Le Mans 24 Hours

Porsche 917 wins for second and last time

Le Mans, June 13th.
Undoubtedly Le Mans has lost much of its old magic and in this, the last year of the present 5-litre cars, there were few high spots as the most famous of all sports car races played itself out. The casualty rate amongst the fancied runners was high, and of the nine Ferrari 512Ms and seven Porsche 917s only two of each marque remained twenty-four, travel-stained hours later. The winner was the second-string Martini Porsche driven extremely competently by two relative newcomers to big-time sports-car racing, Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep. Fruitless chase of the Austro-Dutch pair was given in the closing quarter of the race by the third, and sole surviving JW Automotive Engineering entry of Richard Attwood and Herbert Muller. They closed the gap to only two laps at the finish but there is no doubt the Martini car still had something in hand.

French hopes were given a boost at breakfast time when the shrill Matra 660 of Amon/Beltoise moved into second place, but at 8.45 a.m. the fuel injection system broke and the car was abandoned, leaving the privately-entered Ferrari 512Ms of Americans Adamowicz/Posey and British pairing Craft/Weir into third and fourth positions.

This year the weather was kind and, with not a hint of rain during the night, the average speed stayed high and the winners covered a record distance, further than the 7-litre Mk. 2 Ford of Foyt/Gurney which covered 5,232.9 kms. in 1967, before the chicane was built.

The 1971 Le Mans 24-Hours will go down as one of the less memorable races for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the main one was that, with a couple of minor exceptions, there were no really new models in the race in this last year of the 5-litre cars. There were no official, or for that matter semi-official, entries from Ferrari or Alfa Romeo and there was a disappointing lack of 2-litre Group 6 cars which are now far too busy with their own championship to bother with this car-breaking race. Thus the field was made up with a very large number of make-weight Porsche 911s which proved thoroughly boring to watch and probably rather boring to drive except when you had a Ferrari 512 lapping you on one side and a Porsche 917 on the other!

Yes, the Le Mans magic has faded, and several of the old faces were missing including Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent who was giving the race a miss for the first time in almost twenty years. The crowds stayed away too for, although the official attendance was quoted as 200,000, the paying public looked far thinner on the ground than for many a year. Naturally the race still has its good points for there is little to compare with the cars careering down the Mulsanne Straight at well over 200 m.p.h. or the tension as the race slips into and out of the darkness of Saturday night.

The previous rounds of the World Sports Car Championship had not seen a single victory by Ferrari either with the little works 312P or the various private 512s, but at Le Mans their big white hope was the Roger Penske Racing/Sunoco Ferrari entered nominally by NART. Making its first appearance since Sebring the car was genuinely immaculate in true Penske tradition and Mark Donohue (new to Le Mans) and David Hobbs obviously had high hopes of victory. In direct contrast the two NART Ferrari 512s of Sam Posey/Tony Adamowicz and Masten Gregory and George Eaton seemed somewhat shoddily prepared. Under the Ecurie Filipinetti banner came 512s for Mike Parkes/Henri Pescarolo and Giancarlo Gagliardi/Corrado Manfredini, the Parkes car being generally lightened and fitted with some modified and smaller bodywork. It had in fact raced the previous Sunday at Vallelunga and been dubbed the 512F. Other private Ferrari 512s came from Spain for Jose Juncadella who obtained the services of Nino Vaccarella as a very strong co-driver, from Belgium for Hughes de Fierlant and Alain de Cadenet, from Germany for Georg Loos/Franz Pesch and finally from Britain for David Weir/Chris Craft. This ex-NART car was entered and managed by David Piper although it is owned by Weir, who had made an excellent choice in Craft as a co-driver.

While the squadron of Ferraris looked pretty similar the Porsche 917s came in various shapes, sizes and wild colour schemes. JW Automotive brought along a total of four cars (one as a spare) and were no doubt hoping for a better race than last year. The equally rated pairing of Siffert/Bell, Rodriguez/Oliver both had long-tail cars, as seen at the test day, while Attwood/Muller had the conventional tail with the tail fins as seen at Monza.

There were three different styles of bodywork in the Martini Racing team. Nurburgring victors Elford/Larrousse had the long tail arrangement on their silver car, Marko/van Lennep had a finned short tail on their white car while the Usdau driving pair Willy Kauhsen/Reinhold Jöst were co-opted to the team to drive an astonishingly painted pink car. This was also tried at the test day as an aerodynamic experiment and was considerably wider than a usual 917 with a short stubby nose and a different tail treatment again. Somebody had commented that it looked rather like a fat pig. This had inspired some joker at Stuttgart to spray it a piggy shade of pink and then a series of lines indicating the various joints of meat were painted, just like the wall-charts you see in butchers’ shops. Each cut was named in German and a message carried on the front wings claimed this was “The Truffle Pig of Zuffenhausen”. Motor racing does have its lighter side.

