Big bang theory

Porsche caught the sports car elite off-guard with its rule-stretching 917, but Ferrari soon responded with a blunt instruments of its own. Former pilots Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney relate their affection for Maranello’s 5-litre 512S

Although 1970 was to be Porsche’s year in sports car racing with the mighty 917, Ferrari’s less sophisticated 512S gave the German cars a run for their money. And Maranello might have fared still better but for a driver line-up whose stars – Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx and John Surtees – weren’t available for every race. Backup was provided by Luigi Chinetti’s NART (North American Racing Team) cars, but it too had drivers with calls elsewhere. Dan Gurney, for instance, was only available for the opening race at Daytona.

With six months less running time than the 917, the 512S had to play catch-up. An important development was the arrival for the second race at Sebring of a spyder version to complement the coupé berlinetta. Lighter, and with a chopped tail, it lost out on rigidity but was often faster. 

This example, chassis 1006, was converted by the factory to open configuration having began life as a Berlinetta. Entered by NART in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours for Sam Posey and Ronnie Bucknam, it retired early. A year on, it fared better at Daytona with the latter teaming up with Tony Adamowicz to take second overall in the 24 Hours to the Rodríguez/Oliver 917K. It’s due to go on the block at RM Auctions’ Leggenda E Passione sale at Fiorano on May 20. 

As Dan and Mario recall below, 1970 was a memorable season for diverse reasons: for the overturning of conventional endurance race philosophy, and for the 512S’s solitary victory at Sebring where the alternative - at least for Mr Andretti - was unthinkable.

The car

DG “The first time I drove the car was in practice for Daytona, with my head cocked over and banging on the roof. So they had to build a roof bubble for me because a 24 hour race in a neck-bent position is kinda tough. Even when they’d done that it was still pretty tight. The car itself wasn’t super fast but it was nicely balanced and in those days our philosophy was tortoise and hare. It was an endurance race so we felt we had a good chance, even though the 917s had an edge.”

MA “I’d done thousands of miles of testing with Ford for its Le Mans programme, so I got a call from Mauro Forghieri to test the 512S at Daytona. I went, completed the test and became one of the drivers. I loved the car. Even though it was big by Ferrari standards, it felt more nimble than the Ford and I loved the power range of the 12-cylinder engine. No question, I enjoyed it.”

Daytona

MA “Still, it was a surprise to put the car on pole at Daytona against the 917s. If it had been dry we’d never have done it but it was quite wet. What gave me the pole was that I really drove the rim of the banking – the least wet and most abrasive part of the banking is right at the top. I thought it was even the safer option because if the car got away at least you didn’t have a long shot to the wall. We swapped quick times with Porsche then I went balls to the board, almost flat around the top, and they never went out again.”

DG “What struck me from the race was that the 917s with Pedro [Rodríguez] and Seppi [Jo Siffert] were running like it was still qualifying. They had a wheel off here, a twitch there. I had never encountered that before and didn’t expect that they could win doing it. That was a revolutionary approach to endurance racing – 24 hours of qualifying made it a different animal. They pushed the envelope harder and that impressed me.”

MA “Yeah, it was flat-out. When we had our strategy meeting before the race we agreed that we would have to be at ten-tenths against the Porsches, and Ferrari agreed. From there on we were always flat out, and I loved that.”

Sebring

MA “Ferrari entered three cars, the two leading ones being spyders because they were lighter. They were a bit flexible so not as nice to drive as the coupé, but they were quick. I put our spyder on pole and in the race we were just pulling away. But first the sister spyder broke down, then ours. There wasn’t long left in the race and two Porches were in the lead with the remaining coupé, driven by [Nino] Vaccarella and [Ignazio] Giunti, a distant third and not gaining. I was preparing to leave when the leading Porsche came in for a long pit stop and suddenly there was a chance of a win. Forghieri said, ‘Suit up, you’re going in the coupé.’ 

“What motivated me more than anything was the fact that the leading Porsche [a 908/2] was being driven by Steve McQueen, although Peter Revson did most of the driving because Steve was so slow. I figured, ‘Jeez, we can’t have a Hollywood star winning this race.’ I didn’t really fit in the coupé – I had to reach for the pedals a bit and there was slop in the seat – but it handled so much better than the spyder that I was catching the Porsche big-time. We were almost certainly going to have to make a ‘splash and go’ before the end so I drove like a madman to catch him and pull out a cushion, then sure enough the reserve light came on.

“There was no speed limit in the pits so I came in real quick. In those days you had to turn the engine off and get out of the car so I threw myself on the ground. As soon as I hit, Forghieri threw me back in. I just buckled my lap belt and blew out of the pits again. Just as I did, the Porsche flew by for the lead. I didn’t know exactly how many laps were left so I got by as quickly as I could and the race finished about a lap later. It was the most satisfying endurance win of my career because I drove really hard and I don’t think the car would have won otherwise. It was incredibly satisfying.”