standard road-going 911s.
Having come from a rallying background I discovered that I had a very real advantage over the others; first I have an almost photographic memory for roads and second – I didn’t realise this at the time but became aware of it later – I found that I was dictating imaginary pace notes into my head. My approach was to drive perhaps two or three laps at a brisk speed, making my imaginary pace notes, then stop for a coffee before setting off on a slow lap where I would reel off my imaginary notes out loud, corner by corner, including braking points, line into, through and out of corners, etc. The secret to the success of this method is that if you just ‘think’ your way around and make a mistake, you will persuade yourself that you really knew what you were doing, but when you have said out loud what is coming you most definitely know when you have made a mistake. That first year with Jochen, I finished third. Bearing in mind it was the first time I drove a real race car I was very happy and absolutely convinced that I would come back the following year and win.
I’d already enjoyed a sensational start to the year, winning the Monte Carlo Rally and then only a week later the Daytona 24 Hours, followed by a second place at the Sebring 12 Hours and third at Brands Hatch.
Now I was back, driving a Porsche 907, and having left the start line only minutes before, was thundering up the main street of the little town of Cerda, into fifth gear and reaching about 175mph before braking for the tight left-right combination heading for the countryside. During our regular ‘road learning’ practice we were never able to drive quickly through the three little towns on the route; in fact we were severely restricted by the fact that we could encounter cars, trucks, horses or flocks of sheep and goats at every corner and this certainly played into my hands as my memory allowed me to ‘visualise’ what a corner taken at 20mph was going to look like at 60mph on a closed road.
Although all the race cars came from Stuttgart with the same gearing, after our one solitary official practice lap on Friday, where I set the fastest time, I found that in many places I was running out of revs just before I needed to brake. Thankfully, by now, I had already convinced Huschke and Ferdinand Piëch that I knew what I was doing and they allowed me to change my first four gear ratios by about two hundred rpm so that I could actually go a little farther and faster in each gear, except fifth/top gear which was limited by the four-mile straight along the sea front before the start/finish and pit area.
Even with the higher gears I was still the only Porsche driver to get into fifth gear on the long uphill main street in Cerda and I was feeling in top form as I left the town behind and turned to start climbing toward the mountains…and then everything came to a grinding halt as the centre wheel nut came loose, allowing the right rear wheel to come off the splines and lose traction. Incredibly, a horde of fervent Sicilian spectators came to help the Brit driver in a German car and physically lifted the car off the road while I tightened the wheel back on. Further on the same thing happened with even worse results as I slid off the road and punctured a front wheel. Once again the spectators lifted the car for me while I tightened the rear wheel and put the Goodyear ‘spacesaver’ spare on the front. By the time I made it back to the pits, had all four wheels and lug nuts changed and started the second of ten laps, I was eighteen minutes behind the leading car and my only thought was, “obviously now there is no way I can win, but I am sure going to have the lap record.” So I did, lap after lap and with my co-driver Umberto Maglioli doing a great job with his three laps in the middle, we clawed back all the lost time. I actually took the lead on the penultimate lap to pull away and win by almost three minutes, with a new lap record over a minute faster than the previous one.
The job was certainly made easier by the car we were driving; the 907 represented Porsche’s first tentative step toward winning outright as opposed to just dominating the 2-litre class. It was comfortable, reliable, had no vices and was easy to drive as shown by the fact that it had already won two of the first four races of the year and finished second in the other two.
Another advantage from my rally background was the way I could change from one style of driving to another. Most of the way I would drive like a ‘racing’ driver, keeping the car on rails and not losing time by getting sideways – until I came to the three towns, Cerda, Collesano and Campofelice. The roads through the towns are always covered in very fine marble dust from the surrounding quarries and have so little grip it is almost like driving on ice, which means that the fastest and safest way to drive is like a ‘rally’ driver, completely sideways going from one lock to the other and steering with the throttle. So the ‘racing’ driver would drive the mountains and the ‘rally’ driver would take over for the slippery bits through the towns!
With the advent of more powerful and sophisticated cars, Porsche could no longer operate as a ‘little family team’ in international racing and the John Wyer/Gulf team became the official factory outfit in 1970, but there was no way that Ferdinand Piëch was going to relinquish control of the cars and the technical development going into them.
Although Wyer anticipated being the only official Porsche team, Piëch, or to be exact, Louise Piëch, his mother and Ferry Porsche’s sister, created Porsche Salzburg and there were frequent face-offs between him and Wyer. He always won, of course, and since I was his unofficial number one driver I often benefited, too. At Monza we all had the new 5-litre engine for practice, but Wyer declined to use it in the race, which prompted Piëch’s retort that, “OK, if you don’t want it, Elford gets it.” Later at Le Mans I was the only one who wanted the 5-litre longtail which then became the first car ever to lap Le Mans at over 150mph average!
The war of words continued at the Targa when Wyer thought that only he would have the new, made to order, 908/3. On Friday after I had done my one lap of official practice and set the second-fastest time, Piëch took me aside and asked if I would do him a favour; drive one lap in a 917 to show Wyer that it would be impossible to use the car for the race. It had a four-speed gearbox and suspension more suited to the smooth circuits where it excelled. Visibility was poor through the twists and turns in the mountains, it leaped and lurched all over the road and with the tremendous power and torque of the engine, I used only second and third gears for the entire lap apart from the straight along the seafront. I actually did the fifth-fastest time in it but I am sure at every corner it must have looked like an accident trying to happen and by the time I arrived back at the pits
I was totally exhausted, both mentally and physically and had to be lifted out of the car. That was the only lap of the Targa ever done in a 917!