Porsche support vehicles and personnel were very much in evidence in the Martini camp, the JW people well being able to look after themselves in a race like this. All these Porsches were fitted with the 4,907-c.c. engines rather than the larger capacity “sprint” engines which have been used since Monza. Further supporting the Porsche cause was the smartly turned out Swiss, Zitro Racing 4.5-litre Porsche for Dominique Martin/Gerard Pillon.

The only other Group 5 5-litre car was a Lola T70-Chevrolet from the Belgian Team VDS which had finished sixth at Spa. Lolas have never had a very happy time at Le Mans in recent years and 1971 was no exception.

The Group 6 class was particularly depressing and with the Alfa Romeo team somewhat disappointingly, though probably wisely, abstaining, the only really competitive car was one of last year’s Matra 660s driven by their F1 men Amon and Beltoise. The opposition consisted of four rather long in the tooth Porsche 908s, a 2-litre Lola T212-Cosworth FVC for Guy Edwards and Roger Enever (who seemed to have amassed sponsorship from three separate sources) and the Ligier JS3-Cosworth DFV. This smartly turned-out French car was widely tipped as the fore-runner of quite a few DFV-powered machines which should appear at Le Mans next year and bring back some British interest.

The rest of the field was made up of basically road-going machinery headed by a couple of Chevrolet Corvettes, a Ferrari 365GTB from NART which found its way into the Group 5 category and a host of Porsche 911s plus two Porsche 914/6s. One could anticipate that these 911s would finish 24 Hours round Le Mans because if you owned a 911 you would rightly expect it to take you from somewhere like Hamburg to the South of France and straight back again within 24 hours without any problem. That must be close on 2,000 miles, which is about the distance the British-entered 911 driven by Vestey and Bond did to finish 12th overall.

Practice at Le Mans doesn’t prove too much but it does give some indication of who will be the front-runners in the early stages of the race. Wednesday’s practice was dominated by Elford, who lapped in an exceptionally quick 3 min. 14.9 sec. to record an average speed of just under 250 k.p.h. The JW cars were taking it easier with Rodriguez second fastest at 3 min. 17.3 sec. and Siffert third quickest, 3 min. 18.2 sec. The Donohue/Hobbs Ferrari engine seemed rather tight so the Penske team swopped from the factory-prepared motor to an American Traco-built example. The NART cars were also in engine problems during practice, the Eaton/Gregory car still suffering from the same fault it had at Sebring.

On Thursday Rodriguez just could not resist the temptation to have a go and he bettered Elford’s time to record 3 min. 13.9 sec., just over 250 k.p.h. average and only a fraction slower than the fastest ever time which Oliver had put up during the April tests. Elford was second fastest with 3 min. 15.4 sec. while Siffert improved to 3 min. 17.6 sec. As a warning that it wasn’t going to be a complete Porsche walk-away Donohue lapped in 3 min. 18.5 sec., while Nino Vaccarella was obviously enjoying being back at Le Mans in a competitive Ferrari and lapped the Spanish Ferrari car in 3 min. 18.7 sec.

The fastest non-Ferrari or Porsche 917 was the works Matra which was 16th fastest and taking it very easy at 3 min. 31.9 sec., while the Ligier was 7.9 sec. slower.

Of the 52 cars that practised three failed to qualify under the 140% rule, including a British-entered Porsche 911 whose reserve driver had raised the wrath of Siffert by wandering across the road in front of him during practice. The Swiss had a nasty moment avoiding the dozy chap and lodged an official complaint.

The pits this year had taken on a different look, for the long-needed armco barrier had been erected to form a wide pit road, no doubt with the money from the Steve McQueen film, and the pits were generally tidied up. All this was needed, but it has snookered the traditional Le Mans start. Some wag suggested that the drivers should run across the road, vault over the armco and climb into their cars. The only problem with this scheme was that it would have made for a gigantic accident in the pit road.

So with eight minutes to 4 p.m. the grid, formed up in two-two-two pattern, set off behind a Porsche 911 pace car. In fact, the pack arrived back at the end of the pace lap a minute before the famous Dutray clock in the pits clicked to 4 p.m. and undramatically and unspectacularly the 39th Grand Prix D’Endurance was on. It was all distinctly pathetic. The NART team had a blow when the Gregory/Eaton car came straight into the pits where it lost nine laps before it eventually joined the race, and by lap three its sister car was also in the pits. Dirty fuel was blamed as the main problem, although the engine of the Gregory/Eaton car was never really sorted out and was retired after three hours.

