A Place in the History Books

Porsche has, to date, won just one World Championship grand Prix. The driver was Dan Gurney who now talks to Adam Cooper about the marque’s troubled relationship with Formula One.

Over the past few seasons in Formula One, Ferrari and McLaren have been embroiled in a battle for supremacy at the top of the all-time Grand Prix winners list. The current score is 119 to 116 in favour of the Italians, while third placed Williams has lost ground of late on just 103 victories. Go to the other end of this league table and you find some less successful names. Newcomers Jordan will probably score a second victory in the not too distant future, but there will no more chances for Eagle, Hesketh, Shadow and Penske, short-lived underdogs who scored a single victory apiece before disappearing into the history books.

And then there’s Porsche, one of just seven road car marques to have won a World Championship GP with its own chassis-engine combination. The firm joined this elite group in July 1962, when Dan Gurney won the French GP at Rouen; but it was the marque’s only world championship success before it pulled out of F1 at the end of its second season.

Porsche’s subsequent forays into single seaters have usually been a disappointment, and sometimes utterly disastrous. The only time the marque found real success, with McLaren in the early ’80s, it could not claim the credit; the turbocharged V6 was badged by TAG, the company which commissioned it. The Indy projects and the F1 V12 built for Footwork in 1991 proved to be flops.

At least the Rouen victory ensures Porsche has an oft-overlooked place in the record books. And yet, at the time, the company seemed to have the potential to achieve so much more; its motorsport department had grown in stature through the 1950s, and in 1960 the marque almost pipped Ferrari to the World Sportscar Championship.

Porsche also gained useful experience in F2, even taking part in the odd GP, initially with modified sportscars (see sidebar). The company introduced its first proper F2 machine, the 718, in 1959. Utilising the proven 1.5-litre air-cooled flat-4 motor, and based on the RSK, the car was notable for bloated bodywork. Its baptism was hardly low profile, as Porsche entered it in the Monaco GP! Wolfgang von Trips qualified a respectable 12th, ahead of the F1 cars of Bruce McLaren and Graham Hill, but he spun at the start of the second lap, famously taking the other F2 qualifiers Bruce Halford and Cliff Allison with him. Von Trips was due to give the 718 a second World Championship outing in the German GP at Avus, but he withdrew after Behra’s Fatal crash the day before.

In 1960 the F2 programme stepped up a gear. Stirling Moss drove a works-supported Rob Walker entry; the combination was competitive, and Moss won several races in Europe and South Africa, while the works cars were also successful. The factory also entered a pair of 718s for Hans Herrmann and Edgar Barth in the Italian GP; thanks to a controversial boycott by the British teams, the organisers were only too pleased to see the German cars. Despite an obvious lack of power, they finished sixth and seventh. It was an encouraging performance, so all concerned looked forward to going F1 fulltime in 1961 with considerable enthusiasm.

The timing of its entry to F1 could not have been more favourable. The change to 1.5-litre regulations for ’61 represented a fresh start for everybody, and the combination of small capacity/rear engine was what the marque had specialised in for years. The 718 was ready-to-run, while much of the opposition had to scrabble around to get their efforts together.

Barth was deemed too old to become a fulltime F1 driver, and despite his experience Herrmann was only given the job of occasional number three. Instead Porsche chose Bonnier and his erstwhile BRM teammate Dan Gurney. “It was the switch over from the 2.5-litre formula, which I was very sad to see,” Gurney recalls. “Nevertheless that’s the way the mop flops sometimes in life. The previous year with BRM I had only finished one race out of nine attempts. So I was getting pretty desperate…”

“Nobody knew how the 1.5-litre Porsche was going to turn out. Porsche had been running their old 4-cylinder in a pretty bulbous car in F2, and looking pretty dominant. The rumours were all over the place as to what was going to happen. And the Porsche rumours were at least as good as any of the other ones that we heard. I didn’t seek them out – I think they asked me – but in any case, I said I’d do it.”

Gurney soon felt at home in the team.

“Having been through WW2 I was indoctrinated with all the preconceived notions of what the guys would be like. I expected all this teutonic efficiency and approach to everything. But they were very friendly, they had a sense of humour. There was no appreciable difference in terms of their structured behaviour to the British teams I’d been with. It was like a family thing; they worked hard, and had a good time also.”

Porsche’s readiness showed on the team’s debut in the non-championship Brussels GP. Gurney took pole and Bonnier was third, and after Dan retired the Swede led until a controversial tangle with John Surtees. Second time out at Syracuse the cars were again frontrunners, but eventually lost out to Baghetti’s Ferrari. The Porsches outran the Brits behind in these first two outings, but alarm bells should have sounded after Syracuse; Baghetti was driving a semi-works entry, he was a total novice, and the new 156 `Sharknose’ was making its race debut and was not yet using the definitive 120 deg V6 engine.