Out at the front the usual first hour “grand prix” was somewhat subdued with Rodriguez leading the way but at a distinctly more leisurely pace than he had set in practice, and he was followed by Larrousse, Siffert, Vaccarella and Donohue running nose-to-tail then Parkes, Attwood, Marko, Kauhsen, de Fierlant and the rest. Craft’s Ferrari had failed to fire up as the cars left for the pace lap but an (illegal?) push-start got it going and he joined up at the end of the field and spent the first hour finding a way through all the backmarkers.

Many of the cars had run on fairly light fuel loads for the opening stint, so the front-runners all rushed into the pits between laps 12 and 15. Once everyone was back in their stride it was obvious that JW were going out to set the pace with Rodriguez leading Siffert and Donohue moving ahead of Elford, Vaccarella and several more Porsche 917s.

The race started to settle down and soon the spectators began to wander off to view from another vantage point or have a meal, buy a “coke” at two francs a time or view the pleasures of the fair.

The pattern was set, the back-markers were already strewn out round the circuit, a few cars were already in trouble, and there was a long, long way to go. After three hours it was still remarkably close with Rodriguez/Oliver having settled down to a comfortable pace, but there were no less than six cars on the same lap—Elford/Larrousse, then the Donohue/Hobbs car giving hope to Ferrari fans, then Siffert/Bell, Marko/van Lennep, Vaccarella/Juncadella, and Attwood/Muller. More Ferraris and Porsches followed, while the Matra was going well in 10th place. There had been a couple of retirements, but none of significance.

So, after all, this Le Mans looked as if it could be really exciting with the big band of cars all holding on to the leader. At 8 p.m. the Penske Ferrari had moved up to second place and the race was looking even more promising. But quarter-of-an-hour later Donohue trundled the car slowly into the pits. He reported that the engine had tightened up at the end of the Mulsanne Straight and, though the engine still had all the correct temperatures and pressures registering, something was wrong. At first it was thought that perhaps it was something in the transmission that had tightened, but no fault could be found and the engine refused to restart, so as dusk fell the gallant American challenger was wheeled away to the muffled applause of the crowd. The VDS Lola-Chevrolet was another early retirement with a broken piston on its unreliable V8.

Soon the lights of the cars started to stay on permanently, and as night fell on the Sarthe circuit we wondered if those JW Porsches would still be heading the field when the sun came up again. It certainly looked that way, for at 10 p.m. it was Rodriguez/Oliver in the lead by two laps from Siffert/Bell, with the third blue and orange car, that of Muller/Attwood now in third place. The Ferrari challenge was being led by the Vaccarella/Juncadella car which was going strongly while the Matra had moved up well to sixth place sandwiched by the Martini Porsches of Kauhsen/Jöst and Marko/van Lennep. Their number one car was already out for Elford’s machine had suffered from the old problem of the cooling fan flying off into the fields and the engine subsequently cooking itself. The little 2-litre Lola which had been climbing up the field well after a slow start, to run-in a new differential, had dropped by the wayside when the flywheel came loose.

Some of the lesser Group 5 cars had also been in trouble, the Manfredini/Gagliardi car losing a lot of time having a new clutch fitted while the Adamowicz/Posey car lost time trying to restart after a stop for battery problems.

At 11 p.m. the JW threesome had broken up when Siffert’s car was found to have a rear upright and shock-absorber problems causing a deterioration of handling. The JW mechanics worked like slaves to rebuild the rear suspension and the car resumed the race having lost something like 28 laps. So at midnight with one-third distance it was the Rodriguez/Oliver car in the lead by two laps from team-mates Attwood/Muller, while a further two laps down came the yellow Spanish Ferrari owned and driven by Jose Juncadella who is a most accomplished long-distance man these days and Nino Vaccarella who was driving on top form. Next came the pink “truffle pig” device with Kauhsen/Jöst, as ever, driving reliably and fast, while Marko/van Lennep just headed the Matra.

The Ferrari challenge was now firmly in the hands of the Spanish car, for Parkes spun at White House and hit the armco close on 1 p.m. and arrived at the pits with both front and rear bodywork, as well as wheels and suspension parts damaged, and though it got going again briefly it was soon retired with engine trouble.

The race crept into the small hours of the morning with the JW team in a seemingly strong position, but suddenly during the 11th hour (3 a.m.) they both hit trouble and the Juncadella/Vaccarella Ferrari moved up into a short-lived lead. The Rodriguez/Oliver car had a seized hub and later a split oil pipe while the Attwood/Muller machine had gearbox trouble and this was stripped and rebuilt. The cars were both circulating again by 4 a.m. but Rodriguez’ car was still sick. After a pit-stop the worn-out engine refused to start and after an attempt to push-start it was wheeled away. So the order had Juncadella/Vaccarella in first place followed by the Marko/van Lennep car then Rodriguez/Oliver. The Matra continued to run faultlessly and had moved to fourth place ahead of Attwood/Muller. Now lying sixth was the American-driven Ferrari which at last was running soundly, while Craft and Weir had methodically worked their way up to seventh position. Martini were now down to one car, for the pink device had been crashed heavily at Arnage by Jöst, where it had demolished a length of armco barrier. The German driver was uninjured.

Particularly impressive in the night was the British driver Chris Craft who had probably been lapping in the reliable David Piper-entered car as quickly as anyone.

As the sun started to rise and those who had tried to grab a few hours’ sleep within the bounds of the circuit began to wake and take a renewed interest in the race there had been yet another change, and a significant one at that. The Spanish Ferrari had succumbed to a broken gearbox and into the lead at 5 a.m., which it was never to lose, was the smooth-running Porsche 917 of Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep. They had no less than five laps lead over none other than the lone Matra-Simca 660 of Beltoise and Amon, news of which brought French fans rushing back to the track. Third was the JW 917 of Attwood/Muller, now running well after the earlier gearbox troubles during which a new fifth gear had been fitted.

Fourth was the NART Ferrari of Posey and Adamowicz which few had thought would last the night, while the Siffert/Bell car had been further delayed in the pits for another three-quarters of an hour and thus was still down in sixth place.

Front then on the race had lost much of its intrigue, and barring mechanical failure the leading positions seemed fairly settled, for there was little chance of the Matra actually catching the leading Porsche. By 8 a.m., the smooth-driving Austro-Dutch pair were five laps ahead of the JW third string machine which had moved a lap ahead of the Matra which was experiencing some roughness in the engine. This was thought to be the atmospherics affecting the rather delicately set fuel-injection, but it soon started to run crisply and shrill again. Posey/Adamowicz lay in third spot well ahead of the similar Ferrari which Craft, along with the wealthy amateur Weir had moved up to fifth overall. The Siffert/Bell car lay a rather sick sixth placing and was lapping leaving a great trail of oil smoke from a cracked gearbox housing. Transmission troubles had also plagued the Ecurie Francorcharnps Ferrari of de Fierlant and de Cadenet which lay seventh and was soon to retire. Lying eighth was the Porsche 908 of the Swiss pair Andre Wicky/Max Olivar, but this was in trouble following a shunt which damaged the bodywork.

So with two-thirds distance remaining, victory really lay between the two rival Porsche teams with five laps between them. The JW duo obviously had a chance of making up the deficit, but despite the rivalry between the two teams the JW drivers were given instructions not to go absolutely flat out in a win or bust effort.

In fact, the possibility of the two teams closing was soon to be the sole intrigue for, at 8.45 a.m., the Matra stopped at the signalling pits and though Amon attempted to find the fault he finally gave up and the car was abandoned. The problem was a broken fuel-injection drive. Any chance that Craft/Weir had of catching Posey/Adamowicz for third place also went by the board when they had a very long stop to replace the clutch which was falling apart.

French interest was slightly revived when the 10 a.m. times were announced and it was noticed that Ligier DFV had moved up to fifth place despite a long stop in the night to change a broken rear cross member. Its gain had been at the demise of the Siffert/Bell machine which had finally succumbed to its gearbox problems, as had the de Fierlant/de Cadenet car. Now the field was down to 17, although there were still a lot of 911s trundling round and now they were moving into the top 10 positions.

Interest lagged from then on, for the Ligier spent over three hours in the pits having its gearbox rebuilt and so the smooth-running front-engined Ferrari 365GTB driven by Bob Grossman/Luigi Chinetti took over fifth spot ahead of a Porsche 907 which was struggling round and a similar 908 which was also on its last legs.

There was slight anxiety in the Martini pit, for van Lennep reported that the car was occasionally jumping out of fifth gear on the Mulsanne Straight. As the hours were ticked off the JW pair continued to be a pressure in the background. In fact, with an hour to go, the gap had been shortened to only two laps, but the Martini team had been watching the situation very carefully and could have speeded their car up at any time and had also spent some time replacing and later checking the engine fan as a precaution against a repeat of the Elford/Larrousse car’s failure which was caused by a broken shaft to the fan.

So the 1971 Le Mans race ran its course and Dr. Helmut Marko crossed the line to log up 396 laps for the Martini team, a record total. Right on his tail and almost passing him out of the chicane to the line was Herbert Muller in the JW car though still two laps in arrears. Staggering away from the pits where it had spent the last half-hour was the NART Ferrari which was definitely worn out, and so the American pair took third place 21 laps behind the leader. Fourth was the British-driven Ferrari of Craft and Weir, while the NART Ferrari roadster finished fifth, ahead of sundry Porsches and the Ligier which finally finished 13th of the 14 finishers but was not classified as it had not completed sufficient distance for a Group 6 car.

It was not a vintage Le Mans by far, but it did hold its little intrigues and once more went to prove that the name of the game is to conserve the machinery and bring it home in one piece. That is exactly what Marko and van Lennep did.—A. R. M.