At the first World Championship GP in Monaco, only Moss’s Lotus could take the fight to the new Ferraris. Gurney finished fifth, Herrmann ninth, and Bonnier retired with fuel injection troubles. Suddenly it didn’t seem quite so easy, and that became even more apparent at Zandvoort. An updated model, the 787, proved a disappointment, so the 718 was brought back into service at Spa. By then British teams had made big progress, and the Porsches were left trailing. The car’s bulky frontal area did not help, and nor did Porsche’s reluctance to switch from drum to disc brakes. Ongoing fuel injection problems meant that the cars sometimes raced with Weber carbs.

“They were predicting 200bhp,” says Dan. “I found out many years later it was a little less than 120 at the time… The chassis had these individual characteristic to each and every one. They weren’t stamped out like cookies! I remember they had built a batch of cars, and the one that was assigned to me was a good car. But on one occasion I drove the car that was used by Hans Herrmann. It had less of an understeer problem. I said, ‘Hey, this is better!’ But I couldn’t get them to give me that one…”

If nothing else, the 718 was incredibly reliable: “Really it was just the opposite of the year that I’d spent with BRM.”

Gurney survived to take second at Reims, but was outfumbled by winner Baghetti in a slipstreaming finish. He was second again at Monza and, with the Ferraris absent, Watkins Glen. He finished every one of eight World Championship events, and with Bonnier contributing a few points, Porsche finished third in the constructors’ table behind Ferrari and Lotus.

Porsche worked hard over the winter, developing both a long-promised flat-8 engine and a new chassis, the 804. Disc brakes were now standard. A much sleeker machine, it almost matched the Ferrari for looks. But not when the driver was aboard…

“I looked like a giraffe driving round sitting on a plate. I couldn’t get in the car. It had a roll bar about 10ins high, and I stuck up maybe 4ins above that. That wasn’t very good at all”

But everyone else had also moved forward. The new Climax V8 engine was now readily available, and Jim Clark’s monocoque Lotus 25 moved the goalposts in terms of chassis development. At Zandvoort Dan retired with gear selection problems having qualified eighth. After starting third at Monaco his car was badly damaged in a first lap shunt, while Bonnier finished fifth, but seven laps down after a troubled race. It was time to take stock.

“There were reliability problems. I think that’s when Ferry Porsche decided that we would not go to any more races until we had run a full GP distance without failure.” A test programme at the Nurburgring ensued, and Porsche skipped the Belgian GP, although Dan turned up to drive Wolfgang Seidel’s private Lotus.

After a month’s break for testing, Porsche returned at the French GP, held that year at Rouen. Dan qualified sixth but dropped as low as 10th in the early stages. He gradually crept up the order as others hit trouble, and eventually won by a clear lap.

“Rouen was a reliability situation. It wasn’t just a case of sitting back and trying to inherit it, but we couldn’t run quite as fast as the front guys. However we did wear ’em down. That was a terrific thing. The Porsche people were stoked, they really loved it. If you’re striving and failing, regardless of how dominant or not it was, once you have a victory in the history books, that’s it It meant a great deal to everyone.”

Just a week later Gurney won again on Porsche’s home crowd in the non-championship event at Solitude. “That was also a big one, very popular in Germany. It had a huge crowd; they said it was 350,000 people.”

After a disappointing British GP at Aintree, Dan took a superb pole at the ‘Ring – those testing miles certainly helped. In the race he fought a memorable battle with Graham Hill and John Surtees, but had to settle for third. “The battery came loose inside in the cockpit. In those days we had aluminium tanks, and you were surrounded by fuel. It was sliding around, and I was thinking if that touches and sparks good enough, and burns through, it’s going to be pretty warm in here. That’s one reason why hardly anyone wore seatbelts in those days.

“It didn’t catch fire, it didn’t short out, and I figured out how to lodge it with my left calf in a position where it would stay. By then I was 17sec behind Graham and John. I caught them right back up, but I could not pass them. I could run through the turns a little bit faster, but I couldn’t get off the turns, and on the straights it wouldn’t happen. That was one of my most frustrating and difficult races.”

At Monza Dan retired after a strong run, and then he finished fifth at Watkins Glen. However, the German team decided not to bother with the December finale in South Africa; the F1 programme was abandoned after just two seasons.

‘They felt they had to pay attention to their core business, which was the road cars. They couldn’t do both, and they had to make a business decision. If they were going to react to the fact that they were not as competitive as they’d like to be, they were going to have to skim off the cream of their engineering crop and do something about it. They felt the passenger car programme would suffer.”

Gurney went to Brabham, and Bonnier joined Rob Walker. Several ageing Porsche chassis survived for a while in private hands, but the story ended in tragedy when marque stalwart Carel Godin de Beaufort was killed in practice for the 1964 German GP, exactly seven years after he was part of Porsche’s first GP outing in the F2 class.

But could Porsche have made further progress in 1963 and beyond? “I don’t think so,” says Gurney. “They were still running a 2-valve, air-cooled engine, and they were pretty strict in their adherence to things that had been handed down from Ferdinand Porsche to some degree. Grand Prix racing was going through rapid change, and they could probably see that.”